The mobile sidekicks
Nothing beats a high-powered desktop for gaming and productivity, but you can't exactly lug around a machine like the Utility Player or Double-Stuff Workstation. That's why all of us here at TR complement our desktop machines with laptops or tablets—and, if we have all the horsepower we need at home, then we're free to prioritize mobility and grab compact, lightweight, and affordable devices with long-running batteries. Here are a few recommendations along those lines.
Perhaps the best bang for your buck in the world of ultraportables is Acer's Aspire One 522, which can be had for $289.99 at Newegg. The system earned our Editor's Choice award earlier this year for shooting higher than most 10" netbooks, offering a 1280x720 display resolution, an AMD Ontario APU with fairly capable integrated graphics, and a low asking price. This isn't a panacea, though; the 1GB of built-in RAM is a little on the light side, and we found the keyboard fairly cramped. For under 300 bucks, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better netbook.
Folks with a little more cash on hand will want to step up to HP's dm1z, which combines a faster Zacate APU with an 11.6" display and more grown-up base specifications. Newegg sells a variant of the dm1z with 3GB of RAM and a 320GB 7,200-RPM hard drive for $499.99 before a $50 mail-in rebate. If you head over to HP's online store, you should find the base configuration (with 250GB of mechanical storage) selling for as little as $399.99.
The dm1z earned our coveted TR Editor's Choice award back in March. Not only does this notebook look great on paper, but it's also exceptionally well-built for a cheap ultraportable. Although the dm1z's battery life isn't quite as long as that of the Aspire One 522 (6.2 hours for web surfing versus 6.6), we think it makes sense to sacrifice a little run time for a faster CPU, a larger and higher-resolution display, and more plentiful RAM and storage.
Higher up the food chain, you may want to take a look at a new category of laptops called ultrabooks. The first ultrabooks trickled into e-tail listings not long ago and look very tantalizing, with razor-thin frames, Sandy Bridge processors, and solid-state storage.
One of the cheapest ultrabooks out and about right now is Acer's Aspire S3, which has a 13" display, a Core i5-2467M processor clocked at 1.6GHz, 20GB of solid-state storage, 320GB of mechanical storage, and a battery rated for up to six hours of run time. The system will set you back only $899.99, which is a rather nice deal considering. Asus also has 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch Zenbook ultrabooks priced at a respective $999 and $1,199. While they're not as cheap as the Aspire S3, the Zenbooks forgo mechanical storage entirely and instead pack 128GB solid-state drives.
If conventional laptops are too old-school for you, then may we interest you in a tablet? Asus' Android-powered Eee Pad Transformer seems almost ideally suited to students. Not only is it affordable, with the 16GB variant starting at $399, but it can also be turned into a quasi-notebook with the detachable TF101 docking station (price: $149). The TF101 dock gives the Transformer a full keyboard and touchpad—great for taking notes—and boosts the device's battery life to a purported 16 hours. We were quite impressed with both the Transformer and its dock after a prolonged testing stint that lasted one month, and we're sure students with an affinity for touchscreens will feel the same way.
Speaking of tablets, we'd be remiss not to mention the most popular one of all: Apple's iPad 2. No tablet has quite as many apps or quite as much horsepower for gaming. The iOS operating system does feel a tad more dumbed-down than Android, though. Then again, it also feels faster and smoother. You'll find the base 16GB iPad 2 selling for $499 at Apple's online store.
What about larger notebooks? We have no specific recommendations in that category, but the market is rife with relatively affordable machines based on Intel's dual-core Sandy Bridge processors and AMD's new Fusion A-series APUs (a.k.a. Llano). Llano machines should offer much better integrated graphics performance and competitive battery life, but Intel's Sandy Bridge chips bring superior CPU performance.