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9. November 2015

 

If you read my recent laptop buyers guide for game developers you may have noticed that the “winner” was the P34 V4 by Gigabyte.  In this case I put my money where my mouth is and purchased one.  After spending the last couple days using it I figured I would create a bit of a review.

Here are the specs for the machine I purchased:

  • Intel Core i7-5700HQ Broadwell CPU
  • 16GB DDR3 RAM
  • 128GB SSD, 1TB 5400RPM SATA HD
  • NVidia GeForce 970M with 3GB DDR5
  • 2560x1440 Display
  • Windows 10 Basic
  • $1950CDN Purchase price
  • 3.5lbs and 14” chassis

 

Please be aware that a number of different versions of this machine exist, the biggest differences being the amount of system RAM and the resolution of the display.  If purchasing off Amazon, this version is a  much better value.  The RAM and drives is easily accessible if you need to make an upgrade after the fact so don’t be overly concerned about RAM or HDD sizes.

 

If you are in Canada like me, and suffering from our recently pathetic dollar valuation, I highly recommend you check with Computers Canada, where I managed to purchase it for less than Amazon but in Canadian currency!  I wont go into a great deal of detail on why I purchased this particular computer as the buyers guide and price tag should make that part clear.

 

Gallery

 

Packaging

20151106_173832

 

Contents and Power Supply

20151106_174201

 

Side View

20151106_174039

 

Relative To Razer Blade 14

20151107_095340

 

Relative to MacBook Air

20151107_094851

20151107_094836

 

Build Quality

 

I have never purchased a Gigabyte system before so my biggest concern was build quality.  My other systems are Razer and Apple, both known for a high level of fit and finish, while I pictured Gigabyte as a more … pedestrian builder.  Fortunately I was wrong here, the Gigabyte has absolutely no faults, in fact the build quality may be slightly better than the Razer ( which had a sub-par trackpad buttons ). 

The main chassis is made of aluminum and there are no obvious gaps.  The back of the screen is made of a high quality plastic, which while not looking as good as the Razer or Macbook, contributes to keeping the weight down.  Speaking of weight, this machine is amazingly light at 3.5lbs.

The keyboard and trackpad are both quite nice, although the auto sensing backlit on the keyboard seems wonky and often doesn’t come on even in complete darkness.  This fortunately can be manually set using Fn + Spacebar so it’s not a huge deal and probably is a software problem in the end.  The hinges seem solid, a point of concern with prior Gigabyte laptops.

In the end I rate the build quality as very good, a pleasant surprise.

 

Fans and Thermals

 

As I don’t review machines very often I do not have the proper equipment for measure thermal or volume emissions.  I can however state my experiences.  Under no load, the machine is completely silent and cool to the touch.  When Optimus switches from integrated to dedicated GPU the fans come on immediately.  Playing a AAA game causes the fans to crank up.  They are certainly audible but not excessive.  In the end the machine is a great deal quiter under load than my Razer Blade.

Under moderate load the temperatures arent too bade.  Once playing games for loading a heavy CAD scene and it gets hot quickly.  All of the heat is centered at the back below the screen hinge and gets uncomfortable to the touch.  The machine itself does not get warm, it is being effectively cooled and you never feel the heat on the top of the machine, but you certainly don’t want the machine to be on your lap.  I would guess that a cooling bad is not a requirement with this machine.

 

Bundled Software

 

The last time I purchased an Asus machine, it was quicker to re-install the OS than to try and deal with all the bloat pre-packaged.  The same was about the Lenova desktop I recently purchased.  This machine however… nothing.  Gigabyte installs just about ZERO extraneous software which was nice to see.   Adobe Acrobat is installed along with the manual.  A utility for creating a USB backup is included as is their control panel for quickly toggling features like the trackpad or Windows key off or on.  Otherwise the only other piece of software installed is an optional update manager.

Gigabyte Smart Manager

image

 

Smart Update

image

Smart update makes keeping your drivers up to date an absolute breeze and supports the ability to install beta drivers which is cool.  However it downloads EXTREMELY slow and has a non-minimizable modal window during the download process.

