We’re now well into 2011 and so it’s time to update our Best Laptops for Students annual article. Most students end up buying laptops during the summer ready for the start of school in August or September. Since most of the big laptop releases for 2011 have occurred already it’s safe to give an analysis of what’s going to be on the market in Summer 2011 for students to choose from. The good news for 2011 is that both Intel and AMD have updated their processors and graphics chips and the performance to price ratio continues to get better. Even the most basic laptops on the market these days feature performance that’s more than adequate for your average student and way better than what you could buy 3-years ago. Most students buy a laptop based on what they can afford, so we’ll break our categories out in that manner. Screen size is probably the second most important factor, some people prefer small easy to carry laptops while others are willing to carry something larger so they get a big screen to view and the generally faster performance you see in larger laptops. That said, the largest size laptop that really makes sense for carrying around school and feasibly using on a desk is 16” so we won’t include any of the largest 17” screen laptops as part of this rating.
Best $300 – $500 Laptops for 2011 Students
The HP dm1z is a small laptop with an 11.6-inch screen, the price starts at $427.99 with the HP student discount, but you can often find coupons out there from HP that knocks the price down to around $400 for the basic model. I reviewed the latest model of the HP dm1z and found it to be an excellent laptop for the price. The new AMD Fusion processor provides good performance and supports battery life of up to 7-hours. The light weight of under 4-lbs and thin form factor of around 1” make it very easy to tote around. It also has desirable features such as an HDMI video out port if you like easily connect to an external monitor or LCD TV to view video or simply have more viewing space to do work. It does not have an optical drive, so for those that like to be able to put a DVD or CD into a laptop for playback this could be a negative.
The ThinkPad X120e from Lenovo is almost exactly the same specs wise as the aforementioned HP dm1z. The major difference is that the build quality of the ThinkPad is slightly better, making it more rugged for on campus use. It also has a pointing stick on the keyboard that some people prefer over the traditional trackpad. The ThinkPad X120e starts at $399.99 on Lenovo.com, an excellent price! The ThinkPad X120e is so close in features to the HP dm1 that you should just choose whichever design appeals to you best, the all black business oriented ThinkPad or slightly more stylish HP dm1. All else aside these laptops are close competitors and generally sell for about the same amount unless there’s a big sale.
The Acer Aspire AS5253-BZ480 is a ridiculously low priced laptop at $349.99. Yet you don’t pay a penalty for that low price. The AS5253 contains the same AMD Fusion E-350 processor that’s found in the HP dm1z and Lenovo X120e laptops, but instead of the small 11.6-inch screen those laptops have the AS5253 contains a generous 15.6” screen. The Aspire AS5253 also has key ports such as HDMI for video output, 3 USB 2.0 ports and a media card reader. Also included is a built-in web camera and DVD burner, something you might not expect in a $349.99 laptop. On top of all that, the Aspire AS5253 has an amazing real world 5 hours of battery life thanks to its AMD Fusion processor, that’s incredible for this sized laptop! So what are the downsides to the Aspire AS5253-BZ480 and the tradeoff for the low price? It only comes with 2GB of RAM which is paltry for a Windows machine, you should upgrade that to 4GB of RAM, but that will only cost you $20 or so (purchase RAM from NewEgg.com or Crucial.com for the best pricing). The hard drive is only 250GB – that may be ok for some, but compared to other laptops that are making 500GB the standard included size you’re behind the average size hard drive these days. Also a downside is there is only a mono speaker included, meaning no stereo sound unless you use a set of headphones. For $349.99 and those
The HP Pavilion G6x starts at $479.99 at HP.com, the starting price includes an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive so you don’t have to make any upgrades as those specs will meet most students needs just fine. The Pavilion G6x has a 15.6” screen for comfortable viewing and includes all the ports and features you will need. An HDMI port, 802.11n wireless, built-in web cam, media card reader and 3 USB 2.0 ports are all built-in to the G6x so even though this is a “basic laptop” as HP calls it, they’re not skimping on any of the essentials. If you like a splash of color and more interesting design than just grey you can select from four different color choices for a $25 upgrade that includes coloring on both the lid and keyboard area.
