Ultrabooks, those super-slim laptops, are great if you can afford their price tags, but they’re not the only laptops in town sporting Intel’s new third-generation Core i CPUs. In fact, if you’re after a bang-for-buck option, there are increasing numbers of all-rounders, as we call them, that are a bit heavier and a bit thicker, but offer great performance for generally less money.
This month, we challenged laptop makers to send us their best-value models under $1,500. The thing that surprised us most was just how many were up to at least moderate gaming, with enough grunt to give game classics such as DiRT 2 a good go. We also saw an unexpected number of very fast laptops with quad-core processors — not something you’d have seen previously at under $1,500. Throw in a couple of Full HD (1,920 x 1,080-pixel) screens and there’s no denying there’s value aplenty.
You still need to carefully check out the battery life, though. Things have improved noticeably, but with greater gaming speed comes lower battery runtime. You also need to keep an eye on weight — with some of these laptops giving three kilos a nudge, they’re not all exactly light.
Ultrabooks are good for delivering lightweight, thin designs. However, if you want up to 50% more speed for roughly the same price, more peripheral ports, features and everything else, standard laptops might seem old hat, yet they still kick on for overall value.
Dell Vostro 3560
The cheapest and the best.
Price: $899 | From: Dell
Critical specs: Intel Core i5-3210M, 4GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 500GB HDD, 15.6in LCD, 1,366 x 768 pixels, six-cell battery, 2.61kg
The Vostro 3560 is a very workman-like laptop. There’s nothing outstanding in its features, but no nasty surprises either. It also turned out to be the cheapest we saw at just $899. For that price, you get a very good dual-core processor — it’s not as fast as a quad-core chip, but much faster than you’d think, as our benchmark results show. What you’re not getting here is gaming speed to any worthwhile degree.
Intel’s integrated graphics engine inside the CPU isn’t really up to anything serious and there’s no graphics option here from Nvidia or AMD. Still, you get enough horsepower to push our Encode benchmark past the 70 mark, which is terrific at this price. Dell is beefing up its peripheral ports quite nicely at the moment and this Vostro is no exception, with four USB 3.0 ports plus an HDMI output. Throw in 802.11n wireless networking and it has all the bases covered. The 500GB hard drive, DVD burner and LCD screen are all on the money for value in terms of quantity and quality. Still, these are things you’ll see on laptops around $300 less than this, although what you’re getting here is that third-gen Core i performance.
You can throw good battery life into that mix, too: the 3:36hr runtime we recorded on our battery benchmark is a good, but not quite brilliant result. It’s not the only good-performing laptop you’ll find for under $1,000, yet it’s a solid enough model that’ll get you from A to B in reasonably quick time.
HP Pavilion dm4-3114tx
Fast, stylish and affordable.
Price: $999 | From: www.hp.com.au
Critical specs: Intel Core i5-3210M, 4GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 640GB HDD, 14in LCD, 1,366 x 768 pixels, six-cell battery, 2.01kg
This is a compact 14in laptop that delivers big on features and performance, but small on weight and price. For performance, it matches ultrabooks that go for close to double the price. For weight, it’s just a hair over 2kg, yet still lighter than a couple of supposed ultrabooks we’ve seen. It’s just thicker than the 20mm limit that the ultrabook standard allows.
For your $999, you get a 640GB hard drive, DVD burner plus a good array of extras including HDMI, three USB ports (two of them USB 3.0) and Ethernet. There’s even moderate gaming speed, thanks to AMD’s Radeon HD 7570M graphics chip.
One drawback with this model is that the LCD screen colours are a little washed out in comparison with others we saw. It also only has standard 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution: however, on a 14in screen, that’s still passable. What tipped it over the edge for us as an Editor’s Choice winner this month was its outstanding 4:53hr battery life on our benchmark test. Nothing else came close in this roundup. While you might see this battery life matched by some ultrabooks, they won’t offer the same speed at this price. And that’s the thing — given that you’re not going to find too many ultrabooks with third-gen Intel Core i processors for under $1,000, this is an excellent ultrabook alternative that delivers almost all the same features, apart from being slightly thicker and fractionally heavier. The dm4-3114tx is fast, stylish, affordable and gives excellent battery life — it doesn’t get much better than that.
