Friday, January 23, 2015

Premium Laptops 2015

Premium Laptops 2015



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








Being Froogal doesn’t mean you can't have nice stuff! The trick is to allocate your resources effectively. If you can justify the purchase of a higher-quality, more expensive item because you need it for work or a hobby and you can afford a premium item, you can still get a great value!

http://www.asus.com/us/Notebooks_Ultrabooks/ASUS_ZENBOOK_UX301LA/gallery/

If you need a new computer and your budget is $450 or less, there is still great value to be found! Check out my article on Value Computers 2015.

Technology has a way of moving forward constantly. It’s good for tech companies, because it means that they have new products to offer every year, or even every few months! But there’s nothing wrong with buying a premium computer from last year. Last year’s technology isn’t bad or obsolete; it just doesn’t have the “new stuff tax.”

New computers that didn’t sell before the newest stuff was released can provide great value for smart consumers. Last year’s premium computers are this year’s discounts.


If you’re interested in learning more about all this tech stuff, I’ve posted a handy guide here to explain the jargon and make sense of the marketing: Laptops: A simple guide to the dirty technical stuff

Finally, for reference, here’s a link to my previous article on premium computers, from the summer of 2014. 

These prices aren't necessarily the current list price, but the target price at which I think the listed device represents a good value.

*As always, prices are subject to change. I’ll update this list sometimes, but prices (and availability) fluctuate frequently, especially on Amazon. These computers are recommended for their value and reliability as perceived by me; as such, they may not be the best for you (for example, if you have specific needs for your work). You alone are responsible for making the final decision as to whether a particular computer is right for your needs. You’d also be wise to shop around before buying, as the same computer might be for sale by another retailer for less money. Amazon usually offers the best prices, but not always. Good alternatives include Newegg, TigerDirect, Staples, and sometimes Best Buy or Fry’s Electronics.*

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started!

Ultrabooks and Convertibles

ASUS Zenbook UX305FA, $700
http://amzn.to/1Evssic

Thinking about the new MacBook? Not so fast! 
The newest Zenbook delivers the same specs - at nearly half the price!

 

Is this the best deal in ultrabooks? You bet!

ASUS' latest Zenbook, the UX305, is its lowest-cost, yet possibly most innovative, Zenbook yet! It uses Intel's newest Core M mobile processor, designed to use so little power and generate so little heat that it can be used in a fanless computer—making it thinner, lighter, and quieter!

Reviewers are enthusiastic about this device, and I can see why! With a small (half an inch thick) and light (2.6 pounds) unibody aluminum frame, this portable computer packs all the power most people will ever need—all while undercutting its competitors' prices!

The screen is a high-quality 13.3-inch Full HD display (for screen geeks, it's an anti-glare matte, IPS display with 1920 x 1080p resolution). This device comes with 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB solid-state drive, and an extremely low-power Intel Core M 5Y10 processor to enable excellent battery life of around 10 hours!

Now that's thin!

If you're worried about the performance of the processor, you probably shouldn't be. Its benchmark performance is similar to an AMD A8-7100 or Intel i3-4030U, despite drawing much less power and running at a much lower clock speed (reference here, if you're really interested). That's some decent company to keep!

For most uses, this computer will perform about as well as many alternatives that cost more. The Dell XPS 13 listed below costs $800, and is likely to be slightly faster when the computer is under a very heavy load. The MacBook Air, the ubiquitous comparison for thin and light laptops, costs a staggering $1100 in similar configuration to this Zenbook! (The Zenbook has twice as much RAM; the 13.3-inch MacBook Air with 256 GB SSD has a beefier processor and slightly better battery life).

For those keeping score, the 12-inch MacBook announced in March 2015 has the same specs—same processor, same RAM, same amount of storage in the solid-state drive--for $1300! Compared to this Zenbook, the new MacBook is also slightly thicker at its thickest point. Also, the Zenbook comes with multiple ports (unlike the single Type C USB port, used for charging and everything else, on the MacBook).

The only advantages of the new MacBook are the smaller, higher-res screen and the slightly longer battery life (and OS X, if you prefer Mac OS. But Windows 10 is on its way). And for these advantages, Apple charges a $600 premium, and makes you wait until they are ready to release it, whereas the Zenbook is available now (early March 2015)...

