MSI Dominator GT72 6th Gen Notebook Review
MSI are out of the gate with their Sixth Generation gaming notebooks, the GT72 Gen 6 Dominator range. This review examines the features and performance of the new GT72 and compares against a premium gaming notebook from ASUS.
MSI built their reputation as a manufacturer of system components, such as mainboards and video cards. In recent years they have expanded with a range of consumer focused products, and have found particular success with their gaming notebooks, consistently winning design and innovation awards over the past few years. Given their strong components background, MSI are in a position to design and build the guts of their notebooks, something I always like to see and a factor missing from many outsourced mass market notebooks.
We decided to try out MSI notebooks a couple of years ago to help fill out our gaming notebook range. We have tested the value of many brands over the years, and stopped selling some where they did not show compelling value for our customers. MSI passed our trial by demonstrating reliability, the timely introduction of new technology, good value, and excellent after sales support.
It is interesting to compare MSI to ASUS. Computer Alliance were one of the first companies to sell ASUS notebooks, long before any chain stores considered stocking the brand. We were awarded ASUS National Dealer of the year a number of times as we helped build the brand in Australia. ASUS remains our most recommended notebook brand, and is now a household name after breaking out into the mass market. MSI are in a similar position to ASUS of perhaps 10 years ago, and it will be interesting to see if they can find the same success. Perhaps the GT72 Gen 6 can help grow their brand further with another premium gaming notebook!
The MSI GT72 Gen 6 Dominator Range
Five notebooks are available in the new Gen 6 range. All models share the same chassis, screen, and many other features. The main differentiating components are the CPU, GPU, and disk systems.
We will be examining the GT72 6QD-069AU (will call it the GT72) and the top end GT72S 6QE-038AU (GT72S) alongside an end of life ASUS model, the Gaming focused G751JT-T7029H.
The ASUS uses the older 4th Gen Haswell CPU, the current generation GTX970M GPU, dual channel DDR3 RAM and a fast SSD. Pricing at time of writing was a little under the GT72 but it should offer a good comparison as a recent model premium gaming notebook (in fact sold the last one just as I finished benchmarking it, end of life but still a very nice notebook).
Our customers purchase “gaming” notebooks for a range of applications, gaming probably the major one, but also high end productivity applications that need that extra grunt. CAD and development work, photo and video editing, and various specialist applications are commonly used on gaming notebooks alongside the usual light use of office and web browsing applications. I will look at the notebooks from the perspective of high end general use as well as gaming.
New Generation 6, “Skylake” Processors
The major talking point of the new GT72 is the use of Generation 6, or “Skylake” CPUs and their related technologies. Until this launch, most models employed 4th Generation “Haswell” processors, with only a few 5th Generation “Broadwell” models available.
Broadwell and Skylake generations use the same improved manufacturing process, with a process node reduction from 22nm to 14nm since Haswell, allowing more processing components to be packed into the same die space, and improving power efficiency. With the 14nm process now mastered and Skylake design complete, we are seeing a jump to the new 6th Generation with some manufacturers skipping Broadwell. The main advantages of Skylake over Haswell are:
- Less power consumption to generate a given performance with improved battery life.
- Intel Speed Shift for sub 1ms response to processor load changes, improving responsiveness and reducing power use.
- Better threading with more work done per clock cycle.
- DMI 3.0 improves speed between CPU and Chipset and allows for power savings.
- Support for faster DDR4 RAM
- Substantially improved graphics processing built into the processor
- Support for new technologies including security and connectivity such as WiDi, WiGig, Thunderbolt 3, SGX and MPX in some models (not all available in reviewed models)
- Support for H.265 codec (4K video compression)
- K Versions can be overclocked!
GT72 and GT72s Skylake Options
MSI are one of the first manufacturers to release Generation 6 based notebooks to the market, with available gaming notebooks providing options of the i7-6700HQ or the i7-6820HK CPUs. These are both Skylake-H CPUs, with a 45W TDP targeted at high end notebooks and providing a reasonable trade-off between power consumption and performance. The ASUS we will look at has a similarly clocked Haswell processor.
