Just when you think gaming laptops have reached the zenith of their capabilities, along comes MSI to shatter your misconceptions. Sporting an absolutely gorgeous dragon-themed metallic-red chassis, the GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition ($3,099 as tested) is one of the first virtual-reality-ready gaming laptops. Instead of the usual mobile graphics card, the 17.3-inch Dragon has a desktop GPU, meaning that this beast can not only play your most taxing titles but also play nice with the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. If that's not enough, you also get Nvidia's image-smoothing G-Sync technology and the stellar display and audio quality you've come to expect from MSI.
Design: Here There Be Dragons
MSI knows how to make a great first impression.
The Dragon Edition of the Dominator Pro commands your attention with its gleaming, candy-apple-red, brushed-aluminum lid.
The titular beast's lair sits front and center, with the mythical monster seemingly guarding the silver-chrome MSI emblem in a stance that would make Smaug proud. A backlit cutout representing the beast's eye adds a touch of whimsy.
You'll find another dragon lurking on the outer perimeter of the raised palm rest, keeping the n00bs at bay.
The large Dynaudio speaker sits at the top of the deck, with hints of red underlay peeking out. The subsequent subwoofer is located along the laptop's undercarriage in the front-left corner.
The full keyboard is directly below the speaker, with buttons for power, GPU, fan speed, XSplit Gamecaster and SteelSeries Engine located to the far left.
Weighing 8.4 pounds and measuring 16.9 x 11.6 x 1.9 inches, the GT72S Dominator Pro Dragon Edition weighs the same as the Asus G751JY (8.4 pounds, 16.4 x 12.5 x 0.9~1.7 inches) but is somewhat thicker. The Alienware 17 (8 pounds, 17.9 x 12.9 x 2.26~2.23 inches) is the lightest of the group, while the 16.7 x 12.7 x 1.6-inch Acer Predator 17 tips the scales at a whopping 9.2 pounds.
MSI never disappoints when it comes to its displays. The Dragon's 17.3-inch matte display delivered sumptuous color and sharp details as I watched a 1080p trailer for Suicide Squad. The deep blacks helped play up the outright disturbing and pointy dull-green visage of Killer Croc as he rolled into view. In another scene, a metallic-purple Lamborghini cut across traffic, drawing my eye as the streetlights glinted across its scintillating frame.
When I played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Geralt's winter wind hair billowed out behind him as he charged a winged sea nymph. Once it was dead, I had time to admire the beast's aquamarine scales on its long fish tail that gave way to a distorted humanoid torso with a black distended maw and pink-veined wings.
What the panel lacks in resolution, it makes up for in accuracy. It measured 0.7 on the Delta-E test, which is a hair away from a perfect 0, trouncing the 3.1 desktop-replacement average.
The Dragon registered 114 percent on the sRGB color gamut test, which means that it can show a really wide range of shades. Its score was more than high enough to top the 102 percent average as well as the results delivered by the Alienware 17 and the G751JY. However, the Predator 17 proved to be the apex laptop, scoring 116 percent.
The Dragon didn't shine on our brightness test, averaging only 288 nits. That's brighter than the Alienware 17's 253 nits but dimmer than the 293-nit average. The G751JY and the Predator 17 produced brightness scores of 331 and 307 nits, respectively.
G-Sync: Taming the Unruly Frame Rates
The Dragon is the latest laptop to feature Nvidia's G-Sync technology, which syncs up your laptop's display refresh rate with the GPU, effectively capping the frame rate at the panel's limit. The result is a consistent frame rate that allows instantaneous rendering, so there's no tearing, just sharper images and smoother gameplay. The technology works in full-screen and windowed mode, which should be good news for gamers who like to multitask while gaming.
However, there are some games where G-Sync won't work. For those titles, the technology is automatically disabled, reverting to vertical sync. That might result in some ugly tearing, but you could potentially reduce input latency from your gaming mouse and keyboard, which is the difference between life and death in genres that rely on fast reflexes such as FPS.
Audio: Hear It Roar
The GT72's pair of Dynaudio speakers and bottom-mounted subwoofer filled my living room with the weighty, pensive strings of the opening theme of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. My horse's hooves thudded heavily against the earth as I sped toward my next objective, dispatching a gang of bandits. The air was soon filled with the heavy metal clang of swords clashing in mortal combat, only to be finished with an almost nauseating, fleshy sound as my sword slid far too easily through the midsection of the lead bandit.
When listening to Janelle Monae's upbeat ode to spiritual and physical exercise,"Yoga," I was impressed with the clarity of the vocals. This was particularly true on her higher notes, which tend to come across as tinny on competing systems. The low ends were rich, without overwhelming the track, and were accompanied by crisp percussion.
MSI preinstalled Nahimic, an audio utility that lets gamers switch among three profiles: Gaming, Music and Movie. I ended up using Gaming and Music the most, as I found Movie a bit flat for my taste. I really liked the ability to tweak the Bass Boost, Reverb and Voice Clarity individually. The HD Recorder also came in handy when I was broadcasting with XSplit Gamecaster, creating high-quality audio to complement my sweet swashbuckling moves.
The Belly of the Beast: Gaming and Graphics
The MSI GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition is one of the first gaming laptops on the market to feature the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 chip, a component usually found in gaming desktops. Swapping the usual mobile configuration with this GPU promises a more powerful graphics performance and smoother frame rates. More important, this notebook is one of the few that can support virtual-reality headsets like the upcoming Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
Geralt traversed deep into the werewolf's cave during my Witcher 3 play-through. Once he encountered the monster, he threw a bomb, which exploded into a sparkling cloud of silver, halting the beast's assault. Quickly unsheathing his sword, the master Witcher struck his target with a flurry of attacks, which finished the battle with at an average frame rate of 70 fps on Very High at 1080p. The frame rate rose to 75 fps on High and 80 fps on Medium.
