There are times in life where subtlety and half-measures are the best option. Choosing the rogue over the barbarian, using words instead of violence, diplomacy over war, all that hippy jazz.
With the MSI GT80 Titan, that all goes out the window. The GT80 doesn’t even look like a laptop (and it’s certainly far too large to be one): it looks like a Decepticon, it looks like something Michael Bay would focus a shot on while several explosions light up the background.
Luckily, MSI is doing some unprecedented things with the GT80 that may justify this audacity.
The quick tour
You only need to look at the header image to see how big the GT80 is. For comparison, we’ve put one of the thinnest and lightest laptops currently available, the Lenovo Yoga 3, next to it in the picture below.
Made of mostly high-grade plastic, the GT80 also has a brushed metal lid that will hold on to stains and fingerprints until the end of time. Our review sample came with stains we just couldn’t remove.
Besides size and presence, the only other indication of what’s inside is the plethora of exhaust vents. Excluding the lid and front lip, every part of the GT80 has somewhere for hot air to escape, and as we’ll see, it definitely needs it.
In the box you’ll also get some accessories. A wrist rest, a key-puller and five metal replacement keys for Escape, W, A, S and D. The power brick from the GT80 alone weighs more than most large tablets, justifying its name entirely.
Tapping it up
While many honours will be heaped upon the GT80, the most obvious is that the GT80 has the unique honour of being the first “laptop” to feature a mechanical keyboard.
What is a mechanical keyboard, we hear you ask? Basically a mechanical keyboard uses physical, mechanical microswitches underneath the buttons to register key strokes. Most modern keyboards instead have a membrane dome underneath that pushes contacts together, which are cheaper to manufacture but also wear out quickly and feel awful to type on.
We’ll have a guide on mechanical switches soon, but for now you can catch up here.
The bottom line is mechanical keyboards are more accurate for fast typists, last longer and can have proper tactile feedback so you know when a key has been pressed by feeling for the clunk as the switch goes down. That also means they’re noisier than membranes to type on, but seriously – nothing can touch a mechanical keyboard.
The problem with mechanical keyboards is their size and complexity. They don’t lend themselves to being slid on top of a wafer thin slice of laptop that is only a few millimetres thick. For starters, they’d increase the depth by a factor of 10, and they’d probably smash through the bottom of most normal laptops when pounded too.
So conventional wisdom was they could never be found in a laptop. So much for convention.
So, how does it work with the GT80? A tenkeyless design (that is, a keyboard without a numpad) from Steelseries is integrated neatly into the laptop’s chassis, with genuine Cherry MX Brown switches. These feel equally as good to type and game on while not requiring a whole lot of force to actuate a key.
Brown switches give a nice little tactile bump which signifies a key press, separating it from the linear Red and Black switches – the most common kind for gaming keyboards.
You won’t find any media or macro keys, which we completely understandable given the circumstances. What you do get is alternate functions for some keys, giving you quicker access to things like volume control and screen brightness.
The biggest compromises with this keyboard come from the bottom row. Because the keyboard is positioned right at the edge of the bottom shell, the bottom lid isn’t flat, which means using your thumb to press the spacebar becomes problematic. It also means you’ll never be able to comfortably bottom out the spacebar by pressing it normally.
A smaller issue is the repetition of the “|” and “\” key found above the enter button and to the right of the spacebar. This would have been much better used as another function key, we feel.
The height of the keyboard above your desk would be a problem, but MSI has included one of the nicest wrist rests we’ve seen in the box. The fact that you need to use a wrist wrest with a laptop at all is a crazy thought, but that’s the order of the day here.
When we said there is no numpad, we were telling half truths. The trackpad on the GT80 plays double duty as a replacement mouse and a replacement numpad. Hitting the numlock button will switch on a light beneath the trackpad, turning it into a numpad.
It works a bit like this.
Check out this Vine of how it works.
This was a great compromise to get both features in, and while the trackpad is strange to use because of its portrait orientation, it still gets the job done.
Into the belly of the beast
The mechanical keyboard is great, but you could get a regular laptop and plug in a high end keyboard for less than the cost of this beast, so what else does the GT80 pack to justify its price and size?
Inside you’ll find not one, but two NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M graphics cards linked together with one of the longest SLI bridges you’ll ever see.
The GTX 980M is the mobile equivalent of NVIDIA’s GTX 980, one of the company’s highest-end cards. With each 980M packing 8GB of dedicated memory, there’s a massive 16GB of memory set aside just for graphics, but remember that, because of the way SLI works, only 8GB will be addressable.
As far as synthetic benchmarks go, it scored 13 487 in 3DMark. To put that into perspective, what 3DMark calls a “4K Gaming PC” scores 17 805. In PCMark 8 the GT80 was almost unbelievably good, scoring 5 379, beating out that 4K PC at 4 753. If numbers excite you, you’ll be happy to know that the GT80 is not lacking in the slightest.
To keep all that power from burning your house down, the cooling system built on top of the cards look like something that would look right at home sitting in the engine bay of a Lamborghini. As cool as it looks, with that power comes a pretty significant trade-off: noise.
