Back to School 2011 laptop roundup: Top picks for every budget

From under $500 to more than $1,500, we've picked our favorite back-to-school laptops for 2011.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

A laptop is practically required equipment for today's college or high school students (and even grade school kids are getting in on the act). And with the back-to-school season currently in full swing, many laptop shoppers are hunting for a new computer, which may need to fill diverse roles, from research tool to dorm room entertainment system.

To help find the perfect system for your academic needs, we've picked our recent favorites from brick-and-mortar stores, online retailers, and build-to-order PC makers, and listed them below, grouped by price.

For this particular list, we've stuck to only laptops we consider good-to-great (no clunkers allowed), and those with some specific appeal to students. A few of these models are available with a wide range of customization options, which can sometimes double (or halve) the price--we've listed those under the current price of the specific configuration we reviewed, but you may be able to put a version together that's more in line with your budget.

For more academic ideas, check out CNET's full back-to-school guide, and all our laptop news and reviews.

Entry level (under $599)

Acer Aspire One 722-BZ608, $397, 3.5 stars
A budget-priced 11-inch laptop that's more powerful than a Netbook, but not as fast as some higher-priced 11-inch alternatives.

Asus Eee PC 1215B, $449, 3.5 stars
Asus updates the Eee PC line with AMD's excellent ultraportable CPU, making for a powerful, portable package.

HP Pavilion dm1z, $450, 4.0 stars
Delivers on much of its promise, combining great battery life, decent performance, and basic graphics for less than $500.

Gateway NV51B05u, $469, 3.0 stars
Gateway's 15-inch AMD Fusion-based NV51B05u avoids any major problems, but it could be better.

Budget ($600-799)

Dell Inspiron 15R, $679, 3.5 stars
Dell's Inspiron 15R is an attractively priced budget consumer laptop with a welcome set of up-to-date features and design options.

Toshiba Satellite L655-S5161, $619, 3.5 stars
The basic 15-inch Toshiba Satellite L655 has a current-gen CPU and can be found for around $600, making it a worthwhile budget choice.

Acer Aspire TimelineX AS3830TG-6431, $779, 4.0 stars
The aggressively priced Acer Aspire TimelineX 3830TG-6431's combination of gaming-ready graphics and a fast processor in a 13-inch body offers a great punch for a good price.

Sony Vaio EB Series VPC-EB44FX/WI, $799, 3.5 stars
The midprice EB series looks great and includes some high-end features, but we wish the CPU had been updated.

Toshiba Portege R835-P56X , $799, 4.0 stars
Toshiba's R800 series of Portege laptops are hard to beat, even in the highly competitive 13-inch laptop category.

Mainstream ($800-$999)

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E220s, $819, 4.0 stars
The 12-inch ThinkPad Edge E220s offers a compact computing experience matched by an upscale design, but marred by subpar battery life.

HP Pavilion dv6t-6000, $849, 3.5 stars
The HP Pavilion dv6t is a solid improvement on HP's previous 15-inch mainstream consumer laptop, with numerous tweaks, bells, and whistles.

Toshiba Satellite E305-S1990, $899, 4.0 stars
The Best Buy-exclusive Toshiba Satellite E305-S1990X is a heck of a 14-inch laptop, offering a rock-solid combination of specs and design for a reasonable price.

HP Envy 14 (Summer 2011), $999, 4.0 stars
A much-needed update to its internal components makes HP's Envy 14 one of the best high-end laptops for those looking for a PC with the flair of a MacBook.

Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, Summer 2011), $999, 4 stars
This year's 11-inch MacBook Air improves on last year's model in several significant ways and is by far the fastest ultraportable you're going to find.

High-end ($1,000-up)

Alienware M11x (spring 2011), $1,099, 4.0 stars
The 2011 Alienware M11x makes big leaps forward in performance, graphics, and battery life, while keeping a reasonable price.

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011, $1,199, 4.0 stars
The entry-level $1,199 13-inch MacBook Pro's significant CPU updates and fantastic battery life are nearly as good as what you get in the more expensive $1,499 version.

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, Summer 2011), $1,299, 4.0 stars
The latest version of the 13-inch MacBook Air vastly outperforms its predecessor, and can finally be called suitable for mainstream use.

Acer Aspire Ethos AS8951G, $1,599, 3.5 stars
The 18-inch Acer Aspire Ethos AS8951G is a huge multimedia powerhouse laptop with a unique removable touch-pad remote control.

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A (13-inch), $1,699, 4.0 stars
This light, well-featured, and striking 13-incher is the closest the Windows world will ever come to a MacBook Air. However, its higher-than-the-Air price is hard to stomach.

Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV78 3D Laptop, $1,899, 4.0 stars
Toshiba's latest 3D-enabled, Blu-ray-equipped Qosmio isn't cheap or easily portable by any means, but it's certainly powerful.

Related links
All of CNET's laptop reviews and coverage
Check out the full CNET Back to School 2011 Guide