MSI GT680R: Doing the Time Warp

We originally had the MSI GT680R in for review in February. Then the whole Cougar Point chipset fiasco came, and we never completed a full review. We did post a quick look at the performance the Sandy Bridge i7-2630QM offered, with the recommendation that anyone looking for a new gaming notebook would be well advised to wait. Here we are two and a half months later and we have the GT680R back in for the finished review, so on the one hand we have a flashback to a couple months ago. On the other hand, looking at the design of the GT680R feels like a throwback to several years ago. The MSI GT680R is also available as a barebones laptop (e.g. the CyberPower Xplorer X6-9400 and X6-9500 use the MS-16F2 chassis, though the palm rest is black instead of silver/gray), but the standard GT680R specs are in the following table.

MSI GT680R Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2630QM (quad-core 2.00-2.90GHz, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 4x2GB DDR-1333 (CL9) (Max 16GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460M 1.5GB GDDR5
192 SPs, 675/1350/2500MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
Overclocking to 709/1418 Core/Shader available
Display 15.6” LED Anti-Glare 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HW1-v5)
Hard Drive(s) 2x 500GB 7200RPM HDD in RAID 0
(Seagate Momentus 7200.4 ST9500420AS)
Optical Drive 8X Tray-Load DVDRW (TSST Corp TS-L633F)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi (Intel WiFi Link 1000)
Audio Realtek ALC892
2.1 Speakers + THX TruStudio Pro
(Stereo speakers and subwoofer)
Four audio jacks (Microphone, Headphone, Line-In, Line-Out)
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 9-Cell, 11.1V, 7.8Ah, 87Wh
Front Side Orange Lighting
Left Side 1 x USB 2.0
Memory Card Reader
2 x USB 3.0
Exhaust vent
Right Side Headphone/Microphone/Line-In/Line-Out
1 x USB 2.0
Optical Drive
Back Side Intake vent
Kensington Lock
AC Power
Gigabit Ethernet
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Combo
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 15.55” x 10.51” x 1.84-2.17” (WxDxH)
Weight 7.56 lbs (with 9-cell battery)
Extras 2MP HD Webcam
GPU Overclocking
Flash reader (SD, MMC, MS, xD)
103-Key keyboard with 10-key
Warranty 3-year standard warranty
Pricing $1500 MSRP
Online Price Starting at $1446

Nearly all of the specs are the same as the Clevo P151HM, other than the additional hard drive and RAID 0 set; what’s interesting is the specifics of the implementation. The GT680R is a bulkier chassis, coming in around .75” wider, .5” deeper, and .5” thicker. It also weighs .6 lbs more, although a good chunk of that goes to the second HDD. You lose out on Firewire support and the fingerprint scanner, and MSI puts a VGA port on the back instead of DVI or DisplayPort. As with the P151HM, quite a few ports are on the back of the chassis, so if you don’t like that arrangement you’ll want to go elsewhere. One other piece of information to point out is the difference in LCD panels; both are AU Optronics B156HW01 panels, but Clevo uses the v1 panel and MSI uses the v5 panel. Oh, what a difference that single digit makes! You lose matte, lose the high contrast ratio, and reduce viewing angles, so the v5 panel is definitely inferior.

There are a couple more interesting points to bring up. First, MSI added an extra 1-year warranty on the GT680R, thanks to the Intel Cougar Point chipset snafu. That means the GT680R now has a 3-year warranty, which is a nice change of pace. The other item to mention is overclocking. MSI includes an overclocking tool with the catchy name of Turbo Drive Engine. Back in the Core 2 days, overclocking the CPU was a common feature on higher end notebooks, but with Clarksfield and Arrandale it became less useful. Thanks to Intel’s Turbo Boost, overclocking often resulted in slightly lower performance as the increased bus speeds would result in lower turbo modes kicking in.

