Welcome to the first episode of the February Laptop Buyer’s Guide for 2018. Laptops are, thankfully, complete systems, negating any risk that miners will suddenly start snapping up notebooks with a GeForce GTX 1060 in them because they can’t get anything else in time to buy into the next rise of Ethereum and earn some cash. No, these things are still rather unwieldy and cumbersome for mining operations, yet still functional for their intended use. Although, if someone does figure out that they can just rip out the motherboards and hang them off racks, and if they find a decent return from mining coins on both the GPU and CPU… then we might have a problem.
I guess it’s a good thing miners can’t monopolise production of notebooks, isn’t it? The desktop PC gaming market is seeing a slump in regular consumer purchases because cryptocurrency miners are buying up all the GPU stock, but that may end up driving those prospective buyers to a notebook instead – and that’s what this guide is all about.
Highlights for this month, I guess, include the fact that we finally have a cookie-cutter standard, and one that will probably grow thanks to Intel’s Coffee Lake family – that being a Core i5 dual or quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, a hard drive of some description, and either a VA or IPS 1080p display in a 15.6-inch form factor. This isn’t necessarily bad because long-time NAGlings will remember how much I’ve raged about 1366 x 768 TN displays in the past. Getting out of this rut and into 1080p is the first step. Now if only memory prices would come down.
Speaking of, I think there’re some price hikes going on behind the scenes that manufacturers are taking advantage of, and in some cases I think unfairly so. Even up to R8,000, the average notebook only carries 4GB of RAM, and if there’s an SSD included, it’s usually at a much higher price than if you bought and installed the thing yourself on a lower-end model. The pattern we’re seeing is that notebook vendors are starting to take advantage of the fact that consumers want SSDs in their laptops, and are beginning to overcharge for the privilege now that the price of memory has increased dramatically. Now, you could say that they’re offsetting their costs, and normally that would be true, but I’d expect OEMs like Dell and HP to have agreements in place with SSD vendors to sell them drives at bulk pricing, and they’re going to have a lot of these stockpiled already. Taking advantage of the price hike makes it seems like they’re similarly affected, but I expect that this is just bean counting for the sake of improving their bottom line.
And man, is the scourge of the hard drive ever prevalent. Why can’t these companies just pick up 128GB drives instead of the slow 500GB spinning rust thingies? It boggles the mind.
Finally, AMD does have options included in this episode of the guide, but none of their Raven Ridge notebooks have made their way to our shores yet. While the Ryzen 5 2500U and Ryzen 7 2700U are great options for budget gamers, once those units arrive here they’re not going to be so budget-oriented after VAT and sales mark-up is applied. I think it’ll be a while before I can list a Ryzen-powered notebook here as my first pick.
R5,000 – Lenovo V110-15
Lenovo’s new V110-15 family wouldn’t normally be my first choice for a budget machine. In fact, I’m a big proponent of smaller notebooks if you’re buying something cheap, because larger designs are inevitably full of cheap plastics and unflattering designs. Lenovo’s V110-15 series is definitely full of cheap plastic, but it’s what’s inside that counts here.
Internally, Lenovo has packed in AMD’s Stoney Ridge A6-9210 APU, a dual-core processor based on the Carrizo architecture that boosts from 2.4GHz to 2.8GHz, and offers Radeon R4 graphics, with a total of 192 GCN shader cores. It’s serviceable for a number of older games and a few MOBAs, and I think you’ll find that it’ll be just enough for some AAA titles when you crank everything including the resolution all the way down.
Of course, there are some compromises here. It’s bulky at 2.1kg, and the keyboard won’t be that good compared to Thinkpads. The display will be a TN panel of some description and you’re probably going to find that it will colour shift quite a lot, with a bit too much blue before calibration. Still, the RAM is upgradeable as well as the hard drive, and you can replace the battery.
