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HotHardware's 2010 Back To School Shopping Guide
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Date: Sep 07, 2010
Section:Systems
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction
It's that time again. The time of year where students and parents frantically hit e-tailers with overnight shipping deals in order to get that all-important back-to-school technology into a dorm room or backpack before classes begins. It's back-to-school season, and whether you've started classes recently or are awaiting (dreading?) that first 8AM lecture, there may be a few bits of techno-shopping that need to be taken care of before you can be on you're on your way to that straight-A report card.



Whether you're about to begin the Fall semester of college or your senior year in high school (or something else entirely), you'll probably need the right hardware to get you through. In the pages to come, we're taking a look at today's latest and greatest when it comes to systems, hardware and peripherals that could prove useful for any dutiful student. Handling 21 hours of classes while still maintaining some sort of social life (which can mean posting daily on Twitter of Facebook) is hard work, and it's even harder if you're still relying on a Pentium III and a RAZR.

Here we will look at small form factor or all-in-one desktops (meant to fit nicely in dorm rooms and transport easily for those heading off to out-of-state schools), notebooks, netbooks, smartphones and a couple of novel accessories that may have less to do with studying and more to do with keeping you entertained once it's time to blow off steam after exams. We'll also toss out a few reputable e-tailers that we'd trust to deliver the goods. Ready to get your school year started off right? Let's go...

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Notebook Shopping Guide
Anyone who has attempted to lug a full-size notebook around at a university can tell you that it's not easy. Particularly when you're also lugging around 40 pounds of textbooks. If you have no interest in beefing up your back muscles in order to haul around a huge notebook, it's possible that an ultraportable will best serve you. Toshiba's 13.3" Portage R700 is a new member of this category, and the specifications are right down the average student's alley. The company claims that this is the lightest 13.3" machine with an optical drive, which is mighty important given just how many textbooks come with supplemental material on CD or DVD.


The 3.2lb. system has a Core i3 CPU, 500GB hard drive, 8.5 hours of battery life (under ideal circumstances), VGA/HDMI outputs, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, two USB ports, an SD card reader, Windows 7 and one of the most spacious keyboards in the product category. It also comes with Intel Wireless Display, which means that you can easily project your school PowerPoints onto displays, be it for a presentation or just group work. It's highly portable, well equipped and brimming with new technology. It starts at around $999. Here are a few recommended e-tailers where the Portage R705 can be found.


Just because you're going to school, doesn't mean that you're giving up fun. For the gamer/student hybrid, there's the HP Envy 14. It's portable enough to be hauled around in a backpack day-in and day-out, but the internal specifications will allow you to game with the best of 'em. It's a homework crusher by day, and a LAN party attendee by night. It's just about the best mix of brains and brawn available in the 14" form factor that's available today.


HP allows you to customize the Envy 14 to fit your budget and needs. Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs are available, and it can be equipped with ATI's Mobility Radeon 5650 (1GB), 4GB of DDR3 memory, a slot-loading DVD burner, backlit keyboard, 8-cell Li-ion battery, 802.11n Wi-Fi, HDMI 1.3 port and a Mini-DisplayPort. The Envy 14 starts at $999, but can be beefed up easily if you've got the student loans to cover it.



Haven't you heard? 14" is the new black! If HP's Envy 14 was just too powerful (or too expensive) for you, Asus' 14" U43F is a great alternative. The Best Buy-only model that we tested here is priced at $899, and you definitely get a lot of bang for that buck. It's one of the few machines shipping with Intel Wireless Display support baked right in, not to mention a USB 3.0 port, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, an internal optical drive and a 2.40GHz Core i5-450M CPU. The integrated graphics may give you pause, but if you're not a hardcore gamer, why spend the extra money on a discrete GPU? Oh, and the bamboo finish is just icing on the cake.




We know that most students don't really need a huge notebook for carrying to classes and taking notes, but for those who are relying solely on a notebook for use in their dorm and on the go, a bigger machine may make sense. MSI has a great many options in the notebook sector, with their new 16" GT660R being one of the nicer options when looking for a desktop replacement.


