Saturday, September 29, 2018

Laptop Shopping: The Winner

This is a followup to my New Laptop Shopping post.

The laptop I chose to purchase is the MSI GT63 Titan-047. It was between that an the Alienware 15, which both best met the requirements I described in my original post. The only clear differences were the manufacturer, and that the Alienware was priced at $1950 (from Dell's site) and the MSI at $2100 (from Amazon).

As of this writing (and, I believe, until September 30), the MSI is available for $2200 - $150 mail-in rebate from Newegg. That makes the price difference just $100.

Two factors made me choose the MSI over the Alienware: First, my current laptop is an MSI, and I didn't even consider looking at replacements until more than five years after purchase. Second, Newegg's return policy explicitly mentions installing additional operating systems being accepted, as long as the recovery partition is retained (you should check their wording before relying on my account, though).

So I bought the MSI from Newegg. It arrived Thursday (today is Saturday), and I am loving it so far. Being so new, it's got a couple glitches under Ubuntu, but nothing serious. My main (unstated) requirement was that it could run Fallout 4 at top settings, and it is managing that with flying colors. The screen is beautiful and smooth, the keyboard is a delight to type on (although MSI is still doing that obnoxious thing where they put the Home and End keys both out of reach, and require Fn-activation for them), and the trackpad supports my desired scrolling and tapping (although Windows is scrolling in reverse, and does not seem to provide an option to fix it).

I wholeheartedly recommend the MSI GT63 Titan 047 (Amazon link).

And if you have trouble with your WiFi under Linux, try this:

git clone
cd backport-iwlwifi
sudo make install

Laptop Shopping: MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

This is a followup to my New Laptop Shopping post.

Since all three lists I consulted for the "best gaming laptops of 2018" mentioned the MSI GS65 Stealth Thin, I decided I should take a look at it before making my decision between my top two choices (the Alienware 15 and the MSI GT63 Titan 047).

I had initially discarded the GS65 from consideration because of its use of NVidia's "Max-Q" branding, which is intended to be positive, but actually labels laptops that are too thin to effectively deal with the heat produced by an over-powered video card. That is, they are lap-burners, not lap-tops.

But to be fair, let's take a look at the specs:

  • Display: 15-inch FHD 144Hz IPS
  • CPU: Intel eighth-gen i7
  • GPU: NVidia 1070 Max-Q
  • RAM: 16g
  • Storage: 512g SSD, no HDD
  • Price: $2000
This meets or beats most of my requirements -- Good CPU, RAM, and Display (once I decided I was okay with an FHD with a high-refresh-rate), and a better GPU than I really need.

But I have two issues with this design: First, there is no spare storage. 512g is more than enough for just running Ubuntu (and might suffice for an exclusive Windows user), but I know I would have issues trying to split it between Ubuntu and Windows.

Second, it is branded Max-Q, which I see as a big negative. And don't just take my word for it that Max-Q has heat issues: LaptopMag says the keyboard got up to 101*F after 15 minutes gaming, and CNet's own review said the Esc and W keys, wrist rest, and touchpad all got uncomfortably hot within an hour.

Oh, and it's $2000, which is intended to be the top of my budget for a computer that actually meets my requirements. So... no.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Laptop Shopping: Top Gaming Laptops of 2018

This is a followup to my New Laptop Shopping post.

Today I'm going to look at three lists of the top gaming laptops of 2018, hoping to pick out some models worth further research.

Let's start with CNet's Best Gaming Laptops for 2018, since I already mentioned it in my post researching the Razer Blade 15. I'm not going to list the full models (copyright and all that; go read through the list!), just the brand names (and when one appears multiple times on the same list, whether it's the first, second, etc. appearance):

Eliminated due to Max-Q: The Razer (first), MSI, Asus, Digital Storm, and Dell models.

Eliminated due to CPU model: The Acer, Lenovo, and Razer (second) models.

Eliminated due to being made by HP: The HP model.

Interesting... That was all of them.

Turns out CNet isn't the only publication with a Best Laptops list, so let's check out the one from TechRadar!

Eliminated due to being on the CNet list: The MSI and Razer models.

Eliminated due to screen size (I want 15-inch): The Asus (second) and Alienware (first and second) models.

Eliminated due to using an old-model CPU: The Asus (first and third), Acer, and Gigabyte models.

Eliminated due to using a Radeon card: The Dell model.

Okay, so that was their entire list too...

PC Gamer
Maybe the list from PC Gamer will be more fruitful?

