Even for those who enjoy being immersed in their studies, the end of summer break hardly seems like a positive thing. But as much as it's a return to school and schedules alike, it can also be an opportunity: a chance to invest in some fresh tech to make the coming year's challenges as surmountable as possible.
If you're still reliant on a desktop, or if your laptop winces at the sight of a high-definition video lecture, it's time to look into an upgrade.
And thankfully if you know where to look, it's possible to get a sleek and impressive notebook without blowing through your savings (or student loans).
We've pored through our laptop reviews from the past several months and picked out 10 (mostly) budget-friendly computers, which range from bag-sized little options for classroom note-taking to more powerful selections that'll do better around a dorm room.
And don't miss our constantly updated listing of laptop reviews for the latest and greatest new releases, especially if you're looking for higher-end devices. (Stay tuned for an update containing the best deals around for all of these machines.)
10. Samsung Chromebook
If you know about Chrome OS already, you'll know that the Samsung Chromebook isn't like mainstream Windows laptops. It always takes a few days for you to really "get" the Chromebook - unless you're a card-carrying Google aficionado who uses Gmail, Docs, Calendar and so on all the time anyway.
The Chromebook doesn't run a conventional operating system such as Windows 8, Mac OS X Mountain Lion or even a straight Linux distro such as Ubuntu. Instead, it's essentially a computer that does one thing: run a web browser. In this case, of course, the web browser in question is Google Chrome.
It always takes a few days for you to really 'get' the Chromebook – though that period is shorter if you're a card-carrying Google aficionado who uses Gmail, Docs, Calendar and so on all the time anyway.
But once you get it, it gets under your skin. The simplicity and security of it – a nice compromise between the one-app-at-a-time mode of the iPad, say, and the potential complexity of a traditional computer – is refreshing and welcome.
- Read the full Samsung Chromebook review
9. HP Envy x2
Overall the HP Envy x2 impressed us. Its outstanding industrial design really shows the potential of a tablet/laptop hybrid.
There are two ways to conceptualize the Envy x2. One way is to think of it as a notebook where the screen comes off and can be used as a tablet. Pretty handy throughout the day if you don't feel like using a full computer.
Of course, if you're used to the traditional paradigm of a laptop PC, the keyboard base can be attached during class or essay writing in a cafe. The keyboard includes nothing essential to running the computer hardware-wise, except a second battery which actually does a great job extending battery life.
If you're looking for a decent hybrid with a nice battery, the HP Envy x2 is a great option.
- Read the full HP Envy x2 review
8. Samsung Series 9
You'll be amazed at how thin the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D actually is when you hold the 13-inch laptop. It looks every bit as stylish as rivals like the MacBook Air, and competes favorably on price.
The Series 9 isn't a cheap laptop though, and has the specs you'd expect from a premium machine. It used to be the case that ultraportable laptops were somewhat underpowered, but thanks to processors that use less power but offer higher performance, this is no longer an issue.
Despite some issues, we believe the NP900X4D is a good buy, if not a truly excellent one. You won't walk out of the shop feeling like you've been ripped off, but you certainly won't feel like you've got the steal of the century, either.
While we don't think you'll be disappointed in terms of quality, you may decide you're better off spending a lower price on a heavier laptop with more processor power, more storage and more memory especially on a student budget.
- Read the full Samsung Series 9 review
7. Lenovo IdeaPad Z500 Touch
This Windows 8 Lenovo IdeaPad Z500 Touch packs the added kudos of accepting your prodding finger as another form of input, thanks to the inclusion of a touchscreen panel.
The marriage of the Core i7 processor - even if it is a last-generation model - alongside the discrete GeForce GT 740M graphics from Nvidia make for a strong core that should see you through any normal task you can think of. You don't really need super high performance from a laptop for school (unless you're a video game, art, design, etc.) major, but the fact that the Z500 is decked out decently at such a low price makes it a steal.
But great specs means the combination of a large form factor and a shoulder-straining weight which puts it at odds with a world that is currently defined by portability. So this one might be better off as a dorm room device for late night essays, or even gaming - a nice stress reliever when you want to throw your books out the window.
- Read the full Lenovo IdeaPad Z500 Touch review
6. Asus VivoBook S400C
We are disappointed by a few aspects of the Asus VivoBook S400C: notably the battery life and touchpad gestures, but the overwhelming sense is that the S400C is a very good laptop. It doesn't break the bank and doesn't provide unnecessary expensive hardware.
Admittedly, this unit only has a Core i3 processor, but the 1.8GHz dual-core chip will still give you very good performance. The screen is powered by Intel's own integrated graphics rather than having a secondary chip. As for other core specs, there's a perfectly reasonable - if not over-generous - 4GB of memory, while you also get a 500GB hard drive. That's plenty of storage for all the photos, music and documents you'll need.
The VivoBook S400C provided 3 hours and 30 minutes of battery life in our tests – good for classroom note taking and days where you forget your charger. You'll probably have the brightness pretty low anyway, but charging is probably needed right when you get home. The Asus VivoBook S400C is a beautifully appointed laptop and you'll definitely get your money's worth.
- Read the full Asus VivoBook S400C review