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Hello and welcome to this episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide for December 2015/January 2016, where we’re spending so much money on notebooks that you could almost buy an original Vanduul Scythe LTI for your hangar in Star Citizen. Almost. On that note, have a gander at the ship prices in the game; the $2500 Javelin isn’t even the most powerful ship in the game, and it’s been by far the most expensive one ever made (and you can’t trade limited edition ships). Like laptops, buying super-expensive ships in Star Citizen or Elite: Dangerous just seems like a crazy proposition, but those of you in the know already know that sometimes buying one of the more expensive toys ends up in a better overall experience. Let’s dive into today’s guide.

High-end Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
HP ZBook 14 G2 14″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-5200U FirePro M4150 4GB 256GB SSD R21,236
Acer Aspire S7-393 13.3″ IPS 2560 x 1440 Core i7-5500U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R22,499
HP Elitebook Revolve 810 G3 11.6″ IPS 1366 x 768 Core i5-5200U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R23,569
HP Elitebook 820 G2 12.5″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7 5500U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R23,266
Apple Macbook Pro 13 2015 13.3″ IPS 2560 x 1600 Core i5-5257U Intel Iris 6100 8GB 256GB SSD R24,631
Dell XPS 13 13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i5-5200U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R25,799
Gigabyte AORUS X3 13.9″ IGZO 3200 x 1800 Core i7-4860HQ GeForce GTX 870M 16GB 512GB SSD R26,999
MSI Phantom GS40-6QE* 14″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 970 8GB 128GB+1TB R28,864
ASUS Zenbook UX305UA 13.3″ IPS 3200 x 1800 Core i7-6500U Intel HD 520 8GB 512GB SSD R29,756
Dell XPS 13 13.3″ IPS 3200 x 1800 Core i7-5500U Intel HD 5500 8GB 256GB SSD R30,136
Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon 14″ IPS 1600 x 900 Core i7-5500U Intel HD 5500 8GB 512GB SSD R31,519

In a dramatic turnaround from the situation we had in the high-end segment last year, this time we have a smorgasbord of options to look at once more. The thin-and-light segment is usually not laden with options for mobile gaming, largely because once Dell pulled out the Alienware 11, few companies saw any incentive to remain. There are options from some of the OEM brands like Clevo, but finding anything suited to gaming is a rarity, even when you’re spending this much money. Since there are so few options with discrete graphics, let’s get those out of the way first.

At the low end is HP’s ZBook 14 G2, returning for another stint, this time with an upgrade to a Broadwell Core i5 CPU. It still uses a FirePro graphics card, and that is also the default GPU, so there’s no funny switching software involved like Optimus, or AMD’s workable-but-cumbersome Enduro graphics switching technology. Being a professional GPU might not give you the gaming performance you’re looking for, but it’s going to be more than serviceable for most games thanks to using GDDR5 memory. Adding on about R5,000 gets you the AORUS X3, a completely different beast that also has its own set of oddities thanks to how Windows scaling works on such a high-resolution panel. However, getting a GeForce GTX 870M for R27k is a damn good deal, and worth the asking price for such a small form factor.

The other option isn’t currently available, but may end up landing here in the coming months. MSI hasn’t had a 14-inch gaming notebook for some time, and the recently-announced Phantom GS40-6QE would be quite the contender, especially in a market that no longer has Alienware as the only major player. This overview by Kitguru seems to reveal that the SSD is NVME-based as well, so this is going to be dynamite in a really small package. Keep your eye out for it, it’ll at least fill the gap in the market here that would have been filled by the Razer Blade.

Looking at all the other options for thin-and-light notebooks, I think the most impressive options aren’t even the most expensive ones. If you’re in the market for an ultrabook that conforms to everything that made the ultrabook specification so popular, the Acer Aspire S7 is a good option. Its cheaper and has a similar hardware setup to the cheapest Macbook Pro 13, yet it’s priced down low enough to give the ASUS Zenbook UX305FA and Dell XPS 13 UHD notebooks a run for their money.

