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Hello.  I am attending a visual effects college for the purpose of pursuing a career in video game design, and I need a new computer...badly.  I'm a laptop guy.  I don't travel really, but I like being able to sit on my bed and use my computer, or move to another room if I want to, or otherwise take my computer with me wherever; I just don't like being confined to my desk.

Anyway, my parents (I'm 18, by the way) have been on my ass about finding out what specs and such I need to do professional quality work in programs like Autodesk Maya and Zbrush...something that I cannot do well because I don't know what model of what part is better than another or really much of anything about computer specifications except for the basics.  So I talked to my friend, and asked him what the most powerful laptop is right now, and mentioned that I would also want to play games on it (because seriously I won't be doing schoolwork every second of every day), and he recommended MSi's new GT70 Dragon Edition 2 laptop.

So I kept telling my parents about this and they insisted we go to the local computer shop to see what they recommend.  They, of course, recommended a desktop and said that supposedly any degree of laptop will slow down when doing serious, professional work in programs like Maya.  So now my parents are insisting on a desktop.

My question is whether or not this laptop would be able to perform on par with a desktop in terms of doing serious 3D work.  I have the specs here:

- Special Upgrade Package 2 - "The Cooling Package" - IC Diamond Thermal Compound + Copper Cooling Upgrade
- 17.3" FHD 16:9 "Matte Type" Super Clear Ultra Bright LED Matte Screen (1920x1080) (SKU - X1R553)
- 4th Generation Intel Haswell Core-4700MQ (2.4GHz - 3.4GHz, 6MB Intel Smart Cache) (SKU-X2X914)
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4,096MB PCI-Express GDDR5 DX11 w/ Optimus Technology
- 32GB DDR3 1600MHz [SKU-844AP] (Dual Channel Memory (4x8GB SODIMMS))
- 128GB Solid State Drive (Super RAID 2) mSATA - [ In Primary Hard Drive Bay ]
- 128GB Solid State Drive (Super RAID 2) mSATA - [ In Primary Hard Drive Bay ]
- 128GB Solid State Drive (Super RAID 2) mSATA - [ In Primary Hard Drive Bay ]
- 1,000GB (1TB) 7200RPM (Serial-ATA III 6GB/s) (SKU - X5Z001)
- 6X Blu-Ray Writer/Reader + 8X DVDRW/CDRW Super Multi Combo Drive (SKU - X7R551)
- Bigfoot Networks Killer񠄵al Band Wireless-N 1202 - 802.11A/B/G/N Wireless LAN Module + Bluetooth 4.0 | Up to 300Mbps (2x2) - Default (SKU-X8R117)
- Internal 3-in-1 Card Reader (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
- Integrated Digital Video Camera
- Smart Li-ion Battery (9-Cell)
- Full Size Brushed Aluminum Notebook Cooler - Large 200mm Blue LED Fan - USB Powered (For up to 17" Laptops)
- Windows 7 Professional - 64-Bit

So those are the relevant specs of the custom order I made.  If you need to see the standard specs, I can either email you them, or send them in a follow-up, or they are available online.  It's a brand new model, with Intel's new Haswell chip, and a top-of-the-line graphics card.  Would that be acceptable for professional-level 3D work?

Sorry for the length of the question.  Thank you for your time.

Answer
I'm going to tell you that I generally agree with the computer shop (and have been "beating that drum" for probably a decade), however I think in your situation, knowing what you want and don't want is just as important as "best possible value" (what's the point in buying a good machine, if you won't use it?). Basically, if you want a laptop because it works for your workflow, get a laptop. As far as laptops and proGL/DCC applications, it isn't a losing proposition - the general trade-offs are:

- The best workstation ("desktop") will still be a more powerful computer.
- The battery life and portability of a "mobile workstation" will be inferior to what you might expect with a more conventional laptop (like an ultrabook), simply due to the added high performance hardware (and such computers generally come with larger screens, which increase weight/size, and draw more power).

Prices will be high either way, but that's the nature of professional-level computing (we'll get to that in a minute).

Now, regarding what you should/could specifically buy - I'd advise you against the MSI for two reasons. Firstly, MSI is not a manufacturer that I regard as consistently reliable, and their support/customer service is consistently less than stellar; this isn't to condemn all of their hardware, but given how much money you're talking about, it isn't a gamble that I'd suggest you take. The second reason I'd advise against it, is that the machine is tailored exclusively to high performance gaming and multimedia usage - the proGL/DCC applications you're needing to run (like Maya) will perform very poorly on the consumer-level graphics hardware, and the system and its graphics controller are very unlikely to be an Autodesk certified platform (and this does matter, to a given extent). What you'd actually want to purchase would be something along the lines of a "mobile workstation" - the Dell Precision Mobility is a good example (it is not the only example; HP also makes very competent mobile workstations):
http://www.dell.com/us/business/p/precision-m4700/fs (they offer a 17" version with more robust hardware, at an accordingly higher price point)

The biggest "stand out" about the MSI machine that makes it inappropriate for the kind of workload you're describing is the GeForce card - for professional graphics work you want a professional graphics card; nVidia Quadro or AMD (formerly ATI) FirePro (formerly Fire3D). Quadro is generally the performance/features leader in the pro-segment, as nVidia invests heavily in research and development related to pro graphics (for example, Quadro supports CUDA and other GPGPU solutions to a more complete extent than FirePro, and Quadro cards generally benchmark higher than similarly priced FirePro hardware).