 

All told it’s nice to see a non-bloated install with the bundled software being genuinely useful.  More manufacturers can learn from Gigabyte!  I would like to see download speeds and the idiotic modal window removed from the Update manager however.

 

Performance, Battery Life and Real World Experience

 

I am not going to bother with benchmarks in this review as I have no other benchmarks to compare it to.  Given the fast GPU, copious RAM and the fact it’s got the second best mobile video card available right now, it performs about as well as you would expect.  I threw a few games at it, Batman Origins, Heroes of Might and Magic 7 and Tomb Raider and was able to hit the v-sync limited 60fps at max settings on all three games.  Even running at native resolution I was able to manage playable framerates (40+) at max settings.  I did experience some oddity in Blender, but I think that’s more Blender to blame than the laptop.  I created a 3mil polygon scene and was able to sculpt with absolutely no hint of lag.  However switching to edit mode brought Blender to it’s knees.

 

Next we should talk about the screen.  Right now I am typing this at a café with sun glaring in my eyes with the screen at 60% brightness and I have absolute zero difficulty with glare.

20151109_145121

At full brightness the screen is a thing of beauty.  It is also the laptops second biggest failing.  Windows 10 has come a long way with high DPI screens but when they fail they fail hard.  Many applications are nearly unusable or extremely ugly when scaled to the higher resolution.  Worse is UIs that can’t be scaled leaving the results pretty much impossible to read.  Fortunately the 2560x1440 resolutions isn’t as extreme as 4K displays but it is still quite difficult to use many applications designed for a 1080p world.  The results look pretty good down sampled to 1080p thankfully.  If it was available I would have probably gone with a 1080p screen to save the hassle, but of course this is a matte of opinion.  Remember though, there is a 1080p option available.

 

Next we come to battery life and this is the Achilles heel of most “gaming” laptops, with machines that struggle to break 2 hours battery life under light load.  Thankfully this is not the case with the Gigabyte machine, in fact it is matching the Razer Blade 14 it is replacing, which is pretty amazing.  It was hard to tell exact battery life during the first couple days as Windows is downloading patches, indexing files and generally just being a bit of a pig.  Now that things seem to be settled I’m getting a pretty good gauge on battery.  Today for example I have been running on battery the last 3 hours with the wifi on, the screen at 60% brightness on balanced battery level with a little bit of 3D work thrown in the mix but mostly writing, surfing and watching a bit of YouTube, and the battery is at 31% with an indicated 1hr 25min remaining.  So 4 1/2 hours battery life under typical load.  I imagine I could stretch the battery out to about 6 hours by dimming the screen, while gaming would be lucky to hit 2 hours.  All told this is an amazing amount of battery life.

 

One minor (to me) problem with the Gigabyte P34w v4 laptop is it just sucks in the fingerprints.  I thought the Razer was bad, but this thing looked filthy within 5 minutes of taking it out of the box.  If you are a neat freak, this is certainly something to be aware of.  Fingerprints and this design… they aren’t friends.

 

Conclusion

 

In all honesty I am absolutely amazed by this laptop.  Great build quality, amazing specs, a 2 year warranty at the low end of the price range all in the 3.5lb 14” package.  It is certainly not a purchase I regret and one that I can easily recommend to anyone that favors portability and power in their laptop requirements.

It’s not completely perfect, but damned close.  The ultra high DPI screen can be EXTREMELY annoying at times, but that is by no means unique to the Gigabyte and unlike many other laptops, it at least has the guts to power that display.  Otherwise the two biggest negatives are the heat under load making it impossible to use as a literal laptop, but given the form factor and power available, this isn’t really surprising.  The other “flaw” is the slow speed of the secondary drive, a 5400RPM SATA drive is an unfortunate choice.  That said having the primary 128GB SSD drive makes this an inconvenience at worse and I rarely notice it.  The drives are easily accessible though should you wish to swap them out.

All told, this is an amazing machine.  When I purchased my Razer it was unique in the category, but as we saw there are now a number of high powered portable machines on the market now.  And with all things considered, price, size, weight, power and performance, the P34 came out a clear winner.

