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What we learned testing a ridiculous VR-ready gaming laptop

Yes, it's ridiculous, but it's possible

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The MSI GT72S Dominator Pro Dragon Edition Gaming Laptop is ridiculous, and the silliness starts with that name.

It's a huge, somewhat gaudy design. The keyboard can light up in a variety of colors. The top of the system has a red dragon on it, with a single white eye, because of course it does. There is no attempt to make the fit and finish of this thing understated. The loaner I was sent to try even has an iBuyPower sticker on the top that was attached unevenly.

The cost is also pretty bonkers for a gaming PC; you're paying a premium to put desktop power into something portable. This configuration, in fact, can be yours for a mere $2,737! I have kept all the descriptors and branding for each component because high-end PC components can get a bit goofy when it comes to branding, and I'd like us to appreciate this fact together.

  • Display: MSI GT72S Dominator Dragon Edition, 17.3" IPS FHD, anti-glare 1920x1080 [SKL] G-Sync display, Dragon Edition
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-6820HK (4x 2.7 GHz/8 MB L3 Cache) [GT72S]
  • Memory: 16 GB [8 GB x 2] 2133 MHz DDR4 SO-DIMM Laptop Memory (free upgrade to DDR4-2400 G.SKILL Ripjaws)
  • Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 8 GB GDDR5 [GT72S] - desktop graphics performance [DE]
  • Primary Hard Drive: 500 GB 7200 rpm super slim laptop hard drive (free upgrade to 1TB 7200 rpm)
  • Optical Drive: 8x dual-format DVD±R/±RW + 16x CD-R/RW combo drive [GT72]
  • Media Card Reader / Writer: built-in SD memory card reader/writer [Laptop]
  • Sound Card: HD Audio with Creative Soundblaster Cinema 2
  • Network Card: Killer E2400 Gaming Network Internal
  • Wireless Network Adapter: 802.11ac Wi-Fi + Bluetooth Combo [M.2]

So what's it like in practice?

Using the system

The good news is that there is surprisingly little cruft for such an otherwise conspicuous system.

There is the Nahimic program that gives you control of your audio and microphone, but for some reason it added echo to my voice chat as standard, so I quickly turned it off. the MSI True Color program allows you to tweak the system's display. The Dragon Gaming Center gives you a high-performance toggle and a choice of three "shift modes" including Green, Comfort and Sport.

Sport is the fastest in terms of performance, but of course once you toggle all the highest-performance modes you're going to be guzzling power; "Sport" can't even be enabled unless the AC adapter is plugged in.

The AC adapter, by the way, comes complete with a rather large power brick. There is nothing about this thing that's small. Here's a shot of the laptop under my 11-inch Macbook Air, so you can get a sense for the pure girth of the thing.

msi laptop side

The installation of Windows 10 is clean outside of the three aforementioned programs and a splash screen that asks you to register the laptop upon boot. But I understand the need for some bespoke options to control power consumption; you can get a few hours of use out of the system if you take a moment to throttle down the performance, but at that point you're dragging around a lot of dead gaming weight if you're only interested in standard computing.

You can get a supercar for your daily commute, in other words, but it's not the best tool for the job. This system was meant for people who want a portable gaming PC that doesn't make many compromises, and you can find a lot of words spilled saying exactly that. We were going to look at the system through a new critical lens:

How does it handle virtual reality?

A portable VR solution

The GT72S passed the Oculus compatibility test and scored a 7.2 on the Steam VR Performance Test, putting it in the middle of the "green" zone. It's not going to have any issues with running current and likely most upcoming VR games and experiences, and that's not surprising with a desktop GTX 980 running games.

The lack of restraint in the system's hardware design makes it ideal for virtual reality in a number of ways. There are six USB ports on the laptop in total, with two on one side and four on the other. The HDMI port is located on the back of the system, but the Oculus Rift has enough spacing in the cable that you'll be able to connect both the HDMI and USB cables needed for the headset without much trouble. This also leaves plenty of room for the large USB dongle required for the Xbox One controller, even without using the included extender that comes with the Rift.

