HP reveals their OMEN X high-end gaming laptop

By now you probably know all about HP’s reinvention of the OMEN laptop brand that was gathering dust for a few years. The company dusted off the brand formerly known as Voodoo PC and gave it new life two years ago, and now they’re one of the strongest competitors in the gaming laptop market today. While they’ve had several high-end designs, they didn’t have anything to compete with the Acer Predators and Alienwares of the world. That’s where the just-announced OMEN X laptop comes in.

For HP, OMEN is a new class of products that, for all intents and purposes, could be considered experimental. A “gaming” brand for a company gives it leeway to explore new ideas and experiment with new things to see how it would hold up in a physical product. HP has taken this to heart, and OMEN is basically their bleeding-edge product stack. It includes backpack computers, external graphics adapters, cube chassis, and high-end, fast-paced displays for gaming with variable refresh rate technology. While OMEN products will always be more decidedly high-end than you’d expect from an experimental brand, it’s still the first step to HP dipping their toes, and eventually a full foot into a trend that could filter through to the rest of their product line.

It also allows them to put the other foot into the esports world. OMEN has become a vector for HP to make a name for itself in the gaming markets where it previously was seen as uncool, even with the Voodoo PC brand attached. During the OMEN X briefing, HP reminded press how far it’s come in a short time, now sponsoring full hardware setups for the Overwatch World Cup, as well as sponsoring five teams and one prominent female esports player, Julie “juliano” Kiran, one of Sweden’s top Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players. The team behind the OMEN brand clearly care about how they market themselves to gamers.

Anyway, back to the hardware.

HP’s approach to designing the OMEN X is a little like Professor Utonium’s recipe for the PowerPuff Girls. Take all the best elements, ideas, and requests from other OMEN products along with customer feedback, and add in Chemical X where appropriate. The OMEN X therefore has overclocking support for the GPU and CPU, customisable RGB lighting (because that’s the hot thing in 2017), and it uses aluminium everywhere on the chassis. HP uses an aluminium backplate for the mechanical keyboard as well, to reduce weight and still keep things stable.

So it comes as no surprise that the OMEN X ended up being a behemoth. It will include high-end graphics cards up to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080, overclocked from the factory already, along with exposed overclocking control through HP’s software. It’s VR-ready, as expected, and will have enough ports to support using a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset and controls.

On the processor side, HP told the press that they’re offering Intel’s latest Kaby Lake mobile processors up to the Core i7-7820HK, as well as support for XMP memory configurations up to DDR4-2800 frequencies, which for a laptop is quite fast.

On the storage side, there’s support  for NVMe RAID setups for the very highest-end SKUs, dropping down as far as a single 1TB HDD for the cheaper options. The access panel is a single piece of plastic, with lots of ventilation for the high-end cooling required. At the bottom of the laptop is the battery, which should be enough for some light gaming on the go. Everything is also user-serviceable and replacable, and I’m happy to see HP take this route.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if there’s still one or two open M.2 NVME slots on the cheapest models though, because HP said that extensibility is one of the things they kept in mind when designing the OMEN X. I’ll make sure to ask HP about this later today.

Port-wise, there are three USB 3.0 Type-A connectors, two Thunderbolt 3 ports that double as USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C ports, one HDMI 2.0a port with HDR capability, one mini-Displayport 1.4 port, a RJ45 Ethernet port, and a multi-format card reader. There’s also a split audio and microphone jack.

This puts some limits on how you hook up your external displays. If you want external G-Sync support, you need to use a dongle for the mini-DP port, or use a Thunderbolt to Displayport adapter. G-Sync can run over Thunderbolt (as this video from LinusTechTips proves), but I’ll have to ask HP whether they are allowing G-Sync to work over Thunderbolt in the OMEN X specifically.

On the overclocking side of things, there are still limits on how far you can take things. The Intel Core i7-7820HK might allow multiplier overclocking, but there will be a limit in the BIOS of how far you can drive it, likely up to 4.3GHz boost frequencies. The XMP support up to DDR4-2800 will require overclocking the system by default, so HP will allow adjusting the BLCK only if your memory supports those higher frequenties.

