The gaming notebook of 2013 is no longer the clunky, burdensome laptop that has defined the genre thus far. Notebook vendors have tailored their gaming laptops to be just as lightweight and portable as today's mainstream contenders, and such is the case with MSI's GE40 2OC-009US. This $1,299 rig packs Intel's latest Haswell chip, hybrid storage and Nvidia GeForce GTX 760M graphics into a sleek 4-pound package. Unfortunately, this powerhouse doesn't quite measure up in other areas.
Click to EnlargeMSI has outfitted its GE40 2OC-009US with a lightweight design that feels premium, but not all the way around. Its smooth aluminum lid features two diagonal 3-inch slots comprised of a series of tiny holes that simulate a gleaming dragon's eyes. While the silky metallic lid feels sleek to the touch, it's quick to smudge.
The gaming notebook's 14-inch matte display is framed by a glossy black plastic bezel with MSI's logo just under the screen. When looking closely just above the keyboard, you'll notice a subtle speaker extending across the top of the deck. This compact design is flush with the keyboard deck, making the speakers seem almost invisible against the notebook's shiny black body.
The keyboard deck's glossy plastic finish matches that of the bezel, while the palm rest mirrors the same aluminum design you'll find on the GE40's lid. Unfortunately, this also means it smudges just as easily.
Unfortunately, the bottom of the notebook uses a cheap-feeling plastic. In fact, when tapping the bottom it sounded almost hollowed out. More bad news: the M in the MSI logo started to rub off just after a few days of use. This doesn't bode well for long-term ownership.
Measuring 13.3 x 9.4 x 0.8 inches and weighing just 4.2 pounds, the MSI GE40 is one of the more portable gaming notebooks you'll find. It's lighter than Alienware's newest 14-inch Haswell-powered gaming notebook, which measures 13.2 x 10.2 x 1.57-1.62 inches and weighs a heftier 6.6 pounds.
Click to EnlargeThe MSI GE40 2OC-009US' 14-inch 1600 x 900 matte LCD display illustrated vibrant, deep colors and rich skin tones. When watching the trailer for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Jennifer Lawrence's crystal- blue eyes and facial details looked crisp and realistic. The anti-glare panel offered wide horizontal viewing angles, but the screen looks washed out unless you push it back a fair amount.
In terms of gaming, the MSI GE40's 14-inch display fared better in scenes with high contrast. Brighter outdoor scenes looked a little whitewashed, but colors were generally accurate. When exploring the airborne city of Columbia in "Bioshock Infinite," we appreciated the lively blues and whites of the sky balanced against the more neutral and earthy tones of city buildings.
While the display renders colors well, it's not the brightest. The panel registered 204 lux on our light meter, which is below the mainstream notebook 245 lux category average. Still, the MSI is brighter than the 161 lux display you'll find on the Alienware 14.
Click to EnlargeThe speakers MSI built in to the GE40 2OC-009US deliver boisterous and crisp sound, enhanced by Audio Boost technology. MSI brags that this tech enhances sound output to your headset by 30 percent, thanks to its integrated audio amplifier chip and gold flash audio jack.
When streaming "No One Knows" by Queens of the Stone Age, we noticed a deep, immersive sound with thumping bass and grungy guitar riffs. The Audio Boost technology delivers subtle details that typically get lost in the background, such as backup vocals.
Without headphones, sound came through clearly and crisply, but didn't get too loud. While guitar licks sounded full, we didn't notice much bass.
You can tweak audio settings catered to games, movies and music through the included Sound Blaster Cinema software. This utility lets you toggle with various effects such as Surround Sound, Bass, Crystalizer, Smart Volume and Dialogue Plus. Smart Volume offers three volume options catering to your mood or environment, including Loud, Normal and Night. While the Bass tab didn't do much to improve the bass line in "No One Knows," the Crystalizer rendered tones more richly.
Click to EnlargeThe MSI GE40 2OC-009US comes with a chiclet-style keyboard that offers snappy travel but a shrunken right Shift key. You also don't get any keyboard backlighting, which is a bummer given this system's high price and target audience.
Still, we found the MSI GE40's keyboard to be comfortable during everyday use. While completing the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we notched a speedy 76 words per minute with a 2 percent error rate.
When applying heavier pressure on the keys we noticed some flex, but we've seen worse. We did enjoy relaxing our wrists on the MSI GE40's smooth aluminum palm rests.
Click to EnlargeThe MSI GE40 comes with a relatively small 3.25 x 2.75-inch touchpad, but the thin silver trim gives it a touch of class. The trackpad itself is black with a single elongated metallic click button for both left and right clicking. We were disappointed to see that this silver button smudges up just as easily as aluminum-crafted lid and keyboard deck. After one quick tap we had to wipe away a sizable fingerprint blotch.
Although most PC players are likely to use a standard or gaming mouse, the GE40's touchpad worked well. When playing "Bioshock Infinite" we navigated seamlessly around our environment, with no noticeable lag. Movement felt both intuitive and natural, but we did notice that the touchpad began to feel warm after less than 10 minutes of playing.
In everyday use, the MSI GE40's touchpad was smooth and responsive when zipping across the Windows 8 interface. Multi-touch gestures such as two-finger scrolling and pinch-zoom were a breeze. While the MSI GE40's touchpad performs well, it lacks the snazzy custom color backlighting you'll find on a pricier device like the Alienware 14.
Click to EnlargeThe MSI GE40 2OC-009US may be light and thin, but it heats up quickly when playing games. Typically, we consider anything above 95 degrees Fahrenheit to be uncomfortable, but the MSI GE40's temperature shot up after playing "Bioshock Infinite" for 15 minutes.