Dell Inspiron 15R
Heavy, but fast and excellent value.
Price: $1,099 | From: www.dell.com.au
Critical specs: Intel Core i7-3612QM, 6GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 1TB HDD (500GB supplied), 15.6in LCD, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, six-cell battery, 2.95kg
The Inspiron 15R is a great mix of features and performance for its comparatively low price and the cheapest of the models we saw to feature a quad-core processor. It’s a slightly slower version than those inside the fastest laptops we tested, but for the price it still gives excellent bang for buck.
While our test unit came with a 500GB hard drive, Dell tells us it’s selling the 15R with a 1TB drive for double the space. It’s even up for some moderate gaming, too, thanks to its AMD Radeon HD 7730M graphics chip. It was fast enough to push DiRT 2 to just under 50fps at the screen’s native 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution. There’s no doubt it’ll age faster with newer games, but it’s still not a bad result.
The peripheral connections are also generous, with four USB 3.0 ports, 802.11n wireless networking and an HDMI output to connect it to your big-screen TV.
The biggest drawback is weight — at a sniff under three kilos, you’re not going to want to call this one portable for very long. Its battery life came in at a just passable 2:42hr; we think the lower lifespan is due to the fact that while many of the laptops we saw this month came with larger 62Wh batteries, the 15R only has a smaller 48Wh type. But the fact that you get this level of features and performance at this price is still impressive. The Inspiron 15R isn’t perfect, but you’ll struggle to find too many laptops at this price to match it for speed.
HP Pavilion dv6-3070tx
The fastest unit under $1,500.
Price: $1,499 | From: www.hp.com.au
Critical specs: Intel Core i7-3610QM, 8GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 1TB HDD, 15.6in LCD, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, six cell battery, 2.5kg
One of a number of quad-core laptops we saw this month, this dv6-3070tx is a great combination of excellent speed and features in a surprisingly affordable package. It starts with a high-quality 15.6in LCD screen with Full HD resolution and a Blu-ray disc burner that also handles CDs and DVDs. There’s a big 1TB hard drive to give you plenty of storage, too. You even get dual graphics options: Intel’s integrated graphics to give better battery life and Nvidia’s GeForce GT 630M to deliver moderate gaming speed.
Given its size and features, its weight is reasonable at 2.5kg (we saw similar-sized laptops give 3kg a nudge). As for app speed, this is the fastest we found under $1,500, with its quad-core processor just pipping Pioneer’s W15 for the highest UserBench Encode score. Combined with 8GB of fast DDR3-1600 memory, this shouldn’t need upgrading for some considerable time.
Its peripheral connection count gets all the ticks, with three USB 3.0 ports, HDMI output, Ethernet and 802.11n wireless networking. Even its battery life is quite reasonable and its 3:31hr score on our benchmark test was only beaten by its own dm4-3114tx and Dell’s Vostro 3560. However, the screen here is definitely one of the better ones you’ll see on laptops under $1,500 — it’s pin-sharp with bright, vivid colours and makes this laptop great for both gaming and watching movies.
Pioneer Computers DreamBook W15
Gaming grunt aplenty here.
Price: $1,460 | From: www.pioneercomputers.com.au
Critical specs: Intel Core i7-3610QM, 16GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 750GB HDD, 15.6in LCD, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, six cell battery, 2.8kg
It’s not the best-looking laptop in the world, but in terms of giving you your money’s worth, the W15 delivers in spades. It just missed out on winning the Encode battle with HP’s dv6-3070tx, but roared home on our DiRT 2 gaming test, thanks to its GeForce GT 650M graphics chip. Even at its native Full HD resolution, it has enough graphics speed to push DiRT 2 to 55fps, faster than Dell’s $1,999 XPS 15.
