Mar 22, 2015

MSI GT72 Dominator Pro GTX 980m Review

INTRODUCTION

SYSTEM SPECIFICATIONS

APPEARANCE AND STYLING
- Exterior
- Ports
- Inside the laptop

COMPONENTS
- Keyboard
- LCD
- Networking
- Speakers and Audio
- Storage
- Software

PERFORMANCE
- Intel Quad Core i7-4710HQ
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 980m 8GB GDDR5

---> 980m BENCHMARKS <---

POWER AND COOLING
- Power Consumption
- System Temperatures
- Surface Temperatures
- Fan Noise
- Battery Life


INTRODUCTION

Nvidia has finally introduced their flagship Maxwell mobile GPU's, the GTX 970m and 980m. And with that, most OEM's are updating their products to include these new GPU's. MSI's gaming 17" powerhouse, the GT72 has been updated to include the GTX 980m and thanks to PowerNotebooks who provided the review sample, I am able to put this high end 17" notebook with GTX 980m to the test! It will be assessed for overall aesthetics, build quality, and general function, but most importantly gaming performance with thermals and power consumption.

(NOTE: I apologize for the poor images of the system. I had technical difficulties with my camera and lighting and would be a while before it was fixed.)


SYSTEM SPECIFICATIONS

The system that was provided by PowerNotebooks has the following specifications:

MSI GT72
17" 1080p TN panel
Intel i7-4710HQ soldered CPU
nVidia GeForce GTX 980m with 8GB GDDR5 5000MHz
2x8GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM
128GB M.2 Hynix SSD
HGST 1TB 7200RPM HDD
Killer E2200 Gigabit Ethernet Controller
Killer 1525 M.2 802.11AC Wireless Adapter
DVD_RW Drive
Windows 8.1 64-bit

Dimensions:

GT72:
Measure Dimensions: 16.9 x 11.5 x 2.0 inch (429 x 292 x 51 mm)
Measured Weight: 8lbs 4oz (3.75kg)

Power Supply:
19.5V x 11.8A = 230W
Measured Dimensions: 6.6 x 3.2 x 1.4 inch (168 x 80 x 35 mm)
Measured Weight: 1lbs 6oz (5.2kg)


APPEARANCE AND SYTLING

Exterior
MSI catches your attention right from the start with the laptop box's bright red color and dragon logo adorning the box. The laptop itself is packed in a black soft fabric sleeve, and the system comes with a 230W power adapter and drivers on DVD and documentation. Once removed from the sleeve, it only takes a quick glance at this laptop to show that build quality and appearance is important to MSI. The black brushed aluminum lid hosts the MSI logo near the to and lit red dragon logo proudly displayed on the center face, with some red trim along the top edge of the lid. 

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Once you open the lid, you are presented with an island style multi-backlit keyboard with numberpad, made by Steelseries. A single one-piece black metal (aluminum or magnesium) plate comprises the entire top surface of the laptop, with no separate keyboard plate. The Synaptics touchpad is integral with the metal plate surface with no physical feature separation, only identified by a backlit perimeter line. Two separate hefty mouse buttons offer a lightly audible but discernable click, requiring a slight pressure to engage. In general the touchpad was not problematic and didn't pick up any erratic pressure from resting the palms on the palm rest.

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A wide swatch of perforated holes rest on the laptop top plate just above the keyboard with a red background to allow for the dynaudio speaker sound to pour through. A chrome power button and four additional black buttons rest on the left side of the keyboard. The additional buttons are for manual GPU switching between dedicated (in this case, 980m) and the Intel integrated GPU, max fan speed button, programmable application launch button (defaults to a streaming app), and keyboard color profile cycle switch (of which 4 are programmable).

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The 17" 1080p LCD has a matte black plastic frame around it with a thin glossy bezel on the outside of that, with the chrome MSI logo placed underneath the screen, and a 1080p webcam rests above.

There is an optical drive that comes standard with the laptop which could be swapped out with a SATA drive bay adapter.


Ports
A plethora of ports are around the perimeter of the laptop, including in total 6 USB 3.0 ports. On the left side are four USB 3.0 ports, four 3.5mm audio jacks for audio in, audio out, microphone, headphone, and a multi-card reader. On the right side are two USB 3.0 ports and the optical drive. The rear houses two mini display ports, ethernet jack, and power plug. The front has two thin red style lights, with the left one doubling as status lights for power, battery, and hard drive.

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Inside the Laptop
The bottom of the laptop is one large removable plasic panel with seven philips head screws, with a "warranty void" sticker over the center one. About a third of the center of the bottom panel is a grid pattern with open holes with a red metal mesh underneath to ensure adequate ventillation.

