Laptop Buyer's Guide: 14-inch and Smallerby Vivek Gowri on July 19, 2010 12:01 AM EST
A couple of weeks ago, Dustin published the first part of our Mobile Buyer’s Guide, focused on notebooks and desktop replacements larger than 14”. Now we’re back with the second half, detailing the best choices for portable and ultraportable notebooks and netbooks.
With the back to school season approaching, newly refreshed notebooks are being released on a rapid fire basis. It’s pretty exciting, with tons of new products and new technology platforms hitting the market all at once. While a few months old, Intel’s Core i3/5/7 processors are really starting to ramp up, with standard voltage Core i3/i5/i7 processors essentially taking over the market. The delayed CULV refresh, with low voltage Arrandale chips, is also starting to hit the market in notebooks like the Alienware M11x R2 and Acer’s TimelineX series. Intel’s also done a bit of refresh job on the netbook-class Atom processor, with higher clock speeds, support for DDR3 memory, and a dual core variant expected to hit early Q3.
AMD has its own updates in the pipeline, with tri and quad core Phenom II chips (Danube platform) launching in some of the larger notebooks and their 2010 Ultrathin platform, codenamed Nile, just starting to hit the market. Danube and Nile both share the RS880 chipset and SB820 southbridge, along with a 55nm Radeon HD 4225 integrated graphics chip built on the RV620 core.
And on the graphics front, we’ve got ATI really making some waves with high performance DX11 parts like the HD 5850 and 5870, and on a more mainstream level, the HD 5650 as well. NVIDIA is dominating the portable market, with the Optimus automated graphics switching technology being a real draw for notebook manufacturers. On the higher end, NVIDIA just launched its first mobile DX11 part, based on a cut down version of the beastly Fermi core. More mainstream DX11 parts are in the pipeline for Q3 as well, based on even more scaled down variants of Fermi. And then there’s Next-Gen Ion (or Ion 2, whichever you prefer), which adds a discrete NVIDIA graphics chip and Optimus to Pine Trail based netbooks, making them serviceable HD media playback machines. We’re still waiting for NG ION to hit market (the Acer 532g just got canceled), but it’s supposed to be out this summer as well.
With all of the major chip makers firing on all cylinders, the sheer amount of new laptops on the market is simply astounding. In fact, of the group of laptops mentioned in this guide, just a handful are more than two months old, and there are at least five that are still in the preorder stage, though due to ship in the very near future.
Since this is the “Portable Edition”, we’ll be focusing on laptops mostly this side of 14” screen size, with 13.3” being the most common screen size in our list. We do have a few 14-inchers though, either because they were powerful enough to merit mention in this guide, or because they are slim enough to compare with smaller notebooks. I used 5.0 lbs as the (flexible) upper cap on weight, with sub-4.0 lbs carrying weights preferred. A surprisingly high number of systems on my list claim to top 8 hours of battery life, even with dedicated graphics and standard voltage Core i3/i5/i7 processors – a testament to how far battery life has come in recent years, even with battery tech staying mostly stagnant for some time now.
So, with all the background info out of the way, let’s get to our picks.
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DanaG - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkYou also missed the EliteBook 8440w:
It has all sorts of awesome features, and awesome build quality.
The only bummer: the business-grade laptops are expensive.
VivekGowri - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkThere'll be a lot more on the 8440w later this week. The reason it didn't make the list is because it really isn't a portable-style notebook; it's up near 6 pounds with the larger battery. As a portable workstation, it's okay - rugged, but rather expensive.
At the same price, I'd wonder if it wouldn't be a better idea to get a far faster (both CPU and GPU-wise) ENVY 14. At the $1500-ish retail price of my review SKU, you could get yourself the Envy with a quad-core, the HD5650 and like 8GB of RAM...Just something to think about.
seanleeforever - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkas an actual user of few business laptops for business purpose, i think i might have some valuable opinion to share.
as great as Elitebooks are, they are just not where thinkpad is. since I am typing this on my 4 thousand dollar elitebook, i believe my opinion is completely unbiased.
Elitebooks are heavy, so heavy that it becomes a burden to carry around. they use excessive amount of aluminum for fashion NOT for utility. case in point: exactly why do you need aluminum on the palm rest? it looks cool, but it is a pain to use because they are good heat conductor, which means you palm will either be cold (when machine first start up) or hot (when your computer heats up). those shining surface also require much more cleaning or it will look like crap after a week of use.
laptop, for all intention and purposes, is designed to work on the lap when no table is around. Why, oh WHY would most laptop manufacturers design a freaking venting spot on the bottom that could EASILY be covered by soft surfaces? it is like a phone that is designed to greatly reduce its reception when you touch it. Only two computer manufacture got the design right: Apple and Lenovo. look under any thinkpad, you will not see any venting spot that you have to pay special attention to avoid. HP is miles away in this aspect.
volume slide: again, form over function. HP played fancy by putting a touch sensitive volume bar that no one knows how to control . in a thinkpad, you get solid buttons and you know each press counts, in a HP, not so much. it is very tricky because it can be very sensitive one second, and completely ignore to you command the next. it is SUCKS that change the volume on Elitebook will always kick you out of the full screen mode, a MAJOR deal breaker when you do presentation,
track point: those of whom never used track point, you guys are missing something in life. IMO, track point a particularly useful in small laptops because you don't have too much room to play with, you can rest your palm on your computer while navigating the cursor. the track point in a thinkpad is simply the most delightful to use. the track point on the HP, however, is like a last minute design that no one pay any attention to. the track pointer buried in the keys give you no room to fit your finger tip. it is very tough to move around, and the mouse buttons are stone hard that i have to press it with a lot of effort. three mouse buttons made of the same shape and put in the same place that you will always confuse right click with middle click. the software driver to support track pointer is also not there.
ruggedness: the top of the Elitebook is actually make of cheap plastic that is not rugged.
there was once that my elitebook, (stored in the HP carry bag), dropped from my luggage onto the floor. the drop is about 1 meter in height (40 inches) and it broke the plastic piece on the top. This would NEVER happen to a thinkpad where the whole cover is made of Magnesium alloy. in fact, Thinkpad are so strong that I can safely stand on a thinkpad without any concern that my weight will break the LCD. other than Toshiba Toughbook, i have yet to see any other main brand that allow me to do this.
keyboard layout: why would FN keys are smaller than letter keys? why would Page Up and Page DN placed horizontally instead of vertically ( you know, like in any standard keyboard)
if you are a road warrior and your laptop would face accidental drop and abuse, there is no better product than a Thinkpad. they are black, they are ugly, they got no shining parts, no touch sensitive volume controls and fancy LED lights, but they mean business.
before you call i am a thinpad fan boy, knowing that my most experiences computers (business and personal), has all been HP brand.
Chloiber - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkI have to agree in most points.
I've got an older 6910p, which was replaced by the Elitebookseries about 1 or 2 years ago.
The touch volume keys are pretty much unusable. Plus now I got some strange thing that they are lighting up when I press Caps Lock (volume goes up, down, mutes, HP Info Center opens...as if I press every single button).
Track point: unusable. I tried it for a week and it just didn't work. The funniest part: it's broken now (fell off, can't put it back). But I rarely used it.
The MOST annoying part is, as you mentioned, the vent in the bottom. It happens that I am working on my lap or that I am watching some movies while lying in my bed. I tried many things...a small cushion in the middle...no way...a magazine on top of the cushion...nah, not working, still gets hot and loud...
It's not a laptop, it's a "sidetop" O_o
wkeller - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkNice article, but I missed a table with all the mobility specs, in particular weight and batterylife, besides screensize and cpu. We have several Ácer 1810T at home and we love them because of the right combination of these 4 dimensions. We never want a heavy laptop with limited batterylife anymore!
Zok - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkWhile it helps to know what major uses cases are best served by a single laptop (or one alternative), perhaps it'd be beneficial to know what other devices were considered - even without a writeup on them.
I say this because, for people who don't drink the Apple haterade, the 13" MBP can provide some pretty sick battery life. I recognize that there are articles dedicated solely to the MBP, but I think it'd be helpful for people to understand where they fit in "with the rest of the pack."
... Or at least mention that they were deficient, which leads me back to my first point.
VivekGowri - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkWell, the MBP has a Core 2 Duo, integrated G 320M, and 10 hours of battery life. Asus U30Jc has a Core i3, G 310M with Optimus, and the same 10 hours of battery life for $300 cheaper. To be fair, the MBP is built better, has a better display, and has OS X (if that makes a difference to you), but it's older technology for more money....See why there's a problem there?
It's not that I don't like it (I nearly bought one) but they're clearly not for everyone and with the above problem with the whole value proposition, I figured it wasn't worth it.
feelingshorter - Monday, July 19, 2010 - linkIts not about haterade but its the fact that Apple has always charged more for their stuff when you get less.
