What on Earth is going on here? A gaming laptop available for under £900? My, how times change. This is the MSI GX740, a 17.3-inch behemoth that wants to be our gaming buddy. But will we be granting this metal monolith a ticket aboard our friend ship?
Rad or bad?
Visually, this laptop couldn't look more like a gaming machine. By this we mean it either looks totally awesome, or utterly hideous, depending on how you feel about things like macros, cooldowns and twitch responses. This is an extremely similar body to the earlier GT725, mind you, so it's hardly a cutting-edge chassis.
A sultry, brushed aluminium effect on the lid belies the bright scarlet trim that adorns this laptop's chassis. On the wrist rest, you'll find more black and red brushed aluminium styling, and above the keyboard a metallic grille, with an island of touch-sensitive icons. The interior of the laptop doesn't pick up too many fingerprints, but the same can't be said for the lid -- perfect for bored forensic investigators, not so great for anyone else.
Around the edges of this laptop you'll find an Ethernet port, DVD optical drive, three USB ports, an eSATA/USB port, VGA and HDMI outputs, an ExpressCard slot, a modem port, multi-format card reader, four 3.5mm audio ports for headphones and a mic, and finally, a firewire port. Sitting pretty atop the GX740's display, you'll also find a 2-megapixel webcam. So it's tidy connectivity all round, then.
Even the keyboard is designed to pandeer to gamers, with a futuristic angular font adorning each key, and red highlights over the WASD keys, just in case you weren't clear which ones were most important.
Hip to be square
Your eyes won't linger too long on the keyboard, because they'll quickly be drawn to the GX740's display. This is a 17-inch affair with a 1680x1050-pixel resolution. That's quite unusual, and makes for a taller, more squarish display than we're used to seeing. We're not complaining, though -- we think it makes for a really immersive display, especially for gaming. If you're watching widescreen movies, be prepared for some black letterbox action above and below the picture.
The display is extremely bright and vivid, with deep blues and bright colours rendered with a very pleasing intensity. This makes it perfect for watching movies or getting down to some eye-scorching gaming.
A final note on the display -- both the horizontal and vertical viewing angles are decently wide, so you'll be able to crowd a gang of your friends around to admire your n00b-pwning abilities.
We don't normally expect much from laptop speakers in terms of sound quality. However, MSI is clearly keen to deliver something a little special in terms of this laptop's noise-making nous. There are four speakers in total, plus a subwoofer on the laptop's underside. After cranking up some tunes, we don't think these speakers are any sort of substitute for a decent set of headphones or laptop speakers, but they're a darn sight better than the usual tinny rubbish.
Before we get into the GX740's performance, there are a few design issues that jump out at us straight away. Firstly, MSI has placed a 'Fn' function key in the very bottom-left of the keyboard. That's normally where you'd find the Ctrl key, which is pretty crucial in most PC games. Our hardened, strong-muscle-memory gamer fingers kept jumping instinctively to this spot. Buy this laptop, and you'll have to adjust to stretching your pinky finger to a different location on the keyboard.
Secondly, we're confounded by MSI's decision to stick part of the exhaust fan on the right-hand side of the GX740. That way, it's going to be blowing hot air all over your mouse hand, which is liable to get annoying and -- dare we say it -- a little sweaty. These kinds of design mishaps are particularly frustrating because they could so easily have been avoided. They're by no means totally ruinous, but they're certainly things to bear in mind if you're thinking of buying this machine.
Having got all the griping out of our system, let's focus on what this machine does well -- pure performance, at an affordable price. Running the show is a dual-core Intel Core i5-430M CPU clocked at 2.27GHz, aided by 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The i3 isn't the most powerful range of processor in Intel's Core i-series line-up, but we respect MSI's decision, as it means the whole machine is significantly less expensive than those sporting a Core i7 CPU. Additionally, our benchmark tests suggest this processor will deliver more than enough grunt for just about all the multitasking you could want. The GX740 scored an impressive 6,394 in our PCMark05 benchmark test.
How much can you bench?
Graphics are where this beast really excels, however. There's a stonking ATI Mobility Radeon HD5870 graphics card on board that delivers simply incredible polygon-chucking performance at this price point. In our 3DMark06 benchmark test, the GX740 scored a meteoric 11,219 when we ran the test at the default resolution of 1280x1024 pixels, and a devastating 10,071 when we ran the same test at the GX740's maximum resolution of 1680x1050 pixels. That's very impressive, and should ensure that cutting-edge games play well on the higher graphical settings.
Usability is decent thanks to a comfortable keyboard that doesn't feel cheap and didn't rattle too much when we typed at speed. The 'Enter' key is quite small, which will likely take some getting used to, and it's a little disappointing considering how much space there is available. The trackpad is extremely sensitive and responsive, and the click buttons are comfortable to use.
Portability is obviously not this laptop's strength, though weighing in at 3.2kg, it's considerably lighter than some of the heftier gaming machines out there. We're looking at you, Alienware M17x.
As for battery life, we weren't expecting a gaming machine of this ilk to last too long away from the mains, which is lucky, because this laptop didn't last too long away from the mains. When we gunned the CPU at a constant 100 per cent in our Battery Eater Classic test, this bulky beast held out for one hour and 27 minutes. That's not too atrocious, and with more moderate use we'd expect this machine to last longer.
As for other gubbins, there's a 640GB hard drive on board to handle your storage requirements, and this laptop comes packaged with Windows 7 Home Premium.
The MSI GX740 is a quirky beast. It has some extremely peculiar design flaws that are bound to get on your nerves, and the oddly shaped display will be divisive. That said, this laptop offers hernia-inducingly powerful performance at a very reasonable price. It's not particularly slick, but if you like your tech with a little character and performance is your top priority, this machine could prove a worthy sidekick.
If you have a few extra hundred quid spare, you could up the performance and overall slickness with the Toshiba Qosmio X500.
Edited by Emma Bayly