Hello and welcome to this week’s 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. As we head straight into the Christmas week, I’ve compiled a look into the mid-range market as it stands now – and the results are somewhat mixed. There’s middling CPU and GPU performance in the ultrabook market, some GPU shenanigans worming their way into the desktop replacements, and Acer is making a very aggressive move in the market. The tables are also much larger this month (sorry, those of you with tiny displays!), because we’re heading into a flushing season, where distributors and retailers are trying to flush out all their old stock up to Haswell, to make more room for their Broadwell and Skylake-based products. The next two months will be interesting for the notebook market. To save you time scrolling around, though, if you have R18k to spend and want a gaming notebook, buy a Gigabyte P35W V2. Don’t look at anything else for now until that option is out of stock.
Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 11″ to 14″
|ASUS Transfomer Book TP300LJ||13.3″ TN 1366 x 768||Core i5-5200U||Geforce GT 940M||4GB||1TB||R11,810|
|Lenovo U3170||13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i5-5200U||Geforce GT 920M||8GB||1TB||R12,173|
|Apple Macbook Pro 13 (MD101)||13.3″ IPS 1440 x 900||Core i5-3210M||Intel HD 4000||4GB||500GB||R12,999|
|ASUS Transformer Book T300CHI *||12.5″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core M-5Y71||Intel HD 5300||4GB||128GB SSD||R12,999|
|Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro||13.3″ IPS 3200 x 1800||Core i7-4500U||Intel HD 4400||8GB||256GB SSD||R13,999|
|Gigabyte P34G Ultrabook||14″ TN 1920 x 1080||Core i5-4200H||Geforce GTX 760M||4GB||500GB||R14,322|
|Apple Macbook Air 11||11.6″ TN 1366 x 768||Core i5-5250U||Intel Iris 6000||4GB||128GB SSD||R14,368|
|HP Pro X2 612 G1 **||12.5″ VA 1366 x 768||Core i3-4021Y||Intel HD 4200||4GB||128GB SSD||R14,392|
|ASUS Zenbook UX305FA||13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core M-5Y10||Intel HD5300||8GB||256GB SSD||R15,435|
|Dell Inspiron 7348 ***||13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-5500U||Intel HD 5500||8GB||500GB||R16,402|
|Acer R7-371 **||13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-5500U||Intel HD 5500||8GB||256GB SSD||R17,387|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12 **||12.5″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i5-5200U||Intel HD 5500||8GB||256GB SSD||R19,423|
|Lenovo MIIX 700 **||12.5″ IPS 2160 x 1440||Core M3-6Y30||Intel HD 515||4GB||128GB SSD||R19,999|
|Dell Latitude E5450||14″ VA 1920 x 1080||Core i5-5300U||Intel HD 5500||8GB||256GB SSD||R20,170|
|ASUS Zenbook UX305UA||13.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-6500U||Intel HD 520||8GB||256GB SSD||R20,348|
|Apple Macbook Pro 13||13.3″ IPS 2560 x 1600||Core i5-5257U||Intel Iris 6100||8GB||128GB SSD||R20,842|
|Apple MacBook||12″ IPS 2304 x 1440||Core M-5Y31||Intel HD 5300||8GB||256GB||R20,842|
We’re at an interesting juncture in the market, where three generations of Intel chips are fighting for your wallet. There are still a lot of notebooks based on Haswell and Broadwell floating about, and the problem is that Intel can’t ramp up Skylake too quickly because the Broadwell rollout came so late. Thus, only a handful of Skylake-based options appear here, as many others are simply out of stock or too expensive for the time being.
There are a couple of stars in the table, and you might be wondering why. These represent the options available locally that could be considered stand-ins for Microsoft’s Surface Pro lineup, which is currently missing in the local market (missing as in Microsoft doesn’t import them directly). Single-starred options are merely serving the function of workhorse 2-in-1 detachable notebooks, while the ones with two stars have active digitisers that either use Wacom or N-trig, or similar sensors. If you wanted a drawing tablet that can do on-the-fly processing away from your desktop, these are not bad options. HP’s oddly named Pro X2 612 G1 has a Wacom ES input and ships with the keyboard dock, so it’s a pretty good deal. Lenovo’s MIIX 700 is an actual Surface Pro clone, but it’s too expensive to be worth consideration. Dell’s Inspiron 7348 is the odd duck with three stars, being a convertible ultrabook with a pen and Wacom digitiser.
