MSI GT72 Dominator Pro Review: GTX 980M Reigns Supremeby Jarred Walton on November 11, 2014 8:00 AM EST
MSI GT72 Dominator Pro: Subjective Evaluation
After several years of being confronted time and again by the aging (and never really all that attractive, IMO) GT70 chassis, the GT72 is a breath of fresh air. Gone are the glossy highlights, rounded edges, and silver/chrome accents. In their place, we find a modern looking gaming notebook that will still be attractive for years to come. Frankly, it’s about time! (Now we just need the GT60 to receive similar treatment….)
Fundamentally, the GT72 chassis borrows quite a few design elements from MSI’s newer GS series of gaming notebooks, only it’s thicker and has more performance, more cooling, and additional expansion options. It also uses more plastic on the chassis, which shouldn't matter too much but some of the materials aren't quite as nice as on the GS60. If you’re looking for a highly portable laptop, this isn’t for you; it’s for users that want or need a desktop replacement system, and performance can certainly rival mainstream desktops – though obviously at a much higher price.
In terms of everyday use, the GT72 doesn’t change too much from the previous model. The keyboard is the same SteelSeries design that we’ve commented on for quite some time. I’ve been using enough MSI notebooks of late that the placement of the Windows key to the right of the spacebar no longer bothers me much, but I do have to say that the lack of a double-size zero key on the number keypad definitely makes it more of a struggle.
If you think about most desktop keyboards, it’s obvious why they have a larger zero key: your right thumb is naturally going to be to the left side of the 10-key area. Having the 10-key and cursor keys overlap means that you’re much more likely to press the right cursor key instead of the zero key. What’s particularly irksome is that there’s plenty of room to expand the keyboard area, but MSI reuses the same keyboard layout on their 15.6” and 17.3” notebooks and so it ends up being slightly less than optimal on the larger notebooks.
Other than quirks with the 10-key layout, I really don’t have any issues with the keyboard and in fact it’s plenty comfortable to type on. The customizable backlighting is always nice to have, and I also like that you can use the SteelSeries software to essentially remap just about any key(s) you want. The touch is soft and quiet, though, and some users might prefer something with a little bit more key travel. It will be interesting to see what the mechanical keyboard in the GT80 ends up feeling like compared to the GT72, though I suspect shifting the keyboard forward is going to raise some eyebrows.
Moving on to the touchpad, this is another major update from the GT70. MSI still provides discrete mouse buttons, but the touchpad area has been expanded quite a bit and it now has a smooth edge where it joins with the palm rest. I’m not sure I like the lack of a physical border, but it’s definitely nicer looking than the old trapezoid shaped touchpad that was deeply recessed into the palm rest and had chrome accents on the buttons. The touchpad also supports the usual multi-touch gestures, but I can’t find a way to disable the Windows 8 gestures, and I’ve managed to bring up the Charms menu more times than I can count in the course of this review. Synaptics usually allows you to disable the Windows 8 gestures, but either MSI has a custom driver that removes that option or the Touchpad 7.5 hardware simply doesn’t support disabling that feature.
There are many other good aspects to the design that are worth mentioning. The speakers sound good if a bit hollow (booming, whatever) sounding at times. More importantly, the design as a whole is very solid, with improved cooling and no flex in the chassis to speak of. Cooling is definitely improved as well, thanks to the use of two moderately sized fans instead of the single larger fan in the GT70, and while the notebook isn’t quiet under load it’s not particularly loud for a gaming notebook.
One particularly interesting design decision is in regards to the graphics configuration. I’ve never had any real problems with NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology (other than with things like adding custom resolutions, which has to go through the Intel drivers and doesn’t always work), but I know some people don’t particularly care for Optimus. MSI has chosen to forego Optimus on the GT72, instead including a switch on the left of the system that toggles between the GTX 980M and the HD 4600.
It’s less convenient in that you have to restart the notebook to enable/disable the GPU, and I suspect many users will mostly run with the GPU enabled and not worry about the increase in power use and heat (we’re talking about maybe 10-15W at idle and light loads) and the loss of battery life. If you need the battery life, however, the Intel graphics are always waiting in the wings. Perhaps more importantly for certain users, omitting Optimus means less latency for certain screen updates – this has apparently been a real concern for people testing and using the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets. The biggest drawback other than battery life is that you can't access Intel's Quick Sync without switching to the Processor Graphics.
Quickly looking at the internals, the bottom cover can be pried off – and yes, it will require a bit of force to get it started – after you remove the seven screws. MSI has a habit of putting a "Warranty void if tampered" sticker over the middle screw, which is quite annoying as the only things you can really upgrade are the storage or potentially the RAM. That means if you want to buy a lower cost model and then upgrade those areas on your own, you (in theory at least) void the warranty. I've heard MSI won't actually void the warranty if all you're doing is upgrading the memory, but then why have the sticker in the first place? I don't know that I've ever needed to upgrade a notebook other than storage and RAM, but if MSI wants to restrict access to other parts, they should look at putting "warranty void" stickers inside to stop users from tampering with those items (i.e. the motherboard screws, battery, GPU, etc.)
Once the bottom cover is removed there are a few noteworthy items. First is that there appears to be an empty 2.5" drive bay area at the front-left of the notebook, but there's no SATA connector available so this is really just wasted space. Second, the RAM has two SO-DIMM slots in the main area under the laptop, but there are two more that are accessed on the top portion of the motherboard, basically requiring you to fully disassemble the chassis; I didn't want to hassle with that as it's not really necessary for the review. Access to the battery likewise requires the further dismantling of the chassis, as a plastic cover prevents you from removing it. Finally, it's interesting that the CPU cooling has an extra heatpipe going over to the GPU fan/radiator but the GPU cooling is basically going to use just one fan; this seems a bit backwards (the GPU after all can consume a lot more power than the CPU), but in practice I'm not sure it matters too much as the cooling was more than adequate during testing.
One interesting note with the GT72 is that MSI actually advertises being able to upgrade the GPU module. The GT72 originally shipped with GTX 870M and GTX 880M a few months back, and if you can get the right MXM module you can potentially upgrade to a GTX 970M or 980M. This services apparently isn't available in all countries, and I couldn't find a cost right now, but in a couple years if MSI still supports GPU upgrades, it would be great to be able to swap out the GTX 980M for... GTX B80M or whatever it ends up being called.
Overall, the MSI GT72 chassis is a great improvement from the GT70 design, and it’s one arguably the best gaming notebook to ever come out of MSI. For users that want something a little lighter and more portable, the GE and GS series notebooks are still worth a look, and the pricing on the GT72 certainly is a barrier to entry. Even the lower end GT72 Dominator with the GTX 970M (the 980M is in the Dominator Pro) will still set you back $1900, and that’s with a relatively small 128GB SSD. But if you want something a little nicer looking that most of the Clevo gaming notebooks, I’d put the GT72 at the top of the list – yes, even above the Alienware 17, which hasn’t been updated with GTX 980M support yet and will likely cost a bit more than the GT72 when it is. The only other option would be something like the ASUS G751JY, which has ASUS’ wedge-shaped design and is again slightly more than the GT72. That means that with one fell swoop, MSI has gone from being one of the least attractive high-end gaming notebooks in my book to the one that others have to beat. It took longer than I’d like to get here, but I won’t argue with the end result!