With Sandy Bridge, overclocking by changing the bus speed is basically dead, and particularly on the mobile parts the Turbo Boost range is very impressive. The i7-2630QM runs at a base speed of 2.0GHz but can hit 2.9GHz on a single core when needed—or all four cores can run at up to 2.6GHz. If you need more than that, an i7-2720QM will bump pricing up about $165 (depending on the vendor) and give you a 2.2GHz base and up to 3.3GHz Turbo, but that’s a relatively small gain for the price hike. With CPU overclocking thus addressed, MSI’s Turbo Drive Engine turns to the GPU and will nudge the GTX 460M core/shader clocks from 675/1350MHz to 709/1417MHz. Yes, that’s a relatively small 5% overclock, but it comes free with the notebook and it does give it a slight edge in gaming performance compared to other GTX 460M notebooks. (Note that GPU memory speeds remain the same, so a 5% performance increase is the most you’ll see from the overclock.)

Gallery: MSI GT680R

Okay, calling the GT680R a throwback to several years ago might be a bit severe, but the glossy plastic notebook designs have got to end. I actually think they gained prominence among designers because they liked the 3D renders the artists could put together; in actual practice, I can’t come up with any good reason to prefer glossy plastic exteriors, especially glossy black plastic. Fingerprints show up the instant you touch such surfaces, though at least MSI takes one step in the right direction by using glossy gray plastic (with a honeycomb texture on some of it) for the palm rests. While we’re on the subject of the palm rests, let’s also talk about the stickers that adorn so many laptops. MSI has small Energy Star, NVIDIA, Intel Core i7, Windows 7, and THX stickers on the palm rest, along with a larger sticker listing some of the features of the GT680R. While it’s possible to remove all of those stickers with a bit of work, they only make sense for retail show floors where potential buyers can find out what they’re getting. If you buy a laptop in a box, there’s simply no reason for the stickers—they’re advertisements for something you already bought.

Another item that will either please or detract is the extra lighting on the chassis. The chassis is reminiscent of the older Dell XPS designs, with lights on the front grille and on the left and right edges of the LCD bezel and palm rest. Unlike Dell’s older XPS (and the Alienware laptops), the lights cannot be customized, so you’re stuck with the orange glow. The orange lighting motif extends to the indicator lights as well—orange is the new white apparently. Thankfully, you can disable the lights (via a touch-sensitive key in the top-right) if you dislike them. I’ve never been a fan of bling, even on the Alienware laptops, and it’s almost insulting to put the effort into superfluous chassis lighting when keyboard backlighting would be the best place to start. As a company with strong Asian market ties, perhaps MSI is simply catering to that market—I wouldn’t know if this sort of chassis is considered better or worse than the competition overseas. What I do know is that personally this feels like a misguided design that could have been fixed with a few focus groups and mockups to solicit feedback.

The keyboard is of the typical chiclet variety, which you’ll either like or loathe. Typing action is okay if not great, and at least there’s minimal flex. Actually, the keyboard feel is very similar to the Clevo—that’s not necessarily a good thing, although it could be worse—only with a different layout. The good news is that MSI gets the 10-key layout correct, so you can actually touch-type on the thing. The cursor keys do partially overlap the zero key, but it’s still about 1.5x regular key size. What’s missing is direct access to the Home and End keys; PgUp and PgDn are in the top-right and the same keys give you Home/End via an Fn-key combination. Alternately, you can turn off num lock and use the 10-key shortcuts, but that’s still not ideal. Amazingly, we do get direct access to the scroll lock and pause/break keys—keys which few people ever use, and certainly not with the frequency they would use home/end. And as a final complaint against the keyboard, like so many Clevo notebooks, there’s also no keyboard backlighting; that’s a shame on a gaming notebook that would conceivably be used at dark LAN parties.

