Can I buy a fast and powerful work laptop for under £700?

Can I buy a fast and powerful work laptop for under £700?

Ivana is on a budget but still wants a new 13in machine that can handle tougher tasks than email and browsing

Thu 3 May 2018 06.18 EDT Last modified on Fri 4 May 2018 08.08 EDT

I left my corporate job a few months ago and now need to purchase a new laptop for my work. I am looking for a 13in laptop in the £500-£700 range. I am not too picky about the aesthetics. What matters most is that it’s fast and can handle more tasks than just email and browsing. What is my best bet? Ivana

This is an interesting question, partly because the mainstream PC market is broadly divided into two main groups. There are lots of low-end laptops aimed at consumers, and they usually cost around £250 to £500. (Yes, there are even cheaper systems.) Examples include the Lenovo Ideapad 110, Asus VivoBook, and lots of HP Pavilion and Dell Inspiron laptops. Most are relatively slow, but some are fast enough for your purposes.

There are also lots of upmarket laptops for high-end buyers and freelancers, and they usually cost from £750 to £1,500. (Yes, there are even more expensive systems, especially the ones designed for gaming.) Examples include the Dell XPS 13, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, HP’s Spectre 13 and EliteBook x360 G2, the Microsoft Surface range and many more. Most of them are thin and fast, but you are also paying a premium for aesthetics.

The third option is to look at laptops aimed at IT managers, especially those in large corporations. Most are designed more for durability, reparability and predictability than for speed or style. The main examples are Lenovo (formerly IBM) ThinkPads, Dell Latitudes, and HP Elitebooks. You can also buy refurbished models of these machines from corporate asset management companies such as Tier1Online.

It would be useful to know the specification of the laptop that you used in your corporate job, for comparison purposes, and the work involved. How fast was the processor? How much memory did it have? Did it have a traditional hard disk drive or a faster SSD? What was the screen resolution?

Was your corporate laptop as fast as you wanted, or did it feel too slow?

If you know which CPU you had, you can check its PassMark score, or find it on Notebookcheck’s list of mobile processor benchmarks. You will then be able to make sure you buy a faster CPU and as much or more memory than you had before.

A typical corporate laptop today might have an Intel Core i5-5200U or similar processor, 8GB of memory, and a 128GB or 256GB SSD. I reckon you would find that a usable specification. However, it can be very frustrating to go from a fast laptop to a slow one, so try to avoid that.

A Core i5-5200U has a PassMark score of 3492, which isn’t very fast by today’s laptop standards – a Core i7-7700HQ scores 8865. However, you’d only need a very fast processor for video editing, graphics applications, or handling very large spreadsheets, and it would be better to do those on a desktop.

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As for size, 13.3in screens are not as popular as they used to be, and there are now models with 10.1in, 11.6in, 12.5in and 14in screens as well. Ultraportables with 10.1in or 11.6in screens are a bit small for everyday use, but 14in models are becoming increasingly common.

If you buy a consumer laptop you’ll have the advantage of shopping for one of the better models, but there’s not a lot to choose between them. There’s been a trend towards more solid construction and better trackpads, along with higher prices.

You can check out the different models at stores such as PC World and John Lewis, but there are many other suppliers. I’m linking to PC World partly because I did that myself on Tuesday.

Have a look at an HP Pavilion 14-bk052sa with a 14in screen, which is available in silver or gold for £429. It has an Intel Core i3-7100U processor with 8GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. There’s also an x360 version – where the screen folds over to work as a tablet – at £549.99.

I’d normally prefer a Core i5. However, the seventh-generation Core i3-7100U has a PassMark score of 3778, which is faster than a fifth-gen Core i5-5200U (3492) and not too far behind a sixth-gen Core i5-6200U (4014).

The main drawback with the HP Pavilion 14 and similar consumer laptops is that most of them have a standard Windows screen resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. But if this is what you’re used to, you probably won’t mind.

If you are used to high-definition 1920 x 1080-pixel “Full HD” screens, it would be better to go for a discounted Lenovo Ideapad IP320s for £549.99. This has a Core i7-7500U (PassMark 3492), 8GB of memory and a 128GB SSD.

Alternatively, consider an Acer Swift 3 SF314-52G or a Lenovo Ideapad IP320s-14IKB. Both have 8GB of memory and 2x bigger 256GB SSDs. The Acer Swift 3 has a Core i5-7200U (PassMark 4646) and Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics for £649.99, while the Ideapad IP320s has a Core i7-8550U (PasssMark 8304) for a penny less: £649.98. The Swift 3 is a nice laptop but the Ideapad 320 wins easily on speed.

You could also consider the 13.3in Dell Inspiron 5000 2-in-1 range, with models that stretch from £479 to £929. The best value for your purposes is the one with a Core i5-8250U (PassMark 7654) for £699.

One of the advantages of buying a Dell business laptop – not an Inspiron – is that you can add next-business-day on-site service for a low price. For example, you could get a 14in Vostro 5471 from Dell’s small business/soho range with a Core i5-8250U/8GB/256GB spec for £579 plus delivery and VAT. You could then add four years of collect-and-return service for £50.36, or four years of on-site service for £95.14.

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I’ve used this service in the past, and have it on my current Dell desktop. I can confirm that having someone turn up on your doorstep to fix things is fantastic value for 46p a week.

The Vostro 5471 with the spec mentioned, four years of ProSupport Plus and on-site service, VAT and delivery currently comes to £885.05. It busts your budget, but if you are used to getting good IT support, it’s probably worth it.

Bear in mind that you can also buy HP laptops direct and add three years of pick up-and-return service for £79 or less. If you like the HP Pavilion 14, you can get a 14-bk002na with 4GB and a Full HD (1920 x 1080-pixel) screen for £429, or a silver Pavilion x360 14-ba007na with 8GB and a 1366 x 768 screen for (flash sale) £449.10. Both these laptops have Core i3-7100U processors and 128GB SSDs.

Most Pavilion 14 laptops have two memory slots, so you should be able to expand a 4GB system to 8GB, but check before buying. Their usual maximum memory is 16GB.

I recently wrote an answer about buying refurbished laptops, and this option might suit you. For example, Tier1Online is currently offering a 14in ThinkPad X1 Carbon with a Core i7-4600U processor (PassMark 4111), 8GB of memory, a 240GB SSD and a 1600 x 900-pixel screen with a one-year warranty for £449, or with a three-year warranty for £509. It is grade B (some cosmetic defects) but should work perfectly well. A newer grade A version with a Core i7-5600U (PassMark 4305) and a 1920 x 1080 screen would set you back £619. In all cases, I’d also take advantage of Tier1Online’s cheap upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. (107) add

Most refurb buyers are looking for cheap machines, typically under £250. In your case, you could get a high-end laptop – the latest X1 Carbon starts at £1,439.99 – within your budget.

Refurbs are available from many other websites including Laptop Outlet and Dell Outlet, as well as on Amazon and eBay. As long as you go for a decent spec, they should do what you need.

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