Look and feel
It's hard to avoid comparisons to MSI's original GT70 while handling the Dragon Edition -- after all, the two machines are built on the same chassis. The Dragon's 8.6-pound, 16.85 x 11.34 x 2.17-inch frame is a dead ringer for its predecessor, differentiating itself with only a handful of tweaks and a new color scheme. An aggressive red streak bleeds through the machine's brushed-aluminum palm rest and lid, decorated with a stylized dragon tattoo. This separates the revision from its plainly designed predecessor, and obviously demands a little more attention. "I am a hardcore gaming machine," it declares. Subtle it's not, but it isn't incredibly loud either; it finds a nice middle ground where all that flair is just noticeable enough to make clear this is a special edition machine.
This says, "I am a hardcore gaming machine."
Visually, little else has changed since the previous generation. Peer along the frame's edges and you'll notice it mirrors the original GT70 exactly: three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and four audio jacks for line-in, line-out, a microphone and headphones on the left and a pair of lesser USB 2.0 ports and an optical drive on the right. The laptop's rear rounds out its connectivity options with an AC plug, VGA and an HDMI port. A Mini DisplayPort stands out as the only change, replacing the original's eSATA socket.
Crowding the edge of the laptop's hinge are a touch-sensitive control bar and a physical power button. This layout, too, is mostly identical to the standard GT70's quick buttons, offering screen and brightness controls, a WiFi toggle and a shortcut to a system control manager offering many of the same functions. The previous model's fan-accelerating "cooler boost" mode is here as well, but its one-touch overclocking "Turbo" mode has been perplexingly replaced by a media button. Maybe MSI figured that NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 780M wouldn't need the extra help. More on that later.
Keyboard and trackpad
The GT70's chiclet keyboard glows with a rainbow of LED lights, softly illuminating the keycaps with a subtle dash of color. There's nothing new here, and that's fine -- this SteelSeries arrangement is still one of the better island-style keyboards we've seen on a gaming machine, offering light keycaps that depress with a soft, but audible click. It's still a far cry from the mechanical setups many desktop gamers are accustomed to, but for a portable rig it's more than satisfying. Still, competitive gamers who demand full anti-ghosting will need to look elsewhere -- like most gaming laptops, the GT70 can only bear between six and eight simultaneous key presses. Anyone not in that minority, however, will be hard-pressed to complain.
Oddly, the keyboard's most significant fault comes from the computer's operating system, not its hardware build. We normally applaud the absence of a left-handed Windows key on a gaming rig (all the better to avoid accidental quits with), but proper desktop utilization of Windows 8 often means using hotkeys. Users accustomed to tapping Win+D with their left pinky will have to retrain themselves -- this keyboard's only Windows key lives on its starboard side.
Considering how central the mouse is to the desktop computing experience, it's shocking how many laptops hit the market with downright terrible trackpads. Thankfully, the Dragon takes yet another tip from the original GT70, retaining all the laudable qualities of its predecessor's superb mouser. The pad's buttons sink in with a satisfying click and its large matte surface feels smooth under a lazy finger. It doesn't even stumble over Windows' gesture system -- when a trackpad does just about everything right, there's not much to talk about.
Unfortunately, the pad does have one fatal flaw: it's on a gaming laptop. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but for whatever reason, this particular touchpad refuses to read input while the keyboard is in use. This quickly becomes a problem for gamers who are too lazy to plug in an external mouse. Laptop trackpads have never been an ideal game-control device, but they should always be an option. Sadly, this one isn't.
Display and sound
The bulk of an oversized gaming laptop doesn't truly dawn on you until you've pried open its lid and gawked at the gargantuan proportions of the rig's 17-inch display. What seemed tiny on your desktop PC is now daunting, enormous and, if you're very lucky, gorgeous. The Dragon's 1,920 x 1,080 LED panel takes a decent stab at the latter qualifier, but doesn't quite stick the landing. While the display flaunts well-balanced colors and sharp visuals, it suffers from notably shallow vertical viewing angles. Horizontal angles, meanwhile, betray a slight, but tolerable loss of color. Still, looking at the screen head-on makes for a solid viewing experience, and its matte finish ensures that any time spent with it will be blissfully glare-free.
