- Review Price: £2199.00
Gaming notebooks have always had a slightly awkward reputation, with plenty of people ready to cast a critical eye over the very concept. Why, people would ask, would you want to use a notebook for gaming when you could make a more powerful PC at a fraction of the price? It’s a reasonable argument in many respects, but the fact that so many manufacturers continue to produce expensive gaming laptops shows there must be a demand for them. Clearly, you either get them or you don’t.
Of late this argument would’ve garnered more credence due to the lack of a genuine mobile gaming solution, with the 8700M GT a lacklustre and imperfect beast. Thankfully, mobile graphics technology has moved on because today we’re looking at a Rock machine powered by the latest mobile graphics solution, nVidia’s recently released GeForce 8800M.
As noted earlier in the week there are two cards in the 8800M range, the GTS and GTX – with the latter being the faster of the two. Excitingly, both are based on the 65nm G92 chip, which is the same process behind the superb GeForce 8800 GT that received an Editor’s Choice Award at the beginning of the month. Given that it was such a revelation, this new range of mobile cards has a lot to live up to. Our sample has come with the faster 8800M GTX, but before we come to discuss this we must take a closer look at the Rock machine that houses it.
The eagle eyed among you will probably recognise it as the same chassis as the X770-T7700 we reviewed in September, which received a creditable eight out of ten. This new-ish system uses the same Intel GM965 chipset, while all the essential features such as the 17in, 1,920 x 1,200 display remain intact. Also present is an HD DVD drive, which come as standard on all notebooks in this range.
In addition to all the usual features, this new model comes equipped with a 2.4GHz T7800 Intel Core 2 Duo processor, which sports an 800MHz front-side bus and 4MB L2 Cache. This is supported by 2GB 667MHz DRR2 RAM, with the option of upgrading to up to 4GB of RAM as well as memory with an 800MHz frequency.
This model also comes with a 200GB SATA hard disk, which may sound a bit stingy until you realise that it’s a faster 7,200rpm variety rather than the 5,400rpm disks found in most standard desktop notebooks. You can also select a 250GB drive but this is a 5,400rpm drive and with focus squarely on gaming performance, the faster drive is the way to go.
As standard there’s also plenty else of note, with Intel 802.11 a/b/n WiFi and Gigabit Ethernet, a 7-in-1 memory card reader, 1.3 Megapixel camera, Bluetooth, four USB ports, FireWire and even a Fingerprint reader wedged between the two touch pad buttons. All in all, it’s a very well appointed machine that packs in all the features one would expect of high performance notebook.
It’s no great surprise you pay for the privilege too. This model will set you back an eye watering £2,199, a reflection of the overall specification and the fact that the 8800M GTX is an extremely new and subsequently expensive part. One could save a little money by going for the £1,800 T7500-8800, but along with the downgraded CPU, a 2.2GHz T7500, you’ll also only get a tiny 100GB 7,200rpm hard disk drive, which hardly seems like an equitable compromise. Also included in these prices are a mandatory three year collect and return warranty and, though this will provide peace of mind, considering the already expensive outlay some cheaper warranty options wouldn’t be amiss.
Putting aside cost considerations, it’s worth remembering there’s a lot to like about this chassis. Manufactured by Clevo it’s used by a number of companies and unlike many OEM notebooks, it’s a solidly built and moderately attractive machine. We like the slim bezel surrounding the display, while the display itself is among the best we’ve seen as this size – bested only by that on the Toshiba Qosmio G40.
Thanks to its 1,920 x 1,200 resolution, it’s obviously incredibly sharp due to the small pixel size and its qualities don’t end here, colours are warm and black levels are above average. Viewing angles are also particularly noteworthy and the scaling is very good, maintaining decent image quality at non-native resolutions provided they’re of the same 16:10 aspect ratio.
There are a few nice touches here and there too. There’s a lock for the screen and, though keyboard is a little cramped, keys have crisp and responsive feel to them. We also like the metal trim around the edge, which comes in either orange or silver – in this instance silver. All this said there are other things that aren’t so worth of praise. Faux carbon fibre is never a good look, while the giant ‘X’ on the touch pad is a tad unnecessary. Moreover, although the brushed metal exterior gives the Rock a visual differentiator, it seems a clunky and slightly ungainly way of going about it.
On the whole, though, we like the X770 chassis. Despite some pretensions otherwise it’s not too flashy and doesn’t go for annoying lights everywhere approach, which is just fine. There’s a also plenty of connectivity, with the aforementioned four USB ports and FireWire joined by DVI, S-Video and a 54mm ExpressCard slot.
