The fight for gaming notebook bragging rights continues, and MSI is looking to stake its claim with the GT60 Dominator Pro 3K-475. MSI's latest 15-inch rig harnesses the power of Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 880 GPU and teams it with a 3K display (2880 x 1620), a first for gaming notebooks. The laptop also boasts some impressive software, including XSplit Gamecaster to capture the play-by-play action. But is that enough to net the GT60 the top score with gamers?
Anyone in the market for a mini-tank? The appropriately named Dominator Pro cut an imposing figure on our desk. The majority of the lid is made of black brushed-aluminum surrounded on three sides by a thick bulwark of plastic. A glittering chrome MSI logo and the backlit red dragon emblem break up a sea of black metal and plastic. While this design is striking, we were disappointed that MSI didn't ship something as eye-catching as last year's limited-edition, dragon-themed GT70 .
The laptop's interior looks similar to last year's model, with a few aesthetic changes. For one, the pair of speakers embedded in the plastic control panel is smaller, as is the touchpad. MSI has also added a pair of air intake vents to the rig, strategically placing them along the front lip of the notebook.
The glossy, black plastic control panel still looks like Voltron's headpiece and has touch-sensitive buttons for launching the DVD player, Turbo mode, the Dragon Gaming Center and Airplane Mode. The centrally located chrome power button doubles as ornamental bling.
For all its aggressive looks, the 7.4-pound, 15.5 x 10.5 x 2.16-inch GT60 Dominator Pro is a lightweight -- at least when compared to its competition. For example, the 17.9 x 12.9 x 2.26-2.23-inch Alienware 17 weighs a monstrous 9.2 pounds, and the 16.1 x 12.5 x 0.67-1.96-inch ASUS G750JZ is an even heavier 9.4 pounds. To be fair, both of those systems have larger, 17-inch displays.
Our iteration of the Dominator Pro is the first gaming notebook in the world to feature a 3K display. That means that MSI has ditched its usually stunning matte, 1920 x 1080 screen for a glossy, 2800 x 1620 panel.
Colors on the 15.6-inch widescreen display were bold and vivacious. A springtime vista of tulips looked gorgeous, bursting with deep reds and fuchsias, pale greens and pinks, and ornate yellows and oranges. Details were crisp enough to zoom in and check out the subtle striations running along each petal.
The 1080p trailer of "Cuban Fury" also presented a cornucopia of color. The blues looked lovely, as evidenced by Frank Dowd's royal blue suit. However, the reds looked somewhat oversaturated, making Nick Frost's flaming red and white track jacket seem like it was glowing. Details were sharp enough to see every glittering rhinestone on Frost's sateen shirt.
The vibrancy extended to our playthrough of "South Park: The Stick of Truth," serving up bright yellows, reds and greens. We were particularly impressed with the fart-destructible objects as they slowly undulated from a deep emerald to a neon orange.
The laptop averaged 277 lux on our light meter, matching the ASUS G750JZ and surpassing the 256-lux average. The panel was no match however, for the Alienware 17's dazzling 307-lux display.
The Dominator Pro's pair of Dynaudio speakers isn't the loudest we've heard, but these speakers managed to fill our medium-sized test room with clear, but rather quiet audio.
Pharrell William's familiar, high-pitched tenor, accompanied by a smooth keyboard, wafted through the speakers as we listened to "Happy." The background vocals were effervescent, but the percussion, particularly the bass, sounded submerged. On "South Park," the underwhelming bass relegated our epic rumbling farts to chuckle-inducing squeakers .
When we made adjustments using the preinstalled SoundBlaster Cinema software, the Music setting sounded best compared to the Movie and Game settings.
The laptop scored 80 decibels on the Laptop Audio Test (measuring a continuous tone from a distance of 23 inches), which is below the 88dB category average. This rating is on a par with the G750JZ, but below the Alienware's booming 97dB.
The Dominator Pro has a full-sized, island-style keyboard, complete with a number pad. The backlighting is bright enough to use in just about every setting. The keys are well spaced and provide springy feedback, but the G750JZ's keyboard had a bit more bounce. We still hit a high of 62 words per minute on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, besting our usual 55 wpm.
Similar to previous generations, the GT60 has a customizable keyboard, but the accompanying utility has been switched from the KLM software to the SteelSeries Engine UI. While not as flashy as Alienware's Command System software, SteelSeries has a quite a few tricks up its sleeve.
In addition to setting colors and effects on different keyboard zones, you can create custom profiles for different applications. Similar to Razer's Synapse 2.0 software, gamers can assign actions to every key on the keyboard. Setting individual keystrokes and macros was as simple as selecting a key, entering the command and hitting Save. The interface also offers a Statistics feature that shows how a particular user engages with the keyboard, highlighting the most frequently used keys.
