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. As we head straight into the Christmas week, I’ve compiled a look into the mid-range market as it stands now – and the results are somewhat mixed. There’s middling CPU and GPU performance in the ultrabook market, some GPU shenanigans worming their way into the desktop replacements, and Acer is making a very aggressive move in the market. The tables are also much larger this month (sorry, those of you with tiny displays!), because we’re heading into a flushing season, where distributors and retailers are trying to flush out all their old stock up to Haswell, to make more room for their Broadwell and Skylake-based products. The next two months will be interesting for the notebook market. To save you time scrolling around, though, if you have R18k to spend and want a gaming notebook, buy a Gigabyte P35W V2. Don’t look at anything else for now until that option is out of stock.

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

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
ASUS Transfomer Book TP300LJ 13.3″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-5200U Geforce GT 940M 4GB 1TB R11,810
Lenovo U3170 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-5200U Geforce GT 920M 8GB 1TB R12,173
Apple Macbook Pro 13 (MD101) 13.3″ IPS 1440 x 900 Core i5-3210M Intel HD 4000 4GB 500GB R12,999
ASUS Transformer Book T300CHI * 12.5″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core M-5Y71 Intel HD 5300 4GB 128GB SSD R12,999
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro 13.3″ IPS 3200 x 1800 Core i7-4500U Intel HD 4400 8GB 256GB SSD R13,999
Gigabyte P34G Ultrabook 14″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200H Geforce GTX 760M 4GB 500GB R14,322
Apple Macbook Air 11 11.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i5-5250U Intel Iris 6000 4GB 128GB SSD R14,368
HP Pro X2 612 G1 ** 12.5″ VA 1366 x 768 Core i3-4021Y Intel HD 4200 4GB 128GB SSD R14,392
ASUS Zenbook UX305FA 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core M-5Y10 Intel HD5300 8GB 256GB SSD R15,435
Dell Inspiron 7348 *** 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5500U Intel HD 5500 8GB 500GB R16,402
Acer R7-371 ** 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5500U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R17,387
Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12 ** 12.5″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-5200U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R19,423
Lenovo MIIX 700 ** 12.5″ IPS 2160 x 1440 Core M3-6Y30 Intel HD 515 4GB 128GB SSD R19,999
Dell Latitude E5450 14″ VA 1920 x 1080 Core i5-5300U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R20,170
ASUS Zenbook UX305UA 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6500U Intel HD 520 8GB 256GB SSD R20,348
Apple Macbook Pro 13 13.3″ IPS 2560 x 1600 Core i5-5257U Intel Iris 6100 8GB 128GB SSD R20,842
Apple MacBook 12″ IPS 2304 x 1440 Core M-5Y31 Intel HD 5300 8GB 256GB R20,842

We’re at an interesting juncture in the market, where three generations of Intel chips are fighting for your wallet. There are still a lot of notebooks based on Haswell and Broadwell floating about, and the problem is that Intel can’t ramp up Skylake too quickly because the Broadwell rollout came so late. Thus, only a handful of Skylake-based options appear here, as many others are simply out of stock or too expensive for the time being.

There are a couple of stars in the table, and you might be wondering why. These represent the options available locally that could be considered stand-ins for Microsoft’s Surface Pro lineup, which is currently missing in the local market (missing as in Microsoft doesn’t import them directly). Single-starred options are merely serving the function of workhorse 2-in-1 detachable notebooks, while the ones with two stars have active digitisers that either use Wacom or N-trig, or similar sensors. If you wanted a drawing tablet that can do on-the-fly processing away from your desktop, these are not bad options. HP’s oddly named Pro X2 612 G1 has a Wacom ES input and ships with the keyboard dock, so it’s a pretty good deal. Lenovo’s MIIX 700 is an actual Surface Pro clone, but it’s too expensive to be worth consideration. Dell’s Inspiron 7348 is the odd duck with three stars, being a convertible ultrabook with a pen and Wacom digitiser.

