Whether it's killing zombies or pitching a perfect baseball game, top-notch gaming has always demanded the fastest systems and best graphics. You want a high-end computer? Look at what gamers are buying and you'll have it.
Once the exclusive preserve of desktop computers or stationary gaming consoles, a new generation of notebooks is now offering enough speed and power to satisfy the inner gamer in all of us.
But what is the current state of the art? To find out, I gathered together three of the hottest gaming laptops on the market today: the Eurocom Panther 4.0, Hewlett-Packard's Envy 17 and the MSI GT783.
Each comes with a high-resolution 17.3-in. screen, a performance-oriented graphics engine with at least 1GB of dedicated video memory, a Core i7 processor and a minimum of 12GB of RAM.
Big, beautiful and hot -- literally
When you talk about mobile gaming equipment, the word "mobile" has to be taken with a grain of salt. These are not laptops that you casually pop into your backpack. The heaviest is the Eurocom Panther, weighing in at a cumbersome 12.1 lb. The 8.6-lb. MSI GT783 is next in line, while the lightweight of the group is HP's Envy 17, which weighs 7.6 lb.
And don't forget that they need power: Each has a large AC adapter that weighs more than a pound. In fact, when gaming gets intense -- when you're surrounded by the enemy and spinning around with your blaster going -- the Panther uses so much power that it requires two 3.5-lb. AC adapters, bringing its total travel weight to more than 19 pounds, enough for the system to qualify as a piece of gym equipment.
All that power ends up as waste heat inside the system's case. As a result, these gaming notebooks risk losing their cool when the on-screen action heats up. All three of the notebooks reviewed here have elaborate heat sinks and one to four internal fans. When the gaming gets hyperactive, it can sound like a duel between vacuum cleaners.
But what do true gamers think?
To get another perspective on this topic, I convinced a group of high-school-age gaming enthusiasts from The Masters School of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to play with these high-performance notebooks. (It didn't take a lot of convincing.) They played several games, manipulated 3-D models and watched HD videos -- all, of course, in the name of science. Their reactions accompany each review.
At between $1,685 and $5,290, these are among the most expensive portable computers around. Are they worth it? It depends on how important good gaming is to you.
And while these systems aren't bad, the best is yet to come. By late summer, look for an onslaught of Ivy Bridge-based gaming systems that will increase processor performance by roughly 20% while using less power than current CPUs. That could mean less heat and fewer cooling fans, so we can hopefully turn back the tide of alien conquest in peace and quiet.
3 gaming laptops: Features
Eurocom's Panther 4.0 stretches the definition of how large, weighty and costly a notebook can be.
The design of the Panther's black plastic and aluminum case has the look of a spaceship, with sharply angled corners, black indented grilles and lots of cooling vents. At 2.6 x 16.8 x 11.4 in., it's roughly twice the size of the Envy 17 -- in fact, it actually looks like two notebooks stacked on top of each other.
Eurocom Panther 4.0
The Panther weighs 12.1 lb., one third more than the Envy 17. For most uses, a single adapter is plenty, but during all-out gaming, the Panther can be so power-hungry that it requires two huge 300-watt AC adapters and comes with a special cable for plugging both adapters into the system. (If you're just using one adapter and the system is getting overloaded, it will just shut down.) This brings the Panther to a hefty 19.1 lb. The system comes with a cloth bag that is just big enough to hold the system and one adapter, but not both.
For all-out gamers, though, Eurocom's big cat is worth every hulking ounce, because under the keyboard is one of the fastest and most capable processors that Intel sells. The second-generation Intel Core i7 3960X processor was designed for desktop PCs and has 15MB of cache, compared to the 6MB of cache that comes with the Envy 17 and MSI GT783 processors.
While the processor normally runs at 3.3GHz, Intel's TurboBoost technology can speed it up to 3.9GHz when needed. However, the Core i7 3960X uses over 100 watts of power, twice the electrical load of the processors used by the other two systems, and has four cooling fans that take up most of the inside of the case.
