Small High Performance Laptops

I have been in the market for a new laptop for a long time. As much as I love my Sony Vaio Z1, it doesn’t have USB3 or DisplayPort support, and there were some driver support issues with newer applications. But it was very challenging to find a new solution that packed that much computing power into a system that small. I was used to being able to get 8 hours of battery life out of my 3lbs laptop, while still enjoying a 1080p screen, with the option to use a GeForce 330M in my video apps. A discrete NVidia GPU was non-negotiable, to use Adobe CS and Resolve, as well as the increasingly rare 3D game I might play. Integrated mobile broadband, DVD burner, and noise canceling earphones were just bonuses.

Regardless of cost, there seemed to be no options out there that came anywhere close to that feature set, at least not in that small of a size and weight. I believe that is related to Intel and NVidia’s competition in the mobile market, hindering their relationship in the laptop space. Any laptop available in the size I wanted fell into the Ultrabook category, and there were basically no Ultrabooks with NVidia GPUs. And the ones that did had low resolution screens, to boost gaming frame rates.

As an avid PC enthusiast, I was a bit dismayed to see that Apple’s release of the Retina Display MacBookPros really did give them a superior option for the moment. But those laptops were way too large and heavy for what I was looking for. I watched closely as rumors of a 13″ version swirled, and would have considered buying one when they were released (to run Windows of course) but there was one problem. The 2560×1600 screen was perfect to match my desktop LCD, the size and weight were acceptable, as were the CPU, SSD, and battery. But there was no NVidia GPU. That was the first MacBookPro ever released that didn’t have a discrete GPU at all. So it was off the table, and my “exclusive PC fan” status was safe.

I continued looking, while surviving with USB2 and HDMI1.2 to run my 30″ monitor at 30hz. The big shift seems to be the advent of M.2 storage devices. That allowed the 2.5″ SATA drive bay to be done away with entirely on smaller laptops, leaving more space for the other items, and with power and bandwidth benefits as well. It still took quite a while to find the right combination of features. The new Razorblade 14 improved the previous screen resolution deficiency, but the Aorus X3 Plus had twice the GPU RAM at 6GB, and dual M.2 drives, for better performance, at a lower price.

I got my Aorus X3 Plus last week, and I have been quite impressed with it so far. The form factor is just slightly larger than my old Z1, and can be used comfortably one handed. The protruding section behind the screen even makes a nice handle to grip it. The 3200×1800 screen is remarkable, especially when driven by the GeForce GTX 870M GPU with 6GB RAM. I hooked it up to a 4K monitor at the office, and was pushing over 13 million pixels at once. I played back a 4K DSLR clip in Premiere, at full resolution, and it looked beautiful.  I didn’t have any RAW files to test debayering 4K while I was at the office, but with 1344 streaming processors, the GPU should be able to handle it with ease.  With a quad-core i7 CPU 1000MB/s of SSD speed, I will be able to disk cache 4K VFX work in AE if I need to.

The GPU is so powerful, that it can generate quite a bit of heat. To combat this, the fans kick in pretty strong. The noise is audible, but probably not distracting if you are busy working. I find it most noticeable if it is idle, but a GPU app is still open. Things like Steam’s background process can trigger GPU activation unnecessarily, wasting energy and heat, which is noticeable with a GPU that powerful.

I went through a whole process trying to determine if I should downgrade the OS to Win7. I initially intended to, but eventually decided against it, since the Windows 8.1 install was not the Pro version, I would have had to pay for the downgrade license. Also with a display of that size and resolution, Windows 8.1 was supposed to have better UI scaling options, and would support Adobes upcoming HiDPI updates to Creative Cloud. Plus, installing Windows 7 onto a UEFI based system without an optical drive, with a non-SATA storage RAID would have been a tedious exercise in driver frustration. That required me to update to Office 2010, from the copy of 2003 that I have preferred for the last decade. But on the other hand, I now have AdobeCC 8, instead of CS 5.5 that I have been using forever. Yes, I know, welcome to 2014. I like new hardware but old software.

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