There is a screaming beast living in my house. No, not a teenager. A screaming beast with a 17-inch 4K display and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 GPU.
HP has really honed its gaming offerings this year, and the PC firm now offers a more compelling family of products that span the needs of casual, mid-tier and high-end gamers. At the high-end, of course, is the DIY-focused OMEN X, while virtually any of HP’s portable and desk-bound offerings would satisfy the casual gaming crowd. In the middle but veering towards the high-end, in what we might call the sweet spot, HP offers its OMEN 870-series desktop towers. And it offers the OMEN laptops, which come in 15- and 17-in variants.
I’m testing a high-end 17-inch model. It’s the second gaming laptop I’ve had through stately Thurrott manor in recent years, the previous one being a Windows 8.1-based 15-inch OMEN laptop that offered some interesting design choices, including a fake “exhaust” burn on the display hinge that I found vaguely misguided.
This year’s OMEN laptops dispense with such silliness, though the basic barrel-like design of the display hinge continues forward (sans the fake burn). Indeed, the entire product line seems to have been thoughtfully planned to accommodate the needs of—wait for it—actual gamers.
I know. That sounds obvious. But in remaking its product line—and in, doing so, remaking itself as well—HP has over the past few years examined and then re-examined everything that it sells, and has tuned its offerings with two goals in mind: They must meet actual customer needs. And they must be profitable.
This is no small feat in today’s PC market, but HP has told me time and time again that there is gold to be found in them thar hills. That is, sure, the PC market overall is still shrinking somewhat, though that should plateau at some point. But there are sub-markets like premium PCs—where HP is starting to dominate—and gaming PCs where customers are willing to spend more. They even seem somewhat enthusiastic about it. These markets aren’t shrinking, they’re growing.
I’ve written a lot about HP’s transformation, and you can see it very clearly in well-regarded devices like the Spectre and the Spectre x360: These are PCs that even Apple users envy. And now HP is getting serious about gaming.
So what does that mean?
It means making the right component buying decisions on behalf of the customer and ignoring features that these customers don’t actually care about. It means routing the hot air out of the system from the back, and not from the sides where it will hit a user’s mouse hand. It means forgoing a bit of thinness and adding a bit of weight so you can have better (and more) CPU, GPU, storage and battery. It means offering both Full HD and 4K displays, so the user can choose what matters most to them: Perfect frame rates or the ultimate visual experience. And yes, it’s 2016, so it means full compatibility with modern virtual reality (VR) solutions in some models as well.
And this VR-capable review unit is indeed a beast.
Compared to the OMEN notebooks that HP first launched back in May, the graphics have been pumped up, a lot, from a mainstream GTX 965M (“Maxwell”) GPU to a “Pascal”-powered GTX 1070 with an (optional) G-Sync display. So, yes, the new version is just a bit heavier and thicker, but the payoff is enormous: Double the graphics performance. And you can really see it—and feel it—in modern PC games like Forza Horizon 3, Gears of War 4, Quantum Break, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, where I can crank up the display resolution and graphical quality past what’s available on my beloved Xbox One. And do so without breaking the frame rate bank. (Which reminds me, I really need to get Call of Duty on this thing.)
HP also removed the optical disk drive (ODD) from this model. And while that might prove controversial in some circles, I think it was the right decision: Even the high-end gaming world is moving to digital distribution, and removing such a bulky component leaves more room for the things that really matter, including that GPU and more battery. Plus decent-sound quad speakers, where previous versions have dual speakers.
Ports are ample and as expected for late-2016: We get three full-sized USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet, HDMI, miniDisplayPort, SD, and even separate microphone and headset ports. These are all on the sides of the device, as the cooling system funnels heat out the back where it belongs.
Speaking of which, the internal specs: My review unit OMEN laptop is a high-end PC by any measure, with its quad-core, 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 -6700HQ processor, 16 GB of RAM, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 graphics with 6 GB of dedicated RAM tied to a stunning G-Sync-capable 4K (3840 x 2160) IPS display, a 512 GB PCIe NVME SSD and a 2 TB HDD. You can spec it out with 32 GB of RAM if you want, but you can also save money by opting for slightly lower-end GTX 1060 graphics, a Full HD display, and a range of RAM and storage options. Pricing likewise ranges, from about $1300 to the $1800 my review rig would set you back.
Those are reasonable prices for the horsepower. And while no one will be carting this device to trade shows and business meetings, the OMEN represents a compelling option for LAN gamers and even students who wish to move between entertainment and productivity. (I’m not sure I’ll actually try to use the OMEN in that latter capacity, but the short version is that the red-backlit keyboard keys are a bit on the small side for my tastes, but serviceable. Ditto for the trackpad, which is almost vestigial on this device.)
Looking ahead, I’ll be doing something I don’t usually do: Play games on the PC. And I’ll let you know how that goes, and how it compares to Xbox One gaming. Longer term, I’d like to look at VR too, of course. So let me know what you’d like to see in the review, there’s certainly a lot to think about here.