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HotHardware's 2012 Back To School Shopping Guide
Date: Aug 20, 2012
Author: Ray Willington
It's that time again. The time of year when students and parents frantically hit e-tailers with fast shipping 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.

         Credit: Seton Hall University

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, tablets, 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. 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...

Powerful Desktops
Maingear SHIFT Super Stock X79

One of Merriam-Webster's definitions for the word obscene is "so excessive as to be offensive." That sort of defines this beast of a machine. This is most certainly not the one to aim for if you're a college kid on a budget, but those willing to trade decent housing for a tried-and-true gaming rig need look no further. SHIFT desktops start at $1,849 for systems built around AMD's 990FX platform, $1,849 for Intel Z68 configurations, and $2,449 for Intel X79 setups. They're gorgeous, packed to the brim with cutting-edge components and have a great support team behind 'em.

If you need more convincing, we recently took a long, hard look at this machine in a review. What Maingear brings to the table is an impeccable attention to detail and a luxury buying experience. Think white glove treatment. For starters, all Maingear systems ship with zero bloatware and the wiring jobs are as clean as can be. How can you argue with that?

CyberPowerPC Zeus Thunder 2500 SE

Right smack dab in the middle of the Zeus family price ladder is the Zeus Thunder 2500 SE, a $1,899 rig that performed very well in our tests. Once we fired up the unit the first time, it was smooth sailing all the way through to the last benchmark. CyberPowerPC should be commended for achieving that level of stability, and for anyone worried about the long-term effects of that monster CPU overclock, the company offers a 3 years labor/1 year parts warranty to back up its work.

The company also did a great job selecting the NZXT Switch 810 case in our opinion, which offers attractive looks without the added expense of a heavily altered or full custom chassis, and actually contributes something to the system’s overall performance, as well. You could scarcely find a better price-for-performance ratio than $1,899 for the Zeus Thunder 2500 SE, although if you’re not in love with the price, CyberPowerPC has eight other Zeus Thunder gaming rigs available, starting at $1,125. Our review can be seen here.


With the Erebus GT, iBUYPOWER set out to make a slightly smaller and less expensive line of systems to complement its Erebus custom gaming series, which is now renamed the Erebus XL series. There are actually three Erebus GTs in the new line, with configurations based on the AMD FX platform starting as low as $899, but the one iBUYPOWER sent us to test is an Intel Sandy Bridge-based version that costs $2499. You can find our full review here.

The Erebus GT is an extremely powerful gaming system. It blasted through all of our standard benchmarks and, more importantly, rocked our gaming tests. iBUYPOWER clearly did a nice job of choosing components, as the SSD/HDD combo and Radeon 7970 graphics card showed their strength in the tests that pushed them. Even when pitted against systems far beyond its price range, the Erebus GT held its own, and you really can’t ask any more than that from a system. Similar (or better) performance for less cash? Yes, please.
All-In-One Systems
HP Touchsmart 520

The TouchSmart 520-1070 is a fairly remarkable AIO equipped with high-end hardware and a robust selection of software, all of which comes wrapped in a 23-inch touchscreen display with a speaker bar blasting out Beats Audio. Any fears that HP's preoccupation with righting its ship would result in a degraded product line go right out the window when you run your finger down the 520's spec sheet, which includes an Intel Core i7 2600S processor clocked at 2.8GHz, 8GB of DDR3 system memory, a capacious 2TB hard drive, discrete graphics powered by AMD's Radeon HD 6450A GPU, and even a Blu-ray burner. Oh, and there's a TV tuner shoved inside too, for good measure.

These are low-power, desktop-class components crammed into an AIO form factor as part of a redesigned TouchSmart series meant to be "light, thin, and altogether stylish." Other than the part about this being a lightweight PC (the folks at HP must work out), HP delivers on its promises, and quite frankly exceeded our expectations. Our full review can be found here.


Dell XPS One 27

Dell's new XPS One 27, reviewed here, introduces a spacious and vibrant 27-inch display with a Wide Quad HD (WQHD) 2560x1440 resolution on a Samsung Plane to Line Switching (PLS) panel. It's absolutely gorgeous, more so than some professional monitors we've played with, and it's carrying an entire system in its belly.

