Thursday, July 10, 2014

Premium laptops

Premium laptops

This is an old article and will no longer be updated. Please see my latest version here












Some people like nice electronics, and/or need a fast computer for school or work, particularly for professional-quality picture or video editing.
The beautiful--and pricey--ASUS Zenbook UX301; courtesy anandtech.com

People who play video games also need more expensive laptops that can handle the demand that a graphics-intensive game puts on a computer.

Overall, this is a relatively small demographic, and I do not advise spending this much unless you really need a top-tier computer! However, you can get a good value on these machines by buying the previous generation at a discount, or by finding a good sale on a newer one.

Pictures come from the Amazon product page for that unit, unless stated otherwise. I've posted links to a few powerful laptops that I recommend (this list will be updated):

Here's a brand-new Ultrabook from ASUS: the ASUS UX303LA! (http://amzn.to/1qXoMQL)

Images found on review of this computer on the French-language website lesnumeriques.com
Beautiful, right? Makes you want it, right? Hope you're loaded...

It's so new, in fact, that it hasn't even been released as of today, July 10, 2014. The $899 price tag will get you a full hi-resolution 13.3-inch touchscreen display, and a generous 8 GB of RAM to go with Intel's latest-generation i5 processor--which is both powerful and energy-efficient. You'll also get a fast and reliable solid-state drive (SSD; based on the same technology as in a flash drive) with 128 GB of storage space--which isn't much space compared to a traditional hard drive, but it's much faster and less likely to go kaput if you drop the computer. It also features 3 USB ports (all in the modern, fast USB 3.0 standard), the latest dual-band 802.11 wireless, and no CD/DVD drive.

The point of this computer is to be fast, light and portable, with long battery life (estimated at 8 hours on a charge): hence the lack of an optical drive for CDs or DVDs, and the selection of the lower-capacity SSD over the slower mechanical hard drive. This is excellent for work purposes, but it's not so good for graphics-intensive programs.

For that, they're offering another version, the UX303LN, for $1299: http://amzn.to/1kGnamT  This one pulls out all the stops--it's got an even higher-res "Quad HD" screen, 12 GB of RAM to go with a marginally faster Intel i7 processor, and a 256 GB SSD. But the real news here is the dedicated graphics co-processor, an Nvidia 840M with 2 GB of dedicated video RAM. All other specs are the same. This computer is ideal for graphics applications, particularly video editing or games.

How much can you see on a 13-inch screen, though? If you're into serious video editing, you probably have a really nice dual-screen desktop setup that renders this unnecessary. Honestly, I think computers like this one are just so you can wow your friends with the awesome specs of your new laptop.
_______________________________________________________________

If you want a 13.3" touchscreen laptop for this purpose, ASUS offers a not-quite-as-good-looking but lower-priced option: the V301LP-DS51T, which can be found here: http://amzn.to/1n9A3Wo. It's got the Full HD (1920 x 1080) screen, a different fourth-gen i5 processor and 8 GB RAM, a capacious 750 GB hard drive (not SSD), and dedicated AMD Radeon HD8530M graphics with 2 GB dedicated video RAM.

Picture courtesy www.notebookshop.com

It's got much of the capability of the brand-new computers described earlier, but compromises in places that make sense. And for $750, it represents a better value, in my mind. Anybody who needs better specs than this for their work would be better off putting their money into a purpose-built desktop, and getting a cheaper laptop instead.
_______________________________________________________________

The ASUS N550JK-DS71T (link: http://amzn.to/1mhYG8b) is a higher-end alternative for around $930, with a super-fast version of Intel's high-end i7 processor, with 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, a larger 15.6-inch Full HD touchscreen, a dedicated high-performance Nvidia GTX850M graphics card with 2 GB vRAM, and reasonable 5-hour battery life. This one's even got an optical drive for CDs and DVDs!
 

It's a really nicely-specced computer, and it will actually outperform the top-end Zenbook UX303LN listed above, and for less money! But it's not as good-looking, nor as light, nor as thin. This is a reasonable desktop-replacement computer, because it can do everything well! But again, I'll say, if you need it for professional picture or video editing, wouldn't you like an even bigger screen, such as the one on a desktop?
_______________________________________________________________

Lest you think I'm an ASUS homer, here's a premium Lenovo, the IdeaPad Y410P: http://amzn.to/1n9JOnu
It's good-looking, and for just under $1000, it comes with a blazing-fast fourth-gen i7 processor, and 8 GB of RAM.
All of these photos come from the Amazon product page. How do I cite that, anyway? 
 Told you it was good-looking! 

