Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide, where we now get into the mid-range market and see what our money buys us this week. There are no surprises here – notebook vendors still haven’t learned that SSDs should come with laptops by default when you’re spending this much money. But, you know, there’s probably a bunch of bean counters who tell the CEO that they need to save money on their product development and assembly, not offer consumers better choices when the rest of the market is equally happy to do the same. I wish someone would be brave enough to be the first to do it, but it looks like they’re all waiting for something. A SSD price war? Who knows.

Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
HP ZBook Pro 14 14″ VA 1600 x 900 Core i5-4300M FirePro M4100 4GB 500GB R11,327
Apple Macbook Air 11 11.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-4260U Intel Iris 5000 4GB 128GB SSD R12,499
Proline Premier W230ST 13.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4700MQ Geforce GTX 765M 8GB 1TB R13,767
Apple Macbook Air 13 13.3″ TN 1440 x 900 Core i5-4260U Intel HD5000 4GB 128GB SSD R13,699
Gigabyte P34G Ultrabook 14″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200H Geforce GTX 760M 4GB 500GB R14,650
ASUS Zenbook UX303LN 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4510U Geforce GT 840M 4GB 24+750GB R15,798
Apple Macbook Pro 13 13.3″ IPS 2560 x 1600 Core i5-4308U Intel Iris 5000 8GB 128GB SSD R15,799
Apple Macbook Pro 13 2015 13.3″ IPS 2560 x 1600 Core i5-5257U Intel Iris 6100 8GB 128GB SSD R18,999
Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 12 12.5″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5500U Intel HD5500 8GB 256GB SSD R19,423
Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14 14″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5500U Geforce GT 840M 8GB 256GB SSD R19,449

A lot of people wish for their gaming computers to be lighter and these notebooks take that idea to the extreme. Some of them are so thin that a Kung Fu master would chop through them with three fingers. Still, we’re given a lot of options here, some good and some great. We start off with a little bit of business flair – HP’s ZBook Pro 14 makes a return, but drops tremendously down the pricing scale to become the cheapest option today (previously it was over the halfway mark to our budget). It is also the only notebook here with a professional graphics chip inside, so if you’re particularly keen on the idea of some CAD work on the road, this isn’t the worst idea in the world.

Moving down, Proline’s W230ST retains the “value for money” crown in my guides here, asking just shy of R14,000 for a slim and light gaming notebook. It is also the only one here to sport a quad-core processor, which is good for performance but not so good for battery life. It will spend much of its time plugged into a wall socket, but that’s okay – it’ll be hooked up to an external display anyway, because Windows 8.1’s scaling on that display isn’t going to be great. It seems that a backlit keyboard has been added in sneakily since I first discovered this notebook last year.

Moving down, we come to the newcomer to the table – the 2015 Macbook Pro 13. It is notable for being a slightly thinner and lighter design than the 2014 model, and it has the new Force Touch trackpad in addition to a new Broadwell processor and Intel Iris HD6100 graphics. Battery life should now be a bit over ten hours (an hour’s improvement over the 2014 model) and the new SSDs support the NVM Express protocol, so that’s also a lot faster than the previous model. All in all, its a decent update to an old staple in my guide, and I can’t wait for the day that I can own one myself, just to see what all the hype is about.

The 2015 Macbook Pro also has two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, mini-Displayport, HDMI, a SD card reader and a 3.5mm combination audio jack. If you didn’t like the look of the 2015 Macbook, with its single, small USB 3.1 Type C connector, you’ll be much happier with this.

Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 15.6″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
ASUS FX550JK 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200H Geforce GTX 850M 8GB 1TB R10,796
ASUS G56JK Gaming 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200M Geforce GTX 850M 8GB 750GB R12,772
Lenovo Ideapad Y5070 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710MQ Geforce GTX 860M 8GB 1TB R13,978
ASUS G551JW Gaming 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200H Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R14,106
Acer Aspire R7 572G 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4210U Geforce GTX 850M 8GB 1TB R14,229
ASUS B551LA Pro 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4558U Intel Iris Pro 5100 8GB 1TB R14,650
ASUS G551JW Gaming 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ Geforce GTX 960M 16GB 1TB R16,613
Gigabyte P35G 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710HQ Geforce GTX 860M 16GB 1TB R17,644
MSI Dragon GT60-2OC 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4700MQ Geforce GTX 770M 12GB 128GB+1TB R18,210

The landscape for the 15.6-inch gaming notebook market shifted a bit here and there, but it is mostly the same all around. We still have mostly TN displays, but they’re getting better and better at not sucking. Still, IPS, VA and IGZO should be the goal here and I’m sad to say that the laptop that makes the most sense here is also the only other one with an IPS panel – ASUS’ FX550JK. It is, by far, the cheapest and best option for anyone shopping on a cash-strapped budget of around R11,000. It’ll play most games at native resolution with medium settings and it’ll look damn fine doing it, too.