However, setting up your own personal light show continues to be a favorite activity. The SteelSeries utility offers seven effects, including Breathing, Wave and Gaming. Depending on the effect, these split the keyboard into up to three zones. After picking an effect, we clicked a zone to customize the color. SteelSeries provides the ability to create four separate color layers in one profile, allowing GT60 owners to switch lighting setups on the fly.
No matter what some people say, size matters, particularly in the case of touchpads. The GT60's 3 x 1.75-inch touchpad is almost comically small. Our fingers barely had enough room to perform gestures or navigate with the cursor.
Despite that small size, multitouch gestures such as two-finger scroll and rotate, pinch-zoom, and three-finger press and flick were easy to execute, but Windows gestures weren't as smooth. While we could pull up the Charms menu, we had difficulty switching among apps.
The chrome unibar standing in for a pair of discrete mouse buttons provided shallow feedback. However, the bar did a solid job performing left and right clicks.
After 15 minutes of streaming a video on Hulu, the GT60's touchpad measured 79 degrees Fahrenheit, while the space between the G and H keys hit 86 degrees. The bottom of the laptop and bottom left vent blew a hot 106 degrees. That's well over our 95-degree comfort threshold. However, we highly doubt you'll be using this heavy notebook in your lap.
Things got toastier as we played "South Park: The Stick of Truth." The touchpad measured 83 degrees, while the space between the G and H keys rose to 93 degrees. The notebook's bottom vents hit a hot 109 degrees.
When we set the fans to turbo, the temperature dropped to 85 degrees. But there's a catch: the fans were so loud that they distracted us from the myriad of farts and inappropriate language as we made our through the game .
Images captured by the GT60's integrated 720p webcam didn't look very accurate in terms of color or detail. Numerous test shots revealed rather grainy images with dull color. Our bright red sweater looked ashen, and our skin had a yellowish tint.
The right side of the Dominator Pro holds a tray-loading Blu-ray burner, a USB 2.0 port and jacks for a mic, a pair of headphones and a pair for audio that are gold plated. A trio of USB 3.0 ports and a memory card reader sit on the left. Just like a mullet, it's a party in the back with a pair of mini-DisplayPort jacks, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet and the port for the AC adapter.
Behold, the true power of a souped-up notebook GPU. The MSI GT60 Dominator Pro 3K Edition is equipped with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 880M GPU and 8GB of VRAM, currently the world's fastest notebook graphics card.
According to Nvidia, the chip will provide up to 15 percent more performance over the GPU that previously held the title of most powerful, the GeForce GTX 780M. However, sometimes you don't need to unleash all that power. For those occasions, the GT60 also features an Intel HD Graphics 4600 GPU that automatically kicks in using Nvidia's Optimus technology to save battery life.
The Dominator Pro got off to a promising start during our benchmark testing. The laptop scored 2,700 on 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme, surpassing the 2,389 desktop replacement average. The ASUS G750JZ and its GTX 880M chip notched a similar 2,708. The Alienware's last-gen GTX 780 chip hit 2,367.
The GT60 registered 114 frames per second on "World of Warcraft" on Ultra at 1080p. That's a couple of frames below the 116 fps average, and far below the Asus G750JZ (140 fps), but higher than the Alienware 17's score of 103 fps. At its native resolution of 2880 x 1620, the GT60 averaged 101 fps, which is pretty awesome for that much eye candy.
During the "BioShock Infinite" benchmark, the Dominator Pro averaged 142 fps on low at 1080p. That's several frames higher than the 135 fps average. The G750JZ was right on its tail with 141 fps, while the Alienware 14 brought up the rear with 106 fps.
With the settings switched to high and the resolution at 1080p, the GT60's frame rate dropped to 64 fps, more than the 58 fps average and our 30 fps playability threshold. The G750JZ held a slim lead with 65 fps, while the Alienware 17 gave us 35 fps.
We intensified the graphical onslaught with the "Metro: Last Light" benchmark. On low at 1080p, the laptop achieved 75 fps, which is several frames below the 80 fps average. The G750JZ scored 81 fps, while the Alienware 17 hit 84 fps. On high, the GT60's frame rate plummeted to an unplayable 22 fps, but still managed to clear the 19 fps average. The Alienware 17 and G750 notched 22 fps and 24 fps respectively.
At its native resolution on this game, the Dominator Pro delivered 51 fps on low and 13 fps on high.
Greater performance is just one aspect of Nvidia's new family of GeForce GTX GPUs, which includes the 880M. The GeForce Experience app includes several features meant to enhance gameplay and endurance.
Battery Boost lets you cap performance at a predetermined frame rate. The app will then throttle the notebook's components, so that gamers can eke out a bit more juice without sacrificing too much performance.
Battery Boost Custom Game Settings, available in early April, will let you tweak individual titles even further. ShadowPlay enables users to record gameplay at resolutions up to 1920 x 1080p, and broadcast their gaming sessions to sites such as Twitch.
