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ASUS G74SX-A1 Gaming Notebook Review

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SKYMTL

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With people increasingly on the go, many have left behind their desktop PCs in favor of the portability which laptops, netbooks and to a lesser extent, tablets provide. Even some gamers are gravitating towards laptops which specifically fit their needs and companies like ASUS, MSI and Dell have begun catering to this market niche with some really interesting products.

ASUS’ latest efforts have focused upon using NVIDIA’s new GTX 560M to create a lineup of G74SX gaming laptops that are powerful, well priced and quite efficient when used in day to day tasks. The G74 lineup consists of no fewer than eight standard models with vendor-exclusives sold through stores like Best Buy and TigerDirect. They will range in price from $1200 (1600x900 screen, GTX 560M, 8GB memory, 1 year warranty), all the way up to $1999 (1080P 3D screen, GTX 560M, 12GB, 2 year warranty) so pay attention to the specifications before taking the plunge on this one. The subject of this review however is the G74SX-A1 which goes for around $1749 and has some suitably high end specifications.


The inclusion of the GTX 560M will give this notebook plenty of gaming horsepower but you won’t find any Optimus support here. ASUS seems to feel the increased battery life this technology brings to the table has no place on a gaming notebook. What really caught our eye though was the warranty: 2 years of standard warranty service with a single year of accidental damage coverage and 30 days of protection against any display issues like stuck pixels.


Pictures just can’t do this fact justice but the G74SX is a deceptively large laptop due to its 17.3” screen size and high end hardware specifications. Luckily, ASUS includes a custom Targus carrying backpack because even our 17” compatible Dell bag wouldn’t fit the G74 into its confines. This thing is hefty too with a weight of just over eight pounds once its 8-cell battery is installed. So don’t expect to be carting the G74SX to school with you on a daily basis without being hunched over.


Unlike other gaming laptops that look and feel like oversized bricks, ASUS’ has some subtle design elements that work to slim things down a bit. It also exhibits excellent build quality and even after weeks of testing it didn’t creak or bow in any way after being schlepped around to and from work.

There aren’t any glaring issues here other than one small oversight on ASUS’ part: due to the overlapping design, the G74SX’s battery charging light can’t be seen when the lid is closed so a quick glance won’t tell you if it’s ready to go mobile.



The G74SX is certainly not sexy by any stretch of the imagination but ASUS has added a slight bevel to the lid (which is coated in an excellent rubberized finish) and the entire outer shell narrows to about 0.8” as it approaches the palm rest’s leading edge. But at a maximum of 2.4” thick, there is no way this thing can be considered svelte by any stretch of the imagination.

With the lines of a supermodel but the heft of a sumo wrestler, there are plenty of places for connection options and it looks like ASUS took full advantage of the real estate. The right side of the G74SX houses the power connector, a LAN jack, a mini-HDMI output, two USB ports (one of which is compatible with SuperSpeed USB 3.0), a VGA connector and a 5-in-1 media card reader. The left side meanwhile has the headphone / mic jacks, two more USB 2.0 ports and a Kensington lock. Bluetooth, wireless 802.11 a/g/n and a 2.0MP webcam have also been built into the chassis.


Supposedly the G74 series sports a much improved cooling design over the previous G73 series and if the new massively endowed cooling vents are any indication, we’d be inclined to agree with ASUS on this one. In order to quickly disperse internal heat build-up the cooling system draws in cool air through one of these back-mounted vents and then exhausts it through another. This design guarantees that using this notebook on a non-solid surface won’t impact upon its cooling performance.

The hinge has also been tweaked and it provides a very steady platform which doesn’t exhibit any flexing and firmly locks the screen into place.


ASUS has designed the G74SX’s underside in such a way that it is devoid of any heat exhaust vents but otherwise, there really isn’t anything interesting going on here. There is however a large screw for quick and easy decoupling of a panel which hides the memory and HDD caddy.

The battery on this laptop is built directly into the chassis’ underside but can be removed by simply moving a few sliders which hold it in place. Since it is already packing an 8-cell battery (yes, that’s an 8-cell in the picture above) ASUS doesn’t offer any battery upgrade options for the G74SX.
 
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SKYMTL

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Keyboard & Track Pad

Keyboard & Track Pad



ASUS has equipped the G74SX with a chiclet-style full sized keyboard that is built at a slight incline due to the notebook’s design. There is a bit of travel distance between the keyboard’s edge and the track pad. This allows for an extensive palm rest which has been covered in a durable matte rubberized finish that boasts an abundance of grip.

