So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
MSI GT70 Dragon Edition gaming notebook
MSI's gaming notebook may have a Dragon pattern on its lid and palm rest, but it's not quite an epic fire-breathing beast
- Good CPU and storage performance
- RAID 0 SSD array plus 750GB hard drive
- Good keyboard and touchpad
- Design is a little too tacky
- Graphics adapter not high-end
- Screen could be a little better
The look of the MSI GT70 Dragon Edition may ultimately decide whether you go for this gaming notebook or not (as well as the price, of course). Under the hood, it has a fast configuration that's very fast for the most part, but we think it could use a higher-end graphics card to match the "premium" vibe that this notebook gives off.
Price$ 2,999.00 (AUD)
The MSI GT70 Dragon Edition is designed specifically for gamers who want something a little more interesting than a normal laptop. It's a big 17.3in desktop replacement unit with flair that's designed to make it stand out: the keyboard can be illuminated in three colours and different flashing patterns, and the palm rest and lid both come with an etching of a dragon on them. This little detail is perhaps used to signify that the configuration within is something to be feared. However, the graphics processing power of this MSI computer is only enough for some mild intimidation compared to some of the competition that's available in the high end of the Australian notebook market.
Specifications and performance
You don't get the premium features of other high-end gaming notebooks from vendors such as Origin and Venom, for example. The graphics card is not the fastest you can get (for the fastest graphics you'll need to go for the GT70 One model, according to MSI's Web site), the chassis doesn't include dual exhausts, and you don't get any extra ports such as DVI output. That said, there are good things about this notebook's configuration: you get a quad-core, Intel Core i7-3630QM CPU, 16GB of DDR3 SDRAM (4GB in each of the notebook's four slots) and there is a RAID 0 array installed for the operating system and applications. This array is populated by two 128GB, mSATA solid state drives, which put up fast transfer rates in our tests. You also get a regular 7200rpm, 750GB hard drive on which to store all your data.
In the graphics department, the most important department for a notebook of this ilk, you get an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675MX adapter, which is a couple of steps below NVIDIA's current fastest graphics adapter for notebooks, the GTX 680MX. Of course, this also makes the GT70 Dragon Edition a little cheaper than the competition, but you're still looking at a price tag that's at least $2999 (the cheapest we found it online). If you're already considering getting a high-end notebook at that price point, you probably wouldn't mind spending another few hundred to get the best current graphics adapter possible.
That said, you'll still be able to get very good performance out of this thing. In Battlefield 3, for example, the notebook ran smoothly at the native Full HD resolution of the screen. With High detail quality, it registered frame rates in the high 40s during regular play and fell to the high 30s when there were lots of explosions on the screen. With Ultra detail quality, the frame rate was more consistently sitting in the high 30s, falling to the high 20s when there was lots of action in a scene.
In 3DMark06, the MSI's score of 15883 indicates that it isn't quite the fastest kid on the block when it comes to gaming laptops, but it's a lot better than a notebook with a mainstream graphics adapter, which will generally score closer to 10000 in this old benchmark. In the latest 3DMark, which is comprised of three tests (Ice Storm for entry-level systems, Cloud Gate for mid-range systems and Fire Strike for high-end gaming systems), the MSI put up a score of 5336 in Cloud Gate and 632 in Fire Strike, which are well down on what the high-end Venom Blackbook gaming system scored in the same tests — 15411 for Cloud Gate and 1500 for Fire Strike.
When the graphics are in full swing, the left exhaust vent will have lots of hot air passing through it and only some slight warmth will be felt up through the top-left part of the keyboard. More ventilation is provided via a rear vent so that air can be circulated through the graphics adapter and CPU heat sinks, which are joined by heat pipes. The rear also has what looks like a dummy vent on its right side, which makes the Dragon look a little less like a premium model and more like a generic unit. If it was up to us, we would've made this part of the laptop blend in with the rest of the chassis rather than looking like a potential vent.
As for the rest of the MSI's performance, the quad-core CPU, 16GB of RAM and the RAID 0 system array helped propel it to some very good overall scores. It recorded 19sec in the Blender 3D rendering test, which is the same time as the Venom Blackbook (it has the same CPU), while it got 41sec in our iTunes MP3 encoding test. That is 2sec better than the Venom. It converted a DVD file to an Xvid using AutoGordianKnot in just under 34min (which is slightly better than the Venom), and it converted a DVD file to an MP4 in 9min 54sec using Handbrake (which is identical to the Venom).