The higher end chip has a slightly faster clock speed, a bigger cache which helps the chip work more efficiently, and is unlocked so it can be overclocked for higher performance (at your own risk). The BIOS in the GT72S notebook incorporates direct support for overclocking.
To help isolate the CPU and memory system from the GPU, I ran a popular compression program to test how much number crunching these processors could handle with installed RAM.
WinRAR will push the CPU and memory bandwidth harder than most applications or games and the standard single stick of RAM will limit memory speed on the GT72 compared to the dual channel RAM installed standard in the other configurations. In most cases a single stick over two will have little impact, but for memory speed limited applications, an odd number of SODIMMs will reduce effective CPU performance. On the first run of these benchmarks, I found the multithreaded test to be heavily memory bandwidth limited, more so than I expected, so ran the tests again on the same notebook after installing a second SODIMM to help quantify the difference.
Results are interesting! With heavy multithreading, Haswell beats the comparable Skylake processor which is limited by a single SODIMM configuration. The GT72 CPU is waiting around for the memory to give it numbers to crunch, wasting its potential. When hammering just a single core with a single thread, the situation changes because memory can keep up with the CPU and you see the new design of Skylake leading the older Haswell chip by a significant margin, around 17%. Similarly, when you enable dual channel RAM support on the GT72, the CPU does effectively 25% more work. It will be interesting to see, as faster DDR4 is released, whether these results would improve further with even faster RAM (or perhaps play with overclocking).
These processors have four physical cores with hyperthreading enabled so the OS can feed them data as though they have 8 cores. Smart design allows each core to juggle incoming requests in such a way as to improve their efficiency and in some cases they can get more out of each core than comparable processors without hyperthreading. If we do some quick numbers on that, consider 1509KB/s x 4 cores should give us a maximum of 6,036KB/s if all four cores are similarly pushed, yet we get 8156KB/s, or a 35% improvement.
Given these results, I took a closer look at the CPU clock speeds and bandwidth available with single vrs dual channel memory.
Processor Clock Speeds
I was interested to see how clock speeds were managed when throwing significant load at the CPUs. I don’t have anything set up to measure how Skylake differs from older generation chips in this regard, it’s a tough one to measure, but for interest I ran SiSoftware Sandras ALU Power Efficiency Benchmark and had a look at average clock speeds.
The Haswell CPU in the ASUS ran consistently at 3.32GHz across all components of the test while the 6700HQ sat at 3.16GHz dropping to 3.08GHz and the 6820HK ran at 3.28GHz falling to 3.23GHz.
I don’t draw conclusions from these numbers but I do find it interesting that Skylake chips with base and max clock rated by Intel a little higher than the Haswell operated at a lower clock speed during a demanding benchmark.
Introduction of DDR 4 RAM
Practically all our computer systems have been using DDR3 since 2007. The new generation DDR4 RAM was introduced alongside a high end Generation 4 desktop platform but is only now reaching mainstream with Generation 6 processors. The MSI G72 the first notebook we have available with DDR4. Generation 6 also support DDR3, but we only expect that option to appear with entry level notebooks to save on costs.
DDR4 is a dual memory architecture supporting two memory modules per channel. It is possible to operate a system with a single module, however you will see best performance by operating the memory in pairs. DDR4 operates at a lower voltage than DDR3 and are available in larger modules. Standard speeds are 2133MT/s at 15-15-15.
The Dual Channel Advantage
I ran SiSoftware Sandra memory bandwidth test to get an idea of how DDR4 performs in these systems against a dual DDR3 unit and to look at the hit you take running with a single stick. The numbers speak for themselves, you lose a lot of memory performance running single channel but boost it up to equivalent dual channel and DDR4 is giving at 30+% advantage to DDR4 over DDR3. Note that these systems are both running stock 1600MHz DDR3 and 2133MHz DDR4 RAM.
Lower memory performance won’t always hurt time taken to get the job done, as long as the bandwidth is sufficient to feed the CPU, but modern CPUs have been increasingly limited by RAM, and that bottleneck is the reason we are finally seeing a change to DDR4. It is a shame to lose that advantage in a shiny new system.
