A crash course on back-to-school laptops

Over the past several weeks computer makers have released new laptops--and updated existing ones--in preparation for the back to school onslaught. Before you run down to Best Buy, here are a few tips on what to look for in a school laptop.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Over the past several weeks computer makers have released new laptops-and updated existing ones-in preparation for the back to school onslaught. Before you run down to Best Buy, here are a few tips on what to look for in a school laptop.

Generally speaking laptops are classified by their screen size. The traditional choice for students is a mainstream laptop with a 15.6-inch display, though in recent years computer makers have introduced more consumer models with 13- or 14-inch screens. These are a bit easier to lug around, but the display and keyboard remain large enough to use comfortably over long stretches. The majority of these use 720p displays meaning they have a screen resolution of 1366x768. Ultraportables with smaller displays tend to be pricey and lack some features. Netbooks and tablets with even smaller displays make good companion devices, but neither is a substitute for a good student laptop. At the opposite extreme, notebooks with 17- and even 18-inch displays are so big that they are really better-suited as desktop replacements for at home.

Intel released its latest 32nm dual-core processors in January, and many back-to-school laptops use these Core i3 and Core i5 chips paired with Intel HD integrated graphics. In May, competitor AMD updated its mainstream notebook platform, which includes 45nm dual-, triple- and quad-core processors (with names such as Athlon II, Turion II and Phenom II) and AMD's ATI Mobility Radeon HD graphics. Intel still dominates, but AMD is finding its way into more laptops because the company has improved performance and battery life, and its chips cost less. In addition, laptops with AMD or NVidia integrated or discrete graphics will have better graphics performance, though at the expense of some battery life. Some laptops switch between integrated graphics, on battery power, and discrete graphics when plugged-in, giving you the best of both.

Aside from this, the basic specifications are fairly standard. Most back-to-school laptops this year will have 3-4GB of system memory, a 320GB or larger hard drive and an internal DVD drive. Higher-priced models will offer features such as faster processors, discrete graphics, higher-resolution displays and Blu-ray drives (which can also burn standard DVDs).

HP Last month HP released a slew of new laptops for both consumers and business users. Of these, the Pavilion dv5 and dv6 are the best options for most students. HP's Pavilion dv series is a mainstream workhorse, but these latest models borrow design cues from the premium Envy series (as well as Apple's MacBooks) including a metallic-looking case, chiclet keyboard and large touchpad with integrated buttons. The dv5 is particularly interesting because it has an unusual screen size-14.5 inches diagonally-splitting the difference between the usual 14.1- and 15.6-inch models. In other words you get a slightly larger display than your typical 14-inch laptop, in a package that is still reasonably portable, weighing in at slightly more than 5 pounds.

Best Buy is currently selling a configuration with a 2.3GHz AMD Turion II dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, 320GB hard drive and DVD burner for $600. You can also find the dv4, an older design based on a 14.1-inch (1280x800) display, for less. Though it is bigger and a bit heavier than the dv5, the 15.6-inch dv6 is also popular with students. It starts at $700 at Best Buy with a 2.8GHz AMD Phenom II processor, 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive and a DVD burner. The Pavilion dv7, a large desktop replacement with a 17.3-inch display, is better-suited for home use. If you are on a tight budget, the 14-inch HP G42t and 15.6-inch Compaq Presario CQ62z and HP G62t are all less than $500.

Since the Pavilion dv series is available just about everywhere, it is surprising that these new models haven't received more reviews coverage, though a few sites have posted reviews. Laptopmag reviewed the dv5, but so far PCMag seems to be the only major site that has looked at both the revamped dv5 and dv6. All reviewers seem to like the new design, which is an improvement over the glossy Imprint finish that collected fingerprints. Both sites were critical of the lack of discrete graphics, but this is largely because HP has positioned the new dv series models as "entertainment notebooks" with a Blu-ray option. The truth is that the vast majority of buyers will be satisfied with a Core i3 processor and integrated graphics.

The real issue is the new touchpad, which is tricky to use because it is overly sensitive. Both Laptopmag and PCMag had trouble with it. HP has since released a software update that should fix the problem. PCMag tested an AMD-based configuration of the dv6, and battery life was surprisingly good-around 4.5 hours on MobileMark 2007-which is notable because battery life has been AMD's Achilles ' heel.

