Look and feel
If, at first glance, you thought the Samsung Series 7 Gamer was anything but a 17.3-inch desktop-replacing behemoth, you'd be forgiven. When viewed from on high, the rig's sharply tapered edges lend it a deceptively thin appearance. The illusion quickly disappears, however, when you inspect it from the sides and behold the machine's substantial, 1.96-inch-thick chassis. Still, the angled edges highlight the system's design: brushed metal, glossy plastics and clean lines. The Gamer may be built for fun, but it's all business on the outside -- meaning it avoids the siren call to cover itself in loud colors, over-designed speaker grills and "hardcore" accents. In fact, it's downright respectable-looking, which might be a welcome change for gamers who want a machine with a more professional facade.
The design isn't without its faults, however -- the glossy veneer on the lid, for instance, loses some of its charm the instant it comes in contact with human skin, collecting fingerprints like a regular gumshoe. And that chunky edge? It doesn't exactly make the most of the rig's requisite thickness, housing only a Blu-ray drive on its starboard side, flanked by a pair of USB 2.0 ports. On the other hand, the machine's left edge crams in a decent selection of connectors -- two USB 3.0 sockets, a multicard reader, outputs for HDMI, VGA and DisplayPort, Ethernet, and a spot for the AC adapter all crawl up the edge. The front and rear, however, are largely blank, save for a pair of HDD / power LEDs on the front lip and some generously sized air vents around back.
Straddling the edge of the hinge we find a set of touch-sensitive controls, including a power button and one-touch access for mute, WiFi, volume controls, LED backlighting and a few keyboard status lights. There's also a rather large graphic that says "Turbo" on it, but it isn't touch-enabled like everything else on the glossy strip -- in fact, it's isn't a button at all. No, this is a fancy backlit indicator, one that doesn't light up at all until you thumb the dedicated performance switch on the machine's right side.
Here's where things get a little too cute for comfort. The rotating toggle allows users to quickly switch between four modes: green, library, balanced and gaming. These tune the rig to save power, run quietly (disable the fans), work efficiently or crank performance to 11, respectively. The nub is actually fairly useful, if a bit stiff to turn, and the transitions between settings are quick and to the point -- at least until the dial lands on "gaming."
Suddenly, the machine's display fades to black, temporarily blinding the user while a targeting reticule overlays the screen, accompanied by a series of mechanical and digital sound effects. As the desktop comes back into view, that target finds a home in the desktop wallpaper, which darkens to match the hardcore motif that power setting so clearly requires. The notebook's exterior layers play along as well: most of the backlit keys transition from white to blue. The exceptions are the "WASD" keys, which darken to a serious red. Crimson circles now surround the power and volume controls, pulsating along with the sound coming from the machine's stereo speakers. Tread carefully, son, you're in gamer country. The whole show is controlled by (and can be disabled through) Samsung's ModeShift, which actually turns out to be a minor boon, albeit a cheesy one. (More on this later, of course.)
Overall, the Series 7 Gamer is a respectable, well-designed rig with only a hint of the stereotypically hardcore. More often than not, its clean, unassuming lines don't draw it unwanted attention -- but gamers with a flair for the flashy can change that with a flick of their thumb. At worst, it's a minor collector of grubby-looking fingerprints. All in all, that's not much to whine about.
Keyboard and trackpad
Throw a stone in any electronics retailer, and you'll probably wind up smashing some poor machine's chiclet keyboard. That arrangement of island-style keys has become such a staple of mobile computing that it's become hard to imagine a laptop with anything else. The Series 7 Gamer eschews that fad altogether, adopting a "classic" laptop keyboard with slightly curved key caps that bump up against each other. Writing prose on the Gamer is like typing on an old Thinkpad, and it's a good feeling. Keys depress silently with minimal pressure, but push back with enough force that it never feels mushy. In truth, the keyboard isn't anything to fawn over, but as a touch typist, it's hard to find fault with something so tactile.
Gamers won't find much to gripe about either -- the very same pop that makes the rig's keyboard a pleasure to write with feels just as good in games, and the left Ctrl and Alt keys fall naturally under the pinkie and thumb. The Windows key is thankfully hard to reach while gaming, though butterfingered gamers can choose to have it automatically disabled when the rig is in "gaming mode." Despite these little nods, the keyboard remains pretty standard -- more than passable for the average gamer, but enthusiasts (and the special few who keep track of keyboard ghosting) shouldn't expect anything out of the ordinary.
