Laptop Buyer’s Guide: December 2018 ex plus ALPHA edition

Welcome to the December Laptop Buyer’s Guide. It’s been a while since the last one – February, in fact, and to my surprise nothing much has changed. Everything is mostly the same thanks to stagnation in the GPU market in the last two years, and NVIDIA still rules the roost when it comes to discrete graphics market share in notebooks. AMD is still a very small bit-player in the market. But things are improving slowly. Intel is pulling in better gaming performance with their Coffee Lake refresh, so gaming on Intel HD graphics isn’t the painful experience it used to be. Almost everything from the Core i3-8100U to the Core i7-8750H has decent 3D graphics performance, enough to give AMD a run for their money playing games at 720p and low graphics settings. Intel is even pulling in all-nighters to have game-ready drivers available for new releases. This is quite unprecedented.

Closing out 2018

But aside from Intel pulling up their socks and AMD’s Ryzen APUs finally netting a few design wins, things are not where I hoped they’d be a year ago. We’re still stuck with 768p displays in most notebooks, and they’re almost always TN panels. Some vendors like HP and ASUS are switching to VA and IPS panels in some of their slightly more expensive notebooks, but it’s still TN in most cases. You have to spend more than R9,000 before you find a decent full HD IPS display with a good matte or glossy filter.

We’re still paying too much for memory and storage space as well. It’s been several months since laptop vendors could order higher-density DDR4 memory, or take advantage of falling prices of SSDs, but we’re still being charged the earth to have our laptops ship with more RAM and storage space out of the box. The issue is compounded with the increasing trend of notebook vendors soldering in memory. Even if they get the best deal for those chips, they’ve still only negotiated that back when 8GiB chips were a better deal for them. Today 16GiB chips are available for purchase, and decreases in the price of RAM should have allowed vendors to start soldering in 8GB instead of 4GB of RAM. Penny-pinching is more important to vendors than offering users upgrade options, and this is why we’re seeing fewer vendors keeping those SO-DIMM and M.2 slots open and on-board. Economies of scale benefit only the vendor, not the user, when the memory is soldered in.

This is partially why this guide stops recommending notebooks at R25,000. That seems to be the mark at which the returns when buying higher-priced notebooks are not as rewarding. You have to spend almost R40,000 – one quarter of the price of a new car – to approach GTX 1070 territory in well-known brands. That just seems pointless to me. Laptops depreciate in terms of resale value and performance very quickly because they’re thermally limited and very power constrained. Can’t keep up with games on that GTX 1070? Well, you’d have to take a heavy loss on your current notebook when reselling it and pony up another R20k or so to upgrade to a newer model. Meanwhile, if you had a desktop dedicated for gaming, you’d spend far less on GPU upgrades there to stay with the times.

This constant juggle of needs means you’ll have to decide for yourself how you want to play this, and you’ll also have to carefully plan your purchase to align with the release of modern hardware so that you don’t end up buying outdated stuff. For some people, the expense is justified if they’ve saved up for long enough to afford a top-end model that will last them the next four years or so. For others, a notebook which is much cheaper and offers acceptable performance is the preferred route.

We also aren’t seeing a lot of notebooks move to include larger batteries because we’ve eschewed the DVD drives for years now, as well as offering USB-C charging. The latter is certainly going to happen, and would be a welcome change to the market. With USB-C charging on notebooks, we could see an increase in the number of products that include batteries for charging our devices over USB-C, like larger battery banks, or packbacks with 100Wh batteries in them. People desire portability these days as much as they do performance in more convenient form factors, and battery banks allow us to go for longer periods of time without our wall chargers.

Finally, this has been the Year of the Linux Notebook! Google’s ChromeOS recently gained the ability to run Linux applications inside containers alongside the existing Android app support, giving ChromeOS users the power to install their favourite applications not available on the Chrome Store and run them locally with almost full power. If you’re a developer who wanted a Linux-based laptop with good driver support, plenty of battery life, and working sleep, wake, and hibernate functions, your options now include low-cost and reliable Chromebooks.

