Help Me, Laptop: I Need a Thin-and-Light Notebook for School

We like a reader who knows what he wants, and, when it comes to a student laptop for college classes, Reuven Shechter knows what he wants. Here’s what he wrote to our Help Me, LAPTOP column:

I want an ultraportable or thin and light laptop between 12-14 inches, weighing at least under 5 lbs, but preferably under 4. I want to make this laptop last at least 3 years or more, so it needs to have at minimum an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. Graphics aren’t so important, I only plan on doing light video editing and light Photoshop work, no gaming. A backlit keyboard would be a huge plus, as well as USB 3.0. An SSD would be great, but a 7200 RPM HDD would be fine as well. Also preferable would be a screen with a higher resolution than 1366×768, but if it’s a good screen anyways, then it’s fine.

Reuven also mentioned he wants a 3-year warranty and said his budget is$1,200, although he’s willing to spend a little more to get the notebook that meets his demands. What machines did we find for Reuven? Read on to find out.

No notebook is perfect, and Reuven wants a machine that’s both light and offers top-quality specs. However, not that many 12 to 14 inch machines offer high-end hardware like an SSD drive or a resolution higher than 1366 x 768 for less than $1,200.  Some laptops in that size range do include features such as a 7200-rpm hard drive , a back-lit keyboard, and USB 3.0 ports, but not many. Here’s what we found given Reuben’s $1,200 price range.

If you’re looking for a larger screen, the HP Envy 14 is a high-performance 14.5-inch notebook that starts at $999 with a Core i5-480M processor,  4GB of RAM, and a two-year warranty that includes HP Total Care and hardware protection. Additionally, it includes a backlit keyboard and a 500GB 7200rpm hard drive. The downside is that the Envy 14 weighs 5.4 pounds, a bit more than Reuven’s desired max weight. There’s also no USB 3.0 port on this system.

A smaller and lighter recommendation might be the ASUS U36Jc. Its 13.3-inch frame weighs just 3.8 pounds and includes a Intel Core i5-460M for a starting price of $999. Plus there’s one USB 3.0 port, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB 7200-rpm drive. ASUS offers an extended warranty service for up to 3 years. It includes service replacement and direct ASUS expert support, but must be bought within 180 days of the product purchase.

Our last recommendation is a notebook that’s sure to help with editing video and photos, the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Weighing in at 4.6 pounds, the MacBook Pro starts at $1,199 with 4GB of RAM, a backlit keyboard, and a second-gen Intel Core i5 CPU. At 5,400 rpm, the hard drive is a notch shy of what Reuven asked for, but  the 320GB drive moved a 4.97GB folder of media files at 28.1 MBps, about 4 MBps faster than the current average for thin-and-light notebooks. While there’s no USB 3.0 port, the MacBook Pro has an even faster Thunderbolt port–you’ll just have to wait for accessories that can take advantage of it. For an additional $249, Apple also offers the AppleCare Protection Plan (phone technical support and global repair coverage) for a period of three years. Of course, that raises the final price to $1,448, which hopefully is still in your budget range, Reuven!

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  1. Srikanth Says:

    I would say the latest Sony Vaio S is kind of a perfect fit for his requirements (the requirements are exactly same as mine). The only drawback for this is lack of higher resolution screen… I bought one for around 1000 bucks and going to replace the basic hard drive with an SSD (post purchase) and the total stands at 1200 (I haven’t gone into the warranty details when I got one)

  2. Reuven Says:

    Just wary about the Vaio S because it hasn’t been reviewed yet.

  3. gaurav Says:

    i would also suggest looking at toshiba portege R700-R835
    or the lenovo X series

  4. tech guy Says:

    @srikanth :exactly what i thought.the new sony vaio SB series fits the requirements perfectly for the most part.

    @laptopmag :when ll the new vaio SB series be reviewed?? its been out like 3weeks back and still no review??

    i am eagerly waiting for the review.can you estimate roughly the date of review of new vaio SB??

  5. J.W. Says:

    notebookcheck.net did a review for the Vaio SB, and they found it to be pretty good. However, there seems to be some complaints about QA with some of the batches that were made.

