Like so many hardware items, laptops have split into two very distinct camps. On one side of the fence we have the kind of models that appear in adverts on the television, shouting loudly about their 1GHz processors and whopping 50GB of storage space at only £500 for the 12" version.
On the other hand, and definitely in the camp that today's review falls into, we have the behemoths. The gaming monsters. Stuffed to the gills with extraordinary power and truly blurring the lines between the performance of a desktop and a laptop.
MSI have quietly been producing some seriously high specification laptops and it's about time we put one through the OC3D tests and discovered if it's possible to move from the desk to the train without losing gaming performance. Thanks to some extremely competitive pricing we've gone straight to the top-of-the-range model, the GT70 Dragon Edition, available for a very acceptable £1700.
The specifications read like a who's who of high-end mobile hardware. The Core i7-3630QM is a quad-core running at a standard 2.4GHz but with a serious overclock available, which we'll get to soon enough. The screen is a full HD 1080 number, and the eye-candy is provided by the nVidia GTX675MX GPU.
There are loads of storage options available, and our test system comes with 2x64GB SSD's in RAID, along with a big storage drive for all your media. THX Dynaudio sound keeps everything sounding amazing, and the inclusion of a Killer DoubleShot network and wireless solution ensures that you never get the dreaded death by ping.
|CPU||3rd Generation Intel® Core™ i7-3630QM Processor|
|Memory||DDR3 1600MHz, SO-DIMM x 4 slots, Max: 32GB (8GB x 4)|
|LCD Size||17.3" full HD (1920x1080) LED backlit, Anti-glare|
|Graphics||nVIDIA Geforce GTX675MX 3D Graphic Card|
|Graphics VRAM||4GB GDDR5|
|HDD (GB)||2x64GB SSD in RAID0 + 750GB SATA|
|Optical Drive||BD Writer / Blu-ray / DVD Super Multi|
|Audio||Sound by Dynaudio, Channel: 7.1|
|LAN||Killer™ DoubleShot configuration (Killer™ Wireless-N 1202 paired with Killer™ E2200)|
|Wireless LAN||802.11 b/g/n|
|USB 2.0 port||2|
|USB 3.0 port||3|
|Dimension||428 x 288 x 55mm|
We often comment upon how initial impressions can make a big difference in making you happy with your purchase, and the Dragon Edition definitely goes for the sleek and subtle option, with just the major highlights on the front of a box dominated by the Dragon Edition logo. Opening up the box and, although our review sample has obviously been around the block a little, you can't help but be impressed. Plenty of sturdy cardboard keeps the laptop itself well protected and all the accessories in their own compartments.
The G series branding is on everything. Opening each bit is an event and helps drag out the anticipation of laying your eyes on the laptop itself. Firstly the brick that keeps you running for as long as you desire.
And a UK moulded power cable. You'd be surprised how many items we see with a Euro plug that forces us to dig through the cupboards for an adaptor.
Documentation is both plentiful and sparse. There is a quick start guide, warranty and such like, but the main manual is contained on the laptop itself, as well as the supplied CD.
Finally we have the Dragon Edition itself. A brushed aluminium top has a beautiful dragon etched into it, which is a royal pain to photograph. On the flip side we have the big 7800mAh battery and plenty of vents to keep it cool when under pressure.
The Dragon Unleashed
As well as the Dragon engraved on the top side, there is one on the wrist portion of the GT70 too.
Starting at the bottom we have the touchpad with split left and right buttons. The keyboard is a SteelSeries affair with an awesome party-trick. As well as being the short-throw laptop style you'd expect, it also has an excellent level of tactile feedback. It's a joy to type on, and with the golden triangle (WASD, Left Control and Space) it's easy to game on too, especially as the Windows key has been moved to the right hand side to avoid accidental presses. Above the keyboard are the speakers, and a touch interface that allows you to adjust the Turbo, cooling, lighting etc.
The screen is a full HD LCD model, with a HD webcam at the top for video calling, or showing off your bedroom on the social networking site of your choice.