Speaking of things that are hardly out of the ordinary, let's talk about the trackpad, and by natural extension, our hands. Call us mutated freaks of nature (go ahead, do it), but we have a habit of rubbing mouse sensors on laptops just the wrong way -- and not when we mean to. Like so many pads before it, the Gamer's mouser is flush with the unit's palmrest, making it easy to brush with your palm while you're pecking at the keyboard. This causes the cursor to jump, drift and even click mid-prose.
Ironically, while we were typing the keyboard portion of this review, the cursor jumped no fewer than nine times, mucking up our text and generally wreaking havoc. As always, a quick Fn combination disables the trackpad, if necessary. A slightly recessed pad might have avoided this problem, though it admittedly wouldn't have looked as slick. The pad itself actually works quite well -- it's luxuriously large, and, as previously illustrated, plenty sensitive. It even does a passable job of picking up most gestures, a minor feat for many Windows laptops. Its buttons are a bit stiff, too, but all told, the touchpad does its job well enough. Still, there's no substitute for a proper gaming mouse, so folks picking up this machine will want to accessorize accordingly.
Display and sound
Gaming machines are expected to be large, overpowered and brimming with attitude -- but all that means bupkes if they're packing a dim, washed-out display. Luckily, that's not the case with the Gamer's LED-backlit, 400-nit SuperBright Plus panel. This 1,920 x 1,080 looking glass definitely adds to the eye-melting experience so many gamers strive for, if only thanks to its incredible luminosity. It doesn't slack in the color department either, washing our retinas with rich, vibrant hues and dark blacks. The rig's visual fidelity fades a bit when you view the screen from too far off center, but not so much that we couldn't fully enjoy a personal screening of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
The machine's speakers, on the other hand, manage neither to impress nor disappoint: its stereo drivers and accompanying subwoofer are merely okay. The upside to a truly average audio experience is that you won't feel let down by a system that's trying to overreach -- music and games come through at maximum volume without a hint of distortion, and higher-pitched sounds aren't particularly tinny. On the other hand, a deep, full bass is also absent, and more subtle, complex undertones may well go unheard. Dolby Home Theater 4 is on board to stretch the speakers' capabilities a tad, but gamers looking for a virtualized surround sound trick to help them audibly pinpoint enemy footsteps won't find much purchase here. The Series 7 Gamer can certainly fill a room with sound when needed, but its onboard audio options are no substitute for a good headset.
Performance and battery life
Looking to cash in on NVIDIA's latest mobile chipset? Better hold your breath -- despite the Samsung Series 7 Gamer's impressive specs, Kepler isn't the pulse that keeps it alive. That's not to say the rebranded GTX 580M at the machine's core isn't killer in its own right. Paired with a 2.3GHz Core i7 CPU (3.3GHz with Turbo Boost) and 16GB of DDR3 RAM, NVIDIA's GTX 675M GPU painted the plains of Skyrim at 56 frames per second, capturing its essence in the rig's native 1,920 x 1,080 resolution at ultra high quality. The seedy end of Liberty City pitched a similar average, clipping along at 50fps on high settings -- though GTA IV's score was quickly halved when anisotropic filtering was doubled to 16x. Arkham City's streets, on the other hand, were safe at 61fps -- making no concessions in quality along the way -- and Valve's
premiere hat simulator Team Fortress 2 captured an insane 128 frames per second. Rebadged Fermi or not, the Samsung Series 7 Gamer is playing with power. And yes, it runs Crysis -- though not quite as well as it runs modern games. The five-year-old resource hog clocked 33fps on high settings, with maximum fidelity knocking an extra 10 points off its score.
After watching the Series 7 Gamer shrug off every gaming challenge pitted against it, we were hardly surprised to see it could survive a standard Engadget workday. Multiple browser applications, each with at least two dozen active tabs, Photoshop, two word processors, IRC clients, Twitter and Spotify all churned along without a hitch. To be honest, we expected nothing less, and we weren't disappointed. Its 7,200RPM 1.5TB HDD wasn't sluggish either, booting in under 35 seconds and waking from sleep in six -- possibly leveraging the same 8GB of flash "ExpressCache" memory as its cousin, the Series 7 Chronos. Not too shabby.
