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We're seeing an influx of new and updated gaming laptops, thanks to the March release of the new 800M-series graphics cards from Nvidia. Most of these cards are going into massive 17-inch desktop replacement systems, but it's nice that even some of the higher-end GTX cards are making their way into smaller, slimmer laptops.
One of the first 800-series laptops we've tested is the MSI GE60 Apache Pro-003. This 15-inch gaming laptop walks a fine line between price, size, and performance, pairing a quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU with the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M GPU, which is two steps down from the very top of the line but still very powerful.
Our configuration is a very reasonable $1,349, but to get there, you'll have to stick with a traditional 1TB platter hard drive, only 8GB of RAM, and a basic DVD burner instead of Blu-ray. However, the build quality is excellent, and the keyboard (with a multicolored backlight, of course), feels great for gaming.
For a midsize gaming laptop, your options are something like this system -- or a similarly hefty 14- or 15-inch model from Alienware, Origin PC, Maingear -- or Razer's very promising new 14-inch Blade model, which promises similar high-end specs in a much smaller, slimmer package, along with a 3,200x1,800 touch screen. That Razer Blade, shipping in April, is easily the most modern-looking of the current and coming-soon gaming laptops, but it also starts at $2,199, a huge premium over the GE60, which is very reasonably priced.
For around $1,300, the MSI's design is still on the hokey side (if far from the worst offender), and I still think gaming laptops need to push past non-touch 1080p screens. Still, I love the feel of the keyboard with its slightly scalloped keys, the screen looks great, and it's a low(er)-cost way to step into Nvidia's latest generation of graphics cards.
|MSI GE60 Apache Pro-003||Alienware 17||Maingear Pulse 14|
|Display size/pixel resolution||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||14-inch, 1,600x900 screen|
|PC CPU||2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ||2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ||2.6GHz Intel Core i7-4702MQ|
|PC memory||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 860M||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 760M|
|Storage||1TB HD||256GB SSD + 750GB HD||(2) 128GB SSD + 1TB HD|
|Optical drive||DVD/RW||BD-ROM||External DVD-RW|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
Nearly every gaming laptop we've seen recently follows a pretty standard design brief. Black chassis, more likely matte than glossy; brushed-metal keyboard tray, also black; and at least one backlit logo, usually on the back of the lid.
The MSI GE60 hits all those parameters, and even adds the gaming laptop cliche of multicolored lights, in the form of a rainbowlike keyboard backlight (it's not nearly as bad an offender as Alienware's laptops, though). The front lip rises up about 1 inch off the desktop, and the rise is about 1.25 inches in the rear, making this a thick, chunky, boxy laptop, the complete opposite of the tapered, slim designs of nearly every new non-gaming laptop. That's an industrywide problem, however, not one specific to MSI.
I'll go further and say this is one of the sharper-looking boxy gaming laptops that I've ever seen. That's because it's not built on a generic third-party chassis, as boutique companies such as Origin PC and Maingear are forced to do. Out of the recent gaming laptops we've tried, if I can't have the amazingly slim custom bodies produced by Razer, this MSI version is my next favorite choice.
A big part of that appeal is the excellent keyboard. It's designed by SteelSeries, a manufacturer of high-end gaming keyboards. And the thick, island-style keys here have excellent response, satisfyingly deep travel, and a great, subtle concave key face that hugs your fingers, which is especially useful for the gamer-centric WASD keys. It's one of the best keyboards I've ever tried on a gaming laptop. Watch out for one thing, however: the Windows key has been shifted to the right side of the spacebar, which might be jarring.
The large clickpad-style touch pad is workable for everyday Web and OS navigation, but it's not as responsive as some of the best Windows laptop touch pads, especially when it comes to multitouch gestures. For a laptop without a touch screen, that's a problem, but gamers will probably keep an external mouse plugged in most of the time.
Unless you hook up an external monitor (which is sometimes how smaller gaming laptops are used), you'll be playing on a 15.6-inch matte screen display with a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels. In a world dominated by overly glossy screens, it's interesting that only business laptops and gaming laptops seem to show that someone realized that a matte screen provides a better overall experience. Off-axis viewing is great, and better than the 17-inch Asus G750 we recently tested.
My only other display requests on a high-end gaming laptop would be a touch screen, to make non-gaming interaction with Windows 8 easier, and the option for even higher screen resolutions, which are becoming ever more popular.
Audio from quad speakers was hefty but not desk-shaking, and a THX app offers some presets, which are mostly EQ tweaks.
|Connections and ports||MSI GE60|
|Audio||Quad speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD burner|
One of the (few) advantages to having a chunkier laptop body is that it's practically the only place you'll find a full Ethernet jack these days, to say nothing of an optical drive. With dual video outputs (HDMI, VGA), you can use the new Nvidia GPU to push multiple displays at once.
Looking online, I spotted several different configurations of the GE60 from different resellers. It can be confusing, but our $1,349 configuration seems like an excellent balance of price and features, with an Intel Core i7-4700HQ CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive, and, most importantly, one of Nvidia's new 800M series of video cards. In this case, it's the GeForce GTX 860M, which is two steps down from the top of the line but still excellent for a 15-inch laptop.
In our benchmark application tests, the MSI GE60 was the slowest of our representative panel of gaming laptops from 2013 and 2014, but the actual differences were slight; some of the other systems had faster Core i7-4800 or i7-4900 series CPUs, or else massive amounts of RAM, from 16GB all the way up to 32GB. For practical purposes, this is as much CPU power as you're going to need for any consumer-level task.
More interesting is the gaming performance. We compared the GTX 860M here with the faster 880M card (in the Asus G750), as well as previous-gen 780M and 760M cards. You won't find this terribly shocking, but the MSI GE60 with its GTX 860M turned in a better frame rate than a similar system with last year's GTX 760M, just as our new 880M beat a similar system with a 780M. However, an Origin PC laptop with two 780M cards in an SLI configuration easily topped them all. Check our benchmark charts below for Metro: Last Light and BioShock Infinite frame rates, but I'd consider this system fine for any new game at medium-to-high settings at 1080p resolution.
The MSI GE60 ran for 4 hours, 9 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, which is on the low side for a 15-inch laptop of any stripe, and also a shorter time than the powerful 17-inch Asus G570 managed in the same test. For actual gaming while on battery power, you can expect even less. Nvidia, however, is promoting a new feature of its GeForce Experience software app that promises game settings tweaks to prolong battery life. That's not fully functional yet, but we'll take another look at it when it is.
I often have mixed feelings about gaming laptops. On one hand, I love how even a midline gaming laptop can run rings around next-gen game consoles, and the current crop of CPUs and GPUs make this the best time ever to be a PC gamer. On the other hand, these bricklike boxes make me mental with their outdated industrial design and dorm-room-chic vibe.
Keeping all that in mind, the MSI GE60 left me surprisingly impressed. The design was not as bro-tastic as that of some other gaming laptops, the keyboard is among the best for gaming that I've tried, and the brand-new Nvidia GPU and other high-end specs for a reasonable $1,349 all add up to an excellent mix of performance and price.
MSI GE60 Apache Pro-003
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M; 1TB 7,200rpm HGST hard drive
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GTX 780M; HDD#1 256GB LiteOn SSD, HDD#2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive
Maingear Pulse 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-4720MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 760M; (2) 128GB SSD RAID 0 1TB 5,400rpm WD hard drive
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ; 32GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 880M;(2) 256GB SSD RAID 0 1TB 7,200rpm HGST hard drive
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 3GHz Intel Core i7-4930MX; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz;(2) 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M; (2) 120GB SSD RAID 0 750GB 7,200rpm WD hard drive
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