Sometimes, looking at older models yields a good deal. Lenovo’s Yoga 2 Pro is one example of an older utrabook being marked down to clear. It’s still very capable, however, with an extremely high-res display, Haswell hardware, and a 256GB SSD, all clad in a fairly well-made plastic shell. Upgrading the RAM isn’t possible, though the SSD is a standard 7mm 2.5-inch form factor, and the Wi-Fi card can be replaced with an 802.11ac adapter if needed. Upgrading to Windows 10 is recommended to take advantage of the high-res display, because Windows 8.1 still doesn’t do it that well.
On the subject of older models, I’d also like to point out the very old Macbook Pro 13, which makes the list by the skin of its teeth. The reason why I mention the model number is that it’s from the Ivy Bridge family, fairly ancient as far as hardware goes. However, there are valid reasons for wanting to own one – the Ivy Bridge versions were the last to allow both RAM and hard drive upgrades, which is attractive to a lot of people who may not want to fork out almost R21,000 just to have 8GB of RAM and a SSD on a Macbook. Get this model, bump it up to 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, and you’re still paying less for everything than a brand new 128GB Macbook Pro 13. And it’s still just as capable.
As far as gaming goes, Gigabyte’s aging P34G is the only option left that’s actually suited to the task. It’s not the latest and greatest, but it still hangs in there with a Core i5 processor from the Haswell family, a Geforce GTX 760M, a full HD display and a backlit keyboard. If it’s mobile gaming on a budget you want, look no further. There’s nothing else in the market of this size at a similar price anyway.
Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 15.6″
|ASUS X550JL||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i5-4200H||Geforce GTX 950M||8GB||1TB||R11,999|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E550||15.6″ TN 1366 x 768||Core i7-5500U||Radeon R9 M265X||8GB||1TB||R12,399|
|Lenovo Y5070||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-4720HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R16,644|
|Lenovo Yoga 15||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i5-5200U||Geforce GT 840M||8GB||256GB SSD||R17,163|
|Lenovo Y5070||15.6″ IPS 3840 x 2160||Core i7-4720HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R17,419|
|Acer Aspire V Nitro Black Edition||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i5-6300HQ||Geforce GTX 950M||8GB||1TB||R17,954|
|Gigabyte P35W V2||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-4710HQ||Geforce GTX 870M||8GB||1TB||R18,073|
|MSI Apache GE62-2QC||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-5700HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R18,215|
|Gigabyte P55K V4||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-5700HQ||Geforce GTX 965M||8GB||1TB||R18,577|
|Acer Aspire V Nitro Black Edition||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-6700HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R19,151|
|ASUS ROG G551JW||15.6″ TN 1920 x 1080||Core i7-4750HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||16GB||1TB||R20,100|
|MSI Apache GE62-6QC||15.6″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-6700HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R20,873|
The landscape for the 15.6-inch gaming notebook market has shifted quite a lot. In the span of one year, we’ve gone from having crappy TN 1366 x 768 displays ruling the roost, to IPS panels with full HD resolutions (and sometimes more) to pick from. While I do base my decisions on the display and keyboard, because that’s what you’ll grow to either love or hate the most, it’s a good feeling to not have to decide between laptops based on what display gets shoved in there. Instead, I have to nitpick on design, connectivity, and the processor ‘s specifications. Because of this change, I can’t really tell you which one wins overall, because things have now changed to where you basically have to pick according to your personal preferences and what you’re prepared to put up with.
In the lower end of the budget, ASUS’ X550 starts off at the bottom, offering decent value. R12,000 buys you a surprising amount of horsepower, and its nearest competitors either have to use a lesser display, or simply charge more and add more processing power to compensate. How ASUS manages this is through soldering on the memory, so there’s only one extra slot, omitting an M.2 or mSATA port, and by equipping the GPU with DDR3 memory instead of GDDR5. Its only competitor price-wise is Lenovo’s business-orientated ThinkPad Edge E550, which ends up being a good bit faster thanks to being equipped with GDDR5 memory, but suffers from a poorer display.
