Top 10 Back to School Laptops: 2014 Edition

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's the time of year again when you realize your trusty MacBook, ThinkPad or Pavillion notebook isn't going to make it through another full year - or even a semester. And, it's the time right before computer manufacturers begin introducing brand new, updated models for the holiday shopping season.


Sure, you might be able to make do with a shiny new tablet, but tablets can't do everything a laptop can. That may be one contributing factor to why tablet sales are beginning to sag. According to the latest analysis released by Canalys, worldwide tablet shipments fell approximately 5% in the second quarter of 2014 (48.4 million units) while PCs and notebooks posted a 14% increase.

It might be a safer bet to buy a device sporting a built-in hardware keyboard and mouse and the capability to run sophisticated software programs not available on mobile platforms. In other words - a notebook.

Thankfully, there are plenty of great choices. Everything from standard to touchscreen models, from large hard drive capabilities to models that store files in the cloud, in nearly every price range from $200 and up.

Although lower prices may lure you in, there's a grim reality concerning less-expensive portables and computing: the less expensive the laptop, the heavier it is. Super-cheap laptops hover in the 4.5 to 5.5 pound range, and someone has to lug that around. Conversely, the less a laptop weighs, the more it will probably cost you. Want slim and sleek? It's going to be more expensive.

Here are TheStreet's choices for the best value notebooks for students as they go back to school.

Apple MacBooks


As always, when it comes to school work, A is for Apple (AAPL), and there's a good reason for that. Apple computers are always in great demand because they're great computers. While the company doesn't break down sales figures between laptops and desktops, Apple did announce it sold 4.5 million Macs in its fiscal third quarter - up from 3.8 million a year earlier. Whether it's a new MacBook Air with an 11-inch screen, now starting at $899, or the 13-inch model starting at $100 more or a MacBook Pro for $1,099 or a Pro with a Retina Display, starting at $1,299 you can't go wrong with a Mac.

In late July, Apple updated its MacBook Pro models were updated to boost processor speed and overall performance in advance of the upcoming release of OS X Yosemite in a few weeks. Of course, these beautiful devices mesh perfectly with Apple other marvels - iPhones and iPads. Apple notebooks, especially the lower-end models, are usually a little more expensive than their Windows counterparts - but they're worth it.



At the other end of the scale are a class of notebook computers called Chromebooks, which run on Google's (GOOG) Chrome operating system (in reality it's a glorified Web browser). The idea is to browse the Web using Chrome and store everything in Google's cloud.

Chromebooks come with a suite of office programs (somewhat similar to Microsoft's  (MSFT) Office). Those programs, which were bare bones at first, are now getting more sophisticated with each revision. Chromebooks perform free, automatic OS updates whenever new software is available, adding new features all the time. However, the main selling point here is price, starting at $160 online (not a typo!).

Although you can buy a super-deluxe model (Chromebook Pixel, $1,500 as pictured front and center above), most examples retail between $200 and $300. Companies currently making Chromebooks include Acer, HP (HPQ), Dell, Samsung, Toshiba and Lenovo. Except for a tiny number of luxury features, the $169 model does exactly what the $1,500 version can. A number of Chromebooks are on Amazon's top-10 best sellers list for a good reason.

My advice to consumers is stick to Chromebooks with Intel (INTC) processors inside for the best results.

HP's Chromebook Killer


In addition to producing a number of the most popular Chromebook models, HP is also a PC laptop powerhouse when it comes to Windows 8 laptops of all sizes, shapes and prices.

For back to school, this year HP offers an amazingly affordable Windows laptop with an easily forgettable name. The HP 15-f009wm has a 15.6-inch display, a 1.0 GHz AMD (AMD) dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM and runs the latest version of the full Windows 8.1 OS. That means it runs all the Windows programs you can throw at it, and it should get a Windows 9 update next year.

The main selling point, again, is its price. Amazon (AMZN) lists it for $255. Buyers should think of it as a Chromebook that can run Windows programs. It doesn't come with a nifty touchscreen, but Microsoft's latest version of Windows makes a non-touch screen computer much easier to use.

Dell, Asus, Acer

Dell also sells an inexpensive Windows 8 laptop in addition to a Chromebook. But the Inspiron i3531-1200BK is different from most of the others. It has a 15.6-inch non-touch screen, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, runs Windows 8.1 but sports an Intel Celeron processor, and sells for $248 on Amazon with free shipping.

Among other things, Asus is known as a leader in the manufacture and sale of inexpensive computers. These days, in addition to some great-looking expensive devices, Asus makes the X551MAV-EB01-B. With nearly identical specs to the above Dell, Amazon has this model for $229.99.

Acer produces the number one selling Chromebook on Amazon's Top 10 laptop list, the sub-$200 C720. The Taiwanese-based manufacturer also makes some nice Windows portables worth considering. Like the Aspire ES1-511-C59V. specs are similar to the Dell above and currently retails for $299.96.

Lenovo ThinkPads


For years, ThinkPads were my favorite go to computers. I used them when they were made by IBM (IBM), and continued to use them after Lenovo took over nearly 10 years ago. They're still among my favorite devices on the planet. These days, there are a number of ThinkPad models - including the best-selling ThinkPad Edge E545 (20B20011US).  It sports a 15.6-inch screen, a speedy AMD processor and 4GB of RAM - but it ships with Windows 7 (64-bit) installed.

Lenovo offers an upgrade path to the latest version of Windows 8, but you might just want to stick with what's in there until you have to make the leap to Windows 8 Pro, or even Windows 9. This laptop is pure ThinkPad - which means it should hold up under heavy use for years. It's priced just right, with the E545 selling for $395. Buyers can spend a lot more on a top-of-the-line model, but that's up to them.

Whatever you decide, there are a lot of good reasons why Lenovo is currently the top computer manufacturer on the planet. According to the latest numbers from Gartner, Lenovo was number one in global laptop shipments with a 19.2% share in the second quarter of 2014.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3


Microsoft's third-generation Windows 8.1 Pro touchscreen tablet/laptop is beautiful. The latest Surface is very cool and runs like a top. Earlier this month, Microsoft announced the release of the most expensive (Intel i7) and most cost-effective (Intel i3) models.

Microsoft claims the new starter model is the fastest i3-equipped device on the market today. According to Microsoft, the new $799 portable ($100 less than the MacBook Air) is for users who may not necessarily need the ultimate speed an i5 or i7 can provide - but the i3 it's plenty powerful. All Surface computers are thin and lightweight and can use the included an electronic stylus for inputting information via the touchscreen. The new i3 comes with 64GB of internal storage (128GB is optional).

The top of the line i7 starts at $1,549 with 256GB of storage, while the 512GB version starts at $1,949.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet's Senior Technology Correspondent.

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