The problem with input devices doesn’t end at the keyboard, unfortunately. The touchpad has a moderate-sized surface, which works well enough, but what I can’t fathom is why any modern notebook would ship without support for any form of gestures. Heck, it doesn’t even have the old vertical/horizontal scrolling on the edges of the touchpad. Instead, the right and bottom corners can be configured to scroll when you tap/hold them. It’s as bad as it sounds—and if that doesn’t sound bad, it should. The hardware for the touchpad apparently comes from Sentelic, a company I don’t recall hearing of before, and if the chassis design seems several years old the touchpad feels positively ancient. Couple that with rocker-style buttons and really there aren’t any good qualities to the touchpad other than that you can move the mouse cursor around and click on things.

Rounding out the hardware elements of the GT680R, we have the audio subsystem. With stickers for Dynaudio speakers and THX, you’d expect something that sounds better than the average laptop. For a change, the audio actually lives up to the quality claims made on the stickers. In blind listening, it was a tie vote between the GT680R sound and a Dell XPS 15—the XPS 15 tended to have a bit more bass, and while you can tweak the audio settings via the Waves Maxx control panel, there’s still plenty of subjectivity involved. The Dell laptop also gets a bit louder if you’re looking to fill a room, but the difference is only a matter of a couple decibels. If quality audio is something you care about, the GT680R won’t disappoint—or at least, it will disappoint less than most other notebooks I’ve tested.

As with the X6-9300, MSI’s GT680R certainly delivers in the performance department. Medium to high detail gaming at the LCD’s native resolution is possible with most recent titles, and there’s a large gap between the GTX 460M and most of NVIDIA’s GT 500M lineup. Pricing is comparable to the Clevo P151HM—in fact, you can buy the MSI as a whitebook offering in the form of the Xplorer X6-9400 at CyberPower. Doing a head-to-head comparison on pricing, while the MSI branded model will set you back around $1450 as configured, you can get the X6-9400 with the same components for just $1342. That actually makes the MSI notebook potentially cheaper than the P151HM, and even better CyberPower will let you customize the components. Our recommendation would be to go with a Kingston 128GB SSD for the OS and applications, and pair that up with a spacious 750GB 7200RPM HDD for data. With that setup, your final price from CyberPower still comes in at a very reasonable $1520, or you can further tweak the configuration as you see fit (e.g. higher performance SSDs like Intel’s 510 are available). There’s still no Optimus support, so battery life isn’t great, and I’m not all that keen on the aesthetics or design. Even so, the MSI GT680R (MS-16F2 whitebook) gives you plenty to work with for a good price. We just wish MSI would swap out the LCD for the panel in the Clevo (along with ditching all the glossy plastic).

CyberPower X6-9300: Checking Out Clevo’s P151HM Application Performance, Now with PCMark 7
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    Yeah, the price is the big sticking point, plus I'd still rather have a GeForce 460M + Optimus instead of the Quadro 2000M. I'm not sure why NVIDIA doesn't use GDDR5 for the Quadro 2000M, since that's the only major bottleneck it has. Maybe VRAM bandwidth isn't that critical for Quadro's normal use cases?
  • chrnochime - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    You can't have everything on your laundry list of requirements and still want them to charge the same amount of money as these ones you're offering. Pony up the money or put up with the compromises.
  • chrnochime - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    Dammit I mean "these ones you're reviewing."
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    Take the P151HM, which you can get as configured for about $1300. Now add in Optimus and spend $200 improving the keyboard and chassis. Are you saying that's not possible? Because $200 would go a long way towards fixing the few complaints I had with that design -- I figure $50 for a new keyboard layout with backlighting, and the remaining $150 can be put towards a magnesium alloy chassis. Add in maybe $25 extra to do Optimus (there's no additional hardware required, just enable the feature in the BIOS AFAIK) and you'd have my $1500 "dream" laptop.

    The fact that Lenovo's W520 can be purchased on sale for $1500 with nearly everything in my list proves it can be done--and Lenovo would still make money if they sold every W520 at that price, but they want to make more money.
  • DanNeely - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    I heard about them a few years ago with the 1st generation MSI wind netbooks. The reason they have the retarded tap the corner to scroll instead of the more common swipe the edge behavior is that Synaptics has a patent on the latter. I don't know if they refuse to license it or if Sentelic is just too cheap; although the fact that Synaptic has a stranglehold on the touchpad market makes me suspect the former.
  • yyrkoon - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    Jarred, I am very glad you seemed to take to heart one of the points I made in my last bitch session of a laptop review. Well, at least you seemed to mirror one of my beliefs( in text ).