Totally Off Topic

9. November 2015

 

This is a feature that was quietly added in Blender 2.72 that will be a massive game changer to many potential Blender users.  The Blender UI has always been very keyboard focused and quite daunting especially for beginners.  Over the last couple releases we’ve seen some nice tweaks to the UI to make Blender a great deal more user friendly. The addition of radial menus is another step down the road of usability.  If you come from a Maya background this feature will be immediately recognizable.  Now keep in mind this feature is still under development and not enabled by default and there is certainly a reason for this.  Expects some bugs and growing pains, although personally I found it well worth enabling.

 

Before I show you how to enable pie menus in Blender, let me show you them in action:

Gif1

 

Enabling Pie Menus

To turn the menus on, go to File->User Preferences…

image

 

Next select the Add-ons tab, search for pie then click the enabled checkbox on “User Interface: Pie Menus Official”

image

 

You are now done.  However before you close the menu, there are some settings you may want to configure in the Interface tab.  In the bottom right corner you will set settings for configuring the Pie menus:

image

 

Personally I like setting the radius to around 40-50, which results in the menu being a lot denser, like so:

image

 

Available Menus

Now that pie menus are enabled, you will find several hotkeys perform differently.  Basically all of the things control via this toolbar are now available via pie menus:

image

Simply hit the right key(s) and the menu will appear.  You will notice a number next to each menu item, which can also be used instead of clicking the menu.  For example TAB + 6 will enable edit mode.  Right click or hit ESC to cancel a menu without selecting anything.

 

TAB key – object interaction mode

image

 

Q key – view selection

image

 

Z Key – shading mode

image

 

Ctrl + SHIFT + Tab – Snapping

image

 

. (Period Key) – Pivot

image

 

As with almost all things in Blender however, the bound keys can be configured to the users preference.

 

Again, this feature is under development and can be a bit buggy.  I found the shader menu a bit problematic on my computer for example.  However I view that even today it is worth the pain, especially if you like me work on a laptop without a dedicated number pad.  The new view navigation is a great improvement over enabling numpad emulation.

 

Never nice new feature, great job Blender team!

 

The Video

 

This video, available in HD here, illustrates mostly the same material we just covered if you prefer video form or if I missed a detail.

Art ,

8. November 2015

 

If you’re using a high resolution monitor such as the newer 4K display or Apple’s “Retina” display, you’ve certainly encountered your fair share of applications that are borderline unusable.  At first glance Blender appears to be just such an application.  This is what it looks like on a 2560x1440 display, I can only imagine what it looks like on a full 4096x2160 display!

image

 

Now it may not look too bad in that screenshot, but consider the dimensions of the title bar to the application menu to get a full idea of how tiny the text is.  Fortunately the Blender UI team was incredibly forward thinking when they updated the UI.  Let’s look at making Blender more usable on ultra-HighDef screens.

 

In Blender, select File->User Preferences…

image

 

Select the System tab, then it’s the DPI section under general you want to configure.  I changed simply doubled it from 72 to 144.  Click Save User Settings to commit the changes so they last if you restart Blender.

image

 

There is one other change you may wish to make.  The manipulator widget is also extremely small on an high DPI screen, like so:

image

 

This can also be configured in settings, instead in Interface tab of the User Preferences window:

image

 

TADA, Blender UI now looks brilliant on your high def screen.  Im not entirely certain why the manipulator doesn’t scale with the rest of the UI but it’s an easy enough fix.

 

I should only hope all other applications implement DPI scaling as well as Blender (*cough*Adobe Photoshop*cough*) in the future!  There is a video version available as well.

 

Video

 

Art ,

7. November 2015

 

As a developer I switched to laptops ages ago.  In fact I haven't purchased a traditional PC in close to a decade and probably never will.  That said, using a laptop as your primary development machine certainly has it’s share of drawbacks including reduced capabilities, higher prices tags and more.  The process of choosing a laptop certainly isn’t easy these days.

 

The last time I went through this process it was actually quite easy.  My requirements in a laptop are, in order:

  • portability
  • power
  • battery life
  • price

Truth of the matter is, if any of those first three are missing, a machine is completely useless to me.  Getting all three at a good price… good luck with that!  If you don’t care about portability or battery life, there are a TON of excellent options available to you.  If on the other hand, you like me require power, performance and battery, the list shrinks a lot.  If you are on a budget, the list shrinks into a number you can count on one hand.  Let’s talk first about the GPU requirements.

