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Laptops that won't break the back-to-school budget

Sep. 20, 2012 at 11:36 AM ET

The Dell Inspiron 15R offers budget shoppers a powerful third-generation processor for less than $600.

Procrastination generally doesn’t serve students well, leading more often to red eyes and hastily written reports than to scholastic success. But could those who have put off buying a laptop for school actually benefit from their foot-dragging? The team at Decide.com has analyzed laptop prices and found that one of the best times to buy a portable personal computer is the second half of September, according to The New York Times. Students who have so far found themselves paralyzed by choice or sticker shock may be in a position to score a deal -- and other consumers can take advantage as well.

Cheapism has zeroed in on four well-reviewed budget laptops selling for less than $600.

  • The reintroduced Dell Inspiron 15R (starting at $549) has a 15.6-inch screen and stands out with a 750GB hard drive, 6GB of memory, and a whopping four USB 3.0 ports (these transfer data faster than more common USB 2.0 technology). The base model houses a standard second-generation Intel Core i3 processor, but consumers can step up to a third-generation Intel Core i5 without cracking our $600 ceiling. Experts laud the more powerful model in online reviews. (Where to buy)
  • The 14-inch HP ProBook 4440s (starting at $480) targets business users but is well-equipped for personal use as well. The previous model (the 4430s, which is still on the market) earned kudos from experts for its sturdiness and style, and this one likewise boasts a metal chassis and spill-resistant keyboard. The new version ups the ante with 6GB of memory and a faster central processing unit. The 320GB hard drive is on the small side but should still provide sufficient storage. (Where to buy)
  • The Dell Inspiron 14z (starting at $480) has been reinvented as an ultrabook, but the older version of this 14-inch laptop is still available at a reduced price. It’s the lightest system on this list, at 4.23 pounds, and the battery life topped seven hours in expert testing. While the cheapest version comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, reviews favor one with a Core i5 CPU. (Where to buy)
  • The Toshiba Satellite L755-S5166 (starting at $500) has also been around a while but is worth a look if you’re seeking a desktop replacement. It sports a 15.6-inch screen, a traditional keyboard with a numeric keypad, and a 640GB hard drive with room for an extensive media library. Experts consider this a solid, if somewhat unexciting, budget laptop. (Where to buy)

Other features you can find in a sub-$600 laptop include a built-in memory-card reader, a DVD-RW drive, and Bluetooth connectivity. Second-generation Intel Core processors power most top budget notebooks, although third-generation Intel Core CPUs have started to trickle into the segment and Intel competitor AMD makes occasional appearances.

Low-cost laptops have integrated graphics, as opposed to discrete graphics processing units, so they’re not designed to keep up with the latest 3D games -- but can handle everyday multimedia and multitasking. The laptops listed above have screen resolutions high enough to play high-definition video at 720p and HDMI ports to deliver audio and video to an HDTV.

Just in case it doesn’t go without saying, the budget segment is populated entirely by Windows machines -- no Apple products here. Even the cheapest MacBook starts at around $1,000.

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