Eliminated to being on the CNet and TechRadar lists: The MSI and Razer models (makes me wonder if they're worth another look, though...)

Eliminated due to using an old-model CPU: The Asus, Acer (first and second), and Dell models.

Eliminated due to screen size (I want 15-inch): The MSI model. But I notice this is a Titan, and probably helped lead me towards the GT63 Titan I looked at the other day.

Eliminated due to Max-Q: The Gigabyte model.

I guess that's everything. Either I'm being to picky, or the Top Laptops lists just suck. I will take a closer look at the MSI GS65 since it was on all three lists. The Razer Blade 15 is still out because I couldn't get it with an NVidia 1070 at a reasonable price, and it's branded Max-Q.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Laptop Shopping: MSI GT63 Titan 047

This is a followup to my New Laptop Shopping post.

Although the MSI GT63 Titan-047 (wow, that's a mouthful of a model designation) is not on the CNet list, I found it by narrowing down the options on MSI's site. I specifically chose the GT series (I have no idea what GT means in comparison to GS, GE, GP, GL, wtf how many of these do they have?), but my current laptop is a GT and I like it. So I figured I'd try to get something similar.

The Titan, for short, has many of the features I want. Here's a rundown:

  • 15.6 inch FHD 120Hz display
  • 8th gen i7 CPU
  • 16g RAM, support for 64g
  • NVidia 1070 GPU (with no mention of Max-Q!)
  • 1t HDD + 256g SSD
  • 3x USB-A 3.1, 1x USB-C 3.1, 1x USB-A 2.0
  • HDMI (supporting 4k at 60Hz), and a mini-DisplayPort
  • "Multi touch" trackpad (no details)
  • Price: $2200 at Newegg, $2100 at Amazon
So it's a little above my target price range, and the display resolution isn't as high as I want... But it has everything else. And it's an MSI, and I know from my current GT683 they know how to deal with heat.

I'm starting to think that I'll end up with an FHD screen no matter what...

This laptop is in the running. Now looking at this and the Alienware 15.

Laptop Shopping: 2018 Razer Blade 15

This is a followup to my New Laptop Shopping post.

According to CNet's Best Gaming Laptops of 2018 article, the Razer Blade comes out on top. I expect to work my way down the list in later posts, but there is a conspicuous absence: Alienware. Weren't they once the top gaming laptop manufacturer? I guess that was before Dell took over...

Anyway, let's take a look at the Razer Blade 15. Scanning through CNet's review, I already see some problems: It has an FHD display (I want QHD or better), and is marketed with NVidia Max-Q (a big no-no for me).

I am skeptical. But let's take a closer look anyway!

Visiting Razer's page for the Razer Blade 15 ("New!" like I care), they provide a few choices:
  • FHD 60Hz display:
    • Only options are NVidia 1060 and 256g SSD: $1900
  • FHD 144Hz display:
    • NVidia 1060 and 512g SSD: $2100
    • NVidia 1070 and 256g SSD: $2400
    • NVidia 1070 and 512g SSD: $2600
  • 4k 60Hz display (oh, and it's a touch-screen, ugh):
    • NVidia 1070 and 512g SSD: $2900
So the only one in my price range has a 60Hz display and an NVidia 1060, neither of which I want. Oh, and it's branded Max-Q. "Yes, Razer, I do want to burn my legs, thanks!"

Even with a bit of flexibility on the price (the $2100 option), it's still only got an NVidia 1060.

Oh, and let's also add touch-screens as a feature I'd prefer to avoid. All they do is confuse me when I accidentally touch the screen and something stupid happens.

So the Razer Blade is not in the running. Still just looking at the Alienware 15.

Laptop Shopping: 2018 Alienware 15

This is a followup to my New Laptop Shopping post.

Using Dell's site, I customized a laptop starting the second-most-expensive model (because it comes with an NVidia 1070 GPU). Result:
  • i7 CPU (vs. i9, not worth another $600)
  • Windows 10 Home (Pro has nothing of value to offer me)
  • 15.6 inch FHD 120Hz TN display (an extra $150)
  • 16g 2400MHz DDR4 (I can fill out to 32g later if I want)
  • 256g SSD + 1t 7200 RPM HDD (512g SSD would be nice; may splurge an extra $150 later)
  • 802.11ac WiFi + Bluetooth 4.1 (I don't care about BT 5.0)
  • 4 zone RGB keyboard (no option to drop backlighting altogether)
  • 2x USB-A 3.0, 1x USB-C 3.0, 1x Thunderbolt 3 (wtf is this?)
  • HDMI 2.0, mini-DisplayPort 1.2, Alienware Graphics Amplifier port (another wtf)
  • Total cost: $1950
Most of my choices above match the requirements I listed in my earlier post, with the exception of the display. Although there is an option for a 4k 60Hz IPS display, I would prefer the higher refresh rate over the higher resolution. IPS vs. TN is less important, since I'm going to be looking straight at the screen, not from an angle.

