What happens when a world-class maker of computer components gets the freedom to make a killer gaming notebook? Something very much like the MS GT72 Dominator Pro gaming laptop, I’d say.
This high-end 17-inch notebook is aimed at gamers who like to move around a lot, either to LANs or to friends’ places for a bit of Battlefield/DOTA/Call of Duty, as well as for people who want to replace their desktop systems entirely with a laptop that’s good at working and can play games at their highest settings, even across multiple monitors. The GT72 fits that bill perfectly, thanks to eyebrow-raising hardware that most single-GPU gaming PCs can only dream of.
Let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s get the hardware out the way. The star of the line-up is undoubtedly the GeForce GTX980M graphics chip, which is the fastest mobile GPU available today. It has a whopping 8GB of video memory – just the thing for the high memory needs of multi-monitor gaming – and is faster than any laptop I’ve ever seen before. It’s so fast, in fact, that it’s within a few hundred 3dMark points of my own AMD Radeon R9 290 OC which I bought a few months back for my desktop PC. That’s no small feat.
MSI hasn’t skimped on the GT72’s processor, either . Driving everything is a powerful Intel chip, the quad-core 4th-gen Core i7-4710MQ, complemented by 16GB of DDR3 RAM and a 256GB solid-state operating system drive. With so much memory available and no spinning discs to slow down its hard drive access time, the GT72 boots up quickly – from cold to login in just over 8 seconds, desktop to sleep in 5 – and responds to user input in the blink of an eye. Maybe even faster. In short, it’s really fast and great for everyday use.
Along the left edge there are four USB 3.0 ports and three 3.5mm audio jacks, and on the right you’ll find another two USB 3.0 ports and a Blu-ray writer. There is no SD card reader to be seen anywhere, not even on the back which hosts the power slot, an Ethernet port and one HDMI and two Mini DisplayPort video outputs.
High-end hardware usually generates a lot of heat and needs to be kept cool in order to run efficiently, something that takes spinning fans and intelligent air flow to achieve. MSI’s GT72 achieves this with its chunky chassis: that bulk provides the room needed for its fans to power the necessary air movement, as well as space for things like a Blu-ray burner and a 1TB secondary hard drive.
Hardware-wise, this is one extremely capable notebook, one that promises oodles of potential before the first benchmark has even been run.
Look & Feel
It’s not as good a story on the aesthetic front, however: the GT72 isn’t the best-looking notebook in the world. It’s fat, it’s heavy (3.78kg!) and its chassis is a bit too plasticky for my liking. Some parts, like the plastic surrounding the trackpad and the brushed aluminium lid, feel a little nicer to the touch, but that’s offset by a body that feels quite weak with far too much flex. Since this is where all the hardware is hidden and there are plenty of vents to encourage air flow for cooling purposes, I understand why this is, I’m just not fond of the structural weakness the design causes in the notebook’s underside.
Something I like very much, on the other hand, is the GT72’s keyboard. That’s because it’s not a regular MSI ‘board, it’s actually a full-sized, custom-built SteelSeries keyboard with a gorgeous backlighting system that can be set to glow with just about any colour you can imagine. I also thoroughly enjoyed typing on it; the travel of each key felt just right, and each press doesn’t make much noise – two things I value quite highly.
I kept accidentally hitting the Caps Lock key, though, but I put that down to lack of familiarity, and something that would disappear over time with more use. The repositioning of the Windows key to the right of the space bar was somewhat less forgiveable as it made my favourite shortcuts (Windows Key + R, +E and +D) far more awkward to execute.
The keyboard has no dedicated media buttons so it won’t be great for quick access to controls for your music or videos. The only extra keys are found on the left side, which control things like turning it on, selecting the onboard GPU and controlling the system’s fans.
I was pleased to discover that the touchpad is very good. Its faux-glass texture feels wonderful under my fingertips, it’s very responsive and the two buttons press with a decidedly satisfying click. It’s not quite as good as a Mac’s touchpad, but it’s very a good effort from MSI.
The screen’s hinge, an area of concern for some when it comes to laptops, is brilliant. It’s sturdy, and keeps the screen where you leave it no matter the angle, and it folds down almost flat. There’s also no flex at all in the screen/lid, indicating a very sturdy build and a long life for the machine. The only downside is the fact that no matter where you touch it, the GT72 picks up and retains fingerprints like it was part of the design brief. I was constantly wiping it down to keep it blemish-free.
The GT72’s design tries hard to make you forget its rather chubby profile with a slightly pointed edge that faces you as you type, a rear end that resembles the lights found at the back of a really slick sports car and two red lights that adorn either side of the bezel along its front edge, looking like the slitty eyes of some sort of predator. It works, too: these touches lend the laptop an air of aggression that balances out its bulk rather nicely.
Overall, with its rather tubby build and stylish touches, the GT72 doesn’t look terrible, but it’s not going to win against the likes of Gigabyte’s Auros or Dell’s Alienware gaming laptops.
Ultimately, the biggest question anyone can ask of a laptop dedicated to gaming is “How does it perform?” I’m very pleased to tell you that the GT72 is astonishingly fast, far and away the most powerful gaming notebook I’ve ever used. That’s across the board, too, in everything from booting to sleeping to gaming to number-crunching.
