So, you noticed that NVIDIA has trotted out its latest GPU architecture and you’re wondering if you should retire your old gaming laptop for something with a little more… pep. You aren’t alone. Every time NVIDIA downsizes its flagship GPUs for the notebooks, manufacturers flood the market with new and improved laptops promising to give desktop gaming rigs a run for their money. The phrase “desktop-class” usually gets thrown around with reckless abandon, but the new machines never quite match the performance of their fully grown counterparts. Will this year’s Maxwell-based 980M GPUs fare any better? Let’s find out: The ASUS ROG (Republic of Gamers) G751 just landed in Engadget’s bullpen, and it’s aching to be reviewed.
ASUS ROG G751
ASUS’ new gaming flagship is everything you could want in an oversized gaming laptop: It’s extremely powerful, well-designed and kitted-out with the latest and greatest graphics technology.
Look and feel
In a world where most notebooks strive to get thinner and lighter, 17-inch gaming laptops stand out like the sorest of thumbs. Thick, heavy chassis and enormous screens almost make them a parody of portable computing. It’s a necessity, of course, but it’s also a shame — few gaming rigs embrace their size as a means of standing out. Fortunately, ASUS’ ROG G751 does, owning its gargantuan frame by taking liberties with the standard tropes of laptop design. Even at a glance, you can tell it’s a little different: Instead of placing its screen hinge on the far edge of the machine’s base, the G751 pivots its screen a few inches away from that edge. This leaves a distinctive, large “brick” jutting out from behind the laptop’s open lid.
This look is typical of ASUS’ heaviest gaming machines, but it’s more than just visual flair — it’s a surprisingly well-thought-out design. Not only does moving the screen closer to the user make the laptop seem a little less large while it’s being used, but it also gives the machine an isolated area to vent heat away from the user. It’s a unique design, and it gives the rest of the machine’s chassis license to be fairly subtle by comparison. The ledge and lid have a few brushed-metal accents and the vents are flared with red paint that lends them a sort of “jet intake” look, but the rest of the machine is covered in a matte, almost soft finish. It’s nice.
Looking for connections? There are plenty on the G751: two USB 3.0 ports, a VGA connector, three audio jacks, Ethernet, HDMI and even a Thunderbolt port can be found on the machine’s right edge. Two additional USB 3.0 connectors are arranged on the left side, as are the rig’s optical drive (a Blu-ray burner) and SD/MMC card reader. Although “huge and heavy” are expected from 17-inch gaming notebooks, I’d be remiss not to mention the GT751’s measurements, so here they are: 16.4 x 12.5 x 1.7 inches (length, width and thickness) and a total weight of 8.5 pounds. While I can’t fault a single inch of that frame for poor build quality, it is an admittedly (and unsurprisingly) cumbersome laptop.
Keyboard and trackpad
The ROG’s island-style keyboard doesn’t look like much at a glance, but spend a little time with it and you’ll find it littered with subtle tweaks designed specifically for PC gamers. Mostly, it’s little things: an extra layer of red coloring running around the edges of the W, A, S and D keys, for instance, or the small, tactile “bump” on the W key to help players find it without looking down. There are a few custom keys, though — including three programmable macro keys (labeled m1, m2 and m3) and specific buttons to launch NVIDIA GeForce Experience, Steam and ASUS’ own “gaming center” menu (more on that later).
While none of these are unwelcome, they’re also not really necessary: the GeForce Experience button seems to merely replicate the program’s own screen-capture hotkey functionality, and the Steam button simply launches Big Picture mode in a few less clicks than using the mouse would. They don’t take up any extra space, at least. The keys themselves are a general delight, falling 2.5mm with each depression and featuring just enough tactile resistance to feel satisfying. If you need a little more flair beyond the keycaps’ red lettering, you can always hit fn+f4 to activate a dark red backlight.
I couldn’t find anything wrong with the machine’s trackpad, either — the ROG’s mouse surface is large, responsive and quite apt at handling multi-finger gestures. Better still, the quality of its buttons match the keyboard’s fine balance between tactile resistance and a soft landing depression. The buttons aren’t at all stiff or clicky. It almost feels like the machine’s entire suite of inputs has been broken in beforehand, but not worn out in the slightest. There’s nothing to complain about, and that’s more than I expect from most laptop keyboard and mouse setups.
