Game on: 3 high-performance laptops duke it out
- 22 June, 2012 10:51
Whether it's killing zombies or pitching a perfect baseball game, top-notch gaming has always demanded the fastest systems and best graphics. You want a high-end computer? Look at what gamers are buying and you'll have it.
Once the exclusive preserve of desktop computers or stationary gaming consoles, a new generation of notebooks is now offering enough speed and power to satisfy the inner gamer in all of us.
But what is the current state of the art? To find out, I gathered together three of the hottest gaming laptops on the market today: the Eurocom Panther 4.0, Hewlett-Packard's Envy 17 and the MSI GT783.
Each comes with a high-resolution 17.3-in. screen, a performance-oriented graphics engine with at least 1GB of dedicated video memory, a Core i7 processor and a minimum of 12GB of RAM.
Big, beautiful and hot -- literally
When you talk about mobile gaming equipment, the word "mobile" has to be taken with a grain of salt. These are not laptops that you casually pop into your backpack. The heaviest is the Eurocom Panther, weighing in at a cumbersome 12.1 lb. The 8.6-lb. MSI GT783 is next in line, while the lightweight of the group is HP's Envy 17, which weighs 7.6 lb.
And don't forget that they need power: Each has a large AC adapter that weighs more than a pound. In fact, when gaming gets intense -- when you're surrounded by the enemy and spinning around with your blaster going -- the Panther uses so much power that it requires two 3.5-lb. AC adapters, bringing its total travel weight to more than 19 pounds, enough for the system to qualify as a piece of gym equipment.
All that power ends up as waste heat inside the system's case. As a result, these gaming notebooks risk losing their cool when the on-screen action heats up. All three of the notebooks reviewed here have elaborate heat sinks and one to four internal fans. When the gaming gets hyperactive, it can sound like a duel between vacuum cleaners.
But what do true gamers think?
To get another perspective on this topic, I convinced a group of high-school-age gaming enthusiasts from The Masters School of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to play with these high-performance notebooks. (It didn't take a lot of convincing.) They played several games, manipulated 3-D models and watched HD videos -- all, of course, in the name of science. Their reactions accompany each review.
At between $1,685 and $5,290, these are among the most expensive portable computers around. Are they worth it? It depends on how important good gaming is to you.
And while these systems aren't bad, the best is yet to come. By late summer, look for an onslaught of Ivy Bridge-based gaming systems that will increase processor performance by roughly 20% while using less power than current CPUs. That could mean less heat and fewer cooling fans, so we can hopefully turn back the tide of alien conquest in peace and quiet.
3 gaming laptops: Features
Eurocom's Panther 4.0 stretches the definition of how large, weighty and costly a notebook can be.
The design of the Panther's black plastic and aluminum case has the look of a spaceship, with sharply angled corners, black indented grilles and lots of cooling vents. At 2.6 x 16.8 x 11.4 in., it's roughly twice the size of the Envy 17 -- in fact, it actually looks like two notebooks stacked on top of each other.
Eurocom Panther 4.0
The Panther weighs 12.1 lb., one third more than the Envy 17. For most uses, a single adapter is plenty, but during all-out gaming, the Panther can be so power-hungry that it requires two huge 300-watt AC adapters and comes with a special cable for plugging both adapters into the system. (If you're just using one adapter and the system is getting overloaded, it will just shut down.) This brings the Panther to a hefty 19.1 lb. The system comes with a cloth bag that is just big enough to hold the system and one adapter, but not both.
For all-out gamers, though, Eurocom's big cat is worth every hulking ounce, because under the keyboard is one of the fastest and most capable processors that Intel sells. The second-generation Intel Core i7 3960X processor was designed for desktop PCs and has 15MB of cache, compared to the 6MB of cache that comes with the Envy 17 and MSI GT783 processors.
While the processor normally runs at 3.3GHz, Intel's TurboBoost technology can speed it up to 3.9GHz when needed. However, the Core i7 3960X uses over 100 watts of power, twice the electrical load of the processors used by the other two systems, and has four cooling fans that take up most of the inside of the case.
The review unit came with 16GB RAM (it can handle a maximum of 32GB) and has one of the most complex storage systems I've seen in a portable computer. In addition to a 750GB hard drive, it has a pair of high-performance 120GB solid state devices (SSDs) that can be set up as a RAID 0, 1, 5 or 10 array for either top performance or the peace of mind of never losing a bit of gaming data; Eurocom offers data storage options up to 4TB.