The layout here is a bit on the generic side but does include dedicated media functionality as alternate key bindings for the arrow keys and the necessary buttons for manually dimming the keyboard’s backlight. With that being said, the keys are logically placed and the full sized left / right shift and spacebar keys will be welcome for those coming from slightly smaller notebooks.

The extreme upper right hand corner houses the power button (which glows a soft white and isn’t in any way distracting) and another button with an imprint of ASUS’ Republic of Gamers logo. This ROG button cycles through ASUS’ custom power mode profiles. Office (quiet), Battery saving, High Performance and Entertainment functionality are included.


All of the individual keys are well spaced with plenty of distance between neighbors. This entire review was written on the tested product and to be honest, the G74SX was an absolute joy to type on. Its gaming roots necessitating excellent tactile feedback and that’s exactly what ASUS has delivered. Every key has a good amount of travel distance without needing too much force to register an input and the sound it makes is the satisfying *snick, snick, snick* we’re used to hearing from a high quality key switches. Due to the ergonomic design, typing didn’t cause any fatigue but we’d wouldn’t recommend using the G74SX without a solid surface holding it up because its crushing weight and massive size. Think of this as a laptop that really shouldn’t be used on your lap.

The separate number pad is a great addition for gamers since it will be useful for in-game macro functions and it can also come in handy for generic number entry as well. We just found ourselves wishing for a dedicated Num Lock button.

While good tactile feedback and a simple learning curve are both hallmarks of a great notebook keyboard design, the crowning achievement of the G74SX’s input array is something that many will likely overlook. Instead of mounting the arrow keys in-line with the keypad, ASUS has given them a few extra millimeters of clearance on every side. This minimizes the possibility of hitting the wrong key during hot and heavy in-game action sequences.

Unfortunately, there was one somewhat major issue during testing: after a few days of typing, our unit’s Enter key began intermittently sticking in a fully depressed position. After contacting a few other publications, our G74 seemed to be the only one experiencing this issue so while was likely just an anomaly, we’d be doing you guys a disservice if it wasn’t at least mentioned.


Much like the keyboard, the G74SX’s trackpad is well designed with a focus upon gaming ergonomics. It features a large multi-touch surface that responds very well to commands and two rubberized buttons which require just the right amount of pressure. With the included software, the sensitivity can be tweaked or the whole affair can be turned off when a standalone mouse is attached to the system.
 
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SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality / Upgrade Options

Screen Quality



ASUS has equipped the G74SX-A1 with a high definition 1920 x 1080 MVA panel made by AUO and truth be told, it is one of the better notebook screens we have seen in recent years. Its high gloss finish may prove to be a royal pain the ass when used in highly illuminated environments but this shouldn’t be an issue since most gaming notebooks will be used in lower light conditions anyways.

Gamers will be especially appreciative of this screen’s distinct lack of ghosting and reasonably quick response times. Its viewing angles are absolutely stellar as well.

For screen connoisseurs, things could be a bit better though. At its default settings, we noticed the panel exhibited a low contrast ratio to the point where the black level in movies and games suffered. However, this can easily be corrected through NVIDIA’s control panel. Colour saturation and accuracy was also a bit lacking but once again; this can be easily resolved with a few software tweaks.

One thing that can’t be overlooked is a tendency for the screen to exhibit a slight low level flicker whenever a full-screen, predominantly “white” application was minimized. This was especially evident when minimizing programs like Word and Photoshop. We’ve noticed this on the vast majority of desktop and notebook screens sporting certain MVA panels so this definitely isn’t anything new. However, it likely won’t be seen unless you’re actually looking for it and it never, ever occurred in games.


Audio Quality


The speakers built into most laptop are usually mediocre at best but ASUS has been trying to do things a bit differently. It all started with a partnership between ASUS’ mobile division and the audio alchemists at Bang & Olufsen to create a line of ICEpower-equipped entertainment notebooks. The Republic of Gamers products on the other hand have been equipped with Altec Lansing built speakers and THX TrueStudio certification.

Be prepared to be a bit shocked by the sound produced by these Altec Lansing speakers. We’re not talking about rumbling bass and crystal clear highs here but for the most part, audio reproduction on the G74SX is surprisingly good for a notebook. There were some odd chassis vibrations when the volume was jacked up but we’d hope that any gamer would use dedicated speakers if higher decibel levels were required. Nonetheless, this was the only real build quality slip up we detected throughout testing.


Upgrade Options


Unlike many other notebooks, the G74SX incorporates a user-upgradable design which allows quick access to the system memory and hard drives. Access can be achieved through the removal of a single screw on this notepad’s backside.


After the single screw is removed and the access panel popped off, an easy memory of hard drive upgrade can be performed. For those wondering, ASUS has used three 4GB Samsung DDR3-1333MHz memory modules and two Seagate Momentus 750GB hard drives.
 
