Game on: 3 high-performance laptops duke it out

We test the Eurocom Panther 4.0, HP Envy 17 and MSI GT783 to find out which will get gamers to the finish line fastest.

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Members of the Masters gaming club really liked the thinness, quiet and sound quality of the Envy 17. They said they'd have preferred a brighter screen, however, and several times the Envy 17 sat idle while the GT783 and Panther were being ogled over.

  • "Not loud enough."
  • "The up/down keys are too close together."
  • "Okay video but the screen is dull."
  • "Pretty good. Surprisingly thin and easy to carry."

Test results

The Envy 17's performance was on a par with the MSI GT783, scoring a 2,087.7 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 suite. That's about 30% off the scorching pace set by the Panther. (Because the Envy 17 review unit came with 12GB of RAM rather than 16GB like the other systems, comparisons are going to be affected.) It lagged behind the Panther on the Cinebench processor tests but led the pack on the graphics test with a 51.5.

Having a battery life of 2 hours and 56 minutes is generally nothing to brag about, but for a computer with this amount of power, it is nothing short of phenomenal. The Envy's 7,400 mAh battery lasted 25 minutes longer than the MSI GT783's and more than three times longer than the Panther's.

It's a good thing, because while the others have batteries that are easy to swap, it's a chore on the Envy 17. To get to the battery, you need to remove six Philips screws to open the system's back cover and then open a pair of Torx screws -- not something you want to do between Portal sessions.

At a Glance

HP Envy 17-3090nr 3D Edition Notebook PC

Hewlett-PackardPrice: $1,600 (base) / $1,685 (as tested)Pros: Sleek design, relatively lightweight, offers Intel's WiDi technologyCons: Limited to 12GB RAM, awkward to change battery

With a pair of internal fans, the Envy 17 was a cool, yet eerily quiet customer. It hit a peak temperature of 121 degrees Fahrenheit at its exhaust vent.

The system came with Windows 7 Home Premium, but can be upgraded to the Professional version for $70. The Envy 17 comes with a two-year warranty; adding a third year costs a reasonable $168.

Bottom line

At less than one-third the stratospheric price of the Panther 4.0 and about $1,000 less than the MSI GT783, the Envy 17 is the "budget" choice of these three gaming notebooks. However, it doesn't have the graphics potential or screen brightness of the other two.

MSI GT783-625US

If the expensive and aggressive Panther is at one end of the gaming spectrum and the more sedate and less expensive Envy 17 is at the other, MSI's GT783 fits right in the middle. Like Goldilocks, you might find it to be just right.

At 2.4 x 16.6 x 10.7 in. and weighing 8.6 lb., the MSI may be smaller and lighter than the Panther, but it's still a lot to carry around. The angular black case has chrome speaker grilles, a prominent power button and nicely contrasting shiny and matte design elements.

MSI GT783

While it's more than an inch deeper than an airliner's tray table, the MSI looks slight when it's lined up side-by-side with the Panther. When you add the 1.9-lb. AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 10.5 lb.

Inside the MSI's case is an array of hardware that is similar to that of the Envy 17, including the same second-generation Intel Core i7-2670QM processor. It offers four processing cores and a clock speed of 2.2GHz; it can speed up to 3.1GHz when your opponent gets the upper hand.

The processor uses about half as much power as the Panther's. The system gets by with one fan inside, compared to the pair in the Envy 17 and the quartet in the Panther. During most uses, it was the quietest of the three.

Like the Panther, it comes with 16GB RAM, 4GB more than the Envy 17, and can hold up to 32GB RAM. It comes with a 750GB hard drive and a 128GB SSD. The design is not as spacious and innovative as the Panther, but makes more economical use of space.

The MSI GT783 review model came equipped with a Blu-ray disc burner that, like the Panther's optical drive, has a pop-out tray to hold the disc. Instead of a button to eject the disc, it has an electronic switch under the screen and an emergency eject hole on the drive so you can get the disc out with the machine turned off.

Like the other two gaming systems, the GT783 has a 17.3-in. screen that can display 1920 x 1080 resolution. It has a non-glare coating that makes its colors pop; I found it to be the brightest display of the three -- it was a delight to use for everything from watching a movie to running the Trainz simulation or playing Portal.

Like the Panther, it uses the same GeForce GTX 580M engine and has 2GB of dedicated VRAM. But the GT783 has only a single GPU. It also uses MSI's Turbo Drive Engine (TDE) that lets you overclock the graphics by 5%, giving you an extra gaming kick when it's a matter of virtual life and death.

Because it draws more power, TDE only works when the system is plugged in; it also pushes the system's ability to remove heat. There's a button below the screen to boost its cooling by more than 60%, but using that feature turns the MSI GT783 from the quietest of the three systems into the loudest. When TDE was enabled, the unit sounded like a cross between an air conditioner and a helicopter, and I measured its exhaust temperature at 147-degrees Fahrenheit -- the hottest of the three.

Opinions from the Masters School gamers

Members of the Masters gaming club were instantly attracted to the MSI; it was hard getting them away from it. They found it to be a good compromise in terms of size and weight, while the video was judged to be the best of the bunch.

  • "Amazingly good graphics and performance."
  • "Extremely smooth video."
  • "Excellent graphics."
  • "A top screen."

Unlike the other two laptops, the MSI GT783 offers a traditional VGA port. It has HDMI, but no DisplayPort connection or WiDi. It does have two USB 3.0 and three USB 2.0 connectors, together with e-SATA and audio jacks, and an SD card slot.