Display and audio
The ROG’s 17.3-inch IPS display hits all the right notes: It’s large, bright and has exceptionally wide viewing angles. At a glance, it’s not the most vibrant display I’ve ever seen, but ASUS has included tools to tweak that. Tapping the ROG button offers easy access to the machine’s “Splendid Technology” display tool, which offers three default color profiles and a slider for manual adjustments. All in all, it’s a solid, well-balanced screen and its anti-glare matte finish doesn’t hurt either.
Few gaming machines skimp on visual fidelity, but audio is another matter — I’ve encountered so many laptops with subpar speakers that I’ve come to expect it. When I couldn’t find visible evidence of the ROG’s speakers, I was worried audio would be the laptop’s cardinal sin. It is, but it’s not that bad. While the machine’s stereo speakers are clear and loud enough to fill a small room, they’re also a bit tinny, and can even sound muffled if the PC’s MaxxAudio equalizer program is ticked to the wrong setting. They’re passable, but they can’t compete with your gaming headset. Par for the course, really.
I did eventually find the speakers, by the way: They’re hiding on either side of the screen’s hinging mechanism, visibly obscured by the laptop’s display itself. While this struck me as odd at first, I soon realized it’s another tip to the G751’s thoughtful design: By leaning the speakers against this hidden ledge, ASUS is able to point them directly at the user. Most laptop speakers push sound up from the machine’s flat base, but I found this horizontal configuration to be a nice change.
Performance and battery life
Okay, we’ve established that the ROG G751’s exterior trappings are pretty nice — but what’s on the inside? A veritable cornucopia of silicon goodies, including a 2.5Ghz Intel Core i7-4710HQ CPU, NVIDIA’s new GeForce GTX 980M graphics processor, a 256GB SSD paired with a full terabyte of HDD storage and 24GB of DDR3 RAM. With specifications like that, it’s hard to expect anything but top-tier performance and, well, I got it.
ASUS’ new kit handled some of my heaviest-hitting games with aplomb, clocking a solid 50 frames-per-second average in Crysis 3 on maximum settings and a healthy 41 fps in The Witcher 2 with Ubersampling enabled (that jumped to 93 fps with the feature disabled). Large-scale action brawlers like Ryse and Shadow of Mordor held strong at 60 fps as well, though the former title can dip as low as 30 and 20 fps with supersampling dialed to max. Battlefield 4 easily eclipsed 100 fps, depending on the map, as did Alien: Isolation and BioShock: Infinite. The only game in my library that made the G751 groan at all was Metro: Last Light Redux, and only when I dialed SSAA to 4x. Turn that setting down to a more modest level and the game could run anywhere from 60 fps (SSAA 2x) to beyond 100 fps (SSAA disabled).
Gauging battery life in high-performance gaming laptops requires a very special kind of perspective: With very few exceptions, these machines rarely last more than four hours in even the best scenarios. The G751 is merely average in this regard — Engadget’s standard battery test (a standard-definition video looped endlessly at a fixed brightness) exhausted it in three hours and 40 minutes. Objectively, that’s almost a good run for a machine of its caliber, but when you consider the fact that MSI’s 2013 GT70 Dragon Edition and Razer’s two most recent Blade laptops lasted almost an hour longer, it feels like a step backward.
Still, there’s a silver lining — gaming rigs may not be making heavy strides in general-use longevity, but they are starting to last a little longer while playing actual games. NVIDIA’s Battery Boost feature (a special mode that limits game frame rates and voltage levels to extend battery life) ran a GeForce Experience-configured session of Borderlands 2 for a full hour and a half before giving in. The same test, with the same game, configured to the same graphics settings with Battery Boost disabled? Only 59 minutes. That’s not a huge leap forward, but at least it’s progress.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test all of Maxwell’s latest features on the ROG G751 — notebook-friendly technologies like Dynamic Super Resolution and Multi-Frame Anti-Aliasing haven’t been enabled for NVIDIA’s mobile chipset yet. The company tells me an update will change this in the near future, however, and that the GTX 980M inside the ASUS’ latest flagship is compatible with both. Not familiar? Here’s the skinny: Dynamic Super Resolution (or DSR) will let the machine run games at a higher internal resolution than the laptop’s monitor can natively display, increasing visual fidelity in games you’re already running at maximum settings. The new anti-aliasing trick, on the other hand, will provide the same graphical upgrades as modern AA techniques, but with less of an impact on your frame rate. They both sound like great features for laptops, but sadly, they aren’t ready yet.