Moving down a bit, ASUS’ G551JW finds itself in a crowded spot shared with three other contenders. Even though it has a Geforce GTX 960M inside, it is powered by a hyper-threaded dual-core Core i5 processor, while the Lenovo Y5070, a personal favourite, has a quad-core chip and will ultimately handle any well-threaded game better, especially in multiplayer. Against the Lenovo, its almost a tie, but not quite. Had ASUS used an IPS display in the G551JW, then things would be quite different. I’ve always prioritised display resolution and quality over performance in previous guides, and that would hold true if the G551JW had a IPS display. Come on, ASUS, I know you’re listening to this advice somehow.

At the high end, Gigabyte’s flexible P35G faces off against the MSI GT60-2OC, one of the last notebooks in this guide to feature a 700-series Geforce GPU. Its still no slouch either, easily showing the other GPUs here who’s boss. But, it is a much older design and an older model, and it is probably just at the end of its retail life, with stocks slowly drying up as it is discontinued. The GTX 770M is a really good chip and if you’re using the older Geforce drivers that allow for overclocking, it hangs in there with a desktop-class GTX 760 once tweaked. Coupled with the two mSATA slots, you may find it difficult to retire because of how quickly that RAID array will run things.

Sadly, AMD no longer features here. The Radeon R9 M290X is still a rebrand of the old HD 7970M and it doesn’t look like AMD has a plan to refresh or revamp their discrete mobile GPU lineup at all. It would be sweet if this year was the one where they do get their ship righted in the mobile market, but they currently see far fewer orders for mobile chips than Nvidia does. It will take something insanely good to turn this trend around and I’m pretty skeptical that they can.

Then again, the market only seems to want Intel and Nvidia, so half of the battle for AMD will be setting up a better marketing campaign and strategy.

Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 17″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
MSI Apache GE70-2PL 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4210H Geforce GTX 850M 4GB 1TB R12,777
Mecer Premier W370SS* 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4210M Geforce GTX 860M 8GB 1TB R13,091
MSI Stealth GE70-2OD 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200M Geforce GTX 765M 8GB 1TB R14,361
Mecer Premier W370SS 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4210M Geforce GTX 860M 16GB 256GB SSD R16,059
Gigabyte P17F 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710MQ Geforce GTX 850M 8GB 1TB R16,138
ASUS N750JK 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710HQ Geforce GTX 850M 8GB 2TB R17,606
MSI Stealth GS70-2PC 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710HQ Geforce GTX 860M 16GB 128GB+1TB R18,160
MSI Stealth Pro GS70-2PE 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710HQ Geforce GTX 870M 16GB 1TB R19,225

Ending off the guide today is the 17-inch behemoth range. The choice here isn’t very different, but we do see four MSI notebooks, up from three in the February edition of this guide. There are also a number of options that are missing, like ASUS’ G751JM – that model enjoyed a price spike of over R3000 and went out of stock last month, so I don’t think it’ll make a return anytime soon.

Mecer’s Premier W370SS returns once again and also sees a small price drop, bringing my chosen configuration sans Windows closer to R13,000. Mecer allows its customers to choose the specifications of the notebooks before taking delivery of them, which helps when you’re trying to drop the Windows license to save on costs. How much are we exactly saving, though? Compared to the MSI Stealth GE70, which has all the necessary stuff and has two mSATA slots open for expansion, the W370SS is bigger and bulkier, but trades those looks for a lower price tag.

That is only if you’re going to be running Linux or your own Windows license, of course. Adding in Windows is around R1000, and that brings us closer to the price of the base model MSI Stealth GE70, so I added in another 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SATA SSD for a final price just over R16,000. Even though the hardware inside is now more attractive, it remains bulky and garish to look at. I’d pick the Stealth any day of the week.

Moving along, ASUS’ N750JK sees a small price increase, but the odd pairing of two hard drives in RAID is enough to differentiate it from the other notebooks in its price range. You could later swap that out for two SATA SSDs or possibly even just one, leaving in a 1TB drive for storage and using the spare as a backup drive. Or run the drives mirrored, its all up to you. I like notebooks that offer the user some flexibility and the N750JK does just that.

The final option of the Stealth Pro GS70 with the GTX 870M shows me that MSI knows what sort of performance users in this price range want, but still seem to be totally clueless when it comes to storage. These notebooks should be coming with 256GB mSATA drives already, in addition to the 5400RPM spinners – not doing so and leaving users with those crap rotational speeds should be a crime against humanity. Hard drives are slow, MSI. No gamer is going to be happy with their brand new GS70-2PE that ends up leaving them staring at loading screens. At this price point, a SSD should be a default inclusion.

That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next time for the final episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide for the R20,000 to R30,000 price range. There’s bound to be drool-worthy stuff on there, as well as a few interesting options that may raise an eyebrow or two. Until next time!

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