In this, our first episode of the Laptop Buyer’s Guide for 2015, we get straight into the budget segment, shopping around for laptops, hybrid ultrabooks and tablets that all form part of growing mobile ecosystem with very different requirements from the desktop market from which it spawned. This year is going to be an interesting one for the mobile market, primarily because all eyes are on Microsoft as they set themselves up for a Windows launch that is bigger and more forward-looking than the brand it belongs to. While we wait for that inevitable launch in October 2015, though, its time to see what the market currently has to offer and what your money gets you today.
2015’s big story is storage and Microsoft Windows 10
Though a lot of noise has been made by me in the past when it comes to issues in the Laptop Buyer’s Guide, it’s always been about the hardware and the setups, or the display resolution that is a constant punch in the gut each time I open my brother’s laptop. The notebook market is rife with crappy options and poor decisions by manufacturers and time and again they choose to push out the cheapest configurations in order to get the best return on their investment. Inadvertently, they end up creating dangerous trends that push the market into particular directions, often ones that I dislike intensely.
But some things are changing and 2015 will be the year that things take a good leap forward. I’m predicting today a major price war between SSD vendors to erupt around Computex 2015. The orders of the day will be Silicon Motion controllers and cheap 19nm flash memory. 256GB drives will drop to below $100, 512GB drives will be $200 or less. With the coming wave of cheap SSD drives, I hope that notebook manufacturers take note of this and simply start buying up 256GB drives in bulk and putting them into their bargain notebooks. If they shop wisely, they could net themselves a SSD that not only improves performance, but battery life as well.
At the same time, Microsoft’s launch of Windows 10 in October 2015 also brings with it some interesting implications. The first of those is that the shoddy microphones inside notebooks are surely going to be replaced with better units. Thanks to the integration of Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assitant, into Windows 10 there will be a lot of consumers who expect to be able to use all of Cortana’s abilities fully.
Another is that touch screen notebooks will go the way of the dodo, hopefully using the extra budget to improve something elsewhere. I’m personally hoping that more notebook vendors now standardise on using 1600 x 900 resolution panels to differentiate themselves from the typical 1366 x 768 crowd. The monitors themselves are not that more expensive – in fact many laptop displays that have a 1600 x 900 resolution are priced identically. Its still a 16 x 9 aspect ratio, but at least you get more useable space out of it.
At the same time, this is the perfect opportunity for AMD to try score some mobile design wins for Windows 10 laptops. If Microsoft fixes up their scaling issues, notebook vendors will be more inclined to offer notebooks with displays that feature much higher resolutions than they previously offered. The caveat here though is that Intel’s integrated HD and HD4400 graphics aren’t quite good enough to push the amount of pixels required for displays such as those. AMD’s integrated graphics have always been superior, so it’s time for them to step up to the plate and do something about their position in the budget market.
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.
The obvious lack of any Google Nexus devices here makes things a little bleak. I am a huge fan of the stock Android experience and with the Nexus 9, its just more expensive and you get less value out of it than any Nexus tablet before it. The 2013 Nexus 7 was easily the best tablet to buy on a budget last year but now that’s no longer the case.
Instead, older stock from Dell’s Venue family now pick up the slack, offering decent connectivity and Intel’s Atom Z2560, proving that they can compete in the ARM race. Though both tablets ship with Android 4.2 out the box, there is an update to Android 4.4. Going lower down the list, the Amazon Kindle has been replaced by LG’s G Pad. The higher resolution, larger battery, and lack of an overly buggy software overlay makes it a better tablet overall than the Kindle Fire HD, seeing as you can also install the Amazon store app anyway. As a replacement for the Kindle to read books, it’s really not bad.
Most of the lineup remains the same. Acer’s Iconia W3 is replaced by the W4, bringing with it a better Atom processor, more battery life and Windows 8.1 out of the box. If you want the same hardware, but need a Windows tablet for note-taking at school or work, the ASUS Vivotab Note 8 picks up the slack, offering a Wacom Digitiser for note-taking in OneNote. With both tablets packing in 64GB SSDs, they avoid the main gripe of Windows installs taking up too much space. Microsoft now runs these tablets off compressed Windows installs, so there should be more than 50GB of free drive space for your crap. Office 365 Personal comes pre-installed on both with a license valid for a year.
Gaming-capable Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″
A newcomer to the guide, Proline’s A993L is an interesting device, packing in a newer CPU than the Transformer T100, but offering an IPS display with a massively improved pixel density as well as a smaller size and half the available storage. As a netbook replacement or tablet substitute, there’s not much to complain about, but you’ll most certainly want to remain inside the Modern UI environment if you want to avoid any UI scaling issues with Windows. It’ll do some very light gaming, but only just, which also applies to the Transformer.