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After opening the bottom panel most of the components that make this laptop tick are exposed. Two fans help cool the CPU and GPU. Two heatpipes off the GPU and one off the CPU are cooled by the fan on left (when looking at it with the fans furthest from you), and two pipes off the CPU go to the fan on the right. The heatsinks can be readily accessed and removed for MXM GPU replacement or reapplying thermal paste, but the heatsink assembly is one unit so it needs to be removed from both CPU and GPU simultaneously. Removal and reinstallation of the heatpipe assembly is a bit tricky considering the fins on the heatpipe at the back that the fan goes over are tucked underneath the frame. Some shifting and shimmying and it can slide in and out with a bit of due care.

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The battery is not quick release or exposed to the exterior like with traditional laptops. It is embedded under the bottom panel and under the inner frame, so a battery swap is not straight forward, and requires copious disassembly.

There are two 2.5" hard drive bays, however only one is usable. The SATA connector is not a direct connect to the drive, but through a ribbon cable that goes to the mainboard. I'm not quite sure why MSI couldn't have added an additional ribbon cable and port on the motherboard, since there is ample room for a second 2.5" drive and is just wasted unused space. MSI also makes use of the M.2 form factor for SSD's and Killer N1525 802.11AC wi-fi card. Two M.2 drives are supported through the use of a daughterboard that houses the drives. How this relates to drive performance when two drives are utilized remains to be seen since this system was only equipped with a single 128GB SSD for the boot drive, and a 1TB 2.5" hard drive.

EDIT: Meaker clarified the reason for the empty bay: "...MSI could not without adding in a controller. The HM87 has 6 SATA ports (4 gen III, 2 gen II). The 4 gen III slots go the M.2 bay and the 2 gen II slots go to the 2.5" bay and optical drive." I did not remove the M.2 adapter, but apparently there is room for four M.2 drives, two on each side. This would explain why there is no drive available in the open bay, except for the most base model. It just seems odd that they would have used 2x adapters in the spare bay, and 2x adapters in the other connection for easier access. But then again, it's still six drives available total.

Two RAM slots are easily accessible, while the other two are on the opposite side of the laptop motherboard that require disassembly of the laptop. So it is recommended to order the laptop with whatever RAM you desire, otherwise it would be an extensive exercise to replace the RAM on the flip side of the motherboard, but easy enough to expand by adding two more RAM sticks as desired.


COMPONENTS

Keyboard
One of my personal pet peeves, as well as I know it is that of many others, is a low quality keyboard. Thankfully MSI offers a high quality keyboard by Steelseries that minimizes the negative effects that plague many laptops. Since the laptop surface is one solid piece of metal, this makes it all structurally sound. For the most part the keyboard his little to no flex except in the center along the GHKL keys where a little extra pressure can flex the whole keyboard panel. But for typing it isn't noticed.

Typing on the keyboard is quite enjoyable and doesn't tend to lag with fast touch typing. The keys are very quiet with shallow key presses. There is also no keyboard ghosting with the common gaming combinations, or any others that I've found would be a bit problematic with many other laptops (W+Shift+A+Space for example).

There is a function fn key just adjacent to the right of the left shift key that allows for quick adjustment of key system features like volume and screen brightness adjustments, touchpad toggle, monitor selection, airplane mode, sleep, eco mode, etc. The Windows key has been located to the right of the spacebar between the alt and ctrl keys so as not to advertantly press it during gaming.

The multi-color backlit keyboard has four color zones: left, center, right, and touchpad perimeter. These zones can be programmed for any color and even include color cycling and be stored within the four keyboard color layers, each of which can be toggled through the included steelseries software or hotkey on the left of the keyboard. The keyboard layer can also be automatically activated based on which application you have running. Macro keys can also be programmed using the Steelseries app.

LCD
17" laptop LCD's tend to not get the love that 15" notebooks do. There are few quality 17" LCD's compared wtih 15", but MSI has found a decent 1080p matte TN screen that works great for a gaming laptop. It is a Chi Mei CMN1735 N173HGE-E11. The brightness, color, contrast, and clarity are above average for a TN display, and about average for viewing angles. It's a 1920x1080 matte, 6-bit, 6ms response time, 300 cd/m2 brightness, 400:1 contrast ratio, 60deg vertical and 70 deg side to side viewing angles using a 2-lane eDP connection.

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Gaming was a pleasure using this screen, although a 120Hz panel would have been icing on the cake. A couple minor concerns are screen door effecta and some pinched color bleed along the top edge. Both of these are minor and require looking closely at the screen to notice. The screen door is noticable with dark screens if you get close to the screen and are looking for it. The "pinched color bleed" as I coined it, is also very minor and only appears with certain colors with darker hues. In any case, during gaming and movie viewing and general computing, it was not even noticed.