The review unit came with 16GB RAM (it can handle a maximum of 32GB) and has one of the most complex storage systems I've seen in a portable computer. In addition to a 750GB hard drive, it has a pair of high-performance 120GB solid state devices (SSDs) that can be set up as a RAID 0, 1, 5 or 10 array for either top performance or the peace of mind of never losing a bit of gaming data; Eurocom offers data storage options up to 4TB.
The Panther boasts two Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M 256-bit GPUs that run at 1.3GHz and have 384 processing cores. It comes with 2GB of dedicated video RAM, twice the level of the Envy 17.
Although it can't be overclocked for extra graphics potential, the Panther's dual GPU setup uses Nvidia's SLI technology to let you pick whether you want to use only one or both of the two GPUs. Nvidia provides optimal settings for a variety of popular games online.
There are three USB 3.0 ports (one more than either the Envy 17 or the MSI GT783) and a pair of USB 2.0 connections. In addition, one of the USB 2.0 ports does double-duty as an e-SATA port for using an external hard drive.
There's also a FireWire 800 port, along with DisplayPort, DVI and HDMI connections. But it lacks the MSI GT783's VGA port or the Envy 17's WiDi technology for wirelessly transmitting audio and video.
Opinions from the Masters School gamers
The Panther was high on the Masters School gaming club wish list for its aggressive appearance, ability to help you do better at games and its desktop-quality graphics. However, they were turned off by its size, price and loud fans.
- "The graphics are perfection."
- "Huge! I don't see anyone carrying this around."
- "Insanely fast processing speed."
- "Ferocious graphics."
For audio, the Panther offers the top-shelf THX TruStudio Pro, along with five speakers, but the system never gets loud enough for truly immersive gaming. It has traditional analog and line-in connections as well as an SPDIF digital jack for driving speakers.
While it matches the others with an SD card reader, the Panther adds an ExpressCard slot that can work with both 34- and 54-millimeter adapters. Finally, it offers Bluetooth, a Gigabit Ethernet port and 802.11n WiFi.
The keyboard is backlit and can be adjusted to a variety of colors and patterns, making it look like a rainbow at times. However, I found it to be bit distracting when my attention needed to be on the screen.
Eurocom includes a one-year warranty; upping the coverage to three years adds $300.
Plain and simple, the Panther is one of the most powerful systems I've tested. With 12GB RAM, it scored a phenomenal 2,943 on the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite of tests, 30% percent faster than the Envy 17 or MSI GT783.
When I tested it with 16GB RAM, its PerformanceTest 7.0 score rose to 3,542.9, easily blasting the others to oblivion. While it aced the Cinebench CPU tests with an 8.9, the Panther was in the middle of the pack on the graphics test, behind the Envy 17 with its AMD HD7690XT-powered video.
The Panther showed a richness of detail on the Portal 2 and Trainz simulations, delivering exceptionally smooth video, although the MSI GT783's screen was richer and brighter.
At a Glance
EurocomPrice: $3,599 (base) / $5,290 (as tested)Pros: Top performance, adjustable keyboard lighting, two graphics ships, RAID capabilitiesCons: Very large and heavy, requires two AC adapters, volume might not be enough for some gamers, short battery life, noisy
While it's doubtful that the Panther (or any of the others reviewed here, for that matter) will be used far from an AC outlet, the 5,300 mAh battery was able to power the system for a mere 49 minutes on a charge. That's one-third that of either of the two competitors and a mild disappointment.
With four fans inside, it was able to keep its cool, but the Panther was the loudest of the three during most gaming. It hit a peak temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit at its exhaust vent.
You know the old saying that if you have to ask the cost you probably can't afford it? With a price tag of $5,290, Eurocom's Panther 4.0 isn't quite in that league, but it comes close. This is without a doubt a technological tour de force and a superior gaming notebook, but one that is no doubt out of the economic reach of many gamers.
HP's Envy 17 looks nonthreatening, but packs enough of a punch to be a prime gaming notebook.