Is this Zenbook my ideal ultrabook? Not quite, but it's very close. And for only $700, this machine punches well above its weight—making it a top value in this category!

...or, the ASUS Zenbook UX303LA, $850

That's a seriously stylish laptop!

If you’ve seen my 2014 article on premium computers, you’ll note that I listed the same computer there: the ASUS Zenbook UX303LA (http://amzn.to/1qXoMQL). The Zenbook UX303LA doesn’t just feature a beautiful design. It also has premium specs, with a 4th-gen Intel Core i5-4210U processor, 8 GB of RAM, a fast and reliable 128 GB solid-state drive (SSD), a nice Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixel, IPS) 13.3-inch touchscreen, an advertised 8-hour battery life, and 3 USB 3.0 ports.

This arrangement provides a beautiful, fast, portable touchscreen computer with all-day battery life. For $850, this computer provides the total package! (MSRP is $900; I’ve seen the sale price fluctuate between $800 and $900. As of the original date of this article (Jan. 23, 2015), the selling price is $850 on Amazon.

UPDATE: There is an updated version available (http://amzn.to/1CgIOuy) with all the same hardware except for the newer 5th-generation Broadwell-based i5-5200. 

NOTE: There is a more expensive version, the UX303LN, which features discrete NVIDIA graphics and a higher-res screen, but it’s not recommended because buyers complain about the poor reproduction of the color yellow (only for the screen on the -LN, not the less expensive -LA version). Buyers of the -LN have other complaints about their computers, and it’s frequent enough to deter me from recommending the more expensive (yet, apparently, more problematic) version of the latest Zenbook. This is why it’s wise not to be an early adopter—when something is problematic, you don’t have to find out the hard way!

Dell XPS 13 (2015 version), $800 (with i3)
http://www.dell.com/us/p/xps-13-9343-laptop/pd?oc=dncwt5128s
The i5 version is available on Amazon for under $1000:
http://amzn.to/1zdeGgr


From Dell product page; link above

For years, Dell’s computers have suffered from poor hard drive reliability, and less-than-optimal reliability overall (for example, see the RescueCom report for Q3 of 2014 here). But this new one is so compelling that I want to bring it to your attention, and let you decide if it’s a worthwhile purchase.

This beautiful new laptop is small and light, with a screen that nearly spans the entire frame of the computer (Dell calls this the Infinity display). The more expensive models include a touchscreen; the cheapest version does not. It enables Dell to put a 13.3-inch screen on a frame the size of a typical 11.6-inch computer. The goal is to make the XPS a lighter and more portable computer.

Along with 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB solid-state drive, the XPS 13 also features the very latest in processor technology, with a fast Broadwell i3-5010U that Dell claims will enable a whopping 15-hour battery life! Manufacturer claims regarding battery life are notoriously generous—but this one takes the cake! According to many independent reviews, Dell is off by 3-5 hours, depending on who you believe. However, the battery still allows you to use this computer for over a full workday!

However, the latest product reviews of the higher-end versions make it more likely that you'll see closer to 10 hours on a charge than 15. Unlike other laptops with Broadwell-based Core i processors, this one is available on Dell’s website as of January 2015!

There is another version, featuring the i5-5200U, 8 GB of RAM, and a more spacious 256 GB SSD, available for $1100—but Windows 8.1 Pro is offered by default, for an extra $50. In order to get the $1100 price, you must downgrade from Windows 8.1 Pro to Windows 8.1. Reviews of this model have been showing a roughly 7-hour battery life, despite a claimed 11-hour battery life.

An older version, featuring the Haswell-based i5-4200U, 8 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB SSD, is also offered for $1100, if you don’t want the Broadwell version for some reason. Be warned that the battery life won't be quite as good on this model...

This innovative and good-looking laptop is worth checking out. If it turns out to be reliable as well, Dell is offering a capable machine for a good price!

ASUS TransformerBook T300 Chi, $700 Now under $600
http://amzn.to/1CCDlcW
from the Amazon product page

You’ve probably heard of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, a well-regarded device that can serve as both a laptop and a tablet. Unlike cheaper tablets, Surface Pro 3 runs a full version of Windows, just like any “real” laptop. This design gives you the freedom to watch movies, play games, or travel with the device in tablet mode, or get some real work done in laptop mode with the keyboard attached.

