HotHardware's 2013 Back To School Shopping Guide


13-inch Haswell MacBok Air
Overall, the new for 2013 Apple MacBook Air offered better performance versus last year's model, especially when it came to graphics and storage subsystem throughput.  Apple's super-thin notebook also placed near the top of its class in terms of performance versus a number of competitive Ultrabooks currently in the market, especially when it came to boot-up times, handling multimedia, graphics performance and battery life.

The machine we tested is priced a solid $100 less than last year's 13-inch model, currently at $1099 ($1044.99 for Amazon Prime subscribers).  This still puts the MacBook Air 13 in the upper echelon of premium ultralight notebooks, cost-wise, but Apple's offering is otherwise competitively priced when you consider offerings from Lenovo, Dell and others.  Sure, with a native resolution of 1440X900, the MacBook Air still technically doesn't have a full HD display, never mind Apple's high-end Retina panel, but in a 13-inch machine 1440X900 still cuts the mustard just fine for most folks. We like the new Intel Haswell-powered MacBook Air 13, with its PCI Express SSD serving up data at over 700MB/sec and its almost unbelievably-good battery life. Our full review is here.

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix
The idea of combining a Windows 8 tablet with a keyboard dock to create an ultrabook isn’t completely new, but we feel Lenovo did a better job at implementing this concept with the ThinkPad Helix. We also appreciate the fact that you can turn the tablet around and still attach it to the keyboard dock to use in stand mode or tablet plus mode for additional battery life.

Docking and removing the ThinkPad Helix is easy, especially since Lenovo incorporated two docking posts to help you line up the system. While Windows 8 is designed for touch, we also like that Lenovo incorporated a digitizer and pen for additional functionality and hope to see more applications that let you take advantage of the precision a pen can offer in the future. Lenovo’s ThinkPad line has a professional look that is sturdy, simple and clean yet still very attractive. The ThinkPad Helix utilizes this same styling while also providing additional flexibility that you won’t get with a traditional ThinkPad notebook. Our full review is right here. This machine is a touch pricey though at $1500 - $1700, depending on config.

Acer S7 Ultrabook (2nd-gen)
The second generation of Acer's lightweight S7 Ultrabook has landed in the U.S. and is now available to purchase. Acer's pitching the revitalized S7 Ultrabook as being the perfect companion for college students heading into the back-to-school shopping season, as well as any road warrior who needs a system that's not just thin and light, but also powerful with all-day battery life.

Acer Aspire S7

Acer made some key improvements to its S7-392 model, starting with the fact that it now ships with Haswell inside. According to Acer, battery life is improved by 33 percent, and a quieter fan with second generation "Twin Air Cooling" technology keeps the system chilly without raising a ruckus.  The 13-inch S7 is currently priced at $1599 and it's worth every penny in our opinion, with its gorgeous 1920x1080 full HD display.

Alienware ALW 18 gaming notebook
If pressed, we’re not sure we’d change much of anything on this gaming beast. It would be nice if the optical drive could burn Blu-rays (though that's a niche need for sure), and the front edge where your wrist rests while you use the machine could be a little more comfortable. Other than that, there’s really not much else you could ask for in a gaming notebook.

The processor is top of the line, and there are two high-end GPUs inside. 32GB of RAM is more than enough. The display is huge and beautiful. Dell even struck an excellent balance of storage and performance by implementing a spacious 512GB mSATA SSD and a large 750GB SATA drive (7200 RPM). It’s true that other models have RAID configured SSD arrays, which can offer a substantial performance boost on the storage side, but for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gaming notebook, you want to have plenty of storage in addition to performance. (We imagine some folks would prefer the extra SSD performance, but at this point it’s a matter of personal preference more than anything.)

The $4,499 price tag (as configured for our testing) is dizzying, but if you’re looking for a solid gaming machine at a better price, there are other Dell Alienware ALW 18 configurations (as well as good options from other manufacturers) that you can value shop for. The Alienware 18 is the one that you buy when money is no object and you refuse to accept anything less than everything. Our full review can be found here.

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