Look and feel
Some things never change: war, the protagonist of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" and the chassis of MSI's GT70 Dominator. If you've seen last year's GT70, you've seen this year's model too. Weighing in at 8.6 pounds and measuring 16.85 inches long x 11.34 inches wide and 2.17 inches thick, it's undeniably huge. And it's supposed to be -- the Dominator is built for power (more on that soon), not portability. That said, the rig's enormous frame feels a little less forgivable every time I see it.
It's true that the most powerful gaming machines need
to be larger than life to support their high-performance internals, but matters of fact don't make these devices feel any less unwieldy. Pitted against the Razer Blade
or MSI's own GS60 Ghost
, the GT70's size is a little off-putting. Those slimmer notebooks can't rival the GT70 in performance, of course, but I can't help wonder if Moore's Law could have helped slim the beast down just a little. On the other hand, there's an old adage at play that's hard to argue with: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The extra room afforded by the GT70's oversized chassis is the very thing that grants it a luxurious, full-sized keyboard, two stellar stereo speakers (with a subwoofer!), a six-action media bar and a generous assortment of ports, plugs and connectivity options. Specifically, it has three USB 3.0 ports, four audio jacks and a multi-format card reader running down the left side; two USB 2.0 plugs and an optical drive on the right; and Ethernet, VGA, HDMI and Mini DisplayPort connectors on the back edge. Like I said, it's practically identical to last year's model.
Keyboard and trackpad
The GT70's keyboard and mouse inputs haven't changed much either, but that doesn't mean they haven't improved. The laptop's island-style keys are the same well-spaced, slightly concave squares featured on the last two incarnations of the Dominator, except now they're backed by a more advanced software suite: the SteelSeries Engine. It's the same software that made the GS60 Ghost's keyboard more versatile than your average typewriter, and it's no less impressive here: It can assign complex macros, remap any key function to any other key function and even analyze what keys you use the most. It controls the keyboard's backlight, too, which can be color-coordinated to identify custom profiles. Overall, it's a minor change, but big enough to make the new GT70's keyboard slightly better than the technically identical input we found on last year's model. That's not a bad thing, either: The GT70's SteelSeries keyboard still feels great.
No surprises hide under the Dominator's mouser, though: It's the same trackpad MSI's GT70 has had for years -- not that there's anything wrong with that. It's still a well-sized, lightly textured touch surface with large buttons that respond with a satisfying "pop." It's not a unique or spectacular mousepad, but it's a good one nonetheless. There isn't much else to say.
Display and audio
MSI's GT70 is huge, it's true, but at least it makes the most of its gargantuan size. The machine's enormous chassis is topped with a 17-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 LED display panel. This stunningly large display almost justifies the machine's size, offering a view into your digital world that just can't be matched by lighter laptops. Games, movies and web content look great on the vibrant display, but it isn't perfect -- colors and contrast tend to fade at sharper viewing angles, particularly those of the vertical persuasion. Still, that's consistent with last year's GT70 display: It's great, as long as you look at it head-on.
There's nothing to complain about when it comes to the Dominator's sound: Its Dynaudio-sourced speakers are loud, clear and excellent. The GT70's audio has always been among the best I've heard on a gaming rig, and that hasn't changed. That said, they do carry the same caveat as they always have: Half of their excellent output comes from the machine's Sound Blaster Cinema software. Disabling the equalizer gives the drivers a more muted, duller sound -- but the software is enabled by default. You have to try to make these speakers sound bad.
Performance and battery life
The GT70's chassis is bulky, unsightly and absolutely enormous, but inside that frame -- oh boy. An Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 880M graphics and 32GB of RAM lurk under the machine's thick skin. MSI affectionately calls it "the Dominator," and it certainly conquered everything I threw at it. The GT70 hardly flinched at high-performance games like Crysis 3 or The Witcher 2, running both at ultra high graphics settings (with ubersampling disabled in the latter title) at 40 and 62 frames per second, respectively. The mechanized warfare of Titanfall pushed 80 fps at maximum fidelity, followed closely by BioShock Infinite's theocratic skyscape, which shined at 76 fps. Running at 58 fps, the darker streets of Thief took a little more out of the machine, but there wasn't a single title in my library that the Dominator couldn't dress to the nines.