Specifications can be found at Panelooks website: CHIMEI INNOLUX N173HGE-E11 Overview - Panelook.com

Networking
Considering this is a gaming laptop, network connectivity is pretty important for downloading games, but more importantly for online gaming. Ping is king, and MSI opted for the Killer Gigabit Ethernet as well as the new Killer N1525 Wireless AC adapter. With the time spent on the GT72 so far, primarily using Wi-Fi there have been no network drops, and in game ping was same as connected through a hard wire. There was one slight issue, however, that at bootup, frequently the wireless connection would take a while to boot up.

Doing some simple speed tests comparing with the Intel 7260 AC, the Killer 1525 ourperformed the Intel significantly. 25 feet unobstructed to an Asus RT-AC66U router. A single 4GB file was transferred and the Killer was on the order of 60 MB/sec while the Intel performed at an average of about 40MB/sec. Another test running about 25 feet from router but obstructed by two plaster walls including a bathroom resulted in about a 10MB/sec drop for both.

Speakers and Audio
The GT72 offers loud, clear, and overall great audio quality pumped out of the 2.1 Dynaudio speakers, using a Realtek HD audio IC. Sound Blaster Cinema 2 software is included with the system which helps improve and manage overall sound quality. Full volume is actually quite loud and not distorted. Low frequencies are decent for the size of speakers, but of course it's a physical limitation since nothing can generate loud quality low frequencies without a large subwoofer.

Four audio inputs and outputs allow for a gamut of connections with audio in, audio out, microphone, and headphone 3.5mm jacks, with support for 7.1 SPDIF. 100% volume out of the headphone jack is very loud with no noticeable hiss or crackle.

Storage
As previously noted, there is a single 2.5mm drive bay and a dual M.2 drive daughterboard. The review system came with a largely unknown 128GB Hynix M.2 SSD and HGST 1TB 2.5" 7200RM HDD. While the performance of the SSD is nothing spectacular, it is quite respectable, and is still a world's improvement over what any laptop hard drive can offer. Of course customers can opt for another brand and larger and/or faster performing SSD at time of order with their laptop.

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Software
The system comes with Windows 8.1 64-bit, and the default software load doesn't clutter the system with any extra annoying-ware. The only trialware installed was a free trial of Norton Anti-virus which can easily be uninstalled. Otherwise it's just the useful MSI apps like the SteelSeries keyboard app, Killer NIC software, MSI Dragon Control Center and MSI System Control Center.

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The SteelSeries keyboard app is quite powerful allowing for programming of four modes called layers. Macros can also be assigned and set to launch based on what program or game is running. The MSI Dragon Control Center offers a ssytem monitor providing system information like component performance/utilization and temperatures, a utility launch screen, Instant Play to automatically adjust display, audio, and mouse settings for the selected game. There is also Hybrid Power status, and device setting of turning Windows Key on or off and quick click high performance or one of the several "Shift Modes" for activating varying performance levels.

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The system control manager provides a full screen opaque app for quick selection of networking and multimedia controls. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Webcam, screen brightness, sound volume, system modes, and CD eject can all be easily managed from there.


PERFORMANCE

Intel i7-4710HQ

It appears many laptops are now offering embedded or soldered CPU's over a socketed type, even in these larger gaming laptops like the GT72. This obviously prevents any future CPU upgrades, except with a swap out of the motherboard. Granted, I'm sure the audience for those that actually swap out a CPU is small, and Intel changes sockets so often that it's rarely an option for future CPU upgrades. In any case based on this, I'd recommend ordering what ever CPU you feel is best for your needs. This review model comes with the i7-4710HQ which is essentially the embedded version of the i7-4710MQ. It is a 47W TDP CPU and has a base speed of 2.5GHz with peak single core speed of 3.5GHz, two cores at 3.4GHz, and three and four cores at 3.3GHz, with the Intel HD 4600 integrated GPU.

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Intel XTU allows the user to increase the clock speeds by 200MHz up to 3.7/3.6/3.5/3.5 GHz and while the CPU boosts to that speed, under near 100% load, it does so for only a very short period, less than 30 seconds regardless of what the package power and boost time is set to. ThrottleStop shows TDP throttle even at 70C, so the CPU appears to be a bit locked down.

