Welcome back, ladies and gents, to the Laptop Buyer’s Guide! It’s been a while since we last revisited the market and things have changed, many of them for the better. Arguably this is the market that’s gaining the most relevance because, especially in the case of AMD, more effort is being put into mobile products than actual desktop products. It’s a fast-growing market if you sell mobile machines and as more players invade our shores, the more choice we have and the lower the prices will be. This month notes the appearance of two new competitors in the retail market along with some interesting chassis options, so let’s get right to it: from R4500 to R8500!

Laptop-buyer's-guides-600-x-272

First, you may notice I’ve changed the title a bit. With netbooks no longer widely available, I’ve had to drop the moniker because we’re back in the so-called “Ultraportable” era, where the term “netbooks” now gets replaced by “ultrabook” or “sleekbook”, in the case of HP. I see no practical difference in this regard because netbooks were always much smaller than their laptop counterparts and generally omit the DVD drive and other non-essential items to make a cheap and relatively powerful computer. But whatever, I’ll just work in terms of money from now on. Money’s something everyone understands.

Also, Evetech now sells laptops, tablets and soon, cellphones. This is actually pretty big, especially for other online retailers like Laptopdirect and smaller places like Rebeltech or Wootware. Now they have to compete against a boutique PC dealer and not just your ordinary Incredible Connection, or Game or Makro. Evetech has some incredible marketing chops behind it and their service, as has been noted in NAG and on the forums for the last few years, is exemplary. Not content with being the only real boutique PC store, they’re actually one of the best places to buy from if you shop wisely. Keep an eye on that space.

Another rebranded laptop line came to the fore last year at rAge when it was announced that Roccat was going to ship a line of rebranded XMG notebooks with their own label on them through Dion Wired. Well, not much came of that and the laptops themselves are expensive. There’s also the fact that in recent months, international forums have shown that some of the company’s products aren’t standing up to the standards they used to hold dear and the Kone+ has reached its fifth birthday. My own experiences with the short Arvo have been good, although my spacebar and CAPS keys are beginning to fail. XMG is now retailing their brand through Laptopdirect and its under the “Schenker MYSN” label. As an alternative to Alienware, which just gets more and more expensive, it’s a good brand.

 R4500 Netbooks, Ultrabooks, Notebooks and Tablets:

ASUS Eee PC 1015B 10.1: @ R3641

ASUS X501A 15.6″ Ultrabook @ R3932 (RAM Upgrade to 4GB)

ASUS S200E 11.6″ Ultrabook @ R4439

Gigabyte Q2006 10.1″ @ R3030 (SSD Upgrade: Kingston 120G SSD Bundle kit @ R1389)

HP Mini 200 10.1″ @ R3341 (SSD Upgrade: Kingston 120G SSD Bundle kit @ R1389)

MSI U180 10.1″ @ R3350 (SSD Upgrade: Kingston 120G SSD Bundle kit @ R1389)

Packard Bell TS11-HR Easynote 15.6″ @ R4732

Sony Vaio SVE11115E 11.6″ Ultrabook @ R4499

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge 520 15.6″ @ R4499

Toshiba NB510 10.1″ @ R3478 (SSD Upgrade: Kingston 120G SSD Bundle kit @ R1389)

ASUS Google Nexus 7″ @ R3199

Apple iPad Mini 16GB Wi-Fi @ R3399

This month is a bit more appealing than January, where we had only eight products to choose from. The last of the netbook stock is getting sold out and we only have four players left with anything to offer. The EeePC 1015B is possibly the best out of the lot, but its higher price along with the schlepp to open it and upgrade the hard drive makes it a little less friendly to first-time buyers, even though build quality and performance should be solid. Out of the four, the NB510 would get my vote.

Three Ultrabooks pop up here, the S200E is a returning one from my previous guides, as is the Vaio SVE. The ASUS X501A is relatively new and ditches the optical drive and thins down the chassis to fit into its new price point. Although it’s not powerful (anything based on an Intel Celeron rarely is) it is capable of doing most anything you’d need from a cheap computer. The lack of an optical drive may be a hindrance, but then again this is the pitfall of computers in the modern era – we just don’t need or rely on disk-based media as we used to, with the exception of DVDs and Blu-Ray. It will need a RAM upgrade, though. Out of the three, the Vaio SVE is the best pick  because it can pack in more RAM and it’s not limited by any Secure Boot software ASUS may be running.

There are only two tablets worth considering at this price point – Google’s Nexus 7 and the iPad Mini. Whatever reservations you have about either company need to be put aside because these are both excellent products. Barring the fact that Apple’s walled garden pretty much precludes you from tinkering with it, if you need to recommend a tablet right off the bat that’ll work for anyone, get the iPad Mini if they want to buy apps or the Nexus if they don’t. Android has so many free quality software that I struggle to see how on earth their store continues to make so much money. Vanilla-skinned Android is also always a treat and the lack of a custom UI means that updates to newer version of Android, like Jelly Bean, are trivial to find and load.

Finishing off on somewhat of a high note, you’ll have to stretch the budget if you like playing games in your spare time. The Easynote has a Nvidia Geforce GT630 and an Intel Core i3 dual-core, plenty of power to run most games at native resolution on the lowest settings. If you’re looking for a bargain LAN machine, especially if you play some older games, this is it.

R6000 Gaming and business Notebooks, Ultrabooks and Tablets:

Acer Aspire 7740G 17.3″ @ R5889

ASUS Vivobook ME400 10.1″ @ R6493

Dell Inspiron 13z 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R6131

Gigabyte S1082 10.1″ Tablet @ R6799

Mecer JW6 15.6″ Ultrabook @ R5724 (specially for Linux!)

