In recent years, notebook PCs have become much smaller, slimmer and more energy-efficient. Intel's strong Ultrabook push means that big, chunky, powerful laptops are mostly a relic of the past; they're dinosaurs from a forgotten era. MSI's GT70 is one of those dinosaurs -- it's big, it's heavy, and it's just about the most powerful notebook I've ever used.
There is a lot we like about the design of the 17-inch Dominator Pro (2PE-, but just as much we don't like as well. As a desktop replacement laptop, it is a big device, sitting a full 55mm tall, 428mm wide and 288mm deep, and it's also quite heavy at 4.1kg (measured). This is no LG UltraPC -- it is portable, but just barely. Even carrying it around the office I found myself resting it on my shoulder -- it's that ungainly combination of very large and slightly too heavy that makes the GT70 a notebook you wouldn't want to commute with every day. The 180-Watt power brick is also particularly large and cumbersome.
The design is Alienware-esque, with brushed metal, angular bezels and shiny black plastic in abundance. The GT70 actually feels quite sturdy, though -- there's only the smallest amount of flex in the notebook's body, although the screen is a little less solid when twisted across its diagonal length. The dark brushed aluminium also picks up fingerprints easily, despite not being particularly shiny; you'll see in our photos that even after some cleaning there were significant smudges we couldn't easily shift.
Scattered across the GT70's spacious rear and side panels, you'll find a total of five USB 3.0 ports, a SDXC-capable card reader, four headphone/microphone/audio output 3.5mm jacks, a rewritable Blu-ray disc drive, and VGA/Mini Displayport/HDMI video outputs. There's a gigabit LAN port and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, courtesy of a Killer E2200 dedicated network card promising better wired and wireless pings and transfer rates.
The MSI GT70's speakers, prominently placed behind the keyboard and next to the hotkeys, have been tweaked by Dynaudio. With two upward-firing drivers and a bass-tuned, downward-firing miniature 'subwoofer' on the base of the notebook, it's one of the better audio systems we've heard inside a portable computer -- but we're not surprised, given the amount of empty space inside the chassis that MSI is working with.
MSI has an excellent keyboard installed on the GT70 Dominator Pro, with a pre-installed Steelseries Engine utility controlling a full multicolour RGB LED backlighting across the entire keyboard and enabling the use of software macros in your favourite games. The utility isn't the most lightweight piece of software I've ever used, but it's versatile, and mandatory if you want to use the backlighting at all. Moreso than the software, though, the hardware of the keys themselves is excellent -- there's very little flex across the keyboard, even if you're stabbing hard at its centre while typing. The Synaptics touchpad is less spectacular; it's a little small for my liking, and there's extra wasted trackpad space used for two large left and right mouse buttons.
The CPU sitting at the heart of this middle-of-the-range MSI GT70 Dominator Pro is a fourth-generation Intel Core i7-4800MQ. As mobile processors go, it's incredibly powerful, but not quite as powerful as the i7-4390MX Extreme Edition in the top-specced GT70. At a base clock of 2.7GHz, with automatic Turbo Boost all the way up to 3.7GHz when needed, it's almost as powerful as Intel's own high-end desktop processors. In terms of raw number-crunching grunt, there aren't many laptops that can match the MSI GT70 at full power.
The GT70 Dominator Pro is the first notebook that has crossed my desk with a Nvidia GeForce GTX 880M discrete graphics card -- that's the selling point of this particular model refresh. The top-of-the-line GTX 880M is an improvement on the existing architecture of the GTX 780M, which itself was an improvement on the GTX 680MX. There have been incremental improvements in performance, but what stands out most is the massive amount of graphics memory that the GT70 has onboard; 8GB of 2500MHz GDDR5 memory is equal in capacity, if not in outright speed, with the just-released AMD Radeon R9 295X2.
The mid-spec GT70 Dominator Pro I tested had 12GB of RAM installed (one 8GB and one 4GB stick); with four DIMM slots arranged across the top and bottom of the GT70's motherboard, there's space for a maximum of 32GB (four 8GB sticks). This is a huge amount of RAM, putting this notebook on par with most desktop PCs available to buy today. If you want a portable computer with room to grow, or if you want a laptop that you can run Premiere Pro or crunch through some After Effects tasks, the GT70 fits the bill perfectly.
