Before getting started: Our Vega FE Hybrid mod has just gone through its final data pass, and is now in video editing and writing. The content will arrive tomorrow!
That cleared away, as we know a lot of folks are excited for the mod's results, we're now focusing on the MSI GTX 1080 Ti Lightning card momentarily. This is a video card that we first covered at Computex 2017, where we detailed initial specifications, MOSFETs and power components, and the target use case of XOC or heavy overclocking. We didn't yet have information on the card internals, but our latest tear-down (embedded below) gives some insight on the card's design. There are some unique features on this card that should pose an interesting A/B test during thermal benchmarking.
Our approach to reviewing the MSI GE72 7RE gaming laptop has been more drawn-out than normally, as we’ve individually run tests for FPS performance and for the impact of pre-installed software on the machine. Today, we’re combining all of those numbers into our final review of the MSI GE72 7RE notebook and its 1050 Ti & i7-7700HQ hardware, coming to an ultimatum on the product as a whole.
The MSI GE72 7RE Apache Pro runs a 17.3” display, making for what is an abnormally large form factor for a 1050 Ti, and is able to accommodate a larger keyboard as a result. It’s not a perfect keyboard, as we’ll discuss in the video, but it does have a numpad and most standard keys. This larger form factor is also critical for the sprawling cooling solution, which makes use of the additional area to spread out its heatpipes and dual-fan cooling. It’s a trade-off, as always: A bigger laptop does mean better cooling, but a 1050 Ti does sort of seem the perfect fit for a 14-15.6” machine. From experience, we can say that you won’t be opening this display in an economy seat on an airplane – but if that’s not how the laptop is being used, you end up with what is still a slim, fairly light option.
Our model included a 128GB SSD from Toshiba (but supply changes, so that’s not a guaranteed supplier), 1TB HDD, 2x8GB DIMMs, the 1050 Ti, and an i7-7700HQ. The price for this unit, which we had on loan, would run around $1200-$1300.
MSI representatives were excited to show us the company’s new AIC M.2 adapter & cooler combo, noting that it should address our previous concerns (that the company had validated, with some SSDs) regarding the M.2 heat “shields.” The AIC is a PCIe x8 device that can run 2x M.2 SSDs (at full throughput) in RAID, or can mount a 2.5” drive to the back-side of the card. Each M.2 SSD is mounted under an MSI heat sink, which they still erroneously call heat “shields,” which is made of a yet-unknown material. If it is the same as the first generation of heat “shields,” it is a stainless steel. If it is the new generation, MSI has gone to aluminum, following our earlier complaints of poor thermal transfer and dissipation. The AIC also carries with it a small blower fan, which pushes air through the chamber and out the back. An acrylic cover and LED offer some more interesting visuals.
Our initial coverage of the Gigabyte X399 Aorus Gaming 7 motherboard provided a first look at boards outfitted for AMD’s new Threadripper CPU. We’re now moving to ASUS to look at the Zenith Extreme motherboard, for which ASUS provided significantly fewer details than other motherboard vendors. Still, we were able to get a hands-on look and figure out a few of the basics.
The ASUS Zenith Extreme is AMD’s flagship X399 motherboard – pricing TBD, as AMD has not yet finalized socket and chipset prices – and will likely ship in August. As we understand it, Threadripper’s launch should be August 10th, which is around when all the motherboards would theoretically ship. Mass production is targeted for most boards in mid-August.
We posted a content piece pertaining to MSI’s pre-installed software – which we called “bloatware” – prior to the start of Computex. The company had responded at first with silence to emails, but then responded mid-week (in emails) with an overall neutral tone that suggested a wish to improve. There wasn’t much said in the emails, though, and certainly nothing official – so we sought out MSI’s US laptop representative at Computex, then asked for comment.
MSI’s Clifford Chun joined us, Product Manager of Laptops at MSI (US HQ), and discussed the company’s intermediary solution to the excessive pre-installed software. As Chun states in the video below, MSI will begin including an uninstaller package with their new laptops in 2H17. This utility will provide check boxes to each of the pre-installed applications and, upon launching it, will allow users to check and delete software. There is some irony to the idea of including more software to remove software, of course, but it’s a first step. It’d also be ideal to opt-in, not out, but marketing agreements do not generally permit this (as we said in the first video).
We’ll talk more below about why MSI is stuck in a difficult position, but first, the interview:
Most manufacturers have invited us to some sort of notebook press conference or briefing for this show, and there are a few reasons why: For one, nVidia is now pushing a new initiative to tighten requirements on manufacturers to build quieter laptops, and two, AMD R7 notebooks are now beginning to enter the channel. We’ll focus on MSI’s new notebooks here, alongside some additional coverage of nVidia’s new “Max-Q” initiative, named in true Bond-like fashion.