The area between the G and H keys rose to 94 degrees after playing the game, and the touchpad registered 103 degrees. On its underside, the notebook reached 101 degrees in its center and 127 degrees near the left side. In fact, the area of the desk where we were working closest to the notebook's side vent registered a troubling 116 degrees.
We felt the left side of the MSI GE40 burn up while playing our game, making it uncomfortable to rest our wrist on the left side of the deck.
The laptop ran cooler after playing a Hulu video for 15 minutes. The system reached 87.5 degrees on its touchpad, 82.5 degrees between the G and H keys and 93 degrees on its underside.
Ports and Webcam
Click to EnlargeGaming notebooks need plenty of slots for peripherals, and the MSI GE40 comes equipped with everything you need. Along the left side you'll find an HDMI port, a VGA port an Ethernet port and two USB 3.0 ports, some more cooling vents and a power jack. The right side houses a microphone jack, a headphone jack, an SD card slot and a USB 2.0 port.
The MSI GE40's' 720p webcam didn't impress. When snapping photos in a mix of fluorescent and natural lighting, images looked noisy and a bit blurry. Colors and skin tones were accurate, but photos weren't very sharp.
Graphics and Gaming
Click to EnlargeMSI has packed its gaming notebook with a Nvidia GeForce GTX 760M GPU with 2GB of RAM, which means it can run high-end games at a much better frame rate than your average laptop. When playing "BioShock Infinite," the GE40 2OC-009US notched a very smooth 80 frames per second at 1600 x 900 on low settings. That number fell to a not-quite-playable 27 fps with settings bumped up to high.
The Alienware 14 reached an impressive 71 fps with the settings on auto at a higher 1080p resolution, which dipped to 24 fps on high. When we dropped down to resolution of 1366 x 768, the MSI GE40 registered 99 fps on low and a still-playable 34 fps on high. At this same resolution, the Alienware notched 111 fps on low and 40 fps on high.
On the 3DMark 11 benchmark, the MSI GE40 beat the category average of 1,233 with a score of 3,498. However, this mark falls below the Alienware 14's score of 4,136.
Graphics looked rich and defined during everyday use. We noticed lifelike effects in "Bioshock Infinite." Water trickled down our screen during a rainstorm scene, making us feel truly immersed in the game. Images from our surrounding environment were reflected vividly in the puddles, and we noticed the clouds shifting in the sky just as they would in real life. Details on characters' clothing appeared sharp and accurate, but plants and flowers looked stiff and flat.
Click to EnlargeOur MSI GE40 review sample came equipped with a quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor clocked at 3.2-3.4GHz with 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a 7,200 rpm 750GB SATA HDD. Intel boasts that its new fourth-generation CPU reduces energy consumption while improving graphics performance and efficiency, and overall this system lives up to those claims.
During our testing, the GE40 proved to be on a par with the Alienware 14. In the PCMark7 benchmark, the GE40 scored 5,345, which blows past the thin-and-light category average of 3,058. This showing also just barely beats the Alienware 14's 5,325, with its 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor with 16GB of RAM, a 256GB mSATA SSD and a 750 GB, 7,200 rpm HDD.
The GE40 booted Windows 8 in a speedy 14.8 seconds. During the LAPTOP File Transfer Test, MSI's gaming notebook moved 4.97GB of files in 40 seconds, equaling a rate of 127.2 MBps. The Alienware 14 completed the task in 25 seconds at 203.6 MBps.
This laptop took 4 minutes and 13 seconds to complete the OpenOffice Spreadsheet test, which matches 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses, taking just slightly longer than the Alienware 14's 4-minute time. The average 14-inch notebook takes a longer 5:58.
The GE40 2OC-009US ran smoothly when running "BioShock Infinite" and there wasn't a noticeable delay when launching apps. However, in one instance it took 30.7 seconds to load the current chapter of our saved game.
Gaming notebooks aren't usually praised for their battery life, but the MSI GE40 lasted impressively long on a charge. During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness) our review unit lasted a lengthy 8 hours and 20 minutes. This runtime is more than 2 hours longer than the 14-inch notebook average (6:06). The MSI also beats the Alienware 14, which lasted 5:17 during our testing.
Software and Warranty
Click to EnlargeThe MSI GE40 2OC-009US comes preloaded with all the apps you'll find on a standard Windows 8 device and then some. Most notably, the notebook comes equipped with BlueStacks, an Android emulator that lets you download and install Amazon App Store apps on your PC.
Click to EnlargeWe downloaded "Fruit Ninja" and launched it on our desktop, using the touchpad to swipe and slash fruit. While we appreciate the capability to run Android games on our PC, most of the available games would be much better suited on a touch-screen laptop.
MSI also bundles its Burn Recovery software, which can restore your system back to its default settings. On the MSI desktop, you'll find a System Control Manager for toggling settings such as enabling Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the touchpad and webcam. You can adjust specific settings for any of these categories catered to movies, games or office use. MSI backs the GE40 with a two-year warranty that covers parts and labor.
Our configuration of the GE40 comes with a 3.2-3.4 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor with 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a 7,200 rpm 750GB SATA HDD for $1,399. MSI also offers another 14-inch version with identical specs minus the 128GB SSD for $1,299.
Click to EnlargeThe MSI GE40 2OC-009US has the horsepower to run today's demanding games, and the endurance needed to last a long time away from an outlet when you're not blasting enemies. Packed with a speedy 2.9-3.2 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, both a 128GB SSD and a 7,200 rpm 750GB hard drive, and a Nvidia GeForce GTX 760M GPU, MSI's offering is fit to go head-to-head with the pricier Alienware 14.
However, while the MSI GE40 impressed us with its lengthy battery life and quick performance, the unit reached troubling temperatures when gaming. We would also appreciate a full aluminum design (instead of a plastic bottom) and a backlit keyboard. Overall, though, MSI offers a powerful gaming notebook for the money.