The Panther boasts two Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M 256-bit GPUs that run at 1.3GHz and have 384 processing cores. It comes with 2GB of dedicated video RAM, twice the level of the Envy 17.
Although it can't be overclocked for extra graphics potential, the Panther's dual GPU setup uses Nvidia's SLI technology to let you pick whether you want to use only one or both of the two GPUs. Nvidia provides optimal settings for a variety of popular games online.
There are three USB 3.0 ports (one more than either the Envy 17 or the MSI GT783) and a pair of USB 2.0 connections. In addition, one of the USB 2.0 ports does double-duty as an e-SATA port for using an external hard drive.
There's also a FireWire 800 port, along with DisplayPort, DVI and HDMI connections. But it lacks the MSI GT783's VGA port or the Envy 17's WiDi technology for wirelessly transmitting audio and video.
Opinions from the Masters School gamers
The Panther was high on the Masters School gaming club wish list for its aggressive appearance, ability to help you do better at games and its desktop-quality graphics. However, they were turned off by its size, price and loud fans.
- "The graphics are perfection."
- "Huge! I don't see anyone carrying this around."
- "Insanely fast processing speed."
- "Ferocious graphics."
For audio, the Panther offers the top-shelf THX TruStudio Pro, along with five speakers, but the system never gets loud enough for truly immersive gaming. It has traditional analog and line-in connections as well as an SPDIF digital jack for driving speakers.
While it matches the others with an SD card reader, the Panther adds an ExpressCard slot that can work with both 34- and 54-millimeter adapters. Finally, it offers Bluetooth, a Gigabit Ethernet port and 802.11n WiFi.
The keyboard is backlit and can be adjusted to a variety of colors and patterns, making it look like a rainbow at times. However, I found it to be bit distracting when my attention needed to be on the screen.
Eurocom includes a one-year warranty; upping the coverage to three years adds $300.
Plain and simple, the Panther is one of the most powerful systems I've tested. With 12GB RAM, it scored a phenomenal 2,943 on the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite of tests, 30% percent faster than the Envy 17 or MSI GT783.
When I tested it with 16GB RAM, its PerformanceTest 7.0 score rose to 3,542.9, easily blasting the others to oblivion. While it aced the Cinebench CPU tests with an 8.9, the Panther was in the middle of the pack on the graphics test, behind the Envy 17 with its AMD HD7690XT-powered video.
The Panther showed a richness of detail on the Portal 2 and Trainz simulations, delivering exceptionally smooth video, although the MSI GT783's screen was richer and brighter.
At a Glance
EurocomPrice: $3,599 (base) / $5,290 (as tested)Pros: Top performance, adjustable keyboard lighting, two graphics ships, RAID capabilitiesCons: Very large and heavy, requires two AC adapters, volume might not be enough for some gamers, short battery life, noisy
While it's doubtful that the Panther (or any of the others reviewed here, for that matter) will be used far from an AC outlet, the 5,300 mAh battery was able to power the system for a mere 49 minutes on a charge. That's one-third that of either of the two competitors and a mild disappointment.
With four fans inside, it was able to keep its cool, but the Panther was the loudest of the three during most gaming. It hit a peak temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit at its exhaust vent.
You know the old saying that if you have to ask the cost you probably can't afford it? With a price tag of $5,290, Eurocom's Panther 4.0 isn't quite in that league, but it comes close. This is without a doubt a technological tour de force and a superior gaming notebook, but one that is no doubt out of the economic reach of many gamers.
HP's Envy 17 looks nonthreatening, but packs enough of a punch to be a prime gaming notebook.
With a black magnesium and brushed aluminum case, the Envy 17 has the minimalist look that an Apple designer would be proud of. Its only adornment is a red stripe around the system's keyboard.
HP Envy 17
The Envy 17 measures 1.4 x 16.3 x 10.7 in., easily making it the smallest of the three reviewed here. Still, it overhangs an airline tray table.
At 7.6 lb., the Envy 17 was much easier to carry than the 12.1-lb. Panther. With its modest-sized AC adapter, the Envy 17 has a reasonable travel weight of 8.8 lb., nearly 7 lb. lighter than the Panther (with only one of its two AC adapters).
Inside, the Envy 17 uses the same second-generation Core i7 2670QM processor that the MSI GT783 uses. It has four processing cores, 6MB of onboard cache and a normal speed of 2.2GHz, which can be goosed to 3.1GHz when the gaming gets tough.
