Hello and welcome to this episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide, where we now get into the mid-range market and see what our money buys us this week. Honourable NAGlings, I request that you keep this website as your active tab to read this guide. Should you choose to comment, please be reminded that the public order grammar police will be watching to make sure you are legible and concise, so please do not raise any points of privilege with this guide. You may rise on a point of order, but I must ask you to refer to other NAGlings as Honourable NAGlings, in keeping with the theme of this house. I thank you.
A strange thing happens in the mid-range market when you’re dealing with small notebooks and ultrabooks – the ones found at lower prices are typically bulkier and slightly less interesting to look at, but perform better. It is quite apparent when you look at the Macbook Air 13 and square it off against Gigabyte’s P34G. In all areas relating to performance, the P34G is better and faster in every way, as well as boasting a hugely beneficial 1080p display.
If you only had around R14,000 in your pocket and needed a quick fix for a notebook that is light, portable, sports a backlit keyboard and will play games well, then the P34G is your default port of call. If you’re a professional looking for something that will allow you unwind after work, HP’s ZBook Pro 14 packs in the AMD FirePro M4100, which is a Radeon HD7730 in disguise with much more stable drivers for graphics work.
Intel’s Iris HD5000, HD5300 and HD5500 graphics might be impressive considering that they are part of the CPU package, but they are not equipped to drive modern games beyond 720p with medium to low settings.
With Microsoft slowly solving their UI scaling issues in Windows, it’s no longer completely daft to recommend something like the Transformer T300CHI with that insane 2560 x 1440 resolution. However, Apple remains the best solution for high-resolution displays because OS X doesn’t screw everything up. If you’re more interested in the quality of the display rather than the actual performance of the notebook, then don’t look anywhere else other than the Macbook Pro 13.
Although I may make a huge fuss over lesser laptops not having 1080p displays, the mid-range market mostly solves that quite deftly, so my main complaint disappears. Now, though, there is the problem that almost all of the options here are TN panels, which means you’re not going to enjoy yourself very much if your display isn’t angled properly for the colours to not shift and go all weird. More laptops need to ship with IPS and VA panels and the 11″ to 14″ segment had all kinds of choices thrown in here. For the 15.6″ market, not so.
Lets jump straight to the odd one out – ASUS’ B551LA. Its different because there are very, very few notebooks outside of the Apple family that have Intel Iris Pro graphics inside and this is one of them. Performance should be on par with the Geforce GT 650M in a lot of games, but don’t expect discrete-levels of performance because this is an integrated GPU. It also lacks the 128MB of eDRAM that is present on the Iris Pro 5200, which would help a lot when it comes to memory bandwidth.
Also, the Lenovo Y5070 is the first of the Y50 series that no longer includes the Ultrabay slot that would allow for SLI in older models. The GTX 860M is more than capable to match two GT 750M cards in SLI, so there’s no performance left on the table with this revision.
In addition, I’ve starred ASUS’ G551JM and the G551JW because under the hood, these should be the exact same notebooks. If the GTX 860M in the G551JM is Maxwell-based, then the G551JW has the same GPU, just with slightly higher clock speeds. Unless you’re looking at the specifications and doing some Googling, it might not have been immediately obvious. Examples like this are one of the reasons, but not the chief one, why Nvidia doesn’t want to allow for mobile GPU overclocking.
Ending off things, I’d like to also draw attention to Gigabyte’s P35G. Not only is it a 15.6″ notebook with a decent hardware setup comparable to other market options, Gigabyte somehow finds the space to also equip it with two mSATA slots capable of RAID 1 or 0 along with two 2.5-inch drive bays for more hard drives or SSDs. The cool part is that the second 2.5-inch bay is optional, as you can opt to fill that with the front-facing DVD drive, or replace it with a 2.5-inch drive using the included adapter.
Most of last year’s 17-inch options were usually dominated by TN panels and this is one area where things haven’t changed. Thankfully they are all 1080p panels, so my main gripe (low resolution) is still not an issue here. The smattering of options throws things into a bit of a kerfuffle, with some brands having balanced systems and others emphasising on design rather than actual performance. That particular distinction is held by the ASUS ROG G751JM, which features a dual-core hyper-threaded processor inside one of the most solid and striking chassis seen to date outside of the Alienware family. If style is all you’re really worried about, the ROG oozes it all over the floor.
Mecer has a good showing here, with their configurable W730SS taking up three spots. It is interesting looking at the setup compared to MSI’s Apache GE70 – there the Windows tax drops the GPU to the GTX 850M and halves the available RAM. If you have an existing Windows license or plan to use Linux instead, the cheapest W370SS is more than enough for any game you throw at it. It gets more interesting with the more expensive configurations which do include Windows 8.1 – the W370SS with the Core i5 processor, 16GB RAM and a 256GB SSD is overall better than the Apache GE70 and the more expensive ASUS N750JK.
ASUS also seems to be learning a thing or two about differentiation, putting in two 1TB drives into the N750JK and leaving one memory slot and a mSATA slot open to users, but even their most expensive entertainment laptop doesn’t have an IPS display, which is sad. Overall, nothing really stands out in this section of the guide and there’s nothing I’d particularly want to buy either – ASUS’ FX550JK with its tempting price, decent graphics performance and IPS display ticks all the boxes for me.
That’s all for this week folks! I can’t promise that the guide will be exactly on time next week as I am now literally swamped with review items to get through, all of which should be appearing on NAG Online over the course of the next two or three weeks. And I’m probably going to go catatonic when my Dell P2214H finally arrives and my eyes are arrested by the glory that is a good IPS panel. BYEEEEE!