This one also has dedicated Nvidia graphics, in the form of the GeForce GT755M with 2 GB of vRAM. It also has a 1 TB mechanical hard drive, an optical drive for CDs and DVDs, a 14" hi-def display, and up to 5-hour battery life. However, at about 6 pounds, it's on the heavy side for its size. A similar (larger-screen) version is available for $899 on the Lenovo website here: http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/laptops/lenovo/y-series/y510p/
_______________________________________________________________

Another value-oriented performance ultrabook is the ASUS VivoBook V551LB-DB71T (link: http://amzn.to/1pkwlhh, $790).
 

It features a 4th-generation i7, Nvidia GT740M dedicated graphics (not top-of-the-line anymore, but better than the integrated graphics that come with most computers in this price range), 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, and a standard-res 15.6" display. Battery life is rated at 5 hours; this is pretty optimistic and will not happen if you're gaming or watching hi-res movies or doing anything that involves the dedicated graphics processor. This laptop provides good performance in every aspect, and for $790, I think it's a good deal!
_______________________________________________________________

Or perhaps you'd prefer a laptop/tablet convertible! For around $750, you can get the ASUS TransformerBook T300LA (Amazon link: http://amzn.to/1kXyT6x). If you're familiar with the concept of the Microsoft Surface--well, ASUS did it first, and they make this one cheaper (especially when you consider that Microsoft makes you pay for the keyboard cover, whereas this one comes with an included keyboard!)


This is actually reasonably well-equipped for a laptop, let alone a tablet! It comes with a 4th-generation i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 128 GB solid-state drive, 13.3" full HD screen (1920 x 1080 pixels), all-aluminum body, and an advertised 8 hours of battery life. Considering the size of its screen, you'll probably be more likely to use this as a laptop than a tablet--but isn't it nice to have the option?

This is a viable alternative to Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 at any price point (ASUS offers one with 8 GB of RAM, an i7 processor, and 256 GB solid-state drive for $1300, which is still cheaper than the similarly-equipped Surface Pro 3 + keyboard cover). I think this cheaper version represents the best value, because an i5 and 4 GB of RAM is fine for most academic or business uses. And the relatively small 128 GB of storage shouldn't be a problem, because you back up your files routinely, right?! ;)

I think $740 for a premium device with this level of performance and flexibility is a pretty good value, especially since this version is going for about $200 less than its nearest competitor!
_______________________________________________________________

An alternative is the Lenovo IdeaPad 59406579 (link: http://amzn.to/1ra7Y6K). For a much more reasonable $530, you get a strong new Intel i5-powered computer with 6 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, an optical drive for CDs/DVDs, a 5-hour battery life, and a standard-def 15.6" touchscreen.



The customer reviews are pretty good, and it's a nice PC that will keep up with changing technology for at least the next 2-3 years without feeling slow or outdated. There are no discrete graphics, so it won't impress any hoity-toity computer geeks, but I think it's a solid choice that can handle any task that most people can reasonably ask of a laptop.

UPDATE 12/1/14: Like some of the other Lenovos I've been tracking, the price is higher now than it was when I posted. Now, the price of this laptop skyrocketed to $900--at a price anywhere near that, I can't recommend this computer, in light of more powerful alternatives for less money!
_______________________________________________________________

The Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 15 59401418 is a clever device (link: http://amzn.to/1oEuEtl). The hinge folds 300 degrees, so that the keyboard lays upside-down, behind the screen, as a stand--so that you can use the touchscreen on your computer as a tablet if you want. That's more of a novelty than a useful trait, but it's cool to have the option, right?
Also from Amazon's product page for this computer.

It comes with a fourth-gen i7 and 8 GB of RAM, a standard-issue 500 GB hard drive, a standard-def 15.6" screen, regular-ol' integrated graphics, and a 5-hour battery life. Sorry folks, no optical drive on this one.

