The month of May is upon us and in a few short weeks it’s going to be absolutely crazy – Computex, Intel’s Haswell reveal, the PS4, E3 and everything in it and whatever AMD decides to squeeze in to steal the limelight. It will also be the last month of Intel’s Ivy Bridge for desktop processors. This month, it’s pretty much the end of the road for Intel’s mobile Ivy Bridge processors – from June onwards, all the focus will be on Haswell and rightly so – it will change a lot of things. But for now, lets focus on bargains that laptop buyers can look forward to this month!
R4500 Netbooks, Ultrabooks, Notebooks and Tablets:
Looking back at out choices, the low-end market doesn’t really have anything resoundingly nice or compelling, but there are a few highlights. Lets just get the tablets out the way though – at this price point, the Nexus 7 and the Ipad Mini duke it out for your money and they are almost evenly matched, all things considered like build quality and app availability. However, the Nexus 7 is more expensive because it includes a 3G modem. That means internet on the go where ever you are and in a tablet, it’s that accessibility that’s crucially important.
Hurrah, netbooks aren’t completely dead yet! Gigabyte’s Q2006 lives in and ducks in under the R3000 price point. That means we can rip out the hard drive and install a SSD – Samsung’s 840, to be exact. You’ll still have to stick to 32-bit Windows or Linux, but at least you won’t be limited by the slow 5400rpm hard drives manufacturers typically bundle with them.
In the Ultrathin segment where value is more prized than performance, we have three contenders – the Aspire V5, the Vivobook and the Vaio SVE. The Aspire is the cheapest of the lot and includes a decent screen size and resolution, Windows 8 and an AMD APU. I wanted to fit in a SSD but the budget won’t allow for it. The Vivobook is similar in specification but relies on a Intel Celeron processor and Intel HD graphics – no match for the APU. The best pick of the bunch is the Vaio, though. It can even serve as a light gaming machine for LANs and isn’t hamstrung by memory support (the other two top out at 2GB).
Finally, I recommend stretching the budget a bit for better 15.6″ models because you get better hardware. The Q1532M sports a Intel Core i3 processor, can take up to 8GB RAM and doesn’t come with EUFI or Windows 8 – which means you can throw on any OS you like. The same applies for the Packard Bell if you can find stock, but it has much better discrete graphics in the form of Nvidia’s GT630M and supports Optimus as well. For light gaming, it’s definitely a good choice.
R6000 Gaming and business Notebooks, Ultrabooks and Tablets:
It looks like there’s even less choice here than before. On the tablet front if you have around R6000 to spend you have three choices, all above the budget: The Transformer TF301 with the keyboard dock, the iPad Mini with 3G and the Samsung Galaxy P5100, which isn’t really that great because it’s not part of the Note family. Ideally the Transformer would be the best pick here.
Moving into Ultrabooks, we have the Inspiron 13z, The Ideapad S400 and Mecer’s JW6. All three are good enough for workhorses and they’re all suitable for different reasons. The Mecer has better hardware than the other two but that’s owing to the lack of an OS. If you already have a copy of Windows or prefer running Linux, a barebones system is a good way to get better bang for your buck. The S400 and the 13z are more equally matched, but the Dell is the better choice because of its longer, better warranty. The design is getting a bit long in the tooth, though.
As far as business notebooks go, it’s a three-way again, this time between the ageing Aspire 5750 and the new Ideapad B950 and the Satellite C850. All three have Core i5 dual-core processors, all three have 64-bit Windows installs and all three have full-size keyboards and 4GB of RAM. The Ideapad has the better keyboard and trackpad while the Satellite merely makes do with the essentials and shoves in a slightly faster processor, a larger hard drive and a more ergonomic design to support your wrists better. The Aspire is an older model and runs Windows 7 Home Basic, but comes with discrete graphics courtesy of Nvidia. For work, the Lenovo would be my pick simply because of the better build quality.
Gamer, gamers, where do I start? There’s only two options here – the Aspire or the Packard Bell. They’ll both perform similarly but the better hardware in the Aspire will bump up average and minimum frame rates quite a bit. The Easynote, however, can be augmented by a SSD, even if it’s a 120GB one. Put the stock hard drive into a USB 3.0 casing and you can keep your game installs on there if you run out of space.
R8500 Gaming and Business Notebooks, Premium Ultrabooks and Tablets:
At the higher end of the spectrum, things do seem to swing quite a bit when you’re allocating an extra R2500 to the budget. But what exactly does that get you? Lets look at the tablets on offer. You’ll notice that they’re all not accentuated by storage upgrades – I’ve added in a recommendation for a MicroSD card of ample size and good enough performance that fits in the budget. For the systems that can take them, you have an extra 32GB of space to play with. Right out of the box the two Windows tablets take centre stage – The Transformer with its low-power ARM processor and dockable keyboard with an extra battery and the Thinkpad Tablet 2, with an x86 Intel Atom processor and, rather surprisingly, a built-in active Wacom Digitiser. Its nothing on the Surface Pro, but it’ll make do.
Defending Android on the other scale is the Galaxy Note. It also has an on-screen digitiser but the Android platform doesn’t lend itself to the same practicality as the Thinkpad Tablet would be capable of, because the Note can’t run Office 2013 or the full version of Photoshop. However, many good alternatives available through the Google Play store do make up for that somewhat, even if you do have to work around sharing limitations by using cloud services. The iPad 4 is the fastest mobile device Apple has ever made and the screen is beautiful. iOS also has the same limitations as the Note but also offers similar workarounds using services like Dropbox. There are even mobile versions of Photoshop for it and I’ve seen sketch artists use the iPad to make some really stunning work. If you’re already using an iMac or Macbook, definitely consider this first because it integrates with other Apple devices so well.
Ultrabooks! Well I have to tell you, it isn’t a very impressive selection. The Inspiron 13z with a SSD upgrade makes the cut and so does the Thinkpad X1 which is a really stunning machine. The X1 has the better hardware but only half the storage space while the 13z can shove in twice the available space. However, the X1 is better for business use because it includes Windows 7 Professional. The 13z is stuck with Home Premium, leaving it best suited for entertainment and general use purposes outside a corporate environment unless you upgrade the OS.
There’s quite a meaty selection of business notebooks here. The Probook 6570B, the Latitude E5430 and the Thinkpad E530 are all great choices for any mobile or desk-bound professional. The Latitude wins in terms of features, as it boasts a high-resolution 1600 x 900 screen as well as a backlit keyboard, which the T530 can’t quite match. In a surprising turn of events, my favourite Probook returns and is at a decent price again. The ease of access to components, the extra ports for legacy peripherals and the much improved build quality over the previous Probooks makes it an instant recommendation if you’re a technician working in the field with old machinery or hardware that uses legacy ports.
Trust me, fiddling around with a dozen USB to COM port adapters just isn’t worth the fuzz because those things just simply don’t work all that well.
Gamers! I bet you were waiting for this one. Well, we have the Q1542N, two Paviliion laptops with similar specs, the CX-61 from MSI and the Satellite L850. In terms of hardware, the CX-61 smokes them all. It has a Intel Core i7 quad-core processor and Nvidia’s GT645M graphics card. The other laptops do fall behind but they have their own value. The Pavilion G7 is a nicely featured 17.3″ desktop replacement and would hold its own in games, as would the G6, although I’d have liked the option to add in a second hard drive into the G7 – most of the chassis is wasted space. The L850 and the Q1542N will try to close the gap on the CX-61, but they won’t get there. Build quality on both is solid, though.
That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next Tuesday for the update in the Laptop Buyer’s guide and make sure you don’t miss it!