To hardcore gamers, the phrase "cheap gaming notebook" is an oxymoron. The concept of a system built for less than $800 that can handle the rigors of high-octane firefights in demanding games like Far Cry 2 and Crysis Warhead falls into the realm of utter fantasy. But Taiwanese notebook manufacturer MSI begs to differ, hoping to blaze new trails with its GX630, which is aimed at casual gamers. The performance is decent for the price, and this notebook has some style, but the cramped keyboard will be a deal breaker for many.
With its fingerprint-gathering black aluminum chassis, red racing stripe, grilled dashboard, and plethora of gaudy advertising stickers, the GX630 would appeal to the NASCAR crowd more than gamers. Still, the 6-pound notebook is refreshingly light for a gaming system, and at 14.7 x 9.7 x 1.4 inches, it's not too bulky, either. The only design complaint is that it exudes heat right where most gamers place their hands while using the mouse.
MSI wisely highlights the WASD movement keys in red for gamers, but the rest of the keyboard isn't so accommodating. In an effort to provide a full numeric pad, MSI squeezed the rest of the keys into a smaller space. This trade-off is perplexing considering that many games require the use of the Ctrl key that MSI shrank and moved to the right to make room for a Fn key. FPS gamers won't appreciate the inconvenience of remapping or relearning controls. The overly sensitive touchpad is also too close to the keyboard, which can result in a jumpy cursor during typing.
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The silver and black dashboard above the keyboard features an illuminated power button and touch controls for media, the webcam, Bluetooth, MSI's power-saving Eco mode, and the overclocking Turbo mode, which gives the system a slight performance boost.
The bright 15.4-inch, 1280 x 800 display may skimp a bit on resolution, but it's a decent concession for the cost. The screen performed brilliantly while displaying bright explosions or tropical settings, but the reflective surface can be bothersome when watching darker scenes and while viewing from wider angles. Still, the panel is good enough for two people sitting next to each other in front of the screen.
Webcam, Audio, and Ports
Click to enlargeThe 2-megapixel webcam above the display delivered surprisingly decent video quality during Web chats. If you're watching movies or playing blockbuster games, we suggest plugging in speakers or opting for headphones to take advantage of the GX630's 7.1 audio output support. The built-in speakers don't get very loud, which is probably a good thing considering the tinny sound and empty bottom they produced.
On the perimeter, the GX630 houses several peripheral-friendly ports, such as HDMI, eSATA, three USB 2.0 jacks, Gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire, which are distributed well around the notebook.
Given its budget constraints, the MSI GX630 ships with unique specifications aimed at tilting the system performance toward graphical workloads, the centerpiece being the 512MB Nvidia GeForce M 9600GT graphics card. The 2.0-GHz AMD Athlon X2 processor and 4GB of RAM are ripe for the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, but in another cost-cutting measure the system ships with the 32-bit version of Home Premium. Does the gaming-centric budget configuration result in solid performance?
The GX630's 3DMark06 score of 5,334 is slightly better than the $1,000 more expensive MSI GX720, which has the same graphics chip but a larger 17-inch screen. MSI uses the term Turbo Mode loosely; when enabled, it brought up the benchmarking performance by 180 points.
Other test results were disappointing. During the LAPTOP Transfer Test, the 250GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive delivered a speed of 19.7 MBps, slightly above the class average. The PCMark Vantage benchmark also resulted in a score of 2,682, about 400 points below the mainstream average.
If you're looking for blistering frame rates, look away. The GX630 mustered a decent 65 frames per second while playing F.E.A.R. (on max settings at the 1280 x 800-pixel resolution). On the other hand, Far Cry 2 was nearly unplayable, with the system outputting an average of 26 fps during benchmarks with the game set to the lowest settings using DirectX 9. We found a marginally playable frame rate for Crysis on the lowest advanced-graphics settings, but the game suffered from extreme environmental pop-up.
To be fair, the GX630 wasn't designed to plow through the latest first-person shooters. And, as we expected, it performed much better with less-resource-intensive games like Civilization IV and Spore. Stick with those types of titles and you'll have few complaints.
It's worth noting that the GX630 ships with severely outdated graphics drivers and is seemingly incompatible with the latest drivers offered on Nvidia's Web site. Nvidia recommends using the latest drivers approved by MSI, but the company hasn't bothered to provide anything newer than the drivers that shipped with the system. Far Cry 2 started with the warning, "Your video card drivers are too old. Please update them."
Battery Life, Wi-Fi, and Software
The GX630 has one thing in common with its bigger, badder cousins: its paltry 1 hour and 56 minutes of battery life, almost an hour and a half less than the mainstream average. The system's wireless signal strength could also use improvement. Though the 18.6-Mbps throughput at 15 feet is acceptable, the performance drops to 11.4 Mbps at 50 feet, well below the 15.7 Mbps average of mainstream notebooks.
The GX630 ships with only MSI's CrazyTalk Cam Suite for Web conferencing, CyberLink's DVD Suite, Ulead's Burn.Now, plus 60-day trials of Microsoft Office 2007 and Norton Internet Security 2009.
MSI coveres the GX630 with an 18-month limited warranty and phone support hours of Monday-Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (EST) (though an MSI representative said 24/7 toll-free phone support is coming "very soon").
Gamers are right to be skeptical about an $800 gaming notebook. Though the MSI GX630 may appeal to budget-conscious casual gamers who occasionally fire up a round of Civilization, its keyboard and endurance leave a bit to be desired. Even casual gamers are likely try to play Call of Duty, Prince of Persia, or Mirror's Edge, and on this system, they'll be disappointed. Those looking for an inexpensive gaming system will be better served with the (admittedly more expensive) $1,399Gateway P-7811FX.