In any case, it does not appear to be limiting the performance of the 980m much. You can see some benchmarks taken running the CPU fixed at 2.5GHz, 3.0GHz, and 3.5GHz and can see there is a slight impact to performance while gaming at 1080p even at ultra details. The GTX 860m was benched as well running the CPU at the same speeds in a Clevo W230SS to see if there is actually a limitation due to CPU or for some reason due to the game itself. In some instances the game was not bottlnecked at all by the CPU but in others it was, but less than 10% with a 1GHz variation.

See the results from the varied CPU speed with 980m here: http://forum.notebookreview.com/gaming-software-graphics-cards/763237-gtx-980m-limited-cpu.html

Below are the benchmarks run to test the performance of the CPU and compared to the socketed i7-4810MQ. Results are as expected, roughly 10% performance difference.

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Nvidia GeForce GTX 980m

The high end Maxwell CPU's have been eagerly anticipated over the last six months or so ever since Nvidia released the mid end GTX 840m, 850m, and 860m mobile Maxwell graphics solutions. This updated Maxwell release is still fabricated on the 28nm process, but the Maxwell architecture greatly improves performance while still reducing thermal and power consumption from the Kepler cards they replace. The 980m is based on the same GM204 256-bit desktop 970m architecture.

Detailed specifications for the 980m include:
1536 CUDA cores running at 1038MHz with a boost speed to 1127MHz
8GB GDDR5 Hynix video RAM clocked at 5000MHz on a 256-bit bus with 160GB/sec bandwidth
MXM IIIb form factor
Supports DirectX 12 and earlier, OpenGL 4.4, OpenCL 1.1

Note that DirectX 12 is supported so this makes it more "futureproof" for the upcoming Windows 10 due to be released early next year.

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benchesBENCHMARKS (^TOP^)
Unfortunately an 880m was not readily available to directly compare with, but I do have data from an earlier Clevo review that will be provided where applicable in the benchmark results. The GTX Maxwell 2GB 860m was also included for comparison since this is a popular card and the max overclock runs it close to a stock 870m to use as a good comparison as well.

The 980m could overclock with nVidiaInspector, but was limited to the typical +135MHz on the slider like any other Nvidia GPU without an unlocked vBIOS. At this time we were unable to flash the vBIOS to unlock the slider and voltage control due to the current nvflash program not supporting this card yet from DOS. Windows seems to be locked out due to some other reason despite the latest nvflash 9.130 supposedly supporting the 970m and 980m GPU's. I'm sure in due time this will change. So overclock results were limited to +135MHz on the GPU and the video RAM was easily able to achieve an effective clock speed of 6000MHz. Much more than that though resulted in some texture corruption and occasional lockups.

The CPU and GPU thermal paste was not changed for these tests, it was stock from the factory.

For the benchmark results you will see:

860m Stock: 1029MHz Boost to 1097MHz / vRAM 2GB GDDR5 @ 5000MHz
860m OC (Prema Mod): 1309MHz Boost to 1377MHz / vRAM 2GB GDDR5 @ 5800MHz
880m Stock: 954MHz Boost to 993MHz / vRAM 8GB GDDR5 @ 5000MHz
980m Stock: 1038MHz Boost to 1127MHz / vRAM 8GB GDDR5 @ 5000MHz
980m OC: 1173MHz Boost to 1262MHz / vRAM 8GB GDDR5 @ 6000MHz

Drivers used were the 344.00 provided by MSI for the laptop. The latest 344.24 WHQL driversfrom Nvidia caused some intermittent stuttering and reduced performance. GPU clock speed maintained boost speed throughout the benchmarks.

GPU-Z for 980m Stock:
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GPU-Z for 980m Overclock (OC):
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Artificial Benchmarks

3DMark 11
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3DMark Fire Strike
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Catzilla
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Unigine Heaven Extreme
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GAME BENCHMARKS

Battlefield 4 64-Player Firestorm
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Bioshock Infinite
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Crysis 3
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Final Fantasy XIV
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Grid 2
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Metro Last Light
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Resident Evil 6
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Sleeping Dogs
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Thief
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Tomb Raider
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POWER AND COOLING

Power Consumption
Power consumption measurements were taken at the wall so note that there is some level of efficiency lost through the power supply. But in general you will see that the Maxwell 980m consumes considerably less power than the 880m all while outperforming it considerably. The 980m runs at 850mV while idle and 1030mV at load.