$760? Not too bad for an i7-powered computer with 8 GB of RAM! The cost-cutting is pretty evident elsewhere in the specs. It makes me wonder if they couldn't have gone with a cheaper processor--because its speed is obviously bottlenecked by the slow hard drive. But hey, this is a premium-computer article. Why not?

UPDATE 11/28/2014: Speaking of going with a less powerful processor--the ASUS Flip has done just that, with an i3-powered version with 6 GB of RAM going for only $430 on Amazon (http://amzn.to/1zFjE4p)! The i5-powered version is $630, and comes with a 8GB of RAM and a 1 TB hard drive, double the space on the Lenovo pictured above! The i7 version of the Flip is $860 with shipping, about $100 more than the similarly-equipped Lenovo pictured above. At least with the Flip, you can pick a less-powerful version for less money if you'd prefer that route!
_______________________________________________________________


The Lenovo IdeaPad G505s is a straight-up good deal, whether or not it's in the company of such expensive stuff! The link is here: http://amzn.to/1qmhwKm  It's powered by an AMD A10-5750M processor matched with 6 GB of RAM. This is a pretty good combination; it should be plenty powerful for future needs, without being overkill that jacks up the price unnecessarily. For $460, I'd call it a bargain--and it's on my personal watchlist!

Again, you'll find this picture on the Amazon product page

The standard 15.6" screen, the 1 TB hard drive, the 5-hour battery life, and the optical drive for CDs and DVDs mean this fits or exceeds most people's needs. A nice bonus is the fact that the integrated graphics are much better for AMD-powered computers than they are for comparable Intel-powered computers. So this is a capable machine, for a reasonable price.

UPDATE: I just checked this Amazon page again today (July 27, 2014) and the price has shot up to over $530. While this still isn't a bad price for this machine, it's no longer the fantastic bargain that it was at $460. Not sure why the price went up by $70, but that's how it goes sometimes. Keep in mind that a refurbished option is still available for under $450.

UPDATE 8/16/2014: It's now over $550. Still not a bad price for this machine, but disappointingly, the price has risen by about $100 in a month. :(
_______________________________________________________________

Depending on your needs, this Toshiba Satellite S55-B5258 can be a good deal (link: http://amzn.to/1pbQ1E7). For $800, you get a computer with the scorching-fast i7-4710HQ processor (with lower-performance integrated graphics), 8 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive. The 15.6" screen is standard-definition, though, so that's where they cut the corner for cost. Will you notice if you're not a video/picture editor? Probably not.


It's thin, light (< 5 lbs.), and fast. The brushed-aluminum body looks premium, too! It's a nice computer overall, one that I'm happy to recommend for looks, reliability, performance, and value.
_______________________________________________________________

ASUS has some good deals, too: the R510CA-RB51 has a third-generation i5 and 6 GB of RAM, so it's reasonably fast for a $580 computer.
From the Amazon product page

The standard 15.6" screen, 750 GB hard drive, optical drive for CDs/DVDs, and ~5-hour battery life make it a decent choice.

UPDATE 8/16/2014: This is now $700, and not such a good value anymore. Still not bad, but the $120 price increase (compared to original post) means this is about the going rate--and hence, not a deal.
_______________________________________________________________

I'd personally be more apt to go for the ASUS X550LA, as offered for under $500 here: http://amzn.to/1rDA9K4.

Though it's not exactly a premium offering, with 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, and standard 15.6" screen, it's still going to be pretty fast with its 4th-generation i5 processor. It also sports an optical drive, so you have the flexibility to use pretty much any form of removable media, unlike several of the more expensive options listed above. It's also a pretty simple matter of unscrewing a plate from the bottom if you want to add an extra stick of RAM (if an open slot is available).
_______________________________________________________________

UPDATE: Due to a potential flaw in the BIOS (which I discovered the hard way), I can't recommend the ASUS K55A.

If you're willing to risk it, there's a used ASUS K55A available right now for about $400 here: http://amzn.to/1mLSfv2  That's what I did, and I'm happily typing this on my used K55A right now! This computer is pretty nice; plenty fast enough for my needs, and it came in good shape except for very minor scratches on the lid, which were present in the unit description.