 

The actual performance requirements of a game development machine vary massively from game developer to game developer.  If you are creating 2D games, or relatively simple 3D games, a basic discrete GPU or even a high end Intel HD chipset will work fine for you.  In fact, this might be a great choice, as it is representative of the “average” user machine.

 

However, once you start talking 3D games, especially if you are running an engine like Unreal, or content creation tools like 3D Studio Max, ZBrush or Maya, then your requirements go up a great deal.  In this case you need a discrete GPU at a minimum.  In the mobile space this means nVidia.  Outside of the MacBook Pro’s basically NOBODY uses AMD GPUs for whatever reason.

 

Laptop GPU choices

 

So now that we decided you need a GPU, we need to look at the major options out there.  Here’s the trick of understanding nVidia processors.  First off, the m designates a mobile chip, so lower power and thus lower power consumption.  As a general rule, expect the m version to run about 20% slower than the equivalent desktop version.  Also be aware, some laptop manufacturers put desktop GPUs in laptops.  Expect these to get extremely hot and to have battery lives counted in minutes, and that’s not hyperbole.

 

When looking at the naming convention of an nVidia gpu, the first number is series or a chronological marker, and the second number indicates the performance.  For example, you might think that a 940m would outperform a 880m right?  I mean it’s 60 better!  You would be horrifically wrong!  In fact my current laptop’s 765m would absolutely trounce the 940m in any benchmark.  So when looking at GPUs it’s the last two digits that are by far most important.  However that first digit can still be important as designs can shrink and become more efficient in their power usage.  The major differences between versions is the clock rate the chips run at, the amount of memory available, the memory bandwidth and the number of CUDA cores available.

 

The GPU Options

 

920/930m

You might as well go with a good integrated GPU and experience similar performance with better battery life and often lower cost or better form factor.  These GPUs may be able to run demanding games on low to medium settings at non 1080p resolutions at somewhat playable framerates.  You will struggle running a game engine like Unreal on this class of GPUs.

 

940/950m

These are in my opinion  the entry level of dedicated GPUs.  If you are looking at a sub-1000$ USD laptop with a dedicated GPU in it, this is probably the best you will find in a reasonable form factor.  You aren’t going to be running cutting edge AAA games at the highest settings, and it will struggle with higher end  or complex 3D content creation, but it’s still a big step up from even the best of the Intel integrated GPUs, even though those are improving greatly.  One of the big difference is nVidia can write good display drivers, Intel, not so much.

 

960/965m

I have been running a 765m now for several years and it’s still a pretty solid GPU.  At this level you will find you can run every game released in medium to high levels.   Personally this was my cut off when searching for a new machine.  The power to power consumed ration is quite good and it’s got enough power for today, if perhaps not for tomorrow.  The big caveat here is, this GPU is *NOT* able to power a 4K or 3K display, even though manufacturers really want to try.  The 965m is about 10% faster than the 960m. 

 

970m

This is in my opinion, the sweet spot for performance.  It runs a great deal faster than the 960 series, while not sucking battery and generating the heat of the 980m.  You are going to be *just* able to power a 4K display with this GPU, depending on the title or graphic settings.

 

980m

This is as of writing, the fastest GPU you can get in a laptop.  It is also the most power hungry.  This GPU is capable of eating any game or application you want to throw at it and often at 4K resolutions.  The 980m has 100W power consumption to the 970m’s 81W.  This is by far the most future proof of the GPU options.

 

Comparisons on GPU Boss:

If you browse those results you will see that the most profound jump was from the 960 to the 970 series.  A difference of more than twice as much as any other jump.

 

Now keep in mind there are going to be several older models with last years chip, often for a very good price.  You will often find that performance is quite similar, but power consumption is not.  If you don’t care about battery life, the 880m for example, might be an exceptional bargain for you.