The storage tests were even more in favour of the MSI thanks to its RAID 0 array. The two 128GB, mSATA solid state drives that have been used to build this array were able to put up a read rate of 936 megabytes per second (MBps) in CrystalDiskMark, along with a write rate of 316MBps. The read rate from this benchmark is the fastest we've seen in a laptop since the Acer Aspire S5, which also used a RAID 0 array, but the MSI's 316MBps write rate, while very good, is nowhere near the 670MBps of the Acer. In our file duplication test, a rate of 132MBps was achieved, which isn't the fastest we've seen, but it's better than the 111MBps recorded by the Venom's single solid state system drive.
Cold boot time for the MSI Dragon was around 19sec, which is not as fast as what a modern Ultrabook such as the ASUS S400C can achieve, for example, but it's not too bad overall for a machine that also has an optical drive in addition to a hard drive that needs to be recognised at boot up. It's important to note that this boot time is the time it takes for the system to go to the login screen. There will still be things loading in the background after you log in to the system and get to the Desktop.
Battery life on a notebook like this shouldn't be of that much concern since it's big, heavy and designed to primarily be a desktop replacement, but the almost three-hour life that we got in our battery rundown test (2hr 56min) is a good result. In this test, we loop an Xvid-encoded video while power management is disabled, Wi-Fi is on and screen brightness is set to maximum. When running on battery, the notebook uses the CPU's integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, rather than the more power-hungry NVIDIA adapter.
The 17.3in, Full HD screen isn't as bright or as vibrant as the screen on other recent gaming machines we've seen, but it's a matte screen that isn't prone to reflecting room lights and this is ideal when playing games and viewing videos. There is some glossiness around the edges of the screen though, which can be distracting. We found the vertical viewing angle of the screen be a little narrow, and often had to adjust the tilt of the screen to make dark areas of a picture more viewable. We think the overall quality of this panel could be better.
Physically, the GT70 Dragon weighs 3.8kg and it isn't the sort of notebook you can easily take with you on your travels. There are plenty of features packed into it, including a Blu-ray drive on the right side, along with two USB 2.0 ports; there are Gigabit Ethernet, VGA, eSATA and HDMI ports on the rear; there are two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and four audio ports on the left (headphone, microphone, line and line out). You also get dual-band Wi-Fi in the form of a Qualcomm Atheros Killer Wireless-N 1202 adapter that can run at up to 300Mbps, Bluetooth, a webcam and 2.1 speaker system. The speakers sound a little flat overall, but they are decent if you just want a simple solution for music and videos. There is a THX equaliser that allows you to enable and disable the surround sound feature depending on what you're listening to.
A touch panel sits above the keyboard, and it has feather-touch buttons for toggling certain features (such as the Wi-Fi and keyboard backlight) as well as ejecting the optical drive. We wish it also had volume buttons though. It's a panel that feels a little flimsy on the right side and we're not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that the notebook we saw had done the rounds as a display model (you may have also noticed some tape stuck to the bezel in the pictures of the notebook on the Images tab above).
We like the keyboard on this notebook, which has soft keys with plenty of travel, and we love the backlight under these keys. You can light up the keyboard so that it has up to three different colour sections, or you can just illuminate the gaming keys on the left side. There are also patterns that can be enabled so that you don't just have a static display. The brightness levels and the patterns aren't as comprehensive as they are on the likes of the Origin and Venom machines that we've seen, which have similar keyboards, but it's still an enjoyable feature to use. The layout of the keyboard is standard for the most part, although the Windows key is located to the right of the Space bar, rather than the left.
The touchpad has a trapezoidal shape that's 91x48mm in size and it supports Windows 8 swipe-in gestures in addition to multi-finger gestures such as two-finger scrolling and three-finger flicking. It was responsive during our test period and our only issue with it is the trapezoid shape, which fans out towards the bottom of the pad and creates unusable space. We often ended up invoking the Windows 8 Charms bar because we started to move the pointer just outside the proper area of the pad and this was interpreted as a swipe-in gesture.
MSI has gone all-out to appeal to users who want something different with this design. It's not overly attractive, and most people in the office who saw it commented on that. However, for the specific market it's targeting, that is, gamers who want a stand-out machine, its looks might be just right. We wish that the unit had a slightly better screen and perhaps a GeForce GTX 680M graphics adapter, which would go better with the overall premium message that the Dragon is trying to convey — and especially since you're already paying quite a high price for this unit. We love its overall performance though, and even with the not-quite-top-of-the-line graphics adapter it still has strong gaming credentials.
Related Windows 8 laptop reviews:
• ASUS VivoBook S400C touchscreen Ultrabook
• Samsung Ativ Smart PC 500T hybrid tablet
• Venom Blackbook Windows 8 gaming notebook
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