The GT70 isn't the slenderest laptop in the world, but we'd rather have this amount of power than have something razor thin but wheezy. On the right hand side is the BluRay writer and two USB ports.
Round the left are the USB 3.0 ports, the card reader and the audio/headphone jacks. Finally at the rear of the Dragon we have power, network and external display outputs.
Hitting the power button and two things are immediately obvious. Firstly the Dragon Edition boots to Windows incredibly quickly, thanks to a combination of the RAID SSDs and the inherent speediness of the Windows 8 procedure. Secondly, and guaranteed to get you calling in people just to come and look at it, is the keyboard lighting.
You can have an array of colour combinations, as well as lighting only certain sections of the SteelSeries keyboard that the GT70 Dragon Edition comes equipped with, but we have to say the rainbow that shipped as default is the best. We never tired of looking at it. It's easy to control with the supplied software. Click and you're ready to go. We can't wait to see this lighting technology brought to one of the SteelSeries desktop keyboards.
The BIOS options are fairly minimal in terms of mad overclocking, but the storage and general options are all available.
The touch panel above the keyboard is very responsive, and everything lights up clearly so you're never unsure if you have the Turbo engaged or not.
Windows 8 - Storage Speed
Windows 8 was clearly designed primarily for the touch-screen/social-network/share-my-life-online generation and not for anyone who actually uses their computer. There is a tendency to go to the "they've changed it, so it sucks" cupboard, but Windows 8 unquestionably follows the Microsoft trend of following an incredible OS with a truly risible one. Everything that was awesome about Windows 7 .. isn't. In fact we'd prefer to go back to Vista if we were forced to change from 7.
Let's give one example then we'll go back to the Dragon Edition. See that People icon? What does it do? Let's click it and find out. Ahh it's for connecting your Live account to the computer. Okay we don't want to do that, so click cancel. What happens? Do you return to the Start screen? Nope. You go to a "you need to sign in" screen in which your options are "Try again". That's it. That's your options. Alt+F4 has never been used as much as it was testing this.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, the speed of the built in RAID array is outstanding. Very nearly 1GB/s. You wont be left hanging around waiting for anything to happen on the MSI GT70 that's for sure.
As well as coming with a beefy i7-3630QM CPU which runs at 2.4GHz at standard, you can hit the Turbo button and gain a whopping overclock, with the CPU topping out just shy of 3.2GHz. Hugely impressive, and nearly as impressive is this doesn't affect the temperature of the Dragon Edition very much, but obviously has an impact on the battery life. Alongside the mighty CPU is 16GB of DDR3 running at 1600MHz. This doesn't lack for horsepower.
For our tests we're putting the GT70 Dragon Edition up against the iBuyPower we reviewed last year. They both have the same GPU, similar CPUs and are very close in theoretical performance.
Firstly the latest version of AIDA64 has adjusted how it calculates the AES and PhotoWorxx results, so those aren't compatible. A pain for us we have to confess, especially as AIDA is such a large part of our test suite. Of the two tests that have remained the GT70 just edges ahead of the Valkyrie.
The memory of the GT70 certainly pushes out some excellent numbers. 17GB/s read and write, and nearly 20GB/s in the copy test.
The extra bit of grunt from the Core i7-3960QM shines in SiSoft Sandra, especially the Multimedia fractal test.
PC Mark 7
PC Mark Vantage is currently incompatible with Windows 8, along with many other things, but PC Mark 7 Pro still gives results, and what excellent performance there is to be had from the MSI Dragon Edition. No matter what it's asked to do it performs it with aplomb, getting near to hardcore desktop scores.
3D Mark 11
With identical GPUs beneath the hood you'd expect the two laptops to be very similar in performance, especially in the Extreme preset, but the GT70 Dragon Edition is spectacular in 3D Mark 11.
The Heaven benchmark is a harsh test but the Dragon Edition comes through with flying colours. It loses a little at minimum frame-rate, but nothing you notice when the benchmark is running. It's certainly a single-frame drop rather than stuttering playback. If anything we expected the results to be even higher, such was the smoothness of the experience whether the anti-aliasing was on or off.
