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Back-to-school laptops: we have a winner (two, actually)

CNET Reviews picks a winner among the Entry-level and Budget categories for back-to-school laptops.

Perhaps if you are doing nothing more than lounging poolside while working at a part-time job this summer, the season may seem to be progressing slowly. To a workaday stiff like myself with precious few summertime weekends and a boatload of back-to-school laptops to review, I see the calendar soon turning to August and Labor Day fast approaching. As I view it, there's little time left before a busy class schedule will replace your lazy days of summer.

To help you find the right laptop before that happens, we here at CNET Reviews have queued up 27 laptops that you'll likely find on big-box store shelves this month and next. We've broken the laptops into four groups, based on price, and have completed our reviews of the systems in the first two groups: Entry-level and Budget.

(Look for the Mainstream $800-$1000 group to be completed by the end of next week, with the High-end group to follow in August; we're still waiting on some Centrino 2 laptops to arrive at CNET Labs.)

After the break, see our recommendations for the Entry-Level and Budget categories.

Sony VAIO NR430

You can spend less than $700 and find a very respectable laptop. Our favorite among the Entry-level group is the Sony VAIO NR430E/L. We were surprised to see a Sony lead the pack here, since its VAIO brand is more commonly associated with high design and high prices. But Sony cooked up a winner with the VAIO NR430, which we like at $699 and love at its current discount of $599 at Best Buy. This 15-inch laptop features a sturdy and attractive design, awesome keyboard, and leading performance and battery life among its class.

Runner-up: Dell Inspiron 1525-121B.

Gateway T-6836

If your budget allows you to spend up to $800, we'd point you toward the Gateway T-6836, our pick among what we're calling the Budget category. While most laptops here weigh in around 6 pounds and feature a 15-inch screen, the Gateway saves your shoulder about a half pound or more of weight while still serving up a 1,280x800 resolution found on most 15-inch displays and packing it in its 14-inch display. It's also the only system in this group to serve up 64-bit Vista and 4GB of RAM, which helped it lead the way in labs testing. It also fared well on our battery drain test. Again, we like it at its $799 list price, but Best Buy's site currently has it for sale with a sizable $150 discount.

Runner-up: HP Pavilion dv2915nr.

A trend we soon discovered after getting these systems up and running in the labs (and you can see clearly illustrated by any of the performance charts in the reviews) confirmed what we've known for a while: Intel's mobile platform is superior to that of its rival AMD. On our multitasking, Photoshop, and iTunes benchmarks, the Intel-based systems clearly outpaced the AMD-based systems. While we'd be willing to give up a bit of performance for increased processing efficiency and better battery life, the AMD systems delivered merely average battery life at best, making it hard to recommend an AMD-based system unless you stumble across one at a deep discount. As it stands now, our current winners and runners-up of the Entry-level and Budget categories feature an Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

Perhaps this trend will change as we move up in price. We'll be posting reviews of the large mainstream category over the next week or so. Check back on this earlier Crave post, which lists all the back-to-school laptops we have reviewed and will be reviewing. We'll update it with links to the new reviews as we move along.

See more laptops in CNET's back-to-school gift guide.