MSI’s new laptops use existing product lines from Intel and nVidia, so there’s no new silicon, but the company has revamped its chassis and cooling solution for the new GT75VR Titan, GE63VR Raider, and GE73VR Raider. Unfortunately, the company did not take questions during its press conference, so we’ll have to save our recent criticisms for a second booth visit later in the show. Regardless, we’ve got information on the hardware, and that’s something for which we’ve previously praised MSI. Based on upgrades to cooling, MSI boasted heavily in the press conference that the new notebooks would produce “30% higher performance,” though we do not know what they will be 30% higher than, or in what measurement.
Anyway, let’s cut through the marketing and talk hardware.
MSI’s flagship GTX 1080 Ti Lightning GPU made an appearance at the company’s Computex booth this year, where we were able to get hands-on with the card and speak with PMs about VRM and cooling solutions. The 1080 Ti Lightning is an OC-targeted card, as indicated by its LN2 BIOS switch, and will compete with other current flagships (like the Kingpin that we just covered). The Lightning does not yet have a price, but we know the core details about cooling and power.
Starting with cooling: MSI’s 1080 Ti Lightning uses a finned baseplate (think “pin fins” from ICX) to provide additional surface area for dissipation of VRM/VRAM component heat. This baseplate covers the usual areas of the board, but is accompanied by a blackout copper heatpipe over the MOSFETs & driver IC components for heat sinking of power modules. We’ve seen this design get more spread lately, and have found it to be effective for cooling VRM devices. The heatpipe is cooled by the Lightning’s 3-fan solution, as is the rest of the thick finstack above the custom PCB.
MSI’s GTX 1080 Ti Armor card piqued our attention for its weak stock cooler and non-reference PCB: The card, at $700, appears to be the closest we’ll get to a bare 1080 Ti PCB sale. It’s an ideal liquid cooling candidate, particularly given the overwhelmingly negative user reviews pertaining to the card’s propensity to overheat. The photos made the Armor look like a Gaming X PCB -- something we praised in our PCB & VRM electrical analysis -- but with a GTX 1070 class cooler stuck onto it. If that were the case, it’d mean the 1080 Ti Armor would perform dismally in thermals when tested with its stock cooler, but could make for a perfect H2O card.
We decided to buy one and find out why the MSI Armor had such bad user reviews, and if it’d be possible to turn the card into the best deal for a liquid-cooled 1080 Ti.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the hardware industry is when a company made a perfectly viable product, but somehow flummoxed execution. The consumer doesn’t see the architecture or the engineering – at least, not outside of reviews – they see the full picture. In this capacity, consumers get a view of a product that is similar to a product manager’s: The big picture as it comes together, seeing past all the smaller details along the way.
A GPU might, for instance, be a powerhouse when analyzed under an SEM or in a vacuum, but could prove hamstrung in adverse thermal conditions resultant of an inadequate cooler. More appropriately, a laptop could host the best mobile hardware available, but prove devalued when flooded with unneeded software. The fastest SSD in the business, as bogged down with bloatware, will still be slower than a clean Windows install on a fresh HDD.
This big picture is sometimes lost to the chaos of marketing development efforts, particularly when MDF starts exchanging hands, and lost in the need to turn a profit in an industry with small margins. That’s what happened with MSI’s laptops: These are completely capable, highly competitive laptops that demand attention – but they’re plagued with an ineffable concoction of applications, responsible for doubling time required to boot. That’s not all, either – we have measured an impact to noise output as the CPU boosts sporadically, an unpredictable and spurious impact to frametimes, an impact to battery life, and an overall reduction in product quality.
All because of bloatware.
Laptop reviewing and benchmarking comes with a unique challenge: We don’t typically get to hang onto review samples once the cycle is complete, unlike other review products, which limits regression testing for content like today’s. This means that we need to rely on some of our older testing and methodology, but we can still judge scaling based on old games – that should be mostly linear, with some exceptions (which we’ve accounted for in our summary of tests).
Fortunately, the upshot of revisiting older titles for comparative analysis is that those titles do not change. They don’t get updates to game code and they don’t get driver updates, so results should largely exist in a hermetically sealed state.
Regardless, today’s goal is to benchmark the GTX 1050 Ti notebook GPU. We still have a lot of work to do on notebooks as we work to rebuild our bench, but this will start us off. The GTX 1070 is next. We’re starting with an MSI GE72 7RE Apache Pro with GTX 1050 Ti and i7-7700HQ CPU. This isn’t a review of the GE72 – that’s upcoming – but just a GPU benchmark to help determine scaling and placement of the 1050 Ti against other notebook GPUs.
Our review of the notebook is forthcoming, as are a few feature benchmark pieces. It’ll be interesting stuff, as we’ve got some key things to point out with this one. Be sure to follow or subscribe to catch that. For today, let’s get into the 1050 Ti notebook benchmarks.
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