If you like the base GT72 models but need more RAM or want to get a bit more performance out of the memory, you don’t necessarily need to go with a more expensive model. The GT72 include 4 x SODIMM slots for a maximum of 64GB of RAM. Two spare slots are readily accessible under the back panel, the other two slots face the other side of the board, and require disassembly of most of the notebook to reach.
To enable dual channel support you need to add the extra stick on the difficult to get to side. It would be nice to see these units supplied with 2 x 4G, instead of 1 x 8G leaving 2 spare slots for an upgrade in the accessible back area. It is time consuming and difficult to disassemble these notebooks, and I don’t suggest a home user try to upgrade the hard to reach SODIMMS themselves. I had one of our senior techs do the job to save screwing it up myself! Any subsequent upgrade using the back SODIMMS is easy, just remember to add in pairs to keep dual channel enabled.
Below is a shot of the GT72 with back panel off, you can see the two easy to access SODIMMS.
A Beautiful Display
The 1920×1080 IPS display panel on the GT72 is awesome and the quality was a surprise for me. I generally hate notebook screens, but this one I could use all day. Before looking at the MSI, I would have said the ASUS panels were our top notch option, and I still accept that they are a good quality screen, but when fired up next to the MSI the display on the ASUS G75 was bland by comparison.
The MSI panels under strong light were brighter and offered better contrast than the ASUS. The blacks were very black where the ASUS seemed a little washed out with the brightness up. Under the fluro lights and strong window lighting in the office, there was much less glare off the MSI panel.
To my eye, the MSI had richer and more attractive colours. That may not be a good thing under all circumstances. If you were buying this for professional photo editing I would want to check the colour calibration as the colours seemed just a bit too saturated. It’s an old trick to boost colours to make a panel seem more attractive at the loss of accuracy. Having said that, I’m a bit of an amateur photographer and I would have no issues doing some editing on these panels.
I think the panel is very well tuned and suited for gaming and more than acceptable for most other high end use, with my only concern possible accuracy issues with photo editing.
Gaming and General Use Performance
The graphics processor is the heart of any gaming rig. The two options here are the NVidia GTX970M and the GTX980M. Like the CPU options, these chips use the same basic technology with the GTX980M offering the better performance with more processing units and higher clock speeds. It is important to match a fast GPU with a fast CPU as some games will bottleneck on the CPU, wasting the performance of a faster GPU.
I wasn’t able to run an ideal set of benchmarks on these, but grabbed selected to group get a ballpark idea of performance under mainly GPU limited load. Please keep in mind these were run under largely out of the box settings.
PCMark simulates general home use including browsing, word processing, some light gaming use, and other similar tests. It doesn’t hammer the systems but gives you an idea of general performance for less demanding use. All tested notebooks handled this test easily and any would be fine for light work. The MSI notebooks gave slightly better numbers due to the CPU and disk systems.
The other two benchmarks are gaming related where the graphics system will be the biggest influence. Again, not huge differences between them, though the high end MSI with 980M gave significantly better results as expected.
The GT72 results were lower than I expected. I suspect that while the ASUS and GT72 use the same 970M chipset, the ASUS might have been slightly tweaked to give marginally better performance. Unfortunately we sold the last unit, the one I used to test, as I was running the benchmarks and I wasn’t able to go back and check the clock and memory speeds, or if other setting had been played with while the unit was on demo. Note the MSIs could also be tweaked a little to speed up the GPUs, but I specifically wanted to see standard numbers out of the box.
In any cases, the differences were small and its sufficient to say that for heavy GPU tasks, the performance of notebooks with the same GPUs will likely be no more than a few percent apart.
I’m a little surprised that manufacturers still offer performance notebooks without an SSD, as with the entry level GT72. I think an extra few dollars for the better performance of a SSD is well worthwhile, so the model of the GT72 I chose to test was one step up from the base model which includes the faster disk. The GT72 has 128GB of SSD capacity with the other two models including 256GB. All models additionally include a 1TB mechanical drive.
You typically run the OS and programs off the SSD, and store data including any large files on the slower mechanical drive. You can use the mechanical drives to install programs if you run low on the SSDs, at a performance hit.
