Welcome back, boys and girls, to the last of the Laptop Buyers Guides this year. This is where the range tops out. Beyond R21,000, there’s not much sense in spending more because you’ll only get increased heat and not much of a bargain in the end. Sure, an Alienware M18X might push 1080p resolutions with everything on Ultra for R35,000, but that’s insane money for the average Joe – regular people would put that into repairs for their car or repayments for their house bond or the Bioshock Songbird Edition (or every single Collector’s Edition for the next twenty years). But with a cap of R21,000, we’ll enter the realm of sensibility. Lets see what can be fit into your budget.

R15,000 Ultrabooks, Gaming and Business laptops:

Acer Aspire Ethos (AS8950G) 18.4″ HD @ R15,560

AKill 100 11.6″ Gaming Notebook @ R15,146 (Standard options, IC Diamond Compound, 256GB Crucial M4, Killer Wireless N, Windows 7 HP 64-bit)

AKill 1762 17.3″ HD Gaming Notebook @ R14,999 (All standard options, Windows 7 HP 64-bit, single 500GB drive)

ASUS Taichi 11.6″  HD Touch Ultrabook @ R15,789

Dell Latitude E6420 14″ HD Quadro @ R15,413

Dell Latitude E6430 14″ HD @ R13,149 (SSD Upgrade: ADATA SP900 256GB @ R2053)

HP Probook 8560p (LG732EA) 15.6″ @ R15,149

Lenovo Thinkpad T530 15.6″ HD @ R14,831

Lenovo Thinkpad T520 15.6″ HD @ R13,381 (SSD Upgrade: OCZ Agility 3 240GB @ R1813)

Mecer W370ET 17.3″ HD @ R11,781 (Windows 7 Pro 64-bit, 12GB RAM, Toshiba 1TB HDD) (RAID 0: OCZ Vertex 4 128GB x2 @ R2560)

MSI GX60 Trinity A10 15.6″ HD @ R15,793

Proline Premiere P150E 15.6″ HD @ R15,189

Samsung NP900 13.3″ HD Ultrabook @ R15,278

Toshiba Portege Z930 13.3″ Ultrabook @ R14,227 (4GB RAM Upgrade @ R230)

Holy moly, its a boatload of options again. Lets get the business notebooks out of the way first. Dell offers two competitive options here but they both have some tradeoffs – the E6430 features newer hardware and will have better battery life. The E6420 has better hardware and a more complete feature set. Both have the same 14″ 1600 x 900 matte LCD screen, so its really down to if you want the speed of the SSD in the E6430 or the muscle power of the E6420. HP’s Probook 8560p doesn’t put in a very strong showing but its high res e-IPS screen, built in 3G and large number of docking stations and other accessories make the brand popular with the enterprise segment.

Lenovo’s Thinkpad family puts in a great showing in the 15.6″  bracket. Once again its a showdown between Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge and the Quadro 5400M versus the 4000M. While the T530 would be the stronger in applications that can really hammer the Quadro GPU, the T520 is a full grand cheaper, allowing us to shove in a 240GB SSD to max out our budget.

Onto Ultrabooks and there are only three options I’d consider here: the Samsung NP900 and the very strange ASUS Taichi. The Samsung makes space for itself here with its 13.3″ 1600 x 900 resolution screen and 256GB SSD, while the Taichi tacks on a second screen protected by Gorilla glass on the outside of the shell that is touch-capable. Its a weird hybrid of tablet and ultrabook and while its definitely no competitor to Ultrabooks based on Intel’s Letexo or Microsoft’s Surface, its definitely an interesting concept. The full HD resolution is a nice touch, even if the screen size is capped at 11.6 inches. The NP900 indulges in none of this tomfoolery and sticks to the tried and tested Ultrabook design. Toshiba’s Portege Z930 sits in the middle, the best choice for the mobile user that needs 3G connectivity without those large, silly dongles.

Gamers, you’re going to have a field day. The brands to watch today are AKill, Mecer and Proline – ironically, all three are South African companies that make laptops to specification for customers or, in Proline’s case, just plain make the whole thing cheap as chips. The Mecer W370ET is the cheapest of all and allows us to pack in a lot of hardware for our budget allocation, in addition to two 128GB SSDs in RAID 0. Proline’s P150E packs in a lot of hardware for R15,000 but also provides a nice counter to the AKill 1762, packing in a backlit keyboard for late-night gaming. In fact, the AKill 1762 is the better choice in a lot of respects, not least because it features – dum dum dum drumroll – a MXM slot. Yes NAGlings, you can chop and change the GPU as time passes. Its even possible to swap the laptop to an AMD chip, with the caveat that Nvidia’s Optimus technology will no longer work.

The AKill 100 its the Alienware M11X killer, starting out at an astoundingly low R13,000. The configuration options allow us to put in better thermal grease and a 256GB SSD, a Crucial M4 no less. But the laptop that gets most of my attention today is MSI’s GX60. Based on AMD’s Trinity platform, it features the A10-4600M quad-core chip and the Radeon HD7970M. Its a fantastic pairing and together with the built-in GPU on the processor, battery life off the wall will be reasonable while still allowing for some gaming to get done. Keep a close eye on this one, folks.