ASUS made such a device first. And unlike the better-advertised Surface Pro 3, the Transformer Book Chi’s keyboard is included in the price, making it a much better bargain than Microsoft’s offering!
UPDATE 11/1/15: This device originally listed for $700...a pretty good deal. The current Amazon price is as low as $520 for a brand-new one, which is outstanding!

Their latest effort, the TransformerBook T300 Chi, has similar internals (Core M 5Y-10, 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB SSD) to the Zenbook UX305 listed above. The Zenbook offers twice the storage; the Chi offers the flexibility to be used as a tablet. These products speak to different needs and different usage situations; frequent travelers will surely appreciate the flexibility of a convertible device like this one!

The Chi T300 will come in two versions, both powered by Intel’s new Core M processors. One version will have a Full HD, 1920 x 1080p touchscreen, and the other will have a higher-resolution 2560 x 1600 touchscreen. U.S. pricing is announced at $700 for the version with the lower-resolution screen, and $800 for the higher-resolution screen. Both are less expensive than the older model they replace (called the T300—not the T300 Chi. Confusing, I know...the older version is here).

The Chi slides quite comfortably into a value/performance niche, just below the Surface Pro 3 with its more powerful i5, but above the new Atom-powered Surface 3 and other, cheaper devices. Is the Surface Pro 3 worth the extra $300 (including the type cover) just for its i5 processor?

Probably not—the higher-powered chip won't make much difference in everyday use.

But the Chi is significantly faster than the recently announced Surface 3 and its very low-powered Atom processor. And when you include Microsoft's $129 type cover with the price of its cheapest version of the Surface--a $500 version with 64 GB of storage--the superior speed and storage of the Chi make it a no-brainer!

Toshiba Satellite S55-B5280, $750
http://amzn.to/20m4rEs


Less than $800 will get you this Toshiba laptop with a strong i7 processor, AMD Radeon R7 discrete graphics (which enables better graphics performance than anything else in this price range!), and a whopping 12 GB of RAM! These specs will enable this laptop to outperform many computers that cost much more.

However, there are compromises elsewhere. It comes with a huge 1 TB of storage space, though the storage is unfortunately a mechanical hard drive, rather than the much faster solid-state drive. The screen is also the standard 1366 x 768 resolution, with no special features to recommend it. And, as you might expect from a high-powered computer with discrete graphics, battery life is pretty mediocre (4-5 hours).

But if you're after the most power for the money, you won't find better bang-for-the-buck than this!

Lenovo Yoga 11s, $580 $700

This is obviously for demonstrative purposes; you don't get more than one screen. 

The Lenovo Yoga 11s costs under $600 $700 on Amazon—a pretty good value for a light and portable, yet powerful, machine more than I'd be willing to pay for a machine with old (though still viable) technology.

It comes with an ultra-low-power i5-4210Y, 8 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB SSD. This machine is clearly geared toward long battery life, which is advertised at a solid 6 hours despite its small frame.

The screen is an 11.6-inch touchscreen display with the standard definition of 1366 x 768 pixels. But the real selling point for the Yoga 11s is the flexible hinge that allows you to fold the computer back into tablet mode, or use it as a tent, or a stand, or even lie the computer flat. Or you could just use it like, you know, a regular laptop. If the novelty and flexibility is valuable to you, this is a good price on a well-regarded and innovative computer. If not, you can find similar computers that cost a bit less (a few such options are listed later).

Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14, $600 $700 $750


If the Yoga 11s is too small for you, consider the IdeaPad Flex 14. It has a 270-degree hinge, rather than the full 360 degrees on the Yoga, but is otherwise similar. It packs a slightly faster i5-4210U, along with 8 GB RAM and a 128 GB SSD, enabling a claimed 7-hour battery life (testing by notebookcheck.net achieved around 5 hours and 45 minutes; PCMag.com got only 5 and a half hours, but Cnet actually found a battery life of 7 hours and 9 minutes! Make of that what you will). The 14-inch touchscreen has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, a little higher than that of the Yoga 11s—but those pixels aren’t packed in as tightly, due to the larger screen area, so clarity is probably similar.