It features a mighty third-gen i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM (with an open slot for another one, I believe it can handle up to 8 GB of RAM), a standard-def 15.6" screen, 500 GB hard drive, and an optical drive so that I can burn CDs or DVDs if I want to. Now that I updated the touchpad driver, everything works very well and very smoothly; I'm quite pleased with this computer! The integrated graphics are easily capable of playing movies--and some people say they've played games on it (but probably not on ideal settings). I also get roughly 4 and a half hours of battery life under normal usage, depending on my settings--it was advertised as 'up to 6.5 hours,' but that occurs only under ideal conditions, sitting in a temperature-controlled lab. Always subtract some time from a manufacturer's battery life claim.


This was from the ASUS product page for the K55. 

The ASUS K55N (http://amzn.to/1mLSfv2) is often available refurbished for between $300 and $400. It sports an AMD A8 processor that's not quite as fast as its Intel counterparts, but reasonable for most uses--and superior graphics for games or Blu-Ray movies! It also has 4 GB of RAM, standard 15.6" screen, 500 GB hard drive, an optical drive, and roughly 4-hour battery life. Think about updating the touchpad driver if you get this one--sometimes the touchpad is erratic otherwise.

If you're willing to take the risk on a refurbished item, you can get an absolute steal for this computer! It sometimes retails used/refurbished for less than $400, and I've seen it as low as $320! Be aware that the computer may fail, though. And--as I found out from personal experience--don't change anything in the BIOS, or you risk frying the motherboard, which kills the computer.  May my ASUS K55A rest in peace :(
_______________________________________________________________

The HP Envy 15t (link: http://amzn.to/1n9RZ3r) is a nice-looking ultrabook computer. For $700, it's pretty nice--though HP doesn't have the best reputation for reliability.
It certainly has high-end specs: a lightning-fast fourth-gen i7, 8 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive. Alas, the 15.6" screen has only standard definition, graphics are integrated, and there is no optical drive on this slim ultrabook. It's also a bit on the porky side for an ultrabook, at 5.6 pounds. Battery life reportedly isn't the greatest, but it's tough to find figures for this version.

Also, HP has these on sale on their website for now. A similar version is available for $650 at the moment, and it comes with an optical drive! You're not left wanting for options, however: http://www.shopping.hp.com/en_US/home-office/-/search-SimpleOfferSearch?PageSize=15&search=&SearchTerm=envy+15t

Oh, and by the way: the Beats audio is a gimmick, in case you haven't figured that out. It's like many other laptops: the speakers aren't that great.
_______________________________________________________________

Finally, I'll recommend the ASUS S500CA ultrabook (here: http://amzn.to/TUjLtn). It features a 15.6" standard-def screen, a third-gen i5 processor, a 500 GB hard drive, 5-hour battery life, and 3 USB ports. The S500CA is an ultrabook with no optical drive, so it's relatively light at only 4.6 pounds, and it comes with 6 GB of RAM. Used/refurbished ones are currently available for under $400, quite a bargain for a machine with these specs!

But if you'd prefer a similar computer with an optical drive, go with the K550CA (http://amzn.to/1lVZTgq). If you like the lighter ultrabook that features portability and you won't miss the optical drive, then the S500CA is the better choice (http://amzn.to/TUjLtn).
_______________________________________________________________

Hope you found something you liked among all these!

*You may be wondering: Why am I so heavy on ASUS and Lenovo laptops, and pretty much neglect HP, Dell, Acer, and others? Out of the major manufacturers, ASUS, Lenovo, and Toshiba have historically scored well on a variety of reliability measures. Toshiba computers are generally more value-oriented, so they'll be featured more heavily in a different post.

The reliability scores for Apple's high-priced products are usually buoyed by excellent customer-service scores. So, you'll be happier when your $1100 MacBook breaks. No, thank you.

HP and Dell haven't fared well in reliability rankings for years, and Dell is notorious for having hard drive problems. [Easy fix: replace the stock hard drive with an SSD]. Acer has made strides in the past couple years, but their focus on undercutting the competition's price has generally left durability on the cutting floor. Sony no longer makes their computers, but they were generally more expensive than their competition, AND less reliable than their competition. Go to Sony for cameras and audio equipment, but not for their laptops. And since Samsung deceives and pressures customers who have issues with their phones (see my post here) and have long engaged in heinous business practices (described in the same article), I'm not recommending any Samsung products. Why encourage such behavior by buying their products?