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Back to School Buying Guide 2014: Budget 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 Budget Notebooks

1) Chromebooks

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Chromebooks are a clear crowd favorite in the low-cost segment, and for good reason. Starting at $250, Chromebooks offer portability and a great build quality for the asking price. If you’re looking for an affordable notebook that allows you to browse the web and handle basic word processing functions, a Chromebook is the ideal choice. A Chromebook is not meant to be used as a primary notebook as most of its functions require an Internet connection, but offline availability for most utilities means that you can use it as a secondary device, mainly if you have a desktop. As much of what you do on a Chromebook is reliant on an Internet connection, the notebooks feature very less storage space, which is often a 16 or 32 GB SSD. Low internal storage is offset by a 100 GB Google Drive storage, which is included with every Chromebook.

Google has announced that it is collaborating with VMware in bringing certain desktop utilities to ChromeOS, but there isn’t any clear mention as to when this will occur. If you are looking to buy a Chromebook, there are a lot of great choices: the Dell Chromebook 11 is a clear winner, although its availability might be an issue. Acer’s C720P is another favorite, with its touchscreen giving the Chromebook an additional benefit. Samsung’s Chromebook 2 is an interesting choice if you’re looking for a notebook that looks similar to your Galaxy Note 3.

As for the internal hardware, the Dell Chromebook 11 offers a 4th generation dual-core Haswell-based Celeron 2955U CPU clocked at 1.4 GHz, 11.6-inch screen with a resolution of 1366 x 768, 2 or 4 GB RAM, 16 GB SSD and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n connectivity. Connectivity includes HDMI out, one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port and an SD card slot. With a battery life of nine hours, the Dell Chromebook 11 lasts all day, and comes with a keyboard that is far better than what is being offered on notebooks priced thrice as high.

With the Dell Chromebook 11 limited in terms of availability, the Acer C720P is the go-to Chromebook for most users. The difference between the C720 and the C720P is that the latter has a touchscreen. When seen against similar offerings by Dell, HP and Samsung, Acer’s offering looks drab, but with a retail price of costs $280, it offers great value for money. The C720P is available in 2 or 4 GB RAM configurations, with other hardware similar to that as the Dell Chromebook 11, although battery life is slightly lesser at eight hours.

If you’re looking for a Chromebook with a better screen, Samsung’s Chromebook 2 offers a 13.3-inch full-HD display for $340. Under the hood, the Chromebook 2 features an octa-core Exynos 5 Octa 5800 clocked at 2 GHz. It also has Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n connectivity, 4 GB DDR3L RAM, one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port and an eight hour battery life.

2) Lenovo Flex 2

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If you’re looking for a notebook that runs Windows and is available for under $600, Lenovo’s Flex 2 is the best of the lot. While you can get a notebook with a Core i5 for this price, they do have a lot of trade-offs when seen against an Ultrabook, like the lack of an SSD and full-HD panels. That being said, the divide between what you get in a high-end notebook and a budget machine has lessened considerably. For instance, the Lenovo Flex 2 features a Core i5-4210U clocked at 1.7 GHz, which is the same processor used in many Ultrabooks today. The Flex 2 also has 4 GB DDR3L RAM (1600 MHz) and a 500 GB mechanical hard drive. The 14.0-inch multi-touch screen offers a resolution of 1366 x 768, and while the Flex 2 does not have a convert into a tablet, it does come with a 300-degree hinge that allows you to turn the screen around and lay the notebook flat on its keyboard, which is ideal for watching multimedia.

With dimensions of 13.5 x 10 x 0.8 inches and a weight of 4.18 pounds, it is thinner and lighter than most other notebooks in this price segment. The keyboard and the trackpad are also much better than what you get on a $600 notebook. In terms of connectivity, you get one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, SD card reader, Ethernet and HDMI out. The Flex 2 isn’t going to win many design awards with its matte-black exterior, but it is durable and has a build quality that is much better than what we’re used to seeing in this segment. The battery life of six hours is also better than what other models in this category manage.

There are a few drawbacks with the Flex 2. The first has to do with Wi-Fi connectivity. Lenovo is yet to offer dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity on most of its budget models, which means that the Flex 2 cannot connect to 5 GHz networks. Another area of concern is the screen, which has bad viewing angles and colors that look washed out. While you can configure the Flex 2 with a full-HD screen and a 128 GB SSD, the $1,000 asking price is way too high, and you’re better off buying an Ultrabook that offers a much better build quality and a more modern design.

