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Best notebooks for 3D rendering. Part 2: Recommended configurations

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In the first part of this series I talk about the technical considerations for buying a new laptop for 3D work / rendering. I also tracked down the two NVidia mobile cards from the latest generation that are in the performance area. If you want to see how GeForce GTX 970M and 980M tested out in Cycles, you can see the figures here—their rendering performance is quite impressive.

Next, I’m going to make a few recommendations for specific notebook models, which I consider suited for particular usage patterns. Let’s get started.

The road warrior. If you are spending a lot of time on the road and need a light but powerful notebook, this one’s for you.

High-end configuration 15″: Clevo P650SG/P651SG (Sager NP8652)

Sager Notebook official image

Sager NP8652 official image and source

Configuration details:

– approximately 2.7 kg without power adapter
– Intel i7-4720HQ
– 32 GB RAM
– NVidia 980M with 4GB of RAM
– 2 x 512 GB SSD – One Samsung XP941 and one Crucial MX100
– 4k Sharp screen

Price: approximately $2,800 in the US

Pros:
– part of the new ‘slim’ Clevo generation of laptops (29 mm thick)
– light for a performance configuration
– Samsung SSD can be installed in the PCI Express port for high performance transfer
– 4K screen
– very good cooling—effective and relatively quiet
– it can hold up to 4 disk drives
– can pass for a business laptop

Cons:
– only 4 GB of VRAM. If you’e got heavy scenes to render, it may go over that value
– battery is medium sized, so don’t expect MacBook-like battery life
– GPU and CPU are soldered on board, so no upgrade options

ResourcesNotebookcheck review, Detailed user review by HTWingNut, Owners forum

Further considerations:
– has no optical drive
– this is a newly released platform. Although the technical and user reviews have been good so far, it hasn’t been time-tested
– Samsung XP941 can get very hot when in operation, which might impact the general thermal profile. If you want to have it as cool as possible, go for a second Crucial MX100 and wait for a next generation PCI Express drive
– 4K screen may cause scaling issues in Windows. Also, it consumes more power. An alternative is always the Full HD screen—make sure to get the IPS one!
– there is also a 17″ similar configuration: Clevo P670SG. It has the same price and can be configured with the same options, except for the 4K screen. It’s also about 0.6 Kg heavier. If you’d rather work on a 17″, the 670SG represents a good choice
– you can also configure a lower-priced version with NVidia 970M, 16 GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD + 1 TB HDD and Full HD screen, which will cost around $1,700

High-end configuration 17″: Aorus X7 Pro

Aorus X7 Pro official image

Aorus X7 Pro official image and source

Configuration details:
– approximately 3.1 kg without power adapter
– Intel i7-4870HQ
– 32 GB RAM
– dual NVidia 970M with 3 GB of RAM each
– 2 x 512 GB SSD – Crucial M550
– Full HD IPS screen

Price: approximately $3,500 in the US

Pros:
– very good performance
– one of the thinnest, lightest 17″ gaming notebooks
– light for a performance configuration
– can be configured with 4 disk drives

Cons:
– each GPU has only 3 GB of RAM
– poor battery life
– GPU and CPU are soldered on board, so no upgrade options
– relatively poor thermals (loud and hot). May also throttle under high load

Resources: Notebookcheck review, Detailed user review by HTWingNutOwners forum

Further considerations:
– if the Aorus name doesn’t tell you much, it’s a Gigabyte brand. So they have the necessary expertise to enter the gaming hardware world
– has no optical drive
– if you live outside US, it may be difficult to find a nearby dealer
– if you are also a gamer, SLI won’t work in all games
– SLI means no support for Optimus, and this is one of the reasons of poor battery life
– it has a borderline gaming look, so it may not fit in corporate environments

Desktop replacement. If you mainly work in one spot, one of these configurations is suitable for your occasional laptop-carrying trips.

High-end configuration 17″: MSI GT72

MSI GT72 official image and source

Configuration details:
– approximately 3.9 kg without power adapter
– Intel  i7-4710HQ
– 32 GB RAM
– NVidia 980M with 8 GB of RAM
– 4 x 128 GB SSD in RAID 0 (stripping) + 2TB HDD
– Full HD IPS screen
– Blu-Ray reader

Price: approximately $2,700 in the US

Pros:
– very good performance
– 8 GB GPU means more scenes will fit into the memory
– 4 disks in RAID 0 offer very good transfer speeds
– manual GPU switch from integrated to NVidia. Good for Oculus users and anyone else having problems with Optimus
– very good and quiet cooling
– can be configured with 4 external monitors
– MXM GPU (upgradeable)