Pavilion dv5 reviews:

Pavilion dv6 review:

If you are looking for a smaller and lighter laptop, the Pavilion dm4 is a good choice. It is thinner than the other Pavilion laptops-about one inch thick-weighs 4.4 pounds and it has a durable and attractive all-metal case, all of which makes it easy to slip into a backpack. Like the dv4, it is based on a 14-inch display, but the dm4 has a higher resolution of 1366x768. Unlike the Pavilion dv series laptops, it is Intel only and it costs more. The Best Buy model starts at $750 with a 2.26GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and DVD burner. Even further up the food chain, the HP Envy 14 is a high-end model with a design similar to the Apple MacBook Pros and some formidable specs including discrete graphics and optional quad-core processors. It starts at $1,100 with a 14.5-inch display (1600x900), 2.4GHz Core i3-370M dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 switchable graphics, 320GB hard drive and DVD burner. This is overkill for most students, but it's arguably the most powerful 14-inch laptop money can buy.

The Envy 14 has only started shipping in the past week or so, and I have yet to spot any major reviews, though they should be posted soon. The Pavilion dm4, however, has received strong reviews (Computer Shopper gave it an Editors' Choice). It suffers from the same touchpad design as the Envy and dv5 and dv6, but this is outweighed by the dm4's slim good looks, solid specs including options for Core i7 processors and discrete graphics, and long battery. As PCMag put it, the dm4 is "one touchpad tweak away from greatness."

HP Pavilion dm4 reviews:

Acer Acer, which does not sell its PCs direct, has a confusing array of models for different retailers and geographies. The best way to get a handle on what Acer has to offer is to look at what's available in major retail store or Web sites. You can find several Acer 15.6-inch models for around $500 or less--typically with AMD single- or dual-core processors, 3GB or less of memory and 250GB hard drives--but I'd recommend spending a little more for a model with an Intel Core i3 processor such as the Acer Aspire 5700 series. Both Sears.com and Target.com are selling the same model (the Acer Aspire 5741-5763) with a 15.6-inch (1366x768) display, Core i3-350M, 4GB of memory, 320GB hard drive and DVD burner for $630. Walmart.com has a nearly identical model (Acer Aspire AS5745-5425), but with a Blu-ray player, which doubles as DVD burner, for $698-a very good price for a Blu-ray equipped laptop with decent specs.

One of Acer's newest models, the 15.6-inch Acer Aspire AS5745, is also available at Sears and Target with similar specs, but with a larger hard drive and Blu-ray player for about $750. But the Newegg.com has a better deal: the Aspire AS5745-3633 has a smaller hard drive (320GB) but it has a 2.40GHz Core i5-450M and the Blu-ray drive for the same price. Some higher-priced configurations of the Aspire 5745 also include multi-touch screen or Nvidia discrete graphics. The so-called Gemstone Blue models, which you can spot from the dark blue cover, have been around a little longer, but they have received good reviews and also offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Of all the laptops that I saw at Computex last month, I was most impressed with Acer's Timeline X series, which have just become available in the U.S. for the first time. The models that would be best-suited for students include the 14-inch 4820T and 15.6-inch 5820T, but the Timeline X series also includes 11.6-inch (1830T) and 13.3-inch (3820T) versions. The Timeline X laptops measure less than an inch thick but incorporate standard-voltage Core i3 or Core i5 processors, optional ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics, and an internal DVD drive. Acer recently told me that not all U.S. models will have the discrete graphics options, though. 

Finally, don't forget about Acer's Gateway brand. Two new thin-and-light models, the 14-inch ID49 and 15.6-inch ID59, look particularly interesting. The Gateway ID49 starts at $680 with 14-inch 1366x768 display, Core i3-350M, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and DVD burner. But the most enticing configuration is $850 with a 2.4GHz Core i5-450M, 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GT 330M discrete graphics with Optimus switching technology, 500GB hard drive and DVD burner-in a laptop that is less than an inch thick and weighs 5.0 pounds. There is only version of the ID59 and it is $800 with a 15.6-inch 1366x768 display, 2.26GHz Core i5-430M, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and DVD burner.

Most of these Acer and Gateway models are so new that they have yet to receive full reviews.

