Hello and welcome to this final episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide for February 2015, where we’re spending so much money on notebooks that you could just as well spend on a nice holiday in Madagascar, or on a decent second-hand car or motorbike. The price of computing is staggering but then it has become a luxury, not a commodity, with the processors with the best performance commanding insanely high margins. If you’re ready to pay through the nose for a gaming notebook that will blow holes in your wallet, follow me after the jump.
Its very neat to see such a large increase in the amount of notebooks available in the high-end market in sizes of 14-inches or less. We start off with Apple’s Macbook Pro 13 unexpectedly being the best-priced solution here. Iris 5100 graphics really do make a world of difference and will be a bit faster than the HD5500 integrated graphics inside Broadwell processors. With 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, it also makes the cheapest Aspire S7 almost pointless, as you can’t upgrade the RAM inside the Aspire S3 or S7 series. HP’s Elitebook 840 is a far better buy for the same money, as it supports RAM and M.2 SSD upgrades and has an open SATA 3 port for even more storage as well.
Skipping to the Alienware 14, this is the first notebook in the selection that’s actually capable of some serious gaming. Although it’s obscenely bulky coming in at 2.8kg and has looks that haven’t been really altered for the past five years, an Alienware is still one of the better gaming laptops out there. Very few notebook vendors are targeting high-end portable gaming notebooks similarly. The only brands really doing that are Gigabyte with the AORUS X3 and Razer with the Blade 2014.
But despite that glorious pixel-doubled IGZO panel, is it really what people are going to be buying? The GTX 870M isn’t that well-suited for driving near-4K displays and it would take the same panel running with a scaler that supported variable refresh rates (VRR) to make the most of the power on hand. Don’t get me wrong, both the Blade and the X3 are worth the money you pay for the premium build quality, but they are somewhat ahead of their time for now. Nothing inside the Windows 10 Technical Preview suggests that display scaling has improved at all, so that resolution, while awesome, will remain unexploited outside of a few Microsoft-developed applications and any Modern UI apps.
If you’re a professional on the move who also wants to get in some game time, the HP Z Book 14 is also an option, with the Mars-based FirePro 4100 allowing for most games to be played at 1080p with low to medium settings. The FirePro is fare more suited to actual graphics work than any 3D gaming, but it can do the latter reasonably well.
For fun, I decided to not omit the usual amount of options that I do from these lists just to illustrate the dearth of options that are available to consumers today. Now, this is both welcome and confusing. On the one hand, there’s abundant choice and a notebook for every budget. On the other hand, retailers like Evetech only aid in the confusion by doing their own bundles and changing the memory and storage options for the MSI laptops they sell. Out of the fifteen laptops on this table, MSI shows up seven times, Gigabyte only four. Its a sign not only of the flood of notebooks in the high-end that MSI is orchestrating, but also a hint at how utterly confusing the notebook market is to people who don’t have the time to put things into tables to see the forest from the trees.
Lets get the outliers out of the way – Dell’s XPS 15 makes the cut not because of GPU prowess, but that stunning IGZO display. Sure, Windows 8.1 currently doesn’t use it properly at all, but it definitely looks superb. Apple’s Macbook Pro also slots in for the pixel-doubled displays, but gaming-wise they’re out of their league compared to the other options here. The same goes for the Thinkpad W540 and the MSI WT60 as these are more suited for graphics work, but both will be more than capable of running the odd game at 1080p when you’re taking some time out to relax. It is odd that the WT60 doesn’t come with an IPS panel that is properly calibrated, something that I thought would be more important for anyone considering it as a portable workstation.
As for the rest, the trend is that everyone uses Intel and Nvidia – no surprises there. There’s a definte climb up in the ranks as the table moves from the GTX 965M to the 970M, 870M, 980M and finally 880M. Thanks to some obfuscation from Nvidia, many of the laptops that feature the GTX 860M or 865M are actually Maxwell-based, and the GTX 965M is a rebrand of the 865M with slightly higher clock speeds. The 870M and 880M are definitely Kepler-based, so the 970M and 980M should be much faster, though it is confusing to see these newer cards being sold cheaper than their outgoing predecessors.
Confusing things further, MSI is also selling some notebooks with UHD4K displays. Coupled to the GTX 965M, it’ll obviously be a slideshow for any games played at native resolution. I’m not sure why this configuration is an option given that 4K content is still so sparsely available on the internet. The laptop doesn’t even come with a Blu-Ray reader! Come on MSI, inject some common sense in here. The most that anyone will be able to play at native resolution is light games and MOBAs. Overall, though, it is the most interesting option available here.
Rounding off things for this weekend, we have the high-end of the high-end, the cream of the crop. These are desktop replacement laptops, powerful enough to replace your main rig at a moment’s notice and not crippled enough to make you want for more performance. The trend at the high-end has always been to use TN displays and use the extra funds to eke out more graphical performance or shove in more memory for no reason. Today, six out of eleven of these notebooks contain either an IPS or VA panel, largely solving my main criticism of notebooks at this price point: midding to okay display quality.
This segment also seems the one least welcoming of new display resolutions. Across the board it’s a solid 1920 x 1080. A 3200 x 1800 display would work a lot better here because pixel-doubling in Windows would reduce the resolution to an effective 1600 x 900, but it would look ultra-sharp and clear. Its equally odd that a company like MSI chooses to put a 4K display on a GTX 965M GPU, but when given silly amounts of power Gigabyte doesn’t put an IGZO panel into the AORUS X7 with GTX 970M SLI. Taking out one of the mSATA SSDs and trimming down the memory would surely have allowed for improving the display.
For those of you who need a workhorse with some play-time in between, the HP Z Book makes another appearance next to Dell’s M6800. Both the Quadro K3100M and the FirePro M6100 are good enough for 1080p gaming, but I’m not sure why there’s only a 500GB drive with the Dell, while the Z Book gets fancy with a 256GB SSD as standard. Notebook vendors are famous for their penny-pinching ways, but it doesn’t make sense to do any of that at the high-end.
Out of all the options here, three stand out. The ASUS ROG G751JL offers a great start for any serious gamer, leaving an M.2 slot open inside for future upgrades. Gong down the table, the ROG G751JT catches my eye, offering an IPS panel with a GTX 970M and enough storage with upgrades being possible. Finally, Gigabyte steals the show with the AORUS X7 V3, sporting an IPS display alongside two GTX 970M cards in SLI. At just over R32,000, it’s actually not a bad deal considering that is GTX 980-territory when it comes to performance.
That’s all for this month folks! Next month we’re back to normalcy and the System Builders Guide, which is far more sensible and easy to figure out than the utterly bonkers notebook market. Perhaps there’ll be something there that spurs you into finally doing an upgrade! I know I want to change a few things on my desktop. Until next time, BYEEEEE!