R18,000 Gaming and Business Notebooks and Premium Ultrabooks:

Acer Aspire S5 Ultrabook 13.3″ @ R18,215

AKill 100 11.6″ Gaming Notebook @ R18,345 (Standard options, Core i7-3610QM, IC Diamond Compound, 16GB RAM, 256GB Crucial M4, Windows 7 HP 64-bit)

AKill 1762 17.3″ HD @ R18,446 (Standard options, IC Diamond compound, 256GB Crucial M4, Windows 7 HP 64-bit)

AKill 170 17.3″ HD Backlit keyboard @ R18,296 (Standard options, IC Diamond compound, 12GB RAM, Intel Centrino Ultimate-N, Windows 7 HP 64-bit)

Alienware M14X 14″ HD @ R16,999 (SSD Upgrade: ADATA SX300 mSATA 64GB @ R1036)

ASUS G55VW 15.6″ HD @ R16,869

ASUS UX31A Zenbook Touch 13.3″ HD @ R17,394

Dell Latitude E6420 14″ HD Quadro @ R15,413 (SSD Upgrade: Corsair Neutron 240GB @ R2778)

HP Elitebook 8460p 14″ HD (LG746EA) @ R17,611 (4GB RAM Upgrade @ R209)

HP Probook 8570w 15.6″ HD (LY550EA) @ R18,215 (4GB RAM Upgrade @ R209)

Lenovo Thinkpad T530 15.6″ HD @ R14,831 (4GB RAM Upgrade @ R209) (SSD Upgrade: Corsair Neutron 240GB @ R2778)

MSI GX60 Trinity A10 15.6″ HD @ R15,793 (SSD Upgrade: ADATA SX300 mSATA 256GB @ R3262)

MSI GT60 15.6″ HD @ R18,210

Proline Premiere P150E 15.6″ HD @ R15,189 (SSD Upgrade: ADATA SX300 mSATA 256GB @ R3262)

Samsung NP700 17.3″ 3D HD @ R17,248  (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R999)

Toshiba Portege Z930 13.3″ @ R16,644 (4GB RAM Upgrade @ R230)

Apple Macbook Pro 13 2.9GHz @ R16,599 (SSD Upgrade: Intel 330 180GB @ R1811)

Again, there’s a lot of choice for buyers out there. Lets get the Ultrabooks out of the way first here. Acer’s Aspire S5, ASUS’ UX31A Zenbook Touch and Toshiba’s Portege Z930 are some of the finest designs I’ve come across since we first saw Ultrabooks a little over two years ago. The fight here is between the Zenbook and the Portage, both offering something different not seen elsewhere. The Portege is incredibly thin and light, yet still packs in a 3G modem. The Zenbook has the overall advantage hardware-wise with a better screen, backlit keyboard and some of the best speakers ever crammed into a notebook. Its a tough call and I’ll leave the deciding vote up to you guys, but my preference leans more towards the Portege.

Onto the business side of things, we’re a bit compromised here. The only solid, all-round performer here would be the E6420 equipped with a SSD. Its the most portable and durable of all the options here and even has a carry handle bolted to the chassis. HP’s Elitebook 8460p is also a good consideration and may even win thanks to built-in 3G, but its dedicated graphics and included SSD won’t perform to the same level as the E6420. In the 15.6″ size, its the Probook 8570w against the venerable Thinkpad T530 powerhouse. Either one is great, but the price of the T530 gives it the edge in the battle, in addition to the larger L3 cache on the Core i7-3520M.

Gamers, start your drooling! AKill shows up with all three of its options here, with the 1762 and the 170 both featuring MXM slots and the option for dual hard drives. The 170 is the better choice out of the two, personally, thanks to the backlit keyboard lifted from Dell’s Alienware range. The AKill 100 kicks Alienware’s M14x in the nads, offering better hardware, a smaller chassis and a lower overall price to boot (if you choose to use the standard thermal grease). ASUS puts in a half-hearted attempt and if this is the best the company can do in this segment, its going to lose out big time.

But who are the winners in the gaming segment? That honour goes to MSI and Proline, strangely enough. The GX60 and the P150E both competed against each other in the previous segment and they’re still neck and neck here. Which one is better? That’s down to the games you’ll be playing, but the GX60 will pull out in front in most titles with everything set to maximum, but by a small margin – the backlit keyboard on the P150E puts the laptops dead even. As mentioned before, its even possible to play games on the battery using the onboard GPU, something the P150E and the GT60 can’t do. The GT60 picks its fight with the AKill 170 and wins, but not by much. The 170 is the better choice overall.

So, I had a segment for R21,000 planned, but you’ll notice its not here…

Why not? Plainly, because I believe the best value lies with the AKill 170. Equipped with AMD’s HD7970M and a 256GB mSATA SSD, it leaves you the most amount of upgrade options I’ve yet to see in a laptop. You can basically upgrade everything here, sans the motherboard. If Haswell processors stay on the same socket, you can swap up the Ivy Bridge-based i7-3610QM for something more beefy and lighter on electricity and heat. Likewise for the GPU, because it sits in a MXM slot and the storage subsystem, because you have a mSATA slot and two 2.5″ drive bays. Its massive potential sitting here, and definitely something to consider if you’re in the market for a notebook that replaces your desktop but retains a lot of the benefits of owning a modular system. You can even upgrade to a IPS panel, how cool is that? AKill definitely takes the cake here.

That’s all for this week and this year, boys and girls. The Laptop Buyers guide will return in January next year. Next month it’ll be the last of the System Builders guides for this year, accompanying my personal wishlist and a rig I’ll be asking Santa for. I may not get it but hey – its nice to dream, right?

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