The star of the show, however, is the 27-inch panel, qualifying the XPS One 27 as Dell's largest ever AIO system. It's a distinction that matters because there aren't very many 27-inch AIOs on the market, and because the display on this model is so darn good, graphics artists and professional photographers can join the AIO party without selling their soul to Apple.


Asus 23.6" ET2410

Asus envisions the ET2410 taking its place as the centerpiece of your domain, as long as you don't fancy yourself a gamer or overclocker. The Asus ET2410 is built to handle everyday tasks and multimedia projects. You can watch movies on the ET2410, burn DVDs, rock out to your favorite band, backup files to the web, and of course keep up with all your favorite social networks, all without ever having to use your mouse (if you don't want to).

Touchscreen computing on a relatively large screen got a whole lot more affordable, and the sub-$1,000 ET2410IUTS-B019C from Asus proves this. At $850, we hesitate to call this a budget machine, but it's at least affordable. It's also very attractive and will give the impression perhaps  that you spent a bit more than you actually did, especially when you fire it up for visitors and start tapping at the screen to load up your playlist, filling your living room with sound from the surprisingly capable integrated speakers. If you're interested, here's our full review.

Small Form Factor / HTPC
Dell Alienware X51

The Alienware team played it smart configuring the X51 and at a reasonable entry point of $699, they didn't skimp on the guts or glory.  If you're a gamer, you need a fair bit of CPU horsepower and clock speed to drive data requests to the primary graphics engine that ultimately works the magic of rendering shaders and pushing pixels to the screen. However, you darn sure better have a decent GPU at the ready, so Alienware's choice of NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 555 was spot-on.  The GeForce GTX 555 is a 288 CUDA core machine and while you may be lulled into thinking it's a midrange workhorse, it's actually no slouch, as you'll see in the benchmarks that follow.  Also, backing Intel's quad-core Core i5 CPU is 8GB of DDR3-1333 system memory and a fairly peppy 7200RPM 1TB WD hard drive.
It's not often we're fully satisfied with an SFF PC and though the X51 isn't perfect, in our opinion the folks at Alienware should be commended for putting out an exceptional product. It's great for small dorm room areas, though, and you can find our full review here.

ASRock Vision 3D 252B

The ASRock Vision 3D 252B performed very well throughout our entire battery of tests. Its performance in comparison to the other HTPC and low-power systems we tested was excellent and power consumption was somewhat lower than the previous-gen Vision 3D PC which is based on older Intel tech. Within the confines of a system designed to be an HTPC though, the user experience is also a big factor in determining performance, and in this regard the ASRock Vision 3D 252B excelled. The system’s combination of high-performance components and a GeForce GPU allowed it to flawlessly playback all of the media we tested.

The only caveats are price and availability. ASRock’s HTPC systems are somewhat tough to come by in the US and they are priced at a premium. The Vision 3D 252B model we tested sells for about $900+, which is no small chunk of change. Please keep in mind, however, that if you were to try and build a system like this yourself, similarly performing parts alone would cost upwards of $700, which includes a mini-ITX case. Factor in the time it would take to assemble the system and the cost of software like Cyberlink’s PowerDVD which is included with ASRock’s Vision 3D machine and the price disparity gets even smaller. Even then, you wouldn’t be able to build a system as compact and it likely wouldn’t have as many ports either. Trust us, your movie-loving college mates will love you. Our full review is here.

Maingear Potenza Super Stock SFF system

It starts with an Intel Ivy Bridge foundation, and Maingear bumped up the default processor option to an unlocked Core i7 3770K chip. Maingear then goosed the CPU as part of the company's optional Redline overclocking service, and while that's usually asking for trouble in a cramped form factor, cooling chores are carried out by Maingear's Epic 120 Supercooler, a self-contained liquid cooler built by CoolIt. That's some serious hardware for a mini-ITX system, and we haven't even begun to talk about the Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 graphics card or the speedy Corsair Force GT solid state drive (SSD) in the excellent Maingear Potenza Super Stock.

