Goooooooooood Morning Naglings! I’m glad you popped over with a cup of coffee and a mind to drool over some hardware because today we’re back onto the Laptop Buyer’s Guide for the peeps who don’t want to follow the sheep. I’ll be looking at netbooks and laptops up to R7000, with a nod to any Ultrabook alternatives for those who need something more light and portable. bear in mind that many of the systems here aren’t actually capable of playing many games at any kind of decent visuals, but I may get lucky here or there. Follow me to see what’s in store for you!
Remember, I’m also doing another System Builder’s Guide for Thursday for AMD fans, since I’ve got a feeling they’re a bit neglected and would like a helping hand in component choice. Make sure you stop by for that one as well.
There haven’t been many changes in the last two months. I did find a number of new Ivy Bridge systems popping up online, but since Sandy Bridge laptops are still in stock across the country it may be a bit difficult to find notebooks using the new processors for some time yet. I’ve also decided to keep the SSD recommendations because I believe there’s a huge benefit to the performance and usability of a platform that is ordinarily crippled by design to fit into a lower thermal limit. SSD’s also don’t suffer shock damage and are far more durable in most situations. If you were thinking of buying one, head on over to my write-up of the different sizes available and how they suit you to make an informed decision before you start looking at prices.
I’m sure you’re also all noticing the lack of netbooks in stores, especially those using the newer Atom N2600 and N2800 dual-core processors. These chips are actually pretty decent but since Netbooks aren’t enjoying the same kind of sales push as Ultrabooks their popularity has waned. This does, however, bring some benefits as retail stores will drop prices in order to push them out. Stay away from the single-core variants if you’re keen on running Windows, as they behave much better under Linux with the lower hardware requirements. If you’re happy enough with the limits of a system running a single-core processor, though, be my guest.
Economies of scale have allowed for a slight price drop overall here, with the optional OCZ Agility 60GB dropping R100-odd to allow more people entry into the world of ultra-fast boot times. Note that both these netbooks sport larger 6-cell batteries and Atom dual-core N2800 processors so battery life should be around eight hours off the wall, jumping up by another 30 minutes with the SSDs. Setting screen brightness aggressively down and enabling power saving mode would extend to life to just over nine hours, enough for a full working day.
Note that to get the most out of these netbooks, you’d have to install a 64-bit version of Windows to use the full 4GB of RAM that one could fit in there. Starter only comes in 32-bit flavours, which means that right off the bat the Mecer with the Home Basic license is the better choice, even if its R1000 more expensive. It’s also the better option if you’re planning on running a Linux distro or if you will use the embedded 3G modem.
As usual, clone over the OS to the SSD if you’re going that route and make sure you follow Sean’s SSD Optimisation guide, particularly paying attention to drive alignment. You won’t have to do much of those optimisations for Windows 7 Starter, but Home Basic certainly has some fat that can be trimmed off.
R5000 Notebooks and Ultrabook Alternatives:
Sadly, there’s not a lot of good Ultrabook alternatives at the moment, especially not at the lower price points that I expected from manufacturers using AMD’s Fusion APU family. Price and specs-wise the Samsung NP300 offer from Makro is the best value for money right now, sporting a three-year warranty and bumping things up to Intel’s Core i3-2530M. It does unfortunately knock on the door of R5000, but is the best pick out of the lot for peace of mind.
Ultrabook-wise, there’s the Sony Vaio YBA family of 11.6″ Ultraportables and the excellent ASUS U32U, both coming under the 1.8kg requirement to classify both as Ultrabooks, even though they don’t have SSDs. If you had an extra R1000 lying around, I’d suggest shoving in a OCZ Agility 3 120GB into both of them and call it a day without having to pay through your nose for anything priced higher than R9000 and possibly boasting an Apple logo. Some people have managed to get OS X onto a AMD APU so it is possible to have a Hackintosh once again, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you want to get that close, get the Vaio and use Ubuntu 11.04 LTS with a OS X skin to get close enough to the real thing. Note that AMD’s APU Linux support is a bit of a hit-and-miss scenario for the time being, especially where GPU acceleration for video is concerned on Flash Player, but on the whole things should be as stable as a rock. If you’re keen, stick to the tried-and-tested Ubuntu 11.04 and get the proprietary AMD video drivers.
R7000 Notebooks and Ultrabook Alternatives:
When selecting laptops for this price point (you’ll notice that the number here has more than doubled since May) it was a bit difficult to figure out which ones were actually good value for money. What I landed up with weren’t all Ultrabook alternatives, but it was something substantially better than I expected.
If you’re looking for a cheap gaming laptop, Toshiba’s C850 or the Mecer Expression both pull ahead of the competition at just under R7000 for both units. The Xpression was configured with a Core i3 and the discrete GT630M but the C850 takes it with the quad-core i5-2450M and the Radeon HD6810M. I know, you’ve never heard of it and neither have I. In fact it looks like its so rare that Google doesn’t even turn up a single review – but it is a Barts Pro chip, putting it in the same league as the desktop HD6770 and turning in better performance than the Xpression. If you use apps that require or support Nvidia’s CUDA technology, that would be the one to go for. Additionally, if you’ve got less than six grand to spare and still want to play games, Acer’s Aspire 5750 offers the GT540M and the Core i5-2450M for a surprisingly low price. You’ll manage 720p resolutions at mainly low settings, but at least its playable. Barely. If at all.
If you want an Ultrabook, there’s the Thinkpad Edge 420s for you, weighing only 100g more than standard Ultrabooks. If you’re looking for a touch-screen alternative to Intel’s Letexo, then the Dell 1090 brings you pretty close, but the Intel Atom will stifle performance without a SSD to rely on. Strangely enough, ASUS’ Transformer Pad Android-based tablet makes a very strong case for itself as a workhorse, especially once you throw in the optional keyboard to bolster the 12-hour battery life. If you live and work in the cloud and use Google Docs, this is an extremely strong contender and a big push by ASUS to bring Android to the workplace. The only drawback is the low amount of storage and the high price of the keyboard dock, usually retailing for around R1500.
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