Maxed Out Gaming, Minimal Builds
Traditionally, gaming laptops have been chunky, hulking machines with big screens and short battery lives. They were meant to stay put on a desk. The cooling system required to properly run the discrete graphics cards typically makes a standard gaming laptop large and heavy, but significant strides have been made in the past few years to solve this problem. Razer, for one, deserves a tip of the hat for its sleek and slim Blade line, but if you want a slim gaming laptop, you’ll need to make some sacrifices—the best graphics you can get in the 14-inch Razer Blade is an Nvidia GTX 1060 card, which is a moderate perfomer when it comes to gaming.
Top-Rated Max-Q Laptops in Our Testing
Enter Nvidia, the prominent graphics company behind the most popular gaming cards, to help solve the problem with its Max-Q initiative. The term Max-Q is borrowed from the aeronautics industry, where it refers to the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress an aircraft can sustain. In the world of graphics cards, it means the sweet spot between graphics performance and heat production. Max-Q versions of the standard high-end graphics cards utilize a combination of hardware and software modifications to put a cap on performance, but they can fit in much smaller spaces.
By limiting the power ceiling of cards like the GTX 1080 and GTX 1070, less heat is produced, so less room is required for cooling and heat dissipation. In turn, this allows higher-end graphics cards to fit into thinner chassis than traditionally possible, resulting in slim-but-powerful gaming laptops.
Max-Q in Action
There are, of course, tradeoffs to consider: Max-Q-tuned graphics cards aren’t as powerful as standard versions, pushing fewer frames per second while gaming. In our testing, Max-Q graphics card versions perform somewhere between the card below in the hierarchy and the standard cards they’re based upon. For example, the Asus ROG Zephyrus (the first Max-Q notebook we tested) includes a Max-Q GTX 1080 that posted 3D and gaming numbers similar to a standard GTX 1070 card. We found that trend to be consistent in other comparisons, with a slight variance among laptops.
In our experience with Max-Q laptops, we’ve found that the best results come from a combination of the graphics performance cap and wholesale, from-the-ground-up hardware enhancements. The Zephyrus is designed with chassis enhancements like a perforated keyboard deck, and bottom ventilation flaps that open when the screen clamshell is lifted. Though the flaps are a bit flimsy, the laptop runs coolly and quietly, which is impressive.
On the other end of the spectrum is the MSI GS63VR 7RG Stealth Pro, which has a Max-Q GTX 1070 built into an existing chassis from another MSI laptop. Yes it’s thin, but without any special design considerations, so it runs noticeably hot.
Unfortunately, battery life on the Max-Q notebooks we’ve tested has yet to fully match the thin and light form factor. The Zephyrus lasted just 2 hours and 31 minutes on our rundown test. The MSI and Origin PC EVO15-S fare better, running for 4:29 and 4:27 respectively, but neither are especially long.
Power vs. Portability
Whether a Max-Q laptop is right for you comes down to one thing: Are you willing to sacrifice power for thinness and portability? If you’re more concerned with pushing as many pixels as possible and don’t plan to move your laptop often, Max-Q probably isn’t the solution for you. If you travel frequently or often play games in multiple locations, though, Max-Q is the best method we’ve seen for fitting the top-tier graphics cards into slim laptop builds.
It would be ideal if slim, 15-inch laptops could pack GTX 1080 cards, but the technology simply isn’t there yet. If the initial wave of Max-Q laptops prove popular enough to iterate upon, we’ll likely see slimmer systems with fewer concessions. Hopefully Nvidia can continue to tweak the Max-Q formula, and future gaming laptops will be able to deliver even more power with longer battery life.
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