Engadget's back to school guide 2011: laptops

Welcome to Engadget's Back to School guide! We know that this time of year can be pretty annoying and stressful for everyone, so we're here to help out with the heartbreaking process of gadget buying for the school-aged crowd. 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!

Ah, laptops. Some of us received our first notebooks the summer before college if not later. But times have changed and we're sure for many of the kids reading this freshman year is just an excuse to upgrade from the clunkers that carried them through high school. Either way, this one's pretty much mandatory -- unless you're a serious gamer who insists on a desktop GPU for marathon sessions of CoD: Black Ops, you're going to need a laptop for pounding out last-minute term papers in the library, taking notes in class and posting incriminating photos on Facebook. The problem is, the market's overrun with laptops that purport to be just perfect for the back to school set. They can't all be worth your money, though, so we whittled the list down to a handful of choices for each budget -- and if you're lucky you'll get your very own HP Pavilion dm1z for the pretty price of, well, nothing. Simply leave a comment below to be entered to win, and check out our giveaway page for more details. So wipe off the glasses, grab your clicker, and get ready to jump past the break for a top-level overview of this year's picks for back to school.

On the cheap

HP Pavilion dm1z


It was a tough call between this and HP's g6t, a 15-inch laptop with generous specs and a surprisingly elegant design. Ultimately, though, for the same $400 starting price we'd rather have the 3.46-pound dm1z, since its 11.6-inch form factor and nine and a half-hour battery life make it easier to tote around campus and leave the charger at home. Still, that smaller size doesn't mean it shirks in the performance department -- its dual-core AMD Fusion E-350 hybrid CPU / GPU ensures you'll have enough oomph for email, YouTube and trolling Facebook.

Key specs: 11.6-inch (1366 x 768) display, dual-core 1.6GHz AMD E-350 APU, starts with 3GB of RAM and a 250GB 7,200RPM hard drive.

Price: $400 and up on HP

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Dell Inspiron 14z

This isn't your big brother's Dell. In the face of declining market share and a reputation for bland designs, the PC maker went back to the drawing board and returned with a budget laptop that ditches glossy plastic for aluminum and measures less than an inch thick. Dell also added USB 3.0 and a choice of Sandy Bridge Core i3 and i5 CPUs.

Price: $600 and up from Dell


Toshiba Satellite L750D-ST4N01

AMD's A-series Fusion chips take direct aim at Intel's Core processors, offering discrete-level graphics and superlative battery life claims at some pretty aggressive prices. Case in point: the $550 L750D packs a quad-core A6 chip and is rated for about five hours of runtime. For $50 more you could get an Intel-based version offering a dual-core Core i3 CPU and just an extra half hour of battery life.

Price: $549 from Toshiba


Gateway ID47502U


The best thing about the ID47 isn't its striking metal build, but its screen. You see, Gateway is one of a few brands making use of LG's Shuriken display, which crams a 14-inch panel into a chassis typically used with 13-inch machines. We love it because it leaves the bezels nice and narrow, and also lets folks reap the benefits of both a 14-inch display and a more portable 13-inch system. Otherwise, the specs are fairly standard for this price range: a dual-core Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, integrated graphics, 1366 x 768 resolution and integrated Intel graphics.

Key specs: 14-inch (1366 x 768) display, 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive.

Price: $700 on Newegg

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Samsung Series 3 350U2B-A01

If a tricked-out Series 9 isn't in the cards this semester, check out Samsung's Series 3 as a consolation prize. Available in 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-inch versions, the line looks a teensy bit like the MacBook Pro, but that doesn't mean these aren't damn fine looking machines. We have our eyes on the 3.1-pound 12-incher, which crams in a Core i5 CPU and 500GB hard drive.

Price: $750 on Newegg


Acer Aspire TimelineX AS5830TG-6402

Like the rest of Acer's TimelineX line, the 5830 offers a thin chassis and long battery life. If you wanted, you could pick this up in 13- and 14-inch versions, but the 15-inch 5830 is compelling for folks who crave that extra screen real estate but don't want to skimp on endurance. You'll also get discrete graphics, but don't expect an enormous bump in performance over competing systems.

Price: $800 on Amazon

Money's no object

MacBook Air


The Air is the spiritual heir to the MacBook, once Apple's entry-level laptop and a favorite among college-bound kids. And we have to say: we like what we're seeing. Although the Air looks nearly identical to the models that went on sale last year (save for a new backlit keyboard), it's just now risen to the task of replacing the MacBook. As always, it comes with solid-state drives, but now they run on ultra-low voltage Core i5 and Core i7 processors -- a combination of innards capable of besting larger laptops with standard-voltage CPUs. Sure, we'd love an SD card reader on the 11-inch model and more than two USB ports, but at this price, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything else that's as fast and pinch-thin.

Key specs: 11.6- or 13.3-inch display, starts with a 1.6GHz Core i5 CPU, 2GB of RAM and a 64GB solid-state drive.

Price: $999 and up on Amazon

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Sony VAIO S series

We already declared the stylish, long-lasting VAIO SB one of our favorite 13-inch laptops with a built-in optical drive, but if money's not a concern we suggest stepping up to the thinner SA, which boasts a 1600 x 900 display and is offered with solid-state drives.

Price: $1,250 on Sony


HP Envy 14

We were enamored enough with the Envy 14 when it was made over with an engraved aluminum lid and backlit keyboard, but we love it even more now that HP's refreshed it with USB 3.0 and Sandy Bridge processors. Oh, and the company fixed that flaky trackpad, too -- we've been testing one, and can assure you the experience is much improved.

Price: $1,000 and up on HP

Engadget's Back to School Giveaway
Official Rules
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 12PM ET on August 2, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011 (the "Giveaway Period"). The Giveaway Period shall be divided into fifteen (15) separate Entry Periods:

Entry Period 1 begins at 12PM ET on August 2, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 2 begins at 12PM ET on August 2, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 3 begins at 12PM ET on August 3, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 4 begins at 12PM ET on August 5, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 5 begins at 12PM ET on August 8, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 6 begins at 12PM ET on August 10, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 7 begins at 12PM ET on August 12, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 8 begins at 12PM ET on August 15, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 9 begins at 12PM ET on August 17, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 10 begins at 12PM ET on August 19, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 11 begins at 12PM ET on August 22, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 12 begins at 12PM ET on August 24, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 13 begins at 12PM ET on August 26, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 14 begins at 12PM ET on August 29, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.
Entry Period 15 begins at 12PM ET on August 31, 2011 and ends at 12PM ET on September 9, 2011.

Entry: During the Giveaway Period, go to 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 Pavilion dm1z laptop, Sony NEX-C3 digital camera, Samsung 7" Galaxy Tab, Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint) smartphone, Altec Lansing Octiv 650 speaker doc, Bowers & Wilkins C5 headphones, Nook E-reader, Timbuk2 Command Messenger bag, Elgato HDHomeRun TV tuner, Kingston Wi-Drive, 1-year Premium Spotify subscription, Scosche: goBAT II, iMainGo: X, G-Form 11" Extreme Sleeve, Canon X Mark I Mouse Lite, 1-year Premium Skype subscription, Sonic Bomb Alarm Clock, Red Swingline Stapler, Toddy Smart Cloth and Pogo Sketch. Approximate Retail Value of each Prize Pack is $3,141. 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.


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, Zach Honig, 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003. Requests must be received by September 30, 2011.