The GT72 and ASUS models both include SATA connected SSD technology. Top end SSD drives can hit the limits of SATA connectivity with transfer rates limited to about 560MB/s. SSDs have been pushing up against this limit for some time, and solutions are now emerging.
The GT72s features one of those solutions, with two PCI-E connected drives in a raid stripe setup and using 4 x PCI-E channels each. SSD technology employs a main controller branching to multiple NAND chips via lanes. Each chip and lane can transfer data at speeds at a significant fraction of the SATA maximum speed, when combined they can exceed it. PCI-E allow for multiple lanes per drive, potentially removing the bottleneck. On top of that, using a RAID stripe allows data to be read or written in parallel across both drives, under ideal circumstances near doubling total transfer rates compared to a single drive.
The speed test numbers below are intended to give us a ballpark idea of performance, rather than aim to show the biggest numbers possible. I used CrystalDiskMark on the SSD drives while they were also running the OS, so results will be slowed a little by any read/writes from windows during the tests. I ran them a few times and recorded the higher figure. Also note that used random (largely incompressible) data which can further reduce transfer rates.
So to some results, first of all a look at the SSDs when working with large files:
The tests above use 1MB sized files read or written sequentially, which is a relatively easy task for any disk, and we see big numbers. Note the Q32 tests are essentially the same except the test tried to queue up disk activity which can give better results with less downtime between requests. In this case you can see queueing up requests did not make much difference with the relatively large files being thrown at disks.
Given the limits of the test, we can see that for large files, the single SSD drives performed quite well, pushing up toward the limits imposed by the SATA interface. But just look at the numbers off the GT72s! Rather Impressive and for anyone running disk intensive applications, those results alone give good reason to consider the high end model.
Now we look at performance with very small files. These tests throw smaller files at the disks than you will normally find in real applications, and they do that in a random way rather than sequential, so we are looking at worst case here.
We see much lower rates, especially for the basic 4k test, which allows only a single thread and a single request at a time. Much higher throughput is seen where we allow up to 32 requests of these small read or write requests to queue up.
Some people like to consider smaller file results in terms of operations per second with each file read or write an operation. If you prefer IOPS, multiply the 4k number by (1000/4) = 250, so 573MB/s@ 4kB = about 143,000 IOPS.
Note the dip in write speeds for the 128GB SSD in the MSI on the final write test. Depending on how NAND is wired up within the drive, you will sometimes find write speeds are better when more chips are used, and I assume that’s what we are seeing here. It is typical that in the same model drive, you see a boost between a 128 and the 256G models. It is probably not significant for most real world gaming use, but if you have an application writing many small files (perhaps heavy database use) then you might want to take that advantage into account.
What impresses me is the GT72s passes the SATA speed limit when reading 4k files!
To see the best out of the disks, we need to boot off a different disk and then dedicate the tested disk to the test only, no interference from the OS, but still using best available drivers. I didn’t have a boot disk that wanted to recognise the GT72s disk array, and I didn’t expect a substantial difference, but I did a quick test on the GT72s SSD off a boot disk with generic drivers to confirm the numbers were not too different. You can see the results below are about the same, in fact lower in some cases, Perhaps a result of drivers used but in any case it confirm the way I tested is fine on the OS drive to give us a fair idea of disk speeds.
Finally, lets take a look at the mechanical drives. All units had similar, relatively high performance models.
Consider how a mechanical drive is designed. They are like an old fashioned record player with a spinning disk and a needle that moves back and forth. The disk needs to spin to the point where the needle can read a file, then waits while it continues to spin to place the next file under the needle (or the next part of a large file, that’s what disk fragmentation means). Its not a great system to work with files all over the platter.
For sequential reads and writes the numbers are not terrible as the disk can keep working flat out just limited by its data density and spindle speed. Even then, in the best possible situation for a mechanical disk, numbers are 20x slower than the best we looked at in the GT72S. Still, 140MB/s is acceptable for some use, but remember as soon as we look at files fragmented all over the disk, particularly small files, there is a huge drop off in speed. Even queued up, we are down to 1MB/s, that’s horrible.
Lesson: get a SSD for your OS and program files!
