Back-to-School Laptops

PHOTO: Laptops on displayPlayJustin Bare/ABC News
WATCH Back-to-School 2012: Laptop Guide

Planning to buy a new laptop for the upcoming school year? The vast array of choices might leave your head spinning, but some simple tips can help narrow the field and maybe even leave you with extra cash for more important things like spring break vacation.

First of all, ask yourself what exactly it is you'll be doing on your laptop. For many students, the answer is usually basic word processing, surfing the internet and checking email.

You could spend hours online, researching the latest laptops and end up buying an expensive, top-of-the-line model. But if all you're going to use it for are the tasks mentioned above, then you just wasted money on bells and whistles that will likely never be taken advantage of.

For cash-strapped students, the good news is that you don't need to spend a lot to get a lot. Before you buy you will want to check out our guide to what you get for your money and some of our top picks below.

Sony Vaio E Series 11
At about 11.5 by 8 inches, it appears at first glance to be too small for any serious work, but don't be fooled. After spending time with it, I was pleasantly surprised that the smaller dimensions didn't take anything away from the user experience. The notebook's screen measures 11.6 inches and its petite size is a boon for portability, a key factor for on-the-go students. At 3.3 lbs, it's light enough to carry to the library or coffee shop. You'll get 5.5 hours of battery life, a responsive trackpad and stylish wraparound design. Other specs: a 1.7 GHz AMD processor and 4 GB of RAM.

The best part? It's only $450. (SONY)

Dell Inspiron 13z
At less than an inch thick and just under 4 pounds, the 13-inch Dell Inspiron 13z it's light enough for you to tote around without weighing you down.

Dell is a good choice if you want options for customizing your laptop both inside and out. Want the latest third-generation Intel Core i5 processor? It means a fast and zippy computing experience, but it'll cost you a little more. If you'd rather save some money, go with the second-gen Intel processor, which will still handle everyday computing tasks just fine.

In keeping with the customization theme, the Inspiron 13z has a removable cover lid that can be switched out for lids with different colors and designs. With its rounded corners and minimalist design, the notebook has a basic and somewhat generic look. The plastic keyboard flexes ever so slightly, but not enough to make me concerned about its long-term durability. The only other downside might be the ports, which are covered and not convenient for quick and easy access. Not especially helpful when you need to transfer files from USB flash or external hard drives.

The Inspiron 13z starts at $580 (with a second-gen Intel processor), but students get a discount that brings the price down to $568. Until Sept. 10, Dell is also offering special back-to-school deals like a free Xbox or $200 Dell gift card for qualifying purchases. (DELL)

Asus U47A
With its 14-inch screen, it takes up little of that precious desktop space. A DVD drive is built-in, which when combined with the removable 6-cell battery, makes it thickest and heaviest of the notebooks featured in this story. Weighing in at 4.4 pounds, the U47A may not be the most portable of the bunch. Still, for those who work mainly from home, you can expect a full-featured notebook with all the ports you could possibly need, great battery life for those all-nighters (up to eight hours) and a brushed aluminum body that looks and feels substantial.

One downside, the trackpad was extremely sensitive and I'd find my cursor being inserted where I didn't intend to place it and passages of text being inadvertently highlighted because the undersides of my palms rested and swiped against the trackpad. It was annoying to say the least.

The Asus U47A comes with 6GB of RAM and can be configured with Intel's Core i3, i5 or i7 processor. Pricing starts at $799. (ASUS)

Apple MacBook Air
For all the Apple fans out there, the 13-inch MacBook Air is a sleek but pricey choice for back-to-school. At just under three pounds, it's one of the lightest and thinnest notebooks on the market and a good choice for those who want an ultraportable Mac.

Starting at $1,150 (that includes a student discount), you get 4GB of RAM, an Intel Core i5 processor and one of the best display resolutions (1440 x 900 pixels) for a notebook of its size. It all comes housed in an aluminum body that wins easy points for style. Expect up to seven hours of battery life and a solid state drive for quick boot-up times.

For back-to-school, students purchasing a Mac before Sept. 21 receive a$100 gift card. (APPLE)

Before purchasing a new device, it's a good idea to check your school's website to see what their recommendations are regarding technical specs for personal computers and laptops. If the information is unavailable online, reach out to the IT department for general guidelines. Many times, schools also offer pre-negotiated educational discounts that can help their students save even more money than they would by purchasing computers and laptops on their own.