Dell Dell's latest consumer laptop is the Inspiron R series, which includes 14-, 15- and 17-inch models. The R series is based on Intel's 32nm Core i3 and Core i5 dual-core processors, but also offers optional ATI Mobility Radeon HD discrete graphics. The Inspiron 14R starts at $550 on dell.com, but I'd recommend the step-up configuration with a 2.26GHz Core i3-350M, 4GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive and a DVD burner. The Inspiron 15R with an identical configuration, but with a 15.6-inch 1366x768 display, is currently $570. Configurations with discrete graphics start at around $700. The older Inspiron 14 and Inspiron 15 models, which generally use the previous generation of Intel processors and graphics, are still available on dell.com at lower prices.

Reviews of the R series have been solid. The revamped design has gotten good marks, and though the case is still plastic (with the look of brushed metal in some places) Laptopmag.com notes that the magnesium alloy frame makes it sturdier than previous mainstream models. Both CNET and Laptopmag.com tested a configuration with discrete graphics that lasted only 3 hours on battery tests, but PCMag got well north of four hours with a Costco configuration with integrated graphics. The Costco configuration also comes with an extra year of warranty coverage and a few other extras.

Dell Inspiron 14R reviews:

Dell Inspiron 15R reviews:

Like HP and Acer, Dell has higher-end models with the same display sizes, which are usually marketed as entertainment laptops, though in truth there is a lot of overlap between the Inspiron R series and the lower-end configurations of the Studio series. The difference is that the Studio series can be configured with higher-end specs (not to mention display resolutions higher than 1366x768). For example, you can pick up the Studio 15 with a 1.6GHz Core i7-720QM quad-core processor, 3GB of memory, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 graphics with 1GB, 320GB hard drive and DVD burner for $1,000. Finally, there's the Studio XPS, which currently starts at around $1,200 with the same size display and processor, but with 4GB of memory and ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5730 graphics with 1GB driving a 1600x900 resolution. Dell's Alienware laptops are primarily designed for gamers that need high-end 3D graphics performance. But the Inspirons will meet the needs of most students, and the dual-core processors and integrated graphics will deliver better battery life anyway.

Apple Both the MacBook and MacBook Pros have received updates in the past few months-mostly to incorporate faster processors and more powerful graphics. Purely from a hardware standpoint, the latest MacBooks don't stack up well to their Windows competition. The MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro are based on a 13.3-inch 16:10 display with a 1280x800 resolution while most laptops have 16:9 displays with a higher resolution (1366x768). Instead of using the latest Core i3 and i5 processors, Apple opted to pair older Core 2 Duos with Nvidia's GeForce 320M graphics (though this gives the MacBook a big graphics boost and Apple's switching technology on the MacBook Pro delivers good battery life). The base configuration includes a small (250GB) 5400rpm hard drive, and Blu-ray-something available on Windows laptops costing hundreds less--still isn't an option. Finally MacBooks have fewer ports and connectors than even budget Windows laptops. For example, the MacBook still doesn't have a memory card slot (though the MacBook Pros now do).

The MacBook starts at $1,000 with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB of memory, GeForce 320M graphics, 250GB hard drive and a slot-loading DVD burner. From the MacBook Pro line, which was updated in April, the 13- and 15-inch models are best-suited for students. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,200 with nearly the same configuration as the MacBook-though you get twice the memory. All of the MacBook Pros also have the aluminum case, rather than polycarbonate, and a backlit keyboard. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is much better-equipped with a 15.4-inch (1440x900) display, 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, GeForce 330M graphics, 320GB hard drive and DVD burner. But it also starts at $1,800 making it significantly more expensive than most back-to-school laptops. You can find similarly-configured Windows laptops for well under $1,000. Of course people don't choose MacBooks for their hardware specs; they choose them for the design and for the Mac OS X and iLife software. It's simply a matter of how much value you attach to these less quantifiable features. Reviewers apparently attach quite a bit of value to them since the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros continue to receive top marks across the board.

Apple MacBook reviews:

Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro reviews:

Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro reviews:

Finally there are a handful of consumer laptops from other companies that you may want to consider since they consistently perform well on many reviews. These include the 13.3-inch Asus U30jc-A1, the 14-inch Lenovo IdeaPad Y460 and Toshiba Satellite E205, and 15.6-inch Samsung NP-R580.

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