Saturday, May 28, 2011

CyberPower's X6-9300 and MSI's GT680R: Fighting for Your Mobile Gaming Dollar


At a macro level, there really aren’t all that many viable gaming notebook options. These days, Sandy Bridge processors rule the roost in notebooks, with the quad-core variety handling everything from single-threaded to multi-threaded workloads with aplomb.

On the graphics side, you can try to get by with midrange mobile GPUs, but if you’re serious about mobile gaming you’ll want at least something from NVIDIA’s GTX line or AMD’s 6900M alternatives. Take the CPU and GPU; match them up with reasonable memory, storage, display, and other accoutrements; and you’re all set. That all works very well in the desktop world, even if it glosses over many of the finer points that separate the contenders from the pretenders. In the mobile world, however, the little things matter.

Modern computers are very modular by design. We have standards for power, memory, storage, and peripherals and you can generally choose what fits your needs. With notebooks, however, a lot of flexibility gets sacrificed in the name of making a reasonably sized chassis. Not coincidentally, profit margins tend to be quite a bit higher for notebooks than desktops, which is why so many companies want a piece of the pie. While it’s still pretty easy to upgrade memory and storage options, swapping out the CPU for something faster is more difficult and you need to make sure the cooling setup can handle any additional heat. Upgrading your GPU on the other hand is difficult at best, and frequently impossible. The issue with mobile GPUs is that despite MXM being something of a standard, chip locations are left up to the implementation, so there’s no guarantee that, for example, an HD 6770M could be installed in place of a GT 540M. And as far as the LCD, keyboard, touchpad, motherboard, and chassis are concerned, you’re stuck with whatever you buy with no chance of upgrading individual parts in the future. (Okay, perhaps you could upgrade the LCD panel in some cases, but you get what we’re saying.)

The point of all this is that you can’t simply compare notebooks based purely on features, components, and performance. Today’s head-to-head matchup between CyberPower’s Xplorer X6-9300 (aka, the Clevo P151HM) and MSI’s GT680R (also available as the CyberPower Xplorer X6-9400 and X6-9500) is a perfect example of this. On a pure performance and feature level, the two notebooks are very similar. They both came with an i7-2630QM processor and GTX 460M graphics card and 8GB of DDR3-1333 memory. The GT680R comes with two 500GB HDDs in a RAID 0 set while the X6-9300 supports a single 500GB HDD, but that’s the only major difference in terms of performance potential. Elsewhere, you get a 15.6” 1080p LCD, two USB 3.0 ports, and then all the miscellaneous bits like the keyboard, touchpad, speakers, chassis, etc.

If you just sit down and compare specs, MSI comes out on top, mostly by virtue of the second 2.5” HDD bay. In practice, however, determining which notebook is “best” requires a lot more work. Assuming potential buyers will actually use these as notebooks rather than portable boxes that they plug into an external LCD, keyboard, mouse, and speakers, the areas that often get the merest of lip service from the design departments matter most. The build quality and materials are frequently the difference between something that feels good in your lap and can last several years, or a cheap plastic notebook that can start to creak and wear out in less than two years. While I’d like to say LCDs are next in importance, the reality is that many users focus more on price and thus sacrifice quality in the one element that you look at constantly while using a computer. Last, there’s the rest of the user interface, the keyboard and touchpad. As someone who types a lot, this area matters as much as anything else in my day-to-day impressions of a notebook. If a keyboard is unpleasant for me to type on, all of the other elements end up being meaningless.

So with that introduction, let’s meet the two latest notebooks to cross our notebook test bench. Then we’ll investigate performance and other objective test results before wrapping up with our subjective evaluation. Will one of these laptops float to the surface of the mobile gaming ocean, or will both sink together? Perhaps they might be seaworthy, as long as you steer clear of the occasional iceberg or two. (Okay, no more sea analogies, I promise.)

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