The best back-to-school laptops

The best back-to-school laptops

Summary: With back-to-school shopping in full swing, here's a look at 10 (mostly) affordable notebooks for students returning to the classroom. Most of them are helped by Intel's new fourth-generation Core processors (a.k.a. Haswell), which manage to improve both performance and battery life. That will come in handy for those all-night study sessions -- or YouTube viewing marathons.


 |  Image 8 of 10

  • Thumbnail 1
  • Thumbnail 2
  • Thumbnail 3
  • Thumbnail 4
  • Thumbnail 5
  • Thumbnail 6
  • Thumbnail 7
  • Thumbnail 8
  • Thumbnail 9
  • Thumbnail 10
  • Apple MacBook Air

    You can't have a back-to-school laptop roundup without mentioning Apple. Detractors have long complained that you'll pay more than a similarly configured Windows notebook for the right to own a MacBook, but that hasn't stopped it from remaining the leading brand among students. While deep-pocketed power users will consider the MacBook Pro, most buyers (and their bank accounts) will be satisfied with the MacBook Air, which has recently received its Haswell processor upgrade. For $999, you'll get the 11-inch Air with double the amount of solid-state storage as last year (up to 128GB), while you'll pay a starting price of $1,099 for a 13-inch version. (You'll double the SSD capacity of either for an additional $200.) Note that those prices are before any educational discount you can score as a student (or teacher), which makes the high prices a little more tolerable.

  • Alienware 14

    Students might be on a tight budget, but let's face it: They also make up a sizeable amount of PC gamers. If you have the money to make sure you can frag when you're not studying, Dell's new Alienware 14 strikes the right balance between portability and gaming chops. It weighs in at a little over 6 pounds, which is hardly svelte compared to an Ultrabook, but far from the brick that gaming notebooks used to be. Starting at $1,199, the Alienware 14 gives you an Intel Core i7-4700MQ Haswell processor, 8GB of RAM, 750GB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics card. For an extra $100 you can increase the resolution of the 14-inch screen from 1,366x768 to 1,920x,1080, and of course, you can spend even more for additional RAM, a solid-state drive instead of a hard drive, a better graphics card, and so on. 

  • Samsung Chromebook

    There's plenty of debate over whether you should consider a Chromebook for your primary laptop, but students, with their limited budgets and familiarity with storing everything digital in the Cloud, can't dismiss it out of hand. For just $249, you can get Samsung's version that runs Google's Chrome operating system. While the specs are paltry -- 2GB of RAM, a mere 16GB hard drive -- that's beside the point if you just want to take notes, write papers, and surf the Web. ZDNet's James Kendrick calls the Samsung Chromebook the "best $249 you can spend." Use the money you save on textbooks or some posters to liven your dorm room walls.

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Mobility, Education

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Surface Pro

    Stylus and OneNote; graduate with honors
    • I'm starting a Grad School program in September, and...

      The Surface Pro is on the list for my laptop (it weighs next to nothing, it's solid as a rock, it's easy to carry, and importantly, it has a stylus). I have no idea why the "back to college" laptop roundups ignore the importance of a stylus; OneNote (with a stylus) is the college student's ideal tool.

      However, unless a Haswell-updated version ships real soon, I suspect I'm going to end up with a Sony Vaio Duo 13. It has a stylus, a bigger screen, roughly the same oddball laptop behavior as a Surface, and weighs not much more than a Surface. It is more expensive, but at the price I'm paying for tuition and books, it's not that much more (and, I have more configurability).
  • ipad

    Graduate without windows
    • How is an iPad a laptop

      which is the premise of this article?
    • IPad

      Don't graduate at all. ;)
  • AMD...

    Graduate with 2nd degree burns.
  • I was at the university today...

    I was at a university coffee shop today and all I saw was Macbook Pro's and iPads.
    • .

      And everybody is complaining about the high cost of higher education. Funny, isn't it?
    • Must have been Apple University

      as we deal with colleges and higher education, and when I'm onsite, I see it's a mixture of Windows and Apple laptops, Android tablets, iPads, and I'm starting to see a few Surface tablets, too.

      Not to mention the convertibles - The Envy looks to be decently represented in those coffee shops, too.
      William Farrel
  • About how long computers last.

    Regards, you know we, students many times don't have money to buy new devices often. so we care about how long our computer is gonna last.

    So... what do you think about the quality of those computers? How long you think they will last?
    Dim Gomez
    • Apple laptops won't last as long

      As any Thinkpads. Non-removeable battery, Hard to upgrade. Thinkpads are made of Carbon Fibre, Stronger than steel! Apple is made with chinese aluminum. Crap
  • What these computers mean

    But what does it mean when a kid is sent to school with one of these machines?

