HotHardware's 2012 Back To School Shopping Guide


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.

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