R5,000 budget: Acer Chromebook 14 CB3-431

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Specifications:
Intel Celeron N3060 dual-core (1.6GHz-24.8GHz), 4GB DDR3L-1600 RAM (soldered), Intel HD graphics, 32GB eMMC storage, 14-inch Matte IPS display at 1366 x 768 pixels, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, 2x USB 3.0, HDMI, 720p webcam, ships with Google ChromeOS, 1.6kg, 45Wh battery R5,199
It’ll definitely play:
Browser-based games

I hesitated somewhat before making this recommendation, but only because I wanted to make sure the reasons for it were correct. We can all agree that most notebooks under R5,000 tend to be very underwhelming. The displays aren’t good, the performance is bad, battery life sucks, and the keyboards aren’t nice to type on. Because I wouldn’t really expect to be able to play games on a subnotebook like that, this recommendation is instead for a cheap notebook that gets the job done. You’re going to want more horsepower for games anyway.

For those of you already embedded into Google’s ecosystem in one way or another, ChromeOS makes a lot of sense. Chromebooks themselves are well made and reliable machines, even if they lack storage space. Battery life is generally above eight hours of use, and all your documents and files are kept online where they are easily accessible. The idea is that you’ll chuck the Chromebook 14 into your bag for the day and take it out for work, and simply close the lid when you’re done or need to head off elsewhere – everything’s already saved anyway. Windows 10 can achieve the same goals, but it’s a much heavier OS for the kind of use that most people have for these machines, and it’s a lot more complex too. If you need a lightweight, compact notebook that just works and offers you all the necessities, Acer’s Chromebook 14 should fit the bill nicely.

All the alternative notebooks in this segment run Windows 10, and they’ll be OK for use for the same purposes, but I’d still consider putting a lighter flavour of Linux on there, with some battery tweaks, to get the most out of the cheap hardware. Exceptions to this rule are the Acer Spin One and ASUS TP202NA, which both feature touch displays and folding hinges. Most Linux distributions struggle to work with these devices without some tweaking.

R8,000 budget: Lenovo Ideapad 330-15ARR

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Specifications:
AMD Ryzen 5 2500U quad-core (2.0GHz-3.6GHz), 4GB DDR4-2400 RAM (soldered, upgradeable to 12GB), AMD Radeon Vega 8 graphics, 1TB SATA3 hard drive, 15.6-inch Matte IPS display at 1920 x 1080 pixels, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, 2x USB 3.1, 1x USB 3.1 Type-C, HDMI, SD card reader, 0.3MP webcam, ships with Windows 10 Home 64-bit, 2.2kg, 35Wh battery R7,252
It’ll definitely play:
Battlefield 1, FIFA 18, GTA 5, Crysis 3, DiRT 4, PUBG, Subnautica, most other games at low settings

Notebooks with AMD’s Raven Ridge APUs have finally arrived at a cheap price in the country, but so far Lenovo is the only vendor carrying them for the mid-range market. It is possible to find Raven Ridge notebooks from Dell and HP, but they are typically much higher-end devices than most consumers can afford. The Ideapad 330-15ARR, then, is decidedly mid-range. But don’t let the price fool you – this is the cheapest laptop you could buy that would offer playable performance in most games without the need for a discrete GPU. AMD’s Vega 8 graphics is capable of playing most games at 60fps when running at 720p, or closer to 30fps at 1080p with some quality settings turned to low. It’ll be a better experience overall than running the same games on Intel HD620 graphics.

But there are caveats to the penny-pinching that goes on in the mid-range market. For one, the 4GB of DDR4-2400 that comes with the laptop is soldered in. The 35Wh battery only delivers an average runtime of 5.5 hours, an indication that the Ideapad 330, like other Raven Ridge notebooks, has a high base clock voltage. There are no options to overclock it, and you only get one additional SO-DIMM slot. The Ideapad 330 series also has no maintenance hatch, so you have to do a delicate dance to crack open the chassis to gain access to the internals. There is also no M.2 SSD slot despite the motherboard having the space for it, so enterprising users will have to make use of a DVD drive caddy to swap the hard drive into, using the first SATA drive bay for their SSD. Lenovo also has some work to do when it comes to optimisation: the last BIOS update and graphics driver release was done in September 2018. AMD needs to work to ensure that consumers on Raven Ridge always get the latest drivers as soon as possible, and that battery life improves.

Still, if you’re in the market for a cheap, gaming-capable notebook, picking up a Ryzen 5 2500U notebook is going to be your best bet. At R7,200, the Ideapad 330-15ARR leaves enough money in the budget for an upgrade to 8GB of RAM, and the purchase of a drive caddy. When you’ve got the cash spare, an upgrade to a 500GB SSD doesn’t cost much at all.

