The gaming laptop is finally viable.
For years now I’ve laughed at anyone who figured that they could buy a gaming laptop and be happy with the end result. They’ve all been positively anaemic. Mobile GPUs in particular have always lagged significantly behind their desktop counterparts. Even the most powerful laptops couldn’t hold a candle to the desktops – and by that point they were practically all-in-one machines which couldn’t really work as laptops.
2016 is the year that all changes. NVIDIA’s new Pascal architecture has smashed that barrier, and we now have mobile GPUs that are very close to their desktop counterparts. The hype isn’t real – they’re not identical, because the form factor limits how much heat you can deal with – but they’re so close that it might not matter anymore.
One such entry is the ASUS ROG GL502VS series – with my variant being the FY039T. Does it break down the barrier?
What is it?
It’s a 15″ gaming laptop billed as being VR Ready. That’s a pretty bold claim to make, and I don’t have a VR headset to test it with, but on paper it should do the job.
- CPU – Core i7 6700HQ
- GTX 1070 (8GB dedicated VRAM)
- RAM – 16GB RAM included (supports up to 32GB via 2 slots, user serviceable)
- Storage – By default comes with an M2 card (256GB in mine) and a 1TB 7200RM 2.5″ HDD (user serviceable)
- Other – 1080p matte display (G-Sync), webcam/mic, blacklit keyboard, 802.11AC dual band, Bluetooth, speakers, chiclet style keyboard with a condensed numpad, SD card reader
- Ports – 3x USB 3.0, 1x USB C, Gigabit LAN, HDMI and MiniDisplay port
As far as laptops go, this is no ultrabook and it’s relatively fat at 30mm high, and weighs 2.5kg. A far cry from the gaming laptops of yesteryear, but if you wanted something super portable this probably isn’t it. It’s not exactly a great imposition to carry, but it’s also by no means something you’d want to lug around campus. The AC adapter is huge too – it’s a literal brick. Clearly this is something you’re supposed to use at a desk, preferably not moving for too long.
The hardware inside is serious – an i7 6700HQ which is a highly capable mobile CPU. The GTX 1070 is where the real muscle is – a powerful GPU is what you need to game, and the 1070 is highly capable. Note that this is still a mobile GPU so it doesn’t directly compare to the desktop class GPU as closely as NVIDIA suggest, but make no mistake – this is miles ahead of most mobile GPU nonsense we’ve had over the years. My system came with 16GB of RAM with a spare slot for more – you can easily turn this up to 32GB.
Notably there’s a few modifications you can make to the device. The M2 card is on a slot that can be swapped out, and the HDD it comes with is a standard 2.5″ SATA bay. I immediately swapped out the HDD for an SSD from my old system, giving me 512GB of extra SSD goodness. The base plate is really easy to take off and lets you see the twin fan cooling system the system desperately needs.
You want a mobile gaming system? This is one of the best out there. I played Doom (2016), Cities: Skylines, Black Mesa, and Total War: Warhammer at the highest settings at 1080p. My comparison was my desktop: i7 4770k, 8GB RAM, and GTX 970, still a capable machine by most definitions, especially at 1080p. It handled the lot without much trouble at all, even at Ultra settings on any of these games. Granted, C:Skylines and BM aren’t exactly taxing games, but Warhamemr and Doom certainly are, and both performed exceptionally well. No hitches, no hiccups, nothing to really distinguish that this was a mobile device rather than a desktop. Easily comparable to my old desktop, and surpassed it in many ways.
Some of you might be thinking “So what? Your system has an older CPU, GPU and less RAM! LOL NOOB” but RAM isn’t much of an issue, and older desktop GPUs still regularly outclassed even later generations of mobile GPUs. My old 970 could crush any mobile GPU from the same generation. Now? That tide has turned. It’s now possible to have a gaming laptop that actually plays games like a desktop.
I think this would probably change once you get to the 4k arena, but since I lack a 4k display I can’t exactly test that one out. But for 1080p, this is a beast.
Outside of that, the beefy CPU will allow you to carry out all sorts of other tasks, like video editing or even some 3D modelling, without too much trouble. The keyboard is actually really nice to type on too – the keys have a good travel and feel nice to type on. No mechanical keyboard, but far from the spongy mess seen in so many other laptops. Also the F keys are enabled by default, and pressing Fn activates special functions like disabling the touchpad, changing keyboard lighting, or brightness.
It’s also well stocked with ports including a USB Type C port if you happen to have any use for that. As with most devices these days there’s no DVD/BD ROM drive, but I doubt it’d be much use anyway.