Additionally, this revealed another primary requirement: The display refresh rate must be at least 120Hz.

This laptop is in the running; it is only missing one of my primary requirements.

Friday, September 21, 2018

New Laptop Shopping

I'm in the market for a new laptop, so I figured I'd document the process. Kinda like my Choosing a Computer Monitor post, but not quite so post-facto.

Currently I have a ~6½ year old MSI gaming laptop (this one, specifically). When I first set it up, I could run every game I had at top-notch settings. Now, it can barely run Fallout 4 at the lowest settings, and GTA 4 is unplayable.

So I need (well... I want) a new laptop. Unfortunately, I can't find what I'm looking for, not in my target price range. There are two reasons, I think. Firstly, I'm frustrated with how screen resolution has stagnated for a decade, and secondly, the laptop market is being squeezed by smartphones and Chromebooks on the low end, and gaming consoles on high end.

This post is both an organization of my thoughts, and a general rant about the state of the laptop market. And, I suppose, this might even help someone know what to look for, like that post about computer monitors.

These are my primary minimum requirements:
  • Screen: ~15.5" QHD
  • RAM: 16g included, 32g supported
  • CPU: Intel eighth-generation i7
  • GPU: NVidia 1070
  • Storage: 1t of any flavor, 240g SSD
  • Ports: HDMI + one of DisplayPort, Mini-DP, or USB-C video out; 2x USB-A 3.x, gigabit Ethernet
  • WiFi: 802.11ac
  • Misc: No NVidia Max-Q, not made by Hewlett Packard
  • Price: $2,000
Secondary features I'd like:
  • USB-C charging
  • Multi-touch track pad (one-finger cursor, two-finger scroll, three-finger middle mouse)
  • Good keyboard layout
  • High contrast ratio
  • Low weight
Stuff I don't care about:
  • Battery life
  • Audio quality
  • Bluetooth
  • Operating system
  • Optical drive
  • Keyboard backlight
On screen resolution: Do you remember when every year or so, monitor resolutions jumped up a notch? 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768, 1280x960, ... Why did this stop? My favorite monitor, which died a few years ago, was an LG 1920x1280. Since then everything has been FHD (1920x1080), unless you wanted to splurge on QHD or 4k. It's time for FHD to die in favor of something better.

On NVidia Max-Q: My cynical view is that Max-Q is a marketing designation that means the laptop is too thin to dissipate the heat put off by an over-powered video card.

On Hewlett-Packard: My wife has had two HP laptops, and both were awful at heat management. The current one requires an ice pack just to remain on, running TurboTax. They aren't worth the gamble for me.

On USB-C charging: I love that my Chromebook and my Pixel phone can use the same charger, and I wish everything else could share as well.

On a multi-touch trackpad: The MSI laptop I have now tried a hot-corner-scrolling trackpad. It's awful. I need to tap in just the right spot on or near the corner of the trackpad to scroll, and I need to hold my finger there as long as I want it to scroll. Chromebooks have this figured out, and I think Macs have too (although theirs is upside-down).

On a good keyboard layout: Use something close to a standard layout. If you're going to relegate keys to Fn-activation, don't make me reach for them; put them as close to the home row as possible.

On battery life: The only time my laptop is both on and unplugged is when I am moving it between my desk and the couch.

On the operating system: Gaming laptops always come with Windows, and the flavor doesn't matter: It's just there as a launchpad for games, and it's literally good for nothing else (kinda sucks as a launchpad, too). I use Ubuntu for everything.

On backlit keyboards: How did these become popular? Does anybody actually care? I imagine what happened is one seller added it to an already-great machine, and everybody else thought, "I'll add that so my crappy laptop will sell too!" So now it's not even an option not to have a backlit keyboard. It's really just an obnoxious distraction.

I'm planning to post my notes on the laptops I'm considering in the upcoming days, with the reasons I like and dislike them.

Edit: Followup posts to this introduction: