MSI GT70 Review: GTX 880M Editionby Jarred Walton on April 16, 2014 6:00 AM EST
MSI’s GT70 (and their similar but slightly smaller GT60) line of notebooks are designed to cater to a specific class of users. If you want as much performance as possible in a notebook and size isn’t a major factor, they’re definitely worth a look. Pricing of the MSI models (and boutique derivatives from places like iBuyPower) also tends to be better than what you’ll get from an Alienware 17, ASUS G750, Clevo P177/P157, etc. MSI’s SteelSeries keyboard is also one of the better options out there, with decent key travel and colorful RGB LED backlighting. However, cooling is one area where some of the alternatives fare better; it’s not that the MSI can’t handle heavy workloads, but it does tend to generate more noise than similar notebooks that have two cooling fans.
If there’s a major shortcoming other than the single cooling fan in our GT70, it’s the lack of solid state storage. Nearly every laptop that costs $1000 or more ships with SSD caching at a minimum, and most of the laptops I’ve used in the past year have had pure SSD storage. MSI does have models with SSDs, and I’d highly recommend you look at those – or go through one of the boutiques that allow you to customize the storage setup – as even a moderate dual-core Ultrabook often feels more sprightly than the GT70 in non-gaming tasks. That said, the $1900 price point of this model is quite good, and there’s space for you to add your own 2.5” SSD so you can pick what you want and still get a 256GB class SSD with a final price of under $2100. When you compare that with last year’s GT70 Dragon that featured three 128GB SSDs in RAID 0 and carried a price tag of $2700, dropping $800 and getting a better CPU and GPU in the process is a nice alternative.
In terms of aesthetics and design, I’d really like to see MSI update the GT70 chassis and modernize the design language, though I understand the costs involved may not seem worthwhile. Still, when you look at the chassis there’s a lot of extra plastic that’s unnecessary – the quarter inch lip around the keyboard area could easily be removed, and the LCD bezel is much larger than is strictly required. Trim down these areas as well as the thickness and create a less busy look – something more like a larger/thicker Dell XPS 15 or Razer Blade Pro with colored LED backlighting on the keyboard and a 10-key layout is what I’m thinking. I’d also like to see fewer seams and pieces used in the exterior, so a single piece of aluminum, magnesium alloy, or even plastic for the LCD cover and palm rest would help. Creating such a chassis would cost more however, and it would likely be more difficulty in terms of accessing the internals to assemble/upgrade the system, so I understand why MSI continues to stick with their existing design; unfortunately, the design still looks dated, more like something you’d see from 2008 than from 2014.
As far as NVIDIA’s new GTX 880M, performance is pretty much what you’d expect from a slightly higher clocked GK104. It’s fast enough to run nearly any current game at maximum quality settings, and for those few titles that are still a bit too demanding, disabling anti-aliasing or dropping the quality setting to “high” is usually all it takes to get frame rates well above 40 FPS. We could say the same for the GTX 780M as well, however, and if you already have such a notebook I don’t see any pressing reason to upgrade. In other words, if you didn’t feel the need to buy a GTX 780M last year, there’s little reason to buy a slightly faster GTX 880M right now. What gamers really want is the next generation “Big Maxwell” mobile GPU. NVIDIA hasn’t given us any details on when such a chip will ship, but given the past few years we’re likely to see something like that in the fall (or maybe summer) timeframe. If any of the alleged specifications for GM100 are true, we may not see GM100 in any notebook part this year, but GM104 is almost certain to make an appearance and deliver superior performance to the current GTX 880M.
NVIDIA’s other new additions for the GTX 800M line are interesting, but the only GTX 800M exclusive – Battery Boost – probably needs a better showcase vehicle than the GT70 (or any other GTX 880M notebook for that matter). We did see a measurable increase in battery life with Battery Boost, and we’ll be doing a more detailed look at the technology in the near future, but if your goal is to achieve two or more hours of gaming battery life, the best we could manage with the GT70 is only about 90 minutes. Maxwell mobile GPUs again are likely to fare better, and we hope to have a GTX 850M or GTX 860M notebook for testing sooner rather than later. [Ed: And if you’re a manufacturer with such a laptop and you can get us one for review, please contact me!]
ShadowPlay and GameStream on the other hand are basically known quantities from the desktop world, and they work with the GT70 as well as they work on a desktop GTX 760. I did notice a bit of sluggishness after 20 or so minutes of gaming with ShadowPlay enabled, but I’m not sure if that was just the game (Batman Origins), or the slow HDD storage, or perhaps something else – I think it was likely the HDD, as doing a dump of the ShadowPlay buffer would clear the problem for another 20 minutes (the buffer size I set). GameStream over my local WiFi worked fine as well, but I haven’t had a chance to play with Remote GameStream yet so I can’t comment on that. Incidentally, anyone that thinks “gaming notebooks” are underpowered either has seriously high “requirements” or they simply haven’t used a system with a GTX 780M/880M, because outside of a few specific titles, I can run every game at 1080p with maximum quality, often at 60+ FPS. Doing that on a laptop (or desktop) and then streaming the result to a SHIELD is at least a somewhat novel experience, though as a PC gamer used to mouse and keyboard controls, I have to admit I’m not very good at playing games with the SHIELD controller.
When reviewing any products, besides determining what I specifically like and/or dislike about the product, I want to figure out the target market and whether or not the overall package represents a good value. In the case of the MSI GT70, It’s pretty straightforward: the target market is primarily gamers that are willing to sacrifice on the size, weight, and battery life areas in pursuit of improved gaming performance. The corollary to that is that a good gaming notebook can generally do everything else as well – office applications, multimedia, video and photo editing, etc. in most cases are far less taxing on a system than modern games – so if you don’t mind the added bulk, you can get a fast notebook that can do pretty much everything you might want. There are even models of the GT70 shipping with NVIDIA Quadro GPUs, though the maximum Quadro offering is the K4100M rather than the K5100M, which is a bit odd as the K5100M is the same core design as the GTX 880M.
Ultimately, what MSI does well with the GT70 is they give you a high performance gaming notebook (or mobile workstation) platform that can be customized in a variety of ways, and the price is generally comparable or somewhat lower than what you’ll pay for equivalent offerings from Clevo resellers – not to mention the ASUS G750JZ and Alienware 17 alternatives. While there are pros and cons to every notebook, at least in my two weeks of testing and stress testing, the MSI GT70 held up well. I didn’t see any throttling or other signs of performance issues, and other than a few areas where the component choices fall short (i.e. the HDD storage on this particular model) and some subjective opinions on the aesthetics of the design, there are no deal breakers. $1900 isn’t pocket change, and if you don’t absolutely need maximum gaming performance I’d suggest giving the lower tier GT70 with GTX 870M a look – it has a bit less RAM and a slower GPU, but at $1400 it’s going to be hard to match in terms of price/performance. (Newegg is out of stock, but you can find it elsewhere for just a bit more.)
The GT70 may not win any beauty pageants, but it’s an otherwise capable gaming notebook that can serve equally well as a desktop replacement. If you'd like something less bulky and are willing to sacrifice a bit of performance, MSI's new GS70 looks like a better alternative. We should be getting one for review in the near future, at which point we'll be able to provide a more thorough breakdown of how the two fare in daily use.