While, in my tests, this meant that the Envy 17 rated second best in performance to the Panther 4.0's Core i7 3960X processor, it also needs about half as much power. The Envy 17 has two fans (as opposed to the Panther's four) and was much quieter than the Panther. (Fewer fans can also mean longer battery life, although I didn't specifically test for that.)
The Envy 17 model I looked at came with 12GB of RAM. The base unit comes with 8GB; HP offers a 16GB option for an additional $200, which is the system's maximum.
The Envy 17 has two drive bays. My unit came with a 750GB hard drive installed, although you can order it with a variety of combinations of solid state drives and hard drives.
It comes with a slot-loading Super Multi optical drive, which can write to a variety of media and play -- but not write -- Blu-ray discs. I did find it inconvenient that the system needs to be turned on to remove a disc.
While all three of the reviewed units have 17.3-in. displays that can show 1920 x 1080 resolution, the Envy 17 uses AMD's Radeon HD 7690M XT graphics engine rather than the GeForce GTX 580M used in the Panther. The HD 7690M XT runs at 725MHz and has 480 processing cores; the system was equipped with 1GB of video memory, half as much as the other two systems. There is no option for an upgrade to 2GB of VRAM; the Envy 17 also lacks the dual-graphics setup on the Panther and the MSI's ability to overclock the imaging engine.
Despite its slim profile, the Envy 17 has a good assortment of ports, including two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 connectors. Rather than being color coded, the USB 3.0 ports are marked with a tiny SuperSpeed logo.
Like the Panther, the Envy 17 lacks a VGA port, but has an HDMI and two DisplayPort connections. Its video ace-in-the-hole is Intel's WiDi technology that allows the system to wirelessly send audio and video to a projector or TV.
The HP notebook WiDi set up worked with Belkin's ScreenCast TV receiver and Mitsubishi's WD380U-EST projector and had a range of 30 feet before it lost contact. However, to use WiDi, you need to switch the Envy 17 to from the high-end AMD graphics engine to the much-less-impressive Intel integrated graphics.
The Envy 17 has audio jacks, including a pair of headphone connections, but lacks the Panther's SPDIF digital audio. Rather than THX TruSound that the other two systems use, the Envy 17 has Beats audio, which to my ear sounded great and got just loud enough to be raucous.
The audio had been tuned to work with Beats by Dr. Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones, but it sounded quite good with either the built-in speakers or standard headphones. The Envy 17 has a thumbwheel on the side of the keyboard to adjust the volume and a nearby mute button.
The Envy 17 offer an Ethernet port as well as Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi. It has a flash card reader but lacks the Panther's ExpressCard slot for adding peripherals.
While the others have elaborate backlit keyboards that can make them look like Christmas trees, the Envy 17's keyboard uses white backlighting. It's not as colorful, but is simple, effective and doesn't distract from the gaming at hand.
Although its graphics hardware isn't as impressive as the other two gaming monsters, the Envy 17 held its own with excellent color balance, sharp detail and smooth operation. Its screen wasn't as bright as the other two, however.
Opinions from the Masters School gamers
Members of the Masters gaming club really liked the thinness, quiet and sound quality of the Envy 17. They said they'd have preferred a brighter screen, however, and several times the Envy 17 sat idle while the GT783 and Panther were being ogled over.
- "Not loud enough."
- "The up/down keys are too close together."
- "Okay video but the screen is dull."
- "Pretty good. Surprisingly thin and easy to carry."
The Envy 17's performance was on a par with the MSI GT783, scoring a 2,087.7 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 suite. That's about 30% off the scorching pace set by the Panther. (Because the Envy 17 review unit came with 12GB of RAM rather than 16GB like the other systems, comparisons are going to be affected.) It lagged behind the Panther on the Cinebench processor tests but led the pack on the graphics test with a 51.5.
Having a battery life of 2 hours and 56 minutes is generally nothing to brag about, but for a computer with this amount of power, it is nothing short of phenomenal. The Envy's 7,400 mAh battery lasted 25 minutes longer than the MSI GT783's and more than three times longer than the Panther's.
It's a good thing, because while the others have batteries that are easy to swap, it's a chore on the Envy 17. To get to the battery, you need to remove six Philips screws to open the system's back cover and then open a pair of Torx screws -- not something you want to do between Portal sessions.
At a Glance
Hewlett-PackardPrice: $1,600 (base) / $1,685 (as tested)Pros: Sleek design, relatively lightweight, offers Intel's WiDi technologyCons: Limited to 12GB RAM, awkward to change battery
With a pair of internal fans, the Envy 17 was a cool, yet eerily quiet customer. It hit a peak temperature of 121 degrees Fahrenheit at its exhaust vent.