Not only could I easily play games on this thing, but I could also quite happily work away on documents or whatever else I wanted to do without any dramas. Also the matte screen is a lot easier to work with – it’s quite bright with good viewing angles, and doesn’t suffer from the horrible reflective glare that glossy screens have.
In terms of heat and cooling, the device wasn’t too bad – better than I expected. It does get loud under load – loud enough that I’d want to wear headphones if you’re playing something intense – but if you’ve put up with desktop fans whining away you’ll probably be okay. I haven’t managed to watch the temps during play yet but it seems to do an adequate job of avoiding heat death. ASUS have cleverly designed the heat piping to keep it away from the WASD cluster that gamers most likely use – but the right side of the keyboard feels quite warm under load. Right above the keyboard is noticeably hot (which is where a lot of the heat exchange resides). It cools down rapidly soon after the load is taken off.
Nothing is flawless, and so it is with this device. Firstly, let’s get the obvious out of the way: as far as high performance laptops go, this is still pretty portable, but if you value mobility there are probably better options. It has some clear heft to it and it has a large footprint, even for a 15″ device – but there’s nothing you can do about that with such a strong system under the hood. Also battery life is abysmal – at about 3 hours maximum with limited load, this is not a road warrior device. I wouldn’t even try gaming without being plugged in. Since the display uses NVIDIA’s G-Sync vertical sync solution, you can’t use Intel’s on-chip GPU to squeeze extra battery life out. Given that the power brick is literally a brick, this isn’t really a device for people who want true portability.
The trackpad is also a bit meh. Granted I’m spoiled by Apple’s awesome trackpads, but this one feels pretty average. It does the job but it’s not particularly nice to use. It feels really slippery but it’s not particularly sensitive. The bottom section act as left and right click but they seem a bit iffy to use sometimes.
These are all relatively minor issues given the device. But there’s one baffling thing – the screen. While it does the job, it’s far from a quality display. The colours seem a little bit off with weird contrast/gamma issues for a start – and I’m not sure if this is some Asus post-processing work or if it’s a fault with the panel itself. You can sort of correct this with software. One thing you can’t correct is the ghosting. In some situations, this isn’t overly noticeable – it’s a 60hz screen so coming from 120hz I will see I difference in general – but in some applications it can get distracting. While I didn’t notice it too much playing Doom or Warhammer, I did notice it quite a bit playing Rocksmith 2014. Was it an unusable mess? Nope, far from it. Did it get distracting, at least at first? You bet it did. I don’t understand why Asus has a gaming laptop with such a fault. Whether or not it matters to you may depend on what you’re playing or doing, and what sort of displays you’ve used in the past. Either way, you can tell it’s there.
Asus also load on a bunch of bloatware. Seriously, guys, stop doing this shit. Some of it was clearly done to try to benefit the end user (their ROG Gaming Centre thing sets up profiles to change display modes or disable the trackpad etc, which is useful) but a lot of things just seem to get in the way. Including things like Dropbox and Evernote and McAfee (oh god please stop doing this!) is more rubbish I have to get rid of.
The actual hardware under the hood (keyboard?) is phenomenal, and it’s one of the first times I’ve thought that a gaming laptop is a thing that I could use and not compromise on (well, expect for battery life I guess). If I still went to LAN parties, I could easily take this thing and play like the desktop gamers. Unfortunately I haven’t been to a LAN since 2006. My desktop is now replaced with this, and I have absolutely no regrets about doing so. This thing is awesome.
But the screen… man, who the hell at Asus thought this was a good idea? It’s good enough I suppose, but it’s far from great, and it actually lets the device down quite a bit. It’s great that it supports G-Sync, and to be honest I don’t even care so much that it’s only a 60hz display. But the ghosting is annoying, and it shouldn’t exist in 2016. It’s bright, it’s matte, it’s sharp, but it ghosts. It’s one significant flaw that I wish they didn’t do. Granted, it’s more of an annoyance than a deal-breaker, at least for me (and I could always just use an external display), but it shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.
That said, I’d still recommend this on raw performance alone. This thing is a powerhouse, an absolute monster. It smashes the preconception that gaming laptops don’t really exist. You still compromise, but it’s not on performance – it’s on battery life, a battle we’re unlikely to win.
I got mine for $2600 from a local retailer, but they can go as high as $2800 or so. Whether that price is worth it for you is really something only you can answer. For $2600 I’m extremely pleased, but $2800? Maybe not.