For only a few dollars more than the Yoga 11s, the Flex 14 will get you a larger, higher-res screen, and will be slightly faster. However, you won’t have the flexibility to lay the screen against the keyboard, if that matters to you. Whether you prefer the Flex 14 or the Yoga 11s is a matter of personal taste; I am deskbound for most of my work, so I’d personally opt for the Flex 14. Others who have a more active lifestyle would probably prefer the portability of the Yoga 11s. I think either would be a good choice—but they are suited for different kinds of users.

Alternative: Toshiba Satellite Radius E45DW-C4210, $680


Picture from bestbuy.com

This new 14" touchscreen computer flips 360 degrees, comes with a powerful AMD FX-8800P processor and 8 GB of RAM, a 750 GB hard drive, and Windows 10--pretty nice for under $700!

Here's the link to the Best Buy website:
http://www.bestbuy.com/site/toshiba-satellite-radius-2-in-1-14-touch-screen-laptop-amd-fx-series-8gb-memory-750gb-hard-drive-brushed-black-brushed-metal/4203204.p?id=1219706550112&skuId=4203204&ref=199&loc=kmZjHBYatgE&acampID=1&siteID=kmZjHBYatgE-Xka8.MmC9Q9qXKVQZGbqGA

Alternative: Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14-inch, $620 $700 $620

There is one particular computer, with the same guts as the Flex 14 listed above, available for around $700 here: http://amzn.to/1JsFI6b. I've noticed that Lenovo computers tend to increase in price right around common sale times, such as the Christmas season or the back-to-school season. 

Alternative: ASUS Transformer Book Flip TP500LA, $650


If you don’t like the Lenovo Flex’s smaller screen, lack of a number pad, or small storage, the similar ASUS Flip (that is, the version with an i5-4210U, 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, and a 15.6-inch 1920 x 1080p Full HD touchscreen) is currently $710 on Amazon (http://amzn.to/1xJ6TnP).

I have a version of this, and I can attest that it's well-built and a solid machine overall, with a sturdy hinge, good screen, and comfortable keyboard. The sound isn't too bad either, for a laptop. The touchpad is also pretty good, occasional hiccups notwithstanding.

The newest version, with an updated i5-5200U processor, costs around $700 on Amazon (http://amzn.to/18LzZN8). The faster i7 version is under $800 at the same link.

It will even lie flat!

Gaming Laptops

ASUS ROG GL551JM, $1050
http://amzn.to/15VpIgE


I present to you the ASUS ROG GL551JM! (The silly alphabet soup name takes away some of the drama, doesn't it?)  Despite the lack of creativity in the name, this laptop is marketed specifically at gamers, through ASUS' ROG (Republic of Gamers) brand. 

As you might expect for a laptop aimed at the gamer/enthusiast crowd, this one has top specs: 16 GB of RAM, an i7-4710HQ processor, an NVIDIA GeForce GTX860M graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated vRAM, a 15.6-inch display with a Full HD (1920 x 1080p) resolution, and a 1 TB, 7200 rpm hard drive. For an additional $80, you can opt for a 256 GB solid-state drive to replace the mechanical hard drive, which is an upgrade I would urge mobile users to consider (if your computer will sit on a desk all day, that may not be necessary. But if you plan to take it anywhere, you may want an SSD for efficiency and reliability). 

Laptops with comparable specs will typically run $1300 or more, making this computer the one to get for gaming on a budget!

ASUS N550JK, $900

Pictures from Amazon product page
It even has an optical drive for your CDs and DVDs!

There are plenty of options for people who want a powerful portable computer, including those who play graphically intensive computer games and those who do serious photo or video editing. One of the most widely recommended options is the ASUS N550JK. It’s equipped with 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, a top-notch i7-4700HQ processor, and discrete NVIDIA GTX850M graphics with 2 GB dedicated vRAM for great video performance. Whether you’re watching a high-def movie, playing Battlefield 4, or editing high-quality images, this laptop has the guts to handle it!

The images will look good too, on a Full HD 1920 x 1080 screen (non-touch). This computer is highly recommended by users (if you don’t believe me, check Reddit) because it provides very good specs for about $1000, cheaper than most alternatives with similar specs. This model currently sells for $980 on Amazon, and will probably continue to enjoy strong sales.

Toshiba Satellite P55T-B5262, $1000
http://amzn.to/1La7ci6

Pictures from Amazon product page

Not only does it have good looks, it also features powerful hardware!

