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HotHardware's 2011 Back To School Shopping Guide
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Date: Aug 29, 2011
Section:Misc
Author: Ray Willington and Jennifer Johnson
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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 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 or Facebook) is hard work, and it's even harder if you're still relying on that old Pentium-based notebook and a Moto RAZR.

Here we will look at some full-sized and full-powered desktops, 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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Desktops

Dell Studio XPS 7100

With its Studio XPS 7100, Dell is out to prove that you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to have a capable gaming system that is good for more than just gaming. Dell's Studio XPS 7100 is built around AMD's Phenom II processors. There are plenty of configuration options to choose from, with the least expensive option starting as low as $549.99.

We recently took a look at the Studio XPS 7100 with an AMD Phenom II X6 1055T and ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics and felt the system provided respectable performance for the price. Although our test system was priced considerably higher than the starting price (ours came in at $1,428.99 due to various upgrades), you'll get a very capable processor, high-end graphics, plenty of storage (1.5TB) , and even a Blu-ray drive for the extra cash in comparison to the base model. Newer Studio XPS 8300 models built around Intel's Sandy Bridge processors are also available and worthy of consideration--a full review of an XPS 8300 will be available on HotHardware shortly.


 

CyberPower Black Pearl

CyberPower has made a name for itself in the gaming community by building custom machines with plenty of options. Whether you're looking for a powerful machine to do some serious homework or if you want to enjoy some downtime by playing some of today's hottest games, CyberPower's Black Pearl is one to consider.

Like other CyberPower systems, the Black Pearl is customizable to your liking. Right now, CyberPower is offering a free upgrade to the Intel Core i7-960 CPU with this system. Other key features include 12GB of DDR3-PC1600 RAM, an AMD HD6870 video card with 1GB of RAM, and the MSI X58-GD45 motherboard with USB 3.0 and SATA-III support. For storage, you'll get a 1TB SATA-III 7,200rpm hard drive. All of this is housed in the Azza Hurrican 2000 full tower gaming case.

Pricing for the Black Pearl starts at $1,255 before any applicable discounts or rebates. At the time of this writing, CyberPower was offering a handful of discounts and sales just in time for back to school.

 



Maingear Shift

Make no mistake about it: You won't find the Maingear Shift in any bargain bins, but that's because this high-end system has a lot of power and function that will be worth the extra cash to users who are looking for a system that offers serious performance. Starting at $2,025, the Shift targets serious gamers and users who are looking for a high-performance system. Of course, the system is customizable and offers many options that are sure to increase the price.

 

The Shift offers Intel's Core i7 and Xeon processors, various high-end NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards with SLI or CrossFire options, support for integrated dual- and triple-channel memory controllers, Patriot memory, solid state drives, and more. Users will also appreciate that Maingear has a Zero Bloat Ware policy, so you won't have to worry about scrubbing unwanted programs from the system right after you open the box.

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All-In-One Systems

Asus ET2011ET

All-in-ones are designed to save space while still giving you plenty of functionality. At less than 1-inch thick, the Asus Eee Top PC 2011ET uses a space-saving design that can also be wall-mounted. This AIO features a 20-inch optical multi-touch screen. Asus claims that by using optical touch capabilities, the screen is able to offer better image clarity and reliability than resistive and capacitive multi-touch screens.

The Eee Top PC 2011ET offers a few processor options, including the Intel Pentium Dual Core E5700. Other key specs include up to 4G of DDR3 memory, up to a 1TB SATA II 7,200rpm hard drive, and an optional Super Multi drive. For connectivity, the Eee Top PC 2011ET offers two USB 2.0 ports, VGA, and a COM port. The Eee Top PC 2011ET also features a built-in 1.3MP webcam for keeping in touch with friends and family.


 

Apple 27-inch: 2.7GHz iMac

With a price tag that's just shy of $1,700, the Apple 27-inch iMac with a 2.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 processor offers plenty of screen real estate for watching movies and writing term papers. This AIO also features 4GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive. For graphics, the 27-inch 2.7GHz Apple iMac uses an AMD Radeon HD 6770M with 512MB of RAM.

