Welcome back to another episode of the Laptop Buyers guide. This week we’re looking at options in the mid to high-end range where most people who want a powerful machine that can act as a desktop replacement start to look around. Its this price range where you’ll also find the most tablets and some of the higher-spec lappies as well. Gamers, businessmen and the average Joe looking for something for entertainment use will all find something here. Without further ado, hit that button!
This is always the most interesting segment because its the middle of the range, where most companies target their efforts in order to make their money. As NAG Magazine’s recent survey showed, the majority of readers actually have spending power in this range as opposed to the others, so its always the one that gets more choice and more attention.
Its also the one where the trends start first. We’ll be seeing some Windows 8 tablets in here in no time at all and probably the next generation of Ultrabooks as defined by Intel – lightweight notebooks with a thin form factor, SSD storage and touch capability. That’s right, the Ultrabook definition is being shifted yet again by Intel in a bid to move the market in the direction that’s most profitable for the blue team. In some cases it does benefit the consumer, but it confuses others who don’t know what they want and, in most cases, are oversold by salespersons eager to make commission on high-priced products like these. But anyway, that’s a moot point.
In the course of this year we’re going to see things change a lot in this segment. Buyers will no doubt begin to assess their priorities and we may see more people moving to tablets than notebooks or Ultrabooks purely for the sake of convenience. We will see some performance improvements from both AMD and Intel in their mobile chips and AMD might draw ahead for the first time in ages in select markets – this will more likely be in the tablet space, as Intel still has a monopoly on the Ultrabook market and even with Ultrathins in the low-end price ranges.
R10,000 Gaming or Business Laptops and Ultrabooks:
As I said, there’s a lot of options in these two price points. Lets get the loner out of the way – Acer’s Iconia Tab Slate. Its a Windows 8 machine which uses Intel’s Atom Z2760 processor. Its not the best Windows 8 tablet in the world but its certainly the first x86-based one that I’ve seen at a reasonable price point. Yeah, you can go ahead and laugh – that’s the same kind of hardware you’d expect in a netbook, but its priced at least six times higher than that. Its scary how high the touch-screen tax has become and I can only see manufacturers milking it more and more as time passes. As things stand, Surface Pro might reach over the R12,000 mark when it lands here.
Unfortunately, if you have ten grand to burn and prefer a tablet, get an iPad and use the change for buying games on the Apple Store. At this price point, it just isn’t worth it.
Lets move onto the business end of things: I have to note that if you’re a Dell fan, you probably nitpick. A lot. There’s too much on offer that all the variations of the different models become confusing. Dell should simplify their lineup a little because you can look at one model family and there can be six variations to choose from. It becomes a little too much for someone who doesn’t know where their needs are met. But in any case, you can pick between the Latitude and Vostro families. HP only has the Folio 13 to offer at this time and Lenovo’s Thinkpad line has three highlights in the R10k price point. Specs-wise, the Latitude E5430 has them all beat when it comes to wireless connectivity, packing in 3G for when you’re away from Wi-Fi coverage, as well as a backlit keyboard for working into the wee hours of the night.
The Foilo 13 might have the benefit of a lower weight and a SSD as standard, the Vostro might be better-looking with similar specs and the Thinkpad X1 might shove in more and better hardware, but 3G and the keyboard pretty much win them all out. There’s another version of the E5430 which chucks out the 3G but puts in a better screen as an apology. Yeah, I can see you weighing them up in separate tabs already. I suppose I should also just mention the Thinkpad T520. Its a normal-sized 15.6″ affair and will be a reliable workhorse. It also comes with a Displayport output and an Expresscard 34 slot. If you still work with legacy hardware or like to use docks, this won’t disappoint.
You might have noticed that all the business notebooks are also Ultrabooks, so I won’t be going too much into that category. However, when it comes to Ultrabooks, I believe Samsung’s NP530 has them all beat – and that can be attributed to its discrete graphics. Yes, even gamers can get in on this because it features AMD’S HD7550M. It’ll be enough for 720p with low to medium details, so you can still enjoy some Guild Wars 2 action while you’ve ALT+TAB’d out of that PowerPoint presentation you were working on.