Take a step back and consider what these numbers mean for the applications you use. On the GT72S you are looking at speeds that can read a H.264 compressed movie in about one second! Awesome. Also overkill for gaming, and the hundreds of MB a second you get off a SATA SSD is pretty quick and won’t leave you waiting around. Then consider the SATA SSD against its mechanical counterpart and that’s where you will notice a big difference.
I would say for gaming, any modern SSD is fine with noticeable but modest benefits going to the new Uber PCI-E arrays. For disk intensive use, the PCI-E arrays are a huge advantage. Avoid mechanical drives if you can for any performance use.
Power Consumption and Battery Life
I operated the notebooks off AC power and attached a power meter to measure power draw. Major power consumption in a gaming notebook include the GPU, the CPU, and the screen, with other components such as disks, chipset, RAM, wireless and other functions at relatively consistent and low levels between models. It has been a while since I looked at power consumption in notebooks, and I was personally interested to see how that balance plays out in the new generation systems.
It was instructive to note peak and average power consumption while running various tests, and I also examined power use with the screen at varying levels and off, to give some idea of the load contributed by the other major components.
We can see that power consumption varies widely depending on use. Sitting around in windows, perhaps typing a blog article, is practically idle power draw. That’s where the new chips will have an advantage over the old. The moment that the CPU needs to see some action, perhaps, clicking on a new web page, the new chips are better at boosting up fast and then dropping back fast when the jobs done. I didn’t try to quantify that benefit in these tests. The overall system power drawn is significantly lower at idle between the ASUS and GT72, about perhaps 5W or 20%.
I took a look at the display power draw. These are quite bright and big displays, 17.3” and it is impressive to see they only pull around 9W at full brightness and perhaps 6W at a typical, comfortable level. Not very much nowadays compared to the CPU or GPU.
Out of interest I took a quick look at power saved when entering airplane mode (wireless off) to find only about half a watt saved. The LED keyboard lighting was significant if you want to push battery life during light work, at about 1.8W at full brightness, it can be worth turning off.
I took a look at the power draw while running the multithreaded winrar benchmark with screen brightness at max, and we see power use roughly doubled with this heavy CPU load, up about 27W for the GT72 and 38W for the older generation ASUS. A nice advantage to the new generation using 30% less power.
Power drawn during the Resident Evil benchmark varied a bit, the numbers I recorded are a sustained peak during the more demanding parts of the benchmark. Again the GT72 has an advantage over the older system, but the relative advantage narrows as most of the power draw is from the GPU. If I had measured total power use over the entire benchmark it would have likely given more of an advantage to the GT72. The power use on the GT72S is a little higher because of its higher spec GPU and other components. Performance per watt is still very nice.
I briefly turned off the GTX970M in the GT72 and switched to the CPU based graphics. Power consumption was not significantly lower at idle, so I doubt it is worth ever switching to this mode.
When using these systems to run demanding applications such as games, you will want a wall socket nearby. I have not measured battery life as it will vary widely depending on use, but we can get an idea what to expect based on battery specifications.
Consider the worst case power use when the system is running under sustained, near peak load in a high end game. At say 140W, the 83 watt hour battery in the MSI is going to last perhaps a little over 30 mins, not much of a gaming session! On the other hand, with keyboard lights off (saves 1.6W) and screen lowish on the G72, call it 25W to cover some burst CPU use and we are looking at a much better 83/25 = about 3 hours.
I’m trying to imagine what the MSI would look like if you managed to plug cables into every possible port on offer! Would not be a pretty picture, but it is nice to see the many options here allowing a ton of peripherals to be plugged all over the place. In particular, I hate notebooks with USB on only one side, its never the side where I want to plug in stuff. In the MSIs case, there are plenty on both sides.
The optical drive (anyone still use these?) is on the right side, with 2 x USB 3.0 ports
The left side has a plethora of connectivity options! Front right you can see a built in card reader, behind that is an array of 4 x audio connectors, then 4 x USB 3.0 ports with the one immediately behind the audio ports offering a “Super Charger” that supports fast charging for some devices when the notebook is off.
On the back left you have a Kensington lock option. In the middle back we have an array of connectors, starting left middle with a Mini-DisplayPort, then a shiny new USB SuperPort Type C supporting Thunderbolt 3 with DisplayPort, and USB 3.1 available from the single port. We have a HDMI port, a, RJ-45 network port, and the power connector. Finally, vents span both sides at the rear of the notebook.
