|MSI's Dominator Pro GT60 packs two significant firsts. It's the first high-end gaming laptop we've reviewed with a HiDPI display (the GT60's 2880x1660 panel is the equal of the vaunted MacBook Pro's Retina display), and it's the first system we've looked at to sport NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 880M. MSI has also packed this system with a plethora of high-end components in a bid to challenge the dominance of more conventional boutique builders like Alienware.
We'll be comparing and contrasting the GT60 against the Alienware 17 we reviewed recently to give you a sense of how the two systems compare head to head. First, though, we want to talk about the specs MSI has brought to the table and the total system package...
GTX 880M: Mobile Kepler, Mark 3
When NVIDIA announced its new GTX 800M family earlier this year, they elected to tackle the market with a mixture of older and newer technologies. The new Maxwell GPU is confined to the lower end of the market (GTX 830M, 840M, 850M, and some 860M) while the GTX 870M and 880M are both built on the older Kepler core.
The version of the GK104 GPU in the GT60 does have a few tricks that the older models don't. It's clocked at 954MHz with a Boost Clock on top of that and offers 160GB/s of memory bandwidth. It offers a full 1,536 GPU cores, 128 texture mapping units, and 32 ROPs -- which means that this GPU is, for all intents and purposes, a desktop-class GTX 680, except for one significant feature: a huge 8GB frame buffer.
Oddly, that's not just a lof of RAM -- it's more memory than NVIDIA puts on any other single-GPU product including its GK110-based GTX 780 Ti.
Do You Need An 8GB Frame Buffer For Gaming?
The simple answer to this is, No. At least for now. The average 1080p game (and 1080p is still going to be the sweet spot for a single GTX 880M) consumes between 1.2 - 2GB of GPU memory. Games running in 3K can consume significantly more, but 4K gaming benchmarks have demonstrated that the vast majority of games run just as fast on the GTX 780 Ti (3GB frame buffer) as the Titan Black (6GB frame buffer). So, it's not likely that any game that requires 8GB of RAM is ever going to run on a GTX 880M.
As for whether or not carrying an 8GB frame buffer draws more power than the 4GB flavor, it probably does, but not that much. It's hard to find exact details on GDDR5 power consumption at the per-GB level, but what data we could find suggests that memory bus width and clock speed have a greater impact on total power consumption than the amount of RAM. The larger frame buffer probably accounts for 3-6W of power consumption under load, but that's not much compared to how much power the laptop itself uses when gaming.
|Keyboard, Sound, and Display|
|The Dominator Pro's best feature is unquestionably its "3K" monitor. This term refers to the 2880x1620 IPS panel and on a 15.6-inch screen the fidelity is gorgeous. This panel matches the resolution on Apple's Macbook Pro with Retina Display, and while we can't say it's just as good without putting them head-to-head, it's hard to see how the Mac could be much better.
Since I've still got the Alienware 17 in-house, it made sense to put the two of them head to head. While it's true that the MSI GT60 has a much higher pixel density (212 PPI vs 129 PPI), that's not what you'll notice first. What makes the GT60's display pop is that it's an IPS panel, not the fast TN panel that Alienware went with. The GT60's panel has better color uniformity, less backlight bleed around the edges, displays the full 0-32 color bars in the Lagom LCD tests (as shown below), and is frankly gorgeous -- but at the cost of some input lag and a slower response time.
The Alienware 17 panel isn't bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a 17.6-inch TN panel going up against a gorgeous IPS display. MSI wins this comparison, hands down.
Sound is provided via a pair of DynAudio speakers and a Soundblaster-branded plugin from Creative. The actual audio chip is still a standard Realtek, but the sound output is good, if not quite as full as the Alienware 17. The flip side is that these speakers sound significantly better if you turn the SoundBlaster plugin off (the Alienware 17's non-Dolby-modified sound was distinctly muddy.
They aren't quite as loud as the Alienware, but you could watch a movie or play a game with them, no problem. Highs and lows are both handled well by laptop standards. The Soundblaster plugin offers Creative's "Crystalizer" plugin as well as various methods of manipulating the EQ settings -- though oddly enough, it does not offer a full EQ.