Just because you have a couple grand to spare on a gaming PC doesn't mean you want a machine with a size that's as large as your budget. Maingear's Potenza is pricey as configured, no doubt, but it's also stout and muscular, able to play games on high resolution displays while sitting tucked underneath your desk, in the corner of your home theater, or anywhere else you choose to stick a system that's barely larger than a bookshelf speaker. Our full review can be found here.

If you're happily on AT&T, this is a fantastic option -- particularly at the new $99 (on contract) price point. The phone is powered by a 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM 8960 dual-core SoC, which is paired to 1GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. It also has a 4.7” HD screen with a resolution of 1280x720 and it features both front and rear facing cameras.

In our full review, we found that the HTC One X performed very well throughout our entire battery of benchmarks and in all of our real-world testing. The responsiveness of the device is top notch, the screen offers excellent viewing angles and image quality, and battery life is more than acceptable for such a high performing device. The benchmarks show the 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM 8960 dual-core SoC at the heart of the HTC One X easily outpacing other dual-core chips thanks to its more advanced architecture and graphics performance was very good as well. The camera in the HTC One X was also very fast and produced nice images in a variety of lighting conditions.

Samsung Galaxy S III

The hardware specifications for the Galaxy S III are impressive. The US variations of this phone feature a 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED touchscreen (1280x720), a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 2GB RAM, 16 GB or 32 GB of internal memory, an 8MP rear-facing camera, a 1.9MP front-facing camera, and a 2100 mAh Lithium Ion battery. And all of the Galaxy S III smartphones run on Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich right out of the gate. Best of all, this phone can be found on a ton of US carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

The Galaxy S III performed exceptionally well in our benchmark tests and in all of our real-world testing. (Our full review is here.) The phone is very responsive, the screen is vibrant and colorful, and the longevity of the battery is among the best we've seen on a smartphone.  Samsung also added a handful of extra features to the Galaxy S III that you won't see on most other phones, and although S Voice isn't 100% accurate, it did a reasonably good job during our tests and definitely competes well with Siri. In addition, Samsung's NFC and sharing features are really cool, and something we're excited to see more and more manufacturers implement.

Samsung Galaxy Note

If you need a phone that's larger than average--much larger--it's got to be the Galaxy Note. Equipped with an S Pen (stylus) and a giant 5.3" screen, the Note is an innovative balance between tablet and phone. While many of today's newer smartphones offer faster dual-core processors and 1GB of RAM, alongside plenty of onboard storage, one of the easiest differentiating points between smartphones today has become the screen--size, resolution, and screen technology are all considerations. This smartphone, or phablet if you prefer, offers one of the largest screens we've seen from a phone yet – 5.3 inches. In addition to being large, it is also a gorgeous display which uses Super AMOLED technology and offers a resolution of 1280x800.

It's now available with Android 4.0, and can be found on AT&T and T-Mobile. It's perfect for taking notes, which could come in handy at school, wouldn't you say? Our full review is here.
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s Ultrabook

The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s Ultrabook is a little pricey, with a higher-end model running nearly $1500, but it's highly capable, highly portable and tailor made for school-bound users on the go. In addition to that SSD, Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s is similarly configured versus the other ultrabooks we've looked at thus far,  with a pair of USB ports (one of which is USB 3.0 capable) a headphone jack and Lenovo's OneKey Rescue System button. The OneKey Software and button combination feature is a nice touch for quick recovery from non-operational Windows crashes, etc.

The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s scored fairly well in all of our standard benchmark suites, but did come up a little short in a couple of areas, due to its single channel DDR3 memory configuration.  Storage subsystem performance testing showed the machine to offer solid, although perhaps not best-of-class throughput, though definitely more than enough to satisfy most any user requirement.  In terms of battery life, the U300s is one of the better utlrabooks we've tested to date under light duty workloads, like web browsing, email and video playback. You can read our full review here.

Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1

On a side note, one late entrant we'd definitely would suggest taking a gander at is the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.  It's purpose built for road warriors like a ThinkPad should be with a backlit keyboard that is a true pleasure to use.  Along with its 1600X600 high res display, we gave it an Editor's Choice we liked it so much. However, starting at $1399, you're going to pay to work or play on this machine.
ThinkPad X1 Carbon Edge

Asus Zenbook UX21 Ultrabook

The Asus Zenbook UX21E is a new ultra-slim notebook by Asus, that fits into the new "Ultrabook" class of machines, to use a term coined by Intel. The Zenbook UX21E is an incredible 3mm thick at the front and 9mm at the rear and has spun metal and hairline aluminum for a strikingly sleek appearance. It's also built with Intel's low-power Sandy Bridge Core i7 2677M mobile dual-core processor, 4GB of DDR3-1333 memory, a 128GB SATA 3 SSD and an 11.6-inch LCD with a native resolution of 1366x768. 
The Asus UX21E-DH71 surprised us more than once in our assortment of tests. The machine offered some of the best standard application and multimedia performance scores we've seen from an ultralight machine to date. The UX21's PCMark Vantage and PCMark 7 scores exceeded (by a long shot) even some heavy-duty desktop replacement machines, thanks to its ultra-fast SSD. In other areas, the Core i7-2677M and its 4GB DDR3-1333 complement held its own versus similarly equipped machines, though it fell short in more strenuous gaming scenarios, which of course is to be expected in this class of machines that aren't designed or marketed as gaming systems. That said, the UX21 does have some capability under the hood for light-weight DX9/10 gaming at more modest image quality settings. At $1199, it's not "cheap," per se, but it's a well-rounded machine that'll certainly get your through undergrad. Our full review is here.

Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook

Notice a trend? Ultrabooks are awesome options for those headed off to school, mostly due to their thin frame and long-lasting batteries. If you don't care about having a discrete GPU, Dell sells a pair of less expensive baseline configurations starting at $700 and $800, which boast Intel HD 3000 and 4000 Graphics, respectively. The $900 configuration we tested (our full review is here) is similar to the $800 model, but with a Radeon GPU and a bit more RAM (8GB versus 6GB).

Weighing in at around $1200, Dell's Inspiron 14z proved itself an all-around multimedia workhorse, but where it really pounds its chest is in games. Not only does it handle older titles well, but Dell's decision to equip certain models (including the one we tested) with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 7570M GPU translated into playable framerates in some newer DirectX 11 titles as well. As an all around Ultrabook, it's a fast and responsive system, though not the speediest machine around. Throw gaming performance into the mix, however, and the Inspiron 14z stands taller than most.

Alienware M17x R4

The term “laptop” can only be loosely applied to the nearly 9.39-pound Alienware M17x--you don’t exactly want to have the thing perched on your lap for any extended period of time. But you know what? Who cares. The M17x is a powerful and (mostly) portable gaming rig, and Dell can call it anything they want; awesome by any other name is still awesome and surprisingly not as pricey as you'd think starting at around $1849.

The M17x has been in Dell’s Alienware lineup for a while, but now it’s been refreshed with the latest and greatest in mobile components, packing an Ivy Bridge CPU and the newest NVIDIA Kepler-based mobile GPU. The Intel Core i7-3720QM (2.6GHz/3.6GHz Turbo, 6MB cache) is one of the highest-end mobile processors in Intel’s Ivy Bridge lineup, taking a backseat only to the Core i7-3820QM. When you have a killer CPU/GPU combo like the Alienware M17x does with the Intel Core i7-3720QM and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680M, you know you’re going to have a wickedly powerful system, and indeed, the M17x is an impressive specimen. Except for a couple of aberrations, this rig beat out the competition handily, even over systems with dual GPU configurations. Our full review can be found here.

Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T

The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity offers a level of performance that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 - 20% faster all around, versus the previous generation high-end Transformer Prime. In fact, the Transformer Pad Infinity in many test conditions, especially in terms of graphics performance, is one of the fastest Android tablets we've tested to date. In addition, its battery life actually improved in our light duty web browsing test setup, though your mileage may vary, especially if its rendering more graphics intensive content like HD video or otherwise.

