When I began my quest to review a horde of gaming laptops, at the end of which I would purchase the one I liked the most, I was reasonably convinced of two things. One, I wouldn't settle for something that I considered to be graphically underpowered. Two, I didn't want something gigantic. The first conviction was challenged by the relatively affordable Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming, whose humble 1050 Ti GPU proved surprisingly meaty (sadly, the awful screen ultimately deterred me from purchase there), and now the second has come undone in the face of the colossal 17" HP Omen.
Cards on the table: I arranged a loan of this machine - Omen by HP 17-w200na, to give it its full name - in the near-certain belief that I really wouldn't like it. The sheer size of the thing, the cod-Satanic branding, a perceived plastickiness in photos, the lack of a Thunderbolt 3 port and, most of all, a suspiciously cheap price for a laptop with a powerful NVIDIA GTX 1070 graphics card. You can get this thing for £450-£650 less than the very similarly-specced Alienware 15 I looked at a while back, and £600-£750 less than Alienware's broadly equivalent 17" model. Surely this meant the Omen is nasty?
Not a bit of it. It's a significantly nicer machine than the Alienware despite the significantly lower cost. And a dramatically superior machine to the Inspiron 15 despite being "only" £500 more ('only' £350 if you use an HP voucher).
First, let's do the specs thing. In the spirit of full disclosure, the review unit I have is in fact a last-gen model, but all that actually means is it has a marginally slower CPU - a 2.6-3.5 GHz Intel Core i7 6700HQ, versus the 2.8-3.8 GHz in the more recent model's 7700HQ; there are few real life scenarios in which this would make a perceptible difference. Everything else is just the same as the Omen 17 you can buy now, though you'll find different RAM, hard drive, screen and graphics card configurations depending on where you buy and how much you pay. Here's what we get:
CPU: Intel Core i7 6700HQ, 2.6 GHz / 3.5Ghz max boost (again, if you buy a brand new one you're more than likely to find a 7700HQ in there instead)
GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 8GB
RAM: 8GB DDR 4
Hard drive: 128GB M.2 SSD and 1TB HDD
Screen: Full HD 1920x1080, IPS, 40-75Hz G-Sync
Size: 41.6 x 27.9 x 3.3 cm
Weight: 3.4 Kg
That spec, once again with the fractionally faster 7700HQ, can be had for £1500 from Amazon, or a pretty remarkable £1,350 direct from HP if bought using a 'MAY10' voucher code valid until the end of this Month.
Alternatively, you can drop the GPU down to a 1060 (still a very capable card, but you're future-proofing yourself less) and an i5 6300HQ (bit slower and has no hyperthreading, but this won't be an issue in the vast majority of current games) for £1,179.
I'm not at all comfortable using the word 'bargain' when it comes to dropping £1,500 or even £1,350 on a single item, but certainly it's true that I haven't turned up a better value proposition for a high-end gaming laptop than this one. A few Asus and Gigabyte models do get close to it, however, so I can well imagine that the right sale in the right place on the right day will see one of those undercut this one. I'll do my best to get hold of those for review later in this seriesette, anyway.
Let's tackle the elephant in the room, which was my fear that the Omen 17 would be like keeping an elephant in my room. I've owned or borrowed many laptops during my time, but never gone above 15" because, well, I wanted an actually portable device, not effectively a desktop PC that folded up a bit. The Omen 17 is certainly big and thick, but nothing like as big as I'd feared - or as heavy. Relatively efficient use of bezel means that there aren't acres of plastic either side of the screen, and there's minimal use of metal styling (or external heatsink blocks, as with the Alienware 15) to create excess weight.
PS4 pad pictured for size as well as heresy.
Though its all-plastic construction means you miss out on the premium feel of, say, an Apple or Razer laptop, I find the fact that I can carry this thing about without my back collapsing infinitely preferable. It's the same weight as the Alienware despite being quite a bit bigger, and doesn't feel dramatically heavier than the Inspiron 15 gaming. Moving betwixt home and office involves an almighty hill, and so far I haven't keeled over and died halfway up while carrying this. Summer's only just begun, mind you.
There's no doubt about it though, this is a big old lad, and it requires a power supply the size and weight of a paperback too. There is simply no way I'm using it in a coffee shop or on a train or plane tray table, and that's a combination of practicality and embarrassment factor. The latter at least relates mostly to size rather than appearance. Though the blood red Omen logo on its cover was described by a colleague as resembling "a grumpy beaver" rather than whatever proprietary demon graphic it's intended to be, the branding is comparatively discrete here. It's certainly not beautiful, but it's not "oh God I'm a victim of a marketing executive's stereotypes about 'gamers'" either.
