Mobile workstations tend to fall into one of two camps: 15-inch models for mainstream 3D CAD or 17-inch models for more demanding 3D work.
The MSI GT60-20K sits between the two, delivering a number of 17-inch class features in a 15-inch form factor. It’s a hefty machine, styled for hardcore gamers rather than Dieter Rams devotees, but some interesting capabilities set it aside from much of the competition.
The standout component is the powerful Nvidia Quadro GPU. While most 15-inch mobile workstations are limited to a Quadro K2100M (2GB GDDR5), the MSI GT60-2OK has the thermal headroom to handle the more powerful Quadro K3100M (4GB GDDR5).
This could be a particularly big deal for designers who interact with large assemblies but find their models slow down when applying realistic materials and lighting.
On paper, the Quadro K3100M is significantly superior to the Quadro K2100M: more CUDA processing cores (768 versus 576), a faster memory interface (256-bit versus 128-bit) and a faster memory bandwidth (102GB/sec versus 48GB/sec). But this superiority also translates to the real world, with our system significantly outpacing comparative Quadro 2100M-based machines in our SPECapc Creo 2.0 benchmark.
The powerful GPU also dovetails nicely with the superb 15.6” IPS 3K (2,880 x 1,620) panel, one of the best we’ve seen on a mobile machine. The detail is excellent and the colours vivid and consistent, adding a whole new life to rendered CAD models.
The sheer number of pixels however does have an impact on 3D performance and with some workflows you may get levels of performance more akin to a Quadro K2100M. To put this in context, some CAD applications show as much as a 30% slow down moving from HD to 3K with certain models.
The second area in which the MSI GT60-20K demonstrates its high-end capabilities is in storage. In addition to one 2.5-inch drive there’s room for three mSATA SSDs, the most we have seen in any mobile workstation. And, most interestingly for power users, they can be combined to form a triple SSD RAID 0 array that boasts over 1,500MB/s read speed, three times that of a single SSD. MSI calls this ‘Super RAID 2’.
Unfortunately, this lightning fast storage wasn’t specced in our test machine.
Instead, it came with a more standard two drive setup comprising a single 128GB Toshiba mSATA SSD for operating system and apps and a 1TB 7,200RPM HGST 2.5-inch HDD for data. It’s a perfectly good arrangement for CAD, but doesn’t show off the true capabilities of this somewhat unique 15-inch machine.
The rest of the spec is more standard: a quad-core Core i7-4800MQ CPU, pretty standard for CAD, runs at a nominal clock speed of 2.7GHz and Turbo Boosts up to 3.7GHz. There’s a sizeable 16GB of DDR3 memory, with two spare slots to take it up to 32GB should you so desire.
But upgrades could be an issue for some. Unlike, Dell and HP, who positively encourage upgrades and repairs with their easy access and tool-less chassis designs, MSI slaps a ‘warranty void if removed’ sticker across one of the back panel’s six screws. And when there’s a three-year warranty on the line, it’s wise to tread carefully.
Upgrades are possible, but will need to be ‘official’, done through a registered reseller such as Scan. With this in mind it’s worth thinking doubly about the future before settling on a spec, particularly in terms of storage and memory. Of course, if you never tinker with your technology, this barrier to performing user upgrades will be a moot point.
For peripherals the machine is well equipped: three USB 3.0 ports on the left hand side are handily labeled in blue. There’s also a single USB 2.0 on the right, next to the DVD RW drive. For connecting up to external displays there’s an HDMi and two mini DisplayPorts, but no VGA.
The recessed trackpad is a bit on the small side, but we found it to be perfectly functional. The SteelSeries island-style keyboard is comfortable to use and there’s also space for a numeric keypad for your all-important CAD input.
The keys are backlit and you can make the whole thing flash with different colours should you want a disco in your design office.
Above the keyboard there’s an array of touch buttons that perform some interesting functions: one instantly puts the machine into airplane mode, another turns on the fan full pelt — presumably to keep GPU and CPU running cool and fast under exceptional loads. A third launches the System Control Manager, an onscreen UI with controls for WiFi, Bluetooth, webcam, brightness, volume etc. It’s useful to have all of these things in one place rather than fiddling around with function keys and Windows submenus.
Going against the growing trend in mobile workstations for minimal styling and premium materials, the GT60-20K’s design is more ornate and plasticky. Yes, there’s brushed aluminium on the back of the display, but it’s bordered by a shiny plastic surround. The machine is also quite weighty: 3.5kg on its own, plus a 1.05kg mains adapter, which is a little heavier than most.
The GT60-20K’s looks may not appeal to everyone but the price certainly will. You’ll be extremely hard pushed to find a machine with this spec for under £2,000 – if indeed one exists.
The fast GPU, 3K IPS display and potential for superfast RAID storage is not something we’ve seen in a 15-inch form factor before and for this alone it’s an interesting proposition.
(secs – smaller is better)
CAM (Delcam PowerMill) 1) 170 2) 268 3) 386
Rendering (3ds Max Design 2011) – 240
(bigger is better)
CAD (SolidWorks 2013) – N/A – does not run on Windows 8
CAD (Creo 2.0 – SPECapc graphics test) – 5.89
Intel Core i7 4800MQ (2.7GHz turbo to 3.7GHz) (Quad Core) CPU
16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3 – 1600 memory
Nvidia Quadro K3100M (4GB GDDR5) GPU (311.91 driver)
128GB Toshiba THNSNH128GMCT SSD + HGST 7,200 RPM hard disk drive
36 month warranty covers parts, labour, collect & return