Gamers, draw close, there’s some wonderful action going on here. We’re seeing a budget gamer’s notebook war between Gigabyte, Lenovo and MSI, pretty much the only companies concerning themselves with this market. The’re all so closely related that its hard to pick one out of the crowd, but if I had to, it would be the Ideapad Y500. Yes, the resolution sucks, I know. However, its the one solution that does the least compromising. It looks like its built for gaming, features a fast quad-core chip and also has a backlit keyboard. It can’t crank up the settings to full like the Y580 but its going to be the better choice in the long run. At the end of the day you’ll enjoy your machine much more if its not an eyesore and looks the part. If you don’t feel that it warrants its asking price, however, go for the Gigabyte Q1542N and shove a SSD in there.
R13,000 Gaming or Business Laptops and Ultrabooks:
Argh, too much choice again! Not that choice or healthy competition is ever a bad thing, but unless you’re looking for something very specific, there’s a lot to wade through here. I’ll pick off the business notebooks first: Dell’s Latitude E5430 (again) and the Vostro V3360 make an appearance here thanks to a lack of high-end options in Dell’s range. Their product planning team seems to have an either/or approach to deciding on specifications, which is why you can never quite have the best of all worlds in one small thing. The closest to come to that approach for business users is the king of the portable workhorses, the Lenovo Thinkpad T420.
If your job requires a hefty amount of content creation, Apple’s Macbook Pro and Air notebooks also make a great case for themselves and both are pretty portable, with a large amount of docks available as well as that Thunderbolt port if you connect it up to an iMac at the office. In that use-case though we’re getting into Ultrabook territory because quite a few people already hook up their laptop to an external monitor and a wireless keyboard an mouse when they’re back at their desk. There’s a lot of options for Ultrabook fans – Lenovo’s Ideapad Yoga really pushes the limits of what the form factor is capable of and is a great choice. Gigabyte’s gaming-capable U2442 once again pops up as a great all-round solution and you don’t even need to tweak anything on it – it comes with all the hardware you’ll ever need. That’s the one I’d choose if it was my money.
Samsung, on the other hand, is out to blow your mind. The new Series 9 family is incredibly light and thin and the company even makes a 15″ model that weighs in at 1.6kg – madness, I tell you.
For gamers the waters are a bit murky but there’s one common element here – Nvidia’s GTX660M. Its a popular solution at this price point and most manufacturers also pair it with a quad-core Intel i7. In the end all you really have to do is nitpick with the chassis and screen options until you settle on something you like. Personally, that would be Mecer’s W370ET. It may not have a MXM slot but it can accommodate two hard drives, a major plus in my books. When it comes to value-for-money, especially if you like to dial up the graphics quality, the MSI GX60 is your best bet. That HD7970M kicks ass and its definitely AMD’s best mobile chip to date. As a purely gaming-orientated solution, its very, very good.
The AKill 100 also deserves some mention here as well. If you were looking at the Alienware M11x, this is just as good for much less money. AKill’s definitely got a winner in their hands here, seeing as Dell no longer offers the M11x locally following the launch of the local Alienware portal. Prices for Alienware products have also increased dramatically following the portal launch as well, so its no longer worth it to go for an Alienware laptop.
And lastly, while Microsoft’s Surface Pro only launched in the US last week, you can already get something even better – ASUS’ Transformer Book, the TX300CA. Its a Windows 8 Slate with a keyboard dock that packs in an extra battery, easily beating out conventional notebooks in terms of longevity. It has a fantastic touch-capable 1080p screen and the benefit of being user-serviceable. And it uses both mSATA and mechanical storage. Forget the Surface Pro, THIS is what you’ve been looking for.
That’s all for this month folks. Next week we’re back into the high-end segment between R15,000 and R18,000 and lemme tell you, there’s more options there this year than I’ve ever seen before. You may gawk at the prices for some of these units, but at least we’re being offered a choice, which is always more welcome than nothing at all.