Cons:
– heavy
– no Optimus support results in reduced battery life

Resources: Notebookcheck review, Detailed user review by HTWingNut, Owners forum

Further considerations:
– RAID 0 has a higher risk of data loss compared to individual drives
– the MXM GPU doesn’t represent an upgrade guarantee. The new generation of boards needs to be on the same socket and to be supported by the laptop Bios. However, given the fact that the next generation of GPUs will be on the same architecture, I believe there are good odds for an upgrade
– it screams ‘gamer’, so it probably won’t fit into a corporate office

All-out configuration 17″: Sager NP9377-S (Clevo P377SM-A)

Configuration details:
– approximately 4.6 kg without power adapter
– Intel i7-4940MX Extreme edition
– 32 GB RAM
– dual NVidia 980M with 8 GB of RAM each
– 2 x 1 TB SSD – Samsung 850 Pro
– Full HD IPS screen
– Blu-Ray reader

Price: approximately $5,000 in the US

Pros:
– stellar performance
– 8 GB for each GPU means more scenes will fit into the memory
– Fast Extreme edition CPU
– can be configured with 4 disk drives
– good thermals, though relatively loud
– everything can be upgraded (in theory)

Cons:
– battery life? What battery life?
– bulky design
– heaviest from the lot

Resources: Notebookcheck reviewDetailed user review by HTWingNut, Owners forum

Further considerations:
– this is the best performance you can get from a notebook at this moment, and it’s the most future-proof configuration (if such a thing exists in a notebook)
– changing the SSDs to a cheaper storage version can shave around $1,000 from the total price

Budget recommendation. If you need an upgrade, but you’d rather make a step by step investment.

15″ Configuration: Sager NP8268 (Clevo P150SM-A)

1410301881_NP8268_4-W

Sager NP8268 (Clevo P150SM-A) official image and source

Configuration details:
– approximately 3.2 kg without power adapter
– Intel i7-4710HQ
– 16 GB RAM
– NVidia 870M with 3GB of RAM
– 1 TB HDD 7200rpm
– full HD screen
– DVD writer

Price: approximately $1,300 in the US

Pros:
– tried and tested configuration
– can be upgraded in the future to the 900 series of GPUs (and maybe beyond), more RAM and disks
– good thermals and cooling
– can pass for a business laptop

Cons:
– only 3 GB of VRAM
– on the heavy and bulky side

Resources: Notebookcheck review, Detailed user review by HTWingNut, Owners forum

Further considerations:
– the 870M is a GPU from the previous generation, but it still has a decent performance and remains a good fit for a budget configuration

Closing thoughts:

All the notebooks from this article are highly configurable. If the price from a configuration seems too high, you can for sure bring it down by tweaking the details. You can also go up, with options like laser etching, decals, etc. Also, all the models have positive reviews from their users and a good quality of assembly.

When calculating the total carrying weight, you should take into consideration the power adapter. These notebooks are power-hungry and most adapters weigh around 0.8Kg. The heavy contender is of course the 980M SLI machine, which has a power adapter weighing over 1.2Kg. For exact figures, see the middle column of the Notebookcheck review for each model.

Some manufacturers offer extended warranties for approximately $100 per year. My advice would be to go for it, especially if you get a $2000+ machine.

If you wonder why I didn’t recommend any 17″ notebook with a screen having more than full HD, this is because they don’t exist yet. Production costs are still too high, but maybe there will be an update at the end of 2015. Alienware just released yesterday its new 15″ and 17″ laptops, but they are limited to 16 GB of RAM, have poor disk options, 3 GB and 4 GB NVidia cards and they’re heavy and on the expensive side. They have an interesting feature though: the option to add an external GPU to the system. So, if the memory is enough for you or you want to give the external GPU a shot, and you have good bargaining skills, give them a call.

If you need a very powerful CPU, but don’t want to go for the SLI monster machine, you should take a look at the new Clevo ZM series (P750ZM / P751ZM / P770ZM P771ZM). They are available starting with January and can be configured with desktop CPUs up to i7-4790K.

In the end, I advise you to do your own research before deciding what to buy. There may be specific requirements that you have (e.g. Thunderbolt port) that aren’t met by all these configurations. So, please, think this through before pulling out the wallet. Each of these models has been reviewed on the net, so look for that as well. The community is always worth asking, and I’ve included links to unofficial reviews by enthusiast users (HTWingNut) and to the owner forums for each model.

If you need to be mobile and have more power available for rendering, you can take a look at our unlimited rendering plan. For just $50 per month – less than half the price of the cheapest notebook in this article – your renders can finish significantly faster. And you can access it from anywhere you are if you have an internet connection.

If you have any questions about the contents of this article or about the recommendations, drop a line here and we can discuss.

Full disclosure: Neither myself personally, nor RenderStreet are affiliated in any way with any of the above-mentioned manufacturers, or to any review site. And if you’re wondering, I’ve also put my money on one of these configurations ; )

Update: The fall 2015 releases are covered in the next part of the article, including the Skylake CPUs.

 

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