This Toshiba Satellite P55T sports a very fast Haswell i7-4710HQ processor, to go with 12 GB of RAM and a discrete AMD Radeon R9 M265X graphics card! The 1 TB mechanical hard drive gives you plenty of storage space, if not plenty of speed, and the optical drive ensures that you can play movies or games off of discs you may have lying around.

And if you're looking for a 4K screen, it's got that, too: 3840 x 2160 pixels, which is probably overkill unless you're into photography. Toshiba brags about its screen being the first Technicolor-certified screen, with very accurate colors--great for viewing movies or photos! Speaking of photos, this computer also comes pre-loaded with Adobe Lightroom 5, to help digital photographers get going, right out of the box!

As with many powerful computers such as this one, battery life is limited. Thanks to the discrete graphics and high-powered processor, this laptop is good for only around three hours of battery life. That's not great, but it is fairly typical for machines this powerful.

The other drawback is the inclusion of a slow mechanical hard drive--though it is replaceable, by removing the rubber 'feet' on the bottom of the laptop, and unscrewing the screw holding the hard drive panel in place. You can replace that hard drive with a solid-state drive like the Crucial BX100 250 GB for $80, or the Silicon Power S60 for only $70! And if you do this, you'll have the hard drive to use as external storage--so you get 1 TB of space when you need it, and very speedy load/boot times when you don't!

For those who demand backlit keyboards, this computer checks that box, too. If you're looking for a powerful, capable all-rounder with amenities like a backlit keyboard, 4K screen, powerful AMD graphics, and an optical drive--you can have it all for under $1000!

Lenovo Y50 Touch, $1200
Pictures from Amazon product page

For $1200, you can blow even seasoned computer geeks away with a Lenovo Y50 Touch.

It comes with an obscene 16 GB of RAM (for perspective, that’s 4 times the amount of RAM included in a typical computer!), the same powerful i7-4700HQ processor that’s featured in the N550JK listed above, NVIDIA GeForce 860M with 2 GB of vRAM, a 15.6-inch 4k display (that’s 3840 x 2160 pixels, a resolution that absolutely shatters Apple’s famous “Retina” display. That’s overkill, unless you are a photographer—not the kind who does it for a hobby, but the kind who publishes books of your work). There are tamer, less expensive versions of this computer. But doesn't that defeat the point?

Considering the top-level specs in this model, $1200 isn't a bad price! Whether or not you need such a ridiculously powerful laptop is a different question...

Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, $1390


Pictures from Amazon product page. Do I even have to say this anymore?

Speaking of ridiculous: how about the specs of this Acer? It’s like it was made for computer geeks to lust over! (Probably because it was). It comes with an i7-4710HQ, 16 GB of RAM, an NVIDIA GeForce 860M graphics card with 2 GB of vRAM, a 1 TB hard drive AND a 256 GB SSD, a 4k 15.6-inch non-touch IPS display, a backlit keyboard, and 4 (count ’em—4!) speakers!

I might be more impressed if Acer didn't consistently bring up the rear in terms of their manufacturer reliability scores. I'm sure that they put a lot of effort into making this one top-notch, and it's less likely to be afflicted by problems. But hey, full disclosure: http://www.rescuecom.com/news-press-releases/computer-reliability-report-2014.aspx

All this comes packaged in a laptop that weighs over 5 pounds and is advertised at a surprising 4 hours of battery life. Hey, some people feel the need to go over-the-top and have the best that money can buy. For those people, Acer makes the Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition. For everyone else, there are more cost-effective options.

Mid-range Laptops

Toshiba Satellite L55-B5276, $600

Pictures from Amazon product page, as usual

The Toshiba Satellite L55-B5276 (and the almost identical L55-B5338; http://amzn.to/1zCULdJ) provides solid specs all around, and is a personal favorite. For under $600, you get an i5-4210U, just like a number of other computers in this article, including the ASUS Zenbook listed above. It also comes equipped with 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, and an optical drive for any CDs or DVDs you might have. Some people find this useful, because they have games or movies that they’ve already bought and don’t really want to buy a second time in electronic format.

The only cost-saving measure is the standard 1366 x 768 15.6-inch screen (non-touch). Members of the tech press sneer at screens with this resolution, but I honestly find them to be perfectly fine. I can see everything just fine on my computers, which feature that same resolution. Maybe it’s true that once you go Full HD, you never go back; I think they’ve just been spoiled by reviewing the best of the best. In any case, some people would avoid buying this computer because of the screen.

