Welcome back, boys and girls, to this month’s Laptop Buyer’s Guide. If you didn’t buy anything last month and were waiting out for some better options, now’s the time to have a look at your wallets and finances if you’re in the market for a new laptop or Ultrabook this month. Today I’m looking at options from the R9000 to the R15,000 range, with an eye to Ultrabooks and thin-and-light AMD notebooks as the market trends to thinner notbook profiles. In these price points you’ll see laptops for road warriors, gamers and general all-round use at home and on the move. You may also find a tablet or two making some inroads here as ASUS’ Transformer series creeps in to fill the gaps that Android can comfortably squeeze into.

Hit the jump for your options!

As Intel’s Ultrabook marketing push gains more and more traction I expect more and cheaper Ultrabooks to fall to around or below the R8000 price range, giving buyers better options  to choose from. Some manufacturers are putting their heads together to design thinner and lighter notebooks that fall just outside of Ultrabook specifications but still include DVD drives. Not many are going that route, opting to rather stick to Intel’s reference design and use the free money from the blue team to get the product to market faster. Its a rather sad state of affairs, since this means a greater strangehold over the industry for customers looking for other options. Since AMD is no longer competing with Intel on the performance front, you’re only likely to find their chips in cheaper Ultrabook alternatives like HP’s Sleekbooks using the mobile Trinity chip.

The other option for now, of course, are tablets. As Google’s Android OS makes its way into the low-cost notebook segment with better hardware, better online support and a touch screen, its only a matter of time before Android begins to make a bigger push against Windows and Mac OS X, bringing another Linux variant to the fight against Microsoft. There’s also the Google Chromebooks to consider, but since they’re on par with dockable tablets like ASUS’ Transformer family, its not a viable alternative any longer.

Also, take note of the SSD I’m now recommending: Transcend’s SSD720 family is very important to buyers because it only measures 7.2mm in height. Its less than a cm thick which is important for use in Ultrabooks who have hard drives but can only fit in 7.2mm-high models. Last time I recommended OCZ’s Agility 3 family and I didn’t realise that the 9.2mm height might have caused issue for potential buyers.

R9000 Notebooks and Ultrabooks

ASUS Transformer Prime TF301 10.1″ with keyboard dock @ R7943

Dell Inspiron 13z Ultrabook 13.3″ @ R8718 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Acer Aspire S3 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R8999

Apple Macbook Air 11″ 64GB @ R8999.95

Samsung Series 5 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R9999.95

HP Probook 4330s 13.3″ @ R8185 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Lenovo Thinkpad T420si 14″ @ R7339 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E220s 12.5″ @ R7339 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Lenovo Ideapad Y570 15.6″ @ R8306 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Dell Inspiron 15R 15.6″ @ R8790 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Mecer W251ESQ 15.6″ @ R8938 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Just like my previous buyer’s guide, today we’re seeing more than double the amount of potential buys for the consumer than we saw last time we had a look around. Starting off is the ASUS Transformer Prime TF301, being a complete tablet with Android ICS and 3G connectivity, as well as the optional keyboard dock. While its not going to replace your netbook or notebook anytime soon, its a worthy consideration if all your work is done in the cloud. That glossy screen will make you tear your hair out with glare though.

Apple’s revamped value-for-money Macbook Air joins the fray again, bringing OS X Lion to the fight and a 64GB SSD to speed things up by default. Other Ultrabooks in this segment usually come with regular mechanical hard drives, necessitating a SSD upgrade if you want that power. In that respect, the Samsung Series 5 is the best bet right off the bat, shipping by default with a 128GB SSD. Dell’s Inspiron 13z is also a great option especially once equipped with a SSD and can be docked to gain extra ports.

Road warriors and mobile power users have three models to look at – HP’s Probook 4330s and two models from Lenovo. The 4330s is a good all-round performer, chipping in at 2kg which is close enough to make it an Ultrabook anyway. Personally I’d vote for the Thinkpad T420si, boasting a far better screen, beefed up internals with a Nvidia Quadro card and  a cheaper price. The Edge E220s is even smaller and has a faster processor, but lacks the discrete graphics and the lovely screen, with both retailing for the same price. Both also have 3G which the Probook doesn’t, so its up to you to decide. If you’re doing CAD projects and things like photo and video editing on the move, the T420si is a no-brainer.

