What Are NVIDIA MAX-Q Laptops?

If you’re looking for a new Windows-based laptop and you’re somewhat interested in performance, you might come across models that are marketed as “featuring “NVIDIA MAX-Q.” But that description is somewhat nebulous: MAX-Q isn’t a specific NVIDIA graphics card, or even a hardware feature at all. So what exactly does this description mean, and does it make a gaming-grade laptop any more desirable than a non-Q laptop?

“Ultrabook” 2.0, Now With More Gaming

The best way to describe MAX-Q is as a marketing push…which is admittedly less than helpful. Essentially, it’s NVIDIA pushing its laptop manufacturer partners to cram crazy-powerful GPUs into a thin-and-light laptop chassis, in the hopes that it can shed the general perception that your laptop needs to be the size of a briefcase if you want it to run the latest high-end games.

Intel’s inconsistent “Ultrabook” designation became more or less meaningless after a while.

Intel toyed with this marketing strategy a few years ago. Remember when you were supposed to buy “Ultrabooks” instead of laptops? That was a somewhat amorphous designation describing laptops that were much thinner and lighter than their contemporaries, but featured battery-efficient Intel Core-series processors. The ultrabook “spec,” if there ever really was one, was somewhat loose: models could come from any partner manufacturer, but needed to be less than .8″ thin, typically omitting bulky hardware features like disc drives or Ethernet ports. Though initial designs were all 13-inch models, pushback from manufacturers expanded the loose definition to similar designs with 14- and 15-inch screens.

Maximum Marketing, Minimum Specificity

So what are NVIDIA’s criteria for a MAX-Q laptop? Essentially, it needs to feature the mobile version of either the GTX 1070 or GTX 1080 graphics processing unit, and it needs to be at least superficially “thin.” The company isn’t assigning a numerical value to that thinness, merely pointing out that the laptops designated with the MAX-Q marketing tag are designed with smaller dimensions in mind. NVIDIA’s marketing says that MAX-Q laptops care “as thin as 18mm” (.71 inches), and indeed, all of the models graced with the label thus far are under .8 inches in height.

NVIDIA’s marketing for the performance of MAX-Q laptop designs is less than precise.

The only other major distinction is that MAX-Q laptops specifically feature robust speakers, with sound output of at least 40 decibels. That’s considerably better than the weak speakers featured on most laptop designs, especially those that are marketed as “thin and light” or “ultrabooks.” Other general features of the current models (which aren’t necessarily spelled out on the MAX-Q promotional pages) include a 120Hz screen and the latest Core i7 processors.

Like Intel’s Ultrabook program, NVIDIA’s definition of its MAX-Q design targets may change over time. At the very least, it’s likely to allow for newer 1170 and 1180 GeForce chips when they become available—they’re less likely to dip into the XX60-series GPUs, since those are found on more pedestrian designs as well.

Small Choices, Big Prices

At the moment there are only a handful of models from mid-size and smaller manufacturers that have been designated to feature MAX-Q design. Here’s the lineup so far.

MSI GS73VR Stealth Pro and GS63VR Stealth Pro: this design is offered in 17.3″ and 15.6″ sizes, but both are equipped with the GeForce GTX 1070 GPU and other similar features. These include a Core i7-7700HQ processor, a whopping 32GB of RAM, a combination of 512GB SSD and 1TB conventional hard drives, and full-sized RGB backlit keyboards with number pads. The matte screens are merely 1080p on both models, but they’re capable of 120Hz motion (with G-SYNC, naturally), an ideal combination for gaming graphics. MSI markets both models as “VR ready,” and they cost $2400 USD for the 15-inch model and $2500 for the 17-inch.

ASUS ROG Zephyrus GX501: this 15.6-inch design comes with either a GTX 1070 or GTX 1080, but otherwise has similar specs to the MSI model, with a 120Hz 1080p screen, Core i7-7700HQ processor, and a “VR ready” designation. Both versions feature “only” 16GB of RAM, but the cheaper $2300 GTX 1070 version uses only a 256GB SSD, while the deluxe $2700 GTX 1080 version gets a 512GB SSD. Neither one has a conventional hard drive option. The ASUS desgin is the thinnest of the bunch at only .7 inches, but its keyboard-forward design with no palmrest might be a deal-breaker for some buyers.

Aorus X5 MD: this boutique design has a lot of variations, but only the high-end GTX 1080 variant is specifically designated a MAX-Q laptop. On this short list, it’s the only model that offers a 4K display, while keeping the matte 120Hz extras from the other designs. It comes with the same Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor, a choice of 16GB or 32GB of RAM, 256GB or 512GB SSDs, and an RGB keyboard. The cheapest GTX 1080 configuration weighs in at a whopping $2900.

As you can see, the cost of entry to the MAX-Q club is high, with premium features abounding on these high-end designs. We might see more, and hopefully cheaper, designs come down the pipe…or the MAX-Q designation might fizzle out due to such a limited market for laptops in the $2000+ price range. NVIDIA already seems to be hedging its bets with the much wider “10” promotion, which includes laptops featuring the lower-power 1060 and 1050 GPU designs. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Image credit: NVIDIA, Amazon, Aorus

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.