A few years ago, I made the prediction that 2015 would be the year of the gaming laptop. Turns out, I was a bit early... but not by much. With the release of NVIDIA's GeForce 10 series, the company's mobile GPUs flaunt near-desktop levels of performance. Which makes buying a notebook in 2017 an exciting proposition. But how best to spend those valuable dollars while satisfying your gaming urges? Metabox's Alpha N850HK could be the answer.
What Is It?
Metabox's Alpha series represents the builder's more affordable range of notebooks. In terms of specifications however, they are in no way slouches. 15.6" and 17.3" units are available, all packing Intel's i7-7700HQ processor. The quad-core chip is close to the top-end of laptop CPUs.
Where the main differentiation comes is the graphics. Depending on the model you go with, you'll get a GTX 1050 or 1050 Ti. The chips are comparable -- 640MHz/1354MHz core and memory clocks versus 768MHz/1493MHz for the Ti. Both have a 128-bit bus.
But the Ti has a little extra under the hood -- 48 texture units and 32 render output units, up from the 1050's 40 and 16.
For this review, we'll be looking at the N850HK, which comes with the 1050 Ti. Because Metabox allows you to customise almost everything about the build, here are the particulars of our configuration:
- 15.6" FHD 1920x1080 IPS WVA Matte 60Hz LED
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB
- Intel Core i7-7700HQ Processor (up to 3.8GHz)
- 16GB DDR4 2400MHZ
- SK Hynix SC308 512GB SATA3 SSD
- Intel 3168 AC Dual Band Wi-Fi
- 378 x 267 x 26.9mm (WDH)
- 2.3kg (with battery)
This level of customisation means the price can vary a lot. At the time of writing, going with the minimal build (no OS or hard drive), you'll be out $1349. The cheapest drive, a 128GB Intel SSD, brings this to $1449, while tossing in Windows 10 raises the total to $1594.
Keep in mind that Metabox (and resellers) tend to have deals going at various times, so you can save a hundred bucks or so by timing your purchase.
In terms of the design, the chassis is solid plastic, sturdy and low-fuss. The lid is tightly sealed -- you'll need to hold the base down before cracking it open, lest you flip the thing. It's totally black, except for self-lit keyboard, grey Metabox logos and the gleam of copper through the cooling vents.
Speaking of vents, there's three -- a bottom intake and two outtakes positioned in the back-left and right sides. If you enjoy having a warm mouse hand, this is the notebook for you.
At 2.3kg it's no ultrabook and sits on the borderline of being too weighty as an all-day backpack carry. But, given the hardware inside, it's a reasonable compromise.
Finally, it comes with plenty of ports:
- 1x USB 2.0
- 3x USB 3.0 (1x Type C, 2x Type A)
- 1x HDMI
- 2x Mini DisplayPort 1.2
- 1x headphone jack
- 1x microphone jack
- 1x RJ-45 1Gb/s LAN
There's also a six-in-one card reader (MMC, RSMMC, SD, miniSD, SDHC, SDXC) for all your photo and tiny storage needs.
What's It Good At?
As a budget gaming notebook, the N850HK excels. You'll be hard-pressed finding a cheaper notebook with the same specifications and build quality outside of ridiculous discounts and second-hand gear. The i7 chip slays every game you throw at it, leaving the 1050 Ti as the deciding factor.
We tested with two benchmarks -- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and 3DMark's Fire Strike. Because the former doesn't come with a benchmark mode, the game was played for a fixed period at each quality setting, starting with the game's first fight and riding to the next cinematic. Post-processing quality was left at "High".
All benchmarks were conducted at the display's native resolution of 1920 x 1080 (click the images for larger versions).
As you can see, if you blindly go Ultra and cross your fingers, you're going to be disappointed. Still, I was impressed that the game wasn't a slideshow at those settings. I wouldn't call it smooth, but it was definitely playable, if you prefer eye-candy over frames. Once you get to medium details, thing are more acceptable.
It's important to keep in mind that The Witcher 3 is at the top-end. If almost any other game is your bag, the 1050 Ti will be able to handle it at high settings. When it can't a few strategic tweaks will almost certainly make things buttery smooth.
What's It Not Good At?
If you just want to play games at ultra levels, then the N850HK won't satisfy. You'll want a notebook with the 1060 at a minimum.
The screen isn't the best going around, if you go for the 1920 x 1080 option. At over 15 inches, the discerning eye can pick up the subtle grid pattern of the display (I've been spoiled for years by the glorious screen of ASUS' UX32VD). Once anything of substance is happening though, it's almost impossible to notice. A 4K panel is an option for ~$350.
Battery life also wasn't flash. Idling with the screen always on, the unit lasted three hours and 27 minutes. Under heavy load (FurMark's stress test) it managed 40 minutes, so don't expect to play demanding games for long unplugged.
In terms of temperatures, the unit happily idled at 42°C / 46°C for the CPU and GPU respectively at 20°C ambient. Under load running Prime95 and FurMark, these hit 97°C and 77°C respectively. Unsurprisingly, the CPU's throttling logic was triggered, which brought the core down to 90°C for the rest of the test.
Consider these numbers the upper limits. Normal use, even playing a demanding game, would never make the hardware this hot and the N850HK's cooling system is more than adequate for the hardware.
Should You Buy It?
The 1050 Ti can't quite take the crown as a bang-for-your-buck miracle... but it's close enough. If you're the sort of gamer that doesn't want to stuff around with optimal graphics settings, then you should turn your eyes to Metabox's 1060-equipped offerings, which start with its Prime range.
The issue here is you're going to need to spend a couple of hundred extra dollars for the privilege. The 1060 Prime starts at $1799 -- and that doesn't include an operating system. That said, if you have an extra $200-$300 to spend, it's worth paying for the 1060's grunt.
All up, the Alpha N850HK is a fantastic balance of portability, power and price. Sure, a 1060 would be nice, but the 1050 Ti keeps the notebook in the ~$1500 bracket, which for a lot of people is the upper spending limit when it comes to notebooks.
For the cost, the N850HK is about as good as it gets.