Keyboard and Trackpad
I actually prefer the MSI GT60 Dominator Pro's chiclet keyboard over the Alienware 17's more conventional laptop design, but with one caveat -- MSI moves the Windows key to the opposite side of the keyboard. If you hate the Windows key and promptly disable it when you game, you won't mind, but I actually like (and use) this one -- and constantly found myself missing it when I typed on the keyboard. The entire keyboard is lit by a multi-LED array (configured via the SteelSeries software) and if you dig multi-LED keyboard arrays that let you create custom designs for backlights, you'll like this one.
The Trackpad is built by Steelseries and it has an odd single-button mouse arrangement that picks up your clicks based on which side of the lever you hit. The response mechanism is quite stiff -- moreso than I liked -- and the panel is much smaller than the Alienware 17's. This laptop lacks the large wrist-wrest that the larger system offers, which again comes down to personal taste for such things.
|Hardware Features, Dubious Software|
|Hardware Features and Design
The GT60 Dominator Pro offers more external ports and connectivity options than the Alienware 17, even though it's a cheaper system with a smaller chassis.
There are four USB ports (3x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0), two mini-DisplayPort, one full-sized HDMI, and four audio jacks for connecting to a multi-speaker system.
Both DisplayPorts are capable of driving a 4K monitor -- we checked -- and the system adapts flawlessly to the addition of a second display. Plug in a new monitor, and the Intel integrated chip takes over driving the laptop, while the Nvidia GPU handles the external. That makes sense -- most people who plug in a secondary monitor probably do it to game on a bigger screen, though the sheer fidelity and quality of the 3K panel on the Dominator Pro nearly make that a moot point.
The biggest difference between the Dominator Pro and the Alienware 17 is how much easier it is to cart the MSI system between Point A and B. It's lighter (7.7 lbs versus 9.2 lbs) and its smaller chassis make it more manageable. While it's huge and clunky compared to a MacBook Air, the MSI Dominator Pro is a laptop that still squeaks in as "portable." The Alienware 17 is better classified as "Transportable."
The one downside to the Dominator Pro's external design is its reliance on stickers and silkscreens. It's not nearly as bad as the Asus G50V from several years ago, which set a world record for most dubious application of adhesive, but it's bad enough.
First, the Asus G50V.
And the MSI Dominator Pro.
Rampant product branding make this $2400 laptop feel like a cheaper also-ran. There's a reason why Apple doesn't include any and the vast majority of high-end PC manufacturers, including Alienware, opt for very few -- it makes the system feel cheap. And MSI knows it makes the system look cheap, because if you look at the company's stock photography, all of the system images look like this:
Unfortunately, the numerous brand efforts and value-added "inclusions" are more than just skin deep.
Value "Added" Software:
The Dominator Pro's software stack is a perfect example of why Mac laptops and other bloatware-free premium machines are so popular with high-end customers. Immediately upon booting up, a large pop-up appears in the lower-right hand corner of the screen. MSI wants me to register my laptop. There's no way to close the pop-up except to click on Register -- and if you quit the browser without registering, the pop-up reappears. The only way to quit the program is to kill it in Task Manager.
There are multiple Norton Security applications on this system by default. All of them fling pop-ups reminding you to register / activate / pay Norton a significant amount of money. Norton Security, the primary application, pulls all the usual tricks -- it puts the red X for "Exit" in non-standard locations, switches the location of "Yes" and "No" responses when attempting to uninstall, and requires multiple "Are you REALLY sure?!" statements before it'll let you remove it.
This. Is. Not. Boutique.
I get it. PC margins are terrible. Manufacturers are badly squeezed. High-end gaming notebooks are one of the only growth areas, which means there's a great deal of pressure to squeeze every last bit of revenue out of these systems. But therein lies the problem -- the GTX60 Dominator Pro isn't a $500 system. The first rule of a premium product is to make the buyer feel like a premium customer. A $2400 laptop with its stickers, its silkscreened branding, and its 60-day free trial of Norton Software detracts from the user experience.
|GPU Trouble: Too Hot To Handle|
The GT60 Dominator Pro features Nvidia's top-end GTX 880M graphics processor -- essentially a full-sized Kepler GK104 with slightly less memory bandwidth (160GB/s here versus 192GB/s on the GTX 680 and 224GB/s on the GTX 770).
Unfortunately, MSI's cooling solution on the GT60 hasn't evolved to keep pace with the GTX 880M's higher thermal output. The problem doesn't necessarily show up in short benchmark runs, but under sustained load the Dominator Pro can't always exhaust enough heat to compensate for the GPU core. We updated the drivers to Nvidia's latest version available during testing (337.50), but still had problems in sustained gaming.
