MSI GT70 gaming laptop review

Now that Intel's let the cat out of the bag (and into the Ivy), it's high time we took a look at what manufacturers are going to do with those fancy new processors. Behold: The MSI GT70 gaming laptop, one of the first gaming beasts out of the door with Intel's next generation architecture. Living up to its next-gen CES promises, this 17.3-inch behemoth falls squarely in the desktop replacement category, at 8.6 pounds, and packs a new 2.3GHz Core i7-3610QM processor, NVIDIA's latest GeForce GTX 670M chip with 3GB of video memory, 16GB of DDR3 RAM and a fancy RAID 0 dual SSD setup -- all wrapped in one hefty, formidable package. So how powerful a combination do Ivy Bridge and NVIDIA make? Let's find out.

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MSI GT70 review

Look and feel

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For all its bells and whistles, the GT70 is an unassuming beast.

MSI's latest rig boldly models the gargantuan proportions we've come to expect from high-end desktop replacements, weighing in at 8.6 pounds spread over a 16.85 x 11.34 x 2.16-inch frame. The stalwart machine follows the standard "large laptop" shape -- that is, bulky in the back, tapering down to a (comparatively) thinner front edge. Crowning the notebook is a dark brushed aluminum lid, framed by a matte black band. Its hinge sits above a pair of stereo speakers and a fairly standard-looking control bar. Amid the display, power and WiFi toggles that normally crowd the keyboard deck, there's also a special turbo button that promises "one-touch overclocking," along with a "cooler boost" toggle that makes the unit's fan spin faster.

A pair of standard USB ports share the machine's right edge with a buttonless, tray-loading optical drive. Eject button? Take a look at that control bar one more time -- you won't be opening this drive bay by mistake. The rig's left side mirrors the right with a large vent, a trio of USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and a quartet of analog jacks: headphone, microphone line-in and line-out. Up front, the machine flaunts a single row of indicator lights: Bluetooth, WiFi, battery, sleep and disk activity. A duo of HDMI and VGA outputs can be found on the back edge, accompanied by an eSATA socket, Ethernet jack and the all-important AC port.

For all its bells and whistles, however, the GT70 is a rather unassuming beast, with a simple black interior that matches the outside. Red accents underlining the trackpad and that touch-sensitive control bar are the only embellishments MSI dared to include. The dark, industrial edges are a nice departure from some of the flashier machines on the market, and lend the GT70 a little gravitas, to boot.

Keyboard and trackpad

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The touchpad avoids many of the pitfalls common to other portable rigs.

The machine's typewriter boasts a "keyboard by SteelSeries" badge, and it lives up to the brand name. Each press is met with a satisfying mechanical click. The simple black keys are accented by a programmable multicolored LED backlight, which bleeds out from behind each keycap, dimly illuminating the translucent lettering on each of the keys. The SteelSeries washboard may lack the firm clickity-clack of a full-on mechanical keyboard, but typing on it feels tactile, responsive and free of the cheap, gummy quality that plagues far too many laptops. MSI didn't fiddle much with the standard keyboard layout -- a typical QWERTY lineup hogs the majority of the machine's face and is headlined by a row of F1-12 keys, a few function toggles and a starboard number pad. Its only oddity lies in the absence of a port-side windows key, a welcome omission for gamers who are all too familiar with the mid-game misclick quit.

Like its companion keyboard, the touchpad avoids many of the pitfalls common to other portable rigs. For instance, its position, south of they center of the typewriter's home row, ensures the pad is out of the way of a typist's furious fingers, making accidental palm-activated cursor jumps unlikely. More importantly, it handles multitouch shortcuts like a pro, easily recognizing and executing gestures without fuss. Like the keyboard, the touch buttons are solid, and not at all mushy. All around, text input and cursor manipulation on the GT70 is refreshing, though the discerning gamer will still want a dedicated mouse for racking up headshots.

Display and sound

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If any one piece of the GT70's build falls short of the rest, it would have to be the screen.

The GT70's Dynaudio sound system is somewhat of a standard for MSI rigs, and for good reason. Loud and clear is the classic, apt description for the capable 2.1 speaker setup. The speakers have enough oomph to easily fill a room without distortion. Game audio and music flow richly from the stereo drivers and the orphaned subwoofer on the machine's underbelly, showcasing a clear left-right differential. Sure, good stereo still won't replace a proper surround sound pair of gaming cans, but it's a boon for lazy headset-free gaming. Of course, a good chunk of this listening experience is dependent on the onboard THX TruStudio PRO software, although it can be nixed for a solid tin can impression. We kept the software on and our ears happy.

