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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.
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.
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.