- Outpaces the competition in games and applications
- Good screen and speaker quality
- Solid build
- Versatile features and specification
- Heavier and thicker than other notebooks
- Pricier than the competition
- Others have better screens and keyboards
Key Features: 15.6in 1,920 x 1,080 screen; Intel Core i7-6700 processor; Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M GPU; 16GB DDR4 RAM; 256GB SSD; 1TB hard disk; 3yr RTB warranty
Manufacturer: PC Specialist
What is the PC Specialist Octane?
This laptop comes from a firm that’s better-known for its gaming desktops. PC Specialist is based in Wakefield and has been building high-end systems since 2003, but the Octane is the first time I’ve gone hands-on with one of its notebooks.
The £1,549 machine comes with a desktop processor and high-end graphics chip, which certainly bodes well for impressive framerates.
It may be first time I’ve reviewed a PC Specialist laptop, but there’s something familiar about the Octane. That’s because this machine is built using a shell from Taiwanese notebook firm Clevo. The model used here is the P751DM – the 15.6-inch version of the 17.3-inch base used by the XMG U706.
That’s no knock on PC Specialist, though; Clevo’s hardware is hard-wearing and packed with features. It has loads of USB 3 ports, a USB 3.1 Type-C connector, an eSATA socket and four audio jacks, and the chunky power plug on the rear is sandwiched between an HDMI socket and two DisplayPort connectors.
The versatility extends to the interior. Two base panels peel away to reveal the components: the first grants access to the memory, M.2 SSD and cooling gear, and the latter hides the hard disk and spare 2.5in and M.2 connectors. That’s about as good as it gets for gaming notebooks – it means the components are accessible and that it’s easy to clean the cooling gear.
The Octane is a sturdy lump of a laptop. There’s a tiny bit of give in the wrist-rest and the underside, but the minor flex in those panels isn’t enough to make me worry about lugging the Octane to LAN parties or friends’ houses. The screen is similar: it does move, but the desktop itself isn’t distorted. It’s a similar bill of health to the MSI GS60 6QE Ghost Pro, and it’s not far behind the rock-solid Alienware 15.
I have no qualms about taking the Octane out and about, but I’d invest in a decent backpack to protect my shoulders. PC Specialist’s system weighs 3.4kg and is 36mm thick: miles bigger than the MSI, and a little heavier and thicker than the beefy Alienware.
The Octane isn’t the slickest-looking laptop. There isn’t a logo anywhere on its matte black lid, and the same understated material is used to surround the keyboard and the screen. There are ridges and seams around the screen and the base, and no illumination around the touchpad. The power button is lit with a green LED, the keyboard is backed with blue lights, and there’s a raft of stickers along the left-hand edge.
If you want an understated notebook that’ll surprise with its power, this is ideal.
The Octane isn’t the first gaming laptop to mix desktop and notebook components – XMG’s Clevo-made U706 did the same thing.
PC Specialist’s machine is powered by the Core i7-6700. It’s the most modest chip from Intel’s desktop Skylake i7: its four Hyper-Threaded cores run at 3.4GHz with a Turbo Boost peak of 4GHz, and the chip has 8MB of L3 cache and a 65W power requirement.
The Octane grabs attention by locking and loading a desktop chip, but there’s not much between the basic i7-6700 and the mobile i7-6700HQ that’s used in the MSI and the latest revisions of the Alienware 15. The i7-6700HQ runs at 2.6GHz with a Turbo peak of 3.5GHz, and it’s still got those four Hyper-Threaded cores.
Elsewhere the Octane is more conventional. It’s got 16GB of DDR4 memory clocked to 2,133MHz. The boot drive is a 256GB Samsung SM951 M.2 SSD, and it’s alongside a 1TB Toshiba hard disk. That’s an entirely normal storage loadout for a high-end gaming notebook in 2016.
Graphical grunt comes from the GTX 980M. It’s the most popular Nvidia mobile chip right now – no surprise, since it’s top-of-the-range silicon. The chip has 1,536 stream processors and a 1,038MHz base clock, and PC Specialist has opted for the full-fat version of the chip with 8GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. It’s a step up from both rivals – they used the GTX 970M.