Still, looking good isn't easy: The Dominator grunts under the strain of its performance, and burns with the heat of a taxed graphics processor. Benchmarking games from my couch was an initially painful experience -- at least until I remembered MSI's cooler boost feature. A subtle button on the laptop's media bar switches its internal fans into overdrive; the feature is horrendously loud, but it's absolutely necessary. Turn it on if you don't want to light your pants on fire.
Unfortunately, screaming performance always comes at a price, and that toll is usually paid in longevity. MSI's latest GT70 lasted a mere three and a half hours in our standard battery test, which involves looping a video at fixed brightness with WiFi on. It's not the worst runtime I've seen on a 17-inch gaming PC, but last year's model lasted about an hour longer on the same task. I hate to see performance get worse year over year.
Open almost any new gaming laptop, and you'll find the same thing: Norton Internet Security and NVIDIA's GeForce Experience software. Naturally, they're installed on MSI's GT70 too, but the laptop's other software bundles are a little less expected. This mostly consists of redundant MSI-branded settings managers and the aforementioned SteelSeries keyboard engine suite, but what really caught me off guard lurked on the Windows 8 Start Screen: Wild Tangent. This brand of packaged games has been around for ages, but it's not a platform favored by the target market here. Hidden away in the OS' new UI, it's inoffensive and easy to ignore, but it's still weird: Nobody is buying this laptop to play Facebook-quality mini-games. MSI has also included a six-month trial of XSplit Gamecaster too, a boon for gamers who want to join the Twitch streaming revolution.
Configuration options and the competition
The review model MSI lent me isn't cheap, but it still isn't the most powerful configuration available. Running a 2.7GHz (3.7GHz with Turbo Boost) Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU with NVIDIA GeForce GTX 880M graphics, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB HDD and three 128GB SSDs in RAID 0 configuration, the $2,800 machine is no slacker -- but gamers who demand the best available specifications have options. For an extra $1,300, MSI will swap out that Core i7-4800MQ for an Intel Core i7-4930MX and... well, that's it. Every other specification remains the same. It seems like a minor change for the price, but the granular differences are significant: the new processor idles at 3.0GHz, and can reach 3.9GHz with Turbo Boost. If you're dying to future-proof your next behemoth laptop, you go ahead and pay for it -- MSI will reward you with an pair of headphones, a mouse and a backpack for the extra cash.
Seeking out the baseline model will save $800, but it replaces the graphics processor with a less powerful GTX 870M and cuts the machine's RAM to 16GB. The baseline model only has a single SSD too, cutting back the main drive's storage space significantly. Trimming the RAM in half again and tossing out that final SSD (leaving you with just the 1TB HDD) will save you an additional $500.
Love the idea of a 17-inch gaming monster with the above specs, but aren't into MSI? You've got a problem: NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 880M just isn't in that many large-size gaming notebooks -- at least not with matching specs. The Alienware 17 passes over the GPU in all but its most expensive model, pairing it with an Intel Core i7-4940MX processor and 32GB of RAM for $4,049. Digital Storm's Behemoth laptop features the GPU at all price points (and in dual-GPU configurations in some builds), but falls short of the Dominator's 32GB RAM capacity by maxing out at 16GB. The 17-inch category just isn't that diverse -- gamers looking for more options will have to settle for a smaller screen.
MSI's GT70 Dominator is everything a 17-inch gaming laptop is supposed to be, but it's nothing more than that. It's a powerhouse in every sense of the word: a monster in both performance and size. Sure, it shrugged off everything I threw at it, but so did last year's build. It's a low-risk machine, a mere spec upgrade on a previous model. There's nothing wrong with that, but the world of gaming laptops is slowly evolving. In a market where thin, powerful and gorgeous gaming portables exist, MSI's GT70 is decidedly old-school.