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Monday, June 17, 2013

Best laptops for students

Best budget laptop: Acer Aspire S3-391-33214G52ADD

From:  |  Street price: $697 (Officeworks)
Critical specs: 13.3-inch LCD at 1,366 x 768 pixels, Intel Core i3-3217U CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD + 20GB SSD, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 1.35kg, 37.7Wh battery.
When the budget is a bit tight, you really want to maximise the value of every dollar you’ve got to spend. And when it comes to a school laptop, you want to get as much performance as you can. You want a laptop that covers the major requirements of battery life, speed, weight and price, although you don’t want to repeat the netbook mess and end up with a laptop that’s too slow after six months.
That’s why we think this Acer ultrabook is the perfect example of what we’d look for in an affordable laptop. It’s made from a tough aluminium chassis that’s similar to Apple’s MacBook Air. We wouldn’t slam-dunk it around the playground, but it should survive minor dings better than most. Putting it simply, when it comes to buying a laptop for school use, the tougher the build quality, the better. It also weighs the same as a MacBook Air — at just 1.35kg, you won’t need after-school gym classes to carry it and even the smallest Year 9 student should have little trouble toting it.
Inside, Intel’s third-generation Core i3 chip provides the horsepower and is the minimum we’d recommend — forget Atoms, Pentiums or Celeron chips. The Core i3 is roughly five times faster than a 2008-vintage netbook on multimedia apps, so it’ll handle most apps with aplomb. In fact, we reckon it’d be fast enough for the next two years and possibly beyond, depending on the demands. This chip is also power-efficient, helping battery life, which we tested at 4:13hr, which means it’ll have no trouble lasting through the school day. Basically, we wouldn’t bother considering any laptop that can’t last at least four hours on battery power.
It comes with a roomy 500GB hard drive with Windows 8 preinstalled. You’d like to see this in any laptop, but the fact that it appears here is something special. It’ll not only handle any project or assignment you’re asked to do, you also get the latest operating system, so it’s far more future-proof in that regard. It also includes a tiny 20GB solid-state drive (SSD) to speed up boot times, plus the latest 802.11n wireless networking to hook into your school’s network. You even get two USB 3.0 ports at the rear for super-fast data transfer to external hard drives, as well as an HDMI output to connect to an external monitor or TV. Again, these are features you’d want in any laptop.
What makes this little ultrabook such a special buy is the price — at just $697 from OfficeWorks, it’s about the same price you would’ve paid for a netbook four years ago. What’s astounding to us is the level of overall features — you’re not only getting great speed, but also extras you wouldn’t normally expect from a laptop at this price.
You can find cheaper laptops on the market, but they won’t be as light, tough, fast or durable as this Acer ultrabook. Put it this way: if you can afford $697, buy this and you’ll look like an absolute genius. If the government decided to repeat its laptop program, update the laptops it hands out and asked us for our recommendation, it’d be this Aspire ultrabook.

Best touchscreen laptop: ASUS VivoBook S400CA-CA012H

From:  |  Street price: around $899
Critical specs: 14-inch LCD at 1,366 x 768 pixels, Intel Core i5-3317U CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD + 24GB SSD, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 1.84kg, 43.8Wh battery.
We’ve said elsewhere before that we’re not fans of touchscreen laptops at the moment, simply because of the extra cost and the lack of compelling apps that need the new technology. However, if you can get it without paying significantly extra for it, a touchscreen laptop would offer an advantage in the future, provided its performance levels continue to meet your demands. And that’s exactly why we’ve included this ASUS VivoBook ultrabook as our example here — it’d still be a great-value laptop, even if it didn’t have a touchscreen.
The VivoBook retails for around $899 so it’s a big step up from the Acer Aspire. At that sort of money, you should also expect a step up in overall performance. Aside from the touchscreen, the ASUS unit comes with a third-generation Core i5 processor, which makes it six times faster than a 2008-vintage netbook. Once you get to this $900 price point, a Core i5 chip should be the minimum you look for and it’ll ensure you get at least two years of life from just about any application. If you’re only seeing Core i3 ultrabooks at this price, give them a miss — you’d be better off with Acer’s Aspire and saving a packet.
What we like about this Core i5 version is that you still get a 500GB hard drive plus a small 24GB SSD to cut down bootup times to almost nothing. Again, it’s a combination we’d look for in any laptop at this price — the SSD gives you super-quick boot speed while the hard drive gives you plenty of cheap storage.
It’s not quite as light as the Aspire, but you’re getting a larger 14.1-inch screen and very similar battery life. We tested it at 4:24hr, which is an excellent result, given that the extra horsepower you’ve got to play with normally results in lower battery life. That extra chassis size also adds up to a heavier weight of 1.84kg, but we’d say that’s still manageable. Practically, we think a school laptop needs to be less than 2kg, otherwise it becomes unwieldy, especially for younger students. The VivoBook’s weight is actually helped by the aluminium chassis (laptops made from cheaper ABS plastic tend to be heavier), which also adds some toughness to the overall design. That’s not something to be underestimated in a regularly travelling laptop.
Touchscreen technology is everywhere, even in budget laptops under $500. The problem with many of those models is that you’re copping such a hit in performance that the end result is barely worth the effort and only marginally above netbook levels. While there’s still no compelling reason at the moment to have a touchscreen, it’s not something worth paying for or compromising performance for. That’s why the ASUS VivoBook is in our list — you’ll find a number of other similarly featured Core i5 laptops and ultrabooks on the market at similar prices that won’t include a touchscreen. So if you must have a touchscreen laptop now, get this one and your wallet shouldn’t know the difference.