If you don’t mind the standard-definition screen and you don’t particularly want a touchscreen, this computer represents good all-around performance at a price that won’t break the bank.

Dell Inspiron i3542-8333BK, $520


If you really want a touchscreen, or if the Toshiba above goes up in price (or this one drops in price), this Dell Inspiron is very similar. For $600, you’ll get the same i5-4210U processor and 8 GB of RAM. You’ll get a full TB hard drive in this one, and a standard-definition 1366 x 768 15.6-inch touchscreen. This computer is very well reviewed, with 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. A solid choice overall for the price!

Lenovo Thinkpad T440p, $750-900


The Lenovo Thinkpad line, purchased from IBM years ago, is geared for business professionals. Oftentimes, laptops for business people have features for extra security, and are designed with heavy-duty parts to take the beating of constant travel. Therefore, they tend to cost incredible amounts, like $1500-2500.

This one is different. It’s also built for business purposes, so it comes with Windows 7, which is still the standard for most businesses. Because this laptop is built for business and not entertainment, the 15.6-inch screen (non-touch) has the standard 1366 x 768 resolution, which is uncommon in laptops at this price range.

But it does have such goodies as a very fast i5-4200M processor, 8 to a whopping 16 GB of RAM, and an optical drive, as well as the build quality for which the Thinkpad line is known. You also have your choice of hard drives: if you get the normal 500 GB hard drive, the computer will cost $760. The version with the much faster 250 GB SSD raises the price to $850, and the even faster 16 GB RAM--250 GB SSD combo runs $900.

If you’re a traveling business professional, this is probably the lowest-cost made-for-business laptop you’ll find. It doesn’t hurt that it’s pretty fast, too!

Value Upgrade Candidates
Lenovo G50, $500


Some laptops make great candidates for simple upgrades. They can get you a capable, cost-effective option for less money than the computers listed above; it’ll just take a bit of patience and a bit of work on your part.

The Lenovo G50 is one such laptop. It’s pretty quick on its own, with an i5-4210U paired with 6 GB of RAM, as well as a spacious 1 TB hard drive. The G50 has an advertised battery life of 5 hours on a charge, which isn’t bad for a computer with an i5. It won’t get you the kind of all-day battery life that some are looking for, but this represents a nice all-around computer. It also comes with a standard 1366 x 768, 15.6-inch screen, so avoid this computer if you’re looking for a high-res display.

The suggested upgrade: The i5 and 6 GB of RAM will enable speedy computing. The speed bottleneck would be the mechanical hard drive. Particularly if you store a bunch of movies, music, and/or pictures on your hard drive, the computer will slow down quickly. The solution to this is to buy a solid-state drive. They are more reliable than mechanical hard drives, they use less power (enabling longer battery life), and they are much faster. However, they have less storage space—so I wouldn’t recommend going out to get an SSD that replaces the storage capacity of the mechanical hard drive that came with the computer, unless you want to spend $500 on a 960 GB SSD!

That’s not necessary, because after the hard drive swap, keep the original drive to use as a backup and an external storage device. You can store a lot of data on the original hard drive. Just plug it in via the SATA-to-USB cable, and store your movies or other space-eating data on the now-external hard drive. That way, you get the storage space, without slowing down your computer!

This is why I recommend spending less than $100 on an SSD. You can find a 250 GB-class SSD for well under $100 these days, like:

Or, if you’d prefer to spend even less, a 128 GB-class SSD like the SanDisk SSD Plus 120 GB or the ADATA USA Premier Pro SP600 128 GB go for around $50 each, or the Silicon Power S60 120 GB costs only $45!

Remember, it’s okay to cheap out here, because you’ll still have the old hard drive to store 1 TB worth of data. All you need to run from the SSD is the operating system and your programs, which will likely take less than 50 GB total. You will maintain the speed advantage of the SSD, whether you get a 128 GB or a 256 GB SSD. (Technically, bigger SSDs tend to be a little faster because of how SSDs work, but it’s not a difference you’ll notice in everyday computing. You’ll definitely notice the jump from a mechanical hard drive to a solid-state drive; you probably won’t notice any difference between different SSDs).