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System Temperatures
Temperature measurements were taken during testing for the CPU and GPU and results are displayed below. For the most part the GT72 attempted to keep the CPU and GPU at 70C and fans ramped up accordingly, but in general, the 980m rarely budged over 70C and CPU was kept in check below 75C. Stock thermal paste as applied by the factory was used during the benchmarking. After all testing was complete, IC Diamond was applied to the CPU and GPU and test re-run. Temperatures were more or less in line with the factory paste, so minimal to no improvement, which is very commendable considering most OEM thermal paste applications run much hotter than a manual repaste. In any case, temperatures during the bencharks are shown below:

CPU Temps Artificial Benchmarks
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CPU Temps Game Benchmarks
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GPU Temps Artificial Benchmarks
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GPU Temps Game Benchmarks
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Surface Temperatures
Not only did the GPU run quit cool while pushing out massive FPS, the touch surfaces also remained remarkably cool on the top and bottom of the laptop. Even though this is more of a desktop replacement laptop, there is no need to worry about burning your legs or privates if you decide to game with this sucker on your lap.

Fan Noise
Along with temperature comes fan noise. Even under a stressful continuous load during games like Battlefield 4 or Grid 2, the fans were audible, but nothing appreciable. The system speakers easily overpowered them, and the sound coming from the vents were more of a low whooshing hum that was not distracting or annoying in any respect. System fans can also be manually run at full speed using the hotkey button on the left of the keyboard. The fans slowly ramp up to speed and maximum fan speed sound is much less compared to that of a 15" or 17" Clevo model sporting similar hardware.


Battery Life
Just because this is a gaming laptop doesn't mean users always want maximum performance, sometimes they want to do real work too. The dedicated 980m and integrated Intel GPU can be manually toggled from within Windows using the hotkey button to the left of the keyboard. A prompt pops up telling you to reboot the computer for the change to take effect. The hotkey has a light next to it, which is lit white when the dedicated 980m GPU is active, and not lit when the Intel is active. This is important of course for running on battery since the Intel GPU will allow for much longer battery run times over the dedicated GPU.

Three battery life tests were run: movie, web browsing, and gaming. Movie and Web Browsing used the Intel GPU with Windows Power Saver Profile with LCD @ 40% brightness and sound volume at 40%. The movie test had wi-fi turned off and used VLC media player running a ripped 1080p Blu-Ray of The Fifth Element. The web browsing test obviously had wi-fi on and had four medium flash-intensive sites refreshed at random intervals from 0-5 minutes each. Thanks to the massive 81.5 WHr battery, basic computing with the Intel GPU resulted in long run times.

In addition to movie viewing and web browsing and general computing, if users actually find themselves unplugged and want to game on battery, nVidia Battery Boost technology helps in this regard, using your nVidia GPU. It fixes the FPS and throttles the CPU and GPU to keep system power draw within limits that the battery can provide, mainly less than 100W. This tech is not limited to the GT72, but it is a feature based on the GeForce Experience app.

A round of Battlefield 4 put this technology to the test running with high details at 1080p with FPS limited to 30 resulted in about 33% battery drain after 20 minutes, which roughly equates to about an hour of gaming using the 980m. Granted a game like BF4 usually pushes a system to its limit and there was some occasional stuttering despite the FPS counter indicating a fixed 30FPS.

Battery life results from these tests are as follows:

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CONCLUSION
MSI offers a solid, well built laptop that pays attention to the things that matter most to a gamer with the GT72 Dominator Pro. A solid keyboard, discrete manual switchable graphics, refined build quality with metal structure where it counts, ample and well placed USB ports and audio jacks, excellent cooling, great speaker quality, but most importantly top notch performance round out the GT72 Dominator Pro as a true gamer's delight.

For a 17" laptop, the weight and overall dimensions seem well justified. The LCD is sufficient with adequate color, brightness, and response for gaming and general computing but a higher quality screen, even a 120Hz model would be welcome. The embedded CPU is a bit of a disappointment, but it's the path that Intel is encouraging so you can't blame MSI or other laptop makers for offering them. The layout of the storage drives are a bit puzzling, with the dual card M.2 adapter and an open 2.5" drive bay with no connector, but there are plenty of storage options nonetheless.

The 980m is a great top end GPU and one could easily justify the bump up from an 680m or lesser GPU, or even 780m or 880m if only for reduced heat and power consumption alone, not to mention the throttling of the 880m some machines have seen. Including the 230W PSU is also a welcome addition, and even though most of the benchmarks run during this review didn't exceed 190W power draw from the wall (roughly equating to 155-160W actual draw), it's good to have some breathing room for future overclocking potential. Performance equates to at least a desktop 780 and not too far away from a desktop 970 based on other online benchmarks. It clearly smokes a heavily overclocked Maxwell 860m, nearly double, and beats its Kepler 880m predecessor by a significant amount while still running cooler and consuming significantly less power.

In the myriad of gaming laptops, this one can surely be a top recommendation. Be sure to thank PowerNotebooks for providing this review sample and even visit their site when configuring your next machine. ;)

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