Hello and welcome, NAGlings, to this month’s Laptop Buyers guide, looking this week at budget notebook options that can play some games. Today is nothing particularly special – I do rant about a few things in here, everything is Intel-based and we still haven’t had a single notebook shipping with a SSD by default in the budget market. Come on, seriously? Its 2015, can no-one just strike up a deal with Transcend for a cheap 370-series drive and be done with these crappy 500GB spinny disk hard drives? Maybe I’m just impatient to see this particular aspect of notebooks change, but it is my main gripe at the moment that I like to complain about.

Bla bla bla bla bla

I know the title of this update isn’t very original, but it’s pretty much a reflection on my feelings of what’s happening in the notebook market – bla bla bla. Everyone is just rehashing the same old formula, no-one is really daring to try different things (aside from ASUS, but more on that later). There just hasn’t been anything really interesting going on here and part of the blame for that rests at the feet of Intel. Some people (read: notebook vendors) really need to dilly dally shilly shally their way into making stuff that I actually want to own.

See, Intel is the market leader here. The more correct term, possibly, is “ruling with an iron fist,” but people say I should be more tactful these days about things. But truly, they are dominating it – every vendor under the sun is waiting on Skylake and for mobile DDR4 production to ramp up. A bone was thrown in the form of Broadwell for mobile applications, but that’s hardly an improvement at all in the performance stakes. If there’s anything really interesting happening today, its at the high end where most people can’t afford a super-expensive device. Machines like the Dell XPS 13 are truly awesome, but just how many of you NAGlings are currently looking to spend close to fourteen thousand Rand on a notebook that can’t even play Bioshock Infinite at 720p with medium settings? Its only claims to fame are that wonderful display and super-long battery life, that’s about it.

Well, that’s probably not everything about it, but I feel like glossing over other important aspects of something for the sake of proving a point today. Deal with it.

Similarly, the SSD market is taking its sweet time with getting SSDs in to new notebooks. Maybe the hard drive manufacturers are paying them off in order to keep those gigantic factories making platter-based hard drives alive, but it is a dead-end technology. You can make as many helium-filled 8TB drives as you want, you’re still not going to get anywhere near the speed of a solid state drive, nor are you going to be saving any more power by making those same drives any slower. The drop in power consumption will also correlate to any given task taking much longer to perform because your hard drive is slow.

You know who would have been able to drive SSD adoption in the notebook segment? Samsung. They make hard drives. They make (or rather, made) Chromebooks. They could have figured out methods of vertical integration, using their own memory and SSD lines in their notebooks. It was a surprise to me to open up a Samsung notebook a while back and find Transcend memory and a Toshiba hard drive in there.

It boggles the mind that the biggest name in consumer electronics and computers held themselves back from completely bitch-slapping everyone by showing them how it should be done. Feel free to step back in the game when you’re ready, Samsung, but only do it if you’re going to put every single one of your best efforts into your notebooks. Shove a PLS panel in there, get adaptive refresh working, use your own memory and M.2 SSDs, find a way to integrate Android and Tizen notifications into Windows – the fact that you did nothing of the sort and then chose to walk away from an industry that sorely needs some fresh ideas is disheartening.

But that’s just my views on the subject, please feel free to add in rants of your own in the comments below – what annoys you most when buying, or looking at buying a notebook? Let me know in the comments below!

Tablets – R2000 to R7000

Internet browsing, e-mail, media consumption, music, casual gaming, some productivity
Tablet Model Display/Resolution Chipset RAM Storage OS Price
Dell Venue 7 3G 7″ IPS 1280 x 800 Intel Atom Z2560 2GB 16GB Android 4.2 R2015
Dell Venue 8 3G 8″ IPS 1280 x 800 Intel Atom Z2580 2GB 32GB Android 4.2 R2635
LG G Pad WiFi 8.3″ IPS 1920 x 1200 Snapdragon 600 2GB 16GB Android 4.2 R3155
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pr0 WiFi 8.4″ PLS 2560 x 1600 Snapdragon 800 2GB 16GB Android 4.4 R3925
Acer Iconia W4 3G 8″ IPS 1280 x 800 Intel Z3740 2GB 64GB Windows 8.1 R4744
Apple iPad Mini 2 WiFi 7.9″ IPS 2048 x 1536 Apple A7 1GB 32GB iOS 7 R5199
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro LTE 8.4″ PLS 2560 x 1600 Snapdragon 800 2GB 16GB Android 4.4 R5250
Samsung Galaxy Note LTE 10.1″ PLS 2560 x 1600 Snapdragon 800 3GB 16GB Android 4.3 R6320
Apple iPad Mini 2 3G 7.9″ IPS 2048 x 1536 Apple A7 1GB 32GB iOS 7 R7099

While low-cost laptops typically get the job done quite well when it comes to low-cost computing and portability, a lot of them are bulky 15.6-inch devices that just don’t have lots of oomph or battery life in them. This is why tablets take up the first section of the guide – if you need a mobile companion that isn’t going to be doing a lot of productivity work, then a tablet is a good option. Even the intended use is pretty clear – these are mostly better suited for the type of work that netbooks used to be tasked with.