So with our benchmarks neatly swept to one side, let's have a look at the gaming performance. As we've seen throughout our testing, despite having the same GPU beneath the hood the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition makes best use of the hardware available to it. It always outperforms the Valkyrie and sometimes by frankly incredible amounts. One of best games around, Far Cry 3, is very smooth. Our benchmark run was performed on the "Kick the Hornets Nest" mission, which is one of the most intensive set-pieces in the game.
You can't help but be impressed by the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition. No matter what task you set it just chomps through without missing a beat. There are many elements to a successful laptop, and we think the Dragon Edition ticks all the boxes. We know that there is a balance to be had between looks and performance, and generally we err on the side of performance, but the looks are also stunning.
The brushed aluminium coating with the engraved dragon look fantastic, and will really impress anyone sitting opposite you. If someone is lucky enough to be alongside then the keyboard is a show stopper. We adore it. Who doesn't want customisable lighting on their keyboard, especially when you can turn it into a rainbow? It's not only the looks of the keyboard that are impressive but the configuration and typing experience are equally lovely. Shifting the Windows key to the right of the space bar helps your left hand duck and dive without accidentally appearing at the desktop. The touch pad is responsive too, with no over-sensitive click detection problems, and splitting the left and right button only enhance this accuracy.
Continuing the theme of nice to look at the screen is fantastic. Great colour reproduction, good viewing angles, nice brightness and punchy blacks. If you've used a smaller laptop then the sheer real-estate available from a 17" 1080 screen makes productivity a joy. Your ears aren't ignored with the THX audio being truly fantastic. There is absolutely nothing tinny or muffled about it whatsoever. It's truly spectacular whether you're listening to music, watching a film or using the inbuilt HD webcam for a Skype chat. Glorious. The BluRay writer and ability to output to another screen via HDMI or VGA only enhances the multi-role abilities of the GT70 Dragon Edition.
Performance is, as we're certain you'll agree if you've seen the graphs, amazing. We thought the Valkyrie was a good performer and the MSI blows it away. From the speed of the RAID array to the calculation abilities or to the nVidia GTX675M it is impressive on almost any benchmark you care to name. Not impressive for a laptop. Impressive full-stop. We haven't even discussed the Killer Networking, Bluetooth 4.0, excellent WiFi performance or a host of other features that work exactly as you'd hope.
Battery life is always a concern with such a performance laptop, but with a saturation test of solid gaming and Turbo enabled the GT70 Dragon Edition went from full-charge to nearly flat in 3 hours and 13 minutes, and then recharged back full in 3 hours and 2 minutes. Impressive figures we think you'll agree. More normal use will obviously greatly extend this. Temperatures are good, and the noise level was extremely low at all times. If you're in silence you can hear when the cooler speeds up briefly to dissipate a little extra heat, but otherwise you wont notice it. Of course if you hit the "Fans 100%" button you can hear it, but even then it's not irritating.
Of course, as with anything, there are a few niggles. The touch-pad is positioned a little too far off centre for very comfortable gaming. If you've got small hands you'll be okay but if you're a person with larger mitts then you'll be a little cramped for room. Indeed if you planned on a hardcore session we'd recommend plugging a mouse in. Not a game breaker, and fine if you're not WASD gaming, but a little annoying when just placing it centrally would have solved the problem. The price is naturally a little steep compared to the bargain basement options around, but compared to similarly specced models it's extremely competitive. Finally, and it's less of a fault with the laptop as such, we'd recommend you see if it's possible to purchase it with Windows 7 instead of 8. Win8 is so obviously designed for tablets and just SO irritating to use. It brings nothing to the table that makes it worth sticking with.
So the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition laptop. It looks awesome, performs spectacularly, is chock full of brilliant technology but does come at a price for a laptop. Unquestionably a OC3D Performance Award winner, even at £1700.
Thanks to MSI for providing the GT70 Dragon Edition for review. Discuss our findings in our OC3D Forums.