WinBeta's Back to School Guide 2014 - the best Windows laptops, tablets, and phones to get you going

WinBeta's Back to School Guide 2014 - the best Windows laptops, tablets, and phones to get you going

As the summer rolls to an end here in the United States, schoolchildren and university students, are grabbing their supplies and getting ready to head back to their respective institutions for another year of intense learning and disheartening cafeteria food. However, the students of today are not just grabbing notebooks and pencils, many of them are grabbing laptops and tablets to enhance their experience.

In a world of laptops, tablets, hybrids, smartphones, dumbphones, phablets, and wearable tech, knowing what to grab can be a challenging experience. That is why your friends here at WinBeta have put together a list of essentials for every spending budget. We look at the top Windows laptops, Windows tablets, and Windows Phones to grab for this semester. In advance - sorry, there will not be any MacBooks (or Chromebooks) in this list – this is a list for the Microsoft nerd in your life!

Our guide is divided into three categories: budget, midrange, and high-end. Because the line between laptops and tablets are blurring, we have separated the two devices according to the following condition – if the keyboard can be removed, it will be counted as a tablet. However, all of the laptops below can be converted into a tablet style device (go hybrids!). All right, let us get this started!

Best Budget Windows Laptop – Dell Inspiron 11 3000 ($399)

Our choice budget laptop this year is Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 series 2-in-1 machine (wow, that is a mouthful). The Inspiron will not be blowing away any games or have the power to redesign a city in AutoCAD, but it serves as an excellent machine for the basic student. If the studious individual inside, just wishes to browse the web, answer emails, and type up documents – this just may be the right machine for you.

Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 features a dual core Intel Celeron CPU, 4 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB HDD. Do not worry though; we are not leaving you to a machine capable of only writing Shakespeare interpretations. The Inspiron includes a 720p 11.6-inch LED backlit touch display for watching movies and partaking in your favorite multimedia activities.

Simply flip the machine into its tablet mode and you have an excellent machine for work and gentle play. The machine is not all gentle though, it can take a bit of a beating with its spill-resistant keyboard and ability to survive heat conditions of up to 149 degrees Fahrenheit.

Interested in checking out the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 – click here.

Best Budget Windows Tablet – Dell Venue 8 Pro ($249)

Here comes Dell again! We may not be ranking them as the best company out there, but they do make some decent affordable machines. For our budget tablet, we are going to go ahead and recommend the Dell Venue 8 Pro. Make sure to take note of the word “Pro”, because the “Dell Venue 8” is an Android tablet.

For less than $250, you can have the full power of Windows 8.1 in your hands! All right, it may not be the most powerful tablet on the market – it runs an Intel Atom CPU, but it can definitely be a great companion for the couch or bed. Windows 8.1 is included, which means that you can run full desktop software, but we recommend only doing so if you find a strong need.

The Dell Venue 8 Pro can be purchased with either 32 GB or 64 GB of SSD storage, enough space to store a large collection of Windows Store apps and some multimedia content. With a screen size of only 8 inches, you are going to get a great experience out of this tablet with apps like Kindle, Netflix, and Halo: Spartan Assault. If you are looking for a mobile companion to work with, the Dell Venue 8 Pro probably is not your match as it is more suited as a portable entertainment device. That being said, it can still run Microsoft Office or even a game of Minecraft if needed.

Interested in checking out the Dell Venue 8 Pro – click here.

Best Budget Windows Phone – Nokia Lumia 635 ($0.99 on-contract | $99 off-contract)

Jumping into the Windows Phone 8 ecosystem does not have to break the bank, and that was exactly the plan when Nokia released their Nokia Lumia 630. Now this year, the Nokia Lumia 635 is serving as the replacement to what might just be the ultimate budget phone.

Depending on whether or not you want to dive into a two-year AT&T contract in the United States, you can either grab the phone for anywhere between $0.99 and $99. Opting to go with a two-year plan? Then grab it for under a dollar! Want to grab the phone without a contract? Grab it for $99 and do not be tied down!

This budget Windows Phone includes the latest version of Windows Phone out of the box – that is right; Cortana will be there for you! In addition will have a ton of fun enjoying it, due to the above average 4.5 inch IPS LCD, which makes for a great viewing experience, and the internal Snapdragon 400 Quad-core 1.2 GHz CPU.

While, you will not be getting one of Nokia’s iconic high megapixel cameras with this unit, you can still enjoy snapping photos of those crazy college parties…. or studying sessions… with the five MP camera.

Interested in checking out the Nokia Lumia 635 – click here.