Before we get onto performance, let’s take a look at the technology behind this latest mobile gaming chip. Though it’s based on the same process as the 8800 GT desktop card, it’s important to note it’s not quite as powerful. Whereas the 8800 GT boasts 112 stream processors, the 8800M GTX has 96. It also has a slightly slower core clock speed, lying at 500Mhz rather than 600Mhz. Indeed, these two particular areas put it in line with the 8800 GTS, which shares the same number of stream processors and core clock speed. The 8800M GTX also shares a similar shader clock speed, running at 1.25GHz against the 1.2GHz of the 8800 GTS and 1.5GHz of the 8800 GT.
Another area that sees more compromise is the memory clock speed, which at 1.6GHz is slightly lower than the 1.8GHz of the 8800 GT. However, on the plus side it does retain the 16 ROPs (Raster Operations Units) as the 8800 GT and the 512MB GDDR3 of video memory that runs on a 256-bit memory interface. Thus, despite some compromises, on paper the 8800M GTX ought to be a formidable performer.
It’s a point that’s further illustrated when put against nVidia’s previous leading DX10 graphics part, the 8700M GT. Though it shares the same memory and clock speeds and actually has a slower overall core clock speed, the combination of more stream processors and a better memory interface (256-bit compared to 128-bit) means the 8800M GTX ought to kick the 8700M GT into touch. Memory bandwidth is nearly double that of the 8700M GT at 51GB per second and texture fill rate is over double at 24 billion pixels per second, compared to the paltry 10 billion pixels per second of the 8700M GT.
Moreover, the 8800M GTX should also outperform the best performing DX9 graphics solution, nVidia’s Go 7950 GTX. Though the difference isn’t quite as marked, the 44.9GB per second memory bandwidth and 13.8 billion pixel per second fill rate of the Go 7950 GTX is comfortably beaten by the 8800M GTX. All of which means we might finally see an end to the Go 7950 GTX, which has managed to maintain the notebook graphics performance crown for rather too long. So long and thanks for all the fish.
Aside from all the graphical abilities, the 8800M GTX also shares the video processing acceleration that has become so important among all DX10 graphics solutions. There’s support for H.264, VC-1, MPEG2 and WMV decoding acceleration, while HDCP support allows for the inclusion of the HD DVD drive. Given this and superb screen, watching HD DVDs on the machine is a very pleasurable experience too.
However, HD DVD playback isn’t what we’re really interested in. So, without further ado, it’s time to take a look at how the 8800M GTX performs where it counts: in games!
At this point it’s important to point out that our system came with a pre-production BIOS and drivers, which underlines the relative age of this new chipset. Given this it’s safe to assume that the results we garnered aren’t as high as they could potentially be, though how much better they might be we wouldn’t like to guess. Despite this, we can say with no ambiguity that the 8800M GTX is every bit as powerful as we were hoping and represents something we can finally call a genuine DX10 mobile graphics solution.
As ever we’ve tested 2D and obviously 3D performance, using a number of different benchmarks. For 2D testing we run PCMark05 and PCMark Vantage, along with our own in-house Photoshop Elements and Virtual Dub rendering. For gaming we ran Counter-Strike: Source, Prey, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Crysis.
Although we use PCMark05 primarily as a 2D benchmark, there is also a graphics component to the benchmark and it’s generally the first thing we run on notebooks because it’s quick and easy. Immediately it gave us a pretty clear idea how good the 8800M GTX might be, with it producing a score of 11,616 compared to the mere 6,368 of the 8700M GT powered Rock X770 T7700 we previously looked at. Now, obviously this is a synthetic test and is little more than an indicator, but considering the result was nearly double we were suitably encouraged.
Setting aside the graphics score for moment, results from PCMark05 and our in-house tests also showed that this is certainly one of the fastest notebooks we’ve tested in general use. A combination of one of the fastest Santa Rosa CPUs and 7200rpm hard drive certainly help in this regard and with a 1,920 x 1,200 display and DVI output on hand, multi-tasking using two displays will be no problem at all.
For our gaming performance tests we start with Prey and Counter-Strike: Source, two older games that nonetheless manage to hold their own. In the past these were the sorts games ideally suited to gaming notebooks, primarily because they aren’t quite as demanding as many of the more recent titles out there. As a result we’ve only run these games at the full 1,920 x 1,200 native resolution, with textures and details all set to their highest while varying the level of anti-aliasing and filtering.
As you can see looking at the performance graphs, results were impressive. In Counter-Strike: Source the 8800M GTX powered Rock managed an average of 56.35 frames per second with 8x anti-aliasing (AA) and 16x anisotropic filtering (AF), comfortably over double that of the 8700M GT powered machine that managed 23.57 frames per second. Results were even more dramatic in Prey, where the 8800M GTX powered machine managed 60.66 frames per second with 4x AA and 8x AF, compared to a pathetic 16.46 frames per second with an 8700M GT. A slightly faster CPU might explain away some of the difference in performance, but on the whole it’s clear the 8800M GTX is a massive step forward.