For the swap, you’ll also need a SATA-to-USB cable, so that you can plug in the SSD to transfer the operating system and programs from your new computer. These run about $10, as with this Patuoxun USB 2.0 to SATA cable, or this StarTech USB 3.0 to SATA cable. Another option is an external hard drive enclosure, which costs about the same. Here is an example: http://amzn.to/1xJnM1I.

You’ll also need a cloning program. Some SSDs, like the Crucial MX100, come with a free copy of cloning software. There are other cloning programs that you can download for free, some of which are pretty good. Once you’ve got these, you’re ready to go. There are helpful step-by-step guides out there for the SSD swap, like this onethis very helpful one, or this video.

It basically requires you to download the cloning software, plug in your SSD through a USB port via the SATA-to-USB cable, tell the cloning software what you want it to clone (typically the C: drive), and walk away while the program does its thing.

Once it’s done, unplug the computer and remove the battery (for your own safety), unscrew a panel on the bottom of your computer, remove the old hard drive (which may be in a caddy from which you’ll have to unscrew the drive itself), insert the new SSD, and boot the computer. You will probably have to restart at least once.

The most common troubleshooting issue is to boot into your computer’s BIOS (look up the directions for your particular computer; typically you have to hold the F2 or F8 key on startup, immediately after you hit the power button to turn it on) and select your new boot device—once you get through the technical-looking mumbo-jumbo, you should recognize the name of the SSD you just bought. Select that as your new boot device.

Once you’ve installed your SSD (hopefully no troubleshooting was necessary), you’ll find a computer that’s much more responsive, boots quicker, and lasts longer on a charge. This laptop will now hang with a MacBook Air in terms of speed, as well as offering nearly all-day battery life (depending on what you’re doing, of course. Tweak the power settings for best results while you’re on battery) and superior storage capacity, thanks to the 1 TB hard drive that came with your computer—all for at least $150 less than the $900 premium charged by Apple for their MacBook Air! If you’re familiar with Windows and don’t want to learn a new operating system, this alternative will yield similar performance to a MacBook Air, without the disadvantages.

ASUS X550LA, $500



Another option is the ASUS X550LA, which comes with an i5-4200U backed by the typical 4 GB of RAM and 500 GB hard drive. It also has a standard 1366 x 768, 15.6-inch display. The processor is really the only ‘premium’ part about this computer.

The suggested upgrades: The RAM is easiest to upgrade—a 4 GB stick of laptop RAM like this or this will cost less than $40. Buy one, open a panel on the bottom of your computer, and insert the RAM into the empty slot. If there are two sticks of 2 GB RAM each, remove one (it really doesn’t matter which), and replace it with the 4 GB stick. Typically, manufacturers use a single 4 GB stick, because they realize that users may want to upgrade this themselves.

In order to replace the hard drive, follow steps like those listed above. Grab an SSD for $60-100 and a SATA-to-USB cable (or external hard drive enclosure) for around $10, use a free cloning program, and install the new SSD. Keep the old hard drive for mass storage.

You’ll end up with 8 GB of RAM and an SSD in your Haswell i5-powered laptop, all for around $620! If you’re willing to do a minimal amount of work yourself (and wait for the parts), you can have premium specs without the premium pricing!

Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch, $900


If you want a speedy i7 processor for the least amount of money, $900 will get you a Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch. Despite the fast processor, the rest of this computer isn’t terribly quick. Since a computer is only as fast as its slowest component, you won’t often see a top-end processor like this i7-4500U with only 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive.

The suggested upgrades: However, this is a prime candidate for upgrades. RAM is the easiest upgrade: you unscrew a cover on the bottom of the laptop, and insert the RAM stick into the open slot—and you’re done! If you don’t already have any RAM lying around, you can easily buy a 4 GB stick of laptop RAM for around $40. Here are a couple examples: Kingston Value RAM 4 GB 1600 MHz, Crucial Single 4 GB DDR3 1600 MHz, or Corsair 4 GB Value Select DDR3 1333 MHz.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, I’m a big fan of solid-state drives, since they’re faster, more reliable, and more efficient than a traditional mechanical hard drive. For $60 or so, you can find an SSD like the 128 GB CrucialMX100 or the 120 GB Silicon Power S70.

These two upgrades would speed up your system tremendously, giving you about the most powerful laptop $900 will buy (including the cost of the SSD and RAM).

