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Best of back-to-school laptops

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

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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-7811FX is 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.