It’s the second-last episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide for this month and we’re settling into the mid-range market here, hoping to hit some of the sweeter spots that would make picking up a laptop instead of a desktop a realistic choice. Although it’s true that a desktop rig for the same price usually nets you about twice the performance, mid-range laptops usually have fantastic build quality to them and aren’t very likely to give up the ghost a year into the warranty. Hit the jump to see what your month buys you this week.
For this segment of the guide, there’s no recommendations for any tablets. The main reason for this is that you’re buying into something of a niche market – who buys a tablet worth over ten grand? You’re most likely doing it for the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2″ and at that point you’re already into Surface Pro 2 territory and the use-case will be specific to the requirements you have and the apps that you want to use. I’d have no problems making tablet recommendations on a case-by-case basis, but blanket recommendations are a lot more tricky.
Mid-range Gaming Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″
The mid-range market for computers in the desktop space is very easy to recommend because the cookie-cutter build now fits into all three of my builds in my System Builder’s guide. Pick up a Core i5-4670K, find yourself a decent Z87/Z97 motherboard for around R1700 and you’ll find that there’s enough oomph in there for even dual-graphics configurations. Now, that’s pretty easy. For the mobile market, not so much.
It’s still up in the air here as to what exactly is the best configuration for an ultraportable in the 11-inch to 14-inch range. Most people assume that it’s the Macbook family and they wouldn’t be terribly wrong either – Intel’s HD5000 graphics are strong enough to run most games at native resolution with low to medium details. You’d still be limited to the low TDP of the processor considering the tiny size of the chassis, but it’s still serviceable.
There are two all-rounders here that deserve attention in the pack. One is Gigabyte’s P34G because it packs in near-identical hardware found in the more expensive MSI GE40 2OL, but for a much cheaper price. If you have fifteen grand, play games and need a light laptop, this should be your first choice.
The other is Apple’s Macbook Pro 13 with Retina display. There’s nothing available on the market anywhere near the same price with the same kind of hardware, even from ASUS’ Zenbook line (and I’ve included the UX302 simply because there’s nothing that’s quite as striking as it). There’s no display available on the market to rival the Macbook, there’s nothing else that has Iris Pro graphics for a reasonable price and there’s certainly a case to be made for Apple’s build quality.
Moving into the 15.6-inch market, things improve considerably. Toshiba’s L50 is not only the cheapest Core i7-packing laptop in this segment, it’s also packing in Nvidia’s GT740M, making this combo together with the extra RAM a better choice for most people who are shopping in this price range. It’s not an Ultrabook and it’s not very light, but 2.4kg is reasonable. It’s just a pity that the display is terribly limited.
One consolation is that anything in this price range is very capable of playing modern games at reasonable settings. ASUS’ N56JR is the cheapest notebook out there packing in a 1080p display, a backlit keyboard and discrete graphics from Nvidia with GDDR5 memory – it’s easily the budget choice I’d go for if you’re strapped for cash. MSI’s GX60 used to be the de facto choice here, but that’s changed for the better.
Moving down, Lenovo’s Y5070 offers the best balance of the lot, pairing Intel’s Core i7-4700HQ with a Maxwell-based Geforce GTX860M. It doesn’t have the glorious IPS panel found in the ASUS G56JK but that’s the sacrifice we need to make for better performance. The red backlit keyboard also goes down a treat.
If you can order one in, the Lenovo Y510P is unique in its offer of an SLI pair of two Geforce GT755M graphics cards. It does this through the ditching of the DVD drive bay, replacing with with an ultrabay adapter for the second GPU. With SLI under the hood, the Y510P competes against laptops from much higher price segments, but doesn’t charge you Alienware-level prices for the performance you’re getting.
The last segment in today’s guide, the 17.3-inch range, isn’t my favourite because too many manufacturers have terrible luck in making balanced builds for these large chassis. Mecer’s M370SS offers incredible bang for buck but it doesn’t have the same premium build as other brands, which is why it’s only recommended if you can stand the bland-ish looks. It’ll still set your pants on fire if you use it as a laptop, so there’s some solace there.
Out of the picks here, MSI’s GS70 Stealth hits the right notes. It’s slimmer than most other options here (almost on par with the Razer Blade), offers connectivity for up to three external monitors and doesn’t feel like a giant 17-incher at all. The build quality is far above average for MSI’s efforts and although it lacks a IPS panel, MSI didn’t opt for a completely terrible TN panel either.
For those of you who are still interested in proper 3D screens, Toshiba’s Qosmio offers a decent hardware set, albiet a bit outdated, with a 1080p 3D display. The laptop comes with passive glasses, but that shouldn’t draw away from the experience too much. It is ultimately a gimmick that you probably won’t use very often, which is why Gigabyte’s smaller P35K has a display that you’ll actually use and enjoy.
That’s all for this week, folks! Tune in next time for the third and final episode of this guide. Next month we’re going back to the System Builder’s guide and seeing how things have changed for the better.