For a more modern title we loaded up Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, running the game exclusively at the native 1,920 x 1,200. Again, results were very impressive with an average of 51.7 frames per second with no anti-aliasing and 4x anisotropic filtering; this with all other settings set to their highest. Increasing both anti-aliasing and filtering had some impact, but never to the point where the game grew too sluggish.
So far, so good, but how would the 8800M GTX deal with something a little more demanding? “Demanding” meaning Crysis, which isn’t so much demanding but the one game guaranteed to bring even the fastest PC to its knees. Does Rock’s 8800M GTX fuelled machine pass the grade?
For the purposes of testing we’ve avoided using any anti-aliasing or filtering, simply because it’s nigh on impossible to get playable frame rates with either enabled. Instead we’ve tested with all settings set to Medium, High or Very High at both 1,920 x 1,200 and 1,280 x 800 using the game’s ready prepared benchmarking tool.
At 1,280 x 800 on medium settings playing Crysis shouldn’t be too great a problem, with an average frame rate of 48.83 frames per second, a minimum of 27.71 and maximum of 77.89. Indeed, even at 1,920x x 1,200 it should be playable, registering an average of 32.73 and a minimum of 23.35 frames per second. Clearly then you can play Crysis on this machine, though in truth at medium settings you’re missing out on the true beauty of the game. Thus, for the real Crysis experience, you must step up to all high settings. How does this affect performance?
Predictably, the difference is tangible. At 1,280 x 800, an average of 29.4 doesn’t sound too bad, but when the frame rate drops to as low as 10.74 frames per second it’s obviously not going to be a perfectly smooth experience. Needless to say moving up to 1,920 x 1,200 is a bad idea, while the very high setting at either resolution isn’t even worth contemplating.
To see if we could squeeze a few more frames out of the notebook we also tried running the same tests on high, but with physics and post processing on medium. At 1,280 x 800 this provided some benefits, with a minor bump in the average frame rate but a significant improvement for the minimum frame rate, at 21.89 instead of 10.74 frames per second. However, moving up to 1,920 x 1,200 was still pushing it and trying to play the game at these settings proved impossible.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? First, don’t misconstrue the inability to play Crysis at high settings and native resolution as a sign that the 8800M GTX isn’t up to its task. Frankly, we never expected to do so and the fact you can get playable frame rates at medium settings is praiseworthy enough. Fine, it isn’t as good looking as when on high, but if you’re really serious about playing the game you shouldn’t be using a notebook.
Moreover, Crysis is a freak – a one off compared to anything else that is out there. There’s nothing else available that is anywhere near as demanding, with no prospect of anything matching it anytime soon. Taking Crysis out of the equation for a moment, it’s perfectly possible to play the likes of Episode Two, Team Fortress 2 at high settings with little or no difficulty. Much the same can be said of Bioshock and other Unreal Engine 3 based titles, something that couldn’t be said of the 8700M GT and especially not of the 8600M GT or ATI’s Mobility Radeon HD2600.
In short, in the 8800M GTX we finally have a genuine gaming part for the DX10 generation. Obviously, it’s still not quite as fast its desktop equivalents, but it’s more than comparable, which is a massive step forward to what was available before. But what of the Rock machine that houses it, is this the perfect gaming notebook?
Well, we liked the chassis before and we still do. It has its idiosyncrasies, but the superb display and otherwise tidy and understated design sway opinion in its favour. Frankly, seeing the number of ugly “gaming” notebooks flaunted around with such regularity, this approach is something of a relief.
Unsurprisingly, the only area of complaint is in pricing. At over £2,000 this is a hefty investment, even for a gaming notebook, and for the majority it’ll simply be too much to ask. Clearly, being first to market with the 8800M GTX has given Rock a license to charge a premium and unless you must have the best before anyone else or simply have money to burn, it would be well worth waiting for competitors to catch up and for the market to even out. In addition, although adding HD DVD as standard is an attractive proposition, we’re certain many gamers out there would happily surrender it for a more reasonable price.
Despite these reservations this is the fastest and most convincing gaming notebook available today, which in itself is a significant accolade. Thus, if you have a need/desire for a gaming notebook and the money to burn, this is the notebook for you.
If you’re after the fastest and most competent gaming notebook available look no further, this is it. Rock’s X770 T7800-8800 is a well featured machine that’s blisteringly quick, with an nVidia 8800M GTX that will make mincemeat of most games you throw at it and an HD DVD drive for high definition films. Just remember to earn lots of money first.
Score in detail
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