The GT783's sound system uses THX TruStudio Pro technology along with Dynaudio speakers and subwoofer, helping it to be the loudest of the three.

In addition to Ethernet and 802.11n Wi-Fi, the GT783 comes with Bluetooth.

Of the three, the MSI's SteelSeries keyboard is the most solid and feels like it can take the punishment of being pounded after the indignity of losing. You can choose backlighting from more than 1,000 colors and five different patterns, but it looks garish and can divert your attention away from the game.

The MSI's graphics are nothing short of amazing, with several games showing additional visual details, like the texture of a concrete wall or color variations on a field that was absent on the other systems. Its video was silky smooth.

Test results

The GT783's PerformanceTest 7.0 score with 12GB of RAM was 2,069.6, putting it slightly behind the Envy 17 and making it one-third slower than the Panther. With 16GB in place, its PerformanceTest 7 score rose to 2,255.

At a Glance

GT783-625US

MSIPrice: $2,600Pros: Bright display, can overclock video, adjustable backlit keyboard, VGA port, good audioCons: Fan is loud when extra cooling is needed

On the Cinebench processor testing, the MSI GT783 tied with the Envy 17 with a 5.3 score, but despite having 2GB of VRAM at its disposal, the system fell to the back of the pack on the graphics with a score of 43.1, well off the Envy 17's group-leading 51.5.

The 7,800 mAh battery lasted for 2 hours, 31 minutes -- three times longer than the Panther 4.0's run time and 25 minutes less than the Envy 17.

The MSI GT783 came with Windows 7 Home Premium installed. The two-year warranty can be augmented to three years of coverage for $200.

Bottom line

At $2,600, the MIS GT783 costs half what the Panther goes for, but it's still not inexpensive. It may not be the most powerful or have the longest lasting battery, but the MSI GT783 provides a nice compromise for gamers on the go with a power notebook that has excellent graphics and display.

Conclusions

After countless hours pounding on their keyboards and reveling in virtual worlds, I'm convinced that any of these three gaming systems will satisfy even the most hardcore gamer. They all are fast and powerful, but they will appeal to different types of gamers.

The $1,685 HP Envy 17 is for the gamer on a budget. Compared to the others, it is economical and excels by being relatively lightweight without sacrificing performance.

On the other hand, I found the Envy 17's gaming abilities to be second to the MSI GT783 and Panther. Plus, having to change to integrated graphics to use WiDi is a compromise I'm not willing to make.

By contrast, the $5,290 Eurocom Panther 4.0 is for the gamer that has to have the absolute best -- and has a pocket full of $100 bills to pay for it. It has the most powerful processor and two high-performance graphics chips. But this laptop is not just big and heavy, it's gargantuan -- you might want to put it into a wheelie bag for travel.

MSI's GT783 is a good compromise between the competing interests of size, performance and price. It costs $2,600 and has the ability to pump up the graphics power -- and keep things cool -- when it's needed most. It's also the only one of the three to provide a VGA port.

In the final analysis, it's a tie between the Panther and MSI GT783, which is like having to decide between a Ferrari and a Porsche sports car. They're both exhilarating and a lot of fun, but the Panther costs a lot more and is less practical as something you need to rely on every day.

In other words, the MSI GT783 is the more reasonable as far as size, weight and price go, but get the Panther 4.0 if gaming is your life.

3 gaming laptops: Test results

*Videos playing non-stop

How I tested

To see how these three gaming notebooks compare, I stressed them by using a variety of benchmarks and games.

After measuring each system, I weighed them with and without their AC adapters. I put each system on a mock-up of an airplane seat-back tray (unsurprisingly, none of these gaming machines fit on it easily).

I opened the back of each to see how hard it is to perform maintenance or repairs. I noted how many fans each had and how hard it was to change batteries.

I benchmarked them with PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 to get a good idea of each machine's overall performance potential. This suite of tests exercises every major system component, from the processor, memory and hard drive to the graphics. It then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.

After that, I ran Maxon's Cinebench 11.5, a benchmark that measures graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes and animation sequences that put pressure on the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance; I averaged the results of three runs.

I then ran Auran's Trainz Simulator 2009, a railroad game that is particularly resource-intensive. Each system was set up to run the simulation of the British Midlands rail route for 72 hours. After it had been running for at least five hours, I looked at the system's resource use and noted it. Then I found the system's hotspot and measured the temperature with an Extech Pocket IR noncontact thermometer.

While the simulation was running, I looked for differences in how each system handled the game's graphics. I checked for video jerkiness, shimmering, jagged edges, shadowing, items that popped in and out as well as the level of detail that the system rendered.

Although these machines were designed to spend most of their lives running off of AC power, they do come with batteries. To see how long they could run on battery power, I fully charged each and then inserted a USB drive containing six videos that were run continuously until the system's battery ran out of power. This test was repeated three times and the results averaged.

The systems are actually excellent for graphics, so I rendered, manipulated and rotated a variety of 3-D models using GLC_Player. I also viewed a graphics-intensive PowerPoint presentation.

Finally, I consulted the closest thing to gaming experts that I could find: The gaming club at The Masters School, a preparatory school located in Westchester, N.Y. These teenagers are hard-core gamers who don't back down when zombies or aliens attack. Using Valve's Portal2, UBI Soft's The Adventures of Tin Tin and Exotypos's X-Motor Racing, the gamers looked over and played on each of the systems for a minimum of 45 minutes each.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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