There’s another area where the PC Specialist eases ahead of the competition: specification options. Every part of this machine can be altered. The screen can be switched for a 2,880 x 1,620 panel or even a 4K variant, and processor options range from the cheaper i5-6400 to the high-end i7-6700K. Memory choices run from 4GB to 32GB, and the graphics core can be switched down to the GTX 970M.
There are dozens of storage options for multiple SSDs and hard disks, and the Octane can also be augmented by sound cards, 4G cards, spare batteries and different networking options.
It’s almost infinitely customisable. The cheapest manageable model – I’ve opted for a 500GB hard disk and 8GB of memory with Core i5 and GTX 970M silicon – costs £1,168. Ramp the components up to stratospheric levels, meanwhile, and the price soars beyond £2,000.
The Octane also comes with a more generous warranty than its rivals. PC Specialist’s default deal is a three-year labour deal that includes a year of parts coverage, and two more comprehensive levels of coverage are available. The Alienware has a single year of next-business-day protection. The MSI also has a one-year deal.
The most disappointing part of the Octane’s feature set is its lack of software – the only third-party tool installed here is Bulldog Security, which did nothing but serve up intrusive pop-ups. The MSI and Alienware machines both have apps for LED customisation, fan modes, audio tools and network optimisation. I tend to find these apps mixed, but at least other laptops give the user those options.
Screen & Sound Quality
In most departments the Octane’s 1080p matte screen is good, but not great. The measured contrast ratio of 909:1 is good enough to deliver vibrant colours and rich black tones, and the individual measurements are both decent: the brightness level of 318 nits is ample, and the black level of 0.35 nits is deep.
The colour temperature of 7,088K is only a little too cool, and the average Delta E of 3.45 is fine for gaming – not quite below 2, as I prefer, but close enough that the difference won’t be obvious. The Octane’s panel rendered 86.4% of the sRGB colour gamut, and didn’t fall down in any one area: it’s just a little short when rendering reds, pinks, purples and some light greens and blues. Again, that’s not something I’d notice during gameplay or other tasks.
Viewing angles are fine, and uniformity is reasonable. The panel loses a middling 10% of its brightness along the top edge, and only 5% across its middle and bottom row. That’s a decent result, and colour temperature didn’t vary much either – it only warmed up by 6% at its worst. The biggest issue in this department was the occasional bit of backlight bleed, which occurred in sharper areas along the top edge and in wider, weaker bands along the bottom of the screen. They’re only noticeable if the entire screen is dark – and they’ll only be obvious if frantic gameplay has slowed down.
This screen might not stand out with extreme levels of quality in any one department, but it never falls behind in any crucial area. There’s a lot to be said for such consistent, decent results. Games look good, with black levels and contrast that can do justice to darker areas while picking out colours and detail in the rest of the range. Colour accuracy is solid, too.
The Octane’s panel competes well with rivals. It’s just as good as the Alienware, with similar contrast and better colour temperature despite its poorer Delta E figures. The MSI’s panel has better colour temperature and contrast, which means I prefer that panel – but the PC Specialist isn’t far behind.
The audio kit is similarly comprehensive. There’s a decent thump of bass, a well-defined mid-range and a high-end that’s distinct without being too tinny. It’s absolutely fine for gaming, but it lacks the bite, clarity and liveliness that personifies the best laptop speakers.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The Octane has a traditional keyboard – similar to the Alienware 15, and miles away from the SteelSeries-made Scrabble-tile unit on the MSI GS60 6QE Ghost Pro.
The increased size and height of the keys only bodes well for gaming. The Octane’s buttons have more travel than the MSI’s keys, and they depress with consistency and speed – more than enough to play the fastest games without complaint.
As with several other aspects of the Octane, I only have minor complaints. There’s a little bit of travel in the keyboard’s base, which doesn’t compare well to the rock-solid Alienware, and the PC Specialist’s keys aren’t quite as snappy and rapid as the Alienware’s buttons. The Octane also doesn’t the macro keys and other special features found on some gaming notebooks.