Best Midrange Windows Laptop – Lenovo YOGA 2 (11 inch) ($489)

Lenovo’s YOGA 2 laptop is where Windows 8 computers really begin to shine. Capturing the excellent design of its bigger brother in a smaller and cheaper package, the YOGA 2 attempts to bring the best of the tablet and laptop worlds right to your hands.

Loaded with an Intel Core i5 CPU, 4 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB HDD (in addition to a 16 GB SSD for ensuring speedy performance), this is one machine that is ready to please. Whether you are writing a term paper, watching Netflix, playing World of Warcraft, or working on your Photoshop skills – the Lenovo YOGA 2 is your wingman.

Built into the machine is an 11.6” inch 720p HD LED Multi touch display and Dolby Home Theater v4 certified audio. In addition, do not worry, if you are planning to jam out to Spotify, while writing that ever-important essay on the Battle of Little Bighorn – the battery can keep you going for up to six hours.

Add in exclusive Lenovo abilities, such as Lenovo Motion to control music with a wave of your hand and Lenovo Voice to be the ultimate commander, and you are set with one beast of a machine without ever breaking the bank.

Interested in checking out the Lenovo YOGA 2 (11 inch) – click here.

Best Midrange Windows Tablet - ASUS Transformer Book ($399)

Did you think that you would be finding the Surface 3 in this section? Well, we are sorry to disappoint, but ASUS’s Transformer Book has it won out. While we are a huge fan of the Surface 3, many cannot get past the idea that it is unable to run traditional Windows desktop software. After all, if the Dell Venue 8 Pro at $249 can run legacy software, then why shouldn’t a $399 tablet be able to do the same?

ASUS’s Transformer Book runs the latest version of Windows 8.1 and includes a free copy of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 free. Did we mention that the Transformer Book also includes a keyboard dock? Carry your device around as a tablet or dock it into the keyboard to get some serious work done. In addition, the dock houses a 500 GB HDD to compliment the device’s 32 GB or 64 GB of internal memory. An additional USB 3.0 port is also included for easy use.

While more powerful than the Dell Venue 8 Pro, the Transformer Book still is not a performance killer. The integrated Intel Quad Core Baytrail CPU and 2 GB of RAM will take you farther, but once again, do not expect to be blasting through Diablo 3 on maximum settings. However, with 11 hours of battery life, we are sure you can find other activities in which to partake.

For the color fiends out there, the ASUS Transformer Book is available in three colors including grey, red, and white. Choose whichever color matches your lifestyle!

Interested in checking out the ASUS Transformer Book – click here.

Best Midrange Windows Phone – Nokia Lumia 1020 ($99 on-contract)

Just because an item is priced in the midrange category does not mean it cannot be a top of the line item. The Lumia 1020 remains as one of Nokia’s flagship devices, and can be picked up for a surprising $99 on-contract with AT&T. Lately, if you pull out a Nokia phone – the first question you might be asked could be “is that the phone with the insane camera”? If you were holding the Nokia Lumia 1020, then that answer would be yes.

The Lumia 1020 features an incredible 41 MP camera and Xenon flash that are sure to outperform all of your friend’s current smartphone cameras. You may ask why a 41 MP camera would even be useful for the majority of people who are going to snap such a high-resolution picture and then throw it on Instagram, but the answer is summed up in one word – Zoom. On a standard digital camera, most people honestly do not need to go over an 8 MP sensor, but point and shoot digital cameras from Nikon and Canon have an advantage – zoom lenses. If you are at a concert or a just capturing images on the go, you are stuck with the camera’s built in wide angle lens, but thanks to the 41 MP camera, you can digitally zoom in afterwards without much worry of pixel distortion (especially if you are shooting in RAW).

The camera on this beast may be the ultimate selling point, but it is a truly awesome device all around. Featuring a 4.5-inch OLED super sensitive touch screen and Snapdragon S4 CPU makes the device not only beautiful, but also buttery smooth to operate.

If you have a passion for photography or just want to wow your friends, the Lumia 1020 is an excellent choice to jump into the Windows Phone world. The unit is available in a variety of colors including white, black, and yellow.

Interested in checking out the Nokia Lumia 1020 – click here.

Best High-end Windows Laptop – Lenovo YOGA 2 Pro ($949)

You are still here reading, that can only mean one thing – you are looking for the top of the line Windows 8 laptop. You do not just want a laptop that can manage to get by, you want a laptop that screams premium and shows what it can do. You sir (or madam), are looking for the Lenovo YOGA 2 Pro.

If this laptop sounds familiar, it is because we just discussed its little brother, the Lenovo YOGA 2 (11 inch), above. The Lenovo YOGA 2 Pro is the ultimate Windows 8 machine that takes what we love about the Lenovo YOGA line and makes it even better.

