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Back to School Buying Guide 2014: Premium Notebooks

Classrooms at schools of all types are filling up across the nation this week, as students once again return for another year of classes.

As students prepare for another year of learning, retailers  slashing prices on the tools and toys that students will need to get through another school year.

To help guide your back to school purchases, VR World and Bright Side of News contributors have put together a back to school guide for 2014 to help you buy the top tablets, smartphones, dorm room TVs, premium notebooks, low cost notebooks, and gaming systems for your 2014 back to school shopping.

Top Five Back to School 2014 Premium Notebooks

1) MacBook Pro Retina


The MacBook Pro is the clear favorite when it comes to the power notebook segment, and until the Broadwell refresh comes along next year, the current 13.3-inch and 15-inch versions with Haswell cores are the best of the lot. The 15-inch model offers discrete video cards as well as quad-core CPUs, while the 13.3-inch variants are limited to integrated graphics. We in fact would be more inclined to the 13.3-inch model as it is more portable when seen against the 15-inch version. Unless your work involves a lot of 3D rendering, the integrated Intel Iris 5100 solution offered by the 13.3-inch version is more than enough to handle most mainstream video and image editing tasks with ease.

One of the main areas of differentiation between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro line has been the Retina display, which offers a screen resolution of 2560 x 1600. That line may blur in the near future as rumors are starting to emerge of an eventual Retina MacBook Air announcement, but for now if you want a higher resolution screen, the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro Retina is the starting point. In addition to the screen, the MacBook Pro has what is widely considered to be the best trackpad and keyboard that you can find on a notebook. While a lot hasn’t changed in terms of overall design, with the MacBook Pro retaining the brushed aluminium design, the new fan vent at the bottom of the screen means that the MacBook Pro is one of the quietest notebooks available today.

The battery life is also another plus point, and while MacBook Pro does not offer the twelve hour battery life boasted by the MacBook Air, it does provide seven hours on a full charge, which is admirable considering the higher-resolution screen. In terms of connectivity, you get two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, HDMI out and a card reader. Wireless connectivity is delivered through a Wi-Fi ac modem, which has a bandwidth of 1300 Mbps.

There isn’t a notebook running Windows that comes close to the MacBook Pro Retina’s combination of build quality, screen quality, performance, battery life and keyboard.

2) Dell XPS 15


Not quite ready to make the switch to Mavericks and are looking for the best alternative to the MacBook Pro for Windows? This is it. With the latest iteration, Dell has fixed a lot of pain points from the first two versions of the XPS 15, making the current variant a desirable choice if you’re looking for a machine that offers a sleek design, high-resolution screen and a decent battery life.

Talking about design, the silver aluminium look of the XPS 15 is as close to a MacBook-esque finish as we’ve seen on a machine with a Dell logo on it. However, Dell could have done more to differentiate the notebook as a premium offering, as the outer design does not belie the $2,000 asking price. The screen does, thankfully, as the 3200 x 1800 panel features a higher resolution than that offered by the MacBook Pro, and is brighter at 341 lux (versus 324 lux for the MacBook Pro). While screen brightness is higher, the glossy finish does tend to be reflective. That is about the only downside with the 10-point touchscreen, which is regarded as one of the best available on a Windows Ultrabook.

Hardware configuration of the XPS 15 include a quad-core 2.2 GHz Core i7-4702MQ, 2 x 8 GB DDR3 RAM clocked at 1600 MHz, up to 512 GB SSD, Nvidia GeForce GT 750M that offers 384 cores and 2GB GDDR5 video memory, dual-band Intel AC-7260 modem that delivers 802.11 ac Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth 4.0. As far as the build quality is concerned, the only major issue with the XPS 15 is the soft-touch trackpad, which is often jittery while using two-finger scrolling. The island-style keyboard is unchanged from previous generations, which is a good thing.

The notebook has three USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, card reader, HDMI out and mini-DisplayPort. With dimensions of 14.65 x 10 x 0.31-0.71 inches, the XPS 15 mimics the MacBook Pro, which comes in at 14.13 x 9.73 x 0.71 inches. The weight is also nearly identical, which at 4.4 pounds is a shade lighter than the MacBook Pro. Battery life between both devices is however not identical as Dell’s offering falls short by about two hours. At best, the XPS 15 manages to deliver seven hours, and if you’re cycling through multimedia, the notebook lasts for around three to three and a half hours.

The XPS 15 manages to deliver in a lot of areas: high-resolution touchscreen, powerful CPU and dedicated video card. If you’re looking for a great multimedia notebook in the 15-inch segment that also allows you to do video and image editing on the go, the XPS 15 is the ideal notebook for you.

3) Lenovo Yoga Pro 2


Not ready to invest in a 15-inch Ultrabook? Then you might want to take a gander at the second-generation Yoga Pro 2, which offers many of the features of its predecessor, the Yoga 13, and has acquired a few new tricks along the way. The convertible Ultrabook features the same 360-degree hinge that allows you to use the device in four modes: Laptop, Tablet, Tent and Stand. In tablet mode, you can fold the screen onto the keyboard and use the device as a tablet, although the 13-inch form factor isn’t exactly conducive to be used as a tablet. Stand mode is wherein the keyboard lays flat on a surface with the screen facing the user, and in tent mode, the keyboard and screen form a tent at a 30 degree angle.

One of the new additions in the Yoga Pro 2 is the screen, which with a resolution of 3200 x 1800 is twice as high as the 1600 x 900 resolution offered by the Yoga 13. Lenovo is also offering a backlit keyboard, a feature that was sorely lacking in the original model. While the screen resolution is far better than the Yoga 13, the screen color balance isn’t ideal out of the box, with yellows not rendering accurately (Lenovo has since rolled out a fix). Another issue that has nothing to do with the Yoga Pro 2 itself is that certain software utilities do not scale currently in Windows.