If you go with the upgrades I suggested, you’ll enjoy a fast, lightweight laptop with a 14-inch, 1600 x 900 touchscreen. The higher-than-normal pixel count in the smaller-than-normal 14-inch screen yields a high pixel density, which results in a better image on the screen. About the only potential problem is the lack of a number pad, and the lack of an optical drive. Assuming you’re willing to swap out a couple parts, this computer can end up being quite the bargain!

Lenovo Z50, $450
http://amzn.to/1C44AQh


With the latest and most powerful in laptop processors from AMD, the Lenovo Z50 is a good deal waiting to be upgraded! The A10-7300 is a fairly powerful quad-core chip—though it isn't the fastest one around, it can handle most tasks without breaking a sweat.

It also comes with 8 GB of RAM, which will provide plenty of multitasking power, as well as the ability to handle intensive programs like Adobe Photoshop, AutoCAD, or a video editing program.
The rest is entry-level, though, with a 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display and an ordinary 500 GB hard drive.

The suggested upgrade: The manufacturer claims an unimpressive 4-hour battery life. An upgrade to a 240 GB or a 256 GB SSD for about $100 should improve this figure by approximately one hour, as well as improving overall system speed. This is the probably the best bargain upgrade candidate you'll find! 

Apple Laptops

To be quite frank, I find Apple computers overpriced and overhyped. They do, however, deliver good specs, nice build quality, and a top-of-the-line touchpad. But with an Apple computer, you sacrifice user control as well as innovations like hybrid designs—and you pay more for the privilege!

Some programs work better on a Mac (especially software aimed at music and video editing), and other programs (notably those aimed at businesses) tend to work better on Windows-based systems. So, between build quality and use case, there are arguments to be made in favor of getting a Mac. If you're a Mac user, I think the best options are the 13.3-inch MacBook Air and the 13.3-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

The $900 MacBook Air is best for normal, everyday use scenarios. It's solid all-around, with outstanding 12-hour battery life, a reasonably fast 4th-gen i5 processor, a fast PCIe-based SSD (your choice of 128 GB or the more expensive 256 GB), good wi-fi adapter, and a nice screen.

The 13.3-inch model is preferable to the smaller 11.6-inch model because its bigger battery enables longer battery life. Moreover, the extra screen real estate can make things a bit easier to see. The 4 GB of RAM, however, is not in keeping with other laptops in this price range.

Stepping up to the $1300 MacBook Pro will up the ante to 8 GB of RAM, a faster i5 processor, and more powerful integrated graphics. The screen is also higher-resolution, and you can still get over 10 hours of battery life from this computer.

The Achilles' heel of the version linked above is its limited storage: only 128 GB. But if you want to step up to 256 GB of internal storage, you'll pay a $200 premium—totally not worth it! You'd be better off getting a storage device made to fit in the MacBook Pro's SD slot: a 128 GB module goes for $100 or less [Transcend sells the JetDrive Lite for about $75. If you already have an unused microSD card, the MiniDrive microSD adapter retails for $20. It also works with many Windows ultrabooks], and these products are made to fit virtually flush with the computer's frame. There are also leave-in flash drives of various storage sizes; I use the SanDisk Ultra Fit USB 3.0 in my own [Windows] computer. Though the Ultra Fit gets inexplicably warm sometimes and it sticks out about a quarter of an inch, it remains a speedy, sturdy, cost-effective storage solution that has not given me any problems (nor has it caught on anything when I'm carrying my laptop under my arm or in my backpack).  

Closing

As you can see, there are a variety of options to fit a variety of needs. I hope you found something you like!

If these are a little too pricey for your budget, there are good options for under $450! My favorites are listed in my article on Value Computers 2015.

Bonus tip: If you don’t like the Windows 8 or 8.1 ‘Metro’ interface with all the tiles and so forth, and you’re annoyed by how it sometimes switches from the tile interface to the traditional desktop and back, you can run your entire computer in the desktop interface. Download a free program called “Classic Shell” (here's the link), and select your settings. Your computer will boot into the desktop, and will run everything out of the familiar Windows desktop interface. You’ll even be able to search your computer using the Classic Shell’s version of Windows’ old Start Menu. It really replicates the Windows 7 experience—all for free! :)

All pictures from Amazon product page, unless noted otherwise.

Happy saving!