Here's an example of Metro Last Light frame rates gathered from the benchmark's own utility. The three charts below correspond to the first, third, and sixth consecutive benchmark runs.
Metro Last Ligh: First run
Metro Last Light: Third run. Note the dips and troughs, even though the average frame rate is almost identical (43 fps in Run 1, 41 fps in Run 3).
Sixth Run - Elapsed Time: ~20 minutes
The good news is that most games don't show this dramatic of a slowdown. The drop-off tends to be gentler in most titles, but it does exist in other games. Nvidia's own thermal throttle kicks in as the GPU breaks the 90C barrier, hauling the frequency down to protect the long-term health of the entire system.
And then, for comparison, the bottom of the MSI GT60:
There's a lot less vent space there, even allowing for the difference in total area -- and we suspect it makes a significant difference.
There is a possible solution to this problem that you can implement without buying additional cooling hardware. If you choose graphics settings that would allow the game to run at 90-120 fps, then lock the frame rate to 60 fps by activating V-Sync, the GPU's power consumption will drop accordingly (see our section on Battery Boost for more information on how battery life and frame rates are related to each other.)
This trick will only work if you pick settings that give the card headroom in the first place. If a game only runs at 30 fps, turning on V-Sync won't reduce heat generation at all.
|PCMark 7, Cinebench 11.5|
The MSI GT60 Dominator Pro is slightly faster than either of the competitor systems, but the difference is marginal.
There's very little difference between the Alienware systems and the MSI GT60 in terms of CPU performance. The mobile AMD GPU actually wins the OpenGL test in this benchmark, but performance in games is a bit different.
|Metro Last Light, BioShock Infinite, and Hitman: Absolution|
Note: Because the MSI Dominator Pro can run at 2880x1620, we've included that resolution in our results below. The MSI laptop is compared against the Alienware 17 at 1920x1080, with 3K resolution results at the top.
Metro Last Light is your typical post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment; rather, you’re left to deal with life, or lack thereof, more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. Metro Last Light boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform and includes a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. This title also supports NVIDIA PhysX technology for impressive in-game physics effects. We tested the game at resolutions of 1920x1080 with its in-game image quality options set to their High Quality mode, with DOF effects disabled.
The Dominator Pro maintains a higher overall frame rate than the Alienware 17 at 1080p, or does until it starts to throttle. At 3K resolutions, however, it throttles much faster -- I wasn't able to complete a single run without the system yanking back its own clock speed to keep temperatures below 95C.
The GT60 is significantly faster than the Alienware 17 here, even with throttling taken into account. At 3K, however, the system still falters -- an average framerate of 25 fps just isn't fast enough for lag-free gaming.
Hitman: Absolution follows Agent 47, a cold-blooded assassin, who takes on his most dangerous contract to date. Betrayed by those he once trusted - and now hunted by the police - he suddenly finds himself at the center of a dark conspiracy and must embark on a personal journey through a corrupt and twisted world. We tested the game at 1920x1080 with all in-game options set to their maximum values and global illumination and 4X anti-aliasing enabled.
Hitman shows the Dominator Pro again winning over the Alienware 17, and again, repeated runs of the benchmark don't show the huge slowdown that hits Metro Last Light. The 3K resolution, however, is still out of reach -- if you want to play at that detail level, you'll need to reduce other graphics options to make the game run properly.
|Battery Life, Battery Boost|
|Battery Boost and Battery Life:
One of the major new capabilities of Nvidia's GTX 880M is baked into the company's GeForce Experience software and dubbed Battery Boost. According to Nvidia, Battery Boost consists of several timing and performance-level optimizations that collectively lower device power consumption and improve battery life.
We ran a number of various comparisons on the MSI Dominator Pro, using games like Diablo 3 (to match our earlier story on the topic), Metro Last Light, and BioShock Infinite. Each game gave a dramatically different experience, so we've broken them out to discuss separately.
We've previously covered Diablo III and the impact of turning the frame rate down when playing. The first thing we want to show you with this title is an apples-to-apples comparison of power consumption when hooked to AC power for both the Alienware 17 and the GTX 880M. In the test below, the game is locked to 30 FPS using Diablo III's own software, not Battery Boost.
Note that at maximum power, the GTX 880M and the R9 M290X pull almost exactly the same wall power but the 880M draws much less power to run the system at a steady 30 FPS.
