Hello and welcome, NAGlings, to the bi-monthy Laptop Buyer’s guide. This time, I’ve decided that it’s time for a format overhaul. Everyone seemed to like the tables I put in a while ago to clean things up, and while it looks neat, I don’t think it looks pretty anymore. It’s certainly smart, don’t get me wrong, but I feel that just staring at rows and rows of text is becoming a bit boring. Let’s throw on some new paint and see how it looks, shall we?
Reducing choices and recommendations in today’s market
Sometimes, having too much choice is a bad thing. It leads most people to spend too much time analysing all the fine details, while losing sight of the bigger picture and possibly missing a good deal. But it also introduces bloat into the market, in the form of dead-weight tablets that will never get sold. The tablet market has significantly slowed down in pace in the last few years, and I don’t think anyone can keep up the blistering pace set by Sony and Samsung in the early days of the tablet race. Now everyone seems just fine with a cadence of bleeding-edge hardware in the one year, with a refresh of the hardware and operating system in the next.
Tick tock, tick tock. It’s a bit like Intel’s famous strategy, but tablet designers now have some of the pressure of staying current with technology relieved, allowing them to focus more on balancing the budget for a better consumer experience. One year they’ll adopt new chipsets and camera logic, and the next year they’ll push out a new chassis design with a bigger battery, a better display, and the same hardware as yesteryear with a new version of Android. ARM licenses more designs, Qualcomm makes more chips for a longer period of time, everyone is happy. Picking the right time to get an upgrade is thusly a game of patience.
At the same time, the notebook market is slowing down because of the way Intel and NVIDIA run their upgrade cycles, and the trends towards more efficiency at the expense of pure speed. The way in which the average consumer uses their computers hasn’t changed in the last five years, but the software they use has – and it’s all going into the cloud, accessible through a web browser. There are still important factors to plan for when designing a notebook, but the truth is that if you had a solid chassis previously, the chances are good that you can just repurpose that for a generation or two because the newer components inside are using less power and producing much less heat.
As it happens, I started on the finishing touches to this format in the same weekend that Anandtech’s Ian Cutress published a long article benchmarking AMD’s Carrizo hardware inside modern notebooks, and went into detail about how notebook OEMs often make bad products as a result of penny-pinching decisions. Numerous companies have tried to find ways of getting around this issue, but they seem to all fall back into the trap of trying to save money on each and every component they can find. It is for this reason why AMD notebooks aren’t always very good, and why a lot of Intel models seem to get all the good design and innovation first.
So this guide, man, it’s like, the new hotness. You can scroll down and look for yourself. I’m not going to be recommending scores of notebooks that vary slightly in different ways; instead I’m mainly going to list five or six good options for you to choose from. I’ll include the odd exception here and there to the rule, but this means that I’m now focusing on recommendations for notebooks that have less cons than pros. By giving you less choice, I’m affording you the option to make a better purchase. That made more sense in my head, so I hope it bears out in my changes that I’ve made.
Tablets also get cut from the recommendations in the Laptop Buyer’s guide, but they’ll soon have their own section in a different one. Stay tuned for that guide, which I think will probably run on a three-month cycle to fit in with most of the release schedules for mobile manufacturers globally.
Laptops and Ultrabooks – 10″ to 14″
Internet browsing, e-mail, media consumption, music, casual gaming, some productivity
13″ IPS 1366 x 768, Intel Core i5-6200U (14nm), Intel HD 520 graphics, 8GB DDR3L-1600, 1TB HDD (SATA) storage, Windows 10 Home, SD card reader, HDMI 1.4a, 2x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, 3315mAh battery, 1.6kg
With no tablets to be seen (those will soon have their own section), we can zip straight into the notebooks on offer in the 11.6-inch to 14-inch form factors. These are commonly the thin-and-light designs that Intel and the industry so loves, but they’re not always without compromise. Indeed, many notebook designers tend to eschew good hardware for a better aesthetic, like having a trackpad that looks nice but performs really badly, or slapping on coolers that work for some processors but not others. The idea, though, as I said before, is to highlight those notebooks that have less cons to drive you away.
