On the cheap
Sony made a bold move earlier this year when it decreed that all its new laptops would come standard with a few top-notch features: 1080p displays, NFC, backlit keyboards and webcams making use of Sony's Exmor-R imaging technology for better low-light shots. That's a lot to ask of an entry-level laptop and yet, that's what you get with the 15-inch VAIO Fit 15E, which starts at $580 with a Core i3 processor. One flaw you should be aware of: the Fit series doesn't offer stellar battery life, largely thanks to those last-generation Ivy Bridge processors. So barring a refresh, at least, you'll want to plan on bringing the power adapter in your backpack.
Key specs: 15.5-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display, up to a dual-core, 2GHz Intel Core i7-3537U CPU, up to a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 740M GPU, up to 8GB of RAM, up to a 1TB (5,400RPM) hard drive with an 8GB SSD.
Price: $580 and up from Sony
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Acer Aspire E E1-572-6870
Even with Intel now shipping its Haswell CPUs, you'll be hard-pressed to find that many budget laptops with fourth-generation Core processors inside. The Aspire E1, though, comes with a spanking-new Core i5 chip, and for a reasonable price of $500. Other than that Core i5 CPU, specs are pretty much what you'd expect at this price (read: a 1,366 x 768 screen), though the spacious keyboard layout seems promising.
Price: $500 and up on Amazon
HP Pavilion TouchSmart 11z
Okay, it's sort of a netbook, but when's the last time you saw a laptop this small -- and this inexpensive -- come standard with a touchscreen? For those who need something cheap and simple, the 11z is one of the few options available with touch. On the inside, you've got a dual- or quad-core AMD APU, along with up to eight gigs of RAM and as much as 500GB in HDD storage.
Price: $400 and up on Amazon
Toshiba Satellite P50
Toshiba did the smart thing in launching its back to school laptops so that they shipped with Haswell processors out of the gate. The 15-inch P50 is the smaller of its two premium-series laptops, with all the looks of a high-end machine (slim, metal chassis) along with beefy enough internals to satisfy most power users. At the base price of $700 you get a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 750GB of storage space, though the top-shelf model moves to a quad-core Core i7 CPU, 12 gigs of memory, 1TB of storage and a 2GB GPU. Possibly your best option, though, is to look into the P55t-A5202 ($908), a Best Buy exclusive that steps up to a 1080p display.
Key specs: 15.6-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display, up to a quad-core, 2.4GHz Core i7-4700MQ CPU, Intel Integrated Graphics, up to 16GB of RAM, up to a 1TB (5,400RPM) hard drive with an 8GB hybrid hard drive.
Price: about $900 on Amazon
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Sony VAIO Fit 14 Premium
Yep, Sony's making a second appearance in this guide. All told, the Fit Premium models aren't all that different from the Fit E line, except that they're slimmer and built with higher-end materials. You also get a little more leeway in terms of specs, with hybrid hard drives standard (as opposed to regular HDDs). In our review, we deemed the Fit Premium a good value, and we enjoyed the improved keyboard as well.
Price: $800 and up from Sony
Though Dell's mainstream, 15-inch laptop starts at $350 with a Celeron processor, we'd suggest you spring for the 15R Touch, which goes for $800 and offers some generous specs like 1TB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Dell's also worked to slim down its Inspiron laptops since the last generation, as well as lighten the load, so at 5.12 pounds, it hopefully won't be burdensome to carry from the dorm to the library.
Price: $800 and up from Dell
Money is no object
The 15-inch Y510p is powerful enough to suit gamers, but discreet enough that it could pass for a run-of-the-mill multimedia machine. (Okay, that red backlit keyboard might be something of a giveaway.) Even with the lower end of the range you get some top-tier specs, like a 1080p screen, quad-core Core i7 Haswell processor, 1TB of storage and a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU. Move up the totem pole, though, and you can get twice the RAM, along with a 24GB SSD to pair with that hard drive.
Key specs: 15.6-inch (1,366 x 768 or 1,920 x 1,080) display, up to a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, up to a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU with optional Ultrabay SLI graphics, up to 16GB of RAM, 1TB of internal storage with an optional 24GB SSD.
Price: $999 and up from Amazon
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If money really is no object, it doesn't make much sense for us to recommend the regular ol' MacBook Pro over the Retina display version, even though the $300 starting price gap will probably appeal to students (or their parents, at least). Obviously, the star of the show is that super-sharp display, though we're contractually obligated to tell you not all content is actually optimized for it. The only hitch: these MacBook Pros haven't been upgraded with Haswell -- yet.
Price: $1,499 and up from Apple
Samsung ATIV Book 8
You might know it as the Series 7 Chronos, but it's been re-christened as the ATIV Book 8. Available with a 15-inch screen only in the US, it packs a quad-core processor, a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 8770M GPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB of storage and a 1080p, 300-nit display. Only problem: it was announced so long ago that it currently ships with Ivy Bridge.
Price: $1,200 from Best Buy