The HTC Vive was just as easy to connect, leaving plenty of USB cables to charge the controllers if need be.

The value of a VR-ready laptop like the GT72S isn't just the lighter weight and enhanced portability you get from even a laptop this large over a desktop system, but the fact that the monitor is powered and included in a single package. It's a single piece of equipment, with a single power cable. I did notice that the touchpad on the system is pretty terrible in general, but without a ridged line it's impossible to feel when you're using a headset. I fixed this by adding an external mouse.

You may not want something this big to watch a movie on a plane or write a term paper inside a Starbucks. But the ability to quickly and simply set up a virtual reality rig wherever you'd like is powerful, and part of the reason one may want to pay the premium for a gaming laptop over the lower cost of putting these same components into a standard case, plus a monitor.

msi laptop 3

So what does that mean in practice?

I took the camera from the Oculus Rift, removed it from the desktop base, and attached it to a camera stand that I then extended to a height of around 5 feet. Then I aimed it downward toward my recliner.

This gave me a huge field of view in which to move and play — it was physically impossible for me to hit the boundary of the camera without getting up — while allowing me to lean back in the chair in much greater comfort than even my desk chair. This whole thing was powered by the GT72S, which I kept on an inexpensive Ikea table to my side.

While you can certainly do this with a desktop system, this configuration took up a good amount of space and would likely be a hazard for the toddlers running around my house. The laptop allowed me to set this up in the evenings in around five minutes, and tear down my mini VR installation just as quickly. You can bring your headset wherever you like without carrying around a tower and monitor.

This whole thing was powered by the GT72S, which I kept on an inexpensive Ikea table to my side

In fact, with just a few additional purchases I was able to create a pretty spiffy VR setup for both the Rift and the HTC Vive that was completely portable. Start with an Ikea table, add two portable light stands, and you can set up either headset with this laptop in only a few minutes.

I was able to use this rig to test out certain games that require more vertical space outside so we didn't have to worry about the ceiling. I could even play games like Unseen Diplomacy that ask for an unobstructed 3-meter-by-4-meter space. I don't know many people who have that much space in their basement or living room, but you can set up the cameras and laptop in someone's backyard or garage and take turns playing, and it's a grand time.

There are a few other things you'll quickly learn when you take this sort of rig on the road or outside. You'll have to keep an eye on the weather to make sure you don't accidentally ruin a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment due to rain, and you may need lengthy extension cables to power the two lighthouse sensors on their stands.

You'll also need to make sure they're planted firmly on the ground; any shift due to someone bumping into the cameras, or even a strong wind, will make it seem like the world is shifting for the person inside VR. It's an uncomfortable feeling.

You'll also want to keep someone standing by the laptop at all times until you get comfortable; we narrowly avoided disaster a few times when someone tried the Rift for the first time and tried to walk away from their seat while in VR, and we had to make sure they didn't pull the laptop onto the ground via the cables. Social VR is great, but having one person assigned to be a sort of "handler" is very helpful, especially with people who have never used the technology before.

So what did we learn?

Portable virtual reality is pretty frickin' great, and it's a good excuse to invest in a serious gaming laptop if you're interested in sharing virtual reality with other people and don't mind paying the premium for the extra portability.

My guess is VR enthusiasts are going to be somewhat interested in taking their systems on the road, but the real audience is going to be developers and exhibitors who want an easy way to bring their VR game to shows like GDC or PAX. Being able to throw a complete VR rig in a backpack, with setup and teardown only taking a few minutes, is a large selling point.

But we're talking about a $2,700 system that can make your $800 VR platform more portable. We're firmly in the luxury side of hardware here but, after a month or so of testing the GT72S in a few different environments, I'll be the first to say it: This is pretty luxurious.

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