The fact that it performs so closely to my personal gaming rig in Futuremark’s 3DMark test astounds me, as the Radeon R9 290 is a very, very quick graphics card indeed. What that means in a real-world sense is frame rates well above the 50fps mark, as you’ll see in the benchmarks I ran:
All games were set to 1920 x 1080, at their absolute highest settings so this is very good indeed. Battlefield 4 doesn’t have a built-in benchmark, so I ran FRAPS while going through a level, noting that the frame rate didn’t fall below 50 at any point. That’s excellent for such a demanding title.
To put the 3DMark scores into context, this is how my Radeon R9 290 performed on the exact same tests:
The take-home message here is that the GT72 will handle any game you care to fire up at highly playable frame rates at their best visual settings. The prevailing gaming wisdom has it that anything above 30 frames per second is smooth and playable, so these results confirm just how good the GTX980M is. You could plug a keyboard, mouse, monitor and speakers into the GT72 and use it as you would a regular desktop machine, and forget that you’re actually using a laptop.
All of that meaty hardware means good things for other aspects of the GT72’s operation, too:
- Startup (from cold): 7.5s
- Resume: 2s
- Sleep: 2.5s
- Shut Down: 5.3s
- Restart: 18s
Weirdly, it doesn’t switch between NVIDIA’s GeForce GT980M and the onboard Intel HD Graphics 4600 chip on the fly, requiring a manual button-press and a reboot to do it. Fortunately the system reboots within 20 seconds so it’s not a major inconvenience, it’s just an oddity in this age of dynamic GPU switching.
I ran the screen through a few tests over at Lagom.nl, and it performed all right, but not fantastically. Viewing angles are only okay, as I had to adjust the screen to its ideal position which varied according to how high or low my eyes were in relations to it. It showed some banding in the gradient test, which isn’t wonderful if you absolutely must have the smoothest transition between colours but which shouldn’t impact on games much, if at all.
Fortunately it did tremendously well in the response time test on testufo.com, showing a minimal amount of ghosting. This is definitely a screen suited to the high frame rates of games driven by a powerful GPU.
Unfortunately, the GT72’s battery isn’t going to last long at all, especially if you use the primary graphics chip when not connected to the mains. I got just under two and a half hours out of the GT72 on average, stretched to three when using the Intel HD Graphics 4600 chip. But then you don’t buy a machine like this for all-day battery life so it’s a forgiveable foible.
Gaming with it on my lap, I found the GT72 to be a little warmer than I hoped it would be, becoming uncomfortable after half an hour or so. I wouldn’t recommend doing that if you can avoid it – you will be far happier using it on a desk.
And lastly, the sound: the GT72’s audio is powered by DynAudio 2.1 speakers, a professional-level sound technology that creates a superb soundstage for everything from games to movies to music. The actual audio processing is provided by Creative’s SoundBlaster Cinema 2 technology, giving you fine control over what you hear. You’re able to set the environment you’re in and the software changes the audio accordingly, and the results are stellar.
Using a set of surround-sound headphones (Logitech G430) I could tell exactly where sound was coming from in Tomb Raider and I picked up subtle audio cues in Hitman Absolution that helped me time my moves better. High-quality music files sounded great, and movies were particularly punchy. The built-in speakers were loud and clear, and not at all tinny like most notebook speakers are. MSI has done a great job on the GT72’s audio.
For a notebook that costs R39 999, you’re definitely getting what you pay for. This is a performance machine, pure and simple, and is fantastic for playing games and general entertainment purposes thanks to the might of its GTX980M graphics chip and the competence of its sound system. Its cutting-edge hardware and the benefits it brings to everyday operations is just icing on the cake.
That it’s bulky and not quite as attractive as competing machines in a similar price range from other manufacturers is only a problem if your personal preferences call for the very best aesthetics, or if you plan on moving around a lot and don’t like the idea of lugging this huge beast around with you all the time. If neither of those are priorities, the GT72 will serve you well.
And its relatively short battery life shouldn’t deter you, either. There are better ways to entertain yourself on long trips, and besides this sort of machine works best tethered to a desk, working as a desktop replacement.
Would I buy this gaming laptop if I had R40k lying around? You bet I would.
- Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit
- CPU: Intel Core i7-4710MQ @ 2.5GHz
- Memory: 16GB DDR3L 1600MHz
- Discrete Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX980M with 8GB GDDR5 VRAM
- Onboard Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4600
- Display: 17.3-inch Full HD Anti-Reflective @ 1920 x 1080
- Storage: 256GB mSATA SSD + 1TB 7200RPM SATA HDD
- Keyboard: SteelSeries Programmable Full Colour Backlit
- Audio: SoundBlaster Cinema 2
- Optical Drive: Blu-ray Disc Burner
- LAN: Killer E2200 Game Networking
- WLAN: Killer N1525 Wireless-AC
- USB: USB 3.0 x 5
- Video Out: 1x HDMI, 2x Mini DisplayPort
- Battery: 9 Cells
- Dimensions: 42.8 x 29.4 x 4.8 cm
- Weight: 3.78kg
Price: R39 999