Best $500 – $700 Laptops for 2011 Student Laptop
The ThinkPad Edge E420s starts at $699.99 on Lenovo.com right now and just sneaks into our under $700 laptop. The Edge E420s is a 14” screen laptop, a great size for students as it is portable at a starting weight of 4lbs but still has a generous sized screen. The ThinkPad Edge E420s features a snazzy design with the infinite glass display and iconic all black ThinkPad case, the red nub pointing stick and chiclet style keyboard also add some distinction. The base model E420s comes with an Intel Core i3 2nd generation processor, you can configure up to a Core i5 processor. Unlike some other enterprise focused ThinkPads the E420s does come with an HDMI port so you can easily hook up the laptop to an LCD TV. The port selection also includes 3 USB 2.0 ports, 1 eSata port, Ethernet port, VGA port and media card reader. The battery life is close to 7 hours, which is excellent for a 14” screen laptop, it is however an embedded battery (like the MacBook Air and Pro) so you can’t swap out an extra battery or upgrade it.
The ThinkPad Edge E420 is also a good option for students, starting at $549 it is cheaper than the Edge E420s. Although it is a similar screen size and design to the E420s, it differs in a few key ways. On the downside the E420 is heavier and thicker than the E420s, it also uses less metal in the chassis. On the upside it has a user removable battery (the E420s battery is sealed) and matte screen that many like because it is non-reflective. You can read our review of the ThinkPad Edge E420 here.
Nobody ever said Acer makes memorable names for their laptops, but they do make laptops that give you a great price to feature ratio. The Aspire Timeline series prides itself on a pleasing thin and sleek design and excellent battery life. The Aspire AS5820T is a 15.6” laptop with an Intel Core i5 2.66GHz processor (fast), 4GB of RAM, 640GB hard drive and price tag of under $700 (current it is $674 at Amazon.com). The Aspire Timeline X AS5820T has an incredible battery life of up to 7 hours. The design is great, it’s one of the thinnest 15.6” screen laptops on the market, quite amazing for this price point. This laptop comes with everything you’ll need as a student, the only downsides are there is no Bluetooth built-in and keyboard is not highly rated by reviewers.
The Asus U31JG is a 13.3” screen laptop powered by the Intel Core i3-380m 2.53GHz processor and featuring the Nvidia 415m switchable graphics card. Asus claims up to 9 hours of battery life with this sporty little laptop, enough to keep you going on campus all day long. The 3.7 pounds of weight won’t weigh you down on campus and since it’s about 1-inch thin it should slip into your backpack nicely. The overall specs are impressive for the laptops size, you get 4GB of RAM, 320GB hard drive, media card reader, Bluetooth built-in, web camera built-in and all important HDMI output port. The U31Jg also has a sleek brushed aluminum design for an understated professional look.
Best $700 – $900 Laptops for 2011 Student Laptop
The Sony 14” screen VAIO CA is an interesting laptop in terms of design, it’s very plasticky looking and highly colorful with the option of bright orange, bright green, shiny white or bolt black. While I’m not a huge fan of plastic looking designs, it’s actually a refreshing change to see something different when all you seem to see these days are laptops with a brush metal finish. Outside of the design aspect, the specs on the VAIO CA are quite nice. It offers the latest Intel Core i5 2nd generation processor, option of a hi-resolution 1600 x 900 display (for a $50 upgrade, well worth it in my opinion) and has built-in AMD Radeon graphics, somewhat unique for a 14” screen laptop at this price point of $769.
