Welcome to Engadget's back to school guide! The end of summer vacation isn't nearly as much fun as the weeks that come before, but a chance to update your tech tools likely helps to ease the pain. Today we're getting down to the very important business of helping you sift through laptops, and you can always head to the back to school hub to see the rest of the product guides as they're added throughout the month. Be sure to keep checking back -- at the end of the month we'll be giving away a ton of the gear featured in our guides -- and hit up the hub page right here!
Freshman year of college may no longer be the gateway to the magical world of laptop ownership, but even if you already have a notebook, who can resist a new machine in the spirit of starting fresh when September rolls around? Whether you're looking for a Core i5 companion to get you through semesters of paper-writing, Facebooking and WoWing, or a super-sleek centerpiece to your bare-bones dorm, there's a vast playing field of machines to choose from. While sifting through the countless options would surely get you back in the academic research frame of mind, it's a daunting task. We're here to take some of the work off your plate with nine solid mainstream laptops that should satisfy every budget.
On the cheap
Sony's VAIO E Series is available in 11.6-, 14- and 15.5-inch flavors, all of which sport a new "wrap design" that reminds us of a notebook (the pen and paper kind). Though the E Series got the Ivy Bridge refresh, the $450 11-incher runs an AMD E2-1800 CPU, and the entry-level 14-inch model offers an Intel Pentium chip. All models feature a standard 1,366 x 768 display, though you can trick out the two larger sizes with backlit keyboards.
Key specs: 11.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display, dual-core 1.7GHz AMD E2-1800, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB, 5,400RPM hard drive.
Price: $450 and up on Amazon
You might also like...
Non-Intel CPUs have a happy home in the budget-laptop space, and HP's new dv6 lineup gives AMD some love in the base configuration. For $550, you get a dual-core A6-4400M processor clocked at 2.6GHz, though stepping up to pricier models earns you Ivy Bridge insides. All configurations benefit from Beats Audio, and the understated design with chrome accents is one of our favorites in the Pavilion series.
Price: $550 and up on Amazon
So the Samsung Series 3 didn't get the Ivy Bridge upgrade this time around -- it simply stepped up to Sandy Bridge processors -- but the notebook does have a sleek design with brushed-chrome trim, and it's far from ill-equipped when it comes to other specs. The line is highly customizable, offering Pentium processors all the way up to Core i7, and storage ranges from 320GB up to 1TB.
Price: $450 and up on Amazon
The P in Toshiba's Satellite P line stands for "premium," and the 15.6-inch P850 does boast a lovely Champagne Silver etched-aluminum design and Harman Kardon audio rather than the SRS technology found on its C and L Series counterparts. This 5.4-pounder includes 6GB of RAM and 640GB of storage, though stepping up to the $800 configuration affords you a 1TB hard drive. Though there's an optical drive on board, you won't find an SD card slot here.
Key specs: 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768) display, dual-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M, starting at 6GB of RAM and a 5,400RPM, 640GB hard drive.
Price: $700 on ToshibaDirect.com
You might also like...
This special edition lives up to its name with a healthy selection of special extras. Skullcandy headphones come bundled, there's an anodized aluminum lid and Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premier Elements are pre-loaded. You get your choice of Core i5 or Core i7 Ivy Bridge CPUs, up to 8GB of RAM and up to a 1TB hard drive.
Price: $900 and up on Dell.com
Though the VAIO S Series has somewhat of a business pedigree, the 13.3-inch model weighs 3.8 pounds and measures 0.95 inches thick. A third-gen Intel CPU, optional discrete graphics from NVIDIA (for $100 more) and a DVD drive are solid incentives too, as are the seven tasteful color options and up to seven hours of battery life.
Price: $800 and up on Sony.com
Money's no object
College campuses are littered with notebooks bearing that famous Apple logo these days, and if you (or your parents -- let's be honest) are well-heeled enough to shell out for the recently updated MacBook Pro, it's a sound investment. Trust fund types might prefer the Retina display model, but the standard Pro, with its Ivy Bridge processor and famously comfortable keyboard and touchpad, is far from a slacker. We do recommend shelling out for an SSD, though.
Key specs: 13-inch (1,280 x 800) display, dual-core Intel Core i5, starting at 4GB of RAM and a 5,400RPM, 500GB hard drive.
Price: $1,140 and up on Amazon
You might also like...