The 27-inch 2.7GHz Apple iMac also includes a FaceTime HD camera for keeping in touch with friends and family. In terms of ports, the 27-inch 2.7GHz Apple iMac has two Thunderbolt ports, a mini DisplayPort output, a FireWire 800 port, four USB 2.0 ports, and an SDXC card slot. The AIO also features a slot-loading 8x SuperDrive with 4x double-layer burning. To help you keep the cords at bay, input options include a full-size wireless keyboard and Apple's Magic Mouse in the box.


 

MSI Wind Top AE2420 3D-204US

Just because you're looking at an all-in-one machine to save some space on your desk, you don't have to sacrifice a lot of functionality. The MSI Wind Top E2420 3D-204US features an Intel Core i7-870S processor, discrete ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5730 graphics with DDR3 1GB VRAM, 4G of DDR3 memory, a 1TB SATA2 hard drive, and a Blu-Ray DVD drive.

The 23.6-inch 120Hz LED back-lit panel found on the AE2420 3D also has multi-touch and 3D capabilities. With MSI's 3D Station technology, you'll enjoy a precise and smooth 3D video experience. MSI didn't forget about the audio component on this system either; You'll find MSI Premium Sound Technology, full range 5W left and right channel hi-fi speakers, a 10W subwoofer, and THX TruStudio Pro surround sound technology in this system. The Wind Top AE2420 3D also boasts of being the first all-in-one to feature USB 3.0 technology.

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SFF / HTPC

ZOTAC ZBOXHD-ID34BR-U

Zotac promises "stunning high-definition Blu-ray video playback in glorious 1080p" with its ZBOXHD-ID34BR-U. This small machine packs plenty of power, including next-generation NVIDIA ION technology with 512MB of DDR3 video memory. The system also features a slot-load Blu-ray drive and native 1080p video output. An Intel Atom D525 processor powers the system. For storage, the ZBOXHD-ID34BR-U offers a 250GB hard drive.

Connectivity options for the ZBOXHD-ID34BR-U include a mini-PCI Express slot, two USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port, a combination eSATA 3.0 Gb/s and USB 2.0 port, DVI, HDMI, S/PDIF optical outputs, 6-in-1 memory card reader, and 802.11n Wi-Fi. The system measures 7.36 x 11.02 x 1.5 inches. At the time of this writing it is available for $369.99.


 

Asus EeeBox PC EB1007

Asus describes the EeeBox PC as a mini desktop PC with huge possibilities. Not only does the EeeBox PC EB1007 boast of an energy efficient design that requires about 40 watts of power, but it also boasts of being "barely audible" at only 26 decibels. This all-in-one PC is capable of mounting to the back of an LCD monitor to save desk space. If space isn't an issue, you can also display the EeeBox PC EB1007 on your desk using a stand.

Asus also had connectivity in mind when it designed the EeeBox PC EB1007. This little box offers two USB 2.0 ports, a LAN port, D-sub, and S/PDIF ports on the back. On the front of the EeeBox PC EB1007, you'll find a card reader, three USB 2.0 ports, a headphone-out jack, and mic port. The side panel houses an eSATA port as well as another USB 2.0 port. Adding that all up, you'll see that there is six USB 2.0 ports in total.


 

ASRock Vision 3D

When we looked at the ASRock Vision 3D a few months ago, we said it excelled at offering a good home theater experience and felt the system offered a good balance between price and performance. We also felt the system was easy to set up, quiet, and unobtrusive—all of which are must-have features in a HTPC. In addition to providing a good home theater experience, the ASRock Vision 3D outpaced other HTPC and mobile platforms in our benchmark tests.

In order to deliver this experience, the ASRock Vision 3D utilizes an Intel Core i3-370M or Core i5 mobile processor along with NVIDIA GeForce GT425M graphics and NVIDIA 3D Vision. Additional key specs include 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500GB hard drive, and Blu-ray combo drive. Connectivity options include three USB 3.0 ports, five USB 2.0 ports, mic, headphone, HDMI, DVI-I (Dual-Link), S/PDIF, eSATA II, a 4-in-1 card reader, and Gigabit LAN. The ASRock HTPC also comes with a number of accessories including an IR MCE remote control, basic 3D glasses, a VGA to DVI adapter, a 19v power brick, user’s and quick installation guides, a driver and utilities CD, and a copy of CyberLink PowerDVD 10.