Intel’s Bay Trail platform is also available in a high-TDP design in the Celeron and Pentium families, and the Celeron N2840 inside Lenovo’s Ideapad S2030 is decent enough for most people’s needs while also being somewhat serviceable for older games. Its potential will be similar to the A933L and the T100TA, but it has much more scope for memory and storage upgrades, so it stands a higher chance of being useful beyond two years.
Proline surprises again with the Professional W540SU, offering Intel’s HD4600 graphics at probably the lowest price I’ve seen so far. Most Core i3 processors at the same price range for a 14″ notebook are only equipped with HD4400 graphics, dampening my enthusiasm for them somewhat.
Rounding up this segment, Toshiba is all business with the Satellite Pro C40-A, offering a decent display as well as a Core i5-4200M processor, Nvidia Geforce GT710M graphics (in practice, not that much faster than HD4600) and above-average specifications for memory and storage. If it didn’t cost so much, it would be a great option for most people looking for a highly portable workhorse.
Although 14″ laptops look pretty neat on their own, they aren’t as good as their larger brethren. Though it seems silly, smaller chassis require more engineering to keep heat and weight down, so the 15.6″ laptops are usually the point where not a lot of compromises are made to get things working. As usual, Intel rules the roost here, so there’s not much change to the status quo from AMD. I’ve decided to only focus on Haswell-based notebooks where I can, although we do have two Broadwell-based notebooks in the lineup as well.
Lenovo and ASUS duke it out here for attention, offering three laptops each for your consideration. The Core i5 Thinkpad E540C is an interesting offering, coming in way cheaper than any other brand with an arguably superior build to boot. The newer, cheaper Thinkpads aren’t as indestructible as the ones designed by IBM, but they are still sturdy enough to take a beating. I personally like the controller nib in the middle of the keyboard, used to move the mouse without moving your hands down to the trackpad.
As a general rule of thumb, spending around R8000 buys you a decent laptop with good gaming capability and that’s great news for anyone with a budget as strict as that. Sure, you could build a better desktop for the same price, but the miniaturisation of components is what we’re really paying for here. Flip a coin between the Radeon R5 M265 and the Geforce GT840 – performance will be pretty similar between them.
But lets look at those Broadwell notebooks, eh? Both are from ASUS and sport the Intel Core i5-5200U processor, which has a base clock of 2.2GHz and a Boost clock of 2.7GHz. Not only is Broadwell a die shrink from Haswell, its a tweaked architecture that improves IPC by around 6% and reduces power consumption dramatically. Because it runs cooler, its allowed to stay at maximum boost clocks for much longer and will deliver pretty good performance even on battery.
The only issue I foresee is that the ASUS A555LN doesn’t have Nvidia Optimus support, so you can’t make use of the HD5500 graphics built in to the processor, which would be a concern if you’re interested mainly in battery life and run times unplugged from the wall. In that case, the A555LA would be the better choice. Nvidia is likely to support Optimus starting with the Geforce 900 series and Broadwell chips, so it may take some time to see a compatible solution hit the market.
If the offerings for 14″ notebooks was small for this price range, 17-inch laptops have an even weaker offering, with only three contenders showing up. There isn’t much to get excited about here but if you were looking for a desktop replacement anyway, here’s where you need to start shopping.
Mecer’s Xpression W970SUW is an interesting start because you can configure it however you want before purchase. I chose to pop in another 2GB of RAM, drop the Windows 8.1 license and choose the cheaper Toshiba hard drive to bring the final price below R7300. The thinking here is that it’ll be pretty easy to set this up with a Linux distribution, or perhaps an older copy of Windows 7 or what have you, so that you won’t have to pay extra for a software license that you don’t need.
Proline does actually account for this by pre-installing Ubuntu on their budget W549TU and W258CZ models, but there’s not enough savings to justify choosing that over a similarly priced laptop that comes with Windows 8.1 with Bing anyway.
Out of the three, the only laptop capable of gaming in a proper sense is the HP Probook 470 G1, but don’t expect very high framerates. The Radeon HD8750M has a dedicated 1GB DDR3 memory pool, but it will be constrained heavily by the low amount of texture units, ROPs and memory bandwidth available. For less money, I’d rather aim for the ASUS X555LA instead.
That’s all for this week folks! My apologies for the lateness of the issue, but next week I will have the next episode of the guide up by Wednesday again. You can thank load shedding, Telkom and the magazine going to print super-early this month for this. BYEEEEE!