Lets take the 13inch MacBook first. Yeah you get the 320M instead of the 310M but the MacBook's 320M can only use up to 250 mb of ram while the 310M uses 512 of the system ram.
To make matters worse, the MacBooks only have 2 gigs of ram in total to begin with. All windows laptops come with 4 gigs at the price range of $1000 with the lone exception of Lenovo ThinkPad (but the ThinkPads are built like tanks). Also the MacBooks weigh in at 4.7lbs, which isn't sub 4lbs. It also uses the older Core 2 Duos instead of the newer i3/i5, which are more powerful yet gives better battery life due to on die graphics.
I compared to the MacBook instead of the Pro b/c $1000 is already a lot. Fine you want to compare the MacBook Pro? Ok you get 4 gigs of ram but hell your graphics card is still the G320M with the same 256 mb limitation. The ram is also the same speed at 1066mhz as in windows ones. It weighs in at 4.5lb which is still not sub 4lbs. Not to mention you still get an abysmal 320gb hard drive. Not that you would use more space but larger hard drives = higher density = faster speeds (b/c were not talking about WD Raptors or anything, just normal drives). And your still on the Core 2 Duo, old technology once again yet paying 1200. You can get soo much more from the options listed in the In this Laptop Buyer's Guide
The fact of the matter is you also only get 2 USB ports whereas most windows laptops come with 3 (i dont know why that is). If i remember, one of the USB ports on the mac isnt even full speed b/c half of it is used for the Bluetooth or Webcam (not sure if this is still true since i last read about it). So once advantage is that you get bluetooth built in but you can easily buy an adapter for like 10 bucks that sticks no more than 3-4mm anyways. But the half powered and half speed USB is bad since sometimes you want to use it to charge your phone or need the full speed for a USB drive.
Ok, you want an i5 MacBook Pro? Lets compare the $2000 MacBook Pro so we can compare it to the HP Envy listed in this Buyer's Guide (note: the cheapest i5 MBP is still 1800 anyways). Weighing in at 5.6 lbs, its still heavier than the HP Envy at 5.25. MBP has 4gb ram at 1066mhz and 500gb hard drive @ 5400 rpm. The Envy as 256gb SSD, which is going to be soo much faster than the MBP. For the $1989 Envy, you also get the i7-720 Quad core, which is faster than the MBP's i5. You also get the ATI 5650 on the Envy, which is again faster than the GT 330M by a good margin. And yes the Envy does have a backlit keyboard. Oh i forgot to mention the $1989 14 inch Envy i configured includes TWO 8 cell battery instead of 1, just so i can get the price closer to the $2000 price point to compare to the MBP. But just to recap, the Envy weighs less, has a faster hard drive, has a faster and overall better CPU, faster video card by a good margin, and added an extra 8-cell battery in there just to even match the MBP's high price point. All that and its still 11 bucks cheaper than the MacBook Pro.
I'm in the market for a new laptop that can play SC2 so i just spent 3 hours or so doing my research. Hope that helps you in your decision with which laptop to buy. If your waiting for the next MacBook and MBP update, it is estimated that Apple will update them in 3.5 months. They update their notebooks every ~200 days and its only been 100 days into the last update (of both MB and MBP). So if your gonna wait 3.5 months or so to get a MacBook, do understand that the Windows PC market will also move along with it. Then where does that put us? In the same position as always. If you like OSX just buy it. If not, MBPs just aren't price competitive but their laptops are some of the best looking IMO.
TEAMSWITCHER - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - linkMy daughter just got a 13" MacBook Pro, and I have to admit that I am very impressed with the design and construction quality. Performance isn't everything. I would rather give up one or two performance points for a machine that feels as solid and looks as good as the MacBook Pro.
Her battery life is also incredible, she can use it all day long and not have to plug in. I gifted her a copy of Portal (through STEAM) and while I didn't run any benchmarks the game played just fine. I know its an older game, but she's not a hard core gamer.
Toms Hardware really needs to stop ignoring hardware just because it has an Apple logo on it. You do yourself and your readers a huge disservice by pretending Apple hardware is less than what it is. Not the fastest machine, or cheapest equipment to be sure, but it does have noteworthy qualities. Better than many of the computers in your comparison.
8steve8 - Monday, July 19, 2010 - link" Spec’ed the same as the $799 Toshiba R705 (Core i3, 4GB, 500GB hard drive, 6 cell battery, Bluetooth, etc) "
the R705 does not have bluetooth.