The 16" machine is equipped with a Core i7 processor, NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 285M, 6GB of RAM, a 1TB 7200RPM hard drive, Windows 7 Home Premium and a 7.7lb. chassis. Like we said, we wouldn't recommend carrying this around often, but it's possible in a pinch.

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Netbook Shopping Guide
Who says Intel should get all of the love in the netbook space? AMD has been producing some rather attractive chips of late, particularly for netbooks. AMD's Athlon Neo chips have found their way into Dell's Inspiron M101z, which is a newer 11.6" netbook that's larger than the traditional 10" netbook, and thus, offers a more spacious keyboard that's more suitable for taking notes day after day. Dell also claims that this machine can get around 6.5 hours of battery life, and while it's a bit more expensive than some netbooks, it's capable of HD playback. And what student wants a notebook without HD playback support?


Dell makes this one available with AMD Athlon Neo K125 (single core) or K325 chips (dual core), ATI RS880M graphics (integrated), 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, a 1366x768 resolution display, three USB 2.0 ports and a VGA output. The starting price is $449, but more expensive options are available if you need more power.


Intel's Atom lineup is getting a bit long in the tooth, but the latest and greatest Atom is alive and well in Acer's newest Aspire One. The D255 ships with the dual-core Atom N550, and it's available in a variety of colors -- perfect for the student looking to match everything with the school colors.


It has a 10.1" display, 1GB of RAM, GMA 3150 integrated graphics, a 250GB hard drive, SD/MMC card readers, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, a multi-gesture touchpad, and a 6-cell battery for up to 8 hours of use. At $399, it's also one of the cheaper netbook options, and when you consider that Intel's latest Atom is included, the price seems pretty reasonable.



Lenovo's ThinkPad X100e is a great netbook with a few pro features that aren't found on many others in the sub-$500 category. This just might be the toughest, most solid ultraportable at 11.6" currently on the market, and it's definitely the oneto get if you're partial to trackpoints and ThinkPad keyboards. We also dig the AMD Athlon Neo CPU under the hood, and this is one of only a few machines with a matte (anti-gloss) display at this size. Just remember to budget for an external optical drive if you think you'll be needing one.




Sometimes the average netbook just isn't enough. That's where HP comes in. The TouchSmart tm2t is half netbook, half tablet, and it's pure workhorse for students. It's ideal for flipping over and doodling notes during lectures, but the standard laptop design makes it ideal for...well, for being a standard laptop. It's almost like getting two machines in one, and despite the high price tag, it's one of the more flexible machines available today for students.

The 12" machine relies on Intel's CULV processor line, Windows 7 Home Premium, a full-size keyboard, touch panel, up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, up to 640GB of hard drive space, HDMI 1.3 port, optional ATI Mobility Radeon graphics, optional Bluetooth, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a 6-cell battery. The $829.99 starting price may sound like a lot, but it's cheaper than buying a high-end netbook and a tablet, and it's easier to carry around than one of each.

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Desktop / Nettop Shopping Guide
If you're in a dorm room or a studio apartment, space is tight. The last thing you need is a monster gaming rig taking up half of your sleeping area and blowing out more hot air than you can stand. So it's likely that a SFF PC or an all-in-one PC will suit you well. Sony's VAIO J is one of the most stylish AIO PC units on the market today, and the 21.5" screen is just about perfect for space constrained students.


Other specifications include a Full HD (1920x1080) panel, optional Blu-ray drive, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, integrated webcam, integrated touch support, Windows 7 Home Premium, NVIDIA GeForce graphics, 2GB (or more) of RAM, Intel Core 2010 CPU options, and a reasonable starting price of around $900.


If you the funds, Apple's iMac is about as good as it gets for an all-in-one PC. It's the only all-in-one on the market that can dual-boot OS X and Windows 7 (or any Windows beyond XP, actually), and the new 21.5" model has Intel's newest Core i3 CPUs as well as many other next-gen features (including an SDXC card slot). And of course, you'll get Apple's heralded design.