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Smartphones

HTC Thunderbolt

Verizon Wireless is continuing to expand its 4G LTE network across the country. If you live in an area with LTE coverage, you'll want a phone that will let you take full advantage of the high speed connection that's available. That's where the HTC Thunderbolt comes in. This phone not only features 4G LTE connectivity, but it also has plenty of power to match. Key specs include a fast 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4.3-inch WVGA (480x800) display, preinstalled 32 GB microSD card, and more. The phone can also act as a mobile hotspot for up to eight devices, so you'll be able to share this high speed connection with your laptop, tablet, and other devices as well.

With the Thunderbolt's 8 megapixel rear-facing camera and 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera as well as its kickstand and large display, you'll be enjoying multimedia, surfing the Web and sharing your favorite photos and videos with friends in no time. This Android-powered smartphone is currently available for $249.99 with a contract.


Samsung Galaxy S II

Likely one of the most anticipated Android-powered smartphones of the year, the Samsung Galaxy S II is currently only available as an unlocked model from overseas. This is expected to change by the end of the month, however, when Samsung is expected to announce the US versions of this smartphone. Rumors suggest that all of the major carries in the US could get their own variant of the phone, so chances are good you'll have some options.

Part of what makes the Samsung Galaxy S II so appealing is its potent dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, and of course, the latest version of Android (2.3, or Gingerbread). The phone also boasts of an extra slim body (measuring just 8.5mm thick) and a lightweight design that weighs in at 4.0 ounces. The phone's 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus display adds to the phone's overall beauty and capabilities. Although this phone isn't currently available through US carriers, we're anxious for the launch date and expect the Samsung Galaxy S II to sell like hotcakes in the US just as it already has sold overseas.


Motorola Photon 4G

If you're looking for a high-end smartphone that's compatible with Sprint's network, the Motorola Photon 4G is definitely one to consider. This phone features a dual-core 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, a 4.3-inch qHD touchscreen display, 16GB of onboard memory, and 1GB of RAM. The Photon 4G runs on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and also features an 8 megapixel rear camera and VGA front-facing camera.

As you'd assume from its name, the Photon 4G connects to Sprint's WiMAX network, offering 4G speeds on the phone. You can share this high-speed data connection with up to eight devices using the phone's Mobile Hotspot capabilities. For worldwide travelers, you'll be interested to know that the Photon 4G supports worldwide GSM capabilities. The Photon 4G is available for $199.99 with a two-year contract.


Apple iPhone 4

For some time now, Apple has been enjoying much success in the smartphone market with handsets that consumers love with a dedication we've yet to see with any other smartphone. Although there are plenty of rumors to suggest that a new iPhone, the iPhone 5, is just around the corner, the Apple iPhone 4 is still in high demand today and remains Apple's top of the line smartphone.

This smartphone is available in 16GB and 32GB variants for $199.99 and $299.99, respectively. For carriers, you currently have the choice of either AT&T or Verizon Wireless. In addition, you'll get to choose whether you want a white or black body. Apple touts the iPhone 4's Retina display, which boasts of a resolution of 960-by-640-pixels and claims to be the sharpest, most vibrant phone screen available. The iPhone 4 also offers FaceTime, letting you stay connect with friends and family regardless of if they're five minutes away or across the globe. If you want an iOS device, the iPhone 4 is still it as of today. The iPhone 5 is coming soon though, so if you can wait, it's probably a good idea to see what Apple has in store. At the very least, the iPhone 4 should see a price drop when the new model arrives.

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Notebooks
MSI X-Slim X370

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. MSI's X-Slim X370 is one of the first ultraportables to ship with AMD's Fusion platform within, and we're big fans of the APU. It's significantly quicker in use than any of Intel's Atom chips, and the battery life / graphics are improved as well.



The 3.11lb. system has a 1.6GHz AMD E-350 Zacate APU, 500GB hard drive, 6 hours of battery life (under strain), 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's highly portable, well equipped and brimming with new technology, but you'll want to take note that it doesn't have an optical drive (in case that's a deal-breaker). It starts at just $600, which is about as low as it goes for this category of machine.