If you're looking for a highly flexible tablet, one that can be used with a keyboard to jot notes in a lecture, but double as a tablet elsewhere, you'll be hard-pressed to top this. We'd offer that $479 for a 32GB tablet with the quality and features of the Transformer Pad Infinity is a reasonably good deal and you'll appreciate its upscale image quality and performance from top to bottom. If you're looking for a 10-inch Android slate, we say go for it. If you're still in doubt, here's our full review.

Google Nexus 7

It's the best 7" tablet under $200, period. We don't really need to say more, but we will. Those looking for a compact tablet really only have a few good options, but this one is the one to top. It ships with Android 4.1, and since it's a pure Google device, it'll get updates more quickly than the rest. 

Google and ASUS put some time and effort into designing this tablet, and it shows. The Nexus 7 is very responsive, and some of the extra widgets and controls found in the OS add to the overall enjoyment of using the tablet. Google says Jelly Bean is the fastest and smoothest version of Android to date. From our tests, we'd have to agree: Jelly Bean was very responsive and we didn't experience any hiccups during our hands-on time with the Nexus 7. Our full review is here.

Apple's iPad

We're talking about the "iPad 3," or, the one with the Retina display. This may come as a blow to Android fanatics, but Apple's new iPad is the all-around fastest tablet on the market right now. Much of the credit goes to the upgraded PowerVR graphics engine with four GPU cores that Apple claims are the bees-knees. Put to the test, the new iPad slid past NVIDIA's Tegra 3 platform in 3D intensive tasks. It didn't consistently provide four times the performance as Apple's Tim Cook so gleefully pointed out during the iPad launch event, but it was never a close race either. What's more, it looked better courtesy of the vibrant Retina display.

If you're already sold on the iOS ecosystem, you can't go wrong with this one. It starts at $499, and our full review can be found here.
Must-Have Accessories
Canon EOS M Mirrorless camera

No longer do you need a DSLR for most photographic opportunities. Say hello to Canon's own mirrorless entry. It has the specs of a Rebel T4i, but a size that's far smaller. There's an 18MP APS-C CMOS image sensor, and the company is shipping two lenses for the new format: the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM kit lens and the optional EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens– and the ability to use the full line of Canon EF and EF-S lenses through the optional Mount Adapter EF-EOS M. It'll also handle 1080p HD movies, and comes with an ISO range of 100-6400 (expandable to 12,800 in High mode), a DIGIC 5 Image Processor and an SD/SDXC card slot.

The EOS M Digital Camera bundled with the new EF-M 22mm f/2 STM kit lens will be available in October for an estimated retail price of $799.99; it'll hit most stores in black, but a white model will be available via Canon's website.

Microsoft Touch Mouse

This is easily the most suave mouse of the past year, and it's engineered to work beautifully with Windows 8, launching this fall. For those expecting to upgrade, this is a great way to ensure you're ready for the gesture control that lies ahead. It also features BlueTrack Technology so you can use it on virtually any surface, and it includes Backpack Mode to power down and sleep along with the computer it’s paired to. It'll ship for $69.95, presumably in time for the Windows 8 launch in October.

Astro A50 Audio System Headset

Gaming in college? Yeah, you'll be doing that. You'll need some serious head-shakers to make the experience truly genuine, and there are none better than these guys -- for $300, of course. It's a wireless affair that supports Dolby 7.1, making it great for movies as well.

Ion Cade Core

Why settle for just modern games? Retro games will always be in style, and if you've got an iPad, you need this. It's a compact, arcade-style cabinet that gives physical controls to your iPad, and works in conjunction with an app that brings retro titles to your iPad's display. At $89.99, it's a must-buy, even if it means sleeping with no sheets or forgoing other basic dorm room necessities for a while.

Duracell Powermat 24-Hour Power System

What's a phone without a charge? A paperweight. Cordless charging has been in its infancy for what feels like forever, but Duracell is aiming to bring it into even more dorm rooms with its new 24-Hour Power System. You can pick up a wireless case for your iPhone, and then just tap it on the base station to charge -- no more fiddling around for a charging cable. At $99.99, it's pricey, and sadly it only works with the iPhone 4 / 4S right now, but hopefully more phones and tablets will be welcomed in soon.

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