To start, the entire chassis of the YOGA 2 Pro is made of a beautiful aluminum shell that feels firm and steady to the touch, you will not be finding much plastic here. Overall, the entire build quality increases from the keyboards to the track pad to the LCD and beyond.

The HD screen included with the YOGA 2 (11 inch) is upstaged by a breath taking Quad HD+ (3200 x 1800) 10-point multitouch IPS display on the YOGA 2 Pro model. Just a peak at this screen really shows you what quality is all about, and you can take pleasure in pressing that “Super HD” button while streaming certain YouTube and Netflix videos.

The palm rest is upgrade to a faux leather style material that feels amazing to rest your wrists on, once you are tired of typing on the extremely comfortable and responsible backlit “AccuType” keyboard. Furthermore, do not worry as you can keep doing what you do for up to 9 hours on a single battery charge.

Lastly, if you are truly ready to push the boundaries you can top out the machine with an Intel Core i7 CPU, 8 GB of RAM, a 512 GB SSD, and Windows 8.1 Pro. Of course, if you have a taste for color, you can choose to purchase the YOGA 2 Pro in clementine orange or silver gray.

Interested in checking out the Lenovo YOGA 2 Pro – click here.

Best High-end Windows Tablet – Microsoft Surface Pro 3 ($799)

If you are looking for the ultimate tablet on the market, then you will not have to look any farther than Microsoft’s latest creation – the Surface Pro 3. The company sells the product with the tagline – “The tablet that can replace your laptop”, and from experience, I can say it definitely has the ability.

The Surface Pro 3 is a super thin Windows 8.1 tablet that features a 12 inch HD+ ClearType display (2160 x 1440) and a multitude of internal configurations for your specific needs. It is worth noting that the Surface Pro 3 can become quite expensive, as you probably will not want to buy it with its base configuration – 64 GB SSD and 4 GB of RAM. You can check Microsoft’s website for more details, but there are currently five models that sell between $799 and $1,949. As of now, I am typing this guide on a Surface Pro 3 that cost me $999 with a Core i5 CPU and 4 GB of RAM.

Microsoft’s ultimate tablet can certainly be expensive, but there is no other experience that compares, if you are looking for a tablet to be your primary machine. There is more to the Surface Pro than just specs of course; taking a look at the entire unit showcases dual 5 MP cameras (front and rear), stereo speakers with Dolby sound, a Surface active digitizer pen, and of course the new friction kickstand that can be placed at any angle.

With a tablet such as the Surface Pro 3, the question is not so much “can it do what I need?”, but instead “can I use a tablet as my main machine?” There are a few differences to get used to when using a tablet as your main machine, including were the kickstand can be propped up for typing. For example, you might find the Kickstand works excellent at a table or on a bed, but not so well upon your lap (experience may vary).

Speaking of typing, the Surface Pro 3 can be equipped with Microsoft’s Surface Pro Type Cover, so you can have an authentic typing experience wherever you may travel. The covers event come in a variety of colors including cyan, red, purple, black, and blue. There is one caveat though, the keyboard costs $129 extra, and for something that we feel should already be bundled in – that can sting.

You can also pick up a Surface Pro 3 Docking Station for easily plugging in external devices, monitors, and more, at your desk. So, are you ready to give up your laptop for a tablet? If so, then the Surface Pro 3 may be a device for you.

Interested in the Surface Pro 3 – click here.

Best High-end Windows Phone – Nokia Lumia 1520 ($199 on-contract)

An argument will be fought in our comment section over whether or not the Nokia Lumia 1520 or Nokia Lumia 1020 is the top dog, but in terms of pricing categories – the Nokia Lumia 1520 wins for having a price tag that is twice as high. Of course, a 6-inch phone is not the perfect solution for everyone.

The Lumia 1520 is Nokia’s large phablet sized device, and definitely belongs in a high-end category all on its own. The first thing you will notice with this device is the monster 1080p 6-inch display with Corning Gorilla Glass 2. There you go; the display is this Lumia’s top selling point.

However, the wonder of this device does not end at display. This Lumia includes a 20 MP camera with ZEISS optics and a dual LED flash for those night moments. If you pick the unit up on-contract from AT&T, they will also throw in 50 GB of free cloud storage to save your beautiful images in their high-resolution glory.

If you are looking for the largest Windows Phone you can find, with an excellent camera, and killer battery life, then the Nokia Lumia 1520 might just be for you.

Interested in the Nokia Lumia 1520 – click here.

Did we forget your favorite device? Be sure to let us know!