If any one piece of the GT70's build falls short of the rest, it would have to be the screen. Sure, its 17.3-inch (1920 x 1080) LED panel looks wonderful head-on, but its viewing angles are regretfully shallow. Sitting one chair off center of the screen betrays a sharp loss in color, and it doesn't take much horizontal adjustment to kill a viewer with contrast. For a standalone, stationary setup, a single user won't have an issue with this, but sharing the screen or using it in a multi-monitor situation (as anything but the primary monitor) could prove to be problematic.

Performance and battery life

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If you can be bothered to lug the GT70's mighty mass down to your local coffee shop, make sure you have room for a few cups of joe -- you could be there awhile. The MSI rig didn't give up on Engadget's standard battery test for almost three hours, a respectable runtime for a 17.3-inch gaming powerhouse. Of course, if your mobile gaming itch calls for something a little more intense than Minesweeper, you'll want to keep the rig's power brick handy: NVIDIA's discrete graphics chip falls asleep without a nearby outlet. While the machine's integrated GPU can technically run modern games, getting them to run at a playable framerate requires major sacrifices in resolution and visual fidelity.

When you do sit down with that AC adapter, however, you'll be playing with some serious power. Those fancy new processors Intel just unleashed? We've got one right here: the Intel Core i7-3610QM clocked at 2.3GHz (3.3GHz with Turbo Boost). NVIDIA takes up the brawn to the rig's brain with a GeForce GTX 670M and its 3GB of dedicated video memory. We couldn't help but try and push the rig to its limit. Games with "very high" settings simply weren't enough; we had to single out titles that went "ultra." Maxing out the video settings in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Battlefield 3 snagged us average frame rates of 38 and 25 at the screens native 1920 x 1080 resolution, respectively. The fields of Tamriel's frozen north were certainly playable, but we had to scale back a few settings to keep our modern soldier on the front lines. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto IV and Crysis (you just gotta test Crysis) lingered below 30 fps unless compromises were made. Source games like Portal 2 and Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, blazed at their maximum settings, pushing 90 fps in Aperture's testing labs and 60 while defending the stronghold -- both easily breaking the three digit barrier with minor tweaks.

PCMarkVantage 3DMark06 Battery Life
MSI GT70 (2.3GHz Core i7-3610QM, GeForce GTX670M) 14,073 18,955 2:49
MSI GT683DXR (2.00GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 570M) 9,074 16,862 2:40
2011 Sony Vaio F Series (2.20GHz Core i7-2670QM, GeForce GT 540M) 8,116 8,394 2:07
Sony VAIO Z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6650M) 11,855 7,955 4:15
Dell XPS M15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, GeForce GT525M) 8,023 7,317 3:41 / 4:26 (Optimus disabled)
Qosmio X775-3DV78 (2.0GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 560M) 7,900 15,169 1:26
2011 HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M) 6,735 7,214 3:55
2010 HP Envy 17 (1.60GHz Core i7-740QM, ATI Radeon HD 5850) 6,153 10,787 2:10

Of course a gaming machine plays games, but how about the day to day stuff? Well, it certainly didn't seem to mind the unscientific absurdity of the Engadget workflow: two browsers, each with 15 to 20 open tabs running under Photoshop, word processors and multiple active chat clients. It didn't even seem to mind when we intentionally overloaded twenty of those tabs with streaming video. All fun aside, the GT70 did manage to bench a few notable numbers, and its dual 64GB SSDs in RAID 0 made sure general navigation was lightning-fast. Although the laptop's 27-second boot / 1.8-second wake times seemed speedy to us, a MSI representative told us our test unit was actually underperforming on the SSD front. Our machine clocked 656 MB/s read and 354 MB/s write speeds in the ATTO disk benchmark, but it's rated to top out at 900 MB/s when properly configured. So as happy as we were, we certainly wouldn't scoff at faster solid-state storage.

Earlier we mentioned a "turbo" toggle on the laptop's touch sensitive control bar -- this activates the MSI Turbo Drive Engine, a one-touch VGA overclock tool that's supposed to sharpen the rig's already fine edge. While we couldn't get the TDE to bolster in-game performance by more than a one or two frames per second, it did kick the rig's benchmark scores up a notch. With the overclock engaged, PCMark rated the GT70 at 14,225; 3DMark06 pegged it at 19,213, jumping its scores by 200 on both accounts -- give or take 20 points.

