Digital Crave

Six back-to-school laptops for under $500

Digital Crave

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Dell Laptop

While many high-school and college students now tote around smaller gadgets like smartphones, e-readers and tablets, a laptop computer still makes the grade for its physical keyboard, big screen and ample storage.

But here's something you won't hear from the sales clerk at your local big box store: You don't need a top-of-the-line computer to get schoolwork done.

Oh sure, those who take video editing, animation or video game design might need the extra horsepower, but the majority of the tasks a student needs a computer for — web browsing, messaging, word processing and social networking — can be handled by virtually any Internet-connected machine.

If you're shopping around for a new laptop to start the year off right, consider one of these following half-dozen picks for budget-conscious students (not listed in any particular order).

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For Chatty Cathys

Sony's 15.5" VAIO E Series laptop (model # SVE1511RFXB; $399.99) has a number of features you'd expect in a notebook — a second-generation Intel Core i3-2370M processor, 4GB of system memory (RAM) and 500GB hard drive — but it's also an ideal PC for video calling. Built into the machine is an HD webcam with an Exmor sensor and face tracking, to make it easy (and clear) to video chat with family and friends. And while the camera has a microphone, integrated Bluetooth means you can also wear a headset for even clearer audio. This Windows 7 Home Premium laptop also includes a DVD burner, HDMI out (to connect to a HDTV), an Intel HD Graphics 3000 chip and exclusive software including Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum, ACID Music Studio, Sound Forge Audio Studio and more.

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Math blaster

Students studying math, accounting, statistics or business might appreciate a laptop with a dedicated numeric keypad along the right-hand side of the keyboard — just like most desktop computers. That's what you'll find in Toshiba's satin black 15.6-inch Satellite laptop (model # C855; $399.99), a 1.3-inch thin Windows PC. You'll also find a handful of connectivity and media options along the sides and back of the laptop, including one USB 3.0 and 2 USB 2.0 ports, a multi-format media card reader, HDMI out, DVD burner and Ethernet port (for wired Internet connection). Under the hood of this entry-level PC is a second-gen Intel Core i3-2370M processor, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive.

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Personalize that PC

If you've got a bit more cash to spend, the newest Dell Inspiron 15R ($499.99) delivers a lot of bang for the buck. Along with its second-generation Intel Core i3 processor (3M Cache, 2.4 GHz), you get 6GB of system memory, 500GB hard drive, 8x dual-layer DVD burner and a Chiclet ("island")-style keyboard with multi-touch trackpad. But students might also like the option to change up the look of this Windows 7 Home Premium PC with interchangeable SWITCH lids: while the laptop comes standard in silver, you can personalize it with additional lids for $30 apiece (e.g. red, blue or pink). Other highlights include a 15.6-inch 720p LED display and Bluetooth, but only two USB 2.0 ports.

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Bigger is better

Especially if it's going to be used primarily as a desktop replacement, a larger screen laptop is the way to go. For $449 you can pick up a 17.3-inch HP Pavilion laptop (model # G7-1340DX), with a good-looking LED-backlit high-definition widescreen display (1600 x 900 resolution) ideal for movies, games and photos. Toss this puppy in your dorm room to handle all your work and entertainment needs, but at more than 6 pounds you might opt to bring your tablet or smartphone to the lecture hall for note-taking instead. Similar to the other laptops in this sub-$500 round-up, this computer houses a second-gen Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive, DVD burner, webcam and multiple connectivity ports (USB, card reader, and more).

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Pretty in pink

If you're looking for something affordable to tote around campus — and prefer something a little more "you" than the typical black or silver laptop — the matte pink Asus X401A-RPK4 laptop ($329.99) delivers a unique look at a low price. This 4-pound 14-inch laptop features an Intel Pentium processor (B970), 4GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive — but there's no optical (CD/DVD) drive included. Other features of this entry-level laptop include an HDMI output jack to connect to a HDTV, projector or monitor; 0.3-megpaixel webcam, multi-format media reader and two USB ports. Hey, for under $330 this isn't such a bad pick for basic tasks, and for those who feel prettier in pink.

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Lift a finger

Now the no. 2 computer maker in the world (behind HP), Lenovo has a number of models ranging from inexpensive netbooks to premium ultrabooks, and everything in between. One of the company's sub-$500 laptops has a couple of interesting features, including a fingerprint reader so you (and only you) can log onto the PC. The 15.6-inch, 5.3-pound Lenovo IdeaPad V570 ($479.99) has a second-gen Intel Core i5-2450M processor (supporting Turbo Boost technology), 6GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and multi-format DVD burner. Along with Wi-Fi — something all laptops in this round-up has — this Lenovo model is also WiDi-enabled, therefore it could wirelessly push content to a nearby television (via NetGear Push2TV box, not included). Other features include HDMI output, 2.0-megapixel webcam, 6-in-1 media reader and three USB 2.0 ports.

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