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SKYMTL

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Included Software

Included Software


ASUS doesn’t usually include copious amounts of bloatware with their gaming notebooks. In this system they have mixed completely unnecessary programs like Nuance PDF Reader, a trial version of Trend Micro Internet Security and Syncables Desktop SE with useful applications like Roxio CinePlayer BD and ASUS’ own software. For the most part ASUS’ programs work very well with the exception of Live Update which continually pops up at the most inopportune moments and didn’t properly install a single update we selected.

The result of all this pre-installed software is a total of 89 processes running within Windows 7 x64 and 1.37GB of system memory used when the G74SX first starts. In a perfect world we like to see memory usage of less than 1.1GB and 80 or so processes running on a notebook using Windows 7.


ASUS uses their own power management system called Power4Gear that cohabitates with Windows’default presets. These can be changed by pressing the RoG button above the notebook’s keyboard while fine tuning for each setting (Entertainment, Quiet Office, Battery Saving and High Performance) can be done in the Power4Gear software. Unlike some clunky applications that manufacturers tend to bundle with their laptops, this one is straightforward and actually works very well. So well in fact that we completely ignored the pre-loaded Windows settings.


GameFast is another ASUS program that we’re sure you are going to love. Even though the G74SX sports a whopping 12GB of system memory, valuable resources that could be used for other tasks are taken up by unnecessary programs and services. What GamesFast does is automatically stop these non-critical system hogs whenever you begin playing a game. In our testing, it actually worked quite well and freed up a good 75MB of system memory.


[email protected] is ASUS’ mostly weak attempt to create an app store which is well designed but isn’t entirely successful due to a limited selection. It provides a snappy interface with access to some very basic downloadable games and online music channels but that’s about it for the time being.
 

SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.






Our first batch of tests against a notebook with similar processor specs shows the G74SX performs well in PCMark7 and WPrime. However, due to its lack of RAID the Crystal Diskmark scores really aren’t all that much different from a laptop equipped with a single hard drive. System startup and shutdown times also left a lot to be desired which is likely due to the excess amount of programs being enabled during Windows startup.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Some of these benchmarks came up with downright odd results for such a powerful system. WinRAR and MediaCoder both put emphasis on memory subsystem performance while Photoshop CS5 requires a combination of memory and CPU speed. Knowing this, our best guess is that the increased latency due to three memory modules being installed on a dual channel system has negatively impacted some of these programs.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI to a 1080P HDTV.




With a GTX560M sitting at its core, the G74SX has absolutely blazed through these HD video tests.
 

SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.








Regardless of the oddball system and productivity benchmarks, the G74SX is built primarily for gaming and that’s exactly where it excels. It didn’t have any issue playing every game in our collection at medium to high detail settings and sometimes had the overhead necessary to enabled anti aliasing. For gamers on the go, there really isn’t anything better than this.
 

SKYMTL

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1080P Gaming Performance

1080P Gaming Performance


For gaming notebooks which support higher resolutions we use the same settings and methodology as seen in the previous section.





While its gaming muscle at slightly lower resolutions was impressive, the G74SX has more than enough left in its tank to produce acceptable framerates at its native 1080P as well. Even demanding DX11 games like Dirt 3 and Civilization V posed absolutely no problem for the GTX 560M.
 

SKYMTL

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Battery Life / Temperatures & Acoustics

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



Considering the G74SX is being marketed as a gaming notebook with aspirations to become a full fledged desktop replacement, long battery life really isn’t necessary. With that being said, its 8-cell battery does give it nearly two and a half hours of constant web browsing or document editing which isn’t bad at all. Once the workload increases in intensity with more CPU-centric tasks, battery life drops significantly and finally bottoms out at just under an hour when pushing the GPU to its limit when gaming. These results won’t set any records but they should be more than enough for the G74SX’s intended niche.


Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



Gaming notebooks usually run hot due to the high performance hardware packed into their limited frames. ASUS has bucked this trend by offering a well-heeled cooling system that keeps the CPU and GPU well under their thermal threshold.



Moving on to the exterior temperatures we don’t see any areas of concern. Once again ASUS’ advanced cooling system is paying dividends by keeping nearly every part of this gaming notebook remarkably cool. There was one small area on the back which got above the 100 degree mark but that shouldn’t be an issue since was well away from a user’s lap or legs.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks but the sound will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies but likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



We already know the G74SX is able to keep heat levels to a minimum and it actually seems to accomplish that without making an unholy amount of noise. While it’s far from the quietest notebook you’ll ever encounter, its fan was never heard above movies or games and didn’t become a distraction while tying this review up.
 
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