Back-to-school guide: Buying the perfect notebook

We tell you what to look for in a new notebook and round up some great back-to-school specials

With so many makes and models to choose from, buying a new laptop can be a harrowing experience. However, the good news is that you don't have to spend too much, especially if you want something small and basic. Even laptops based on the latest Intel Core i3 and Core i5 CPUs can be found at very competitive prices, and along with a fast processor you also get plenty of RAM and storage space.

Specs versus size

However, buying a laptop isn't always about specifications, especially if all you want to do is run office applications and play the odd multimedia file. Laptops with slower CPUs, such as an Intel Pentium SU2700 or an AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 CPU, will run these kinds of applications just fine — albeit not as quickly as a Core 2 Duo or Core i3/i5 at the same clock speed. Even netbooks based on low-power Intel Atom CPUs can run typical office software without any problems; you can even undertake basic multitasking with them. You only really need to worry about the specifications of a laptop if you want to conduct extensive image editing, edit videos or run design programs — or play games. In those instances, you should opt for a notebook with a faster CPU and a good graphics card.

You should base your buying decision on size and weight requirements, not just a notebook's specifications. Look for something small and under 1.5kg if you will be carrying it with you every day; a netbook or slimline ultraportable, for example. If you want something to act as a main computer at home, as well as something that you can take on the road occasionally, then look for a 15in desktop replacement notebook. You generally won't find a notebook that's both fast and light for a cheap price; so if you're spending less than $1000, for example, you'll most likely only find laptops that possess one of those traits.


Netbooks are all the rage these days. They have an Intel Atom CPU, at least 1GB of RAM and up to 250GB of storage. These mini-laptops are perfect for browsing the Web, listening to music and viewing videos, as well as working on documents and presentations. Most netbooks have a 10in screen and weigh 1.5kg or less; with battery life up to five hours, they are the perfect little companion for the road and to use around the home or in a classroom. Prices start from around $299, but there are also premium models that can cost up to $999.

Slimline ultraportables

If you want something bigger than a netbook, then a slimline ultraportable (also known as an ultra-low-voltage laptop) is a good option. Slimline ultraportables often use an Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon Neo CPU, and can be configured with 2-4GB of RAM and up to 250GB of storage. They can have a screen anywhere from 11 to 15 inches and weigh 1-2kg. The bigger screen size means these laptops also have bigger keyboards, which makes them much more comfortable to use than a netbook. A model such as Toshiba's T110 slimline ultraportable costs $999 and is a great proposition if you want mobility (you can get up to four hours of battery life from some models), decent speed and good usability, without having to fork over too much money.

Desktop replacements

At the heavy end of the scale reside desktop replacement notebooks, which usually have a 15in or larger screen, up to 4GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core i3 or Core i5 CPU and 320GB -- or more -- of storage. You also get an optical drive, as well as a full-sized keyboard. You can buy a 15in desktop replacement for under $1000 -- Aldi recently had a promotion for a 17in model from Medion, using an Intel Pentium CPU, for $799 -- but most fully featured models (such as ones with better graphics cards) cost $1000-1500. They are a good option if you don't have a regular desktop at home and need something more comfortable than a small laptop on which to complete all your work. The downside is that you will not be able to easily carry it with you on the road, and its battery life will be shorter than a smaller notebook's.

ASUS currently has its UL50VT on special for students going back to school or university. It's a 15.6in desktop replacement notebook with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and an NVIDIA GeForce G 210M graphics adapter. It only costs $1299 and you get a three year international warranty at no extra charge. This type of notebook is perfect for a student as far as specifications are concerned, but it is large and difficult to carry, so you'll have to invest in a sturdy backpack or laptop bag for it.

Here are some other great deals for students heading back to school:

Dick Smith has the 14in, Intel Core i3-based Compaq Presario CQ41-209TX notebook for $999. It also includes a bonus HP Multifunction printer (the XP2480).

JB Hi-Fi has the Acer Aspire One netbook for $328 after $39 cash back. To receive the cash-back offer, you must register your details at Acer's Web site.

Officeworks has the Dell Inspiron 14z notebook for $1099. It's a 14in notebook with a Core 2 Duo CPU that offers great combination of performance and mobility.

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