 

Choosing a CPU

 

I might be somewhat controversial on this one, but this area I think matters the least.  Simply put, if you buy a machine with a good GPU you will almost always get a good enough i7 or possibly i5 processor.  There are of course a few choices here and mostly come down to when the laptop was manufactured.

A very common CPU in gaming laptops is the i7-4720, which is a very solid choice.  The newest laptops will be probably be running an i-7 6700.  If the laptop came in the middle of the year it may be running something like an i7-5700.  So what is the difference.

On the one hand you have clock speeds which should be immediately obvious in meaning.  The next two most important aspects are the architecture and the size of the chip.  Smaller chips generally use less power, so size does in fact matter.  Architecture is going to be one of four things, in order of age (oldest first): Ivy Bridge, Haswell, Broadwell or Skylake.

As a general rule of thumb the newer the chip the less power it consumes, although you will often find the older chips in the previous series out perform the newest chips in the new series.  For example, the best Broadwell CPUs today are generally faster then the newest Skylake CPUs.  Of course over time this becomes less true. 

As mentioned earlier, size is a big part of power consumption.  Skylake chips are made of 14nm transistors while the Haswell is a 22nm chip.  To make things even more confusing, Broadwell is a transitional chip, it’s a Haswell architecture made at 14nm.

Generally what this means when shopping for a laptop, if it was made in the last 4 or 5 months and it’s running a Broadwell or Skylake processor, it will probably get great battery life.  That said, if it’s not a Ivy Bridge chip you are probably good to go and even that shouldn’t be a deal breaker.  In benchmarks thus far, I have actually seen almost zero difference between Skylake and Broadwell CPUs in both processing power and power consumption.

At the end of the day, the CPU is rarely the bottle neck and Intel has been making really good chips since they started the i3/i5/i7 series, so you can’t really make a huge mistake here.

 

HOWEVER.  If you are going with an integrated GPU you want to be very aware of which iteration you use, as the capabilities of the integrated GPU have changed massively from release to release.  For an idea of the various integrated graphics from chip to chip, refer to this handy chart.

 

RAM, Storage and Everything Else

 

Next there is all the other stuff that goes into making up the laptop.  The keyboard and trackpad style are obviously going to be personal tastes, as are the design esthetics.  This was actually a big point for me, as I simply wont buy a “gaming” styled laptop.  I don’t want glowing logos, or bullet holes or bite marks in my laptops design!  Of course your opinion will vary.

 

For RAM, I think the reasonable limit is 8GB, although you could get buy with 4GB and quite frankly, I don’t think most people would use 16GB.  32GB is just a waste for the vast majority of users.

 

For storage, this one is critical.  A 5400 RPM drive as a primary hard drive is an absolute non-starter.  Seriously don’t do it.  Your boot times will suck, your machine will be sluggish and all that other hardware will be wasted.  Increasingly these days a SSD drive is a must, at least for your system partition.  The difference between an SSD and non SSD drive is 3 second boot times verses 30 seconds or worse.  If your machine starts using swap instead of memory, this will becoming even more glaring.

 

What I am saying here is, get an SSD.   I pretty much consider it mandatory in this day and age.

 

How big, that’s up to you.  I lived for the past several years with only a 256GB drive for storage and with solutions like DropBox, Github, Google Drive or One Drive basically giving away online storage, I never really found this a major hindrance.  Frankly if I didn’t install Steam or any games, I would probably never use more than 100GB or so.  That said, more is always nice.  Another common option is a small SSD drive for your OS install and a larger slower SATA driver for storage and non-performance critical applications.  Nicely in this day and age, swapping the hard drive out of a laptop normally requires zero technical ability and the removal of a screw or two.

 

The final, and critically important decision is the screen.  Many people are jumping on the 4K or 3K display train and this is certainly an option.  That said, if you have less than a 970m GPU or a dual 960 series, don’t even consider it.  Honestly don’t.  That GPU cant power that screen.

 

The choice of an ultra high def screen also leads to a ton of legacy apps being almost illegible.  A higher resolution screen is also a greater draw on battery life.  On the other hand, they look really really really nice and greatly reduce eye strain.  Personally if the option existed, I would go FHD (1080p) regardless of the GPU I selected, but that’s of course personal opinion.