GameStream, previously only available on Nvidia's desktop GPUs, allows you to stream games from your notebook to connected devices, such as Nvidia's SHIELD.
MSI managed to imbue the GT60 Dominator Pro with even more power, by way of a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ processor with 16GB of RAM. The laptop streamed an episode of "Hatfields & McCoys" from Netflix with 12 open tabs in Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, all while running a system scan.
The GT60 performed equally well on our benchmark testing, scoring 6,054 on PCMark7, which tops the 4,905 desktop replacement average. That was also enough to beat both the ASUS G750JZ (2.4-GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ CPU) and the Alienware 17 (2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU), which hit 5,969 and 5,492, respectively.
During the Boot test, the Dominator Pro's powerful 128GB SSD and 1TB 7,200-rpm hard drive loaded Windows 8.1 in 14 seconds, beating the 22-second average. The G750JZ's dual 256GB SSD and 1TB 7,200-rpm hard drive booted Windows 8.1 in 19 seconds. The Alienware 17' s 256GB mSATA SSD and 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive started Windows 7 in a sluggish 35 seconds.
On the File Transfer Test, the GT60 duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 50 seconds, which translates into a 101.8 MBps transfer rate. The result fell short of the 140 MBps category average and the rates posted by the Alienware 17 (182 MBps) and G750JZ (283 MBps).
During the OpenOffice Spreadsheet Macro Test, the GT60 paired 20,000 names and addresses in 3 minutes and 40 seconds, roasting the 5:12 average and the G750JZ's mark of 4:03. The Alienware finished in a close second at 3:42.
During the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the MSI GT60 Dominator Pro lasted 5 hours and 21 minutes. That's enough to outlast the category average and the Alienware 17, which both clocked in at 4:09. However, the ASUS G750JZ lasted a more impressive 6:26.
Keep in mild that we conducted our battery test using the Intel GPU, as Nvidia's Optimus technology will automatically switch from its discrete GPU to the integrated GPU if it detects the notebook doesn't require a lot of graphics muscle.
However, Battery Boost -- a new feature in Nvidia's GTX 800M series of GPUs -- will let you set a predetermined frame-rate average and then automatically throttle components, such as the GPU and CPU, to conserve some juice. We will update this review once we've had a chance to fully test this feature on the MSI.
Software and Warranty
MSI continues to go against gaming rig conventions, loading its machines with software. Luckily, most of the programs it includes are useful, rather than bloatware. Offerings such as MSI Battery Calibration, Killer Diagnostic and Network Manager are designed to provide optimal CPU, GPU and Wi-Fi performance.
Other utilities include the System Control Manager, which you can use to adjust screen brightness, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, volume and the webcam. MSI Dragon Gaming Center lets gamers monitor general system health and set utilities to launch at start.
For those searching for a more robust recording experience than Nvidia has to offer, MSI has also pre-installed XSplit Gamecaster. In addition to capturing your latest gaming exploits on video, the webcam can also add a picture-in-picture view. Or unleash your inner John Madden and draw on the video to show the blow-by-blow in your gaming strategy. After initiating the software overlay (hitting CTRL + Tab), simply hit the Stream button to begin capturing footage and the Webcam button to add video of yourself. Gamers also have the option to share or stream footage to Twitch and YouTube.
Third-party apps include Skype, Cookbook by Slow Serve, a 30-day trial of Microsoft Office, Evernote Touch, MusicMaker Jam and TuMetro, a reader app that compiles stories using keyword semantics. The system also comes with a 30-day trial of Norton Anti-Theft.
Our version of the GT60 Dominator Pro 3K-475 costs $2,399 and features a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ processor with 16GB of RAM, 128GB SSD and 1TB 7,200-rpm hard drive, Intel HD Graphics 4600 GPU, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 880M GPU and a 2800 x 1620 display.
The $1,499 base model (GT60 Dominator 424) has a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 7,200-rpm hard drive, Nvidia GeForce GTX 870M GPU and a 1920 x 1080 display.
The $2,399 MSI GT60 Dominator Pro 3K-475 gives gamers the powerful graphics and performance we've come to expect from MSI in an imposing chassis. While having the world's fastest GPU is nice, where the GT60 stands out is its stunning 3K display. The addition of the SteelSeries software and XSplit Gamecaster video capture software is the cherry on an already stacked cake.
For the price, however, we wish that MSI would work on improving the touchpad, as well as making the speakers louder and the fans softer. Still, this rig feels like a bargain compared to the $2,999 ASUS G750JZ, which offers comparable graphics performance, longer battery life and a more reliable touchpad, but has a lower-resolution display. Overall, the GT60 is a strong choice for those searching for a powerful gaming rig with more than a few extra bells and whistles.