The G751 comes with an odd assortment of necessary, unnecessary, useful and completely redundant tools, almost all of which bear some sort of ASUS or ROG branding. The aforementioned ASUS Gaming Center (the one that has a dedicated keyboard button) acts as a home screen for the laptop’s most useful software pack-ins: the ROG Audio Wizard, MacroKey and ASUS’ Splendid Display manager. These programs let the user tweak audio, keyboard and display settings, respectively, and all complement the G751’s hardware in some way. The Gaming Center also has a profile manager that lets the user create different preconfigured mixes of audio and display settings.
Other tools are less necessary, but still somewhat useful. ROG GameFirst III, for instance, monitors and manages network traffic. Want to see what programs use the most data? You can find out here. It also prioritizes bandwidth by program, allowing the user to give their favorite games or apps a larger share of their download speed at will. There’s also an application that disables USB charging if the battery dips below a certain level — not a hindrance, but not a feature I would have missed if it weren’t present. Finally, there are a couple programs I could do without: ASUS LiveUpdate, which seems to mirror WIndows’ own update tool with an ASUS logo, and ASUS Screen Saver …which just sets your PC’s screen saver to a noisy and flashy advertisement for the laptop you’re already using. Pointless, weird and annoying.
Configuration options and the competition
Like the look of those performance tests, but still want more? That can be done. The $2,499 unit ASUS lent me can be upgraded for an additional $500, converting its Intel Core i7-4710HQ CPU to an i7-4860HQ and increasing its allotment of DDR3 RAM to a full 32GB. Both machines feature the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M (4GB GDDR5), but the higher-end machine (officially labeled as the G751JY-DH72X) has a little more storage space: a larger 512GB SSD paired with the same 1TB hard drive.
The G751 can be had in three lower-end specifications too (officially numbered the G751JT DH72, TH71 and CH71) — all of which feature Intel’s Core i7-4710HQ CPU and NVIDIA’s second-best notebook GPU: the GeForce GTX 970M (3GB GDDR5). These machines are mostly separated by RAM and storage configuration. The bottom-dollar unit, the $1,499 CH71, comes with 16GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1TB HDD and a DVD multi-drive. Tack on an additional $150 (for the TH71), and you’ll walk away with twice the RAM and a Blu-ray reader. The most expensive of the lower tier (the DH72) is kind of an odd machine, and also the worst value: Priced at $1,899, it’s identical to ASUS’ cheapest configuration in every respect, save one: a 256GB SSD. While it’s true that an SSD always gives a machine a bit of pep, $400 is a pretty big premium for a boot drive.
ASUS wasn’t the only laptop manufacturer to embrace NVIDIA’s Maxwell architecture, of course: Machines of comparable power (and just as many configurations) can be had from most of the usual suspects. MSI’s GT72, for instance, can be built to match our review unit for $2,650. Too thick and too expensive? Try MSI’s upgraded GS60 Ghost: It packs an Intel Core i7-4710HQ CPU, GTX GeForce 970M graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB HDD into a slim 0.78-inch frame for $1,999.
If you’re willing to delve into less-mainstream brands, there are even more options. Maingear’s Nomad 17 can be had with either the GTX GeForce 970M or 980M, starting at $2,099 and $2,399, respectively — but both can be kitted out with various upgrades that can raise that price by several thousand dollars. AVADirect offers a customizable laptop with high-end components too, a Clevo P150SM-A machine that can cost anywhere from $1,600 to $3,600, depending on how you want to build it. Still, choosing from an offbeat manufacture can bear powerful fruit: Both the Gigabyte Aorus X7 Pro ($2,599) and Digital Storm’s Behemoth laptop ($2,704 to 4,021) offers Maxwell GPUs (the 970M and 980M, respectively) in dual-chip SLI configurations. The extra power may cost you more than just cash, however — NVIDIA’s Battery Boost feature won’t work with SLI enabled.
Finding a machine with top-tier specs, screaming performance and a screen big enough to make you think twice about using an external monitor is easy — but not every high-performance gaming rig is a good laptop. That takes smart design choices, great build quality and attention to detail; all things ASUS’ latest ROG flagship has in spades. The G751’s unique design, excellent keyboard and mouse buttons and sturdy build are what make it stand out from the competition, though admittedly, screaming performance doesn’t hurt either.
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