With a black magnesium and brushed aluminum case, the Envy 17 has the minimalist look that an Apple designer would be proud of. Its only adornment is a red stripe around the system's keyboard.
HP Envy 17
The Envy 17 measures 1.4 x 16.3 x 10.7 in., easily making it the smallest of the three reviewed here. Still, it overhangs an airline tray table.
At 7.6 lb., the Envy 17 was much easier to carry than the 12.1-lb. Panther. With its modest-sized AC adapter, the Envy 17 has a reasonable travel weight of 8.8 lb., nearly 7 lb. lighter than the Panther (with only one of its two AC adapters).
Inside, the Envy 17 uses the same second-generation Core i7 2670QM processor that the MSI GT783 uses. It has four processing cores, 6MB of onboard cache and a normal speed of 2.2GHz, which can be goosed to 3.1GHz when the gaming gets tough.
While, in my tests, this meant that the Envy 17 rated second best in performance to the Panther 4.0's Core i7 3960X processor, it also needs about half as much power. The Envy 17 has two fans (as opposed to the Panther's four) and was much quieter than the Panther. (Fewer fans can also mean longer battery life, although I didn't specifically test for that.)
The Envy 17 model I looked at came with 12GB of RAM. The base unit comes with 8GB; HP offers a 16GB option for an additional $200, which is the system's maximum.
The Envy 17 has two drive bays. My unit came with a 750GB hard drive installed, although you can order it with a variety of combinations of solid state drives and hard drives.
It comes with a slot-loading Super Multi optical drive, which can write to a variety of media and play -- but not write -- Blu-ray discs. I did find it inconvenient that the system needs to be turned on to remove a disc.
While all three of the reviewed units have 17.3-in. displays that can show 1920 x 1080 resolution, the Envy 17 uses AMD's Radeon HD 7690M XT graphics engine rather than the GeForce GTX 580M used in the Panther. The HD 7690M XT runs at 725MHz and has 480 processing cores; the system was equipped with 1GB of video memory, half as much as the other two systems. There is no option for an upgrade to 2GB of VRAM; the Envy 17 also lacks the dual-graphics setup on the Panther and the MSI's ability to overclock the imaging engine.
Despite its slim profile, the Envy 17 has a good assortment of ports, including two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 connectors. Rather than being color coded, the USB 3.0 ports are marked with a tiny SuperSpeed logo.
Like the Panther, the Envy 17 lacks a VGA port, but has an HDMI and two DisplayPort connections. Its video ace-in-the-hole is Intel's WiDi technology that allows the system to wirelessly send audio and video to a projector or TV.
The HP notebook WiDi set up worked with Belkin's ScreenCast TV receiver and Mitsubishi's WD380U-EST projector and had a range of 30 feet before it lost contact. However, to use WiDi, you need to switch the Envy 17 to from the high-end AMD graphics engine to the much-less-impressive Intel integrated graphics.
The Envy 17 has audio jacks, including a pair of headphone connections, but lacks the Panther's SPDIF digital audio. Rather than THX TruSound that the other two systems use, the Envy 17 has Beats audio, which to my ear sounded great and got just loud enough to be raucous.
The audio had been tuned to work with Beats by Dr. Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones, but it sounded quite good with either the built-in speakers or standard headphones. The Envy 17 has a thumbwheel on the side of the keyboard to adjust the volume and a nearby mute button.
The Envy 17 offer an Ethernet port as well as Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi. It has a flash card reader but lacks the Panther's ExpressCard slot for adding peripherals.
While the others have elaborate backlit keyboards that can make them look like Christmas trees, the Envy 17's keyboard uses white backlighting. It's not as colorful, but is simple, effective and doesn't distract from the gaming at hand.
Although its graphics hardware isn't as impressive as the other two gaming monsters, the Envy 17 held its own with excellent color balance, sharp detail and smooth operation. Its screen wasn't as bright as the other two, however.
Opinions from the Masters School gamers