The Dragon employs the same Dynaudio credentials MSI outfits most of its gaming rigs with, and it's clear why: the GT70 has some of the best audio we've heard on a gaming laptop. Loud, but without distortion, the Dragon's 2.1-channel speaker setup easily fills a room -- and yes, that post-decimal digit is right: there's a subwoofer on the bottom. The hardware can't take all the credit, however -- turning off the pre-installed Sound Blaster Cinema software instantly presents a muted experience that, while still decently loud, doesn't envelop the listener in quite the same way. Luckily, this software is enabled by default, ensuring just about anything you pipe through the laptop's speakers will sound pretty great. Gamers looking for a completely immersive audio experience will still need to employ a dedicated headset, but those without one shouldn't be at all disappointed by the rig's native speakers.
Performance and battery life
When consumers buy a 17-inch gaming behemoth for a laptop, battery life doesn't usually top their lists: raw power does. We were surprised to find, then, that the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition has plenty of both. Not only did it run circles around most of the games we tested (more on that below), but it also survived Engadget's standard battery test for a staggering four and a half hours -- by far the longest-lasting gaming rig of its size that we've ever tested. In a category where two hours is considered a good showing, more than four is simply unprecedented. Intel's latest chipset is probably the reason, making good on its promise to sip less wattage than Ivy Bridge. If Haswell can do this with a gaming laptop, we can't wait to see how far it'll stretch out a longevity-focused Ultrabook.
When consumers buy a 17-inch gaming behemoth, battery life doesn't usually top their lists: raw power does. The Dragon Edition has plenty of both.
The Dragon didn't sleep through its performance tests either, racking up scores of 20,250 and 6,111 in PCMark Vantage and PC Mark 7, respectively. Not surprising, considering the stuff it's made of. The MSI GT70 Dragon Edition's chassis houses a 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ Haswell CPU, NVIDIA's new GeForce GTX 780M chipset (with 4GB of GDDR5), 32GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM and three 128GB SSDs configured in Raid 0 with a 1TB HDD for extra storage. Suffice to say, this rig shrugged off our day-to-day workflow like it was idling. We found its storage configuration to be quite fast as well (with 1.19 GB/s read speeds and 806 MB/s write speeds in the ATTO disk benchmark), but MSI told us our review unit was actually underperforming -- it should be reading data at a rate of 1,500 MB/s. MSI says it's looking into the issue, and hopes to have a solution soon. Even so, we're not exactly scoffing at 1,200 MB/s. Not into benchmark scores? Here's a more practical look at how fast the drive is: a cold boot to the Windows 8 Start screen took just a hair over nine seconds. Pretty darn quick.
The Dragon just happens to be one of the first machines on the market with both Intel's fourth-generation Haswell processor at its heart and NVIDIA's new GTX 780M GPU -- the chance to put the duo through their paces was simply irresistible. Our standard allotment of test games barely even phased the Dragon; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim chugged along at 75 frames-per-second in outdoor environments, jumping an extra 10 in dungeons, and Call of Duty: Black Ops II flirted with triple digits by flaunting a 92 fps average. Both titles were configured to their highest available settings. Battlefield 3 managed an impressive 70 fps when tuned to ultra-high detail, followed closely by a PhysX-enabled Batman: Arkham City at 61 fps. Grand Theft Auto IV's bustling city trailed behind with a respectable 40 fps average. Newer games didn't give the system pause either -- Bioshock Infinite averaged 56 frames-per-second on ultra-high quality and FarCry 3 averaged about 45.
New silicon or not, we were determined to make the Dragon stutter. Naturally, we loaded up The Witcher 2 and Crysis 3 -- two games known for pushing gaming hardware to its limits. Tuned to their maximum visual settings, these titles finally gave the new GT70 something to groan about. The Witcher 2 initially clocked a middling 25 fps, just under the 30-fps threshold that many gamers consider the bare minimum. Crysis 3 fared even worse, falling in at 19 frames-per-second. Of course, these low framerates didn't last long -- switching off The Witcher 2's Ubersampling feature allowed the game to run at an impressive 55 frames-per-second on ultra-high quality with Crysis 3 seeing similar speeds when tuned to medium. We were even able to eke a bit more out of Crysis 3, tweaking its settings to a comfortable high-fidelity middle ground that averaged about 40 fps. Disconnecting the machine from its AC adapter will cause it to fall back on its integrated Intel HD 4600 GPU, however. In a pinch, one could turn down game settings and get by, but don't expect the eye-melting wonders we cite above: we were lucky to break 25 fps in ultra configurations without NVIDIA's help.