3) Acer Aspire E1

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The Acer Aspire E1 is the non-touchscreen alternative to the Flex 2. Boasting similar hardware as Lenovo’s offering, Acer’s variant is generally available for less than what the Flex 2 costs. If you don’t mind using a non-touch notebook and are okay with four to five hours of battery life, the Aspire E1 is a decent choice.

In terms of design, the notebook is geared more toward function than form, with a black plastic finish and a white keyboard deck that does nothing to distinguish the E1 from countless other budget notebooks. The E1 comes with a 15.6-inch 1366 x 768 resolution screen and a keyboard and trackpad that aren’t as good as that of the Flex 2. For what it’s worth, Acer has decided to not add a lot of bloatware with the notebook, which is great as it saves you from having to uninstall it all after first boot.

Other hardware includes a 1.6 GHz Core i5-4200U, 8 GB RAM, 500 GB mechanical hard drive, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n (no Wi-Fi ac here) and Bluetooth 4.0. Ports include one USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 Ethernet, VGA and an HDMI out. The standard model features an integrated video card, but you can select an Nvidia 820M. Dedicated video card will be an interesting addition, although the entry-level 820M allows you to only play less-intensive titles at medium to low settings. The E1 is larger, heavier and not as great as the Flex 2, but if you’re looking for a sub-$500 notebook with a 15.6-inch screen, this is the best option available.

4) Asus X550LB

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Asus is marketing the X550LB as a budget gaming notebook. Available for under $600, the X550LB comes with an Nvidia GeForce GT 740M video card, which lets you play current titles on medium settings with ease. The design of the X550LB is similar to other Asus notebooks, with a brushed aluminium design covering the lid, and a

The 15.6-inch notebook features a screen resolution of 1366 x 768, comes with an Intel Core i5-4200U CPU clocked at 1.6 GHz, 8 GB DDR3L RAM at 1600 MHz, 750 GB mechanical hard drive and a GeForce GT 740M along with Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0. Also included is a DVD drive, and at 5 pounds, the notebook cannot be considered lightweight, but it is not as heavy as other 15-inch notebooks available today. In terms of connectivity, you’re looking at two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, HDMI out and VGA out. The non-backlit keyboard and trackpad are nothing to write home about, although the build quality is a notch above other models in this segment. The keyboard has decent travel, although there are many instances where it fails to register keystrokes.

While the built-in configuration of the X550LB is decent, you can change out the internal hard drive for an SSD, which makes a world of difference. What this machine excels at is providing a way for gamers to play demanding games at medium settings on a budget.

5) MacBook Air

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A MacBook Air is not a budget notebook by any means, but with back to school promotions, one can be bought for as low as $750, making it a worthy contender to the mix. Instead of buying a notebook like the Flex 2 for around $600, you’re better off getting the MacBook Air, which has a much better battery life and build quality for $750. The screen on the MacBook Air isn’t that much different from budget Windows notebooks, but it is good enough, and the MacBook as a whole is much more balanced than any Windows offering in this segment. For instance, its keyboard and trackpad are unmatched in the notebook segment.

We suggest getting the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air, which comes with a 13.3-inch 1400 x 900 screen, 4 GB RAM, 1.4 GHz Core i5 processor and a 128 GB SSD. The screen, while isn’t a matte finish, does not tend to be reflective.  The MacBook Air comes with a Wi-Fi 802.11ac modem, while most Windows notebooks are still offering 802.11 b/g/n connectivity. Connectivity includes two USB 3.0 ports, one Thunderbolt 2 connector and an SD card reader.

Software-wise, Mac OS X Mavericks is more polished than Windows, and you don’t have to worry (as much) about getting your machine infected with malware. With Yosemite set to launch in the coming months with a design overhaul and integration of new features, the software side of things will only get better.

With dimensions of 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.68 inches and a weight of 2.96 pounds, the MacBook Air set the standard for lightweight notebooks with great battery life. Throw in a robust software ecosystem, outstanding build quality and a brushed aluminum design, and you get a notebook that is a great point of entry into the world of Mac for $750. The entry-level configuration suffers at high-intensive tasks like image editing, but if you’re looking for a notebook that does all regular tasks with ease, the MacBook Air is the machine to get.