Our lineup doesn’t change much from the February edition of this guide, but some of the placings do change and there are some price drops and increases which might influence things. In general, though, the best tablets to pick up right now are still the Dell Venue 7 and 8 with 3G, these being the closest thing to a Nexus device that we’re going to get for a while. At some point – I’m hoping before June – Dell’s Venue 8 7000 tablet should be hitting our stores, with an upgrade to just about every part of the original Venue 8, including a jump to a 8.4-inch 2560 x 1600 IPS display. That’s probably the best shot that any other OEM has against the Galaxy Tab Pro, which has the same resolution and about the same dimensions and weight.

You’ll notice this time around that the ASUS Vivotab Note is missing. For the first time in a while, we don’t have a tablet in the budget segment with an activie digitiser stylus, apart from the monstrously expensive Galaxy Note 10.1. Not only did the Vivotab come with a Wacom active pen, it was also a Windows 8.1 device, so you could do a lot of things that no other tablet currently can when it comes to Microsoft’s services. That’ll probably be cleared up if the new Surface 3 tablets arrive here, but I’m not holding my breath.

For the moment, I’m also not looking to recommend the iPad Mini 3, because the Mini 2 is still a great buy for an Apple user and they’re not as overpriced. I know that’s kind of weird when you’re talking about an Apple-branded product, but there’s just no way a Mini 3 makes sense at this point. As for the original iPad Mini, don’t bother. iOS 8.3 will make sure that your experience isn’t nearly as good as it is on newer hardware.

Gaming-capable Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
Proline A933L Hybrid 3G 8.9″ IPS 1920 x 1200  Atom Z3735G Intel HD 2GB 32GB SSD R2899
Lenovo Ideapad S2030 11.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Celeron N2840 Intel HD 4GB 500GB R4289
Acer Travelmate B115-M 11.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Celeron N2840 Intel HD 2GB 500GB R4030
ASUS Transformer Pad TF303CL LTE 10.1″ IPS 1920 x 1200 Atom Z3745 Intel HD 2GB 16GB eMMC R5576
ASUS Transformer T100TAL LTE 10.1″ IPS 1366 x 768 Atom Z3735 Intel HD 2GB 32GB eMMC R5695
Proline Professional W540SU 14″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i3-4000M Intel HD4600 4GB 500GB R7184
Dell Inspiron 3147 11.6″ IPS 1366 x 768 Celeron N2830 Intel HD 4GB 500GB R7371
Mecer Premium W840AU 14″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-5200U  Intel HD5500 4GB 500GB R8157
Toshiba Satellite Pro C40-A 14″ TN 1600 x 900 Core i5-4200M Geforce GT710M 6GB 750GB R9152

Starting off the grid once again is Proline’s A933L. Its an interesting device to display here, being a hybrid Windows 8.1 tablet and all. The niggling aspects for me personally is the display size (it could be larger), the low amount of local storage and the fact that it misses Microsoft’s offering of free copies of Office for Windows (the touch-based versions). That, coupled with the display scaling issues, makes me wish this device was just a little bit better to begin with, but the fact that its so portable and low on power consumption means it can be suitable as a companion device only when you’re making use of Modern, full-screen applications that do scale just fine.

Stepping up, we have a new challenger to the netbook segment in the Acer B115-M, part of the company’s Travelmate line. It doesn’t have all of the usual frills that accompany a Travelmate notebook, like a fingerprint reader, but it does have a slightly larger battery than the Lenovo S2030, and it comes with Windows 8.1 Single Language, not Windows 8.1 with Bing like the Lenovo does. The differences between the two aren’t big, but it does count against you if you ever try to do a clean install on the notebook. With the Bing-fied version of Windows, you can’t just grab an ISO file off the internet, you have to approach your OEM vendor to get them to send you a copy of the repair discs for it. Meh.

I won’t drag on this too long, but I’m also stopping at the two ASUS hybrids to point some interesting things out. One, ASUS is still determined to make Android a possible replacement for Windows on notebooks (if it hasn’t taken off by now, surely it never will?). Two, they are both updated with LTE chips, but the TF303CL has a much better display and more premium build quality, which is completely nonsensical. Why is the Android version so much better than the Windows one? Surely ASUS is getting Windows 8.1 with Bing for free? There’s also the fact that neither Transformer has a lot of internal storage.

Because of these issues, neither of those devices are good laptop/netbook replacements, and the lack of local storage in the T100TAL is probably what’s preventing it from being the success that ASUS clearly wants it to be.

Finishing things off, Dell’s Inspiron 3147 makes the cut because it is a premium netbook that’s going to be able to handle a serious beating thanks to the metal chassis, and Mecer’s W840AU joins the list because it is the most affordable 14-incher with Broadwell hardware inside. Its not going to set your world alight, but the HD5500 graphics is certainly good enough for most games these days at 720p with medium settings. Its really just the Mecer and the Proline W540SU that would be good for anything other than casual games, which sucks because AMD could be doing a lot of good here with their superior APU graphics.

