Which laptop to buy, 2014 edition

In what could only fall firmly into the first-world problems category, I’m currently suffering a dilemma as to what laptop I should buy. My requirements are common – a good balance of power, performance and portability. I’ve decided the specification I should go for is:

  • Intel Core i5 (4th generation, Haswell)
  • 8Gb ram
  • 256Gb SSD
  • 13″ display, resolution at least 1920×1080

I think these specs make for the best price / performance balance on most of the laptops I’ve priced up.

My current laptop is a Dell E4300 which is now approaching 5 years old. I picked that up refurbished in early 2009, and as far as computers go it’s the best value purchase I’ve ever made (see the tag link for my earlier posts about this machine). I paid about $1200 NZD for it (~£550), it had 4Gb ram out of the box, and for the time it was portable enough with good battery life. Now days the 2.26ghz Core 2 Duo processor is pretty slow, but adding an SSD a couple of years ago gave it a new lease of life. Even today running Ubuntu 13.10 it’s still pretty nippy. The main issues I have with it today are its weight, the very poor display (even then it was just OK) and the battery is starting to weaken. It was never particularly good on Ubuntu to begin with, but it’s down to under 2 hours of web browsing which is not really acceptable these days.

I also have an early 2013 15″ Retina Macbook pro at my disposal, courtesy of my job. This is an incredible machine. It’s very powerful, has an amazing display, and weighs only a little more than the E4300. However being a work machine, it must be connected to the corporate network once a month to stay functional, power-sucking antivirus software and online backup tools are enforced, and the IT department has root. That said, use for personal activities is allowed, I just have to accept the privacy implications.

The problem is, after using a Retina Macbook, going back to the E4300 with its awful touchpad and TN LCD panel becomes increasingly difficult. So I’ve found myself using the work laptop as my main personal machine, which is not ideal. It’s also not as portable as I’d like, so it’s time to get a new personal laptop.

Which OS?

Not Windows 8. This is not due to any philosophical opposition to Windows, it’s just that I use mostly open source software and spend a lot of time in a bash prompt, thus a unix-like operating system such as Mac OS or Linux meets my needs best. Were it not for Homebrew or Macports, OSX probably wouldn’t be a viable option either.

If you want an Ubuntu laptop, Dell appears the best choice. Besides offering a “developer edition” XPS 13 with official support for Ubuntu, the software can be used on the Windows models as well. So you can buy a Windows XPS 13, install Ubuntu and you’re away. If you stick to a supported version of Ubuntu (such as the LTS releases), everything should just work after installing the project sputnik PPA.

Sticking to a supported version is a key caveat though – I might find myself stuck a version or two behind to keep full functionality. Battery life is also not as good as Windows (or OSX). With Apple now offering its OSX upgrades free of charge, making compromises to stick to Linux becomes a harder sell. But mobile and battery life is obviously a key focus for Canonical going forward as they are moving into smartphones, and laptops now outsell desktops by far.

Which Mac?

The Macbook Air 13 and Macbook Pro Retina 13 are quite similar in price. Configure the i5 version of each with 8gb ram and a 256Gb SSD and the price difference is just £50. With the pro it does feel like you get more for your money – the Air has a 1440×900 display which is looking really dated these days – high DPI screens are becoming the norm, especially on laptops over £1000. The pro also has a more powerful CPU and GPU, but the latter is insignificant due to the higher number of pixels it has to push.

The lower weight and higher battery life of the Air suit me best, especially with a 15″ pro at my disposal, but I’m not prepared to settle for the 1440×900 display unfortunately, as this more than anything is what is prompting me to replace the Latitude. So my choices on the Mac side are to buy the Pro 13 now or wait for a refresh of the Air.

Having both a 15 inch and a 13 inch Macbook Pro seems a bit silly though, and there are PC laptops with high-res displays, the form factor of the Air and faster CPUs as well. So…

Which PC?

This is easy – Dell XPS 13. Of the current crop of Ultrabooks it isn’t really the best at anything, but it is an excellent all-rounder. My main gripe with it would be the lack of an SD card slot, and the wifi reception has been criticised which is a concern. Of the Windows machines I’d go for CNX9302 – it has a Core i7 4500U, 8Gb, 256Gb SSD and costs £1,179. However the Developer Edition machine of the same spec costs £899 + VAT (£1,025), a £120 saving for ditching Windows. So that choice becomes easy as well. Note – if you’re looking for the developer edition and can’t see it, make sure you’re on Dell’s “for work” shop and not “for home”.

You can also upgrade to HD5000 graphics for £100 + VAT. The performance improvement of HD5000 over the HD4000 is about 15% on average according to Anandtech. When you consider that the HD4400 is somewhere between but closer to the HD5000, it seems like a poor value proposition to me. No wonder most PC manufacturers are opting for HD4400.


The choice is basically down to OS. The only thing I’m really giving up by using Ubuntu is Adobe Lightroom, and I do have a Windows desktop (or the work laptop) for that. So it’s not a deal breaker. But OSX is undoubtably more polished than Ubuntu, and all things being equal would be my first choice.