I feel significantly less self-conscious about its carbon black with red backlit keyboard design than I did the little grey man and neon striplighting of the Alienware 15. (I know I keep picking on the Alienware machine here, but as I get to see more of these machines I'll have more points of comparison - and, in this case, Omen and Alienware are very much rivals for the gaming laptop buck right now.) I even prefer it to the more neutral grey with red accents of the Inspiron. Though also all-plastic, the matte finish and carbon fibre effect broadly looks smart rather than cheap. If I owned one, I'd definitely be slapping a sticker over the grumpy beaver, however.
So, no coffee shop use, but as a machine to move between home and work, the Omen's surprised me. It's not just that it's a little more portable than I'd suspected, but also that the generous 17" screen gives me a sense of using a proper PC that I've ever known in any previous laptop. Even with 15 inchers, I've quickly found myself keeping an external monitor to hand because screen real estate has felt so cramped, and games so tiny. I wouldn't bother here - 17" is the sweet spot in that regard. Big and roomy and games look great on it.
It helps a lot that the screen itself isn't trash, of course. There's an IPS panel in there (i.e. the same sort of tech used in phones and Apple laptops) so you get good colours and viewing angles. The displays on the Alienware and Dell models made me deeply miserable, as everything looked pale and uninteresting on them even if you could find the tiny window of correct viewing angle. The Omen doesn't come close to matching the glorious vibrancy of the Razer Blade Stealth's 4K screen, but in day-to-day practice I have no real complaints. Everything looks right. I'd worried from afar that 'just' 1080p might look a bit lousy on a screen this big, but that's been no issue whatsoever. Sure, 4K makes fonts look pretty and games look sharp, but the reality is it's a big hit on battery life and is likely to have your GPU hitting its performance ceiling too soon for no major gain.
One thing the Alienware does have over this one, screen-wise, is that it has up to 120Hz refresh (and therefore framerate), which appeals to the speed-above-all-else crowd. Though both machines have G-Sync, this one tops out at 75Hz. Speaking personally, that's more than enough (I can feel a slight difference from 60 > 75 Hz, but very little if anything above that) and I find that plus an IPS panel is an infinitely more pleasant experience than 120Hz + a TN panel. Each to their What Hi-Fi-reading own, however.
As for the GPU, a 1070 is a 1070 so other than checking it works as it's supposed to (it does), there's little new to say there. As with the Alienware 15, it's maxing out the likes of the Witcher 3 and Deus Ex Mankind Divided without breaking a sweat. Add Prey to that roster, which in most cases is seeing a solid 75 FPS on the Omen, with G-Sync compensating for minor drops (adaptive sync means a game's framerate can flicker happily all over the place rather than hard-switch between 60/45/30 as it does with V-Sync). Only time will tell, but my feeling is that a 1070 won't age too quickly, the G-Sync panel will help when it does and, if you can afford it, that GPU makes for a better investment than does a 1060 laptop.
That said, on the issue of upgradeability, this sadly lacks a Thunderbolt 3 connection, so you won't be able to use an external graphics card dock with it when you need a bit more graphical oomph a few years later. It's difficult to say what the lie of the land will be for eGPUs a few years hence, but right now it does seem a mite foolish to be buying a laptop that definitely cannot support it. I'd probably steer clear of the less powerful 1060 version of the Omen 17 for exactly that reason.
It should also be noted that a few other concessions have been made to keep this Omen's price down. 8GB of RAM is enough for many situations, but you'll probably find yourself wanting to upgrade to 16GB in short order if you like to have a few browser tabs open in the background while you game, or use Photoshop or Premiere or stream or anything like that. 16GB is by no means a necessity in 2017, but it's definitely helpful.
The same's true of the 128GB solid state boot drive. It's enough for Windows, a few key applications and one or two games, but you'll need to start using the 1TB mechanical drive for game installations before long, which means far slower loading times. Ideally the SSD would be 256GB, just for a bit more breathing room, so that might turn out to be another deferred cost if you go for the Omen, depending on how much you're bothered by loading screens.
I think those are entirely fair compromises made in the name of selling a very powerful gaming laptop for £1500, however. As such, despite these niggles, the lack of Thunderbolt 3 and the fact it's too chunky to use in some public places, the Omen has currently shot right to the top of my 'laptops I might buy' list. Strong specs, an entirely decent screen and a price that meaningfully undercuts most of its rivals: there's so much to like here. I'd honestly expected to not get on with the Omen 17 at all, but now I'm finding it fits into my work/play laptop gap eerily snugly.
All being well, next up we'll be looking at the Razer Blade, a very different proposition, but one which is likely to create a real dilemma for me about which machine I'll end up buying.
Review sample loaned to us by HP.