Software

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It's a fact of life: if you didn't build your own rig by hand, it's probably going to come with a few pre-installed "goodies" that nobody asked for. The GT70 may not be an exception to this rule, but at least it's not an egregious offender. Yes, it has a suite of multimedia management trialware (MAGIX Photo Manager 9, Music Maker 16 and Video Easy SE, to be exact) that might well go unused, but at least most of the laptop's pre-loaded software is complimentary. THX TruStudio Pro, for instance, lets users tweak their speaker output and boost subwoofer gain. Planning to make use of the rig's port side audio jacks? Realtek's HD Audio Manager is on board to help you configure your surround sound digs. There's a LED manager for the keyboard, of course, and a surprisingly robust network manager (Qualcomm Athertos Killer Network Manager) that allows you to prioritize bandwidth by application.

The nearest the GT70 comes to so-called "bloatware" is MSI's signature S-Bar, a visual shortcut dock that hides behind a nondescript icon on the desktop's north end. The dock is fairly lightweight and inoffensive, but its functions mostly mirror actions that can be performed more efficiently with the keyboards Fn key. We'd say its mostly harmless or even useful, if you're not a fan of hotkeys. Either way, MSI doesn't leave pickier users much to uninstall.

Configurations
As much as we like the GT70, a lighter-weight rig rocking the same chipset is definitely worth considering.

A rig built to match our review unit will set prospective buyers back a cool $2,000, netting them an Ivy Bridge Core i7-3610QM processor clocked at 2.3GHz; an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670M with 3GB of GDDR5; dual 64GB SSDs configured in RAID 0 alongside a separate 750GB 7200RPM HDD; 16GB of DDR3 RAM; a Blu-ray rewritable optical drive; a 17.3-inch, 1920 x 1080 LED display; and, of course, a two-year warranty. Mouthful? You betcha. Of course, if you don't want (or can't afford) the GT70's flagship configuration, MSI is happy to trim a few specs to save you a buck. Dropping the rig's DDR3 ram down to 12GB and consolidating its dual SSD drives into a single 128GB unit brings the MSRP down to $1,850, while kicking another $150 off the sticker price will cost you 250GB of hard drive space and a step down to a DVD multi-drive.

If you haggle yourself down to the GT70's lower-end configurations, you'll be left with an interesting choice: more storage space, or more real estate? Sure, bigger is better, but in what context? This choice constitutes a model change. The $1,550 variation of the GT70 is nearly identical to its $1,700 brother, albeit without the SSD drive and a slightly larger hard disk (750GB). The GT60, on the other hand, sheds two inches off of the GT70's screen size and nearly a pound of weight, along with one USB 2.0 socket and the gold plated connectors from its audio ports. The trade off? It has twin 500GB 7200RPM HDDs. As much as we like the GT70, a lighter-weight rig rocking the same specs is definitely worth considering. Hard drives and RAM can always be upgraded, after all.

The competition

If you're looking for a machine to go toe-to-toe with MSI's latest, you may have to wait awhile. Sure, last year's Qosmio X775 packed quite a punch, but its own next-generation successor isn't due for another couple of months. When the X875 does arrive, however, it'll cross the Ivy Bridge with the same GPU as the GT70, so we'd say it's a likely contender.

That said, there are plenty of last-generation rigs that just might get price cuts as they make way for new models. The frugal gamer could definitely get by with any number of last year's gaming powerhouses, including MSI's own GT683DXR.

Wrap-up

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While the GT70 wraps itself around the latest technologies, its build impressed us most. The keyboard, trackpad, chassis and speakers all bleed quality, sidestepping so many of the common sins that PC makers commit. This finely crafted icing make its screaming performance that much sweeter. Yes, we can fault it for its less-than-ideal screen and horrendously loud "cooler boost" fan overdrive, but the straw we're grasping is brittle, and it makes a poor bed. At $2,000, the MSI GT70 isn't going to fit in everybody's budget, but it offers few compromises in exchange. Our only caveat is that it's the first Ivy Bridge gaming laptop out of the gate, and with inevitable price drops and looming competition, it may be worth waiting for the slow and steady to catch up. Then again, if you need to have the latest and greatest now, it would be a gross understatement to say you could do worse.