Now for those of you who follow the System Builder’s columns, you’ll be familiar with my weekly look at what components you should choose to build a gaming system for a given budget. But what about when you’re looking for that perfect laptop to take along with you, to use in internet cafe’s while sipping coffee and blogging, or for when you’re out and about and need some work done? Perhaps you’d just like a simple system to lug along with you to LANs so you can still play games with your friends, but not have that huge pile of computer junk to take with you. Today I’ll be looking at Netbooks and laptops up to R7000.
Those of you who’ve been following the System Builder’s Thread on the NAG Forums will know that its almost impossible to buy a laptop for under R6000 that provides decent gaming performance. That’s certainly the case with netbooks and subnotebooks, but things are improving. For instance, AMD’s APU processors based on the Brazos platform provide capable hardware and a decent experience if you keep settings low, and are perfect for those game that are typically played – Counter Strike, Starcraft, Half-Life Deathmatch, cracked copies of Unreal 2k4 and so on. I hazard that only laptops from R6000 and upwards are capable LAN options, so for the rest of the time I’m looking for models that offer practicality, performance, productivity and portability in as small a package as is comfortable.
With the “surge” in Ultrabooks we’re certainly seeing buyers lust after similar, far cheaper options to the Macbook Air, and I’m here to show you that they do exist, if you know where to look. I’ll offer an SSD where possible for the Ultrabook alternatives, and where I feel it would benefit performance on the notebook in the long term. Battery life is also always a concern, and any measures that can be taken to improve that will be considered.
I choose both these notebooks because they’re the only Intel Cedar Trail netbooks in stock with the Atom N2800 processor. Its a dual-core chip with two extra threads, and it helps with the minimal workloads that netbooks have to deal with on a daily basis. The improved chipset and the GMA 3650 integrated graphics allows the playback of HD content using players like VLC and the Mecer model in particular can pack up to 4GB RAM, has an option for which version of Windows you’d like to load (in case you’re wondering, always choose Home Premium) and comes stock with a 3G HSDPA network card built-in. When buying the Mecer, make sure you switch the notebook to 64-bit Windows as the Cedar Trail platform is 64-bit capable, despite what the sales guy will tell you.
In particular, I like the idea of swapping out the stock hard drive for an SSD and then using the one you originally got as an external. Netbook workloads don’t usually deal with incompressible data unless there’s video involved, so the OCZ Agility would fit in just fine here. Both feature six-cell batteries, providing up to eight hours of life away from the wall.
Because there’s such a huge range of models out there, I only listed a few here for comparison, and ones that I would personally use. Most 15.6″ laptops here have decent enough specs to be productive workhorses, but don’t expect miracles from the Intel i3 processor, even though it is up to most tasks that you put to it. You would be able to play LAN games with the integrated graphics, but you’d be doing so at low-to-medium settings, depending on the game at hand.
Pay attention though, to the MSI I listed. Its essentially an Ultrabook before they were even a thing. Omitting the DVD drive and swapping in a low-power Core 2 Duo, its still powerful enough for any task you throw at it. Chuck out the HDD, throw in the 90GB Agility 3 and you should be good to go. The Macbook Air is smaller and lighter, but tops out at 64GB for the entry-level model. Granted, the laptop ships with Vista but you do get a free upgrade to Windows 7 in the box. If possible, install the 64-bit version and get another 2GB of RAM for good measure.
If you really want to get that one step closer to the allure of the Macbook Air, though, you can turn the notebook into a Hackintosh by following this guide for the X340 and by installing a compatible wireless card that works with OSX Snow Leopard. At your own risk, obviously. If you’re that serious, install Ubuntu Linux with a custom OSX skin – less grey hairs for everyone involved, and still a pleasant experience.
I looked around and round, round and around for anything better than the options we have here. I didn’t cover any laptops between the R5000 and R7000 budgets, mainly because they’re all copy-pasta versions of each other, and each one equally as crappy in the gaming department. Here we have two decent options, starting with the HP Pavilion G6 with AMD’s quad-core Brazos-based processor, AMD Radeon graphics that end up performing the same as a desktop HD6570, 4GB of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium. Its a sure-fit for multi-tasking users, and AMD’s APU is more than up to the challenge of playing games at medium settings.
The Mecer W170HN is by far the more capable platform, though. Seeing as its customisable, I recommend buyers move up to Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, the dual-core Intel i3-2350M, stick with the default 320GB hard drive and up the total RAM to 8GB for the cheapest gaming solution this side of the equator. The Nvidia Geforce GT540M is capable enough, though you’ll need to be playing at low resolutions and medium settings to get an enjoyable experience. Starcraft II would run really nicely here at medium settings.
Finally, I know a lot of people like tablets. A lot of people like notebooks. What about those of you who like both? Intel’s Letexo platform is a long way away, but if you’re willing to compromise and wait for Windows 8, go for the Dell Inspiron 1090. Its a netbook with a flip-touch screen, and should be more than up to the tasks you’d normally set for netbooks anyway. RAM is capped at 2GB, but that should be fine for the use case of this interesting hybrid, although an SSD is recommended to get around the hardware limitation of the weaker Atom processor.
Next week I’m scaling the walls of R9000 to R15,000 budgets, be sure to check out that if you’ve got that amount of money stuffed away in your piggy, your mattress or bank account.