    As an additional piece of advice, I’d definitely get a model with a Sandy Bridge processor, as notebooks with Sandy Bridge have much improved battery life and performance over the last-gen Intel procs. For notebooks like the Envy 14 that still use Arrandale, I’d wait until they’re refreshed with the new processors before jumping on them.

  6. FanoTech Says:

    I agree with the other people there are other laptops that seems a bit better than the ones you recommended, what about the new Lenovo U series with the orange cover?

  7. tech guy Says:

    @J.W : QA issues with few batches??

    the review of notebookcheck.net is not sufficient.i prefer another review to get a better idea.also that review doesnt say anything about slice battery etc.

  8. Reuven Says:

    @Everyone What about the stability issues with the SB? It seems to bend a lot.
    @guarav, I was looking at the R835 but it has a 5400 RPM HDD and does Toshiba offer extended warranties on 3rd party purchased laptops?
    @Fanotech, the U series is nice but the battery life is the pits. I don’t need 7 hours, but less than 4 is unacceptable.
    @J.W I want a new Sandy Bridge as well.

  9. Reuven Says:

    What do you guys think of the new Sony S that Best Buy announced btw? Seems to be not bad specs for the money.

  10. Srikanth Says:

    Actually Bestbuy today announced the Sony Vaio S model (SC) in the blue label program…with all the specs in SB in Sony site and few more perks at $950. It has 2 yrs warranty as well.

    http://www.engadget.com/2011/04/18/best-buy-slaps-blue-label-on-sony-and-toshiba-laptops-packed-to/

    Now, I am feeling the so called buyer’s remorse…

  11. Srikanth Says:

    @Gaurav: the Toshibha one and X series doesn’t have backlit keyboard and as per my knowledge, the keyboard keys are pretty cheap and small for the Toshiba portege (atleast the last years model)

  12. tech guy Says:

    @Reuven : SB bending a lot? u mean the screen?the screen is designed not to get cracked when applying some force.its better to bend than getting cracked.infact almost all the portable viaos of size less than 14inch have screen similar to SB even the vaio z.its not a deal breaker and the body build quality seems very good.so flex whatsoever.

    even i am considering same options as you are and i cant find anything better than SB at the moment

    its got sandybridge processor,500gb HDD,4gb ram, usb3,backlit keyboard,ATI 6630 graphics,magnesium and aluminium body,over 6hours battery life and if you want extra you can always add the battery slice which almost doubles the battery life and most important of all it weights only 3.7pounds and comes within 1200$.

    To be frank you arent missing a thing what you wanted from the specs you asked for may be except for the screen resolution which is a bit let down but surely all others makeup for it.

    i cant find better specced laptop with decent features,battery life and weight as SB for the given price point.

  13. tech guy Says:

    edit above : no flex

  14. Srikanth Says:

    @Reuven: I got my SB today and regarding bending, the keyboard feels good, I dont feel any flex. if at all there is any, I dont feel it and regarding the lid, as its made of magnesium its little light and there is some flex in the middle but one way its good as it doesn’t attract lot of bumps. I can relate to your fears regarding the flex and I also thought about it when purchasing but from what I can feel, the laptop feels good.

  15. narayanagame aka tech guy Says:

    i dint know there was another person with the name Tech Guy who comments here.so the above replier tech guy i.e. me ll change my name to narayanagame

  16. narayanagame Says:

    @Reuven: do tell us what laptop you have bought finally.

  17. Reuven Says:

    Still haven’t decided. Currently between the Vaio SC and actually the Lenovo Thinkpad e220s or e420s. But all of them have not been reviewed as of yet. Don’t actually NEED the computer until June for the summer to get school stuff for college together.

  18. narayanagame Says:

    @Reuven: ha exactly i too dont need till june, infact till july end but anyway do let me know when you get coz it might help me and another 2 of my friends in choosing the laptop with exact same requirements as you wanted.

  19. Michael Zeevi Says:

    @Reuven Have you considered the Lenovo x220? It seems to meet your needs well, with a Core i5 processor, 4 GB RAM, 12 inch, 1366 x 768 display, and 3 lbs weight, for $950.

  20. Maddog Says:

    consider buyin vaio SA with better screen

  21. Haakon Says:

    Well, to be fair, you guys should just list some decent SSDs, and do a tutorial on how simple it is to swap the parts.

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