Overall rating: 8/10
Value for money: 9/10
Pros: Well priced, powerful discrete graphics, portable, easy access to add more RAM (or remove dust) and nice backlit chiclet keyboard
Cons: Speakers aren’t great, problem with audio output switching and heavy for it’s size
Back in 2009 I bought my last laptop, a Dell Studio 1557 complete with a quad core i7-720qm processor. It was a veritable powerhouse but shortly after buying it I noticed the fan would run constantly and even the keyboard became worryingly warm. I put up with it as it’s speed more than justified having to use it like a desktop rather than a laptop.
I wish I hadn’t. I wish back then I had sent it back to Dell and asked for my money back as, shortly after the years warranty was up, it began overheating until it turned off. Even minor load would cause it to hit temps in excess of 108℃! I researched the problem online and found an article which suggested removing the existing thermal paste (really more like a foam) and replacing it with copper shims and high quality thermal paste like Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound 3.5g Tube. I duly did this and the laptop lived another 4 years. It was never the same though, never the number crunching 3D cad rendering beast it once was. All those thermal shutdowns had irreparably damaged something and with the ipad launched in April 2010, and the populist shift from laptops to tablets, I began to use it less and less. It finally gave up the ghost in January… it was time to go laptop shopping.
Would I look at Dell again? In a word no. Their prices are good, the build quality okay but the thermal design was terrible. Then a few months ago a friend asked me to help her with her Dell XPS 13 whose screen had gone caput for no clear reason. It was out of warranty by a few months and she was told it would cost over £450 to have the screen replaced. That is almost half the value of a brand new 2015 model! Luckily I know how these things work so I pestered customer support for days. I told them how we use only Dell computers at work, how I was looking to buy a new laptop in the near future and how I thought it would be a fantastic gesture of goodwill if they were to fix this for my friend free of charge. A £1,000+ laptop is (or should be) designed to last considerably longer than a year. The next day they sent a technician with a replacement screen round who fixed it in just 10mins. I was impressed, very in fact but I didn’t like how they had tried to fob her off and overcharge for a fix that they later did for nothing. So no, Dell was a non starter for my new laptop.
What did I want from it? I started out looking for something I could learn to program and design websites on. It didn’t need to be big and powerful for this so an Ultrabook looked like the best choice. Long battery life, touchscreen and slim, lightweight designs. I checked reviews on techradar, PCadviser and which? I read customer’s testimonials on reevoo and I got a shortlist down to just three models. Next was the hands on so in I walked to PC World to see how they actually felt to use. Did the keyboard feel nice to type on, was the screen bright and clear, was the laptop responsive? Yes, yes and yes! Were they the exact same models I had read the reviews of? No. It seems to me to be impossible to buy a laptop from anywhere that is the same model no. as a reviewed one. Look at the Asus Zenbook for example and try and work out which combination of letters should follow. Acer is even worse. I looked at the Acer Aspire S7-392. That seems like enough numbers to specify the correct model but if you want to be certain it’s the right configuration you will also need the 4 digit code on the end. Except most retailers don’t list this! They don’t think your interested in the full code so you have to guess and hope you’ll receive the laptop with 2 sticks of 4Gb ram instead of 1 stick of 8Gb (it’s important to some of us…).
Now I admit that these concerns aren’t necessarily an issue for the average shopper but they should be. You don’t just buy a Ford Focus, you buy a Ford Focus Titanium 1.5T Ecoboost and you would be pretty pissed if you got it home to find out the dealer had left “Auto” off the end of the description. More importantly manufacturers should make it clearer what they offer in terms of specs and this is why Apple does so well. It’s models are clearly marked and the range is narrow enough to make it easy to choose. I don’t want a Mac though (so Apple was out) but it was clear to me I wanted to know exactly what I was getting and even be able to specify a few points if possible.
The killer for the Ultrabooks though is the lack of discrete mouse keys. Intel specifies what characteristics a laptop must have to earn the Ultrabook designation and I wonder if this is one of them or whether manufacturers decided we don’t want or need discrete keys with the introduction of touchscreens. Either way it just doesn’t work with me and not a single Ultrabook touchpad was as responsive as I’d like. They all felt like they were made from cheap plastic to get under the weight limit Intel sets and this made them feel tacky.
Then I stumbled upon PCSpecialist. Custom built computers with the performance to match any of the big brands at a fraction of the price and I was sold. Better yet I didn’t even need to choose the components of the model I’d read the review of! It was right there under the review tab and, as PCSpecialist fix the prices of their review models, it even worked out cheaper than if I spec’d it myself.