Lenovo dominates the mid-range segment with three offerings, two of which are outdated by only a few months. I like that there’s some choice if you’re keen on getting a Y5070 – either you can pick the 1080p display and benefit from the higher battery life, or you can get the 4K display and see what Apple fans have been raving about for two years now. Windows 10 finally fixes high-DPI scaling for most of its first-party applications, and it does look very, very good. If you’re keen on neither one, but still want a flexible business notebook, there’s the Yoga 15 to consider.
At the high end, if the Gigabyte P35W V2 didn’t exist, I’d call out the cheaper Aspire Nitro V as my favourite. With a quad-core hyper-threaded processor and a Geforce GTX 870M 6GB discrete GPU, though, the Gigabyte takes the lead in the price/performance stakes. Like the Nitro V, it has a backlit keyboard and IPS display. Like the Nitro V, it also has two fans to cool down the internals, venting heat out exhausts located on the rear of the chassis. This is good for lefties, because most notebook vendors put the vents on the left-hand side, right where you’re putting your mouse hand. If the P35W V2 isn’t available, however, the Nitro V takes my overall recommendation. Quad-core Skylake in a stylish chassis with 4GB of VRAM instead of the usual 2GB is a really good offer. There’s an open NVME-compatible M.2 slot as well, while the P35W V2 has two mSATA ports in addition to the normal 2.5-inch SATA bay. Did I also mention that the P35W V2 also has a hot-swappable DVD bay that has a converter in the box to use it for another 2.5-inch drive? Because it totally does.
You can’t RAID all four devices at once though. That would just be unfair to the other notebook vendors.
Mid-range Laptops and Ultrabooks – 17″
|MSI Apache GE72-2QL||17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080||Core i5-4210M||Geforce GTX 950M||8GB||1TB||R16,886|
|Acer Aspire V Nitro Black Edition||17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-4720HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R18,215|
|Dell Inspiron 7746||17.3″ IPS 1920 x 1080||Core i7-5500U||Geforce GT 845M||16GB||1TB||R18,999|
|MSI Apache Pro GE72-6QE||17.3″ TN 1920 x 1080||Core i7-6700HQ||Geforce GTX 960M||8GB||1TB||R19,510|
Ending off the guide today is the 17-inch behemoth range, as well as a bit of a rant. In the 15.6-inch segment, I had a number of interesting options to add in to the table. However, a number of them hid a rather nasty surprise – the widespread use of DDR3 memory on notebooks that sported GTX 950M and GTX 960M graphics. I though that was perhaps limited to specific models, but it wasn’t. For example, MSI’s lineup has a number of notebooks with “GP” in the product code, and the majority of them use GPUs with DDR3 memory. That changes with some of the higher models, but you’d never know you’re getting a GPU with crummy DDR3 memory without going to the manufacturer’s site and looking for that info. And if they don’t report it, like ASUS and Gigabyte tend to do, you’re SOL unless you find a review detailing that specification. I can forgive this practise for notebooks under R12,999, maybe, but Gigabyte’s decision to put DDR3 VRAM into their P17F lineup kills any chance it has of fighting against the incoming offers from Lenovo and Acer.
So, where possible, I’m going to only add in discrete GPUs with GDDR5 memory into this guide. I know that’s not always possible in the lower price ranges, but I’ll be looking harder for this sort of thing. MSI’s choice to sell the GP62-2QE for over R17,000 with DDR3 VRAM is just silly and unnecessary. It gets sillier when you look at Evetech’s page for Gigabyte, which includes a number of customised options they’ve added on for the P17F. Guys, it’s a bust. Adding a 512GB SSD and another 8GB of RAM isn’t going to fix its inherent performance issues.
I’ll keep the final section short and sweet because 17-inch laptops really aren’t that great in this price range. If you want something decent, pick the Aspire V Nitro. As enticing as the Apache GE72-2QL is, it lacks an IPS display, a backlit keyboard, 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM, and the Core i7 processor. The Nitro isn’t much faster than the MSI for most things, but it’s still ahead. If you’re a business user looking to have some game time when you’re not working, Dell’s Inspiron 7746 looks really nice. The Geforce GT 845M isn’t going to be a match for the other GPUs in the table, but it still has GDDR5 memory, so it’s not going to suck completely.
That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next time for the final episode of the Laptop Buyer’s guide for the R20,000 to R30,000 price range. There’ll be a hiatus this month as we head into Christmas, but I should have the final part of this guide up before the end of the year. See you then!