    Still, I think you would do very well, to educate your readers further. At first, I thought about Anand's comprehensive SSD write up in this context, but I am not sure how that might work in this case. On another semi related point. I still see no mention of driver support. This is very important.

    Passed that, I think most readers understand how you feel about certain aspect of different laptops. Personally though, I would rather not read two or more sentences about how you feel about black glossy plastic. In my case, it is a waste of your time to elaborate any further passed " it has a black glossy shell" or whatever. I do not like black glossy plastic either. but guess what ? My own personal laptop is gloss black . . . We never get exactly what we want.

    A companies case build policies to me, is something you should be taking up with them, and not us. Not to mention that this kind of "thought" in a review can be construed as being biased against the company. Whether truly fact, or not. Now, if the case felt flimsy, or like the screen might snap off in a short period of time of use . . .then sure thats something we should know.

    I can say that my personal use case for a laptop is completely different from yours most of the time. Which in of its self is something to consider. For you, and myself both. This is to say, several of the things that are important to you, are not important to me. Maybe there is some way to format different aspects in a way, where readers can easily take notice, and just skip altogether ? Just a thought. E.g. keyboard, and trackpad functionality are nearly irrelevant. For me, if they work, that is good enough. If I need to do any serious typing, or have need for accurate cursor placement, I *will* use external input devices. No mater where I am, or where I am going with my laptop.

    Anyhow, I felt like this was a decent review, although I care about neither product. I have always liked your reviews Jarred, because for the most part I feel when you review a product you are mostly thorough. Take my niggles for what they're worth, but do please seriously consider adding in driver support/stability comments. I am sure many readers of yours would appreciate that.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    Driver support is generally fine on any NVIDIA, AMD, or Intel graphics card these days. The reference drivers from all three companies work with the vast majority of notebooks. If there's a problem (e.g. Toshiba opting out of AMD's mobile driver program), I'll make a note of it, but otherwise I haven't seen anything with respect to drivers that concerns me. Granted, if you want to be able to go to, say, MSI and grab all the latest drivers, that might be a bigger problem. I usually go directly to the component manufacturer, so NVIDIA, AMD, Intel, Realtek, etc. sites are where I check. Not sure if that answers your question -- is there something specific you want me to comment on? Stability, incidentally, was top notch on both notebooks, with no crashes or unexpected reboots.
  • bhima - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    Well balanced review overall. I decided to pick up a clevo based laptop as well, but one with Optimus. The main reason I picked a clevo over the Dell was because I could configure the clevo with a 96% RGB color gamut matte screen (the exact same one that is offered as an upgrade to the W series ThinkPads). Dell glossy screens have a habit of being really "glossy" and I just can't take it anymore. Just like glossy plastic is going out of style, I hope glossy screens for laptops do as well.
  • Hrel - Sunday, May 15, 2011 - link

    I agree with your summation. The Clevo seems like the best of the offerings but has flaws I don't want to live with. I really really wish you could get the G53SW in for review, as as long as the screen is good I'd take it. I agree with your wish for a laptop that doesn't exist too; except I don't care much about the speakers. I'd rather the price not get over 1200 than have uber speakers inside my laptop. If I really care I'll use headsets or external speakers or Logitech's clip on speaker. I could live with the 555M GPU as well, as long as it doesn't cost more than 1200. Laptop guys, DO NOT include Blu Ray; that's literally worth nothing to me. Discs are so last decade.

    Since I'm wishing, Asus, or whoever, put your chassis on as a whitebox or at the very least with the option to not include the OS. I have my own thanks.
  • Hrel - Sunday, May 15, 2011 - link

    Id like to see a review of the gt540 1080p laptop cyberpower has now.

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