ASUS G74SX: Meaningful Updates, Sans Optimus

The last time we took ASUS’ G7 series out for a spin was just after the Sandy Bridge launch, and as one of the first such laptops it wasn’t too surprising to find most of the specs largely unchanged from the previous generation. This time around, ASUS has had an extra four months to work out the kinks, resulting in an updated system that sports improved components specs as well as a few updates to the core design.

We’ll cut straight to the chase and point out the biggest change, at least from an external perspective: the keyboard layout fixes one of the few (minor) complaints we had with the G73 series, giving us full-size cursor keys and a larger numerical keypad. In fact, the palm rest and keyboard have been tweaked, with aluminum around the keys now instead of plastic, the removal of a few quick-access keys, and a slight change in some of the angles. The result is nearly notebook keyboard perfection as far as I’m concerned—at least if you have a 17.3”-screen chassis to work with. The one blemish is the half-size zero key on the 10-key.

Gallery: ASUS G74SX-A2

The keyboard and palm rest may be the major change in terms of appearance, but looking at the back and bottom of the chassis reveals a few other modifications. The two vents on the side corners are now a single larger vent in the middle, the battery is in the back-left corner now, and there’s a single large access panel secured by a single screw that lets you get to the storage and memory. The components have also received a few upgrades, but let’s post the obligatory features table and then we’ll discuss the finer points.

ASUS G74SX-A2 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2630QM
(4x2.0GHz + HT, 32nm, 6MB L3, Turbo to 2.9GHz, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 4x4GB DDR3-1333 (Max 16GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560M 1.5GB GDDR5
192 SPs, 775/1550/625MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
(2.5GHz effective RAM clock)

Drivers: 285.27 Beta/280.26 WHQL
Display 17.3" LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Chimei Innolux N173HGE-L21)
Hard Drive(s) Intel 160GB 320 Series SSD (SSDSA2CW160G3) 750GB 7200RPM HDD
(Seagate Momentus ST9750420AS)
Optical Drive Blu-ray/DVDR Combo (Slimtype BDE DS4E1S)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi 150Mbps (Atheros AR9002WB-1NG)
Bluetooth 3.0+HS (Atheros)
Audio Realtek ALC269 HD Audio (2.1 speakers + subwoofer)
Microphone and headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI)
Battery 8-Cell, 14.4V, 5.2Ah, 74Wh
Front Side N/A
Left Side Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
Optical Drive (BD-ROM/DVDRW)
2 x USB 2.0
Kensington Lock
Right Side Memory Card Reader
1 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 2.0
VGA
HDMI
Ethernet
AC Power Connection
Back Side Large exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 16.54" x 12.80" x 0.82-2.44" (WxDxH)
420 x 325 x 20.9-62 mm (WxDxH)
Weight 9.42 lbs (with 8-cell battery)
4.28 kg
Extras Gaming (Laser) Mouse
ASUS Backpack
2MP Webcam
102-Key keyboard with 10-key
Flash reader (SD, MMC, MS-Duo, Smart Media, xD)
Warranty 2-year limited global warranty
1-year accidental damage and battery warranty
Pricing Online starting at $1948
Other G74SX models starting at $1200

Nearly all of the changes make good sense, but the net result is a $200 jump in price from when the G74SW-A1 launched to the G74SX-A2 we’re reviewing. The lion’s share of the price increase can be traced back to the Intel 320 Series 160GB SSD, of course: that will set you back $285 all by itself. We’d still prefer something like an Intel 510 Series or a SandForce 2200 equipped SSD for the added performance, but the 320 Series strikes a reasonable blend of performance, capacity, and price—and it’s still far faster than any hard drive! The hard drive meanwhile gets a bump to 750GB, and ASUS keeps the same Blu-ray combo drive.

Moving on to the other elements, the same CPU remains but the memory gets a bump from 4x2GB to 4x4GB. The GPU also gets an upgrade to the GTX 560M, which improves clock speeds by 15% but keeps memory bandwidth the same. NVIDIA made a point of telling us that all of their 500M GPUs are now Optimus enabled, but of course the same was true of their 400M parts. As before, it’s up to the notebook manufacturers to decide whether or not to utilize Optimus, and ASUS continues to eschew the technology on their gaming notebooks. Whether you feel that’s a good or bad thing is up to personal opinion, but in general we’d prefer to have Optimus on any notebook with a discrete GPU.

We know Optimus can create issues for Linux users (basically, you lose access to the discrete GPU), but that’s a very small market and ASUS certainly isn’t catering to them with their gaming notebooks. At least one reader said he had experienced sluggishness using the latest GPU-accelerated browsers with CSS3 content, but we have been unable to corroborate his claims as no links to offending websites were provided. We tested with Dell’s XPS 15 and the ASUS G74SX on a variety of CSS3 sites and didn’t experience any severe problems in Chrome 14 or Firefox 7. We did notice that resizing the Firefox 7 window while viewing some websites was choppy, but if that’s the extent of the problem I’d still prefer Optimus. If anyone can provide a better list of sites and/or problems with Optimus, we’ll be happy to look into it, but otherwise I can’t see any problems severe enough with the latest Sandy Bridge Optimus notebooks to make discrete-only solutions preferable.

