Back to School: Affordable notebooks and netbooks

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It’s decision time. Which should you buy for school, a notebook or a netbook? Netbooks are great because of their portability and low price points. Notebooks are good for their much more usable keyboards, optical drives, and computing power. So which one is right for you? Here are five good options in each category.

Notebooks

Here are some parameters I used for choosing a notebook for school.

1. Starting cost must be under $1,100. I’d shoot for under $1,000 but the MacBook starts at $1,099 and it’s a very viable option, especially if your school uses Macs.

2. Must weigh less than six pounds.

3. Must have a multi-core processor.

Best Notebook for Mac Users: MacBook ($1,099)

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Surprised with this choice? Didn’t think so. If you’ve grown up using a Mac or attend a school that’s primarily Mac-based, here’s your option: the $1,099 MacBook. Sure, you can get Windows-based notebooks for half the price of the base-level MacBook but a myriad of style preferences, software needs, and brand loyalty ensures that the MacBook remains one of Apple’s strongest sellers.

Best Big-Screen, Still Sorta-Light Notebook: Toshiba L305D ($679)

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Take any notebook with a 15.4-inch and you’ll notice that the only thing larger than the screen itself is the immense weight that the notebook adds to your bag. Most break through the six pound barrier with reckless abandon, even getting up into the seven- and eight-pound range. The L305D from Toshiba, however, is different.

It’s got a 15.4-inch screen, yet starts at just under 5.5 pounds. With 160GB of hard drive space and 3GB of RAM, the starting price of $679 is nice. You can get it for as low as $599, but that’s with only 1GB of RAM. The extra $80 is well worth it for 3GB.

Best Tablet Notebook: HP Pavilion tx2500z Series ($899)

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The HP Pavilion tx2500z series of tablet PCs offers a relatively affordable and light-weight computing option. The 12.1-inch screen tilts, swivels, and flips and these newer models have HP’s hipster “Echo” designs on the lid.

Until tomorrow, you can get some pretty decent extras: $150 instant rebate, free upgrade to 3GB of RAM, free shipping, and 50% off of Office Home and Student Edition.

Best Notebook for the Price of a Netbook: Acer Extensa EX4420 ($499)

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When you hear people say “Why would I buy a netbook when I can get an actual notebook for the same price?”, this is what they’re talking about. The Acer Extensa EX4420 features 2GB of RAM, a dual-core AMD processor, DVD burner, 14.1-inch screen, and a 5.4-pound travel weight. At $499, too, it should get the job done for most everyday students – both in the classroom and in the money department.

Best ‘Let’s Get Down to Business’ Workhorse: Dell Latitude E6400 ($879)

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For the student who’s going to be spending more time in class and the library than anywhere else, there’s the Dell Latitude E6400. It’s actually sold from Dell’s business division, but don’t let that dissuade you.

The notebook has a large 14.1-inch that can be upgraded to a whopping 1440×900 resolution, yet manages to weigh in at a scant 4.3 pounds. If you’re willing to blow through the $1,100 spending limit, you can outfit the E6400 with a 9-cell battery, battery slice, and a solid state drive for a caffeine-infused 19 hours of computing before needing to recharge. Unbelievable.

Netbooks

Netbooks are the small-yet-scrappy cousins to full-fledged notebooks. They’re svelte enough to fit in a large purse or small backpack, or they can likely blend in with the pile of books you’re carrying around and hoping to quickly skim before class starts.

Parameters:

1. Must run Windows. Sorry. This is aimed at college kids. If your school supports Linux, that’s great, but most schools are either Mac- or PC-focused.

2. Must weigh less than 3.5 pounds.

3. Must cost less than $600 with Windows installed.

Best All-Around Netbook: Asus Eee 1000H with XP and 6-cell battery ($549)

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Sporting a big (for a netbook) 10.2-inch screen, 80GB hard drive, 1GB of RAM, Windows XP, and a six-cell battery with a claim of over seven hours of battery life, the 3.19-pound Asus Eee 1000H could almost be confused for an actual notebook. There’s an integrated webcam and a 95%-of-full-size keyboard, too.

Plus, you’ll get nice intangibles like a strong and many-numbered user community and a wide selection of accessories and cases. Now if you could only (like many other netbook brands) find one in stock. Amazon’s current ship time is 1-2 months.

Best Vista-Based Netbook: HP 2133 Mini-Note ($579)

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One of the only big-name netbooks to offer a Windows Vista option, the HP 2133 Mini-Note is also widely regarded as having one of the best keyboards and build qualities around. For just south of $600, you’ll get an 8.9-inch screen, VIA C7-M Ultra Low Voltage processor, 120GB hard drive, 1GB of RAM, and 2.8-pound travel weight.

You’ll have to really, really want to run Vista Home, though. The 1GB of RAM, three-cell battery, and 1.2GHz VIA C3 processor make this option a bit of a gamble.

Best Netbook Deal Around: Acer Aspire One with XP and six-cell battery (
$399)

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Acer’s ultra-aggressive pricing has made the company’s relatively late entry into the netbook game a non-issue. Case in point, you can grab the Aspire One with an 8.9-inch screen, 160GB hard drive, 1GB of RAM, XP Home, and a six-cell battery good for over five hours of work for $399. That’s an insane price for all those features. It shows, too, as you’ll have to wait 2-5 weeks to get one from Amazon, for instance.

Best Big-Screen Netbook for Under $500: MSI Wind ($499) 

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Despite recent consumer-unfriendly price hikes, the MSI Wind is still a great deal for a netbook with a 10-inch screen and Windows XP. The build-quality and screen are especially nice and the Wind doesn’t feel short-featured or underpowered (see our review here). Newegg currently has the black MSI Wind for $499, which features a 120GB hard drive, 1GB of RAM, 10-inch screen, 2.3-pound travel weight, and a three-cell battery good for more than two hours of work before needing recharged.

Best Netbook You’ll be Least Apprehensive to Buy: Dell Inspiron Mini 9 ($399)

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Whether you’ve had a positive experience with Dell or not, the fact remains that the company is one of the most recognized names in computing. If you’re apprehensive about buying a netbook from a company you’ve never heard of, you may feel safest with Dell. Plus, for $399, you get an 8.9-inch screen, Windows XP, 512MB of RAM (you can upgrade to 1GB for $25), an 8GB solid state drive, a travel weight of 2.28 pounds, and a four-cell battery good for over four hours of work (according to Dell).

Careful, though. These things JUST came out so they’re relatively unproven. I’d hope that a company Dell’s size, however, would have rigorously tested these netbooks.

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