 

The Options

 

Two and a half years ago, the decision was extremely simple.  In fact there was only one option, the Razer Blade series from Razer.  Well that’s not completely true, there was also the MacBook Pro… sorta.  Those were the only two machines in 2013 that were truly portable while packing good internals.  The MacBook Pro unfortunately, and true still to this day, packed a sub-par GPU especially for the sky high price tag.   Not that the Razer Blade is what I would refer to as cheap.  It has however served me well these past two and a half years and had the battery not started failing I would probably continue to use it.

 

These days however, more and more manufacturers are making capable while still portable laptops that are ideal for game developers on the go.  Let’s take a look at the leading options.  To make this list you needed to meet the following criteria:

  • around 5lbs or less
  • 15” or smaller
  • dedicated GPU, preferable 960 or better
  • i7 processor
  • 8GB or more RAM
  • SSD

 

Name

Asus G501JW

MSRP

2200USD

Weight

4.5lbs

Features

Asus makes a whole series of laptops worth considering, but the 501 series is certainly the most portable.  This laptop ships with a respectable 960m processor but unfortunately pairs it with a 3840x2160 display.  There are several models available but I link to the J for a very specific reason.  This is the only version that doesn’t ship with a completely useless battery.  4+ hours are possible with this version, while others in the series will struggle to get 2hours.

i7 4720HQ

GTX 960M w/ 4GB DDR5

16GB DDR3 RAM

512GB SSD

This version without an SSD and with a much more sane FHD (1080p) display is instead listed for a much more reasonable $1050USD.  Be aware however that the battery life is terrible.  There are several different versions of the same model, just be aware that the American J version if the only one with a good battery choice right now.  There is also the 551 series which are cheaper with similar components but a fair bit heavier.  Too heavy to make this list.

 

Name

Asus UX501

MSRP

2075USD

Weight

5lbs

Features

i7 4720HQ

3840x2160 Display

GTX 960M w/ 4GB DDR5

16GB DDR3 RAM

512GB SSD

 

This is the same machine as the G501, just marketed to business consumers instead of gamers.  It comes in a brushed aluminum chassis and is a very nice looking machine.  Like the G501 series, you want the J series if battery life is important to you, however if it is not, much cheaper versions exist.  This machine has similar build quality and superior specs to the MacBook Pro for half the price.

 

Name

15” MacBook Pro w/ Dedicated GPU

MSRP

2300USD

Weight

4.5lbs

Features

i7 2.5GHZ

16GB DDR3

512GB SSD

Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB

Of course the MacBook Pro is also an option.  The internals are certainly not cutting edge compared to others in this list, and Apple’s refusal to use nVidia GPUs really hurt it.  On the flipside you get MacOS and can run Windows either in Parallels or dual boot.  Build quality is generally quite good although the design is really waiting for an update.  Not a great gaming machine but certainly a flexible one and the only Macbook really even capable of running games at all.  You can raise or lower the price slightly by changing the RAM and storage requirements.  Has by far the best battery life of machines on this list.

 

Name

MSI GS40 or GS60

MSRP

1500 – 2200USD

Weight

4.2lbs

Features

i7 5700 CPU

970m GPU

16GB DDR3 RAM

128GB SSD + 1TB SATA

There are several variants of the the GS60 Ghost Pro laptop from MSI and every single one of them has the interns you need.  Packed in a lightweight chassis for a reasonable price.  If we stopped there this would be the easier winner on the list, but sadly we can’t.  The battery life kills this model.  Depending on the review you read the battery life is anywhere from abysmal at 1hr to just kind of bad in the 2.5hr range.  Sadly unlike the Asus line, there isn’t a model with a superior battery available.

The GS40 is a similar machine packed into a 14” chassis, otherwise all the interns are pretty similar.  The range is available in a variety of SSD sizes and with differing processors for obviously differing prices.

 

Name

Aorus X3 / X5

MSRP

2300USD

Weight

5.5lbs

Features

i7-5700

2x GTX 965m in SLI

16GB DDR

512GB SSD + 1TB SATA

This laptop certainly stretches the portability and weight values but is otherwise a powerhouse with a SLI setup.  However a 2hour battery life and a high price tag certainly hinder it.  The Aorus X3 is a beastly machine that is lighter and smaller, but with equally horrid battery life and a higher price tag.  If battery and budget are no issue, it’s got some amazing specs.