If it’s a business notebook that’s going to be used as a workhorse, I also think that HP’s Elitebook 820 G2 deserves some attention. Aside from the IPS display and small chassis, it offers a lot of value for money on the hardware side, and still has an open 2.5-inch slot for SATA drives. There’s even 3G built-in and 802.11ac WiFi, as well as a fingerprint reader that could be used for signing in to Windows 10 using the new Windows Hello security features. As a notebook that’s going to be used for work or lugged around the world, this is a pretty good option. The battery is a bit small at 26 watt-hours, but that should be enough to get you to about four hours with all the power saving options enabled.

If Windows isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always the Macbook Pro 13 to consider. Even if you’re not an Apple fan, I think anyone will be seriously hard-pressed to find a reason to not want to own a Macbook Pro, even when taking OS X out of the equation. That Force Touch-enabled trackpad is really cool as well.

High-end Laptops and Ultrabooks – 15.6″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
Gigabyte P35W2 V2 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710HQ GeForce GTX 870M 8GB 1TB R19,499
MSI Ghost Pro GS60-2QE 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ GeForce GTX 970M 16GB 1TB R22,499
Gigabyte P55W V4 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5700HQ GeForce GTX 970M 8GB 1TB R22,190
Gigabyte P35W V3 15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ GeForce GTX 970M 8GB 128GB+1TB R23,999
HP ZBook 15u G2 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5500U FirePro M4170 8GB 1TB R24,745
MSI Apache Pro GE62-6QF 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 970M 8GB 1TB R27,157
MSI Apache GE62-2QF 15.6″ IPS 3840 x 2160 Core i7-4720HQ GeForce GTX 970M 16GB 256GB+1TB R27,999
MSI Ghost Pro GS60-6QE 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 970M 16GB 1TB R30,178
Gigabyte P35X V3 15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4710MQ GeForce GTX 980M 16GB 128GB+1TB R30,494
Apple Macbook Pro Retina 15 15.4″ IPS 2880 x 1800 Core i7-4770HQ Iris Pro 5200 16GB 256GB SSD R31,736
Gigabyte AORUS X5 G-Sync 15.6″ IPS 2880 x 1620 Core i7-5700HQ GeForce GTX 965M SLI 16GB 512GB+1TB R34,407

If the 11″ to 14″ segment seemed a little thin on choice, looking at the 15.6-inch segment makes it even clearer – you can have anything, so long as it’s got Intel and NVIDIA hardware inside. For a start, Gigabyte’s P35W V2 is currently being priced to clear and forced off the market. If you have R20,000 to spend on a laptop that has to last you the next four years playing AAA games, this is a great option. The GeForce GTX 870M is still a very capable GPU, and it will be a while before anyone would consider it a slouch. In light of the fact that it’s currently on special at Evetech for R17,000, I think it pretty much blows away any recommendation I’m making here today. At that price, it is so worth it.

Spending more gets you another Haswell-based laptop, MSI’s Ghost Pro GS60. While the GTX 970M physically has less shader cores and texture units than the GTX 870M, it’s still faster as a result of the efficiency improvements moving from the first-generation Maxwell architecture to the second version. There likely isn’t even a performance difference in most games between the GS60 and Gigabyte’s P55W V4, so your choice really boils down to the notebook’s design, how much you like MSI’s keyboards, and how much you like having money.

If you’re a Gigabyte fan, though, I’d recommend picking the P35W V3 instead of the P55W V4. The P35W has more storage options and the hot-swappable DVD drive bay that doubles as an extra storage bay for a 2.5-inch hard drive, while the P55W only has a single 2.5-inch drive along with one M.2 slot. There’s also a IPS 2880 x 1620 display that you can optionally order and fit yourself, if you’re brave enough. That display only comes standard on the AORUS notebooks, but it fits into the P35W’s lid.