The remainder of the notebook is generally the same, and as with its predecessors, the G74SX runs remarkably cool and quiet even under extended gaming sessions. Why they don’t stuff in a faster GPU than the GTX 560M—at least in certain models—remains a bit of a mystery. The Alienware M17x isn’t all that different and supports the GTX 580M, and outside of potential power adapter constraints (hello 100W dGPU), the GTX 580M seems like it would work in the G74S chassis. That’s the real competition for ASUS here: Alienware’s more expensive but potentially better equipped M17x R3 gaming notebook.

We really liked the M17x R3, enough that we gave it our Bronze Editors’ Choice award. The G74SX runs quieter and doesn’t get as hot, and in my opinion it has a perfect keyboard layout with no discernible flex. Alienware counters with zoned colored backlighting and higher spec GPU and CPU options, but they’ll cost you. The M17x with GTX 560M and upgraded to 1080p and 16GB RAM is already at $2050, and that doesn’t include Intel’s 160GB SSD, so you’re basically looking at $375 for a straight-across upgrade to an M17x R3 with the same specs (but with extra lighting). Kick the M17x to a GTX 580M and you add another $500, which is probably more than most people are willing to pay—for that matter, the $1950 starting price of the G74SX-A2 is already dangerously high, though models without the SSD, with less memory, and with a 1600x900 LCD can be had for $1300 (or there's the $1200 Best Buy model linked above) if that’s what you’re after.

From a design standpoint, the G74SX has really addressed all of our complaints with the previous G73 series—not that we had any severe concerns, as we even awarded the G73Jh a Gold Award when it first launched. The chassis feels more refined, and with an SSD for the OS and applications (and maybe even a few games), the overall experience is definitely improved. There are faster gaming notebooks, or less expensive gaming notebooks, but it’s hard to find fault with the overall balance of options used in the G74SX-A2. Let’s hit the benchmarks for a few pages before coming to a final conclusion.

Application Performance: Add an SSD for Improved Performance
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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 06, 2011 - link

    AMD's mobile GPUs tend to hit higher temperatures on the high-end in my experience, so that may be part of the equation. Obviously, we don't get to keep these systems long-term, so unfortunately I can't say how any of these will hold up after six months or a year of use. On the plus side, if you do change your thermal paste out, you can use something better that won't need to be replaced a second time. Reply
  • Coup27 - Thursday, October 06, 2011 - link

    Am I the only one who is confused by the single USB3 port? I am assuming they used a controller such as NEC which supports two ports, so why did they only use 1? Reply
  • Wolfpup - Friday, October 07, 2011 - link

    Yeah, no Intel chipsets support USB 3.0 until next year (I guess it's finally coming next year).

    Can't remember what chip it uses, but it's worked fine for me (the port is blue, so you can tell the difference).

    I'd guess maybe it's harder to wire it up to two ports, or maybe they didn't want to reduce the available ports to only 2 if you're not using Windows 7 (or don't have the drivers installed).

    Like the port doesn't work until you get the drivers on there (hopefully Windows 8, or whatever they call 6.2 will just support it out of the box).

    I've got a Tripp Lite USB 3.0 hub which seems to work well, and my two external USB 3.0 drives (that I happened to already have) hooked in to that.

    I love USB 3.0 so far! I mean 2.0 gets the job done for me, but of course maxes out around 25MB/s-ish, while the same drive under 3.0 seemed to be averaging 95MB/s-ish (and sometimes even higher), which is not something I'll complain about!
    Reply
  • hrbngr - Thursday, October 06, 2011 - link

    Jarred,

    I have read you mentioning your RSI issues in several articles. The MS keyboard is a nice option, but you really owe it to yourself to try out a kinesis ergo keyboard:

    http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/advantage_pro.htm

    It has a USB connection and comes w/a foot pedal that is usually programmed to be the shift key, it only needs a separate numeric keypad--the built in one is kind of clunky--if you use that a lot. I'm not sure I could live w/out mine. Individual key wells and a focus on using both thumbs for the shift/alt/control/tab keys vs using your pinky really work--and I didn't take as long to get used to it as I thought I would.

    Great laptop review as btw. However I think that I will wait for the next gen chipset as the on-board video seems to be a substantial upgrade, and when used in Optimus mode, would be good for most all work but heavy gaming.
    Reply
  • 666 - Thursday, October 06, 2011 - link

    Those horrendously overpriced weird keyboardlike things are not selling that well, are they? Perhaps it's the color? :) Reply
  • hrbngr - Friday, October 07, 2011 - link

    666,

    I suppose the white color is a little off-putting, but I did buy the black usb model! :-) They are very overpriced, but there is no other keyboard on the market that come close to it in terms of comfort--especially through the use off the foot pedal for the "shift" key.
    Reply
  • Wolfpup - Friday, October 07, 2011 - link

    And I really like it. I agree with everything in the review except the (continued) obsession with switchable graphics. A big factor in my purchase of the G74 over other models is that it DOESN'T use switchable graphics. No driver weirdness. No reduced performance. If I'm buying something mid range or high end and it's got a GPU, I want to use the GPU. Power gating and whatnot to get power levels down further would be fine, but I'm not compromising on compatibility or performance to get some extra battery life, even if I used the battery, which I never have on a notebook.

