by James A. Martin

Top 13 Back-to-School Laptops and Tablets

Aug 07, 20137 mins
AndroidConsumer ElectronicsiPad

Yes, it's that time of year. Here's a look at eight top laptops and five top tablets for the students in your life.

Credit: Thinkstock

We hate typing the words “back to school” as much as you hate reading them. But denial gets us nowhere. So we’re here to help you decide on a new laptop or tablet. We canvased six professional review sites to see what they’re recommending. What follows are eight top-ranked laptops and five tablets in various shapes, sizes and price points.

Not sure if you need a laptop, tablet or Google Chromebook for school? Check out 10 Back-to-School 2013 Laptop Buying Tips and What (and What Not) to Buy Your College Student.

James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+.

Apple MacBook Air (13 inch): Long Battery Life, Portability

Apple MacBook Air

Apple’s MacBook Air received a recent upgrade, and a significantly extended battery life ranks among its perks. CNET named Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air its best battery life” laptop and rated it 4 out of 5 stars. Macworld (4.5 out of 5 “mice”) says the Air’s battery test results “were the best we’ve seen from an Apple laptop.”

Worth noting: Apple claims the 13-inch MacBook Air (starting price: $1,099) can go 12 hours on a charge vs. 9 hours on the 11.6-inch Air (starting at $999).

From 2012: Top Tablets for Back to School (and Work) and Top Back-to-School Laptops

Apple MacBook Pro With 15-inch Retina Display: Screen Splendor

Apple MacBook Pro

Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display has received uniformly rave reviews, particularly the 15-inch model. Says Laptop magazine: “The MacBook Pro with Retina Display boasts a breathtakingly gorgeous screen, super-fast performance and long battery life in a slim and portable design.” (There’s also a well-received 13-inch model.)

Worth noting: Apple’s MacBook Airs were recently updated to Intel’s Haswell CPUs, promising faster performance and better battery life, but the Pros weren’t upgraded. Prices are high, too: The 15-inch MacBook Pro starts at $2,199.

Counterpoint: MacBook Pro Retina Ain’t Worth It

Lenovo IdeaPad Y500: Get Your Game On

Lenovo IdeaPad Y500

If you’d rather not have a Windows 8 touchscreen and you’re into games, consider the Lenovo IdeaPad Y500, which earned solid reviews this spring. “The Lenovo IdeaPad Y500 (starting price: $799) is a great choice as a gaming laptop that’s lighter and cheaper than your typical desktop-replacement monstrosity,” PCWorld says. Overall, “It’s a great machine that offers excellent performance and specs for the price.”

Worth noting: Did we mention no touchscreen?

Analysis: New Laptops, Hybrids Emerge as Users Kick ‘Fatbooks’ to Curb

Sony Vaio Pro 11: Ultra-Light Ultrabook

Sony Vaio Pro 11

Sony knows how to do a sleek portable computer, and the Sony Vaio Pro 11 (with Windows 8) is a great example. The thing weighs less than two pounds, uses a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, has a battery that won’t quit and sports a top-notch 11.6-inch touchscreen. Consumer Reports (total score: 73; subscription required) says it’s “the lightest laptop we’ve ever tested” and mentions the built-in NFC technology for transferring data from phone to laptop.

Worth noting: Sony’s Vaio Pro 11 starts at $750. A larger model, the Vaio Pro 13, starts at $1,249.

More: NFC Not Just for Mobile Payments: 6 Future Uses

Microsoft Surface Pro: Sleek Windows 8 Tablet

Microsoft Surface Pro

Reviewers were mostly impressed—though not wildly ecstatic—over Microsoft’s Surface Pro (starting price: $799), a full-on Windows 8 tablet. You get the cool built-in kick stand, the optional and insanely great keyboards that double as covers, a stylus pen and more in a highly portable package. Concludes Computer Shopper (4-star rating): “The performance…is impressive, its screen is stunning, and the design and build quality are stellar.”

Worth noting: The flexible, detachable keyboard makes it hard to type on this thing on your lap. Battery life isn’t stellar, either.

Commentary: Microsoft Surface Pro Has Problems But Also Big Promise

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13: Flexible and Fun

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

Use it as a laptop. Or a tablet. Or swivel the screen 360 degrees. It has a touchscreen and a trackpad. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 Windows 8 portable (starting price: $899) is nothing if not flexible. It’s a bit heavy and isn’t the absolute fastest laptop around. But listen to PCWorld’s conclusion: “The Yoga is surprisingly awesome. Sure, it’s not going to replace your iPad, but for a laptop it does the tablet thing very well (and it does the laptop thing pretty well, too). It helps that the keyboard, trackpad and touchscreen are all top-notch.”