Go loud or go home
There is one rather big drawback to the GT80, and it’s not the weight or pricetag. This is the loudest machine we’ve ever had in the office. We don’t have an acoustically sealed chamber to test it properly, but using a handheld meter in the office GT80’s fans roared on at around 85 decibels, peaking at 90 when gaming and benchmarking. According to this chart, that’s as loud as traffic noise from trucks, or a train whistle at 152 metres.
This is a problem, to understate it slightly. Even with the best noise-cancelling headphones or a surround sound speaker system, the noise kicked up by the GT80 is always audible. I drove the office mad running benchmarks and there was much celebration when I granted my colleagues mercy by finally turning it off.
The saving grace is that there is a button on the top plate that can be used to turn the fan speed down, but expect a drop in performance as the system has to thermal throttle to compensate.
In more positive news, we must mention the GT80’s impressive speakers. They are the opposite of the tinny, shallow audio reproduction you’ve come to expect from laptops. While it did struggle to muster a lot of bass, it was sufficiently able to fill the office with music and game audio without much distortion. It wasn’t able to drown out the sound of the fans at full tilt though, so while it’s good it isn’t a miracle worker.
In the game
On to that in-game performance and we were astounded when we weren’t being deafened. From The Witcher 3, to Crysis 3 to a host of other demanding games, the GT80 played them all, and played them well. With most games you can almost carelessly throw everything to the highest possible settings and still maintain the gold standard of 1080P at 60FPS thanks to those dual 980Ms.
We did experience some stuttering, though. You will have to play around with your settings to prevent this, but the game itself and its drivers will be the bigger determining factor.
But the graphics cards aren’t the only heavy hitters here. The CPU is an i7-4980HQ, a top-of-the-range mobile processor that is paired with 32GB of RAM. With these it’s now no surprise that the PC Mark tests were so high, and there’s no way you’re going to find a bottleneck here.
And the specs of the storage won’t let you down either. A regular 1TB hard drive plays second fiddle to four SSDs in RAID 0, which can be bumped up to 256GB apiece. The speed of this setup is incredible; a few of us in the office have spent a lot of time with The Witcher 3, and we were amazed to see the game boot up and load so quickly (especially for those playing on console).
The weak link in the chain is the screen. While 18.4 inches looks great at the distance you need to use the GT80, and it has great colour and viewing angles, it is only a 1 920×1 080 Full HD panel with a 100Hz refresh rate. With so much power under the hood the Titan could have easily managed a higher resolution and faster refresh rate. We think a 2 560×1 440 monitor at 144 Hzwould have been the perfect fit here.
Another sticking point for us is battery life. In short, this PC cannot play games on battery alone. We ran 3DMark on a loop to see see how long it would last, and while it did fight through to fifty-five solid minutes, the test was running at under ten FPS at times. When we booted up the Witcher 3 while on battery it was a joke of downgraded fidelity and unplayable framerates.
Free upgrades for years
You read that right, this is one of the few laptops that can be upgraded.
To facilitate this, the panel above the keyboard can be opened (after unscrewing two screws). Doing so will give you access to the DVD drive, the four SSDs, two of the four RAM modules and the hard drive.
While you’re able to swap those parts out, what you really need to improve performance in games is the ability to change the graphics card and the cooling, something that desktop PC gamers have always been able to do, but those on laptops have not. Because of this, gaming laptops have always been a riskier buy, only staying usable as long as the untouchable hardware inside could run what you asked it to.
And here is the second innovation of the GT80: MSI offers owners of the GT80 the ability to upgrade their graphics cards and its cooling.
The way this works is that once the next generation of cards is released, the owner can send their Titan back to MSI, who will then carry out the upgrade.
But, while the shipping and handling of this process is free, you will have to put up the money for the card and the labour.
We spoke to MSI about the process and how it works in South Africa. Right now the cost of the future upgrades has not been set, and will be determined when the new cards are released. When they are, you can ask the dealer who sold you the Titan to point you in the direction of MSI South Africa, who will take care of the rest.
As the installed 980Ms were released last year October, we’ll have to wait a while to see how the GT80 evolves when the new cards are released, and you may see a second review of it when that happens.
Is it worth it?
We’re extremely happy that MSI had the bravery to create the Titan. It’s such a specialised product that we think it deserves a new classification over and above the dull nomenclature of a mere laptop: a “Folding Desktop” maybe? One thing is for sure, between the 4.5 Kg weight, the industrial-sized power brick and the non-existent battery life, using the GT80 on the go is a fool’s errand.
And at R41 999 the starting price is far above “paying a premium”.
But the mechanical keyboard, that numpad and the upgradeable hardware make the Titan something we’ve never seen before and MSI deserves kudos for even trying to bring it to market.
Our final verdict is that the GT80 is uncompromising, unwieldy but also unbeatable and we believe you’d need to be a little crazy to buy this.
And if being crazy is wrong, we don’t want to be pineapple.
If R42k (and up) is in your budget, go and buy this, and buy it now. It’s amazing.
Price: Starting at R41 999
Processor: i7-4980HQ @2.80GHz
RAM: 32GB @ DDR3-1600
Storage: 4X 128GB SSD in RAID 0 + 1TB HDD
Display: 18.4″ WLED FHD (1 920 x 1 080) Anti-Glare Display @ 100Hz
Ports: 2X mini display, HDMI, Ethernet, 5X USB 3.0, SD Card, Optical Audio, 2X Audio
Operating System: Windows 8.1