    I find the G74 very portable too, though the bag they included didn't fit it well, and most don't. Targus' "XL" bag works pretty well, and is pretty decent build quality (if not LL Bean quality).

    I've found everything in the review (save for the Optimus stuff...) to be dead on. The performance is great. The keyboard's remarkable for a notebook. (And I love finally having a numberpad!) Physically it SEEMS similar to my Macbook Air keyboard, but the buttons on the Air are much more "mushy" and don't have as much travel as the G74 keyboard does.

    The cooling's awesome, the noise level is awesome, just as the review says. The screen's great by notebook standards too-looks great, great viewing angles and contrast, etc.). I normally leave it on minimum brightness (and half the time use a 24" external monitor) but I love having the headroom to crank it up if I need to!

    Obviously I'd have loved a GTX 570 or 580, but the 560 is getting it done for me, and probably will for a long time, so...that's fine. Mine (the A1 model) comes with 3GB instead of 1.5GB, though I guess that doesn't affect performance today? Hurray for Windows and good hardware...I was running Modern Warfare 2 on my external screen, while leaving Outlook 2010 running on my internal display, all just working flawlessly!

    RAM access seems super easy compared with any other notebook I've seen (there's a bit more space than normal, and of course 4 DIMM slots). My only complaint with access is I wish the cable for the second hard drive had a better mechanism attaching it to the motherboard. If you swap drives as I did, I wouldn't disconnect the cable from the board, just disconnect it from the drive. Otherwise that all went smoothly.

    My A1 shipped with two Seagate Momentus 7200/16MB drives, and I stuck a 300GB Intel 320 in as the main drive, which has been a great combo. I stuck Steam stuff on the second drive, as well as all my shows from my Tivo, etc., while most of my programs are on the first drive. (The Seagate Momentus XT is a nice compromise if you don't want to spend a crazy amount on an SSD as the boot drive...honestly to me there feels like a bigger gap between normal drives and the Momentus XT than between the XT and SSDs...so the $550ish I spend on my SSD isn't REALLY worth it, I just wanted to do it!)

    Anyway, so far my G74's just been a pleasure to use. Normal Nvidia.com drivers installed with no hacks or weirdness. Nothing's gone wrong. All the hardware's nice, and fast, etc.
    Reply
  • aguilpa1 - Friday, October 07, 2011 - link

    This thing is huge and uses the same tired old 560, so sad. I don't see how this is news or can be considered an update. Reply
  • Siorus - Friday, October 07, 2011 - link

    Jarred, have they fixed the throttling issue that they've had since the G73 came out yet?

    I bought a G73 for work a few months ago, because I needed a mobile CAD workstation RIGHT (bleep)ING YESTERDAY and that was the closest I could get locally. 2630QM or a 2720QM or something, and a GTX460m. While setting it up, I found that if you run furmark and prime95 at the same time, the CPU throttles down to 800MHz and stays there. It's not a heat issue; temperatures stay well under control (60s-70s*C); I did some googling and found people reporting performance problems in games because of it.

    So I ran out and bought a G74 since the guy that needed it was going on a trip and he needed a machine the next day (it's great when people don't tell you these things until the last minute). The G74 (same CPU, 560m) has the same exact issue.

    I guess some HP laptop had the same problem and HP released a BIOS update to fix it. As far as I know, ASUS has not yet seen fit to actually fix or stop selling a fundamentally broken machine.

    I'm frankly disgusted with the whole episode; I've used ASUS boards almost exclusively both at work and at home for years (since the demise of Abit), and unless this is addressed, I, for one, will never buy another ASUS product again.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, October 08, 2011 - link

    I just spent the last couple of hours trying to replicate the throttling issue, without using Furmark. I have been unable to do so. With Furmark however, running any heavily threaded load at the same time will result in almost immediate throttling of the CPU clock, as you mention.

    The problem I have here is that Furmark is a well-known "power virus". Both AMD and NVIDIA have already essentially prevented it from running at maximum load to the point where it will ruin hardware (or at least they have tried). I have not found any other graphics program (without including Furmark derivatives like MSI Kombustor) that will generate a similar load on a GPU. As such, it's difficult for me to ding a laptop for throttling while running what is essentially a load that you cannot replicate without using a synthetic utility.

    If you can give me some real-world scenario where throttling results (e.g. running a particular game), I'll be happy to look into it. But it needs to be an actual game (or game + heavily threaded application load). I'll put a note on the power/temp page at least warning of the throttling potential, but until I can replicate it elsewhere I won't lose any sleep over Furmark.
    Reply

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