When thinking about luxury gaming notebooks the first brand that usually comes to mind is Alienware. However, more and more names are throwing their hat in the ring, such as Asus, Toshiba, Samsung, and of course MSI.
MSI has been releasing gaming notebooks for a couple of years now, and its latest range of GT70 models are starting to feature the most recent generation of Haswell CPUs from Intel and GTX 700 series GPUs from Nvidia.
The GT70 is offered in a range of configurations at varying price points, down to around NZ$2,999. The specific model we tested was the GT70 20D-058AU. The price tag is a fairly hefty $4,499, which is not out of line with similar products from other brands. Anyone familiar with notebooks will be well aware that “gaming” and “cheap” are mutually exclusive concepts.
To justify the asking price, the GT70 20D-058AU boasts several headline features, enough that it’s hard to know where to start.
The screen is a large 17.3” LCD with Full HD 1920x1080 resolution. This is a good resolution to game at, especially considering the fact that all these pixels are squeezed into a screen that is smaller than most desktop gaming machines, and this results in a finer image.
However, the screen’s performance is a bit hit-and-miss. The image is bright with a satisfying black level and low glare, but it is let down by extremely poor viewing angles and significant colour shift when viewed off-centre. Response times are quick enough for gaming, and there is minimal ghosting apparent.
Pushing pixels to that screen is a Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M graphics processor with 4GB of GDDR5 memory. I’ve always detested the naming convention of notebook GPUs as anyone might reasonably assume that a GTX 780M would be similar to an actual GTX 780 video card, which it isn’t. The GTX 780 desktop video card has 50 per cent more processor cores and a 50 per cent wider memory bus than the GTX 780M notebook chipset.
But Nvidia’s naming policy shouldn’t be held against MSI, and the GTX 780M is still the most powerful notebook GPU money can currently buy. It’s comparable to to a GTX 680 desktop video card, only with slightly lower clock speeds.
In the other corner of the engine room is the mighty Intel i7-4700MQ. As mentioned above, this chip is from the latest Haswell series of processors, and being an i7 CPU has four hyperthreaded cores. It runs at a default clock speed of 2.4GHz, but it can boost up to 3.4GHz if applications demand more CPU grunt and the notebook still has enough power and heat headroom to handle it.
This brings me to what I feel is the most significant drawback of this laptop: heat. Despite MSI’s claim that cooling in this notebook is 15 per cent better than in their last generation, the CPU and GPU are still cooled by a single fan.
I kept an eye on CPU temperature during heavy operation and found that if the GPU is given a heavy load as well – thus generating more heat and putting higher demand on the single fan cooling system – the CPU will actually reach its thermal limit and will throttle down to a slower speed until temperatures reduce, which can significantly harm performance. This can be mitigated somewhat by pushing a button on the notebook which puts the fan into overdrive. It does drop temperatures a little, but also makes the laptop unbearably noisy.
The “Super RAID 2” feature is bound to catch a few eyes. The laptop features no less than three 128GB Solid State Drives in a RAID0 configuration for a total of 384GB of ultra high speed hard drive space (MSI claims up to 1500MB/s) – and that is just for the boot drive. There is also a 1TB 7200RPM drive for storage.
This is overkill. A single, decent 256GB SSD would provide the same user experience – anyone would be unlikely to ever see 1500MB/s transfer speeds in real world usage – for a much lower cost, and this could also potentially free up room to add a second fan in for the CPU/GPU boiler room.
Other key features include a whopping 32GB of DDR3-1600 (again, overkill, I’d much rather see a smaller but faster memory configuration, such as 16GB of DDR3-2133) and the ability to drive up to three extra monitors via HDMI, VGA and miniDP.
GT70 20D-058AU has fantastic build quality. The palm rest and lid give industrial vibes with a brushed aluminium finish, plus the inbuilt keyboard and supplied mouse are both Steelseries products, something that will definitely be appreciated by hardcore gamers.
The keyboard is backlit and comes with an LED manager app in Windows which lets the user choose a colour scheme that suits them, as well as tailoring the lighting theme to suit any preference. For example, users can just light up the WASD key cluster, and other common gaming keys.
At 3.9 kg, no one will want to lug it around in a backpack all day, but that is generally the price to be paid for a true desktop-replacement notebook. The 9-cell battery provided me just under four hours of DVD playback, and about two and a half hours of game time (including Wi-Fi traffic), which is respectable for such a grunty machine.
One thing to note is that the 180-watt power supply can’t deliver as much power as the notebook can actually use, so MSI included a feature it calls NOS that uses both the battery and AC power combined to supply juice to the system when games or applications demand it until either the load reduces, or the battery hits 30 per cent.
Rounding out the specs are Killer DoubleShot wired and wireless network adaptors that prioritise gaming traffic over other less latency-sensitive connections, three USB3.0 ports, DVD and Blu-ray writer combo drive, a 2.1 speaker system (which is actually quite powerful for a notebook), Windows 8 operating system, and a heck of a lot of bloatware – some of which is actually useful, the rest of which can easily be uninstalled.
To test the gaming performance of the laptop I installed a few popular PC games and set about finding the maximum quality settings that still provided smooth gameplay.
Battlefield 3 ran butter-smooth in ‘Ultra’ mode (the highest option), hovering around 50 to 70 FPS, even in hectic outdoor battles. Far Cry 3 wasn’t quite as accommodating; it required the image quality to be lowered down to the ‘High’ setting to keep around the 60 FPS mark.
BioShock Infinite also averaged in the mid-60s in ‘High’ mode. GRID 2 brought the system to its knees: the ‘Low’ setting saw the laptop crawling along at a stuttery 40 FPS, but this might’ve been caused by thermal throttling – it’s a game that stresses both the CPU and GPU.
Nonetheless, MSI’s GT70 20D-058AU is worth its asking price. It is a well-built, high-performance, feature-stacked, good-looking machine.
At $4,499, most people would expect the best, and anyone in the market for a gaming laptop should give the GT70 20D-058AU a thorough trial run – the feature set alone leaves most of the competition far behind.