We liked the Envy 15 when we reviewed it earlier this year, thanks to its solid display and strong audio experience, and the system's recent step up to Ivy Bridge should only make things better. A backlit keyboard and Beats Audio (complete with a subwoofer) come standard, and though the design borrows heavily from the MacBook Pro, this 5.8-pound laptop is a looker.
Price: $1,100 and up on HP.com
If the Series 7 Gamer seems a bit of a stretch, Sammy has a solid step down in its 7 Series. Now running a Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor, the 15-inch Series 7 Chronos doesn't ditch the generous feature selection of earlier models. You get NVIDIA GeForce GT630M graphics, an optical drive and 1TB of storage.
Price: $1,000 and up on Amazon
Engadget's Back to School Giveaway
No Purchase Required to Enter or Win
Eligibility: Engadget's Back to School Giveaway (the "Giveaway") is open only to individuals who are legal residents of the fifty (50) United States (including the District of Columbia) and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 years of age or older. Employees of Weblogs Inc. LLC, AOL Inc., their advertising or promotion agencies, those involved in the production, development, implementation or handling of Giveaways, any agents acting for, or on behalf of the above entities, their respective parent companies, officers, directors, subsidiaries, affiliates, licensees, service providers, prize suppliers any other person or entity associated with the Giveaways (collectively "Giveaway Entities") and/or the immediate family (spouse, parents, siblings and children) and household members (whether related or not) of each such employee, are not eligible. All U.S., federal, state and local and Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal laws and regulations apply. Void in Quebec, Puerto Rico and where prohibited by law.
Sponsor: The Giveaway is sponsored by Weblogs Inc. LLC, 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 ("Sponsor").
Agreement to Official Rules: Participation in the Giveaway constitutes entrant's full and unconditional agreement to and acceptance of these Official Rules and the decisions of the Sponsor, which are final and binding. Winning a prize is contingent upon fulfilling all requirements set forth herein.
Giveaway Period: The Giveaway begins at 12:00 pm ET on August 6, 2012 and ends at 12:00 pm ET on September 7, 2012 (the "Giveaway Period"). The Giveaway Period shall be divided into fifteen (15) separate Entry Periods:
Entry Period 1 begins at 12PM ET on August 6, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 2 begins at 1PM ET on August 6, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 3 begins at 12PM ET on August 7, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 4 begins at 12PM ET on August 8, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 5 begins at 12PM ET on August 9, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 6 begins at 12PM ET on August 10, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 7 begins at 12PM ET on August 13, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 8 begins at 12PM ET on August 15, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 9 begins at 12PM ET on August 17, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 10 begins at 12PM ET on August 20, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 11 begins at 12PM ET on August 22, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 12 begins at 12PM ET on August 24, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 13 begins at 12PM ET on August 27, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 14 begins at 12PM ET on August 29, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry Period 15 begins at 12PM ET on August 31, 2012 and ends at 12PM ET on September 7, 2012.
Entry: During the Giveaway Period, go to engadget.com/2012/08/06/back-to-school-giveaway and follow the instructions to submit your entry. The use of any agencies or automated software to submit entries will void all entries submitted by that person.
Drawing: At the conclusion of the Giveaway Period, Sponsor will select the name of one (1) Grand Prize Winner from each of the fifteen (15) Entry Periods in a random drawing of all eligible entries received during each Entry Period. The odds of being selected as a potential winner depend on the number of eligible entries received during the applicable Entry Period. Potential Winners will be contacted via email and asked to provide their full name, age and mailing address within a specified time period. If a potential winner does not respond within the timeframe stated in the notification email, the Sponsor may select an alternate potential winner in his/her place at random from all entries received during the Entry Period. Non-winning entries from one Entry Period do not carry over into subsequent Entry Periods.
Requirements of the Potential Winners: Except where prohibited, the potential winners will be required to complete and return an affidavit of eligibility and liability/publicity release (the "Affidavit/Release") and IRS W-9 form within seven (7) days of being notified. If a potential winner fails to sign and return the Affidavit/Release and W-9 form within the required time period, an alternate entrant may be selected in his/her place in a random drawing of all entries received. Acceptance of a prize constitutes consent to use winner's name and likeness for editorial, advertising and publicity purposes without additional compensation, except where prohibited by law. In the event the potential winner of any prize is a Canadian resident, he/she will also be required to correctly answer a time-limited mathematical question to be administered by email, mail or phone to receive the prize. Limit one (1) prize per household.
