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Sleeker, lighter laptops

Most ultrabooks can carry your college load

Jul. 5, 2012 - 02:34PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 5, 2012 - 02:34PM  |  
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When it comes to picking a laptop for college, don't worry too much about hard drive space and RAM: Most machines will have more than enough for the average student. What's most important is the processor. Look for Intel's Core i3, i5 or i7. A model number in the 3000 range ensures the laptop has the latest version. After that, look at screen size, battery life and weight. And think twice before rushing out to buy now; laptop prices are usually cheaper closer to the start of the semester.

The bottom line on seven of today's best-selling laptops, with reviews by USA Today's Edward Baig and Peter Svensson of The Associated Press:

MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Apple's new Retina display for the MacBook Pro packs in four times as many pixels as a standard display. This matters if you're into the visual: It's like putting on glasses and realizing you're nearsighted. Much like the screen on the latest iPad, the new display makes all other screens look dull and fuzzy. If you're not into the visual, prepare to be annoyed: While high-resolution photos look really, really sharp, low-resolution photos, like those on Facebook, are revealed as mushy and indistinct. With a resolution of 2,880 by 1,800 pixels — 2.5 times as many as a high-def TV — the Retina screen can show every pixel in a 5-megapixel shot. The Retina MacBook is thinner and lighter than the regular one and lacks a DVD drive and Ethernet port. At just 0.7 inches thick, in many ways it's a supersized MacBook Air that feels a lot more substantial.

Processor: Intel Core i7-3610QM

Screen: 15.4 inches

Weight: 4.46 pounds

Battery life: Seven hours

Price: Starts at $2,200. A regular, nonhigh-resolution MacBook with a screen of the same size, upgraded with the 8 gigabytes of RAM and 256-gigabyte flash-based "hard drive" that come standard on the Retina model, costs $2,399. So you're basically saving $200 by getting the better screen.

Razer Blade

The PC for college-bound gamers who haven't blown the last of their deployment cash, you can type your research papers just as easily on this laptop destined to run "Diablo III." At 0.88 inches, it's half the thickness of other gaming laptops, and the brushed obsidian finish and minimalist profile look cool. A high-def digital download of "Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol" looked stunning, Web pages and text were superclear, and the sound from the built-in speakers was fine. There's no disk drive, but you can connect an external drive via USB. You certainly can assemble a comparable or more powerful machine for less from Falcon Northwest, Origin or Alienware, which is owned by Dell. And as a self-contained computer, the Blade is not upgradeable — a feature that could be a turnoff.

Processors: Intel Core i7-2640M

Screen: 17.3 inches

Weight: 6.4 pounds

Battery life: Not given

Price: $2,800

Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook

Samsung's newest Chromebook is supposed to run 2½ times faster than the first line of Chromebooks released a year ago. Google's cloud-based operating system relies on a Chrome Web browser for practically all that you do. The latest Chrome computers, like their predecessors, are built for the cloud — and in many people's view, largely crippled when you're without Internet access. With an active Internet connection, you can listen to all the music you have stored in the cloud through a Google Play app; watch movies on Netflix, something not possible on earlier Chromebooks; and stream YouTube videos at 1080p. Boot times are even zippier than before, and the new touchpad is more responsive than the first model.

Processor: Intel Core i7

Screen: 12.1 inches

Weight: 3.02 pounds

Battery life: Six hours

Price: $450

15-inch Samsung Series 9

Samsung crammed this new ultrabook's 15-inch display into a 14-inch chassis. Both Samsung and Dell with its XPS (below) reached the same conclusion as Apple did with the MacBook Air: Ultrabooks — whose designs mimic MacBook Air designs in many ways — target people more concerned with notebook size than older forms of media. Samsung's Series 9, crafted from aluminum, as well, is equally inviting to hold and, to some, better looking. Extras include an SD card reader and a mini HDMI port for connecting to an HDTV. A proprietary FastStart feature promises to let you keep the cover closed for up to a week without worrying about charging and resuming where you left off when you lift the lid. The computer saves everything to memory before you lose power so, in theory, you won't lose work.

Processor: Intel Core i5-3317U

Screen: 15 inches

Weight: 3.63 pounds

Battery life: Up to 10 hours

Price: $1,400

Acer Aspire S3-951

Both this Acer and the Asus below wake up in a blink from sleep. They're zippy enough for everyday computing but not right for heavy-duty gamers or people who engage in high-end video editing. Like the MacBook Air, both are appealingly thin and light. Both ditch the optical drive. And both have large clickable gesture-driven trackpads. What they don't have is the Air's backlit keyboard nor the superior software you get as part of Mac OS X. In appearance, the Aspire can legitimately be passed off as the Air's long-lost twin. The keyboard was easier to type on than the Zenbook's, the modest 20 GB solid-state SSD drive achieves speed and is complemented with a conventional 320 GB hard drive. Aspire has a pair of USB 2.0 ports but not the newer 3.0 type. It also has an SD slot and a full-size HDMI port.

Processor: Intel Core i5-2467M

Screen: 13.3 inches

Weight: 2.98 pounds

Battery life: Six hours

Price: $800

Asus Zenbook UX31

The Zenbook has an attractive circular design on the silver exterior panel that refracts a halo of light. At its thinnest point near the front, the computer is just a shade over one-tenth of an inch thick, roughly equivalent to a MacBook Air with the same size 13.3-inch display. It has a single USB 2.0 port, a single USB 3.0 port (used to recharge portable devices rapidly), an SD card reader, and a micro HDMI port. It boasts excellent sound thanks to Bang & Olufsen speakers hidden in the hinge where you fold down the lid. When the battery life drops below 5 percent, the computer automatically saves files you are working on to prevent data loss.

Processor: Intel Core i7-2677M or i5-2557M

Screen: 13.3 inches

Weight: 2.9 pounds

Battery life: Up to seven hours

Price: $1,100 (available for $950); the Zenbook UX32 with an Intel Core i7-3517UM processor is $1,300.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Dell has managed to squeeze a 13.3-inch display into a chassis more typical of an 11-inch notebook. The XPS was designed with protective, edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass and constructed from aluminum and a carbon-fiber composite base, and it feels good to the touch. Dell reduced the bezel that borders the screen, resulting in a computer it says is 14 percent smaller than the MacBook Air (albeit a little thicker). Dell has a distracting font on the keys that gives the illusion of a more cramped keyboard. In tests, it booted up to Windows 7 Home Premium in about 20 seconds — pretty fast — and wakes up from sleep quickly.

Processor: Available with Intel i5 and i7

Screen: 13.3 inches

Weight: 2.99 pounds

Battery life: Eight-plus hours

Price: $1,000-$1,500

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