Other specifications include a glossy IPS panel with a 1080p resolution, an ATI Radeon HD GPU, 4GB of 1333MHz memory, 178-degree viewing angles, a 3.06GHz Intel Core i3 processor, slot-loading 8x SuperDrive, 500GB hard drive, 802.11n Wi-Fi, iSight webcam, four USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port and Gigabit Ethernet. It's available for $1199, but your newfound student discount can knock 5%-10% off of that MSRP.



If you're the multi-media type, having either of the above mentioned all-in-one PCs just won't cut it. For you, there's the HP TouchSmart 600 series. These can be ordered with an optional TV tuner, which will enable you to record the next episode of CSI while you attend that late-night BIO 101 lab. It's a win-win situation; you keep your attendance up, and you get pace with your favorite drama.



This 23" all-in-one PC boasts a full touch-screen, plenty of custom touch software, a variety of Core 2010 CPU options, Windows 7, up to 8GB of DDR3 RAM, up to 2TB of internal drive space, a slot-load DVD burner, 6-in-1 card reader, optional TV tuner, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The starting price is just $999, but you'll need more than that to get your DVR on.



Remember that Athlon Neo CPU we mentioned back in the netbook section? It's back! An unusual candidate has managed to catch our eye this year, with eMachines making the cut. The company's new Mini-e ER1402 is definitely one of the more stylish nettop machines on the market, and if size is a concern, you'll be hard-pressed to find something more compact than this. It can be sat flat or stood upright, and it offers HD playback and ships with a keyboard and mouse; you just provide the monitor, and you're good to go.
Internally, the machine has an AMD Athlon NEO II processor, 2GB of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9200 graphics, four USB 2.0 ports, a muti-card reader, 160GB hard drive and an optional mounting kit. It's perfect for basic homework and the occasional Hulu night, and the $299 starting price is certainly likely to be under budget.


If you're like the multi-media freak mentioned above, but you already have your own perfect LCD, Dell's Inspiron Zino HD is a good option. It's a compact SFF PC, but it features an HDMI output as well as an optional Blu-ray player, both of which are features perfect for your compact, dorm room-sized HTPC setup. It's also AMD powered, which usually means that costs are kept down.

Within the 8"x8" around box, there's a variety of AMD CPU options, Windows 7, up to 8GB of DDR2 RAM, up to 1TB of hard drive space, ATI's Mobility Radeon HD 3200 GPU, integrated 5.1 audio, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, four USB 2.0 ports, and eSATA connectors as well. The starting price is just $249, but adding those multi-media extras will easily bring it closer to $800.

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Smartphone Shopping Guide
If you're attending a school that's within a 4G region, it'll be hard to pass up America's first 4G smartphone. HTC's EVO 4G isn't just one of the biggest phones out there, but also one of the smartest and most powerful. Android 2.2 has been passed down to the phone, and Sprint's ramping up WiMAX coverage at a nice pace. It's also fully capable of handling multi-media, so once you're done texting your teacher for help on that Spanish assignment, you can fire up a 720p video and blow off some steam.


A 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4.3" display, 3G/4G support, 8MP rear camera, integrated kick stand, front-facing 1.3MP camera and plenty of horsepower to handle video calling are included. It's $199.99 on a 2-year Sprint contract, but you'll be paying $40/month for the 4G data plan regardless of whether you live in a 4G region or not.



        

If you're looking for an Android smartphone with a screen that's larger than life, Samsung's Galaxy S is a safe bet. It's available on all four of the major U.S. carriers under various names, so feel free to select whichever variant responds to the carrier that gives you the best reception. The massive 4" Super AMOLED display provides a clarity and crispness that's tough to find on a standard LCD phone, and the 1GHz processor keeps thing snappy even while multi-tasking. If you aren't sure if you'll use it enough to justify a $30/month data plan, AT&T's version (the Captivate) is available with a $15/month data plan that provides 200MB per month. Also, Sprint's version (the Epic 4G) is the only one of the four that supports WiMAX, but you'll be forced to pay $10/month extra and you'll need to be in a 4G area to take advantage of the extra speed.