Sometimes, looking at older models yields a good deal. Lenovo’s Yoga 2 Pro is one example of an older utrabook being marked down to clear. It’s still very capable, however, with an extremely high-res display, Haswell hardware, and a 256GB SSD, all clad in a fairly well-made plastic shell. Upgrading the RAM isn’t possible, though the SSD is a standard 7mm 2.5-inch form factor, and the Wi-Fi card can be replaced with an 802.11ac adapter if needed. Upgrading to Windows 10 is recommended to take advantage of the high-res display, because Windows 8.1 still doesn’t do it that well.

On the subject of older models, I’d also like to point out the very old Macbook Pro 13, which makes the list by the skin of its teeth. The reason why I mention the model number is that it’s from the Ivy Bridge family, fairly ancient as far as hardware goes. However, there are valid reasons for wanting to own one – the Ivy Bridge versions were the last to allow both RAM and hard drive upgrades, which is attractive to a lot of people who may not want to fork out almost R21,000 just to have 8GB of RAM and a SSD on a Macbook. Get this model, bump it up to 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, and you’re still paying less for everything than a brand new 128GB Macbook Pro 13. And it’s still just as capable.

As far as gaming goes, Gigabyte’s aging P34G is the only option left that’s actually suited to the task. It’s not the latest and greatest, but it still hangs in there with a Core i5 processor from the Haswell family, a Geforce GTX 760M, a full HD display and a backlit keyboard. If it’s mobile gaming on a budget you want, look no further. There’s nothing else in the market of this size at a similar price anyway.

Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 15.6″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
ASUS X550JL 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4200H Geforce GTX 950M 8GB 1TB R11,999
Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E550 15.6″ TN 1366 x 768 Core i7-5500U Radeon R9 M265X 8GB 1TB R12,399
Lenovo Y5070 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R16,644
Lenovo Yoga 15 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-5200U Geforce GT 840M 8GB 256GB SSD R17,163
Lenovo Y5070 15.6″ IPS 3840 x 2160 Core i7-4720HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R17,419
Acer Aspire V Nitro Black Edition 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-6300HQ Geforce GTX 950M 8GB 1TB R17,954
Gigabyte P35W V2 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710HQ Geforce GTX 870M 8GB 1TB R18,073
MSI Apache GE62-2QC 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5700HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R18,215
Gigabyte P55K V4 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5700HQ Geforce GTX 965M 8GB 1TB R18,577
Acer Aspire V Nitro Black Edition 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R19,151
ASUS ROG G551JW 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4750HQ Geforce GTX 960M 16GB 1TB R20,100
MSI Apache GE62-6QC 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R20,873

The landscape for the 15.6-inch gaming notebook market has shifted quite a lot. In the span of one year, we’ve gone from having crappy TN 1366 x 768 displays ruling the roost, to IPS panels with full HD resolutions (and sometimes more) to pick from. While I do base my decisions on the display and keyboard, because that’s what you’ll grow to either love or hate the most, it’s a good feeling to not have to decide between laptops based on what display gets shoved in there. Instead, I have to nitpick on design, connectivity, and the processor ‘s specifications. Because of this change, I can’t really tell you which one wins overall, because things have now changed to where you basically have to pick according to your personal preferences and what you’re prepared to put up with.

In the lower end of the budget, ASUS’ X550 starts off at the bottom, offering decent value. R12,000 buys you a surprising amount of horsepower, and its nearest competitors either have to use a lesser display, or simply charge more and add more processing power to compensate. How ASUS manages this is through soldering on the memory, so there’s only one extra slot, omitting an M.2 or mSATA port, and by equipping the GPU with DDR3 memory instead of GDDR5. Its only competitor price-wise is Lenovo’s business-orientated ThinkPad Edge E550, which ends up being a good bit faster thanks to being equipped with GDDR5 memory, but suffers from a poorer display.