Dell XPS 15z

Just because you're going to school, doesn't mean that you're giving up fun. For the gamer/student hybrid, there's the Dell XPS 15z. 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 one of the best mixes of brains and brawn available in the 15" form factor that's available today.


Dell allows you to customize this rig to fit your budget and needs. Core i5 and i7 CPUs are available, and it can be equipped with NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M (2GB) + Optimus graphics, a beautiful 1080p display, Bluetooth 3.0, up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, a slot-loading DVD burner, backlit keyboard, 8-cell Li-ion battery, 802.11n Wi-Fi, HDMI 1.3 port and an eSATA socket. The XPS 15z starts at $999, but can be beefed up easily if you've got the student loans to cover it.



Asus G74

Asus' G73 series remains one of the company's best gaming laptop lines, but if you're going all-out, you might as well spring for the newly revealed G74. The G74SX-A1 and G74SX-3DE recently went on sale in the U.S., and we'll soon have a review up as well. You won't make it through too many classes with horsepower like this pushing the battery to its breaking point, but if you're hoping to game your way through freshman year, the specifications here will certainly help.



Both notebooks sport an Intel Sandy Bridge Core i7 2630QM (2GHz) processor, 17.3-inch Full HD (1920x1080) LED display, a heaping 12GB of DDR3-1333 memory, 1.5TB (2x750GB) storage, Blu-ray reader, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M discrete graphics with 3GB of GDDR5 memory, USB 3.0, illuminated keyboard, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. The G74SX-3DE ups the ante with a 3D-capable display and bundled Nvidia 3D Vision kit, otherwise they're the same notebook with the similar hardware inside.



Lenovo IdeaPad S205

Hauling around textbooks is trouble enough; do you really need a massive notebook weighing you down too? If you're looking to trim your packing list, Lenovo's IdeaPad S205 is a good bet. At just 11.6", it's one of the smaller, slimmer laptops on the market, and with the 1.60Ghz dual-core AMD Fusion E-350 APU powering it, it'll certainly perform better than a netbook from yesteryear.



Specs wise, you're looking at a 1366 x 768 resolution, 3GB of DDR3 SDRAM, ATI Mobility Radeon 6310 graphics, and a 350GB HDD. The $429 starting tag is definitely an eye-pleaser, but higher-end configurations are available as well if you've got the change.

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Tablets
Apple iPad 2

Wow, what a year it's been for tablets. To think, tablets weren't even a category in last year's Back To School guide, mostly because the majority of tech companies not-named-Apple were still piecing together plans to combat the iPad. In short, there simply weren't a lot of options outside of the product that most people first associate with the word "tablet." But things have changed. Now that it's 2011, we've got a new iPad, loads of Android tablets and even a handful of Windows tablets. The first recommendation is an obvious one: the iPad 2. We said early on that the iPad was a product just waiting for software in order to truly bloom, and bloom it has. With over 100,000 iPad apps in the App Store, you can probably find an app for just about anything these days.


The iPad 2 is equipped with a 1GHz dual-core A5 processor, PowerVR SGX543MP2 Dual-Core graphics, 512MB of RAM, 16GB/32GB/64GB storage, an optional 3G radio, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, front/rear cameras, Bluetooth 2.1, a 9.7" 1024x768 LED Display (IPS), capacitive multi-touch, up to ten hours of battery life, a 3.5mm audio jack, digital compass and a weight of 1.33 pounds. It also has access to the largest tablet-specific app store in the universe right now, and that has to count for something.



Asus Transformer

If you already know that you aren't buying into Apple's ecosystem, perhaps an Android tablet is more "your style." Asus' Eee Pad Transformer is a unique take on the Android tablet, and while the general form factor of the primary unit is similar to most other rectangular slates, it's the accessories that really define it. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer tablet is a more complete Android-based tablet PC with a companion docking station that affords it the ability to act as an Android 3.0 Honeycomb-based netbook as well.  It's based on NVIDIA's powerful dual core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor with 1GB of RAM and 16 - 32GB of internal storage.  If you were waiting for Android tablets to get "real," today might be a good day to finally take the plunge.



