By Louis Ramirez, dealnews Senior Features Writer
These days, few back-to-school shopping lists are complete without a laptop. But parents, before you begin hyperventilating at the potential cost of a new notebook, take a deep breath and consider this: With the best laptop deals now hovering around the $225 price point, buying a new laptop has never been cheaper. In fact, now is probably the best time to find laptop deals. But don't let the range of configurations and prices stress you out. Here's a guide to back-to-school laptop deals, including the specs that a typical student needs and the price that you can expect to pay.
Buying a Laptop for College: The Components
First things first, while most students probably want one of these monster configurations as their back to school laptop, the truth is that most systems available today are sufficient for the average student. So more importantly, parents should be concerned with overpaying; you don't want to splurge on a laptop with features your student will never use. So what specs are necessary?
ProcessorLet's first start with the processor. Intel dominates the market, and its processors typically pack more punch than the competition. We recommend looking for systems with a dual-core Core i3 (entry-level) or Core i5 (mainstream) processor. Core i5 systems are more common, and our June data shows that the price difference usually isn't more than $30, so you really should opt for a Core i5 for better performance. As a side note, Intel also offers Core i7 processors, but systems that include this CPU are usually high-end laptops that are designed for cutting-edge PC gaming and HD video editing; so unless your student wants to be the next Scorsese, you don't have to worry much about them. To get the most power for your penny, avoid splurging on a quad-core setup and stick with dual-core configurations.
Ivy Bridge or Haswell?
Another consideration when assessing the processor on your kid's laptop is the series. Back in June, Intel released its new Haswell processors. Designed to use less power than the previous Ivy Bridge generation, Haswell is worth the upgrade if your student will be spending a large amount of time away from a power outlet, perhaps toting his laptop to classes. An example of Haswell's power comes in the form of the new Haswell MacBook Air, which nearly doubles the battery life of the previous Ivy Bridge MacBook Air. If traditional note-taking and desk-sitting is more in line with your kid's study habits, know that Haswell's performance increase when plugged in is minimal, and you'll save more money (roughly $277 based on our June deals) by opting for an Ivy Bridge system.
So how can you tell which series you're buying? Most retailers don't actually label their laptops as Ivy Bridge or Haswell, so to distinguish between the two, look at the laptop's spec sheet. Ivy Bridge processors have a "3" as their starting number, whereas Haswell systems start with a "4." For instance, a Core i7-4700MQ uses the new Haswell chip while a Core i7-3517U uses an Ivy Bridge chip.
RAM and Hard Drive CapacityAs for other features, 4GB of RAM is the standard these days for laptops, and it's usually coupled with a 500GB hard drive. Again, that's sufficient for most students, but if you see a system that offers a bit more RAM or hard drive space for only a few bucks more, go for it. Any additional RAM or storage will only increase your laptop's longevity, and allow Windows 8 (and all its updates) to run smoothly.
Retailers are making a big push for touchscreen laptops, which make navigating through Windows 8 much more fluid. The Microsoft Store has a great student-only promo (a valid .edu email address is required) on the ASUS VivoBook Intel Ivy Bridge Core i3 1.8GHz 11.6" Touchscreen Laptop bundled with a Microsoft Office 365 4-year subscription for $359. That's the cheapest price we've seen for an 11.6" touchscreen laptop, which is the kind of system that usually commands twice that price. If you're not interested in the VivoBook, you might want to bypass purchasing a touchscreen laptop until the late fall when Intel releases its Bay Trail processor which will be specifically designed for $299 touchscreen laptop/tablet hybrids.
Another buzzword to avoid is "ultrabooks." Designed by Intel, these systems were meant to be thinner, lighter (typically under 3 lbs.), and more stylish than traditional laptops, but ultrabook prices always command a premium and hardly ever drop below $500. In addition, they generally come with less hard drive space, meaning you'll have to invest in an external hard drive should your student run out of space.
Intel Laptop Prices as Low as $299, AMD Falls to $225
Now that you know what kind of back to school laptop your student needs, it's time to think about cost. The average price of a 15" Ivy Bridge system with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive has been $381 since the start of the year, but keep in mind that prices have dropped considerably since January. These days it's common to see deals in the low $300 range. For example, we've seen 15" Core i5 Ivy Bridge systems with 4GB of RAM and a healthy 500GB hard drive for as little as $299. June's price low for a slightly better configuration with 6GB of RAM and a 750GB hard drive was $323. Therefore, any laptop you spot under $299 is an Editors' Choice-level deal, as it'll be the best price we've ever seen for a 15" mainstream laptop.
Again, if battery life is of great importance, and you opt for a Haswell-based system, look for deals at or below $600, which was the lowest price we saw for a 15" Haswell laptop in June; it also happened to feature a Core i7 quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive — all a great value. If you don't find such a souped up system at this price though, remember that a Core i5 Ivy Bridge configuration with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive still packs a lot of power for both work and play.
If your budget is particularly tight, AMD — Intel's arch rival — offers some great values with its processors. Look for laptops with AMD's E2, E4, A4, or A6 processor, all of which are part of its mainstream line and can take on any task your student throws its way. And because AMD focuses on value, in June these laptops fell to prices as low as $225. Periodically, you may even find some of AMD's quad-core systems (laptops that use the A8 or A10 processor) for as little as $400, in which case you'll get more value for your money. (By comparison, Intel's quad-core systems usually start at $600.)
Amazon Leads with Editors' Choice College Laptop Bundles
Back-to-school laptop deals usually include a notebook bundled with a gift card, printer, gaming console, or other popular accessory. This summer, the best Editors' Choice bundles we've seen have come from Amazon, which has been offering Ivy Bridge laptops bundled with a $100 Amazon gift card with prices starting at $430. A close runner up is Best Buy's HP Pavilion g6 AMD A6 2.7GHz laptop bundled with a flash drive, laptop sleeve, and Kaspersky Internet Security for $300. That's just a buck more than the cheapest dual-core system we've ever seen.
August typically sees its fair share of laptop deals, but if you still haven't made a purchase by mid-month, we recommend jumping on the first deal that appeals to you, as many of the best deals will not repeat. In addition to Amazon and Best Buy, look for back to school sales from Staples, Office Depot, and newegg.
Apple Laptop Deals
Alternatively, Apple has also kicked off its back-to-school promo offering shoppers a $100 App Store Gift Card with the purchase of any Mac or a $50 App Store Gift Card with the purchase of any iPhone or iPad. Purchases also qualify for education pricing, which takes 5% off Macs and MacBooks. Although the sale has lost some of its punch (in 2008, for instance, Apple included a free $299 iPod touch as part of its promo), the $100 credit is good for App Store student software, so you can actually redeem it for something more useful than an Angry Birds app.
Moreover (and contrary to popular belief), finding Apple laptop deals isn't that difficult. Our best advice: don't make all your purchases at the Apple Store. Certified Apple resellers like Amazon, Best Buy, and MacMall are more likely to offer discounts, which Apple hardly ever does. Even if you're shopping with an educational discount, back-to-school sales at other retailers could make that new Apple laptop a better buy at Amazon or Best Buy.
Even better, you can save more money by buying refurbished laptops, of which Apple has one of the best refurb policies in the tech industry; all refurbished systems boast the same 1-year warranty as their new counterparts. As an added bonus, Apple laptops tend to last longer than their Windows counterparts. So many Mac fans don't mind paying more upfront knowing that their laptop will last significantly longer than a budget Windows machine.
Ultimately, even if you're on a shoestring budget, a new laptop is within reach. Whether you opt for a back-to-school bundle or want a standalone system, you can easily snag a new laptop during back-to-school sales without going over budget.