As far as the GPU overclocking options go, HP’s factory overclocks aren’t really that high compared to the base clocks. There’s less than 100MHz difference for the base and boost frequencies, and there’s no memory overclocks allowed. I’m guessing that instead of allowing overclocks in the traditional sense, HP’s factory overclock is equivalent to adjusting the power control slider up 10% in MSI Afterburner. It’ll allow the GPU to hold those boost clocks for longer periods of time despite higher heat levels.

HP also told us that ditching the optical drive was necessary to fit in the redesigned dual-fan setup that has extra heatpipes and a vapour chamber cooler to cover the GPU, the VRAM, and the CPU. All the heat is exhausted through vents at the rear of the laptop, which is surely music to the ears of all left-handed gamers playing on a laptop.

The OMEN Command Center is HP’s new tool to support EUFI setup and configuration from the Windows desktop, just like any regular desktop motherboard would. The home menu is a basic utilisation graph of the hardware, which I personally think would have been nicely complemented by actual graphs of clock frequency and power usage over time. There’s a new zone for lighting controls for both the keyboard and the chassis, with a syncing option for both. If you squint, there’s a menu option for setting a theme for the lighting too. Each key is also indivudually RGB backlit, with a full 16.8 million colour range.

The overclocking menu gets some interesting additions. There’s a benchmark included that runs a customised version of Intel XTU Bench to test for stability, as well as a chart that updates to show your scores. Looking further down, there are two sliders for users to tweak, one for the core multiplier and the other for processor voltage.

There is support on all displays for NVIDIA’s G-Sync variable refresh technology, with panel selections that range from a 17-inch 120Hz TN display to a 17-inch 4K 60Hz IPS display. This is good news because it means that HP isn’t using NVIDIA’s Optimus technology, and there’s always a direct connection to the GeForce GPU inside. This allows for things like using G-Sync on an external display connected via Displayport, and the OMEN X supports up to three external displays in addition to the built-in one.

HP also continues their partnership with Dolby as well as Bang & Olufsen, and there’s software that simulates surround-sound audio if you use stereo headphones. The software works off the same principle as Razer’s Surround software and others like it, without requiring an external audio card to drive the feature in hardware. This isn’t a new thing, but this is the first time HP is integrating it into a product by default.

Here’s the Chemical X that HP added to the OMEN X. Mechanical keyboards on laptops have such drastic, staggering trade-offs that they end up changing the entire design of the notebook just to accommodate it. HP decided to instead use a combination of a traditional butterfly switch with a mechanical switch in the middle of the key, which they say has a “clicky feel” to it. That means that the switch is a mechanical-feel type of switch, and not a true mechanical switch, but there was no way HP was going to fit a full mechanical switch in there to begin with.

There’s a crossbar inside the mechanical switch to also give you the typical “clack-clack” sound of Cherry MX Blue switches when they are depressed. The spacebar is also oversized, but it’s not enormous like some Steelseries keyboards.

Ending the briefing, HP finally announced pricing. The OMEN X starts at $1999 (approximately R26,000, but local pricing is not confirmed) with a 120Hz G-Sync display, an Intel Core i7-7700HQ, a GeForce GTX 1070 8GB GPU, 16GB of DDR4-2133 RAM, and a combo of a 256GB SSD with a 1TB hard drive. That’s not exactly cheap or easy for gamers to get into, and there’s no bottom rung where HP switches to a Core i5 quad-core with a GTX 1060 either.

Still, the pricing is aggressive compared to the OMEN X’s competitor, the Dell Alienware 17 2017. The base model ends up being $280 cheaper than a similarly equipped Alienware 17, which has a 2560 x 1440 G-Sync display with Tobii Eye Tracking. Compared to the fully kitted OMEN X, a similarly configured Alienware 17 costs $630 more, and doesn’t offer a 4K display with G-Sync either. The form factor HP is offering here is the other selling point, being slimmer than other laptops at the same price point with similar features.

There’s no information available about the OMEN X’s availability in South Africa, but I hope we’ll be considered for a rollout in the not-too-distant future.