The only one that could be considered tragic is the Acer B115-M, but only because of its Intel Atom processor, which only has two threads and not a lot of memory bandwidth. It is a power-sipper, though, and the large battery should see it through about six hours of use. If it’s bang-for-your-buck that you want, there’s the Dell Inspiron 3148 to consider again, sporting a metal chassis, a long battery life, and the ability to flip the display into tablet or tent mode.
If it’s light gaming on the go, Lenovo’s Thinkpad E450 has you covered with a Core i7-5500U processor and AMD’s R7 M265 discrete graphics, which is about as powerful as the desktop GT 730 with DDR3 memory. “Light” is the key word though, as you won’t be running any games at a higher resolution than 720p, and at medium-to-low settings for playability. It’ll be serviceable for most needs.
Finally, the Ultrabook market seems to be heating up again as ASUS’ Zenbook finally has a new challenger – Acer’s Aspire V3. Both are ultrabooks adhering to Intel’s specifications, although the Aspire V3 clearly will have the upper hand in any benchmarks and in general user experience thanks to the faster CPU. It’s also one of the most user-friendly ultrabooks around, thanks to being able to have the battery, hard drive, and RAM replaced without too much hassle. I think Acer might have a winner there, even though the Zenbook clearly has a better look and feel, as well as a high-resolution display.
Laptops and Ultrabooks – 15.6″
Internet browsing, e-mail, media consumption, music, casual gaming, some productivity
15.6″ TN 1366 x 768, Intel Core i3-5010U (14nm), Intel HD 5500 graphics, 4GB DDR3L-1600 RAM, 500GB HDD storage (M.2 SATA available), Windows 7 Professional (downgrade rights from Windows 10 Pro), SD card reader, HDMI 1.4a, VGA, 2x USB 2.0, 2x USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi 802.11a, Bluetooth 4.0, 40Wh battery, 2.1kg
15.6″ VA 1366 x 768, Intel Core i5-5200U (14nm), AMD Radeon R7 M265 graphics (2GB DDR3), 4GB DDR3L-1600, 500GB HDD (SATA) storage, Windows 8.1, SD card reader, HDMI 1.4a, 2x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, fast Ethernet, Bluetooth 4.0, 40Wh battery, 2.4kg
Although thin-and-light notebooks 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, and they often compromise on the battery capacity and expansion options, so the 15.6″ laptops are sometimes better from a power user standpoint. At the top of the table is the ASUS X553MA, a cheap notebook that manages to sneak in a quad-core Pentium processor for under R5,000. You can still upgrade the RAM and the hard drive, so it’s not completely locked down either. If it’s a bargain you want, that’s not a bad choice by any means.
Around the R7,500 price point are three notebooks vying for your attention and money, but all three service different needs. HP’s Probook 450 is a business-orientated notebook with a built-in fingerprint reader that works with Windows Hello, and it has the most connectivity and expansion options available, which include an open M.2 SATA port for SSDs. Next to it, though, is the ASUS X555UA, using the same chassis as the X555MA, but with a hardware upgrade to Intel’s Skylake-based Core i5-6200U and Windows 10. I’d argue that the Probook is the better option if you want a workhorse that will last, rather than a notebook clearly geared more towards media consumption.
Gaming options are here for under R10,000, and this month we score with three of them. Lenovo’s Ideapad Z50-70 is on the way out of the market, though the combination of a quad-core APU and discrete Radeon R7 M260 graphics does seem rather good to pass up. It’s also the only notebook here with a 1080p display, which is rather welcome. Graphics-wise, it’s definitely going to be faster than the Geforce GT 930M in the Toshiba C55, but it won’t be a big advantage given the thermal constraints in the Z50-70’s chassis. It would definitely lose in an overall run against the Dell Inspiron 5548, but the value just isn’t there for the Dell at all, which lacks a 1080p display and only includes fast Ethernet networking and no M.2 slot for SSD upgrades. Gaming at 720p with medium settings would be doable on both machines.
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. Let me know in the comments whether you like this visual change or not. Until next time!