The Dragon is truly a beast, evidenced not only by its impressive performance, but also by the massive heat it's capable of generating. While most of the laptop stays at a comfortable medium-warm temperature during intense gaming, the area under its main left-side vent can get uncomfortably hot. Thankfully, it doesn't have to get that hot -- the machine's aforementioned "cooler boost" mode keeps the area at a tolerable temperature, and is a must when gaming on one's lap. Make sure you plug in a pair of headphones, however, as the fan is excessively loud when switched into overdrive. The temperature control is worth the extra decibels, of course, but we couldn't stand leaving it on all the time.
A lot of gamers spend their first few hours with a PC unloading unwanted software -- photo editors and media player trials from companies nobody's ever heard of, unwanted music suites and more. It's a bit of a hassle. While MSI does have a habit of loading its machines with excess programs, the situation seems to get better with every unit we see. The original GT70 packed an entire suite of multimedia-management bloatware, for instance, but the Dragon edition has the good form to keep these "freebies" to a minimum. Aside from the somewhat-standard Norton Internet Security trial, almost everything on the machine is here for a good reason. MSI's system control manager app offers a one-stop shop for all the machine's basic settings, and its Keyboard LED Manager allows the user to customize the laptop's keyboard backlight color, as the name implies. There's a third-party network manager too, and those Sound Blaster audio tools -- software packages that compliment the laptop's hardware rather than weight it down.
Those of you with a favorite media player may have cause to ditch the Dragon's default, however -- Cyberlink PowerDVD 10 spins Blu-ray discs well enough, but we had to update it before it would do so without freezing. It's also littered with advertisements for new films, so it's a bit of an eyesore during use. It does the job, but we would have preferred something with more subtlety.
The only notable addition to the new GT70's software lineup is Bluestacks, which allows users to run Android apps under Windows 8. The program is definitely very nifty, but its inclusion is almost puzzling: this particular version of Bluestacks was designed to make the most out of Windows 8 touch devices, and the GT70 Dragon Edition isn't one. The Android version of Angry Birds Space, for instance, was extremely difficult to play because scrolling didn't quite work with the laptop's touchpad. In most cases, you're probably better off with the Windows 8 marketplace equivalent of your favorite Android app, but if that's not an option, Bluestacks is here.
Configuration options and the competition
Taken on its own, the GT70 Dragon Edition has no alternative configurations, offering only the complete package, a $2,800 machine with a 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M graphics, 32GB of RAM, three 128GB SSDs in RAID 0 and a 1TB HDD. View it as the highest-tier option in MSI's full GT70 lineup, however, and suddenly you've got options. MSI offers 10 different configurations of its standard GT70 gaming rig, offering alternative builds on the same chassis priced anywhere from $1,499 to $2,800. These models are all fairly similar, differentiated only by slight clock speed variations (they all use the same Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU) and differences in RAM, disk space, optical reader and GPU. If you can hold out a little while, MSI tells us most of these machines will see upgrades of their own, including more memory, the Dragon's triple SSD Raid 0 configuration, updated GPUs (GTX 780M and 770M chips, specifically) and of course, Intel's latest chipset.
If you're determined to have the latest and greatest hardware in your portable rig,but aren't into MSI's kit, you'll need to sit tight. Just like the original GT70, the Dragon is the first serious gaming rig out of the gate with Intel's newest silicon -- there simply aren't that many alternatives to choose from. If the Dragon isn't for you, we recommend waiting until real competitors hit the market. If you simply need to get something now, take a look at Razer's 2012 Blade revision; it won't best the GT70 in benchmarks, but it'll at least offer a slimmer, more attractive chassis.
The MSI GT70 Dragon Edition took almost everything we threw at it, chewed it up and came back for more. It stands as a solid example of a hardware refresh done right, keeping everything that made the original great while still tossing in enough improvements to keep buyers interested. For the most part, its faults include a few things MSI didn't fix from the previous version: a stellar screen that suffers from poor viewing angles and a loud fan. If its trackpad didn't have a gameplay-inhibiting glitch, we'd be hard-pressed to find anything that its predecessor does better than the Dragon. It's a worthy upgrade for gamers who can bear its lofty $2,800 price tag, packing enough oomph to keep its owners playing new titles for at least a few years to come. Bottom line? The GT70 is still one of our favorite gaming laptops on the market today, and it's now much better for its Haswell internals.