After browsing and asking a few questions on the very helpful PCSpecialist forum, I purchased the Optimus V X13 in review spec for £749. The process was very straightforward but when you buy the review spec pcs you don’t get any ability to customise the build so it is worth keeping that in mind and potentially paying a bit more to go for a fully custom computer if there’s components you want to change.
Chassis & Display Optimus Series: 13.3″ Matte Full HD LED IPS Widescreen (1920×1080).
Processor: (CPU) Intel Core i7 Quad Core Mobile Processor i7-4710MQ (2.50GHz) 6MB.
Memory: (RAM) 8GB KINGSTON HYPER-X IMPACT 1600MHz SODIMM DDR3 (1 x 8GB).
Graphics Card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M – 2.0GB DDR5, 640 CUDA Cores – DirectX 11.
Hard Disk: 1TB SEAGATE HYBRID GEN3 SSHD Drive, SATA 6 Gb/s, 64MB CACHE (5400 rpm).
Memory Card Reader: Integrated 6 in 1 Card Reader (SD /Mini SD/ SDHC / SDXC / MMC / RSMMC).
Thermal Paste: ARCTIC MX-4 EXTREME THERMAL CONDUCTIVITY COMPOUND.
Sound Card: Intel 2 Channel High Definition Audio + MIC/Headphone Jack.
Bluetooth & Wireless: GIGABIT LAN & WIRELESS INTEL N-7260 (300Mbps, 802.11BGN) + BLUETOOTH.
USB Options: 3 x USB 3.0 PORTS + 1 x USB 2.0 PORT AS STANDARD.
Battery: 13.3″ Optimus Series 6 Cell Lithium Ion Battery (62.16WH).
Power Lead & Adapter: 1 x UK Power Lead & 120W AC Adapter.
Operating System: Genuine Windows 8.1 64 Bit – inc DVD & Licence.
Keyboard: Language 13.3″ OPTIMUS SERIES BACKLIT UK KEYBOARD.
Warranty: 3 Year Silver Warranty (1 Year Collect & Return, 1 Year Parts, 3 Year Labour).
Total Order Price: £749.00 inc vat.
As soon as I clicked the buy button I wished I’d paid extra for priority build. I’m not good at waiting for things and generally prefer to pay more to buy stuff that will arrive within the week. In the end it was actually fairly quick and 12 working days later I had a very well packaged box arrive.
Set up was a breeze and it was refreshing to not see a load of bloatware, the likes of which Acer are renowned for. The Solid State Hybrid Drive is fantastic; lots of storage with the zippyness of a SSD. The screen is bright and crisp and the general build quality of the laptop belies the fact that the chassis is a made by Taiwanese company called Clevo (the optimus V 13 is built on a Clevo W230SS). Clevo make barebone laptops for a lot of the custom build companies; Eurocom, Sager and Schenker all sell rebadged versions of this chassis. I was concerned about bad pixels and so I called up and paid for the dead pixel guarantee just in case but screen quality has improved hugely in the past few years so it probably is not necessary unless you’re likely to be bothered by it.
Sure the Optimus V is heavier and thicker than other laptops but not deal breakingly so given the additional grunt you get from having a dedicated graphics card. The heat dispersion is also very effectively handled by a single vent on the left hand side and even when under heavy load it doesn’t break past 90℃. With the Nvidia graphics card auto switching to the onboard graphics battery life isn’t too adversely affected either.
The look of the Optimus V has been described as a dull grey slab but I love it. The angular edges and soft matt black on the rear of the screen look understated and futuristic to me. The build quality is on par with the best of them and this is due to the three “build, test and QC” stages that PCSpecialist put all their PCs through. The chiclet keyboard is a joy to type on with plenty of travel on the keys to allow long stints of coding or writing blog posts without issue.
The only issue I had is with the auto switching of the soundcard from headphones to onboard speakers but this was quickly solved by reinstalling the audio drivers from the download section on the PCSpecialist website. Each order is assigned a download page which lists drivers for that particular order and configuration. This means that reinstalls of Windows, or upgrading to Windows 10, won’t lead to days spent crawling the internet trying to find the correct drivers.
Overall I’m really happy with my laptop. It has run everything I’ve chucked at it without trouble and the Full HD display means that real estate isn’t compromised by the small 13.3″ screen.
I suppose this is more a review of PCSpecialist themselves than the laptop I bought and this is because there’s nothing I can really add that isn’t covered by other reviews online (see Kitguru’s review here). Checking out their website shows that they have recently released an updated Optimus with the designator VI. I’m sure it will garner the same high review scores as it’s predecessor. All in all I highly recommend PCSpecialist and, with my girlfriend’s 4 year old Acer laptop on the way out, I am sure we will be placing a second order with them soon.