Hello and welcome, NAGlings, to this month’s Laptop Buyers guide, looking this week at budget notebook options that can play some games some of the time, with a few actual gaming-capable options thrown in to confuse you. While a lot has changed in the past few months, it’s nothing too drastic, and the market seems to have slowed a bit while vendors begin their ramp-up of products based on Intel’s Skylake platform. Let’s begin!
The coming of Windows 10, and Skylake
It seems like a perfect meshing of Intel and Microsoft’s strategies coming together, with Windows 10 and Intel’s Skylake platform finally debuting this year, and at roughly the same time. However, behind the scenes, both companies were working on tailoring Windows 10 to Intel’s hardware long before it became available to consumers. Windows 10’s new ability is to allow clock speed and p-state control to be handed back to the CPU, to allow it to be controlled by the CPU which can manage these things far better anyhow. The result is a smoother user experience and longer battery life, and Intel calls this technology “SpeedShift”. While it’s true that Haswell and Broadwell under Windows 8 both included improvements to how fast the CPU could change power states to conserve energy and heat, it was all controlled by software and not very efficient. With Skylake, the CPU effectively underclocks and turbo boosts itself just like AMD and NVIDIA’s GPUs, balancing power consumption with the thermal design power (TDP) limit, and managing this in context to how much load the CPU is under.
AMD has been capable of doing the same thing since the release of their Richland APUs. Those chips included something called resonant clock mesh, or RCM, which did the same thing as Skylake does now, only with the exception that it still accepted software control of the p-states in some situations. The philosophies behind these ideas are different, however. AMD’s RCM is intended to maximise throughput of the APU, balancing the power requirements of the CPU and GPU when under load, while Skylake tries to stay at as low a clock speed as possible for most of the time, boosting straight to the maximum speed when necessary. AMD gets the most out of their chip, and Intel gets the most out of their battery savings. You could realistically take a Skylake notebook, keep it on the “Power Saver” profile, and still get the same performance as the “Balanced” profile without the tradeoffs in battery life.
I highlight this because while AMD’s presence in the notebook market is still very small, there are some options out there. This year, the company worked with Lenovo to create the Y700, an AMD-infused gaming notebook that actually looks the business inside and out. More importantly, though, Lenovo opted to configure the FX-8800P with the 35W TDP limit, and not the 15W limit most other vendors aim for. See, there are quite a few AMD-based products in the wild that make use of Kaveri or Carrizo APUs, but they’re almost always based off the Intel designs of those notebooks, which are designed with cooling a 15W TDP chip in mind, not 35W. This design decision hurts all three affected parties – AMD, the OEM vendor, and the consumer – because they don’t take the time to tailor their product better for AMD’s hardware. AMD’s latest chips based on Carrizo can absolutely thump Intel in the graphics race, but the chips need to have a high enough TDP to establish that lead.
What I’m saying here is that AMD has a competitive product that works and is good, and is better than Intel’s, but the deck is stacked against them because OEMs pick their cooling systems based on Intel’s chips, and then try to retrofit them for AMD’s hardware later. More laptop vendors need to follow Lenovo’s lead with the Y700 and design products that are actually made for AMD’s chips, and not Intel’s. If AMD wants Carrizo and Zen to be successful for the mobile market first (the desktop will always have a place and an audience), then they either need to strong-arm their partners into making compelling products that are actually suited to the hardware internals, or do like Microsoft and make their own reference designs.
Actually, wait, that might be a good idea. Make a 35W Zen-based 15.6-inch Ultrabook-like notebook with a 1080p display, 8GB DDR4-2133 memory, a 256GB SSD, and a decent keyboard and trackpad, with a recommended price tag of $899. Give this to Gigabyte, Sapphire, MSI et al, allow them to brand and customised it how they wish, and make sure that all those options sell for roughly the same price. It’ll be like the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ of the notebook world. Once consumers see that AMD’s hardware isn’t being shoved into a plastic shell that looks like crap, they’ll be less hesitant to buy something that doesn’t have the “Intel Inside” sticker on the box.