Gaming-capable Laptops and Ultrabooks – 15.6″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
Toshiba Satellite Pro C50 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i3-4000M Intel HD4600 4GB 750GB R6189
Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E540C 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i3-4000M Intel HD4600 4GB 500GB R6404
ASUS A555LA 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-5200U Intel HD5500 4GB 1TB R7950
Lenovo Thinkpad E540 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-4210M Intel HD4600 8GB 500GB R7999
ASUS A555LN 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-4210U Geforce GT 840M 4GB 500GB R8548
Acer Aspire E1-572PG 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-4200U Radeon R7 M265 4GB 1TB R8620
Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E550 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-5200U Intel HD5500 4GB 500GB R8628
ASUS A555LN-XX455H 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i7-5500U Geforce GT 840M 4GB 1TB R9374

Although 14″ laptops look pretty neat on their own, they aren’t as good as their larger brethren. Smaller chassis require more engineering to keep heat and weight down, so the 15.6″ laptops are usually the point where not a lot of compromises are made to get things working. Compared to the February guide, we see one extra Broadwell-based notebook, as well as a bit of a recession in terms of hardware selection, and that’s directly related to the current state of our currency.

Because of the changing economic conditions in South Africa and across the world, some vendors are also doing the dumbest things. Only one of these notebooks ship with 8GB of RAM and that’s only because Evetech added in another 4GB module. The amount of cost-cutting going on now is tragic. We’re also seeing notebook vendors pick out some of the weakest Broadwell processors in order to save on R&D for some of their updated models. In fact, the ASUS A555LA is identical to its predecessor equipped with a Core i5-4210U, with the Core i5-5200U being the only change, really. Its a good thing that Broadwell boosts up the graphics side of things, or else it would be simply be a tick box on the spec sheet, irrelevant to the consumer but a money-saver to ASUS.

Still, we have some solid options here. There are more laptops out there shipping with Intel HD4600 graphics, and the most affordable Broadwell-based notebook ducks in under R8000. Things are progressing nicely on that front. The ASUS A555LN remains at a high price, equipped with the Geforce GT 840M, but it hasn’t seen too much of an increase, so that’s acceptable.

There’s also a more expensive version of the A555LN with a Core i7-5500U, but it is only included here because it is a Broadwell-based notebook. Keep in mind, though, that it doesn’t support the Nvidia Optimus switching tech, so it will be using the GT 840M pretty much all of the time. I can only hope that this issue is solved with Skylake, because Broadwell is only a stop-gap measure until mobile Skylake processors become a thing. The A555LN family also has a pretty small battery rated at around 37 Watt hours, so its not going to last a very long time off the charger unless ASUS has used a bit of magic to extend it past four hours.

Only the Acer Aspire E1 serves up the kind of gaming performance I’m looking for here. The Radeon R7 M265 is equipped with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, which gives it a big leg up on the competition from Nvidia. Coupled with the improvements in the Mantle API and DirectX 12, as well as extras like TrueAudio, it ends up being a rather nice budget gaming laptop for the money. Just, make sure you spend that extra R450 and slap another 4GB of RAM in there. It is sorely needed.

Gaming-capable Laptops and Ultrabooks – 17″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
Mecer Xpression W970SUW* 17.3″ TN 1600 x 900 Core i3-4100M Intel HD4600 4GB 500GB R7326
MSI CR70-2M 17.3″ TN 1600 x 900 Core i5-4210M Intel HD4600 4GB 1TB R8799
HP Probook 470 G1 17.3″ TN 1600 x 900 Core i3-4000M Radeon HD 8750M 4GB 500GB R8799
Mecer Xpression W970SUW** 17.3″ TN 1600 x 900 Core i5-4210M Intel HD4600 4GB 500GB R9028

Well, its coming to the end of the guide today and nothing says it more about the current state of the market than this – literally no change in the 17-inch range. There’s just nothing compelling to speak of at this price point, and even when you start considering the Probook 470, the HD 8750M only has 1GB of DDR3 memory. The cheaper Acer Aspire E1-572PG is much better value for they money you’re paying for it, and even the processor is faster in that notebook as well. There’s just no reason to consider 17-inch notebooks when you have R9000 or less to spend.

Out of the options, though, the cheaper Mecer W970SUW is not a bad deal overall. Because Mecer allows you to spec out your machines before ordering them, you can get the W970SUW shipped to you without Windows 8.1 pre-installed, a useful option if you’re planning on running Linux instead. Because there’s also only Intel hardware inside, that makes it much easier to recommend as a Linux-capable notebook because there shouldn’t be any driver issues whatsoever. Intel works closely with the Linux community to improve their drivers and things have been great on Intel platforms since 2010.

Still, if I’m going to pick a winner here, it has to be the cheaper W970SUW. While you get the freedom to choose which operating system you want to run, it is also the only option here to have an open M.2 SATA port for installing a SSD in addition to the hard drive shipped with the notebook. That option used to be available in the Probook 470 family, but was removed with the G1 update. If nothing else, I’m judging these notebooks based on flexibility.

That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next week for the second edition of this guide where we look at the options ranging from R10,000 to R19,000. Until next time!

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