Despite the reception issues, Apple's iPhone 4 is a solid smartphone if you're willing to use a case. We'd recommend using a case anyway for protection, but that's another story for another day. The new iPhone is still the world's only iOS 4 native smartphone, and it's packed with new features that are hard for loyal Apple users to ignore.


The Retina Display is second-to-none in terms of quality, and the A4 CPU is lightning quick. The addition of multi-tasking and FaceTime make this an easy sell, but the fact that it's only available on AT&T may make you pause. Most universities are within range of AT&T 3G (in our experience, anyway), so some of you may be in the clear. It's definitely AT&T's best smartphone, but it may not remain that way for long once a flood of Windows Phone 7 and Android phones come over. But regardless, the iPhone 4 still has the most abundant App Store and the most games available...for now.


While touch screen-based smartphones are all the rage right now, some users still prefer physical QWERTY keyboards. If that's you, the DROID 2 is likely your best option (or the DROID Incredible if you don't want a QWERTY keyboard, or the DROID X if you don't mind carrying a larger phone in exchange for a huge screen). The second generation of Motorola's DROID just recently shipped, and it'll be equipped with Android 2.2, support for Mobile HotSpot and a new design that's sleeker and more pocket-friendly.


It also feature a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, support for Flash videos and websites, increased processing power and Verizon Wireless' heralded 3G coverage. At $199.99 on a 2-year contract, it's the same price as the other recommendations here. The network just might win you over, though.

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Peripheral / Accessory Shopping Guide
Now that you've stocked up on the essentials, there are a few things to consider just for fun. You know, something to spend all of that high school graduation gift money on. Any freshman will tell you that a set of earbuds is essential on campus; whether you're zoning out in a boring lecture or just trying to listen to a lecture podcast without disturbing others in the library, it's a product that'll definitely come in handy.



Sleek Audio's SA1 earbuds are decidedly mid-range, but for $80, they offer quite a nice feature set. They ship with custom tuning heads for tweaking the sound, and they provide outstanding audio quality for the money. In order to find any better, you'll need to pay over three times as much. $80 isn't cheap, but considering the features and sound quality, we think they're a solid value.


If you're buying a desktop replacement notebook, you may get frustrated by having to re-attach your mouse, keyboard, LCD monitor, etc. to your laptop each time you return from class. To solve that, you'll need a docking station. Few machines actually ship these days with proprietary docking stations, but Toshiba has just released a new universal one that's full of useful features for students.


The Dynadock V is a compact USB docking station that works with any laptop that has a USB port, and it allows for up to 4 USB 2.0 devices to be connected, Ethernet, a 3.5mm audio jack and even a VGA display with up to 1920x1080 resolution. The $119.99 price isn't cheap, but the convenience of never having to re-plug everything in is invaluable.


Recommending a mouse to an incoming college kid is too easy. But how about a mouse that's different than any other mouse out there? The Swiftpoint mouse isn't exactly made to be used like the rest; it's designed to be used on your notebook's trackpad surface, so you can have the functionality of a mouse without requiring the extra space that a mouse generally requires.


This finger-led device just started shipping, and if you get a larger notebook with a larger palm rest, this may solve your issues with having to rely on a trackpad for everything. It's easy to recharge, easy to travel with and has the potential to really improve your productivity. At $69.95, it's not cheap, but it's not bad for something so revolutionary.


We know, it's all probably a bit overwhelming. School, classes, a social life... not to mention social networking. But hopefully our recommendations here have given you a solid foundation to work from, and with a few clicks and a some dings to the credit card, you should be well on your way to passing each and every course that comes your way. Of course, tech can't do all of the work for you, but at least you'll have taken some steps in the right direction. Isn't that right, Mr. PhD?


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