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 devices that just aren’t designed for media consumption. 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. Being the end of the year, a lot of retailers are clearing out older stock to make way for the new hotness, and I’m surprised to see so many Windows 8.1 tablets on sale. These machines are still quite capable of getting some work done, and if you want the Windows Tablet experience as Microsoft intended, make sure you don’t update it to Windows 10, set the Start menu to be the default on boot, and unpin the desktop tile. Now, so long as you use Modern apps downloaded from the Windows store, you have a proper Windows tablet. Again, don’t update to Windows 10, because that kills the experience completely. Tablet mode can make things better, but it doesn’t always fit.
Looking at the rest of the lineup, it’s a relief to finally see Android 4.4 disappearing from the market. Android 5.0 finally returns the ability to install applications to the SD card, something that I’ve missed for a long time. Luckily, the Galaxy Tab S and the Lenovo Tab 2 are both getting an update to Lollipop in the future, so you’ll be able to do the same on those devices. With the Nexus 7 and Dell Venue 8 disappearing from store shelves, ASUS’ ZenPad 8 fills in for both, offering up improved hardware, a newer version of Android, and LTE access. That’s not bad for a tablet for under R3000.
While the Android tablets are good value, the show is stolen by three Windows devices – Lenovo’s ThinkPad Tablet 2, the ThinkPad LTE, and the Surface 3. The former two are interesting because they’ve been priced to clear, but they are nowhere close to being irrelevant. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 has a Wacom digitizer, supports connected standby, and still has a decent battery life by modern standards. For those of you not willing to stump up the extra money for a Surface device just to get access to the pen functionality, this is a hell of a bargain. Its a similar argument for the ThinkPad LTE, though the difference is that it has double the RAM and storage space, and tablets with 128GB of storage aren’t typically cheap.
Finally, the Surface 3. Nothing else comes close to the build quality of Microsoft’s hardware, and it receives firmware updates direct from the company as well. It has a kickstand, which is a rare addition, and it has Microsoft’s custom N-Trig digitizer built in as well, though you have to buy the pen separately to use it. You’ll also have to get the keyboard as well, but it’s still good value all things considered.
Starting off with the notebooks, the 10-inch to 14-inch segment plays host to more 2-in-1 devices than ever before, but still makes room for the traditional netbook that we’ve come to know and (sometimes) love. At the bottom is Mecer’s W510TU, a regular for this guide and still good value for money. Because it sports two memory slots, a SATA drive and makes room for an empty mSATA connector, it’s also the only netbook that I know of that offers so much upgradeability. Lenovo’s IdeaPad 100S might be R1,000 cheaper, but you can’t fiddle with it at all. Acer’s ES1 is powered by an AMD Kabini APU, but it’s only a dual-core chip, and won’t be good at any sort of casual gaming. At these price points, you can’t expect much from these devices, though I would encourage a SSD upgrade to improve the user experience.
In the middle of the table is the ASUS TP200SA, one of the first devices I’ve seen locally available that has a USB 3.1 Type-C port. You can’t do anything to the internals, but it is powered by Intel’s Braswell processors, and has really good build quality for such a low price point. If I had to make a choice between it and the Lenovo Yoga 300, though, the Yoga would win. Being able to access the internals is always appreciated. On the subject of choices, Dell’s Inspiron 3148 might be old hat by now according to Intel, but it’s still a very good choice if you’re looking for a compact netbook-like device that still has some power, has a metal shell, and is a 2-in-1 device.