While I don’t expect to get as much mileage out of my next laptop as I did my last one (that was achieved with upgrades, and modern slim laptops are not upgradeable), I still intend for this laptop to last at least 3 years. So the decision is a significant one.

I don’t really consider resale value to be critical as I tend to run machines into the ground, but there’s no question that Macs do hold their value for longer – and a Mac Pro will be useful for longer than an Air.

If I had to buy something today it would be the XPS 13 DE. But I don’t really. A Macbook Air with a higher DPI display would suit my needs best, so for now I think I’ll sit on it for a while, stick with the work laptop, and keep private stuff er… private.

3 thoughts on “Which laptop to buy, 2014 edition

  1. Matt

    Interesting analysis.

    I’ve just gone through the process of trying to decide what I want my next laptop to be. Of which, was a horrible mission. I’m in NZ, and found anything sold in retail to be pretty rubbish. Anything business is definitely better quality, but most lack graphics cards. I’m replacing what I’ve found to be the best laptop ever, my 5 year old toshiba satellite M200 (http://www.cnet.com.au/toshiba-satellite-m200-core-2-duo-1-5ghz-1gb-ram-339286324.htm)

    What made this laptop awesome, was the keyboard is brilliant to type on (a big thing for me), the touchpad also works great, and at 14.1″ 1280 x 800 the screen is pretty good. I thought all of this was pretty standard until going out and trying new laptops. I find most laptops these days have terrible keyboards, touchpads that suck, and it seems for 15″ screens, 1366×768 is a standard resolution (gross!).

    The only thing this laptop really lacks for me these days is the battery is shot, and no graphics card. I’ve been running Linux Mint on it for probably 3 years and it’s been great. Mint was a breath of new life after running Windows 7 on it for a few months.

    Anywho to my battle of finding a decent new laptop.

    – Portability
    – High res screen
    – Decent keyboard
    – Graphics card
    – Under $1500 NZ.

    Long story short, I couldn’t find anything I wanted in NZ. Most laptops with those requirements seemed to only be available in the US/UK markets.

    I settled with the Lenovo IdeaPad Y410p for $799US

    – 4th Generation Intel Core i7-4700MQ
    – NVIDIA GeForce GT755M GDDR5 2GB
    – 8gb Ram
    -1TB 5400 RPM+24GB SSD
    – 14.0″ HD+ Glossy LED Backlit with integrated camera 1600×900

    For the price + specs, I think it’s a pretty good deal.

    I’m currently waiting to get the laptop from the states (used a forward shipping service who also had to pay for it for me as lenovo US don’t accept nonUS CC and won’t post internationally). I’m just hoping the build quality of the laptop is alright though.

    All up 799US + post + tax, hopefully should be under $1400NZ once it’s in the country.

    Really not too sure how good linux support is on it. But here’s hoping I can get it dual booting with Mint fine.

    Lenovo UK doesn’t seem to sell the 14″ Y410p, but does have the 15.6″ y510p – http://shop.lenovo.com/gb/en/laptops/ideapad/y-series/y510p/ Not sure how those prices compare to what else you’re looking at, but potentially could be a contender.



    1. Alex Post author

      Hi Matt, thanks for the comment and my apologies for the delay in approving/replying. Somehow it slipped through the gaps thanks to the holiday period!

      I remember the M200 – in fact I deployed about 20 of them about 6 years ago. They were nice machines, much better than the A100 we deployed before.

      Thanks for the Yoga suggestion. There are a few Yoga models available over here but I’m definitely looking in the ultraportable sub-14″ category – the 13″ Air is the ideal form factor and 15.6″ is way too big. This is going to be a travel laptop for me. The Yoga 2 pro looks good, it’s just that compromises have to be made compared to a Mac – specifically touchpad, keyboard and operating system. Also an equivalent spec to the retina pro would cost more while battery life and portability remain about the same, so it doesn’t really stack up for me.

      The Lenovo X1 Carbon now looks best on the PC side (I have a soft spot for Thinkpads), despite having a 14″ display it’s basically the same size as the 13″ Air. But it’s yet to be released here in the UK, and the price is likely to be… ouch. I never thought I’d see a Mac as a fiscally responsible option.

      So I’ve now come full circle and am basically ready to purchase a 13″ Retina Macbook pro. A colleague of mine purchased the old ivy bridge XPS 13 at a discount and has not been that impressed with it. Battery life is OK but the touchpad leaves something to be desired – Macs are unfortunately very hard to beat in this respect.

      On eBay you can get the top-end 2.6ghz 512GB model for £1,275 – only a smidgen more than the mid-range 2.4ghz/256GB model on the apple store. I don’t really need 512GB yet, but more flash space certainly doesn’t hurt.

      I’m spending more this round because I’ve been spoiled by the 15″ retina, last time my frame of reference was budget laptops and the Latitude was a nice step up. So this round is costing me twice as much, and it will also be my first ever purchase of an Apple product. Don’t let me down, Apple.


  2. Pingback: 13″ Retina Macbook Pro (late 2013) – Buyer Review | Al4

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