Finally, gamers have an extra option this month in the form of Dell stepping up to the plate. The Inspiron 15R features an Ivy Bridge Core i7 chip and the AMD Radeon HD7670M, easily giving the staple Lenovo Y570 a run for its money. The Lenovo’s discrete graphics give it a slight edge, featuring the Nvidia GT555M and a Sandy Bridge quad-core. Mecer’s W251ESQ fits right in the middle, offering a revised version of the GT540M (the GT630M) and an Ivy Bridge quad-core i7-3610M. Its all much of a muchness, but Dell’s 15R takes the prize of being the best all-round option. The Y570 is still the better performer in games, though.

R12000 Laptops and Ultrabooks

Acer Aspire S3 13.3″ @ R10301 (SSD Option Transcend SSD720 256GB @ R2344)

ASUS Zenbook UX31E 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R12173

ASUS U36SG 13.3″ @ R10723 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Samsung Series 5 14″ @ R10999.95 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

HP Folio 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R12173

Lenovo Thinkpad X220t 12.5″ @ R12052

Dell Vostro V3360 13.3″ @ R11327

Macbook Air 13″ 128GB @ R12999 or Macbook Pro 13″ 128GB @ R12999

MSI GE70 17.3″ @ R11926

At R12,000, the entire lineup is dominated by some form of Ultrabook or thin-and-light notebook for the travelling business man. There are some very attractive Ultrabooks here, in particular Samsung’s Series 5 14″ – packing AMD’s Radeon HD7550M, its the only one that I’d even consider to be capable of gaming at 720p. the ASUS Zenbook UX31E has the better screen, shoving in 1600 x 900 pixels into a 13.3″ screen. If you’ve ever seen one in real life, you’ll see how awesome it is.

For those trying to get some work done, the Thinkpad X220t is the most interesting business-focused ultraportable. It includes a touch screen and would be the best fit if you’re planning to upgrade to Windows 8 later. Dell’s Vostro V3360 brings a non-gloss screen, 3G connectivity and a three year warranty to boot, along with a 128GB SSD by default. If you do photo editing and use CUDA-compatible apps in your line of work, the ASUS U36SG has Nvidia’s GT610M and comes with a battery twice the size of the Dell. If you’re interested in none of these, Apple’s refreshed Macbook Air and Pro notebooks will certainly serve up enough performance to allow you to be productive.

Finally, for gamers there wasn’t a real option at the R12,000 price point because all the others were much more expensive. MSI’s GE70 ships with a full HD screen, a quad-core Ivy Bridge processor, Nvidia’s GT650M graphics card with 2GB GDDR3, a keyboard designed by Steelseries and a full HD non-gloss LED screen. Its pretty much the best thing since sliced bread.

R15,000 Ultrabooks and Gaming laptops

MSI GE70 17.3″ @ R11926 (SSD Option Transcend SSD720 256GB @ R2344)

Acer Aspire AS8950G 18.4″ @ R15194 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

HP Elitebook 2560p 12.5″ @ R14227 (SSD Option: Transcend SSD720 128GB @ R1287)

Lenovo Thinkpad T420s 14″ @ R13381 (SSD Option Transcend SSD720 256GB @ R2344)

MSI GT683R 15.6″ @ R16397

Apple Macbook Air 13″ 256GB @ R14999

Up in the R15,000 price range, we’ve got some great gamimg options in the form of rthe MSI GE70, this time with a SSD upgrade, Acer’s relatively old Aspire gaming laptop with a massive 18.4″ screen and MSI’s GT683R, featuring a 15.6″ full HD screen, a quad-core Sandy Bridge laptop and Nvidia’s GT560M graphics card. All three are easily capable of playing modern games at 1080p with medium to high settings and I figure any owner would be hard-pressed to find any fault with the performance.

Finally, for business use there’s HP’s Elitebook, a stronger version of the Thinkpad 420s (now with a 256GB SSD upgrade option) and Apple’s Macbook Air. Depending on your workload one of these would be the better choice, but I’d recommend the Thinkpad over the others for the discrete Nvidia Quadro graphics chip and better screen. The Elitebook trails it in performance but makes up with a very handsome aluminium chassis and a tiny foot print of just 12.5 inches diagonally. Macbooks, as always, fit into some scenarios but not all, however you may find that OS X has something to offer that makes your life easier, be it software from the Apple store, stuff that only runs on OS X or a part of the excellent iLife suite bundled with all Macbooks.

That’s the end for today folks, next week we’re on to the final leg of this guide for the month. Don’t forget to pop back for my AMD System Builder’s Guide on Thursday!

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