It’s loaded with peripheral ports including four USB ports (including one with eSATA), an HDMI output and an Ethernet port. While it has that GT 650M chip, you can switch it off and use the graphics engine integrated into the Core i7 — it won’t handle games, but it will give better battery life. Storage is adequate with a 750GB hard drive and DVD burner, and the massive 16GB of cache memory is definitely welcome.
You can spend a lot more money on a so-called gaming laptop, but you’re not likely to see much more speed than what you’ll get here for under $1,500. Its battery life came in at 2:10hr, which is lower than we expected, but not totally surprising given its comparatively smaller 48Wh battery.
Arguably the biggest drawback here is the styling — even though the hardware inside is new, the W15 chassis design has been around for a while and it’s noticeably thicker than newer designs, even without mentioning ultrabooks. Still, if you’re after raw features and performance, the W15 doesn’t disappoint.
Pioneer Computers DreamBook Ultra Power W11
Its looks belie its power.
Price: $1,399 | From: www.pioneercomputers.com.au
Critical specs: Intel Core i7-3610QM, 8GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 750GB HDD, 11.6in LCD, 1,366 x 768 pixels, six-cell battery, 1.74kg
Don’t be deceived by the looks of this W11 — it looks like little more than a budget netbook on the surface, but within the compact 1.74kg chassis it has the same hardware as Pioneer’s W15: a quad-core processor and GeForce GT 650M graphics. It’s the sort of thing that’d have your mates sneering at you and it with contempt one minute and kicking their keister the next. The fact that it can run DiRT 2 at a tick under 75fps at native 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution is certainly no mean feat.
There’s no optical drive, but you get a 750GB hard drive plus decent peripheral ports, including three USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI output and Ethernet. Battery life was a little disappointing at 2:18hr, particularly given the 62Wh battery. However, with Intel’s integrated graphics on offer as well, you should be able to tweak this up a bit, and our battery tests are worst-case scenarios (continuous video playback with full-screen brightness).
As with the W15, the W11 isn’t the slimmest of laptops, but that’s due in part to the copper heatpipes (which you can see by peering into the left-hand side) required to get the heat produced by the CPU and graphics chip out of the laptop and keep everything happy. The W11 ain’t shabby by any means and it’s probably as close as you’ll get to a Golf GTI in a laptop.
Sony VAIO SVE15118FGB
Reasonable, but there’s better out there.
Price: $1,299 | From: www.sony.com.au
Critical specs: Intel Core i7-3612QM, 4GB DDR3-1600 RAM, 750GB HDD, 15.6in LCD, 1,366 x 768 pixels, six-cell battery, 2.5kg
This is a surprisingly affordable quad-core laptop from Sony with a reasonable list of onboard features. Cheaper than both the HP and Pioneer at this 15.6in chassis size, it still delivers a DVD burner along with its 750GB hard drive and includes AMD’s Radeon HD 7650M graphics chip.
That chip isn’t as good as a GeForce GT 650M, although it’s good enough to push DiRT 2 to just under 37fps at native 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution. What’s missing is the CPU’s integrated graphics option, which means battery life might be a bit lower than it could have been otherwise. It certainly was in our testing: the 2:48hr score on our battery benchmark was adequate (and better than we saw from the Pioneer entries), but others did better than this.
Still, it’s the lightest of the 15.6in laptops we tested, yet it still offers good peripheral connections including four USB ports, an HDMI output and Ethernet networking.
The quad-core Intel chip isn’t the same one as in the HP and Pioneer — it’s a slightly slower version that delivers around 7% less speed, but it’s better at some specific high-end applications. Our test unit looked and felt a bit like an engineering sample, so we expect the final release to feel a little sturdier. The most disappointing aspect is the quite grainy LCD screen, reminiscent of looking through a flyscreen door.