One bafflingly inferior aspect of the MSI GT70 I tested was its hard drive setup. Despite having the potential for a super-fast, 1500MBps three-drive RAID 0 SSD setup, my test GT70 was equipped with a single 750GB, 7200RPM HGST 7K1000. It topped out at just over 120MBps for both read and write transfer speeds in CrystalDiskMark's sequential disk benchmarks. Given that even a mid-level SSD like the Crucial M550 can easily hit 505MBps read and 455MBps write, the regular hard drive inside the GT70 is a huge liability -- we'd definitely recommend buyers opt for at least a single SSD, if not multiples, to match the rest of the notebook's generally excellent performance results.
The 17-inch, 1920x1080 pixel, LED-backlit IPS LCD display of the MSI GT70 has an anti-glare coating, and it does a very good job of dispersing any bright, pinpointed direct light sources. If you've got a set of fluorescent lights overhead in your office, or if you're brave enough to take the GT70 outside into direct sunlight, the screen remains easily readable, although the anti-glare coating is slightly grainy and does rob a small amount of pixel-level detail from the 1080p screen. Viewing angles are not bad horizontally and merely OK vertically, with a significant loss of contrast and brightness as you move off the ideal axis. At the top of the screen, there's a mediocre 720p-capable webcam and stereo microphone -- capable enough for a Skype video chat, but not good enough for your next Facebook profile photo.
All these high-end components chew through a lot of power. The MSI GT70 has a 9-cell, 7800mAh removable battery hidden under the right front corner of its body; this is a reasonably large cell, but in our worst case scenario torture test -- where we turn on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, pump the screen to maximum brightness, enable 'High Performance' mode in Windows, and loop a 1080p MKV video file -- the GT70 only lasted for a middling 2hr 43min before it ran out of juice. A less-intensive test run -- where we run the screen at half its rated brightness, use the 'Balanced' power setting, and loop a 720p MKV video -- saw the GT70 last for 4hr 32min. This isn't a laptop that you can use away from a power point for more than a few hours, but that's not its intended purpose anyway.
With Nvidia's control panel, Intel graphics hardware switching, the Steelseries keyboard utility, MSI's own update centre software, the swathe of Norton antivirus and firewall products, a trial copy of Microsoft Office, and plenty more pre-installed goodies, the MSI GT70 is not short of bloatware straight out of the box. It was enough that I actually re-installed Windows 8.1 from scratch, starting from a clean slate, installing drivers, then adding software only as I needed it. MSI's software stack slows the 17-inch Dominator Pro down; without it, it's a significantly faster device.
On a fresh, clean install of Windows 8.1 Pro, with the latest MSI, Intel and Nvidia drivers installed, the GT70 Dominator Pro is a superlative performer. Here's how it handled Gizmodo's standard suite of PC benchmarks (it's the first device to suffer our newly devised full suite of tests, so we don't have any direct comparisons):
MSI GT70 Dominator Pro: Performance
CPU: Cinebench: 648 Cinebench (OpenGL): 83FPS Graphics: 3D Mark Fire Strike: 5423 3D Mark Fire Strike Extreme: 2891 Gaming: Tomb Raider: 56fps Metro: Last Light: 45fps Battlefield 4: 78fps Crysis 3: 37fps Storage: CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Read): 124MBps CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Write): 121Mbps Battery: Powermark: TBA Gizmodo Torture Test: 4hr 32min Gizmodo Torture Test Extreme: 2hr 43min
How we benchmark PCs: To benchmark pre-built notebook and desktop PCs, we use a combination of current real-world gaming performance benchmarks at the PC's native resolution (if a notebook) or 1080p and 1440p (if a desktop), and synthetic performance tests using Futuremark's 3D Mark, PC Mark and Powermark software suites, as well as Cinebench and CrystalDiskMark. All tests are run three times in series to produce an average result representative of expected everyday performance, accounting for any possible heat-related speed throttling due to insufficient component cooling.
The MSI GT70 2PE Dominator Pro is an extreme notebook. To be honest, it's not especially attractive, but it is powerful -- largely thanks to its bleeding edge GTX 880M graphics chipset. It's very much a desktop replacement -- if you're the kind of user that needs serious number-crunching power, or if you're looking to play a few games in your downtime from work, this is a laptop that is more than capable of filling that role. It's only barely portable, but that might be the deciding factor in choosing the GT70 over a proper desktop PC.