 

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the first consumer tablet to ship and be thinner (even though it's only thinner by the smallest of margins) than the iPad 2. Samsung actually went out of their way to make a tablet that was slimmer than their primary competitor's tablet, nixing the original Tab 10.1 (actually, renaming it the Tab 10.1v) and forging ahead with a new plan. The new plan has resulted in this: one of the first tablets to ship (as in, not be upgraded after unboxing) with Android 3.1.

Other key features include a 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, and a 10.1-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 1280 x 800. The tablet weighs about 1.25 pounds. Samsung has also said that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 will receive a series of over-the-air upgrades sometime after launch that will make the user experience more fluid, entertaining and secure.



Lenovo IdeaPad Tablet K1

The IdeaPad Tablet K1 is Lenovo's first Honeycomb tablet to hit the market, though the more industrial strength ThinkPad Tablet is expected to arrive in the next couple of months.  The K1 is billed as a media consumption and entertainment device built for portability and performance on the go.  Honestly, that sounds like a lot of the Honeycomb tablets we've seen to date. It ships with a 1.0GHz dual-core Tegra 2 chip, a 10.1" (1280x800) display, up to 1GB of DDR2 memory, up to 64GB of SSD storage, integrated Bluetooth, 3G and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.


The tablet will also have integrated front and rear cameras (2MP/5MP), a microSD card reader, a mini-HDMI port and a docking port. The tablet's screen will support 10-point multi-touch, and there will be full support for Flash content as well. The entire chassis measures 13.3mm and weighs 750g, and Lenovo also has four different color choices for the back panel, for those looking to spruce up their purchases.

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Must-Have Accessories
Logitech G35

7.1-channel surround sound--on your head? Yup. It's possible with Logitech's G35 headset. While dorm living may sound fun, keeping quiet during study hours is bound to be crucial. Of course, you could just study with the rest of your classmates, but if you've already got the material embedded in your brain, you'll need a nice set of cans to keep the noise-level down for those around you. This headset is capable of doing just about anything you'd need one to do. High-powered audio, a folding boom microphone, and a USB input. Heck, you can even use it to Skype with mom back home.


Cyborg R.A.T. 7

It's the only kind of mouse allowed to enter into a dorm room. It's your gaming mouse, and you might as well go with one that'll last right on through your dissertation years. While your options are nearly endless, the Mad Catz Cyborg R.A.T. Albino Edition is the newest rat to leave the bag. The new Cyborg R.A.T. Albino Gaming Mouse is definitely one of the slicker, wilder looking mice to surface this year, and it looks the part for hardcore gamers who love to tweak their input devices.


The futuristic-looking mouse ships with a 6400DPI sensor, improved tracking capabilities and a matte Albino white finish. There's an adjustable thumb rest, adjustable height, a thumb scroll, DPI on-the-fly adjustments, a precision aim button, weighing system, and plenty of other things to tinker with. At $99.99, it's hardly inexpensive, but it's not everyday users can find a mouse that looks like it came straight out of the future. It'll work on PC and Mac platforms, too. And if white's not your thing, the standard black R.A.T. 7 is available for a few bucks less.



NOOK Color

Here's the best of both worlds. On one hand, the Barnes & Noble NOOK Color is a great learning device. You can pop literature on there and read until your heart is content. It's great for studying, and it's great for expanding your mind with works of literary art. But when play time comes around, it can morph into a Froyo-equipped Android tablet capable of playing Angry Birds.


The software update delivers Android 2.2 (Froyo) to the NOOK Color. With that, the NOOK Color now has access to Adobe's Flash 10.1 too. The update does not, however, add the general Android Market to the device. However, customers can use the new NOOK Apps store. There are approximately 125 apps available, all of which are customized for the NOOK Color. Although that sounds like a small number (and it is), at least Angry Birds is among those, as is the Pulse news reader.



Canon's PowerShot S95 was announced a few weeks into the school year in 2010, so it's well-seasoned for use this time around. And we've also had time to soak in the reviews in the meanwhile. In short, it's really, really good, and if you've only got the coin for one camera to take off to school, this one's a good bet.


The S95 is Canon's first camera to offer an in-camera HDR scene mode for shooting scenes with very dark tones and bright highlights. When used in combination with a tripod, this mode will take three sequential images with various exposures and then combine them into a single image. The PowerShot S95 also features Canon's Hybrid IS technology for macro shooting to compensate for angular and shift camera shake.


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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