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 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 August we'll be giving away a ton of the gear featured in our guides -- you can hit up the hub page right here!
Given their roots -- luxury machines like the original MacBook Air ($1,800) and last year's Samsung Series 9 ($1,649) -- you'd be forgiven if you initially dismissed Ultrabooks as being too extravagant for a college-bound student. Thankfully, though, prices have sunk so low that you can now find a thin, fast, ultraportable laptop for as little as $700. The only problem, perhaps, is a paradox of choice: the selection is already crowded with dozens of contenders, and there are 100-some-odd more models in the pipeline, according to Intel. Fortunately for you, dear readers, we've had the chance to handle or even review many of them, and were able to whittle down the offerings to a handful of promising contenders. Whether you're prepared to spend $750 or $1,400, we have something that'll fit the bill.
On the cheap
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5
Even with so many Ultrabooks on the market, it's rare to find one with graphics good enough for more serious gaming. That's why we like the M5 notebooks, which can be configured with NVIDIA's new Kepler-series GPUs. The M5 laptops, available with 14- and 15-inch screens, also have 0.81-inch-thick metal frames and narrow bezels -- better build quality, perhaps, than you would have expected for $680. Just keep in mind that for that entry-level price you'll be getting a last-generation Sandy Bridge processor; for an Ivy Bridge chip and discrete graphics, you'll need to pay at least $780.
Key specs: 1366 x 768 resolution, 0.81 inches thick, 500GB hybrid hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M LE graphics, 4.03 pounds / 5.07 pounds.
Price: From $650 on Amazon
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Lenovo IdeaPad U310
How often do we chide Ultrabooks for having shallow keyboards or flaky trackpads? The U310 won us over with a smooth touchpad and a cushy set of keys, making it supremely comfortable to use. Be warned, though: that lower price point means making do with shorter battery life and more middling performance (SSDs aren't an option).
Price: From $720 on Amazon
Sony VAIO T13
Fair or not, Sony catches a lot of flack for selling overpriced gadgets that rest too much on the company's brand cachet. The T13, though, starts at a reasonable $770. In our review, we praised the metal-clad design and found the performance to be fairly solid, but felt that given its relative heft the keys could've had a bit more travel.
Price: From $760 on Amazon
Apple MacBook Air
When Apple refreshed its MacBook lineup recently, it didn't touch the industrial design. And that's a good thing: the Air continues to offer one of the most comfortable keyboard-and-trackpad combos. The chief difference is that both the 11- and 13-inch models pack Ivy Bridge chips, and feature Apple's slimmer MagSafe2 power connector. (You'll need an adapter if you want to use your older power brick.) In our tests, that new chipset provided a nice boost in performance, and the battery life is a bit longer, too. The Air remains our favorite all-around ultraportable, though competitors are starting to best it in categories like display quality and port selection.
Key specs: 1366 x 768 / 1440 x 900 resolution (11-inch / 13-inch), 0.68 inches thick, 64GB to 256GB SSDs, 2.38 pounds / 2.96 pounds.
Price: From $950 on Amazon
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HP Envy Spectre XT
The XT is one of HP's highest-end Ultrabooks and it looks the part with its 0.57-inch-thick metal frame. It also comes loaded with full versions of Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements 10, and is covered by a two-year warranty. As you'd expect, Ivy Bridge CPUs are standard, and you can configure it with up to 256GB of solid-state storage.
Price: From $1,000 on HP.com
Dell XPS 14
The big brother to last year's XPS 13 ushers in some welcome improvements, including longer battery life, a refined trackpad, crisper 1600 x 900 display and discrete NVIDIA graphics. The tradeoffs attendant to that kind of horsepower? A heavier-than-average build, relatively weak disk speeds and a bit of fan noise.
Price: From $1,100 on Dell.com
Money's no object
Samsung Series 9
One of our favorite Ultrabooks available right now, the Series 9 comes in 13- and 15-inch versions, each thinner than most other ultraportables. Neither version comes cheap, but for the money you get a stunning unibody aluminum design, epic battery life, solid performance and a bright 1600 x 900 display with a glare-free matte finish. So what's not to like? The flat keyboard, perhaps, which offers less travel than competing models. And while the trackpad has benefitted from some driver updates, it could still use some more fine-tuning.
Key specs: 1600 x 900 resolution, 0.5 / 0.58 inches thick, up to 256GB of storage, 2.55 pounds / 3.5 pounds
Price: From $1,220 on Amazon
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HP Envy 14 Spectre
Though it makes for a heavier design, the Spectre's metal-and-glass chassis is one of the most memorable we've seen. It's not all about looks, though: the Spectre also offers a high-res IPS display, comfortable keyboard and generous two-year warranty. Full copies of Photoshop and Premiere Elements are also included.
Price: From $1,400 on HP.com
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX32VD
We're fans of ASUS' entire line of Zenbook Prime Ultrabooks, thanks to their 1080p IPS displays, lovely build quality and much-improved keyboards. But we're especially intrigued by the 13-inch UX32VD, which adds a discrete NVIDIA GT 620M GPU for some extra graphics might.
Price: $1,360 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.
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.