HotHardware's 2014 Back To School Shopping Guide

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Laptops

Alienware 18: Starting Around $1400
If you’re aiming to spend just as much time gaming as studying, this is the portable rig to own. 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, and the wrist rest was a little more comfortable, but other than that, there’s really nothing else you could ask for.

The processor is top of the line, and there are two high-end GPUs inside. 32GB of RAM is more than enough. And 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-ed SSDs, 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 it’s a matter of personal preference more than anything, because the standalone SSD is plenty fast.)
 

Dell Inspiron 15: Starting Around $620
Want a bit of gaming oomph without the excess weight? If you’re looking to strike a balance between work and play, the Dell Inspiron 15 is a nice choice. We like the Dell Inspiron 15 7537’s design for its comfort as much as its looks. Sure, the aluminum frame looks sharp, but it’s the comfortable keyboard and large trackpad that you’ll really appreciate after hours of use. The display responds well to touch and it’s reasonably bright and sharp enough for a typical user. The 7537 comes off as a laptop that is both comfortable to use and tough enough to handle the bumps and bangs that your day-to-day system is likely to encounter.

And, the 7537 is a powerful laptop too. The Intel Core-i7 4500U and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M are a formidable team and provide more than enough power for typical tasks. Whether the discrete graphics are really necessary probably comes down whether you play video games on your laptop. If you don’t, the 750M may well be overkill. But if you do (or you want to), this laptop is going make you happy.
 

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 2014: Starting Around $1299
Hauling around books is one thing — do you really want to lug around a massive notebook, too? If the answer is “no,” this slim powerhouse is worth considering. Though the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon isn't perfect, it's about as close to perfect as we've seen from ultrabook yet.  We wish Lenovo included a micro-SD card slot and we wish the display was just a touch brighter, but these were very minor drawbacks in our estimation.  All told, and we don't toss this word around casually, we really love this machine.  Personally, Lenovo's new ThinkPad X1 Carbon is by far the nicest ultrabook we've had the pleasure of working with to date. This machine strikes a perfect balance of both a light weight but durable feel that inspires confidence.  Its 14-inch touch display is gorgeous at 2560X1440 and we think it's a well-placed upgrade when configuring a build-out of the machine. And its keyboard, as is common with many ThinkPad designs, is top-shelf with an easy learning curve.



The main caveat for most consumers considering this machine will be its price tag.  Starting at $1299 and working up from there, the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon as we tested it retails for $1579.  Regardless, this is also one of those rare times you get what you pay for.  This notebook has an original design and build quality that rivals premium products from the absolute best of breed out there.


Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus
: Starting Around $1200
Thin, light, and potent enough to be used for light duty gaming? Check, check, and check. With the ATIV Book 9 Plus, Samsung has taken a popular ultrabook and made it even better. Not only does the ATIV Book 9 Plus look great thanks to its aluminum uni-body design, but it also has the power to match its good looks. The fact that the ATIV Book 9 Plus has a Haswell processor inside isn’t a surprise—we expect it from today’s ultrabooks. Even so, that doesn’t mean we appreciate it any less—hardware that enables better performance and the promise of longer battery life is always something we appreciate.

The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus is not only lightweight and stylish, but it also has the power to perform well. Its price is also reasonable (around $1200, street) considering all of the machine's high-end features. We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this system to anyone who is looking for a super-slim ultrabook running Windows 8.
 


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