Best performance laptop: Dell Inspiron 13z

From:  |  Price: $999
Critical specs: 13.3-inch LCD at 1,366 x 768 pixels, Intel Core i7-3537U CPU, 8GB RAM, 500GB HDD, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 1.8kg, 46.3Wh battery.
Inevitably, the further you move through the years in high school, the greater the demand for computing power is likely to be. The normal problem is that finding that extra performance in a compact, lightweight laptop usually requires big dollars. After looking around, we think we’ve found the perfect example of what we’d call a performance laptop for school use that won’t make the bank manager too nervous.
Dell’s Inspiron 13z is a compact 13.3-inch laptop that packs in a top-drawer third-generation Core i7 dual-core processor. On our netbook performance scale, it delivers seven times the multimedia application speed of a 2008-vintage netbook. In fact, there aren’t too many laptop processors faster than this.
Technically, we can’t call the Inspiron 13z an ultrabook, as it’s just 1mm too thick to be allowed that moniker. However, if you’re looking for a speedy laptop under $1,000 that weighs less than 2kg, you couldn’t do much better than this.
It packs in a 500GB hard drive (our test unit only had a 320GB model), but you also get 8GB of memory so you’re unlikely to need an upgrade any time soon. It’s a great combination and with that Core i7 chip, there’s enough application speed in this one to get at least three years out of it before you’d need to think about buying a replacement.
For senior school students, we think this Core i7 chip is ideal, provided you can get it in a compact chassis similar to this Inspiron 13z. There are plenty of large 15.6-inch desktop replacement laptops with faster performance, but their weight and battery life are often pretty woeful by comparison. If you require something like quad-core processing speed that’s cost-effective, you might actually be better off with a good, old-fashioned desktop computer, even if it’s not exactly a portable solution.
That’s not something you’d have to worry about here, though — the Inspiron 13z matched the Acer and ASUS models almost identically for battery life at 4:18hr, yet it weighs only 1.8kg. It’s abit lighter than the ASUS, but heavier than the Acer, which is a great result given the extra speed available under the bonnet.
If you time your purchase right, you’ll sometimes see this model discounted — at the time of writing, it sold for just $699. That makes it extraordinary value for money. What you don’t get for your money here is a touchscreen, but as we’ve seen with the ASUS VivoBook, you can either have a Core i5-powered laptop with a touchscreen or a Core i7-engined laptop without. So what you lose in touchscreen capability, you more than make up for with a faster chip. I know which one I’d rather!
Overall, the Inspiron 13z shows it doesn’t really matter whether a laptop is called an ultrabook or not. There are definitely some real performance bargains on the market, provided you keep an eye on the price and the laptop weight. The real trick is to look for smaller laptops when you’re after higher performance — these models are harder to find, but when you do find one, like the Inspiron 13z, they can often be a real bargain.

Mac world: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch

From:  |  Price: $1,549
Critical specs: 13.3-inch LCD at 1,440 x 900 pixels, Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB RAM, 250GB SSD, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 1.33kg, 50Wh battery.
If your school has decided on Apple laptops, it has to be said that it’s not what you’d call the most affordable route. Even the cheapest 11.6-inch MacBook Air which sells for $1,099 cost more than the other three laptops we’ve looked at already. What’s more, it comes with only a very stingy 64GB worth of storage.
So the question then becomes: which Apple laptop is the best alternative? If your school isn’t specifying a model, we think there are two long-term cost-effective options to choose from: the entry-level 13.3-inch MacBook Pro at $1,349 or this 13.3-inch MacBook Air for $1,549.
We’ve settled on the slightly more expensive option as the example in this category because it showcases what you can expect — or at least should expect — to see at this price, even from similar Windows ultrabooks.
The main feature here is the 256GB SSD. The other three laptops here all use standard hard drives as their main storage and only a small SSD to improve bootup times — drop any of those other three laptops and you can expect to write off the hard drive. Not so with SSDs. Because they’re made from flash memory, there are no moving parts, so they handle rough treatment much more reliably. The downside is that SSDs are expensive — approximately 10 times the price per gigabyte compared with standard hard drives. However, combine that with the MacBook Air’s tough aluminium chassis and if it’s not quite bullet-proof, it’s not too far off.
There are two reasons why you’d call this the MacBook ‘Air’: one is that it doesn’t have any wired networking, only wireless. The other is its weight; it’s just 1.35kg, so it’ll be very easy to carry. Surprisingly, it’s the same weight as the Acer Aspire S3, which shows just how remarkable that laptop is.
Under the bonnet, the Air features a third-generation Core i5 processor and with the latest version of Mac OS X Lion (10.8.2), it actually delivers similar overall speed to Dell’s Inspiron 13z with its faster Core i7 chip. That’s what having an SSD can do and why they’re so highly sought after. And despite the light weight, the Air really turns it on for battery life, hitting an impressive 5:44hr in our testing. So while this is an expensive laptop, you’re getting most features straight from the top drawer, as you’d expect at this price.
Apple heavily promotes Thunderbolt, its two-in-one port that delivers lightning-fast data transfer speeds twice as fast as USB 3.0, and also gives you video output that you can convert to a range of other options including HDMI (if you purchase the right cables separately). Importantly, you also now get two USB 3.0 ports, so if you don’t have Thunderbolt-ready peripherals, you can still make do with USB 3.0 instead.
At this price, you’re paying for the ultimate level of performance, battery life, light weight and ruggedised design. And really, you shouldn’t expect anything less.
There is a cheaper $1,349 version of this MacBook Air that’s close to the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro. However, it only comes with a 128GB SSD, and we feel that’s just not large enough for a school laptop when it comes to handling those large multimedia projects.
So if you’re after a tough-as-teak laptop for an Apple-based school system, we think the MacBook Air is it.

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