If you want the power of a desktop in a laptop (or, obviously, if you want to do some serious gaming) you're going to need a gaming laptop. They give you all the power you want and then some, eschewing the current portability trend of slimming down. So can MSI's GT680, advertised as the "World's Fastest Notebook", really deliver?
It’s got the futuristic spaceship and glowing lights look down, certainly, and it looks impressive. This is a big laptop, and feels bigger than its 15.6-inch screen would warrant. That's because it's not the thin, light, carry-everywhere laptop you'd normally buy. This is a gaming powerhouse, and it needs the space for a Core i7 Sandy Bridge system, two hard drives, a high-end DirectX 11 graphics card, and the airflow needed to keep them all cool when running at full blast. There are plenty of vents, and you can feel the air blast when running at full power. The tough plastic case is topped off with a glossy lid - you can dazzle your opponent but you'll need to keep the polishing cloth MSI includes handy to wipe off the fingerprints.
The case is surrounded the strips of highlight LEDs, and you can get several different special effects with the lights: “breathing” (where they pulse on and off slowly), pulsing in time to any music you play, and a game-synchronised mode where lighting enhances stereo effects. In this last mode lighting patterns move from left to right in time with moving sound effects. It may sound a little weird, but it adds to the mood of games, especially immersive single-player games like Portal.
The chiclet keyboard is comfortable, with well-paced keys. The usual gaming direction keys (W, A, S and D) are coloured red, standing out from the rest of the keyboard to keep your fingers on target. There are similar markings on the arrow keys and on the separate numeric keypad. A touch panel under the screen mixes indicator LEDs with special functions, letting you quickly trigger lighting effects, additional adaptive cooling, and MSI's Turbo engine - which lets you overclock the graphics card when you are connected to mains power. That’s the basis of the “fastest laptop” claim; it makes a difference in gaming and with hardware-accelerated software, but you do pay the penalty in battery life.
There's a large touchpad, with a pleasant slightly roughened surface. It's responsive and comfortable to use, though it is slightly offset on the large wrist rest. Unlike the touchpads on most modern laptops it's only single touch, so don't expect to pinch-zoom your games! You do get an alternative, as MSI bundles a USB gaming mouse with the GT680. It’s a nice ergonomic shape and works well, but feels a little flimsy and doesn't have the features of many more capable dedicated gaming mice - in fact it's really a standard desktop mouse masquerading as a gaming mouse and the materials aren’t going to stand up to heavy play.
The GT680 has all the ports you'll need and then some. On the left side you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, a media card slot, and a USB 2.0 port. It might look as though there's an Express Card slot, but don't be fooled by the rubber blanking plate - it's just a dummy. Power, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI and eSATA are all on the back, where cables won't drape all over your desk or lap. The right side has a full set of audio connectors, and an additional USB port (for the gaming mouse), along with the Blu-ray drive.
The gaming graphics aren’t stinted though. The glossy 15.6-inch 1920 x 1080 display is crisp and clear, with well-defined blacks and good contrast. It remains responsive when playing games at full resolution and with 1080p video content. A lot of that performance is down to the Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M graphics card, which has 1.5GB of DDR5 graphics memory. That's more than enough for most purposes, and lets the GT680 rival desktop performance. You can’t get full frame rate at the full resolution in complex games, but downgrading to 720p is no hardship and cranks the frame rate right back up.
Sound quality is excellent, with a 2.1 DynAudio array and THX sound processing. The bundled sound software lets you manage sound outputs when audio equipment is plugged in to any of the multiple audio ports (no combined headphone and microphone socket here). The subwoofer means game sound is immersive, and the THX software keeps you involved even when wearing headphones. Good game sound usually means good performance with other media, and music and soundtracks are crisp and clear.
Gaming machines need plenty of memory, and MSI hasn't held back here either. 8GB of RAM is standard, and there are slots for up to 16GB. There are various disk drive options for the two disk bays; our sample mixed a 120GB SSD with a 500GB hard disk. It’s a cracking combination, with a fast disk for your data, and a faster one for boot and for applications. That way you get the best of both worlds - flash speed with plenty of storage. There's also the option of using two 500GB disks in a RAID array to get faster performance loading game textures as well as higher capacity (and keep your data safe).
You're going to need the massive 87wh 9-cell battery if you're planning on gaming on the go. We were able to get an hour and a half or so life when playing full-screen games and watching HD-quality video - so if you're taking the GT680 on the road you'll need to carry the hefty power supply (it comes with a MSI-branded backpack that should help take the weight). Switch on the low power mode and you can stretch to 3 hours (for the times when you’re web browsing rather than gaming).
Turn on the MSI GT680 for the first time, and it'll ask you what software you want to install. We were impressed to see that you're not presented with a bundle of pre-installed applications, but instead get a choice of what goes on your Start menu. Applications include Corel WinDVD for Blu-ray video, MAGIX's Music Maker, Photo Manager and Video content creation tools, Microsoft Office 2010 Starter edition, and Nuance's PDF viewer. There are also DirectX samples like the Stone Giant tessellation demonstration/benchmark tool and a full version of Assassin's Creed II.
Fast, powerful and packed with features, the MSI GT680 has quickly become one of our favourite notebooks, and not just for Portal 2. DirectX 11 and a Core i7 Sandy Bridge system with 8GB of RAM give you the performance you need, while the high resolution screen has space for everything from Office to the highest end games. It looks good and performs well - and even has a reasonable battery life. What else do you need?