R7,500 – Lenovo Ideapad 320S-15
HP’s 250 G6, specifically the 2HG87ES model, seems to have spurred the local market into offering some competition, because Lenovo now has a rather attractive alternative in the form of the Ideapad 320S-15. These notebooks are starting to take the form of cookie-cutters as well, commonly shipping with a Core i5 processor from the Kaby Lake family, between 4-8GB of RAM, and a 1080p display with either an IPS or VA panel. Don’t take this the wrong way, cookie-cutters definitely help move the industry forward, it’s just taken such a long time to get us to this point. In any case, Lenovo’s option is arguably better-looking than the 250 G6, has a USB-C port, and the microphone is Cortana-capable.
It’s not a gaming notebook by any means, though it will play some games thanks to the reasonably decent integrated graphics. Intel’s driver support isn’t all that good, but it’ll run a lot of games at their lowest settings, and the HD 620 Graphics actually runs Crysis 3 at around 30fps. If Lenovo could see the sense in dropping the price of the V110-15 with AMD’s A9-9410 APU, maybe it would take the recommendation here. That high price and the HD-ready display isn’t really worth the current asking price. HP’s Probook 455 offers similar hardware in a more business-like form factor.
If you’re willing to spend an extra R1,000, ASUS has some of the first Intel Coffee Lake Core i5 notebooks in the country this month. The F542UA doesn’t look too bad, and for the benefit of four extra cores it may be worth the price to some people who want a portable quad-core notebook for moderately heavy workloads.
R10,000 – Acer Aspire A515-51G
In the second-to-last category, Acer takes the stand once more with the Aspire A515-51G. It ranks as the only notebook under R10,000 capable of playable framerates across all genres, not just weaker or casual titles, and has some user-friendliness when it comes to system upgrades – there’s an open RAM slot for another DDR4 memory stick (4GB is already soldered in), and there should be an open M.2 port, which leaves us with the option of upgrading to a dual SSD configuration in the future.
Acer’s configuration as seen here is the last version with the GeForce 940MX that we’ll see, as they’ll be shortly moving to a Kaby Lake Core i7-7200U along with a GeForce MX150, a stronger GPU also with GDDR5 RAM as standard, and perhaps a 1080p IPS display. It seems that Coffee Lake isn’t a priority for this model. The new version will also come with a USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C connector.
Alternatives at this price point are abundant, but they’re not gaming-focused. ASUS’s two Vivobooks are the only Coffee Lake models on offer here, while HP and Acer offer some very nice ultrabooks for a similar price. HP’s Probook 430 with LTE looks particularly interesting if you’re going to be traveling with it a lot. If you’re looking for a proper workhorse, Acer’s Travelmate P4 and Lenovo’s Thinkpad E570 are both decent options. You may also still get lucky with a cheap MacBook Air through Dion Wired, but these are the last run of a very old line. Hopefully Apple updates those this year.
R15,000 – Dell Inspiron 7567
At last, we come to the end of the guide. Dell’s Inspiron 7567, aka the “Fireblade”, retains my recommendation for a gaming notebook at the R15,000 level. It does seem to have everything still sewn up despite advances from Dell’s competition. There isn’t any option with the same battery size, the same ease of access for upgrades, or the same cooling solution (although Acer’s bulky VX5 might fare better). It lacks an RGB keyboard, although if you wanted that there’s Gigabyte’s P45G.
There are some cheaper gaming alternatives, as well as some expensive options. If you’re spending more than the allocated budget, Dell’s Inspiron 7577 is my second option. It drops the large battery in favour of an updated port selection, a GeForce GTX 1060, and Thunderbolt 3 support. Acer’s Switch 5 also gets a special mention because it’s a full-fledged alternative to Microsoft’s ridiculously expensive Surface family, and it comes with proper pen support as well. That kickstand does not look fun, though.
Finally, if your goal is an ultraportable notebook, it’s a tie between Dell’s Inspiron 5379 and ASUS’s Zenbook UX331UA. Both are based on Coffee Lake processors, both offer different strengths in their design, and both would serve quite well as business notebooks. Of course, if it’s a business notebook you need, pick the Thinkpad X260. Nothing comes close to the build quality of an X-series notebook, and spares are always available years down the line.