Next up was the Battery Boost test on Diablo 3 -- but unfortunately we ran into a snag. While BB worked to an extent, it could only pull the game's frame rate down to 66 fps or so -- significantly lower than when on wall power, but not the 30 FPS target we set within Nvidia's Battery Boost application.
Unlike Diablo 3, BioShock Infinite is a DX11 title that's only a little over a year old. Battery Boost did successfully reduce the game's frame rate to 30 fps -- but unfortunately, it introduced terrible screen tearing. The ripping was so bad (and so constant) that it might be more accurate to call it screen fracturing; even small camera movements caused the screen to rip.
Neither FRAPS nor Steam can capture V-Sync tear via screen shot, so this is simulated in Photoshop. It's an accurate representation of how bad the tearing is.
There was no way to prevent it -- we tried locking V-Sync on in both the NVCP and in-game and pushed the output to a secondary monitor. We also tried increasing the target frame rate from 30 fps to 50 fps (that's the maximum allowed by the GeForce Experience 2.0.1 software). Nothing helped -- the tearing at 50 fps was just as bad as 30 fps.
Metro Last Light
Metro Last Light was the third title we tested and the only one to work perfectly out of the box -- by which we mean that the frame rate indeed pulled down to 30 fps and did so without any tearing or other anomalies. Unfortunately, it's also the title that got the least benefit out of a 30 fps lock. We tested Last Light in two modes -- a locked 60 fps maximum frame rate with V-Sync and a 30 fps frame rate set via Battery Boost. We confirmed that the laptop was actually running at the target frame rates via FRAPS.
Please note that we used different settings in Metro: Last Light than in our normal review in order to make certain the GPU had room to improve. A card that can't maintain 40 fps with Battery Boost disabled won't gain much from enabling it.
The improvement in Metro Last Light was a modest 17%. It's not clear why.
Battery Boost is a great idea that still needs some work. Of the three games we tested, only one of them worked flawlessly, and it was the game with the smallest amount of gain. Right now, support is too erratic to recommend buying a laptop for this feature, but the early results we've seen clearly illustrate that pulling down the frame rate absolutely can improve power consumption, and thus battery life.
Battery Life (Battery Eater Pro):
After this array of battery tests, our standard Battery Eater Pro benchmark is a bit pedestrian -- but here are those results, for completeness's sake. We've included tests of both the integrated Intel GPU and the external cards for the Alienware 17 and the MSI Dominator Pro.
Performance in BEP is as expected -- both laptops have similar hardware with similar batteries, and they come in at a little over an hour for the discrete GPU and closer to 90 minutes with their Intel integrated solutions.
|Performance Summary: The GT60's performance situation is complex. First, the good news -- this laptop has the best overall performance of any mobile solution we've ever tested. Even with the throttling issues, the MSI GT60 Dominator Pro is well ahead of its AMD counterpart, but even that performance isn't high enough to deliver playable frame rates at high detail when running 2880x1620.
This, I think, explains a lot of why MSI opted to put a high-end GPU with an 8GB frame buffer in a 15-inch system that can't really dissipate the heat effectively: they needed the best solution possible for that 3K display. Unfortunately, GPU hardware simply isn't ready for 3K gaming in a mobile form factor; you're not going to be pushing high frame rates on that display with anything less than pair of GTX 880M's in SLI, at least not on the latest titles.
It's an understandable move, but an unfortunate one. While Metro Last Light is the only game to show major slowdowns, other titles do take a hit. The system is quite loud when running full tilt, and as much as we love the 3K display, this laptop may have bit off more than it could chew when it comes to pushing that many pixels in a 15-inch form factor.
Our advice to readers considering this system is to plan to invest in an aftermarket cooling pad or use V-Sync to keep frame rates down (and control heat). Those of you without air conditioning in summer months may want to consider another system if you game.
NVIDIA's Battery Boost technology is clearly in early days, but it offers an intriguing option for improving battery life, and we like the port loadouts and other capabilities of the platform. If you're comfortable using software to optimize frame rates and limit overall heat production, you may find a lot to love with the MSI GT60 Dominator Pro. Hopefully the next-generation of GPUs from NVIDIA and AMD will offer MSI some additional headroom to keep pushing the ceiling on visual experiences while reducing TDPs and overall power consumption. With some relatively modest adjustments, MSI could evolve this product family into a brand champion -- but it's not quite there yet.