Best Lightweight Laptops for Back To School

by Reads (62,172)

Once again, the summer is drawing to a close and your school bus is getting ready to resume its daily route. It’s back to school shopping season again, and this year we’re here to help you find the perfect lightweight notebook.

Our comprehensive buying guides help you narrow down the selection of hundreds of laptops to just a few select notebooks and Ultrabooks that meet or exceed your back to school needs. We’ve selected what we consider to be the “Top 5 Lightweight Laptops” for students of all ages. There are many notebooks of all shapes and sizes out there, but if you plan to haul a laptop from class to class five days a week then you probably want something that’s thin and light so it won’t be too heavy in your backpack or messenger bag.

If you don’t see the perfect laptop computer in our list, or you’re looking for a more full-featured notebook than the ultraportables in this list, be sure to seek out buying advice in our “What Notebook Should I Buy?” discussion forum. Our forum members, moderators, and staff will graciously offer their insight in helping you pick the best laptop for your student.

Apple MacBook Air

No list of the best ultraportable notebooks would be complete without mentioning the MacBook Air. Love it or hate it, you have to respect the fact that Apple’s impressively thin and light laptop helped trigger Intel’s launch of Ultrabooks in 2011.

The newest 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air models feature your choice of Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors, up to 512GB of SSD storage, 5-to-7 hours of battery life, a gorgeous backlit keyboard, and Thurderbolt and USB 3.0 ports for high-speed data transfers. Of course, Mac OS X Mountain Lion is the biggest reason a student might want to buy the MacBook Air starting around $1,000 instead of lower-cost alternatives running Windows 7.

Lenovo ThinkPad X230

If the Apple MacBook Air is what the popular kids use at Starbucks, the ThinkPad X230 is what smart kids use in science class to look cool and do serious school work. The X230 is a business-class notebook designed primarily for mobile professionals so that also makes it fully capable of surviving the worst abuse a student will dish out over the course of a school year. On that note, since it runs Windows 7 there’s less likelihood that you’ll run into software compatibility issues if your local school district or University is a Microsoft shop.

This thin and light notebook packs a 12.5-inch IPS display (making it great for viewing at any angle), Intel Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 processors, a backlit keyboard as well as a “ThinkLight” above the screen if you need to read papers or a textbook in a dark room, and the X230 delivered more than eight and a half hours of battery life using the 6-cell battery! If that isn’t good enough, a starting price of less than $800 makes the X230 a fantastic value.

Integrated or discrete graphics?


When it comes to buying a laptop for your child’s back-to-school needs, at some point you’ll have to make a decision about graphics. Sure, no parent wants to spend extra cash on a laptop that their kid will just use to play video games, but notebook graphics are used for more than just games. Integrated graphics can generally handle any school work, but it’s important to consider what your child will be using the laptop to do. If your student will be editing video for a broadcast journalism or theater class, then discrete or dedicated graphics are a good idea. If your kid doesn’t want to clutter her dorm room with a bulky TV and wants to use the laptop to watch streaming HDTV or Blu-Ray movies then once again discrete graphics may be ideal.

The latest generation of Intel integrated graphics is quite good and most thin-and-light laptops don’t offer discrete graphics. That said, an increasing number of Ultrabooks and other ultraportable laptops offer dedicated graphics for users with demanding multimedia needs.

Samsung Series 9

The Series 9 Ultrabooks from Samsung are available in 13-inch and 15-inch form factors with a range of features and prices that make them compelling options for back to school. The Series 9 NP900X3B (13-inch) features a Samsung PLS (equivalent to IPS) display that looks great from any angle (think iPad screen). The 15-inch (NP900X4C) delivers a similar thin and light design but with a bigger screen and better components for superior performance.

Combine exceptional build quality, solid performance, and that thin and light design and you’ve got a great pair of student laptops. However, with retail prices above $1,000 the typical student will probably end up buying the Apple MacBook Air unless they need the Windows operating system or just hate Apple products.

Dell XPS 13

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is a unique hybrid of a premium consumer laptop and a thin-and-light business notebook. Loaded your choice of either an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor and a blazingly fast solid state drive, this little laptop might just give Apple a run for its money. Since the XPS 13 features a nearly borderless 13-inch display this Ultrabook actually takes up less space on a desk (or in a backpack) than the 13-inch MacBook Air. Although the display on the XPS 13 is limited by a resolution of just 1366 x 768, the screen is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass making it almost impossible to scratch … a GREAT feature for a student laptop.

Our only real complaints about the XPS 13 are the lack of a SD card slot (annoying for student photographers) and the fact that the Gorilla Glass covering makes the screen more prone to reflections and thus text is sometimes more difficult to read.

What is an Ultrabook?


The term “Ultrabook” applies to a category of notebook PCs developed by Intel and using the latest technologies that Intel has to offer to develop thin, light and powerful laptops. While most experts agree the Ultrabook form factor is based on the design of the Apple MacBook Air, you certainly won’t find those comparisons in “official” marketing from Intel or the many notebook manufacturers who have started offering Ultrabooks.

While Intel has a variety of strict guidelines for Ultrabooks featuring 11-inch, 13-inch, 14-inch and 15-inch screens, all Ultrabooks have a few things in common. For starters, Ultrabooks use the Intel Core i5 and Core i7 series processors. They feature either solid-state-drive (SSD) storage or use a “hybrid drive” in the form of a traditional HDD combined with ExpressCache for rapid startup and quick resume from sleep mode. Ultrabooks also offer impressive battery life — usually 6+ hours of real-life wireless productivity or 7+ days of battery life in sleep mode using a fully charged battery. Of course, Ultrabooks have specific limits for the maximum thickness and weight based on the screen size (an 11-inch Ultrabook isn’t allowed to be as thick as a 15-inch Ultrabook).

Unlike netbooks — which have largely fallen out of favor because their low-cost components and cheap build quality resulted in too many compromises in performance — Ultrabooks use higher quality (and higher cost) components and materials. This allows Ultrabooks to offer significantly superior performance than a budget netbook … but it also explains why most Ultrabooks cost $800 or more.

HP ENVY Sleekbook 6

Sometimes you “need” a thin and light laptop to haul around at school but you “want” a larger display so things are easier to see and you have more space for a larger keyboard. Not only that, but sometimes a typical Ultrabook is just a little too expensive for a student’s (or their family’s) budget. That’s where the HP Sleekbook line of thin and light laptops comes to the rescue.

The ENVY Sleekbook 6 is a 15-inch laptop packed inside a lightweight shell that is “similar” to an Ultrabook without the Ultrabook price. Starting at less than $600 with AMD processors and graphics (Sleekbook 6z) or less than $800 with Intel Core i5 (Sleekbook 6t) the ENVY Sleekbook 6 series delivers a stylish design and great battery life (7+ hours). Performance isn’t as impressive as other laptops in this list, but it’s still more than enough for student needs. Unfortunately, there is a compromise … the keyboard on the Sleekbook 6 is perhaps one of the worst we’ve tested in terms of poor feedback (the keys feel very “mushy” as you type). If you’re willing to live with the keyboard then the Sleekbook 6 will give you a thin and light laptop with a 15-inch screen.

Looking for more?

Whether you’re shopping for your student or just looking to land a great deal, back to school season is a great time to check out what’s next in tech. Let our editors help you pick the right notebook, desktop, camera, smartphone, tablet, or printer with our Back to School Buyer’s Guide.



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