The bottom panel comes off in a single piece to access the guts, and externally is built around a solid grill. The subwoofer is mounted and facing through this area and you have a battery reset hole, since otherwise the battery is not accessible.
A Pretty Keyboard
I am not a fan of the “pretty” rainbow lighting on the keyboards, though it seems in the office I am outvoted, with most people loving the effect. You can control brightness, colours, and the pattern of colours of the SteelSeries keyboard with one mode causing dynamic waves of multi-coloured light to move across the keyboard.
I added a shot of the rainbow effect below. OK. I’ll admit its pretty.
Note the array of buttons to the left. Apart from power you have lighting control for the keyboard there, a fan boost button to improve cooling, and a graphics button to switch to the CPU based GPU which I could not see much use for, given the power consumption figures.
On a more practical note, the feel of the keyboard I do like. Keyboard preference is a matter of personal choice, however there are also obvious differences in build quality between some brands and models, and MSI have made using a quality brand name keyboard a justifiable feature with the GT72.
Cooling System and Noise
The GT72 models employ a capable and quiet cooling system. On boot up it is noisy and pumps a lot of air out the back of the notebook, but once in Windows, under management, noise reduces to very low levels and largely stays there. These notebooks are practically silent for most use.
The MSI notebooks feature a “Cooler Boost” button, when toggled on it boost the fan speed to help cool down the notebook. I didn’t use this feature while running the published benchmarks but rather stuck with the AUTO option, which resulted in near silent operation. My brief tests with the function on showed slightly better benchmark results, but I don’t think minor benefit would be worth the noise.
Similarly there is an “ECO Engine” function to switch between various power reduction options. Benchmarks, including power consumption measurements, were run with this at default, which was the sports mode.
While running benchmarks in an air conditioned environment and fans speed on auto, the fans did kick in on occasional, but I was quite surprised how much it took to get them to crank up. Under high CPU load the notebooks remained near silent and they never came close to maximum rpm. Under high GPU load I noticed the fans kicking in, but the noise level was low and a pleasant hum, never the annoying whine you can get with small high speed fans.
The Dynaudio sound system is very nice for a notebook, one of the best, though still limited by the space available. You will still want high quality headphones if sound quality is critical for you.
The new HM170 chipset offers additional features over older generation models, and the high end CM236 chipset in the top model adds to those features. Technologies supported by the chipsets that directly impact use have been already mentioned but there are some addition features of the GT72S worth mentioning.
The CM236 offers Intel RST additional PCI-E ports (probably essential for the performance we saw on the PCI-E SSDs), support for vPro, trusted execution, virtualisation, and VT-d. For workstation and business use, support for some or all of these technologies may be useful, and in some cases essential. Gamers need not given them much consideration.
The units are 428 (W) x 249 (D) x 48 (H) mm and weight 3.8kb with battery. This is a not a light unit, but the weight is acceptable for a high performance notebook.
My review is not comprehensive, but I think it is “actionable”. We have looked at enough aspects of the MSI units to help with a buying decision.
I am impressed with the MSI GT72 Gen 6 notebooks, and like the new features and performance available with the Skylake platform. The build quality and display are awesome, connectivity options are excellent, and power efficiency, noise, and general performance are good.
The older Haswell based platforms remain competitive, particularly for GPU limited gaming use. You should see some good value deals around as Haswell models are cleared offering similar performance for many games if lacking some of the new features, technology, and CPU efficiency.
Any of the GT72 models will get the job done for high performance gaming, with the SSD and dual channel RAM worthwhile options. The base GT72 models are very good value, while the high end GT72S is for gamers who want the best, and particularly for users who can take advantage of its monster SSD speeds.
On a final note, I ran tests on these notebooks under largely default, out of the box conditions. You will be able to tweak settings to gain some performance advantages. In particular, the GT72S is built to overclock with a K series CPU and explicit support for overclocking in the bios. You might also want to take a look at MSIs afterburner software.
If you want closer look at these models, we have them on display in our showroom.