 

Name

Gigabyte P34

MSRP

1500USD

Weight

3.5lbs

Features

i7 5700HQ

8GB DDR3

128SSD + 1TB SATA

970m GPU

By far the lightest machine on this list and loaded with hardware it’s hard to go wrong with the P34.  There are a variety of versions available with more RAM and higher resolution and obviously a higher pricetag.  The secondary drive unfortunately is 5400RPM, the only major strike against this machine.  Battery life is a respectable 3-5 hours daily use, also among the best on this list.

 

Name

Razer Blade 14

MSRP

2000-3000USD

Weight

4.5lbs

Features

i7-4720HQ

16GB DDR3

nVidia 970m

256GB SSD

A number of different configurations exist, mostly varying the SSD size and screen resolutions.  The chassis is basically unchanged since the original model, simply receiving a spec bump each year.  Battery life is third on this list behind the Macbook Pro and Gigabyte P34.  Build quality is as good or better than any other machine on this list.  Sadly the same can be said of the price tag.

 

 

Name

Acer Nitro

MSRP

1000USD

Weight

5.3lb

Features

i7-4720HQ

8GB DDR3

nVidia 960m

1TB 5400RPM Sata HD

The bargain on this list, hamstrung with an absolutely stupid choice in hard disks.  If you buy this machine budget some money for a HD replacement or that will drag the entire system down.  With a respectable 4 hours battery life and a somewhat heavy 5.3lb weight, it’s a solid economical choice.  With a really stupid hard drive.  Keep in mind however that fit and finish may not be the best on this machine at that price level.

 

 

 

Name

Lenova Y50

MSRP

1050USD

Weight

5.3lbs

Features

i7-4720

16GB DDR3 RAM

GTX 960M

256SSD HD

Another budget choice like the Nitro, with a similarly stupid decision to pack a 5400RPM drive.  This one does however ship with a 8GB SSD drive for swap partition optimizations.  How much of a difference this makes is unknown to me.  For the price however, a solid portable system similar in all respects to the Nitro.

 

 

Name

HP Omen

MSRP

1400USD

Weight

4.7lbs

Features

i7-4702

8GB DDR3

nVidia 860m

256GB SSD

Not traditionally the company you would think of for gaming laptops, but this one is quite solid if a bit underwhelming from a spec perspective. 

 

Honorable Mentions

 

Dell XPS 15  A high quality, great form factor machine, a serious price tag with excellent specs and a horrifically outdated GPU.  Update the GPU to a 960/970 and you instantly have a contender.  With this GPU at that price, sadly I have to pass.

MSI GS30 This one is an interesting concept.  It’s a portable and capable 13” laptop that lacks a dedicated GPU.  That said, it ships with a Gaming Dock, that contains a desktop class GPU.  So a portable machine when you need it, a gaming machine when you take it home.  If you only need the power when you are at home, this is certainly something to consider. 

Alienware 13  This 13” option from Alienware is certainly worth considering as well.  It packs a 960m GPU and solid internals into a 13” chassis.  Also like the MSI it has a desktop GPU docking option available.  It clocks in at under 5 lbs, so it certainly meets the criteria set above.  It is however horrifically fat, at 1.14”.  If it’s girth isn’t an issue to you it’s a solid option for 1200-1500USD.

Microsoft SurfaceBook  When it was announced that the Surface Book would have a dedicated GPU I stood up and took notice.  The price tag was extremely steep, but you were essentially getting a tablet and high end laptop in one, so perhaps it would be worthwhile.  Then it was announced that the GPU was a 1GB custom nVidia chip on par with the 940M and it’s place on this list was lost. 

Origin EON-15x  This machine is amazingly powerful in a 15” chassis.  It’s also amazingly expensive with horrid battery life.  Plus it weighs more then some 17” laptops.  It’s fun to drool over though, so I’ve included it.

 

The Verdict

 

Looking at the list there seems to be one clear cut winner when it comes to size, performance and price.

