Most companies keep their research and development labs private, rarely to be seen or photographed by the media. However, on our recent trip to Taipei, MSI granted us access to its sanctum sanctorum, which includes a design room filled with product prototypes and sketches and a game room where the staff goes to test out the company's latest high-end systems. Your next laptop could be designed and tested here.
Founded in 1986, Taiwan's MSI (aka Micro-Star International) manufactures components such as motherboards and graphics cards, along with full-fledged notebooks and all-in-one PCs. Though the company sells a number of mainstream and budget notebooks, it is best known for high-end gaming systems like the GS60 Ghost laptop and AG270 Gaming All-in-One. Many consumers don't know that the company also serves as an ODM (original design manufacturer), making systems for other companies and that it sells a variety of B2B products, including the video kiosks you find in the back of Taiwanese cabs.
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At MSI's office complex in New Taipei City, the company seems as focused on gaming as it does in its marketing and product releases. From the outside, the two-building complex seems rather non-descript, without a logo or serious branding to let passersby know that they're just feet from where some of the leading gaming computers are designed. The lobby and elevator leading up to the offices were similarly free from bling. Within the office itself, most employees sit in quiet cubicles.
However, the company is as serious about gaming as it is about getting work done. Some of the people who work on its gaming laptops and desktops moonlight as professional tournament gamers and many others just love to play in their spare time. To help test equipment and encourage these employees to let off steam, MSI has built a high-tech game room.
Like MSI's gaming systems, the room has a black-and-red color scheme, and it comes complete with shiny black walls and tables with cherry red chairs. There are two long tables on either side of the room, which during the time of our visit, had various gaming laptops and mice on top. However, MSI Product Manager Clifford Chun told us that the company also play tests desktops in this space.
At the front of the room is a control station, which has been used to broadcast small gaming tournaments held in the room. At the back of the room is a shorter table with room for another two players, making a total of a dozen seats for gamers. A set of illuminated plastic spikes for holding gaming headsets sits on the back right wall.
Chun told us that World of Tanks is one of the most popular games with MSI employees. Some of the staff's professional gamers play in Game of Tanks tournaments.
When we were there, the front right corner of the room was covered with photos of cars and trucks, alongside concept sketches of the company's upcoming GT72 Dominator notebook. Chun explained that the company's designers were inspired by the look of high-performance automobiles and tried to model the Dominator's chassis after them. MSI is going so far as to give the notebook a rear grill that looks a lot like the front grills on certain Mercedes trucks.
Just outside the game room, MSI has a wall filled with photos of the various professional gaming teams it sponsors. Chun said that the company not only sponsors teams all over the world, but also brings gamers into its design process, showing them prototypes and working their feedback into the finished products.
We also got to visit MSI's design studio room, where the company keeps a number of its old laptops while sketching out designs for new ones. On tables along the walls, we saw some of the company's classic systems, including an MSI Wind netbook from 2009 and a GT660 gaming system from 2010.
We were particularly fascinated by some of MSI's old prototype designs that never made it to market. One of the designs was an ultraportable notebook with a swiveling keyboard that turns over to reveal a giant touchpad surface underneath.
The walls of the design room were covered with both concept sketches of the new Dominator and a number of sample lid designs in different colors. The designers told us that they are considering using a red, blue or gold lid on a future gaming laptop, and we saw samples of each lid design.
Though the design studio we saw was devoted to laptops, Chun told us the company has other studios for all-in-ones and for motherboards and graphics cards. That's because design matters a lot, even for internal components.
As we left the New Taipei campus behind us, we were left with a strong impression that MSI is a company with a laser-like focus on reaching PC gamers. There's a lot of competition for the tens of billions of gaming dollars that will be spent this year, but MSI is finding its niche by participating in the community it hopes to serve.