R14,000 budget: HP Omen 15

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Specifications:
Intel Core i5-7300HQ quad-core (2.5GHz-3.5GHz), 8GB DDR4-2400 RAM (upgradeable to 32GB), NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 4GB GDDR5, 1TB SATA3 hard drive, 15.6-inch Matte IPS display at 1920 x 1080 pixels, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, 3x USB 3.0, 1x USB 3.1 Type-C, HDMI, Mini-Displayport, SD card reader, 720P webcam, ships with Windows 10 Home 64-bit, 2.45kg, 70Wh battery R14,999
It’ll definitely play:
Pretty much everything at 1080p with medium settings and a 60fps average

If there’s ever a time to blow the budget, HP’s Omen 15 would be a good candidate to doing so. Sailing past the R14k mark, this is a phenomenal deal for the money. It has the biggest battery of any gaming notebook on the market in this price range, and has excellent and quiet cooling that vents out the rear of the notebook. It has separate trackpad buttons, the display is IPS with decent colour accuracy. The keyboard is robust enough to mash out your frustrations on while playing Blackout. Even the hinge design is decent, although you will need to get used to opening and closing it in the middle of the display. The tension and torque from doing it at the corners may wear out one hinge quicker than the other, or put too much stress on the display over time.

All that aside, the Omen 15 is a great option for gamers looking for a budget gaming powerhouse. If there’s a niggle, it’s a minor one – the WASD keys are backlit but show up white, while the other keys are red. I personally prefer uniformity in the colour scheme unless it’s a keyset for a particular game, and this is the only drawback that the Omen 15 might have.

The alternatives are almost all of the ultrabook variety, but there’s some incredible competition going on here. If it’s an ultrabook you want, break the bank again for MSI’s PS42. At this price colour-calibrated panels in an ultrabook are a rarity, and that’s the angle MSI works from with the Prestige series. It’s a workhorse of note, and very capable. You may also want to look at the Pavilion Gaming 15, with a very appealing aesthetic and pleasing green tones.

R16,000 budget: Lenovo Legion Y530

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Specifications:
Intel Core i5-8300H quad-core (2.3GHz-4.0GHz), 8GB DDR4-2400 RAM (upgradeable to 32GB), NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB GDDR5, 2TB SATA HDD (NVMe open), 15.6-inch Matte IPS display at 1920 x 1080 pixels, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, 3x USB 3.1, 1x USB 3.1 Type-C, HDMI, Mini Displayport, SD card reader, 720P webcam, ships with Windows 10 Pro 64-bit, 2.3kg, 52.5Wh battery R15,499
It’ll definitely play:
Pretty much everything at 1080p with medium settings and a 60fps average

For R16,000, I don’t think there’s one wrong or bad thing about Lenovo’s Legion Y530. Having used one personally (my mom owns it), and having sought out this particular laptop for her needs, it is a rather unique unit. For starters, none of the other gaming laptop alternatives have a hinge design quite like this, one which folds flat to 180 degrees. Often the hinge placement limits your ability to adjust the display for a good viewing angle, and the Y530 has that figured out. The keyboard is also a prime differentiator. Lenovo has full-size keys for the QWERTY layout, separated keys for the directional keys, and a slightly shrunk down numberpad. This is because the Y530 is designed for versatility. Most gaming laptops don’t have this thin a profile (it’s on par with MSI’s Stealth family), and most gaming laptops don’t have keyboards suited to typing. For students, informational workers and power users, the Y530 is a great choice as a workhorse, especially because all the ports for connectivity are on the rear, flanked by vents for heat.

Actually, I lie, there is one drawback. The webcam is suited for looking up your nose during video calls, so it’s something you’ll have to live with. A necessary tradeoff for those super-thin bezels.

Ultrabook-wise there is some competition, but they’re mostly drowned out by the absurdly low price of MSI’s PS42. Acer’s Swift 5 is the one I’d recommend if you’re spending this much money. It still has full-size USB ports, won’t have lots of chassis flex, and looks really nice. For a workhorse, look no further than the Lenovo ThinkPad E580 for its ease of accessibility to internals and repairability.