Lenovo dominates the mid-range segment with three offerings, two of which are outdated by only a few months. I like that there’s some choice if you’re keen on getting a Y5070 – either you can pick the 1080p display and benefit from the higher battery life, or you can get the 4K display and see what Apple fans have been raving about for two years now. Windows 10 finally fixes high-DPI scaling for most of its first-party applications, and it does look very, very good. If you’re keen on neither one, but still want a flexible business notebook, there’s the Yoga 15 to consider.

At the high end, if the Gigabyte P35W V2 didn’t exist, I’d call out the cheaper Aspire Nitro V as my favourite. With a quad-core hyper-threaded processor and a Geforce GTX 870M 6GB discrete GPU, though, the Gigabyte takes the lead in the price/performance stakes. Like the Nitro V, it has a backlit keyboard and IPS display. Like the Nitro V, it also has two fans to cool down the internals, venting heat out exhausts located on the rear of the chassis. This is good for lefties, because most notebook vendors put the vents on the left-hand side, right where you’re putting your mouse hand. If the P35W V2 isn’t available, however, the Nitro V takes my overall recommendation. Quad-core Skylake in a stylish chassis with 4GB of VRAM instead of the usual 2GB is a really good offer. There’s an open NVME-compatible M.2 slot as well, while the P35W V2 has two mSATA ports in addition to the normal 2.5-inch SATA bay. Did I also mention that the P35W V2 also has a hot-swappable DVD bay that has a converter in the box to use it for another 2.5-inch drive? Because it totally does.

You can’t RAID all four devices at once though. That would just be unfair to the other notebook vendors.

Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 17″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
MSI Apache GE72-2QL 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i5-4210M Geforce GTX 950M 8GB 1TB R16,886
Acer Aspire V Nitro Black Edition 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R18,215
Dell Inspiron 7746 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5500U Geforce GT 845M 16GB 1TB R18,999
MSI Apache Pro GE72-6QE 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ Geforce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R19,510

Ending off the guide today is the 17-inch behemoth range, as well as a bit of a rant. In the 15.6-inch segment, I had a number of interesting options to add in to the table. However, a number of them hid a rather nasty surprise – the widespread use of DDR3 memory on notebooks that sported GTX 950M and GTX 960M graphics. I though that was perhaps limited to specific models, but it wasn’t. For example, MSI’s lineup has a number of notebooks with “GP” in the product code, and the majority of them use GPUs with DDR3 memory. That changes with some of the higher models, but you’d never know you’re getting a GPU with crummy DDR3 memory without going to the manufacturer’s site and looking for that info. And if they don’t report it, like ASUS and Gigabyte tend to do, you’re SOL unless you find a review detailing that specification. I can forgive this practise for notebooks under R12,999, maybe, but Gigabyte’s decision to put DDR3 VRAM into their P17F lineup kills any chance it has of fighting against the incoming offers from Lenovo and Acer.

So, where possible, I’m going to only add in discrete GPUs with GDDR5 memory into this guide. I know that’s not always possible in the lower price ranges, but I’ll be looking harder for this sort of thing. MSI’s choice to sell the GP62-2QE for over R17,000 with DDR3 VRAM is just silly and unnecessary. It gets sillier when you look at Evetech’s page for Gigabyte, which includes a number of customised options they’ve added on for the P17F. Guys, it’s a bust. Adding a 512GB SSD and another 8GB of RAM isn’t going to fix its inherent performance issues.

I’ll keep the final section short and sweet because 17-inch laptops really aren’t that great in this price range. If you want something decent, pick the Aspire V Nitro. As enticing as the Apache GE72-2QL is, it lacks an IPS display, a backlit keyboard, 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM, and the Core i7 processor. The Nitro isn’t much faster than the MSI for most things, but it’s still ahead. If you’re a business user looking to have some game time when you’re not working, Dell’s Inspiron 7746 looks really nice. The Geforce GT 845M isn’t going to be a match for the other GPUs in the table, but it still has GDDR5 memory, so it’s not going to suck completely.

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’ll be a hiatus this month as we head into Christmas, but I should have the final part of this guide up before the end of the year. See you then!

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