The base level ThinkPad T420, dubbed the T420i, starts at $749 on Lenovo.com which is an amazing price for an enterprise durable built laptop. While the on paper specs for the T420i are not amazing compared to similar priced laptops, the build quality of the T420 is superior. It’s a very rugged laptop with strong hinges, case and internal skeleton to protect internal components if a laptop is dropped. There are a lot of nice upgrade options on the T420, such as a higher resolution screen, fast Intel Core i7 processor and dedicated Nvidia graphics. However, the upgrades will cost you extra and quickly put you over the $900 price point if you go crazy. I recommend at least upgrading to 4GB of memory as the base level only comes with 2GB. Other than that the T420i is well equipped for student needs and is sure to last you 4-years of campus rigor. You can see my recent review of the ThinkPad T420 to find out more.
The HP Pavilion dm4x 14-inch laptop features the 2nd generation Intel Core i5 processors and has a starting price of $749 before any discounts. The dm4x weighs in at 4.5lbs and has 5 – 6 hours of battery life depending on usage so it’s a fairly portable laptop. The dm4x is constructed using a durable aluminum chassis and has an attractive brush metal finish. All of the necessary ports are included such as HDMI, 3 USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet and VGA port. The base level specs are very generous, for $749 you get an Intel Core i5 2.4GHz processor, 1GB HD 6470m graphics card, 6GB of memory and a huge 640GB hard drive. The HP Pavilion dm4x is highly customizable on HP.com and HP frequently releases coupons that allows you to get this laptop for an even better deal.
The Toshiba Portege R835 is a 13.3” screen notebook that comes packed with just about every technology you’ll need for an amazing $749 starting price tag. You can get an Intel Core i3 configuration for $749 at Best Buy or higher end Intel Core i5 upgrade at Amazon.com for $850. The Portege R835 weighs only 3.3lbs and is only 1.1” thin, so it’s highly portable. The battery life comes in at up to 9 hours if you’re conservative with usage, but 6 – 7 hours under more normal usage. Some outstanding features to mention are it has both USB 3.0 and eSata ports for your choice of fast transfer technology ports. Also included is a DVD burner, quite rare for a 13” laptop these days, and especially at this low weight. The $749 version has the latest Intel Core i3 processor while the $850 version has an Intel Core i5. You get 4GB of RAM and a 640GB hard drive, plenty for most people. Add to that an outstanding design, built-in web camera, embedded 4G WiMax capability, durable magnesium alloy casing, media card reader and spill resistant keyboard and the $749 price tag seems all the more incredible.
Best $900 – $1,200 Student Laptops for 2011
Apple has been a big name in education since the company started back in the 1980’s and to this day you still see a huge number of Mac computers being used on campus. The MacBook Pro 13-inch laptop is well suited for campus due to its portable form factor, stable and user friendly Mac OS and of course its simply beautiful looks and quality design. The latest MacBook Pro has the new Sandy Bridge family Intel Core i5 processors and a Thunderbolt port for fast data transfer with peripherals. The built-in camera is HD quality for amazing video chat capabilities. The base level 13.3” MacBook Pro starts at $1,199 but if you go through the Apple Education store, open to any higher level learning student, you can get 10% off the pricing. An extra feature that I just love on the MacBook Pro is the backlit keyboard, it’s just so nice in rooms with poor lighting to have illuminated keys – plus it looks very cool.
Though not suited to lugging around campus, if you just need a powerful laptop for your desk at home the XPS 15 is a strong option thanks to its highly capable Nvidia 540m graphics option, Intel Core i7 processor, and high quality hi-resolution screen option. You can also get high end options such as a 256GB SSD, Blu-Ray Writer and Full High-def 15.6” B+RGLED 1920×1080 display – one of the best notebook displays on the consumer laptop market. When you add all the bells and whistles the XPS 15 can become a very expensive and very impressive machine. Configuring something in the $1,000 range will get you a very capable multimedia and gaming machine that’ll also of course have no problems blazing through any school related work you can throw at it.