Phenomenal computing power comes at a cost, of course -- that is, phenomenally lousy runtime. Like most of the machines in its category, the Series 7 Gamer suffers from short battery life. Tuned to Engadget's standard run-down parameters, the Gamer lasted two hours and 11 minutes before reaching a critical low -- certainly not bad for a 17.3-inch gaming monster, but not impressive for its class, either. The machine's own "green" mode improved matters slightly, netting an extra 20 minutes of runtime before the machine gave out -- an improvement, but still a far cry from the laptop's claimed 3.7-hour runtime. In the off chance you lug the Gamer to a LAN party and forget your AC adapter, you won't be playing much -- the machine's GPU won't run at full barrel without an external power source.
As much as Samsung nailed the hardware aspect of its first mobile gaming rig, it still leaves users to stumble over unnecessary bloatware. The serious PC gamers sighted in the machine's hardcore reticule typically know their way around a Windows machine, and will resent being babied by would-be companion software that further dumbs down Microsoft's vanilla experience. Not that its meager offerings are truly offensive -- Cyberlink's Media Suite, YouCam and a host of customer support / migration tools are hardly uncommon pack-ins, and Sammy's standard Easy Settings puts much of its own special tweaks in a single, easy-to-access location. But do we really need another launcher aping Mac OS' staple dock? Between the Windows 7 start menu and task bar, users already have ample room to pin their favorite applications or files; these launchers are, quite frankly, redundant.
As aggravating as common bloatware and silly launchers can be, real disappointment comes from lost potential. The aforementioned ModeShift manager, for instance, lets users gently tweak a handful of useful settings -- disabling the trackpad and Windows key while in game mode, for instance, or toggling color optimization for the hardcore setting -- but the depth of customization it could have offered leaves us wanting. Remember when we described the rig's fancy "game mode" transition flourish? It actually has four different animated transitions to choose from. This is fun, for sure, but we were disappointed to find the software wasn't open to creating custom themes and transitions.
After mucking around in the software's INI file, we found we could shift into game mode with a custom, Engadget-themed SWF file and choose our own context-appropriate background, but the software offers no official way to create a personal transition. Similarly, ModeShift's LED control panel is limited to adjusting brightness and timed dimming presets, leaving no option to customize the mode's color tenor beyond the blue and red accent it defaults to. Want to game with the balanced mode's white backlight? Tough. What Samsung offers is useful and functional, but we still ache for the potential tweaks we couldn't make.
A quick glance at the Series 7 Gamer's specs will tell you almost everything you need to know about configuration options: there aren't any, at least not out the door. Officially, the Gamer ships with a 2.3Ghz Intel Core i7-3610QM Processor (3.3Ghz with Turbo Boost), NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 675M, GPU, a 7,200 RPM 1.5TB hard drive with ExpressCache, a Blu-ray drive and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. Our review unit differed just slightly from this, revealing two smaller hard drives, as opposed to a single massive one. The total available space is about the same, but the distinction is worth noting -- as is the fact that both drives and the RAM can be manually serviced. Prefer a fast-booting SSD to buckets of storage? Do it yourself -- or don't. You've got options to spare.
The Series 7 Gamer is definitely one of the top performers in its class, but that $1,900 price tag is nearly as hefty as the rig itself. Still, it isn't as expensive as it could be -- deck out an Alienware M17x ($1,499-plus) with the same hardware, and you'll be paying over $2,300, even more if you opt for a GeForce GTX 680M. Likewise, Origin PC's EOS17-S racks up a $2,263 price tag when built to match the Series 7 Gamer, and can be configured with a wide range of processors and GPUs to tailor the price to your budget. MSI's recently updated GT70 ($1,550-plus), on the other hand, features the very same GPU and processor as the Gamer at a small discount, and can be had for even less with the rig's original GTX 670M intact.
Samsung carefully ascribed the "Gamer" moniker to its latest piece of kit, knowing full well that a failure to deliver would incur the ridicule of a particularly knowledgeable and opinionated customer group. Good thing, then, that the Series 7 Gamer lives up to its handle. Despite our minor gripes, we can't deny its screaming performance. Yes, it has average speakers and a trackpad that might be a large-handed person's worst enemy, but its flaws are easily outshined by that gorgeous 400-nit display. At $1,900, the Series 7 Gamer isn't the cheapest oversized rig on the market, but for Samsung, it's an excellent first foray into the category -- even if it does go a little overboard on those "game mode" transitions.