The system came with Windows 7 Home Premium, but can be upgraded to the Professional version for $70. The Envy 17 comes with a two-year warranty; adding a third year costs a reasonable $168.
At less than one-third the stratospheric price of the Panther 4.0 and about $1,000 less than the MSI GT783, the Envy 17 is the "budget" choice of these three gaming notebooks. However, it doesn't have the graphics potential or screen brightness of the other two.
If the expensive and aggressive Panther is at one end of the gaming spectrum and the more sedate and less expensive Envy 17 is at the other, MSI's GT783 fits right in the middle. Like Goldilocks, you might find it to be just right.
At 2.4 x 16.6 x 10.7 in. and weighing 8.6 lb., the MSI may be smaller and lighter than the Panther, but it's still a lot to carry around. The angular black case has chrome speaker grilles, a prominent power button and nicely contrasting shiny and matte design elements.
While it's more than an inch deeper than an airliner's tray table, the MSI looks slight when it's lined up side-by-side with the Panther. When you add the 1.9-lb. AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 10.5 lb.
Inside the MSI's case is an array of hardware that is similar to that of the Envy 17, including the same second-generation Intel Core i7-2670QM processor. It offers four processing cores and a clock speed of 2.2GHz; it can speed up to 3.1GHz when your opponent gets the upper hand.
The processor uses about half as much power as the Panther's. The system gets by with one fan inside, compared to the pair in the Envy 17 and the quartet in the Panther. During most uses, it was the quietest of the three.
Like the Panther, it comes with 16GB RAM, 4GB more than the Envy 17, and can hold up to 32GB RAM. It comes with a 750GB hard drive and a 128GB SSD. The design is not as spacious and innovative as the Panther, but makes more economical use of space.
The MSI GT783 review model came equipped with a Blu-ray disc burner that, like the Panther's optical drive, has a pop-out tray to hold the disc. Instead of a button to eject the disc, it has an electronic switch under the screen and an emergency eject hole on the drive so you can get the disc out with the machine turned off.
Like the other two gaming systems, the GT783 has a 17.3-in. screen that can display 1920 x 1080 resolution. It has a non-glare coating that makes its colors pop; I found it to be the brightest display of the three -- it was a delight to use for everything from watching a movie to running the Trainz simulation or playing Portal.
Like the Panther, it uses the same GeForce GTX 580M engine and has 2GB of dedicated VRAM. But the GT783 has only a single GPU. It also uses MSI's Turbo Drive Engine (TDE) that lets you overclock the graphics by 5%, giving you an extra gaming kick when it's a matter of virtual life and death.
Because it draws more power, TDE only works when the system is plugged in; it also pushes the system's ability to remove heat. There's a button below the screen to boost its cooling by more than 60%, but using that feature turns the MSI GT783 from the quietest of the three systems into the loudest. When TDE was enabled, the unit sounded like a cross between an air conditioner and a helicopter, and I measured its exhaust temperature at 147-degrees Fahrenheit -- the hottest of the three.
Opinions from the Masters School gamers
Members of the Masters gaming club were instantly attracted to the MSI; it was hard getting them away from it. They found it to be a good compromise in terms of size and weight, while the video was judged to be the best of the bunch.
- "Amazingly good graphics and performance."
- "Extremely smooth video."
- "Excellent graphics."
- "A top screen."
Unlike the other two laptops, the MSI GT783 offers a traditional VGA port. It has HDMI, but no DisplayPort connection or WiDi. It does have two USB 3.0 and three USB 2.0 connectors, together with e-SATA and audio jacks, and an SD card slot.
In addition to Ethernet and 802.11n Wi-Fi, the GT783 comes with Bluetooth.
Of the three, the MSI's SteelSeries keyboard is the most solid and feels like it can take the punishment of being pounded after the indignity of losing. You can choose backlighting from more than 1,000 colors and five different patterns, but it looks garish and can divert your attention away from the game.
The MSI's graphics are nothing short of amazing, with several games showing additional visual details, like the texture of a concrete wall or color variations on a field that was absent on the other systems. Its video was silky smooth.
The GT783's PerformanceTest 7.0 score with 12GB of RAM was 2,069.6, putting it slightly behind the Envy 17 and making it one-third slower than the Panther. With 16GB in place, its PerformanceTest 7 score rose to 2,255.
