It’s been a long time coming and I never thought that this would ever get really going again. While the System Builder’s Guide has been relatively straightforward to lay out, the mobile market is a different beast altogether. There’s a distinct lack of choice when it comes to which vendor to support and the minefield of laptop OEMs with their own ideas of what a ultraportable, or an ultrabook or a gaming laptop should look and feel like makes this a much more difficult subject to consider. Throw in the convertible tablets and tablets and you have a recipe for disaster as you try to wade your way through 40-plus tabs of options with anything between 3-5 open looking at slight variances of the same model from the same name brand.
The desktop market is sensible, clean and doesn’t put you in a box as much. Still, a lot of NAG Online readers do so from a mobile device and it’s time to get back into helping you figure out what you need to buy and what needs to be prioritised when you finally get to deciding what notebook or tablet you need to buy. Head on in for the first episode of the Laptop Buyer’s Guide in over a year!
A year down the line, not much has changed
Of course, when I say “not much,” I should really put in “Intel is further entrenched in the market.” Part of the problem I had with the Laptop Buyer’s guide all the way back to 2012 was that Intel’s dominance in the market left you with little reason to search for an AMD alternative. Not only as Intel racing ahead in the efficiency stakes, they were also building up the market in defined steps of computing power. If you wanted a Core i7 chip, great! – just pony up anything north of eleven grand and you’ve got the bare minimum along with the HD4600 chipset.
Do you want Iris Pro graphics? Oh, that’s too bad – Nvidia’s lining everyone’s pockets with money to sell their GPUs instead. Buy a Macbook Air or Macbook Pro if you want it. Or a Gigabyte Brix Pro, but then that’s not easily available locally either.
And that’s just in the high-end market. AMD has literally nothing competitive in the mid-range anymore aside from MSI’s GX60 and GX70 series. They could have channeled in Kaveri APUs to bring this segment of the market some much-needed choice but they’re far too financially strained to do so. Even in the low-end, nobody is really taking up Temash or Kabini APUs because Intel is willing to sell them Bay Trail Atom processors for cheaper. It’s a sad, sad state for the notebook market, but some consolation is that Intel isn’t resting on their laurels when it comes to mobile and the race to idle. Even their HD4400 and HD4600 graphics is perfectly serviceable for low-end gaming.
What hasn’t changed is the level of entrenchment of Nvidia’s GPUs. Now, AMD’s fault in offering discrete graphics in the notebook market isn’t because they aren’t good performers, it’s just that they’re not able to make their Enduro switching technology work as well as Nvidia Optimus. It’d be a bit weird, really, to have AMD work more closely with Intel to get Enduro working properly, but Nvidia has more money anyway. This isn’t going to change any time soon. Even a year on from my last episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide, Intel and Nvidia rule the high-end market.
One welcome change, though, is Intel’s focus on improving storage and connectivity. New laptops with Haswell hardware can and often do support connected standby and there’s a slow, but sure movement to using mSATA or M.2 SSD products in the notebook space. At some point we’ll also have PCI-E-based M.2 SSDs as well, but that’s currently only found on the desktop (and more specifically on Intel Z97 motherboards). It’ll be a while before we can ditch the SATA and AHCI standard for storage. Mechanical 2.5-inch drives also still feature on the majority of products but there’s a big price war currently going on in the SSD market and this means that one doesn’t have to compromise on space and speed these days.
My sole prediction for the notebook market is that this time next year, SSD’s will be included inside many laptops by default and this will be driven thanks to low-cost units from Samsung, Crucial, SanDisk and ADATA.
Question: Is Windows RT still worth consideration?
If you’re asking if I’d pick a ARM-packing Windows 8 device over a regular Intel Bay Trail product, then probably no. Windows RT has no business being considered on the same level as an equivalently-priced x86 product and there’s certainly less incentive to buy one these days thanks to Intel’s Bay Trail or the occasional AMD Temash-based notebook/tablet you’ll find floating around.
Windows RT, even with the 8.1 Update, is still a mixed bag of ideas and possibilities. For all the good that Microsoft’s services do you and for all the well thought-out ideas that the Windows team has brought to the table, Windows RT (or WART, as some like to call it) is still very limited. Desktop mode is stuck on using only what Microsoft wants you to use, which is the Windows Explorer and Office 2013. There’s no telling how long Microsoft will support these devices and even though there’s a Surface Mini on the way, it’ll be most likely using Bay Trail-T hardware.
If Satya Nadella’s vision holds firm for the future, however, of Windows 9, these machines may very well be able to upgrade to it and you’d get the full benefit of a touch-driven Modern UI interface that’s been designed to cater more closely to your chosen device, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Just picture it: pick up something like the ASUS Vivotab RT600 and you have a convertible tablet with the total battery runtime of a Macbook Pro, a Surface Pro-like keyboard dock, Connected Standby, 3G HSDPA with GPS and compatibility with most stylus nibs for note-taking.
