***Updated Review 1/18/2011***
If you are looking at this machine, you are probably struggling with the same questions I am: Is it fast enough to game? Built well enough to last? Does it have Keyboard flex? Is it ugly? Should I get the Asus, Lenovo, or Envy instead and accept less of a graphics card? Maybe I should just do what my friend said and buy a desktop...
Let it go friend, because this is an excellent machine, so long as you understand the virtues and wisdom in each of MSI's various decisions (and compromises). This system is clearly a pretty well thought out attempt to provide maximum value to a certain kind of customer: The one that's broke but wants a real, high performance laptop that games (and does everything else of course).
Fist and foremost, no one offers this combination of processing speed, graphics muscle, battery life, 7200 rpm hardrive, high resolution LED panel, bluetooth, webcam, Mic, HDMI, etc, and does it for less than about $1500 bucks. Many systems come close, but as of this writing this is it, this is the near-$1000 dollar machine that defies the pricing logic of the market at the moment. Other systems might have a better processor, but a lesser grahics card, a better screen w/out the real muscle to game at the native resolution and so on. But this MSI, so far, is a very well thought out machine. Lets explore the Pros and Cons:
Battery and power:
Battery life, even with a 9-cell "only" about 3-3.5 hours max. MSI's "eco modes" consistently report lower batter life than Windows settings(fail MSI)I wish you could shut off discrete graphics when unneeded (you can on more expensive machines)
Not a huge fan of the battery jutting out, or the 90-degree power connector that doesn't seem right for the machine (crowds VGA port or sits on the batter)
Fan noise is fairly constant low/high/low/high and I do find it annoying. I get around this by running in battery saver mode most of the time. Performance difference is generally unnoticeable, and it keeps the fan running low. Loud when gaming of course, but I am accustomed to gaming with headphones so this is not an issue for me.
GF Hates the paint job, its fairly discrete, so I don't mind it. The mostly plastic-with aluminum lid all around has a nice solid feel. Pretty minimal vents on the bottom (I hope this isn't ultimately a bad thing). Far from the ugliest "gamer" machine, I don't think people will think I'm a geek for whipping this baby out at work (update - well, one kid knew immediately that this is a gaming laptop! How embarrassing). The power brick is actually about brick sized, hurting overall portability. Plastics literally show my finger print (you could take it to a lab), but it cleans up well with some microfiber rubbing. This is a step down in portability from my 14", but surprisingly, the weight feels about the same to me. All around, I think it looks great in real life (the photos are sort of off the mark - they also show a blu-ray drive, FAIL, amazon).
Nice touchpad feel, Keyboard layout is fine, no flex (update - I did have to send my machine to CA for a new keyboard as mine began sticking early on, I was sort of irritated that I had to eat the shipping cost of about $30 bucks). Even so, I am pleased to have a long warranty (there is that value again). Does take some adjustment however. I do like having a numpad handy from my spreadsheets. Generally I really like typing, but this machine has sort of screwed up my typing on other people's machines! Sort of high effort on the mouse clicking, but a nice sound. The touchpad is so good I can actually use it for extended periods without frustration. So sensitive, however, it causes typing errors as my thumb grazes it at times. I do think being able to disable it would be useful. Touch panel is sort of fugly, but works as advertised. Hate the placement of the Fn key where ctrl should be. This will cause me a little pain I'm sure (fat fingered). Volume and Brightness adjusted with Fn key however, and so far works no matter what I am doing. All around, this is a comfortable layout with few complaints.
Awesome screen. Minimal backlight bleed, not overdone with "gloss" coating, good contrast, good gamma, images seem more evenly bright than my old dell. Great resolution for having windows side by side, and a good match for the video card. LED backlit by the way, older models had a CCFL panel (and these reviews were not updated). Not as piercing bright as I expected however, so probably not perfect for really brightly lit rooms, or the great outdoors. Whatever. As I update this, I have to say that this screen does not have me yearning as much for a second larger, higher resolution monitor by its side.
SOLID performer for sure. Batman AA is completely maxed and running perfect at native resolution. Crysis runs awesome on High at native resolution (but a known issue with DX 10 will cause crashed on the final level). Battlefield 2 runs awesome on high (and one day, on power saver mode, I found it nearly runs as smooth - now that is cool). HDD is fast, and i5 processor doesn't seem to break a sweat. I tortured myself over whether or not I "had to have" a quad-core i7. I'm glad I skipped it. Dual core is still the way to go really, since consoles rule the earth and the average machine is a dual core or worse, an atom. I expect this computer will game viably on high medium-high detail for at least the next year (especially if, like Crysis, one can select a DX mode). But make no mistake, $1,100 on a desktop buys way, way faster parts overall. Processor, Ram, and HDD all upgradeable, but I doubt I'll want to make any changes. The sequel to Batman is out in the fall, and if I can run that on high then I'll be a real happy guy (so far, it looks like the graphics demand will be similar). Mic worked first try with Battlefield which I considered remarkable (I'm used to fighting technology, not enjoying it).