Lenovo IdeaPad S400 14″ Ultrabook @ R6001

Packard Bell Easynote TE11-HC 15.6″ @ R5999

Packard Bell TS11-HR Easynote 15.6″ @ R4732 (SSD Upgrade: Kingston 120G SSD Bundle kit @ R1389)

Toshiba Satellite C850-F32Z 15.6″ @ R6189

ASUS Transformer TF301 Slate 3G 10.1″ @ R5823

Apple iPad Mini 3G 32GB @ R5899

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1″ @ R6500

And over here we have some interesting choices in the R6000-odd range. we were previously able to find quite a few good notebooks intended for business use, but with the onslaught of tablets and now the coming of the Atom-based Windows 8 tablets, its no longer viable for companies like Dell, Lenovo and HP to offer lower-cost computing because they won’t be able to compete with the simpler devices. in the future, this segment will be ruled purely by tablets and ultrabooks and nothing else.

On the tablet side, we have the ASUS Vivobook and Gigabyte’s S1082, the first non-RT Windows 8 tablets I’ve seen retailing for a price that won’t give you a heart attack. They’re both still pretty much a netbook in a different chassis, but the Windows 8 experience makes up for that, in addition to the fact that it’s the full desktop experience, nothing like the stripped-down OS Windows RT subjects you to. If you don’t want the Windows ecosystem (there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to), there’s the ASUS Transformer Slate with built-in 3G and the iPad Mini 32GB, also with 3G. I think the S1082 wins here, on the simple fact that there’s more room for expansion and it isn’t based on an Atom processor. If you also happen to take a lot of notes, the Galaxy Note is better than both.

Ultrabooks are cheap these days! Dell’s inspiron 13z has dropped massively in price, skimming off R2000 in the last six months to fall into today’s category. Lenovo’s S400 is a new addition to their family and offers a lot in it’s small package, even chipping in Intel’s Wi-Di technology to make it more attractive. The inclusion of Windows 8, however, possibly points to the S400 running Safe Boot as well, which may restrict your ability to load another OS onto there, like Windows 7 or Ubuntu Linux. Mecer’s JW6 is in here for that exact reason – for Linux lovers, you can order the laptop without an OS and simply stick Linux on there.

Gamers! Toshiba’s C850 returns with the Radeon HD7610M wedged into its internals and a Core i5 processor. There’s pretty much nothing else out there that can beat that kind of value. For business use, however, there is the alternative of the Core i5-packing Easynote. I recall that Makro bundled them with Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and that still seems to be the case here. If not, it’s still a good bargain and a reliable workhorse, although personally I’d just stick to the Lenovo S400. I also found an older Acer Aspire that still would hold itself pretty well in today’s market, although the main selling point is the larger screen. If you’re looking for a cheap desktop replacement, that’s your ticket.

R8500 Gaming and Business Notebooks, Premium Ultrabooks and Tablets:

ASUS S400CA 14″ Ultrabook @ R8064

Dell Latitude E5430 14″ HD @ R8271 (RAM Upgrade to 8GB)

Dell Inspiron 13z 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R6131 (SSD Upgrade: OCZ Agility 4 256GB @ R2208)

Dell Inspiron 15R 15.6″ @ R8668

Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook 13.3″ @ R8000

Gigabyte S1082 64GB 10.1″ Tablet @ R7409

Gigabyte Q1542N Core i5 15.6″ @ R7581 (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S3 120GB @ R1257)

HP Pavilion G7 17.3″ @ R8548

HP Probook 4340S 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R8185

Lenovo Thinkpad X1 13.3″ @ R8548

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E430 14″ @ R8668

MSI CX61 15.6″ @ R8543

Apple iPad 3G 64GB @ R7500

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1″ N8000 @ R8000

Way, way, way too much choice here. I had to cut about a third of the recommendations I was making because it just got a bit too much. Ultrabooks are pouring out of every hole on the internet and they’re all brilliant. But lets get the tablets out of the way. As usual, there’s an iPad, this time the 64GB-packing 9.7″ one with the Retina display and Apple’s A6 chip. Then it’s going up against Samsung’s 10.1″ Galaxy Note, a formidable opponent because it’s more productivity-orientated than anything else. Finally, Gigabyte does the hard work for you and kits out the A1082 with a 64GB SSD. Luckily, it’s user-serviceable, so going to a bigger one isn’t too much of an issue. You could even opt for the cheaper version that packs a hard drive and have enough spare dough to shove in a 256GB SSD. That’s the beauty of a tablet that isn’t stuck together with glue, like the Microsoft Surface.

Moving into the Ultrabooks and you practically have to wade through them, at least I did before trimming a few off. There are two here that really stand out: the Thinkpad X1 and the Inspiron 13z. The former is finished off so superbly I think just looking at it will rip a hole in time, while the latter is so cheap that you can shove in a 256GB SSD and still be under budget. I’d chose one of these over the others, although Dell’s Latitude E5340 is brilliant. HP’s Probook 4340S catches up to the rest of the world with a nice design and it’s the first HP I’ve liked in a long time. The X1 is still the best deal around, though.

As for gamers, there’s quite a few good choices here. The Inspiron 15R, the Q1542N, the Pavilion G7 and the CX61 are all clamouring for your attention and I suppose which one is best is up to you. Except for the Q1542N, all are powered by an i7 quad-core and none of them willbe particularly faster than the other. Maybe the CX61 could get an edge thanks to higher clock speed on the Geforce GT645M, otherwise its all much of a muchness. I like the G7 because of the larger screen, while at the same time the CX61’s design and hardware put it at the top for pure performance.

That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next time for a look at laptops and ultrabooks between R10,000 and R13,000.

Discuss this in the forums: Linky