Picking out a winner here isn’t difficult – that goes to the MSI Ghost Pro GS60-2QE. Not only is it lighter and more portable than the other options here, excluding the Skylake-based GS60-6QE, it’s also one of the cheapest options available, and also supports adding in two M.2 SATA-based SSDs if you’re up to taking out the motherboard and installing them yourself (MSI doesn’t like it when anyone does this, though). Sure, the powerhouses like the Gigabyte P35X V3 do offer a lot of performance, but that comes at massive cost.

High-end Laptops and Ultrabooks – 17″

Laptop Model Display CPU GPU RAM Storage Price
ASUS ROG G751JL 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ GeForce GTX 965M 16GB 1TB R22,199
MSI Apache Pro GE72-6QD 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 960M 8GB 1TB R22,978
ASUS ROG G752VL G-Sync 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 965M 8GB 1TB R25,103
MSI Stealth GS70-2QD 17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5700HQ GeForce GTX 965M 8GB 1TB R25,180
ASUS ROG G751JT G-Sync 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4720HQ GeForce GTX 970M 16GB 1TB R26,399
MSI Apache Pro GE72-6QF 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 970M 8GB 1TB R27,036
Gigabyte AORUS X7 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4860HQ GeForce GTX 860M SLI 16GB 384GB+1TB R29,799
ASUS ROG G752VT G-Sync 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 970M 16GB 1TB R30,540
MSI Stealth GS70-6QE 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 970M 16GB 1TB R30,939
Acer Predator G9 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 980M 8GB 128GB+1TB R31,121
Gigabyte P37X V4 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-5700HQ GeForce GTX 980M 16GB 128GB+1TB R33,924
ASUS ROG G751JY G-Sync 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-4860HQ GeForce GTX 980M 16GB 128GB+1TB R33,599
Acer Predator G9 17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080 Core i7-6700HQ GeForce GTX 980M 16GB 256GB+2TB R34,712

Rounding off things for this week, we stop at the 17-inch options. Since my last stop at this price point in 2015, we have several more G-Sync notebooks than before, which changes the game quite a bit. The ASUS ROG G752VL therefore grabs my attention the most. As the cheapest notebook currently available with G-Sync, that makes the inclusion of the GeForce GTX 965M a little easier to accept. The ROG G751JT is the older version of a similar design that first came out with G-Sync compatibility, but it had to be added later in a driver update from NVIDIA. There’s no reason to choose the G752VL over the G751JT, but the newer model isn’t a bad choice if you’re unable to find stock of the G751JT.

Moving down the table, AORUS rears its head, probably for the last time, with the aging X7, but I don’t think it’s a good option anymore for gamers. Two GTX 860M cards in SLI will be a headache for games that don’t support it properly, and a GTX 970M is able to match that setup handily. What’s left is the form factor, and while AORUS scores points here for the design and insane slimness of the X7, having SLI on the table does complicate things somewhat. Spending a little extra for the MSI Stealth GS70-6QE is a better idea, and there’s nothing lost in the switch, especially when both laptops are about the same thickness.

If you’re spending anything close to R30,000 on a 17-incher that will be ported around somewhat, MSI’s GS60-6QE seems like the best choice overall. It’s not too cumbersome and just thin enough to not be super-annoying. The ROG G752VT is the better performer overall thanks to better cooling and G-Sync, but its weight and heft means that it’s less portable, and you’re more inclined to leave it tethered to the wall outlet rather than travel with it like you would a smaller notebook. That’s why Acer’s Predator G9 doesn’t get my overall recommendation either, because it has the same weight problem, even though it’s the cheapest option with a GTX 980M included. Acer’s decision to not make the internal display compatible with G-Sync is also an odd one, and they might lose out on sales because it’s a feature that would give them a leg up on the competition.

That’s all for this month folks! Soon we’ll be back to normalcy and the System Builders Guide (at least once I’ve finished up catching up on all the CES 2016 news). Until next time!