Welcome back to the Laptop Buyer’s Guide, the show where all your money gets spent and you can’t upgrade your laptop. That’s right, you can’t upgrade them in any meaningful way, much like if you buy a Renault Sandero and expect to bolt a turbo onto it, its just not going to happen. It’ll be quicker, but it won’t turn in any faster. In fact, don’t buy a Sandero. Save up for a Toyota 86, you’ll be a lot happier. Today we’re shopping from the netbook to R8000 price range and we’ll be trudging through Intel Atoms, APUs, touch screens and SSDs. Follow me after the jump.
In the netbook space its a little highly contended as far as the platforms are concerned. Your main option is Intel’s Atom N2600, a dual-core chips with enough chops to outdo a Pentium 4 but still suck at everything else. If its cheap you want, the Gigabyte gives you the most pocket change back.
However, the EeePC makes a statement by not only falling under the budget of R4000 for most cheap laptops, it also has a stronger graphics core and ships with Windows 7 Home Basic, a big step up from the stripped-down Starter version. Replacing the 500GB hard drive with a nice, fast SSD would further help things. If you’re upgrading to Windows 8 in the next few months, you’d also benefit from the more capable hardware inside.
Finally, most people look at a netbook and the range of tablets available at the same price range and wonder why they’d need the former if the latter is built to to the same thing as a netbook – go onto the internet and consume media. It won’t set your pants on fire with a lack of 3G, but the tablet more than makes up for that in other ways. If you weren’t keen on an iPad, then this is the next best thing. A few cheap Windows 8 tablets might find their way into this guide come November as well, further compounding the massive problem Windows 8 will create for Google’s fragmented ecosystem. I threw in the iPad to even things out, since many businesses are now supporting them as part of the BYOD movement. With iCloud and the iWork suite, it can even do a bit of work in-between media consumption.
So this is an interesting price bracket. I’d like to address the tablets first – the Transformer Slate is fast and capable enough to become a workhorse with the added keyboard dock (which costs an extra grand in average) and its one of the tablets giving Google the opportunity to push Android adoption in the workplace. However, the incoming wave of Windows 8-compatible devices doesn’t give it much room to breathe. The old Inspiron 1090 is as close to a Letexo/Surface alternative as you can get without paying for the actual thing. The flip-LCD gives it a lot of flexibility and the rest of the netbook helps with typing documents and actual work. Its one of the few existing laptops where Windows 8 makes a bit of sense.
Also of note is the MSI Windpad with the AMD Brazos 2.0-based Z01 chipset. Its a rather capable platform with Windows 7, but I bet Windows 8 will give it new life and room to stretch its legs. The built-in 3G helps when you’re mobile and the tablet even comes with its own stylish charging dock. My only gripe is the low hard drive space, stuck at 32GB for the SSD. Its more of a portable internet device then, which Windows 8 makes for a better fit. The iPad 16GB version with built-in 3G fills in the gaps and gives you an option if you use iCloud or figure that it suits you better.
The Ultrabooks and their alternatives crept out of the wetworks as well, taking me by surprise by how cheap they are these days (thanks, I guess, Intel). The Mecer JW6 is the cheapest Ultrabook available on our shores and would easily keep up with similarly-configured low-end models from Acer and Toshiba. The rest of the models are based on AMD’s offerings, with the exception of the Lenovo Z470. It may pack a DVD drive but its almost the right weight at 2.2kg. Just ignore the pink. Or embrace it, you could make it work for you (I know I’d love one). The Sony Vaio makes a surprise appearance here, being based on the new Brazos cores with the upgraded graphics.
Gaming-wise, there are a few laptops here that do the job admirably. The Acer Aspire takes the cake for offering a dual-core with the ever-popular GT540M. It used to be the default GPU in much more expensive laptops and its inclusion in this baseline model is worthy of my recommendation, allowing for fluid 720p gaming at medium-to-high details. The Mecer Xpression kicks things up higher with the GT630M, although you’d have to settle for a Pentium dual-core in order to stay under budget. Kudos then, to Toshiba for the best all-round value. Boasting a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium and the powerful AMD Radeon HD6810M. 720p and high to Ultra settings shouldn’t be a problem for this cheap performer.
Once again, ASUS’ Transformer family permeates the tradition laptop market with a hugely refined 1200p screen and that oh-so-useful keyboard dock. Boasting double the battery life of any laptop here as well as supporting a wide range of Tegra3 games from the Play Store, its a great pick for those who can use an Android tablet for work or play. The only other notable option is the new iPad 32GB and with 3G embedded it draws up neatly to the Transformer. It doesn’t boast nearly the same kind of battery life or a keyboard dock, but it offers the wealth of apps on the iStore and an extremely crisp and clear screen. If you like watching movies and series on your tablet, this or the Transformer should be your first choices.
Moving onto Ultrabooks, Intel’s designs take the reins here, steering no less than three variants here to its specifications for manufacturers to receive marketing aid and compensation for building Ultrabooks. The Inspiron 13z ships with the best warranty, while the Mecer gives you a small degree of customisation, as well as discrete graphics courtesy of Nvidia’s GT640M 1GB, making it pretty capable when it comes to gaming. The Lenovo IdeaPad looks a little left out until you consider that it looks exactly like a Macbook Pro (oops, sorry! Didn’t mean to say that out loud…) and will definitely turn a few heads your way. With SSD upgrades, you’d be hard-pressed to see the lure of more expensive Ultrabooks costing way more.
The two Ultrabook-wannabes, the Dell XPS 14z and the Lenovo Edge 430 play off each other well, that is until you see that for just R300 more the Dell offers far better value. The only reason why you’d choose the Lenovo then is for their business-orientated docks and the extra trackball and mouse keys on the best keyboard ever to grace a business notebook, allowing you to turn off the touchpad if it gets in your way.
For the gamers, a few treats are still left for you at this price point. The Gigabyte Q1542N tries to offer better value than the other GT640M-toting laptops and gives you an extra USB 3.0 port on the left-hand side of the laptop and a VGA-out port. Rather useful in an age when everyone’s moving to include HDMI instead and you happen use projectors or have a VGA screen that you sometimes work off. Its certainly going to be faster in games than the Mecer W251ESQ with the Core i7 chip, but the latter would be the better all-round workhorse thanks to the quad-core CPU. Samsung’s NP400 finds itself in the middle, being gaming-capable to some degree but the Nvidia Quadro NVS4200M is better put to use in productivity suites. Toshiba’s Satellite L850 finished things off with a handsome chassis and a Radeon HD7670M discrete GPU, pushing up the laptop’s capabilities from the C850 with the HD6810M.
That’s all for this week folks, tune in next Tuesday for the next rack of price points. Remember that with Windows 8 on the horizon in the next month, it affects a great many of these recommendations I’ve made today, especially with Ultrabooks and tablets. It does so positively, though, so there’s nothing to worry about. If you’re keen for the new OS from Redmond, upgrades to a qualifying version when you buy a new machine is set at R120 and will be available digitally.