Combine it with an Office 365 subscription, a stylus and the full-screen OneNote app and you have a serious contender for replacing all those piles of notes you might carry around to and from classes or meetings. The possibility for the platform to be great was always there from the beginning. It’s up to Microsoft to leverage it properly. They also need to play the ARM card more for one more thing that they haven’t been talking about – the lack of any malware for the platform at all.
But we don’t be dwelling on Windows RT devices or convertibles for the Laptop Buyer’s guide, or for any future Laptop Buyer’s guide, because we’re starting off on a clean slate with a completely different aim.
A new beginning, a new format
Much of what constitutes the System Builder’s guide is the table format that I’ve put into it, which keeps things neater and more succinct. But recommending entire systems becomes a challenge because you can’t possibly fit in all the information about every single spec there is. I have 600 pixels to use as I please and nothing more. That puts limits on the amount of information I’m able to fit in.
So to solve the issue, here’s what’s going to happen: the first part of the guide starts off with a short section on tablets with a price cap of R7000. Tablets will be all together because it’s a market where a few brand names rule the roost. Windows 8/8.1 devices will be considered but only as far as they are on their own and ship with optional keyboard docks sold separately. Any hybrid/convertible Windows 8 device that includes a keyboard dock by default is technically competing in the notebook space, which is where it will be ultimately considered.
Then the focus shifts to different size notebooks with 11-to-14-inch (technically ultraportables), 15.6-inch (cookie-cutter builds and screens) and 17-inch sizes being considered (three separate tables in all). I had considered only doing recommendations at particular price points but an idea struck me in the middle of writing this guide – gamers just don’t buy crappy notebooks to play games on. You go looking for one with discrete graphics, a decent CPU and anything between 4-8GB of RAM.
So from here on I’m going to focus on systems that offer “good enough” gaming capability and not spend much time dwelling on things like business notebooks or anything that offers you frills. Unless it’s entirely warranted, we just don’t need that crap.
And additionally, when we talk about gaming in terms of notebook hardware, we mean something like DOTA2, or Borderlands, or Need For Speed Rivals. Flappy Bird may be addictive, but it’s not the kind of game we’re keeping in mind here.
The reason for this change is simple – if you’re just buying a laptop for things like productivity, accessing the internet and all its services, watching movies and listening to music then even a dual-core Intel Bay Trail or Pentium product will work well enough. Gaming capability in mobile devices is a much more restrictive requirement and it pushes you into considering particular configurations and not that one little Dell that’s literally like a hundred other options from other brands. In this buyer’s guide, it’s gaming performance that counts above all.
So, let’s get to it then.
Tablets – R2000 to R7000
Internet browsing, e-mail, media consumption, music, casual gaming, some productivity
While low-cost laptops typically get the job done quite well when it comes to low-cost computing and portability, a lot of them are bulky 15.6-inch devices that just don’t have lots of oomph or battery life in them. This is why tablets take up the first section of the guide – if you need a mobile companion that isn’t going to be doing a lot of productivity work, then a tablet is a good option. Even the intended use is pretty clear – these are mostly better suited for the type of work that netbooks used to be tasked with.
Right at the beginning, ASUS makes a strong play with the original Nexus 7. That tablet is still receiving frequent updates and will see Android Lollipop as well. The low price, coupled with the 3G HDSPA connectivity and Tegra 3 hardware is a great bargain if you didn’t want to settle for any of the other, more compromised devices from the likes of Acer and even ASUS itself. If you’ve never experienced stock Android before, this is a good place to start.
There are a few Windows tablets to take note of. The Iconia W3 is barebones stuff, designed to fill in the blanks and give you a portable x86 tablet which can run anywhere and plug into any HDMI monitor. One up from that is the ASUS VivoTab Note, a stab at Samsung’s offerings in the same price range. The benefit of the VivoTab, though, is the Wacom Digitiser, which is only found in the Surface Pro and Pro 2 convertibles. The Intel Bay Trail-T helps with power consumption and it ships with Windows 8.1. If you’re a student and like using OneNote, consider picking this up.
At the high-end there’s not much reason to spend over seven grand on a tablet. Sure, you can buy Samsung’s Galaxy Note Pro if you want, but is it really worth it for the higher-res screen and the active S-Pen stylus? That’s only something you can decide. That’s why the Galaxy Note LTE is in there instead. It still has the S-Pen functionality but the resolution isn’t off the charts and neither is the hardware. You can’t get a Surface Pro 2 locally, but this is the closest you’ll come to the real thing.
Gaming-capable Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″
Being small doesn’t have to mean “slow” but inevitably that’s what you’ll get when you shove x86 processors into smaller and smaller chassis and underclock them to save on power consumption and heat. Only one of the laptops in the 11″ to 14″ segment here can claim to be “slow” – the ASUS Transformer Book, which uses Bay Trail-T hardware. However, even Bay Trail performs well enough when you’ve set the details to low and play most of your games at 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768.