As far as gaming on such a machine - Quadro and FirePro *are* capable of gaming, however the performance-per-dollar is generally very bad (that is, I would never suggest a user buy one exclusively for gaming, as the consumer counterpart product will be half (or less) the price, and perform just as well in videogames - but for professional workloads, the performance and feature benefits of a professional card are worthwhile).

Here's an example (benchmark data) comparing a Quadro to its GeForce counterpart (these are desktop components):
http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/graphics/display/nvidia-quadro-k5000_7.html#sec
http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/graphics/display/nvidia-quadro-k5000_5.html#sec

Note that the GeForce GTX680 and Quadro K5000 are very similar components (they're based around the same processor), but note the considerable performance advantage the Quadro provides for professional applications like Maya and 3DS Max.

You can, however, see the disparity between the two cards when it comes to gaming:
http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/graphics/display/nvidia-quadro-k5000_8.html#sec (3DMark is a synthetic benchmark designed to give a rough idea of gaming performance, the #s are more or less unitless, and are designed to allow comparison between specific cards or systems, not provide an individual value that quantifies performance).

Essentially what it comes down to is how much you're willing to spend, and how important the professional workflow is - the GeForce card in this example can drag itself through the professional application benchmarks, but isn't the ideal solution (and many software vendors, like Autodesk, will discourage such usage; instead suggesting that users buy workstation hardware).

The Dell Precision system mentioned above is based on a lower-model of the Quadro card in the Xbit review (K2000 through K4000 Mobility are available). Some benchmark data does exist for the K2000 model:
http://www.notebookcheck.net/NVIDIA-Quadro-K2000M.76893.0.html

Again, we see that it will perform behind the GeForce counterparts in gaming-based tasks (scroll down to see specific game benchmarks), but is more competent and better suited to a professional workload (SPECviewperf benchmarks this).

Now, another option that may be feasible, depending upon your budget and school needs, would be to purchase a more mobile computer (like an Ultrabook), which will be better suited to travel and more casual use, and pair it with a more professionally oriented workstation (which will be upgradeable down the line, where a laptop will not be; you will also not have to deal with carrying around a relatively large/heavy laptop that gets poor battery life), as opposed to buying a $3000 mobile workstation. With the deskside option, you could have larger (and multiple) monitors, better input options (there are a variety of specialized input devices for professional graphics work (for example, Wacom tablets, or 3DConexxion controllers) - they would all work with a laptop as well, but generally do not lend themselves to "on the couch" or "in bed" usage). An example of such a desk-side unit would be the Dell Precision:
http://www.dell.com/us/business/p/precision-t5600/fs
Or HP Z series:
http://www.hp.com/united-states/campaigns/workstations/z620_features.html

(Keep in mind that a "fully maxed out" Precision or Z series can run $20,000 or more, so be cognizant of your needs relative to hardware selection; as a student and beginner, you are very unlikely to need anything approaching "maxed out" when it comes to a workstation).

Additional points of input:

- I would contact your institution and see what they specifically suggest for hardware -  for two reasons. Firstly, they may have a specific machine or spec-build that they'd like students to have (and "conforming" to this will likely make your coursework easier, as you will have a hardware platform that the instructors expect). And secondly, because they may be able to offer you a discount on hardware through a given manufacturer (like Dell or HP), based on your status as a student (often software is heavily discounted for students, and in some cases hardware is discounted as well, however you will generally have to make these purchases through your institution as opposed to conventional retail channels). Keep in mind that they may suggest Apple hardware (Mac Pro and MacBook Pro are workstation-grade hardware in their own right, and many professional creative applications (Autodesk, Adobe, etc) will run on OS X just fine), which will be perfectly suitable for your professional application load, but will likely hinder gaming (as the majority of games are not supported by OS X). Apple hardware also tends to come at a price premium due to its popularity (and in many cases, even with an academic discount it will still end up costing more than purchasing an equivalent Dell or HP).

- Regarding the hardware selection on the MSI, there are a number of redundancies or inefficiencies in terms of part selection - namely, the multiple SSDs (which will serve no purpose but to run the price up), Bigfoot card (again, no purpose but to run the price up), and Blu-ray drive (unless you specifically need the machine to play Blu-ray discs, however this will require additional software (at additional cost; see here: http://www.corel.com/corel/product/index.jsp?pid=prod4090069 (CyberLink (PowerDVD) may still also make a Blu-ray player application as well, but I'm less familiar with CyberLink software)). The machine would have more or less identical performance with a "stock" Intel or Broadcom NIC, single (or no) SSD, and sans Blu-ray drive, at least when it came to videogames (not that I'm suggesting this machine, but if it's a route you'd like to pursue, there's no reason to over-spend).


If you have further questions, or need clarification, feel free to ask.

-bob  

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Bobbert

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I have nearly two decades of experience in IT, computer repair, and related fields and will attempt to provide the most solid, brand-agnostic advice when it comes time to purchase a new computer, or upgrade an existing machine. I can answer anything from the seemingly basic to the downright complicated - and will do my best to provide this information in a clear and concise manner. I have a personal interest in PC gaming, and can apply my experience to such an end. Questions related to 3D games on OS X or other platforms are less likely to get answered.

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