The trackpad is reasonable. I like its friction-free surface, but the two discrete buttons are a little too soft – definitely less responsive and snappy than the MSI’s hardware. As ever, truly competitive gamers will want to deploy a USB rodent.
The Octane is supplied with a removable 82Wh battery. That’s an entirely normal power pack for a conventional gaming notebook specification, so it’s no surprise that this machine’s longevity was predictable.
PC Specialist’s machine lasted for three hours and fourteen minutes in the PCMark standard battery test with the screen at 40% brightness. That’s exactly what I expect from a gaming notebook, and it falls between the competition. MSI’s machine was about half an hour worse, but Alienware’s machine confounded expectations with a five hour lifespan.
That result means that the Octane won’t last long away from the plug with the screen at full brightness and games at full pelt – expect about an hour before low battery warnings start to appear. This machine will handle a bit of gaming on the daily commute, but nothing more.
The Octane deploys Nvidia’s best single-core mobile graphics chip, and it blitzed the games tests without breaking a sweat. With every graphics option in Bioshock Infinite turned up it still averaged a smooth 79fps, and it then rattled through Battlefield 4’s Ultra settings at 67fps. Crysis 3 is the toughest test title, but it still averaged a mighty 64fps. There’s enough power here to play games at 1080p – and to output to 1440p panels using the machine’s DisplayPort or HDMI connectors.
That’s a fair way ahead of its GTX 970M-powered rivals. The MSI GS60 6QE Ghost Pro’s Bioshock and Battlefield 4 scores of 61fps and 52fps are reasonable but a long way back, and the Alienware 15 could only manage 71fps in Bioshock.
The clear air between the Octane and its rivals is illustrated by 3D Mark Fire Strike. PC Specialist’s machine scored 8,586 points. That’s at least 2,000 points ahead of the competition.
The Octane’s desktop processor rattled through Geekbench 3 to a score of 15,932. That is excellent: a couple of thousand points beyond the i7-6700HQ in the MSI. It also scored 806cb in Cinebench R15 – better than the MSI’s 639cb. It’s clearly a capable chip that won’t balk at any intensive work software or the latest games.
The SSD is fast, too. Its sequential read and write speeds of 1,836MB/s and 1,265MB/s are stoking – a little ahead of the MSI and miles ahead of the SATA drive inside the Alienware. The Samsung drive is about as quick as it gets right now, which means optimal loading times.
With the processor and graphics core individually stress-tested they peaked at modest temperatures of 72 and 68 degrees, and with both components tested simultaneously those results rose to 83 and 75 degrees. They’re good results that didn’t cause the key chips to throttle, and the cooling system also ensured that hot air was ejected from the rear of the machine. That’s good, because it means there’s no danger of gamers’ laps being unduly warmed by toasty internals.
The modest temperatures were accompanied by reasonable noise. There’s a noticeable whirr from this machine – as I expect from any gaming portable – but it’s quieter than both of its rivals. That’s important if the user is relying on speakers rather than a headset.
Should I Buy the PC Specialist Octane?
This is an unashamedly old-school gaming laptop. It’s packed with fast hardware that’s got the power to scythe through the latest games, and its 1080p screen offers high enough quality levels that the latest titles look great while running smoothly.
It’s good ergonomically, with a fine keyboard and trackpad. It’s got internal access, plenty of ports, and solid speakers.
The Octane’s retro style does mean that this system suffers in some areas. It’s far thicker and heavier than its rivals, and its battery life is underwhelming.
PC Specialist’s Octane makes no major mistakes, but that size could be an issue for anyone who wants a lighter system to carry around – and it’s also a little pricier than the competition. If power is more important than portability, though, this is excellent.
The PC Specialist Octane is an old-school gaming laptop that crams hugely powerful hardware inside a thick, heavy chassis.
Scores In Detail
- Battery Life : 6/10
- Build Quality : 8/10
- Design : 6/10
- Heat & Noise : 8/10
- Keyboard : 8/10
- Performance : 10/10
- Screen Quality : 7/10
- Touchpad : 7/10
- Value : 7/10