The laptop blew through the Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege tests, hitting 197 fps on low at 1080p, destroying the 79-fps desktop-replacement average. The frame rate fell to 105 fps on high but was still good enough to beat the 39-fps average.
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When we switched to the resource-taxing Metro: Last Light benchmark, the Dragon delivered 73 fps on Low at 1080p, which knocked off the Alienware 17's (Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M) 58 fps, but not the 94-fps average. The G751JY and the Predator 17, both of which have the mobile version of the 980 chip, hit scores of 89 fps and 118 fps, respectively.
MSI didn't stop at adding a desktop graphics chip to the Dragon. The beast also got loaded up with a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-6820HK processor and 32GB of RAM, which can be overclocked in case you need an extra boost of computing power. In its regular state, the processor effortlessly handled running The Witcher 3 in one window while running a system scan with 10 open tabs in Google Chrome.
On synthetic tests such as Geekbench 3, the laptop produced a score of 13,896, beating the 11,329 desktop-replacement average. The Predator 17, with its 2.6-GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ CPU, was its closest competitor, posting 13,524. The G751JY (2.6-GHz Intel Core i7-4720HQ CPU) hit 13,271, while the Alienware 17's 2.5-GHz Intel Core i7-4710HQ came in last, with 12,965.
The Dragon's pair of 128GB PCIe SSDs in RAID 0 configuration are quite agile. It took them only 6 seconds to duplicate 4.97GB of multimedia files from an external hard drive, which translates to a transfer rate of 848.2 MBps. That's more than double the 412.9-MBps average and is more than the Predator 17 (175.8 MBps) and the Alienware 17 (149.7 MBps) combined. It wasn't enough, however, to overcome the G751JY's 256GB PCIe SSD, which notched a scorching 1,018 MBps.
On the OpenOffice Spreadsheet benchmark, the Dragon matched 20,000 names and addresses in 3 minutes and 31 seconds, which is faster than the 3:55 average. The G751JY and the Alienware 17 weren't too far behind, at 3:45 and 3:58, respectively.
Keyboard and Touchpad
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. MSI and SteelSeries continue to make a great team, giving consumers a full-size, island-style, well-spaced keyboard with firm, springy feedback. That's why I was surprised to discover that the keys had a relatively low 1.4 millimeters of key travel which usually indicates the key will bottom out sooner than expected. However, that was offset by the 60 grams of required actuation force. I hit my usual 60 words per minute on the 10FastFingers typing test.
As on most gaming laptops, creative gamers can trick out the customizable backlighting on the keyboard using the SteelSeries Engine software. You can assign one of the 16.8 million colors and six effects to six separate zones, for a truly unique look. Your colorful creations can be saved under their own separate profiles that can be assigned to a game or an app. In addition to setting color, you can assign macros for every key, as well as track your input statistics, which could come in handy for multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs).
The 4.3 x 2.8-inch touchpad has plenty of room to maneuver and perform gestures such as pinch to zoom, two-finger rotate and three-finger press and flick. I'm a fan of the pair of discrete mouse buttons and their clicky bounce.
There are ports as far as the eye can see. The Dragon has a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the right and a tray-loading Blu-ray burner. Along the left, you'll find four USB 3.0 ports with an SD card reader and jacks for headphones, microphone, S/PDIF and an amp. At the rear is a full HDMI port, a USB Type-C port, mini DisplayPorts and a power jack.
During our normal heat test, in which a full-screen Hulu video runs for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured 79 degrees Fahrenheit. The space between the G and H keys registered 88 degrees, while the bottom vents hit 96 degrees, which is slightly above our 95-degree comfort threshold.
Once I started ridding the land of Novigrad of its various imps, wyverns and wraiths during a Witcher 3 play-through, the touchpad's temp rose to 81 degrees. The space between the G and H keys hit 90 degrees, while the bottom jumped to 101 degrees, which would make for uncomfortable lap gaming. (We consider temps above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable.) Fortunately, we don't see many folks using this bulky rig that way.
Every beast has its weakness, and the Dragon's soft spot lies in its battery life. The Dragon tapped out after only 2 hours and 58 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits). That's well below the 4:30 desktop-replacement average. The G751JY did only marginally better, at 3:17, while the Alienware 17 and the Predator 17 finished with times of 6:25 and 6:54, respectively.
Software and Warranty
MSI outfitted the Dragon with its usual software suite. First up is the Dragon Gaming Center, a control panel full of settings and features designed to enhance your gaming experience. System Monitor runs diagnostics on your machine, displaying network and fan speed, CPU and GPU temperature, and power consumption. The panel also features shortcuts to SteelSeries Engine, GeForce Experience and XSplit Gamecaster.
Third-party apps include Flipboard, Adobe Photoshop Express, and Fresh Paint. In case your notebook encounters an unfortunate event, the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition includes a two-year limited warranty.
MSI has outdone itself with this machine. The GT72 Dominator Pro Dragon Edition is a beautiful piece of technology any way you slice it, but beyond the attractive chassis lies a gaming force, waiting to be unleashed. For $3,099, you get a laptop that can play some of the most taxing games on the market with pretty, consistent frame rates. Even better, the Dragon is one of the few gaming laptops that can support VR headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, thanks to its desktop graphics chip.
If you're looking for a more affordable gaming laptop with a searing-fast SSD, longer battery life and a more understated look, there's the $2,499 Asus G751JY. But for cutting-edge gamers, the Dragon is the best bet.