    Lenovo Yoga: Daddy's been issued Lenovo laptops and desktops at work since way back when they still bore the IBM logo. No one ever got fired for buying IBM, is one of daddy's mantra, and no one ever turned on to dope and dropped out of school because daddy sent him packing a Lenovo.
    Probable major: Economics.

    MacBook Air: The entire IT staff had an emergency meeting when daddy declared that he wanted his MacBook Air running on the corporate network. No, he didn't want them to install Windows on it. He wanted to keep MacOS just as it was. When daddy wants some new piece of tech the IT staff usually convenes emergency meetings to figure out how to accommodate him. Daddy brought the first iPad to work. Now everyone in the executive suites has one... because they want to be as cool as daddy. See, daddy's what they call a VIP, at work. Junior the III is off to school this year, and he'll be packing a 13" MacBook air.
    Probable Major: Gentleman's C's. Doesn't matter really, given the trust fund and all.

    Alienware Laptop: Daddy doesn't know too much about computers, he just knows his son is going to need one for school. Mommy thinks the computer her son picked out is "pretty" if a bit pricey. Junior knows his machine runs Crysys 7 on with all settngs on "full."
    Probable major: Academic Probation.

    Samsung Chromebook: No, dad it doesn't run Windows, but neither does my Galaxy Note. No dad, it doesn't run Office but neither does my iPad. Yes, dad it's a REAL computer, not just a glorified smartphone. Yes, dad it runs all sorts of cloud based programs, even some I've written and published I the Chrome Market.
    Probable Major: Dropping out of school second semester to found a social networking company/cloud based startup.

    $300 HP Notebook: Junior is at college on a scholarship. He was valedictorian at Cesar Chavez/Martin Luther King High School/P.S. 666. He's the first in his family to go to college... ever. Dad was a migrant laborer. Mom cleans hotel rooms for a living. God Bless Him.
    Probable Major: two possibilities here - A) pre-law-civil-rights-stick-it-to-the-man-labor-law-gender-studies or B) Ayn-Rand-I'm-going-to-be-your-nightmare-boss-because-I-started-with-nothing-and-look-at-me-now-you-lazy-serf-studies.
    • Nicely done.

      And entertaining to boot. (no pun intended)
  • Sorry, no time to click

    Another "click for next picture" article.
    On to the next ZDNet topic.
  • I recently got a 299 Dell.

    Just recently got one the $299 new laptops Dell had been offering for our kid (after instant rebate). It's amazingly good for the price. Even plays games that I thought would not play well on it. Kid loves it. 15" screen, lots of ram and disk and light weight. If you can find that deal, get it! Can't beat the price/features for sure.
    • By the way...

      I'm not very happy that out high school is making laptops mandatory now. Sheesh! What happens if it drops and breaks and needs to be replaces 4 times a year? I don't see high school students being responsible enough to properly care for a BYOD. It'll last a month. Arrrgh.
  • Dell Keeps Screwing Up

    It will not be surprise if Dell' stock dropping in half after this quarter. We had many issues with Dell's Inspiron laptops, notoriously battery and must connect all the time.
    The kids prefer tablets and there are no need for new expensive laptops, netbook, or computers.
    The Unified School Districts offer Apple iPAD and Android tablets at huge discount and all the kids go crazy. All the good old Dell computers are collecting dusts. Visit your school near you and check it out yourself.
  • Surface Pro 128GB

    I love my Surface Pro 128GB with adapter for 28" Touch Monitor and a Logitech wireless keyboard with built-in touchpad. Then disconnect and travel with the Type Cover.
  • Lenovo for College Laptop

    Lenovo took my order for my son's college laptop the first week of August. Last week they cancelled it, lied about giving me an upgrade, and shipping it this week,then 2 CS supervisors said they'd call back and didn't. Off to Apple to buy a Mac from a legit company-and to tell everyone at Penn State to do the same. DON'T BUY YOUR COLLEGE LAPTOP FROM LENOVO.
    Mary Jo Mac
  • MacBook Myth

    "Detractors have long complained that you'll pay more than a similarly configured Windows notebook for the right to own a MacBook"

    The MacBook Air has proven this idea to be a myth. For the past two years, it has been IMPOSSIBLE to find a windows-based machine that met ULTRABOOK specifications and beat the MacBook Air on price. So, not only is it untrue that a MacBook Air will cost more for the same configuration...the windows machines typically cost $200 more!