Finding a good back-to-school laptop shouldn’t feel like homework. That’s why we’ve handpicked the very best notebooks for students, ranging from sub-$500 systems with good looks and performance all the way up to the sleekest Ultrabooks. In between you’ll find laptops that excel in all sorts of areas, from multimedia machines that major in awesome audio to ones that last up to 13 hours on a charge. Here are our top picks for the 2012 back-to-school season.
Best Overall Value: HP Pavilion G6 ($479)
HP’s refreshed entry-level 15.6-inch notebook features curved, beveled edges and what HP calls “elements of precision.” Its keyboard deck has a sunken bowl shape and the touchpad has a textured finish, making it easier to locate without looking. For the starting price, students get a second-generation Intel Core i3-2350 processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. The notebook is available in Ruby Red, Linen White, Sparkling Black, Winter Blue and Bright Purple.
Great Sound: Lenovo IdeaPad Z580
The IdeaPad Z580 will fill your student’s room with his favorite tunes, thanks to this laptop’s Dolby-enhanced speakers. The $679 configuration of Lenovo’s 15-incher features a fast 2.5-GHz Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and a roomy 750GB hard drive. Common to all versions is Lenovo’s AccuType keyboard, VeriFace facial recognition and OneKey Theater, which optimizes the screen for watching movies—when you’re not studying, of course.
Small But Powerful: Sony VAIO E Series 11-inch
Dorm rooms aren’t known for their desk space, which is why the VAIO E Series 11 holds a certain appeal. This ultra-affordable white 11.6-inch system sports Sony’s attractive “wrap” design, has a small 11.4 x 8-inch footprint and weighs just 3.3 pounds — easy to carry to class. Its 1.7-GHz AMD E2-1800 dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM and Radeon HD 7340M graphics will be plenty powerful for writing papers, and its 500GB hard drive is large enough for your music and video collection.
Big Screen on a Budget: Toshiba Satellite C875
You don’t have to spend a lot to get a big honkin’ screen. The Toshiba Satellite C875 has a 17.3-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel display and is powered by an AMD E1 processor, a 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM. Inexpensive doesn’t mean cheap, though: The C875 has a Trax Texture finish in Satin Black that looks good and resists fingerprints. Also included is a webcam with face recognition technology and a DVD drive.
Thin for Less: HP Envy Sleekbook 6z
This aluminum-clad 15.6-inch laptop has Ultrabook-like portability — 0.8 inches thick and 4.8 pounds — without the premium. Starting at $599, the Sleekbook 6z features AMD’s second-generation mainstream APU with discrete-class AMD graphics, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. The Sleekbook is tailor-made for rocking out, thanks to Beats Audio. We love the soft-touch red finish on the bottom, as well as the more than 6 hours of laptop battery life.
Graphics Punch: Acer V3-571G-9435
The 15-inch Acer V3 comes with everything multimedia mavens need: a third-generation Intel Core i7-3610QM processor, 6GB of RAM (upgradeable to 8GB) and Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics with 2GB of DDR3 VRAM. All this in a system that weighs 5.7 pounds. The Widescreen CineCrystal display has a somewhat low resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, but otherwise you get a lot of oomph for your money.
Taking the place of the departed XPS 15z, the Inspiron 15R SE distinguishes itself with a new design, coated in a “stealth” black anodized aluminum. Inside, the 15R SE features an Intel third-generation Core i5-3210M processor, 6GB of RAM and AMD Radeon HD 7730M graphics with 2GB of memory. Students will also love the full 1080p display and Waves Maxx Audio 4 for sweeter sound.
Ultimate Ultrabook: ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A
Whether you’re surfing the web, watching movies or putting together the last-minute presentation for class, you’ll absolutely love the full HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels) on this Ultrabook. Starting at $1,099, this 3-pound aluminum unibody beauty packs a Core i5 processor, a 128 GB SSD and an improved backlit keyboard. And with 6.5 hours of battery life, you’ll have no problem getting through a day full of classes.
Ultimate Ultraportable: Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
Apple has upped the ultraportable ante by adding an Ivy Bridge processor and USB 3.0 ports to its 13-inch Air while dropping the starting price to $1,199. Amazingly, the new Air lasted an epic 8 hours and 10 minutes on our battery test, more than enough endurance for that all-nighter. Everything we love about this 3-pound wonder is still intact, including its high-quality display (1440 x 900 pixels) and best-in-class touchpad. And soon with Mountain Lion you’ll get an iOS-like Notification Center.
Epic Battery Life: Lenovo ThinkPad T430
The ThinkPad T430 is the perfect notebook for students who need lots of endurance. How much? Try over 13 hours of juice when you spring for the $50 9-cell LENOVO ASM 92P1219 Battery. Plus, this ThinkPad can take a beating from your klutzy roommate, thanks to its rubberized ABS plastic lid, carbon-reinforced bottom and internal roll cage. Add in a redesigned keyboard that’s sleeker but just as comfy and you have a winner.