Best of back-to-school laptops

We looked at 27 back-to-school laptops and picked the best of the bunch.

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
2 min read
Watch this: Best of back-to-school laptops

Just in time for the fall semester, we've gone and reviewed more than two dozen new back-to-school laptops. For this particular roundup, we stuck to relatively recent configurations that were available on the shelves of big consumer electronics stores (so, for example, you'll find the in-store version of Dell's 1525, rather than the configurable version available on Dell's Web site).

You can peruse the entire collection of 27 back-to-school reviews, but we've gone ahead and picked our favorites in four different price ranges.

For the Entry Levelcategory, which is laptops from $600 to $700, most of these systems had older Intel Dual Core processors, and were pretty fairly matched in terms of performance. They are usable for Web surfing, writing papers, and e-mailing, as long as you keep your expectations modest. We liked the Sony VAIO NR430 for being at the top or close to it in our performance tests and in battery life--and it's got a pretty decent-looking design for such a cheap laptop, which put it over an essentially identically configured Dell 1525.

We call the $700-$800 range Budget--and in that category, we move up to standard Core 2 Duo processors, and maybe add some more RAM and hard-drive space. The Gateway T-6836 is our pick, because it had the 64-bit version of Vista and 4GB of RAM, which helped edge out the competition in performance--and it still had decent battery life.

Of the laptops in the $800-$999 price range, which we're calling Mainstream, the Dell Studio 1535 was our favorite. It features some of the design features of the high-end XPS laptops, but sells for prices that more closely resemble Dell's Inspiron models.

While every other Intel-based laptop in our mainstream group uses the Core 2 Duo T5750, the Dell Studio S1535 has a faster Core 2 Duo T8100 processor, which helped it come out on top in performance, along with a healthy three hours of battery life.

In the $1,000-to-$1,500 range, which is High-End(for students at least), you'll see bigger 17-inch models that are better for use as a dorm-room multimedia center than for lugging around from class to class. The Gateway P-7811FXis the best deal we've seen on a desktop replacement, even outside of our back-to-school roundup, thanks to a 19-inches wide by 12-inches tall display, decent Centrino 2 P8400 processor, and Nvidia's high-end GeForce 9800 graphics.

Naturally, you should only enjoy the extremely high gaming-frame rates after all your schoolwork is done.

Two final notes on our back-to-school roundup: First, we haven't forgotten Apple fans--the 13-inch MacBook is a popular choice on campus, and for good reason. But that system hasn't has an update in a while, so our previous review still stands. Second, even though I'm posting this wrap up, this project was a big team effort, with the 27 reviews written by myself, Michelle Thatcher, and Matt Elliott, and all systems bench-marked by Julie Rivera and Joseph Kaminski.