Worth noting: PC World gave it 4.5 stars.

Analysis: Windows 8 ‘Convertibles’ Help Lenovo Break Into High-End PC Market

Samsung Chromebook Series 3: Cloud Dwellers’ Delight

Samsung Chromebook Series 3

Let’s be clear up front: A Google Chromebook shouldn’t be your only computer. It’s unconventional in that all its software comes from Google (and its app store), and most everything you do relies heavily on the Internet. But at $249 and with long battery life, it could be an awesome secondary machine to take to class. As Laptop magazine (3.5 stars) says, “This notebook gets people online on the cheap and provides a comfortable keyboard and touchpad.”

Worth noting: Acer and Hewlett-Packard also make Chromebooks.

Related: 5 Things You Need to Know About Google Chromebooks

Toshiba Satellite U845T: Slim Body and Price

Toshiba Satellite U845T

Lots to love with Toshiba’s Windows 8 portable. Critics applaud its thin profile, attractive brushed-aluminum body, solid performance and battery life and attractive price (starting at $799). PC Mag (4 stars) raves: “Zippy processing power along with a slender chassis and solid all-around performance come together in making the Toshiba Satellite U845T-S4165 worthy of serious consideration.”

Worth noting: Toshiba’s website no longer sells the U845T but offers a highly similar U804T model, also starting at $799.

Also: Windows 8 Devices on Sale at Microsoft Store Website

Apple iPad: The Tablet Gold Standard

Apple iPad

Tablets existed before Apple’s 2010 iPad launch. But nobody cared. Thanks to the iPad’s huge success, everyone either now owns or covets a tablet. Apple’s full-sized iPad ($499 and up) routinely gets rave reviews for its gorgeous Retina display, crazy-long battery life and huge app and accessories ecosystems. Macworld (4.5 mice rating) says the current model is “the most powerful iPad yet.”

Worth noting: Today’s fourth-genration iPad came out last fall. Might it be time for a new version soon?

More: The 20 Best iPhone/iPad Games of 2013 So Far

Apple iPad mini: Small But Sensational iOS Tablet

Apple iPad mini

The iPad mini ($329 and up) makes for an ideal take-anywhere tablet, especially if you opt for a model with built-in 4G connectivity. Just don’t expect to do a lot of schoolwork on it because of its smaller screen. Also, the current mini lacks its big sibling’s Retina display. Laptop magazine gives Apple’s mini tablet 4 stars: “The iPad mini’s superior design, unparalleled app selection and extra-long battery life make this tablet a cut above the 7-inch competition.”

Worth noting: As with the current, larger iPad, could it be time for a newer, faster and better iPad mini soon?

More: 3 Ways to Justify an iPad mini Purchase

Google Nexus 7: Small But Sensational Android Tablet

Google Nexus 7

Google just upgraded its Nexus 7 Android tablet ($230 and up). CNET’s July 25 review (4 stars) doesn’t mince words: “The best small tablet gets even better,” says the headline. CNET lists as pros a “razor-sharp full-HD screen, silky smooth performance, meager weight and affordable price.” Cons? “The back is missing the soft grippy texture of the original, screen colors lack accuracy, and there’s no microSD support.”

Worth noting: Google’s larger Nexus 10 tablet ($399), as of this writing, hasn’t been recently upgraded.

In Pictures: Google’s New Nexus 7 Tablet

Google Nexus 10: Best Big Android Tablet

Google Nexus 10

Google’s larger 10-inch screen Google Nexus Android tablet ($399) consistently gets kudos. PCWorld gave the 32GB version 4 stars and praised the tablet for having the latest Android OS, great graphics and performance and a super-sharp, high-resolution display. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports (subscription required) gave it one of its highest overall tablet scores (83).

Worth noting: As stated, Google’s Nexus 7 recently received an upgrade, but, as of this writing, the Nexus 10 has not.

In Pictures: Google’s Nexus 10 Tablet

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: A Noteworthy Tablet

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

Laptop magazine gave the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 Android tablet ($399) a 4-star rating and proclaimed it “Best Tablet for College.” Laptop magazine says, “The Galaxy Note 8 has it all. A built-in S Pen gives users of this 8-inch tablet the ability to take notes in class, as well as hover over email and other content for instant previews. Meanwhile, a built-in IR blaster and Samsung’s WatchOn software enables couch potatoes to find good stuff to watch and change the channel with a tap.”

Worth noting: Samsung also makes a Galaxy Note 10.1.

Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 Pricey, But Has Its Charms