Getting Touchy-Feely: Buying a New Laptop

Add Your Comments

I’m looking for a laptop. My old one is rather … well, old. With an aging Core Duo (1.83 GHz) CPU, 2 GB of RAM, 2x 80 GB HDDs and a 7600 GO graphics card it’s probably doubled it’s original weight with the amount of dust it’s taken in during 4 years of service. It’s had two new screens, a new hard disk, a new power brick and a new CPU fan (glad I took the insurance). It’s struggling rather often now, so I’ve scoped out a few replacements.

I need something pretty fast:

  • i7 CPU preferred, but at least i5; either quad- or dual-core
  • 4GB or more of RAM
  • A decent graphics card; NVIDIA GT330M or better preferred
  • Ideally a solid state drive, 128 or 256 GB but a 7200 rpm HDD at minimum
  • Semi-portable, so <16″
  • Full HD screen, or 1680×1050 at absolute minimum

Dell

I surfed onto Dell’s website. The Studio 15 wasn’t considered (my girfriend has a Core i5 one and the build quality is disappointing), the Studio XPS 16 has has reports of throttling with the i7 chips, so I avoided that. The Alienware m15x is a beast – far too heavy and very expensive. The m11x only has a CULV chip.

HP

HP sell the Envy 15 in the UK but, as the poor cousin, we can’t get customised to order models. The Envy 15-1110 looked great. It’s a tad expensive at £1500, but it had the i7 quad core, 8 GB of RAM, an external BD-ROM, an ATi 5850 graphics chip and a 500 GB 7200 rpm hard disk. The full HD screen ticked the final box.

Sony

I also assessed the options from Sony – the F series looked good on paper and came in at a reasonable price (£1200) for the i7 quad core, 6 GB RAM, BDRW, GT 330M graphics and a 500 GB HDD. Boxes ticked, except for size. It’s a little big.

The Sony Z series was also considered, being their top-of-the-line machine, and doing very well in benchmarks and tests. An i5 CPU paired with 6 GB RAM and a GT 330 M with a 1600 x 900 screen came in at £1800 with a 128 GB SSD, or £1500 with an i5, 4 GB, GT 330M, 1600 x 900 and a 500 GB 7200 rpm HDD but no optical drive.

Lenovo

I built a Lenovo T510 on the website – i5, check. 4 GB RAM, check. Full-HD screen, check. nVidia NVS 3100 M, fail. The graphics chip on the T510 is a worse performer than the ATi 3650 that was in the T500. What a complete disappointment. I didn’t go any further with the build.

Apple

Finally, I took a look at the Macbook Pro. These tend to polarize people – many friends of mine don’t like them, a couple of my friends love them. The release of the Core i5/i7-based machines brought the option of a screen upgrade, but only to a disappointing 1680 x 1050. The price tag was considerable – even with education discount I was looking at £1600, or possibly more.

Getting Touchy-Feely

This is perhaps where I’m rather odd. I absolutely cannot buy a laptop without touching it first; I have to get a good feel for the build quality. This isn’t a box that’s going to get hidden underneath a desk for a few years, this is something that’s likely going to get thrashed by me for a good 2-3 years. It has to feel solid and robust, the keyboard has to be comfortable to type on, and the touchpad has to be usable.

With this in mind, I spent an afternoon with the aim of getting a feel for and a look at the laptops in question. I found a Sony F-series easily enough in a high-street electrical store (Currys). I’m not sure if I’m keen on the build. The specifications are impressive but the build doesn’t feel quite right, it feels far too plastic for it’s pricetag. At 16.4 inches across the screen it’s also a bit bigger than I’m looking for; the build quality might have swung it but I felt let down.

The other three were harder. A visit to John Lewis (which displayed the laptop on their website) was greeted with failure. Apparently only people in London (and not Glasgow) have enough cash for this model, and so only the Chelsea store kept a display model. Poor.

I popped into the Apple store to ask about the Macbook Pro with the 1680 x 1050 screen. They were happy to try and sell me one, albeit without actually seeing the screen. They didn’t have a display model out with this screen. Everything else about the laptop (excluding the price) seems great. The build is nice, the screens on the display models are nice, but there wasn’t a high-resolution one there to judge. I left, wallet intact.

Finally, I visited the Sony store. I enquired as to whether there was a Z-series on display and was told that they only had one in stock. “It’s two thousand pounds”, the salesperson growled, “and it’s been put aside for someone”. Translation: “it’s too expensive for a mere mortal like you”. I wasn’t impressed by the customer service.

It’s not a great situation – it’s getting difficult to find a shop that doesn’t just stock cheap, basic laptops built to a specific plasticy price point. Profit margins on most laptops are really tight and shops don’t seem to want to take the risk of high-value yet low-margin stock going stale on a shelf. It makes it hard for people like me who want to actually touch, feel, type on and hold a laptop before they buy one.

All in all, very disappointing. I still don’t have my new laptop.

David

Footnotes:

  1. HP have since discontinued the Envy 15-1110, and only sell the 15-1060 which has a 1366 x 768 screen. I’m waiting on the Envy 14 (1600 x 900 screen) appearing in the UK.
  2. Apple still doesn’t have a 1680 x 1050 Macbook Pro on display
  3. During a subsequent visit to the Sony store a more helpful sales assistant let me see a Z-series in the flesh (although not turn it on). The finish and build is stunning, but the screen size worries me. I use the laptop 5-7 days/week and a 13 inch screen might be too small.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discussion
  1. The SSD will make the most difference, in fact if you put one in your old Lappy you might find you do not need a new one at all. My wife's laptop has lower specs then yours and it went to 17 sec start and 5 secs down with a new 64GB ssd. Its using Windows 7, probably as fast as anything new.
    Thanks for your suggestions.
    I had considered an SSD in my current laptop but I find it lacking in CPU power as well - I run a lot of curve-fitting software which is heavily CPU dependant. The unit itself is too big, and the battery is beyond knackered.
    The Asus laptops look really good, the G51Jx particularly. Finding it in the UK is impossible though - I can't find the GTX360/Full HD model anywhere or I quite probably would have bought one by now.
    I bought a laptop case from Lambda-Tek after reading their reviews on pricegrabber. I was very impressed about the level of prompt communication from their site. Emails from them:
    Receipt of Order: 12.36 pm
    order confirmation for order LAMBDA1274355314: 12.37 pm
    order LAMBDA1274355314 dispatched: 13.02 pm
    Granted, that was just for a simple laptop sleeve, but it was better than I've seen through most amazon and other orders.
    Let me know how it goes if you decided to do it. -- Paul