Prizes: Fifteen (15) Grand Prize Winners will each receive a Back to School Prize Pack containing the following items: HP Envy Ultrabook 4, Sony NEX-F3, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0), Samsung Galaxy S III (AT&T), Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, AiAiAi Capital headphones, Western Digital My Passport (1TB) hard drive, Timbuk2 Commute Messenger laptop bag, Flying Alarm Clock, AOC 16" USB monitor, Spotify Premium subscription (1 year), Satechi Energy Station, Edifier Tick Tock, Satechi 12-port USB hub, NuForce Cube, Withings WiFi Scale, Powermat 24-hour system, Carbonite Backup (1 year), AViiQ Ready Chips, and Targus Defcon 1 lock. Approximate Retail Value of each Prize Pack is $3,203. Subscriptions are subject to issuer's terms and conditions. Activation fees and monthly service fees not included with any smartphone/digital devices. No cash or other substitution may be made, except by the Sponsor, who reserves the right to substitute a prize or portion of a prize with another prize of equal or greater value if the prize is not available for any reason as determined by the Sponsor in its sole discretion. Winners are responsible for any taxes and fees associated with receipt or use of a prize.
General Conditions: In the event that the operation, security, or administration of the Giveaway is impaired in any way for any reason, including, but not limited to fraud, virus, or other technical problem, the Sponsor may, in its sole discretion, either: (a) suspend the Giveaway to address the impairment and then resume the Giveaway in a manner that best conforms to the spirit of these Official Rules; or (b) award the prizes at random from among the eligible entries received up to the time of the impairment. The Sponsor reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any individual it finds to be tampering with the entry process or the operation of the Giveaway or to be acting in violation of these Official Rules or in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner. Any attempt by any person to undermine the legitimate operation of the Giveaway may be a violation of criminal and civil law, and, should such an attempt be made, the Sponsor reserves the right to seek damages from any such person to the fullest extent permitted by law. The Sponsor's failure to enforce any term of these Official Rules shall not constitute a waiver of that provision. In case of a dispute as to the owner of an entry, entry will be deemed to have been submitted by the authorized account holder of the screen name from which the entry is made. The authorized account holder is defined as the natural person who is assigned to an e-mail address by an Internet access provider, online service provider, or other organization responsible for assigning e-mail addresses for the domain associated with the submitted e-mail address.
Release and Limitations of Liability: By participating in the Giveaway, entrants agree to release, defend indemnify and hold harmless the Giveaway Entities from and against any claim or cause of action, including without limitation, any third party claim, arising out of participation in the Giveaway or receipt, use or misuse of any prize, including, but not limited to: (a) unauthorized human intervention in the Giveaway; (b) technical errors related to computers, servers, providers, or telephone or network lines; (c) printing errors; (d) lost, late, postage-due, misdirected, or undeliverable mail; (e) errors in the administration of the Giveaway or the processing of entries; or (f) injury or damage to persons or property which may be caused, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, from entrant's participation in the Giveaway or receipt, use or misuse of any prize. Entrant further agrees that in any cause of action, the Giveaway Entities' liability will be limited to the cost of entering and participating in the Giveaway, and in no event shall the Giveaway Entities be liable for attorney's fees. Entrant waives the right to claim any damages whatsoever, including, but not limited to, punitive, consequential, direct, or indirect damages.
TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW, THE PRIZES AND ALL ELEMENTS THEREOF ARE PROVIDED "AS IS" WITHOUT WARRANTY OR CONDITION OF ANY KIND. SPONSOR DISCLAIMS ALL EXPRESS AND IMPLIED WARRANTIES, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION, OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, TITLE AND/OR NON-INFRINGEMENT. Some jurisdictions do not allow the disclaimer of implied warranties. In such jurisdictions, some of the foregoing disclaimers may not apply to you insofar as they relate to implied warranties.
Disputes: Except where prohibited, entrant agrees that any and all disputes, claims and causes of action arising out of, or connected with, the Giveaway or any prize awarded shall be resolved individually, without resort to any form of class action, and exclusively by the appropriate court located in the Commonwealth of Virginia. All issues and questions concerning the construction, validity, interpretation and enforceability of these Official Rules, entrant's rights and obligations, or the rights and obligations of the Sponsor in connection with the Giveaway, shall be governed by, and construed in accordance with, the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, without giving effect to any choice of law or conflict of law rules (whether of the Commonwealth of Virginia or any other jurisdiction), which would cause the application of the laws of any jurisdiction other than the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Giveaway Results: To request the names of the winners, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Engadget Back to School Giveaway Winners, 770 Broadway, Attn: J. Turi, New York, NY 10003. Requests must be received by September 30, 2012.