R20,000 budget: HP Pavilion Gaming 15 4KD02EA

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Specifications:
Intel Core i7-8750H six-core (2.2GHz-4.1GHz), 8GB DDR4-2666 RAM (upgradeable to 32GB), NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 3GB GDDR5, 128GB NVMe M.2, 2TB SATA3 hard drive, 15.6-inch Matte IPS display at 1920 x 1080 pixels, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, 1x USB 3.1 Type-C, 2x USB 3.1, HDMI, SD card reader, 720P webcam, ships with Windows 10 Home 64-bit, 2.4kg, 70Wh battery R20,999
It’ll definitely play:
Pretty much anything at 1080p with high settings at 60fps

For the R20,000 bracket, things are never really simple. We start with the alternatives first: Dell’s G5 and MSI’s GF63 win the utility vote for their simple, robust designs, but gamers will surely flock to the ASUS GL703GE for its aesthetic and RGB keyboard. Wootware easily trounces the competition when it comes to specifications, being able to offer a configuration with 16GB of DDR4-2400, a 500GB NVMe drive, a 1TB SATA drive, a GeForce GTX 1060 6GB, and an upgrade to a three-year warranty – but its plastic design may not appeal to all. The heft and the use of cheap plastics for the bottom chassis may not be the tradeoff you’ll want to make for a 144Hz display. In terms of design, aesthetics, portability, and even battery life, HP has them all beat with the Pavilion Gaming 15. It is slimmer and lighter than the competition, and still manages to shove in a GTX 1060 3GB that isn’t a Max-Q design. Gaming laptops these days are used by more than just gamers because prosumers and power users are drawn to them for their higher performance needs, and the Pavilion Gaming 17 won’t look out of place anywhere.

BUT. The ethernet jack and HDMI port are on the right-side of the notebook. This design suits left-handed gamers, but the majority are right-handed, and these cables will get in the way. See? It’s never simple.

Ultrabook-wise, there are several options in the table. While the lineup is mostly Intel, HP’s Envy x360 sports a Ryzen 7 2700U in a premium design. If you’re after a premium design that still lets you play games when you want, the x360 should be your choice. Apple’s MacBook Air also is a special consideration if you’re looking to leave Windows 10 in the ditch, but it is power-constrained compared to something like the Swift 5. You’re not likely picking this up for performance reasons, you just want into the Apple ecosystem.

R25,000 budget: Wootware WootBook P950ER

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Specifications:
Intel Core i7-8750H (2.2GHz-4.1GHz), 16GB DDR4-2400 RAM (upgradeable to 32GB), NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 8GB GDDR5, 500GB NVMe M.2, 15.6-inch 144Hz Matte WVA display at 1920 x 1080 pixels, Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth 5.0, 2x USB 3.1 Type-C, 2x USB 3.1, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2, Mini Displayport 1.3, HDMI 2.0, RGB backlit keyboard, SD card reader, 720P webcam, Windows 10 Home 64-bit, 1.98kg, 55Wh battery, LTE capable R25,615
It’ll definitely play:
Literally everything. Even Half-Life 3.

I didn’t think it was possible to be surprised by the notebook market, but Wootware is behind a shake-up locally. Wootware is reselling the Clevo P950ER, an ultrabook-like high-end gaming notebook with exceptional cooling performance and an aluminium-alloy chassis in several parts. It makes up for the lacking zone controls on the RGB keyboard by giving you extreme value for money. There’s a WVA panel capable of 144Hz refresh rates, tons of USB and video connectivity, an LTE slot that you just have to fill in with your own LTE modem, and a slim enough chassis that it won’t cut into your wrists when typing because the front edge is rolled. Really, for R25k there is nothing locally that holds a candle to the P950ER. Even the runtime of 7 hours on the battery in UMA mode is unusual for this segment. The 144Hz panel also has a strobed backlight, making up for the lack of G-Sync support. This is Clevo’s spiritual successor to MSI’s GS60 Ghost Pro, and it is mad.

As for the ultrabooks, it’s small pickings. There is next to no benefit to shopping for an ultrabook at this price point because all the good ones are available for cheaper. You’d be wasting money away on drive upgrades you might not need, or overly expensive memory options. Even the Macbook Air, great as it is, isn’t worth twenty-five grand just to get another 128GB of storage in there. For the same R5,000 you’ve just spent, you could build yourself a networked NAS that includes everything and the kitchen sink along with 8TB or more storage space.

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