At a Glance
MSIPrice: $2,600Pros: Bright display, can overclock video, adjustable backlit keyboard, VGA port, good audioCons: Fan is loud when extra cooling is needed
On the Cinebench processor testing, the MSI GT783 tied with the Envy 17 with a 5.3 score, but despite having 2GB of VRAM at its disposal, the system fell to the back of the pack on the graphics with a score of 43.1, well off the Envy 17's group-leading 51.5.
The 7,800 mAh battery lasted for 2 hours, 31 minutes -- three times longer than the Panther 4.0's run time and 25 minutes less than the Envy 17.
The MSI GT783 came with Windows 7 Home Premium installed. The two-year warranty can be augmented to three years of coverage for $200.
At $2,600, the MIS GT783 costs half what the Panther goes for, but it's still not inexpensive. It may not be the most powerful or have the longest lasting battery, but the MSI GT783 provides a nice compromise for gamers on the go with a power notebook that has excellent graphics and display.
After countless hours pounding on their keyboards and reveling in virtual worlds, I'm convinced that any of these three gaming systems will satisfy even the most hardcore gamer. They all are fast and powerful, but they will appeal to different types of gamers.
The $1,685 HP Envy 17 is for the gamer on a budget. Compared to the others, it is economical and excels by being relatively lightweight without sacrificing performance.
On the other hand, I found the Envy 17's gaming abilities to be second to the MSI GT783 and Panther. Plus, having to change to integrated graphics to use WiDi is a compromise I'm not willing to make.
By contrast, the $5,290 Eurocom Panther 4.0 is for the gamer that has to have the absolute best -- and has a pocket full of $100 bills to pay for it. It has the most powerful processor and two high-performance graphics chips. But this laptop is not just big and heavy, it's gargantuan -- you might want to put it into a wheelie bag for travel.
MSI's GT783 is a good compromise between the competing interests of size, performance and price. It costs $2,600 and has the ability to pump up the graphics power -- and keep things cool -- when it's needed most. It's also the only one of the three to provide a VGA port.
In the final analysis, it's a tie between the Panther and MSI GT783, which is like having to decide between a Ferrari and a Porsche sports car. They're both exhilarating and a lot of fun, but the Panther costs a lot more and is less practical as something you need to rely on every day.
In other words, the MSI GT783 is the more reasonable as far as size, weight and price go, but get the Panther 4.0 if gaming is your life.
3 gaming laptops: Test results
How I tested
To see how these three gaming notebooks compare, I stressed them by using a variety of benchmarks and games.
After measuring each system, I weighed them with and without their AC adapters. I put each system on a mock-up of an airplane seat-back tray (unsurprisingly, none of these gaming machines fit on it easily).
I opened the back of each to see how hard it is to perform maintenance or repairs. I noted how many fans each had and how hard it was to change batteries.
I benchmarked them with PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 to get a good idea of each machine's overall performance potential. This suite of tests exercises every major system component, from the processor, memory and hard drive to the graphics. It then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
After that, I ran Maxon's Cinebench 11.5, a benchmark that measures graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes and animation sequences that put pressure on the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance; I averaged the results of three runs.
I then ran Auran's Trainz Simulator 2009, a railroad game that is particularly resource-intensive. Each system was set up to run the simulation of the British Midlands rail route for 72 hours. After it had been running for at least five hours, I looked at the system's resource use and noted it. Then I found the system's hotspot and measured the temperature with an Extech Pocket IR noncontact thermometer.
While the simulation was running, I looked for differences in how each system handled the game's graphics. I checked for video jerkiness, shimmering, jagged edges, shadowing, items that popped in and out as well as the level of detail that the system rendered.
Although these machines were designed to spend most of their lives running off of AC power, they do come with batteries. To see how long they could run on battery power, I fully charged each and then inserted a USB drive containing six videos that were run continuously until the system's battery ran out of power. This test was repeated three times and the results averaged.
The systems are actually excellent for graphics, so I rendered, manipulated and rotated a variety of 3-D models using GLC_Player. I also viewed a graphics-intensive PowerPoint presentation.
Finally, I consulted the closest thing to gaming experts that I could find: The gaming club at The Masters School, a preparatory school located in Westchester, N.Y. These teenagers are hard-core gamers who don't back down when zombies or aliens attack. Using Valve's Portal2, UBI Soft's The Adventures of Tin Tin and Exotypos's X-Motor Racing, the gamers looked over and played on each of the systems for a minimum of 45 minutes each.
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.
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