HotHardware's 2015 Back To School Tech Gear Shopping Guide

Laptops For Cramming Or LANing

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon: Starting at $1,299

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon combines the sleek profile of a mainstream ultrabook with the durability and utility of Lenovo's classic ThinkPad line of business-class notebooks. With arguably some of the best notebook keyboard and trackpad setups in the market, the ThinkPad line is built for road warriors and demanding professionals first, but the X1 Carbon straddles the line with light-weight composite carbon fiber construction and squeaks in at .73 inches thick and just hair over 3 pounds for touch-enabled models.

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Lenovo's new ThinkPad X1 Carbon isn't completely without caveats, but it's an excellent balance of ultralight portability, performance and incredible efficiency; efficiency in workspace, weight and battery life. With an MSRP of $1574 as-tested and a base price of $1299, there's a bit of a premium to consider as well, but the 2015 ThinkPad X1 Carbon is easily one of our top picks in the ultrabook category. If you're looking for something slim, longevous, powerful and classy, look no further.

Dell XPS 13 (2015): Starting at $799

The new for 2015 Dell XPS 13 is not only powered by Intel's latest 5th Generation Core Series processor, known under the code name Broadwell-U, but it was the first machine to hit our test bench with Intel's new full-power notebook platform. This isn't a 4 - 5 Watt Core M machine we're looking at here; it's Intel's 14nm Core series architecture in full-featured 15 Watt notebook form with a new Intel HD 5500 graphics engine as well. And to step out with their best foot forward, Dell engineered the new 5th Gen Core Series-infused XPS 13 with much more than just fancy carbon fiber.

In our opinion, the new 2015 Dell XPS 13 is the ultrabook to beat currently, for 13-inch machines. It's quite frankly as near "perfect" a design as we've ever seen in an utlralight notebook. Though its smaller 11.9-inch form factor and keyboard area may take some getting used to for those with larger hands that like a roomier typing deck, it's an easy learning curve worth making an effort for, without question. Just picking-up and handling the machine, on first glance you get an immediate sense of super premium build quality and then when you flip the lid open and light up that gorgeous near bezel-free display, you're hooked.

HP Spectre X360 Ultrabook: Starting at $999

Then there's HP's Spectre X360, which is a very different machine than the afformentioned Dell XPS 13—one has a virtually bezelless screen and is smaller (the XPS 13), while the other is a 2-in-1, multi-mode device (the Spectre X360), but they’re both packing similar hardware and cater to similar consumers. We’d honestly have a tough time choosing between these two systems, and that’s saying something, because we were thoroughly impressed by the XPS 13.

The additional effort HP put into virtually every aspect of the Spectre X360 has paid off. This system has a great screen, the fit-and-finish is top notch, the keyboard and touchpad are very good, and it offers best-of-class connectivity for an ultrabook. On top of all of those things, the HP Spectre X360 performed well, battery life was excellent, and overall, the thing just plain looks and feels good. The HP Spectre X360 is a premium ultrabook through and through and a very flexible machine at that.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Special Edition: Starting at $699.99

This notebook is best used primarily as a laptop given its size and weight (and expansive 13.3-inch LCD), but manages just fine between two hands as a tablet on occasion as well. Granted, it's a bit heavy and unwieldy when used as a slate for long periods, but we're glad that mode exists for this device. We have plenty of options in the tablet first, laptop second market; it's good to see more machines that flip that equation on its ear.

The Inspiron 13 7000 SE looks and feels like a premium device, through and through. The only major drawbacks come as a direct result of this machine being so powerful. Excess heat and fan noise to an extent, will be unavoidable, so those favoring an ultra-quiet device might look elsewhere.  Unfortunately, battery life also took a hit as a result, so avid road warriors might consider this a non-starter, though we did manage almost 5 hours of up-time in our web browsing test. That said, those seeking a powerful new laptop that's as versatile as they come will appreciate the comprehensive package that has been assembled by Dell here. The Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Special Edition is a rare jack of all trades in a notebook-first 2-in-1 approach, that also manages to master its primary usage scenario. 

Alienware 15: Starting at $1,199

If you're looking to spend an equal amount of time gaming and studying, it's tough to beat a rig with the Alienware logo. From a performance standpoint, the Alienware 15 is a winner. Even with mid-range hardware, the laptop performs very well in games. It’s proof that you don’t need to destroy your budget to pick up a LAN party-ready laptop with decent gaming chops.

Although there are several gaming notebooks out there with display sizes under 15 inches, few really deliver an immersive gaming experience. A 15.6-inch display is fine, though, and the Alienware 15’s 300-nit, anti-glare panel is a good fit for this price range. You can bump up to a 4K display for this model if you prefer, but we like the brightness and look of the standard 1920x1080 display on this system. This year, Alienware did us a favor and decided to offer up a mid-range gaming laptop that didn't break the bank, which makes the latest Alienware 15 more accessible (and logical) than ever.

ASUS ROG G751JY: Starting around $2,000 (as low as $1199)

It won't suit those on a tight budget, nor those looking to keep backpacks light, but ASUS' latest desktop replacement warranted an honorable mention here. The G751JY is built for serious gaming in a package that's portable in the sense that you can tote it around with far less fuss than packing up an actual desktop PC. And we should mention, it's also pretty damn badass, easily scoring our Editor's Choice award.

This isn't an Ultrabook or an ultra-thin, nor is it a general purpose laptop designed to yield all-day battery life. It's a burly gaming laptop with high end components, a larger footprint, and plenty of heft (over 8 pounds). No apology is needed for any of these things, because ASUS delivers on what it sets out to do, which is offer a killer gaming experience. This is true both in terms of raw performance -- the combination of an Intel Core i7-4210HQ processor, 24GB of RAM, 256GB PCIe-based SSD, and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 memory would put many desktops to shame -- and with buttery-smooth game play, achieved by way of NVIDIA G-Sync technology.

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