Speakers have a weird sound, basically bass-less. But dialogue is clear. They aren't crap, but they are nothing to show off, that's for sure. Headphones sound awesome however, crisp, and plenty of punch. "Cinema pro" mode seems to alter the sound beneficially (sort of like 'loudness') but I am not sure yet of its claims of boosting image quality. One doesn't buy a laptop for their speakers anyway. DVD drive (not blu ray as photos show). Got nice headphones or nice speakers at home, and you will find nothing to complain about here - Movies and streaming TV look great. I tried out the Mic and webcam using Skype, and everything worked like a charm.
2 years included, no 'accident' coverage, bad batteries 1 year only, only DOA coverage for accessories. Even so, 2 years is long enough to possibly replace a HDD or a failed motherboard. Mail-in for service but still, decent coverage. I have used this warranty to replace my defective keyboard, and the turnaround was about 1-2 weeks. Hopefully I won't need a service again.
Heat and Noise:
The machine's processor is idling in the 40-50 centigrade area, and climbs to 80-85 under stress. GPU sees 90 centigrade when gaming, but idles 40-59 depending on power mode selected. Max temps aren't too bad, I've had a GPU that actually hit 100 cent regularly in a laptop before (not a great thing though!). I continue to be disappointed by heat levels in modern laptops - I've had more powerful desktops that idle in the 30s and struggle to reach 55-60 centigrade. One wonders how longevity is affected.
The key issue however is that this means lots of fan noise on and off, fairly loud under stress. Certainly not a deal breaker, but I really feel obligated to attempt well ventilated areas, raising the notebook up a tad, applying new thermal paste etc (pasting yourself would void the warranty). Then again you have to consider the power you are purchasing versus the package they are trying to put it in. I would have appreciated having an extra fan, or at least another vent somewhere. See warranty above.
In conclusion? I have not seen an appreciable difference raising the notebook higher or lower. When the GF is not home, I can always crack a window and freeze myself for the sake of my laptop. Then again if you aren't rebooting, if it isn't downclocking on you, if hours go by without instance, why dwell on it?
VGA Out, estata, 2 USB, SD reader, PC card slot, HDMI, audio jacks (configurable). You have a little better than the basics and thats it. USB count not an issue, I've rarely needed more than 2 at once. I would like the right hand USB jack to be closer to the back however, so my mouse didn't risk hitting it when space is tight. DVD drive works and feels like quality. I am eager to try out the HDMI jack (mostly to see if I can run battlefield on a 50" at 1920 x 1080) - sick. Sometime I will pick up an e-sata drive for backups and enjoy the speed. Lots of people say this is an e-stata/USB Combo drive - but this is false. Maybe older versions had this, but not mine.
System was (and is) a breeze to set up. Not really ANY bloatware to remove (except for Norton Anti Virus, and some trials). First computer I've ever bought where I didn't race to blow the HDD and install from scratch right away. First computer ever, where I couldn't find a single driver, or firmware to update. MSI sort of oddly but welcomely included winrar preinstalled, and adobe, and MS Office compatibility pack. Geez, thanks, you really know what we geeks love! I do not like the practice of "imaging" my computer as a means of restoring it later - since fragmentation and errors that may be lurking in the current install will also perfectly replicate when you restore. I really wish I could simply have a windows 7 disc - you bought the license after all. There IS however, a windows 7 'repair' disc online from MS that you can download and make a disc with. You CANNOT install the OS that way, but you can "repair" a broken install. I suggest you get that disc and make your image right away. If you lose your HDD or install, you WILL NOT have a way to get it back without the image. Again, I despise this insecurity that more and more vendors force onto users these days, but I guess there isn't much to do about it. I am sure this helps to increase "pirating" of windows discs.
So I am off to week one of this computer (update I've now owned it for many, many months). Fear not, it is truly a great maximum price / to performance laptop. Its not perfect, its not a dream system, but it has it everywhere it really counts, and that's why I bought it. It is a well thought out system for people looking for a solid gaming experience coupled to a comfortable (if less portable size)chassis. I was going to buy a desktop, and smaller cheaper notebook, but I was forced by life events to compromise. On the bright side, I will use less energy this way, which I suppose is great for mother earth (120-150 watts max versus 300-500 in desktop). This is definitely one of the best deals out there if you are looking for a medium sized gaming notebook with few performance compromises. Go ahead, look around, search everywhere. The 2 thousand, 3 thousand, and 4 thousand dollar gaming laptops are better in many ways, but hardly returning the same performance for your dollar. It can't be done but here.