Welcome back to another episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide! I know this is about a week late, so let’s get on with it. Today we’re going through the options in the high-end market and things are slowly becoming harder to for buyers who need to answer the old question: mobile, or a better desktop? That’s because we’re slowly achieving parity in terms of performance between the desktop and mobile sectors and at this price point it’s a perfectly viable option to go with either a laptop or a desktop. Even though there’s a performance gulf that limits how far you can push these laptops, when you take resolutions into account they’re not that far off. With the next generation of Haswell chips it’ll bring the two platforms that much closer in terms for CPU performance. For now, though, let’s see how deep you need to dig into your wallet this time round.
R10,000 Gaming or Business Laptops and Ultrabooks:
When I was doing the smaller price points between R4500 and R8500, I remarked that in this episode we’d see many, many more options than you can poke a stick at. Well, here they are and we can mostly attribute the long list to two things: convertible tablets and lightweight “budget” gaming notebooks of the 15.6″ form factor. Many of the others are staples in my list although some are getting a bit long in the tooth.
Let’s get the tablets out of the way – there’s tons of them. Mostly they all seem to be based on similar hardware – 10.1″ or 11.6″ screens, an Intel Atom Z-series dual-core, max 2GB RAM support, 32 or 64GB of storage space on a SSD and almost no way to open it easily. That applies to the Transformer TF810, the Latitude 10, the Envy X2, the Thinkpad Tablet 2, and the ATIV Smart PC. Some have keyboard docks with extra batteries and storage space, some don’t. Most are compatible with a stylus with a rubber nub which greatly extends their usefulness. Out of the lot, the Iconia Tab is the fastest and has the best screen and comes with a Bluetooth keyboard. If you need something dockable, go for the ATIV Smart PC.
Ultrabooks take up the second largest amount of space here. Apple’s Macbook Air, the Vostro V3360, the U2440N, the Thinkpad Edge S430, the VAIO SVR13 and the Portege Z930 all are capable, reliable and largely portable workhorses. The Vostro V3360 is perfect for mobile internet on the go while the VAIO SVT13 needs nothing changed to make it work-friendly. That glossy screen might irritate you, though, even if it looks better than the others. My personal favourite is the Thinkpad Edge S430. It weighs in under 2kg, has a higher-resolution screen, packs in Thunderbolt and mini-HDMI and it looks the business. Those of you who want the option of using docks will be well served by the Latitude E5430. The Macbook will serve OS X fans well and those of you who have applications that work on OS X only, or that have already tied themselves into the Apple ecosystem. Pairing it with an iPhone or an iPad and using iCloud comes recommended.
There’s a small selection of mobile workstations here and technically the Latitude E5430 qualifies because of the available docks for it, but I’ll discount it for now. There’s the Inspiron 15R for the home office, the Thinkpad Edge E530 for the serious professional and, rather surprisingly, Mecer’s W25CEV. The W25CEV is the most interesting here because not only is it configurable to whatever budget you’re working with, it also comes by default with a docking station, complete with extra video outputs, a hard drive dock with an auto-backup feature, more USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, a serial port and its own power adapter. If you’re on a budget, I’d strongly recommend you consider this option because it has everything you need for a mobile workstation. Hell, if I had to replace my desktop right now, that’s what I’d aim for.
Gamers, there’s few options for you at this price point. The Inspiron 15R makes another case for itself because it comes with a rebranded HD7730M graphics chip. Gigabyte’s U2440N will likewise do the job well at native resolution and low-to-medium settings thanks to the Geforce GT630M. Its really a toss-up, personally, between the Q1742N, the ASUS S56CB and the VAIO SVE14. All three will do native resolution and medium settings for most games, although the Q1742N will need to lower its resolution to attain playable performance in some games that hammer GPU bandwidth. The VAIO is very portable and the S56CB is the most flexible because it has a mSATA SSD slot. The Q1742N takes it for me though, because of it’s quad-core processor.
Finally, there’s a curve ball for the market in the form of the Toshiba Satellite U840W. Where does an ultra-wide laptop fit into? It has some strange limitations on the RAM support and even though it features the 21:9 aspect ratio, it’s limited to 1792 x 768 pixels. It’s wide enough, but the height would still be an irritant since that’s the main thing we’re always lamenting on every 15.6″ laptop out there. Nevertheless, the U840W is unique and has some place here. I’m just not sure anyone here would buy one.
R13,000 Gaming or Business Laptops and Ultrabooks:
Man, another long list. Let’s get the Ultrabooks out the way: that’s the Aspire S5, the Zenbook UX31A, the Macbook Air 13, the Gigabyte U2442 and Samsung’s NP900. Considering the competition is better in terms of screen quality, the S5 immediately hops into last place, but it’s not a bad choice. The Macbook Air is rather imposing and the brand alone may make you swivel into the Apple camp – remember, an iPad or iPad completes the package very, very well. Few manufacturers can achieve the cohesiveness that OS X and iCloud platform can achieve. The NP900 sheds the most weight and makes very little compromises but it gets overtaken by both the U2442 and a tablet – the ASUS Transformer TX300CA are pretty much neck-and-neck. One’s a tablet with lots of flexibility, the other’s probably the best Ultrabook out there, capable of being used for both work and games. Both push up the bar for other manufacturers very high and its unlikely they’ll be eclisped very soon.
In the tablets section, the only other player is the upgraded version of the Iconia Tab. I don’t need to tell you that it’s already lost the game – the TX300CA is more flexible, has more storage, has a longer battery life and had a keyboard dock. There’s just no point looking anywhere else, even if the Transformer is more expensive.
Strangely, there’s a lot of notebooks here aimed at business use. Dell has two Latitudes, Lenovo has two Thinkpads, the Macbook Pro 13 joins the party and the Mecer W25CEV crashes it. The two Latitudes are preferred for their backlit keyboards and higher-resolution screens, while the cheaper E5430 gets beefed up with a SSD and more RAM. The Thinkpads will serve those of you who can use CUDA and need Quadro cards for their work, with both the T420 and the T520 featuring Nvidia’s Quadro 4200M. The W25CEV is my preferred solution once again, though. Not only does the docking station make it a better fit for office use, it also has space with a mSATA SSD, which I recommend filling in. I was even able to squeeze in Windows 8 Professional, a Core i7 processor and 12GB of RAM. What more could you want?
For gamers, MSI and Mecer rule the roost here. The GX60 comes with a AMD A10-series APU and the Radeon HD7970M and is close enough to what’s going in the PS4 this year. The GE60 costs a bit more and comes with better hardware and the only reason you’d go for the GX60 is because you can fit in two hard drives. I’m not sure if it’s the 2x mSATA or SATA connector in the second bay, so be sure to find out before you order. The W370ET is similar to the GE60 in terms of hardware, but it’s more flexible and can cram in more storage space. As usual, the U2442 is an option for light gaming with medium details and its the most portable here. Personally, that’s my pick.
That’s all for this week folks! I’m going to catch up with the last episode of the guide later this week and next month we’re back in to the System Builders guide. A lot of things have changed, so be prepared for a few surprises.