When it comes to gaming-capable devices, I’m surprised to discover that we’re not too strapped for choice. Dell’s Inspiron 3443 is the value winner for this segment, offering up a Core i7 processor and Geforce GT 840M graphics to make up a 14-incher that might just satisfy your need to indulge in some Grand Theft Auto V shenanigans while you’re away from a wall socket. I’m not sure why it’s this cheap, but don’t ask anyone why the price is low, because it’s a no-brainer. If you’re looking for something slimmer, though, ASUS’ X302LJ might offer up similar levels of performance for less money, though the Geforce GT 920M won’t as powerful. Accessing the hard drive is possible, but the RAM cannot be upgraded. There’s a backlit keyboard to make up for this, though. I finally have an ultrabook that can game somewhat decently, yay!
Although 14″ laptops look pretty neat on their own, they aren’t as good as their larger brethren in some aspects. Smaller chassis require more planning 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. In fact, it seems that a lot of notebooks with Intel’s Broadwell hardware are standardising on having the DVD reader, card reader, and one USB port on the right-hand side, while putting all of the other ports on the left-handside below the heatsink. It’s an odd design decision, especially if you’re left-handed.
Let’s stop for a second and talk about that anomaly there. That one, the IdeaPad Z50. Where in the world did this come from? It’s an AMD notebook with a 1080p display, sporting a quad-core Kaveri APU with integrated graphics alongside a Radeon R7 M260 discrete GPU! A configuration like this hasn’t been available for gamers on a budget in years, and Lenovo unceremoniously dumps a capable machine for under R8000, with working Enduro graphics switching, right at our feet without fanfare. I want to get my hands on this thing to test it thoroughly, because I believe that it’s just enough for playing most titles at 720p with medium settings at 60fps. If that’s indeed what it’s capable of, then I’ll have no complaints about it whatsoever. I’m also fairly sure that Makro’s listing for the resolution is incorrect, though I’d be surprised if I am wrong. I really, really, really want one.
Moving up the ladder, nothing really seems to be as good value as the IdeaPad Z50. Toshiba’s Satellite C55-C looks enticing, but the Geforce GT 920M GPU only has 1GB of DDR3 memory, which means we can’t go crazy on texture quality in games. The reality is that even with Intel’s push to make their HD integrated graphics good, they’re still behind in the kind of optimisation work that AMD and NVIDIA manage in their drivers, and HD 5500, while capable, won’t be able to match the GT 920M in a lot of games where it lacks optimisation, like Fallout 4.
As far as bargains go, there are two others in this table, namely the ASUS F555UA, and Lenovo’s Y510. The FX555UA is the first locally available Skylake notebook that I’ve seen at an affordable price point, and it’s even having a sale at Raru, pushing it below R8300. That’s not a lot of money for hardware that Windows 10 was developed for, and you get better battery life and a smoother user experience for it. For the Lenovo Y510, R9,999 is not a lot to ask for a quad-core processor and a discrete GPU that sports GDDR5 memory. Even though it’s end-of-life, this notebook still has long legs, and it’ll be a good two or three years before it becomes severely outdated enough to necessitate an upgrade.
Arriving at the end of the guide today, we have the only two remaining 17-inch notebooks that I could find that were (barely) worth considering. 17-inch notebooks are rather uncommon under R10,000 and most notebook vendors are putting their creative efforts into hybrid devices, or 15.6-inch notebooks instead, which typically sell better. No-one really needs “desktop replacement” notebooks because hardware has evolved to the point where a 13.3-inch notebook could be all that anyone really needs. Intel’s efforts with the Ultrabook initiative are finally paying off, relegating such behemoths to gaming or professional workstation roles, resulting in lighter, more attractive devices for consumers.
Honestly, neither of these laptops is really appealing. Acer’s Aspire E5 might be useful, and the resolution is appreciated, but I’d much rather aim for Lenovo’s Y510, which offers more performance in a smaller form factor. Assuming that my specs are correct, even Lenovo’s IdeaPad Z50 would be a better bet, and you could take some of the saved money and throw a 256GB SSD in there for more speed. 17-inch laptops just seem archaic and pointless at this price point, and I’d struggle to produce any arguments as to why picking one would be a good idea.
That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next week for the second edition of this guide where we look at the options ranging from R12,000 to R20,000. Until next time!