That gives you quality and performance that, for the most part, is no worse than a Xbox 360.
Think about that for a minute and let it sink in. A convertible tablet packs in enough power to give you a similar, but not exact (or perfect) experience akin to playing on a console. Hook up a Bluetooth controller and you can play most games pretty comfortably. If you don’t believe me, a rather large assortment of Youtube videos dedicated to the T100’s 3D performance may cause you to change your perception of Intel’s graphics capabilities.
In fact, that’s the most stunning thing about this episode of the guide – Intel has put out perfectly serviceable graphics that can play most games without complaints. At the very least you need to aim for the HD4400 iGPU and it has to be mated to a Core i3-4010U or better. The reason is that the iGPU is then able to boost up to higher clock speeds, whereas most other implementations with lower-power Core i3 mobile chips won’t have that kind of thermal headroom to play with.
The best all-round solution here is the Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E440. It ships with the Core i3-4000M and Intel HD4600 graphics and it’s not limited by thermals or clock speed at all. Keep your game resolution at 720p, put all settings to low and you should be able to play almost anything out there, with the exception of games that tax GPU bandwidth a lot (Witcher 2, Watch Dogs, Crysis 3 to name a few).
There are also the only two laptops that have IPS panels. The rest of the notebooks here are all TN-style crapolas and none of them will impress anyone looking at your screen from an angle. I wish we could get out of this rut and move to IPS screens and a higher resolution than 1366 x 768, but that won’t happen until Microsoft sorts out the display and UI scaling issues. Apple seems to be doing perfectly well on that front.
Bumping things up to the 15.6-inch range brings us two major benefits – a larger chassis for better heat dissipation and more space for dedicated graphics. This opens up the gates for better performance and because of that, we’re aiming for a minimum hardware set – nothing less than performance equivalent or better than Intel’s HD4600 graphics. That’s surprisingly matched by the cheapest option of the lot here in Lenovo’s G505. Bearing AMD’s A6-5200 APU, it has enough graphical power to run most games at native resolution and low settings, with some less-demanding games running at medium. For less than R5500, that’s not a bad deal at all.
The options look mostly the same as you go up the price range . Though several laptops here have the same CPU and GPU configuration at several price points, it’s the better chassis and/or features that we’re paying for here. Intel’s Core i5-4200M should be reasonably capable for most games and it’ll be a good choice if you play a lot of DOTA, LoL or WoW. There are even several Youtube videos showing the chip acceptably running Call of Duty Ghosts at decent settings.
Things get serious with the Toshiba Satellite L50. It’s the cheapest you can get a laptop with a Geforce GPU that won’t make you tear your hair out and the GT740M is reasonably capable for gaming at native resolution and medium settings. It even ducks under R9000 and that makes it affordable to a lot of gamers on a budget who desire something portable. If you attend LANs a lot and need something less bulky than that desktop of yours, this is a good place to start.
Acer’s Travelmate P255-M offers up the first I’ve ever seen of AMD’s Mars-based GPUs. The R7 M265 is based on Mars XT which employs the GCN (Graphics Core Next) architecture. In games it’ll be on par with the GT740, although power draw will be a little lower. It’s about as fast as the desktop Radeon HD6670 so while it won’t set the world on fire, it’s not going to be unusable either.
The 17-inch laptop market is very different from the norm because it doesn’t really have any place that it properly fits into. Sure, power users and gamers love the bigger screen and higher resolution, but typically this isn’t something that the average consumer wants, so there’s a lot of laptops out there that use 17-inch screens along with hardware that shouldn’t ever be considered in a chassis this large. At the very least, you want a Core i3-4000M which is enough for most applications and uses. It won’t knock you off your feet in conjunction with a 1600 x 900 display, but it won’t make games completely unplayable (especially if you set everything to 720p).
The Toshiba Satellite L870 is the best all-rounder here, with a Core i5-3230M and AMD’s Radeon HD7670M. That’s still based on the same VLIW5 architecture found in the HD6000 series, but it’s no slouch when it comes to powering games at native resolution and medium settings. For under R8000 it’s a fantastic bargain for what you’re getting in terms of hardware and chassis design. It’s certainly a better choice than the Toshiba Satellite C50 Pro in the 15.6-inch table above, which doesn’t gave any discrete graphics to speak of.
Although I said before that this guide would only consider gaming prowess, I’m making an exception for the Core i7-packing Satellite L50. Sometimes you just want raw CPU horsepower and this laptop certainly will deliver that with aplomb. Gaming is still possible but again, you’re limited to low settings at 720p even though the HD4600 GPU is fairly decent.
That’s all for this week folks! The next episode of the Laptop Buyer’s Guide will hit a little sooner next week, this one took longer than anticipated because of how I wanted to revamp it and the time it took for researching exactly what Intel’s iGPUs are capable of. The verdict – “not bad” performance and certainly slightly above or on par with what AMD can provide for now. Tune in next week!