The Gigabyte P34v4.  The lightest, one of the highest specs at one of the lower non-budget price points with a 2 year warranty makes it hard to say no.  I’ve put my money where my mouth is and purchased this machine, so expect a review soon.

Totally Off Topic

5. November 2015

 

In this tutorial we are going to look at playing back music in our SFML game.  We will look at streaming an ogg file from disk.  We will also quickly look at the basics of handling time in SFML as we add fast forward and rewind abilities to our music playback.

 

There is an HD version of this tutorial here.

 

Playing music files is different from playing audio files and we will deal with this in a separate tutorial.  Music files are designed to be streamed from disk, not resident in memory.  SFML supports the following file formats:

  • ogg
  • wav
  • flac
  • aiff
  • au
  • raw
  • paf
  • svx
  • nist
  • voc
  • ircam
  • w64
  • mat4
  • mat5
  • pvf
  • htk
  • sds
  • avr
  • sd2
  • caf
  • wve
  • mpc2k
  • rf64

 

You will notice a very noticeable exception from that list, the mp3 format. That is because the mp3 format is encumbered by a number of patents and should be avoided to protect yourself from potential licensing fees.  Fortunately the ogg format offers similar file sizes and similar audio quality as the mp3 format without the licensing pitfalls.  If you require to covert formats the free software Audacity is an excellent and easy choice.

 

The major difference between sound effect and music is the sound effect stays resident in memory, while a Music file is streamed from disk.  Both classes still possess a great deal of common behaviour.  In fact if you look at the inheritance tree you will see that they have a common base class.

 

image

 

Now lets finally create some code showing how to actually play and control music files.

 

// Demonstrate that the hills are alive with the sound of music
#include "SFML/Graphics.hpp"
#include "SFML/Audio.hpp"
#include <iostream>

int main(int argc, char ** argv){
  sf::RenderWindow renderWindow(sf::VideoMode(640, 480), "Demo Game");

  sf::Event event;
  sf::Music music;
  music.openFromFile("audio/goats_typicalamerican.ogg");
  music.setVolume(50);

  music.play();

  while (renderWindow.isOpen()){
    while (renderWindow.pollEvent(event)){
      if (event.type == sf::Event::EventType::Closed)
        renderWindow.close();


      if (event.type == sf::Event::EventType::KeyPressed){

        // Up and down to control volume
        if (event.key.code == sf::Keyboard::Key::Down)
          music.setVolume(music.getVolume() - 10);
        if (event.key.code == sf::Keyboard::Key::Up)
          music.setVolume(music.getVolume() + 10);
        

        // Left and right to control tracking position
        if (event.key.code == sf::Keyboard::Key::Right){
          auto newPos = music.getPlayingOffset() + sf::seconds(5);
          music.setPlayingOffset(sf::Time(newPos));
        }
          
        if (event.key.code == sf::Keyboard::Key::Left){
          auto newPos = music.getPlayingOffset() - sf::seconds(5);
          if (newPos.asSeconds() <= 0.0f) newPos = sf::seconds(0);
          music.setPlayingOffset(sf::Time(newPos));
        }

        std::cout << "Current volume is :" << music.getVolume() << " position is: " 
          << music.getPlayingOffset().asSeconds() << std::endl;
      }
    }

    renderWindow.clear();
    renderWindow.display();
  }
}

 

You’ll notice that loading a music file is pretty much identical to loading any other asset in SFML.  Keep in mind the Music class actually owns the underlying data of the music that is played so it is not a light weight class so be careful when they are created.  However since the Music file is played from disk instead of from memory, it is safe to allocated multiple concurrent Music files, such as one per song played, without being hugely wasteful.

 

The code itself is fairly self explanitory.  You can set the volume directly on a music file that is being played, you can control music playback using vcr style play/pause/stop() controls.  You can also control the position of the sound using a combination of getPlayingOffset() and setPlayingOffset().  As you can see there are also time operators built into SFML such as sf::seconds() or sf::milliseconds() making time based math extremely simple.

 

There is a great deal more you can do with audio files, but we will cover that in the sound effects tutorial.

 

The Video

 

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