As for hardware customization, Lenovo offers a 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7-4510U, the 1.80 GHz i7-4500U and the 1.6 GHz Core i5-4200U. Memory is 8 GB DDR3L 1600 MHz, and you can choose between a 128/256/512 GB SSD. For our money, we’d recommend getting the Core i7-4500U, 8 GB RAM and the 256 GB SSD version, which at $1,200 offers more value than other Ultrabooks in this price segment. Connectivity on the Yoga Pro 2 is quite meager, as the Ultrabook comes with an Intel Wireless-N 7260 802.11 b/g/n modem that lacks 5 GHz Wi-Fi connectivity, one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port and a micro-HDMI out. Battery life on the Yoga Pro 2 is decent for a notebook in this category at seven hours, considering the high resolution screen.

If you’re looking for a versatile machine that offers a high resolution screen, a comfortable keyboard, great build quality and decent battery life, the Yoga Pro 2 is the Ultrabook for you. For $1,200, the notebook punches above its weight.

4) Acer Aspire S7-392


If you don’t want an Ultrabook that can convert into a tablet, then the Acer Aspire S7 is what you should get. The notebook has a sleek design, offers a great build quality, comes with a nine hour battery life and is lightweight, weighing in at just under three pounds. The keyboard and the trackpad have been significantly improved from the non-Haswell version, and Acer now offers a version of the notebook with a 2560 x 1440 IPS display. However, the full-HD panel should be more than enough for most users, considering the 13.3-inch screen size. The full-HD panel is in fact one of the best you can get on a Windows Ultrabook. But if you’re specifically looking for a QHD notebook, you can get the 2560 x 1440 panel.  As is the case with higher resolution screens, the battery life on the QHD variant is two hours lesser than the same notebook with a full-HD screen.

Other hardware options include 8 GB RAM, up to 256 GB SSD (which we recommend getting), and either a 1.6 GHz Core i5-4200U or a 1.8 GHz Core i7-4500U. In terms of connectivity, you get Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, SD card slot and a Mini DisplayPort. The lack of Wi-Fi ac connectivity is one of the few areas the S7 is found lacking.

One of the main facets of the Acer Aspire S7 is its sleek design, which with dimensions of 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.5 inches is thinner than the latest generation MacBook Air, which comes in at 12.8 x 8.9 x 0.68 inches. The brushed aluminium finish gives the notebook a premium look, while the Gorilla Glass 3 coating on the lid and the touchscreen enhances durability. One drawback with a thin design is that the key travel on the keyboard is fairly shallow, and while the keyboard is much better from last year’s version, it still takes getting used to. In short, the Acer Aspire S7 offers one of the best full-HD (or QHD) paneled touchscreens, nine hour battery life from the 6,280mAh battery, a lightweight design at 2.9 pounds and great build quality. There are a few niggles when it comes to the keyboard, but overall the S7 is one of the best Ultrabooks you can get for the money.

5) Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus


Samsung hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of success in the notebook segment as it has in the smartphone market, but in the Ativ Book 9 Plus, the South Korean vendor has a notebook that hits all the right notes. The design is modern and elegant, with a gunmetal-grey finish that conveys the premium nature of the notebook. Boasting a 3200 x 1800 multitouch screen, the Ativ Book 9 Plus offers more screen real estate than other notebooks in this segment. The screen has great viewing angles, although it does tend to be reflective thanks to the glossy finish. As this tablet is aimed at multimedia users, it comes with a hinge that allows you to lock it in a preferred position, and it can also lay flat on a surface at 180 degrees.

Being a Samsung-made device, the Ativ Book 9 Plus allows you to connect your Galaxy series mobile or tablet to the notebook via SideSync. With SideSync, you can mirror the screen of your tablet or mobile device onto the Ativ Book 9 Plus, and pair your notebook’s keyboard and trackpad with the connected device. The utility works only on a select Galaxy mobiles and tablets, but if you do have a compatible device, it is a nifty feature.

In terms of the hardware, the Ativ Book 9 Plus comes with a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5 4200U CPU, 4 GB DDR3L RAM clocked at 1600 MHz, 128 GB SSD, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n connectivity delivered through an Intel Wireless-N 7260AN card, Intel WiDi and Bluetooth 4.0. No Wi-Fi ac here, and weirdly the notebook does not feature a full-size HDMI out, with Samsung choosing instead to go with micro-HDMI video-out. Other connectivity options includes two USB 3.0 ports and an SD card reader.

With an overall weight is slightly over 3 pounds, the notebook isn’t as light as others in this segment, like the Acer Aspire S7. It does however have a smaller footprint than most notebooks with dimensions of 12.58 x 8.78 x 0.54 inches. In terms of battery life, the Ativ Book 9 Plus does much better than similar Windows notebooks, offering nine hours on a single charge, commendable for a notebook with a 3200 x 1800 screen.

Samsung’s Ativ Book 9 Plus is a great choice if you’re looking for a high-end Windows notebook. It offers a great high-resolution screen, sleek design, decent battery life and a powerful CPU. Where it lacks is in the memory segment, where 4 GB RAM and a 128 GB SSD are limiting factors as other notebooks available in this segment offer 8 GB RAM as standard and a 256 GB SSD for the same price. Should you get the Ativ Book 9 Plus over other notebooks? If you want to take advantage of Samsung-exclusive features and are mainly interesting in multimedia and lightweight tasks, then yes, the Ativ Book 9 Plus is a great choice.