If you’re going to be taking a laptop all around campus and need something that’s ultraportable and well built then look no further than the 12” screen ThinkPad X220. The ThinkPad X220 is an enterprise class laptop from Lenovo targeted at business buyers, but if you want one laptop that can work for you both at home and on campus and take school seriously then you need something reliable as much as a business person does. The ThinkPad X220 comes with the latest Intel Core i3 or i5 processor so it’s a fully powered laptop, no sacrifices with performance despite its ultraportable status. Best of all the weight is only 3lbs and battery life is over 7-hours with a standard battery and up to 13 hours with the 9-cell extended life battery. If you want a high-end IPS display, same as the Apple iPad 2 has, you can also make that upgrade on the X220. Pricing for the X220 starts at $919.
Best Unlimited Budget Student Laptops for 2011
The 13.3” screen Sony VAIO SA starts at $1,649, so it’s far from cheap, but when you want a laptop that’s got the latest fully fledged Intel Core i5 processor, dedicated graphics, a blu-ray player, incredible design, up to 1TB SSD storage and still less than 1-inch thin, durable and under 4lbs then you have to pay up. The battery offers up to 6.5 hours of battery life, it is sealed inside like the MacBook Pro laptops, so that is one caveat to be aware of. Other than that, if you have money to burn and love premium laptops, the VAIO SA will make you stand out on campus.
When you need something extremely thin and light and money is no concern the MacBook Air should be a strong contender for your dollars. The MacBook Air isn’t as powerful as the MacBook Pro, but what it lacks in power it makes up for with portability. The MacBook Air 13” laptop is a mere 0.68” thick at its thickest point. It weighs only 2.9lbs and yet still offers a 7-hour battery life. The trade off for a laptop so thin is you won’t get as many ports and there is no optical drive. It has 2 USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader, mini DisplayPort and headphone jack so the essentials are all covered at least. Pricing starts at $1,299 before the Apple Student discount is applied, so it’s still cheaper than the aforementioned Sony VAIO SA.
Here’s a laptop entry for all the engineering majors out there. If you know you’ll be doing some hard core 3D graphics rendering and CAD design then the HP EliteBook Mobile Workstation 8560w is your huckleberry. When fully equipped it’s pricey at $2,199, but it’ll be a dream machine. Included for that $2K+ price is an Intel Core i7-2630 quad core processor, 500GB 7200RPM hard drive, 8GB of RAM, and an AMD FirePro M5950 1GB dedicated GDDR5 graphics card. Port selection is incredible with 2 USB 3.0 ports, 3 USB 2.0 ports (total of 5 USB ports), eSata port, DisplayPort, FireWire Port, Modem, Ethernet, docking connector and secondary battery connector. The cherry on top is the incredible 15.6” Full HD DreamColor (IPS) 1920 x 1080 display, it’s one of the best screens on the market for a laptop and if you’re in the field of graphics and animation where color is very important then you will appreciate the screen. The EliteBook 8560w is heavy at close to 7lbs, but this is not meant to be a laptop you put in your backpack and take to each and every class. It’s a niche high-end laptop for those in school that know they’ll have some serious engineering courses to tackle.
No matter what your budget is, there are a lot of competing options out there, so hopefully this information helps to narrow things down to some of the most popular laptops on the market that will fit a students needs. Every student has different requirements, an Engineering major, MBA student and English major will all have different needs that will be met by a different style of laptop. Also consider your lifestyle and habits as an important factor, if you walk to campus and use a laptop to take notes in class then a smaller laptop with good battery life is important. If you drive to school and just use a notepad to take written notes and never use a laptop in class, then a 15” laptop on a desk at home is probably a good option. For most students budget will be the most important factor, but don’t forget that buying cheap doesn’t always work out if the laptop is poorly built and breaks after a year forcing you to spend money on a replacement. A laptop is going to be your most important work tool to succeed with your education so choose carefully and take the time to research your purchase rather than just going out and buying whatever seems reasonable and cheap. Good luck!