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Sunday, March 23, 2014

MSI GE60 Apache Pro-003 review: MSI fits new Nvidia graphics into a smaller laptop

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.
Sarah Tew/CNET
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.
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MSI GE60 Apache Pro-003Alienware 17Maingear Pulse 14
Display size/pixel resolution15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen17-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen14-inch, 1,600x900 screen
PC CPU2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ2.7GHz Intel Core i7-4800MQ2.6GHz Intel Core i7-4702MQ
Graphics4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 860M4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 780M4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 760M
Storage1TB HD256GB SSD + 750GB HD(2) 128GB SSD + 1TB HD
Optical driveDVD/RWBD-ROMExternal DVD-RW
NetworkingGigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating systemWindows 8.1 (64-bit)Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Design and features 
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.
Sarah Tew/CNET
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.
Sarah Tew/CNET
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.
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Connections and portsMSI GE60
AudioQuad speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader
NetworkingEthernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical driveDVD burner
Connections, performance, and battery
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.
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