Purchasing an affordable gaming notebook is a daunting task; trying to spend less than $1,500 on a system is tempting, but you don't want to be saddled with a dud that can't handle the newest games. Previously, MSI attempted to satisfy gamers on a budget with its GX630, but this $800 system couldn't hold up under the rigors of Far Cry 2. The GT627, the successor to the GX630, may cost $350 more, but it pairs a superior Nvidia 9800M GS graphics chip with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, delivering smooth-enough performance for the latest titles. We're not fans of the cramped keyboard, but the GT627 will win many over with its sheer muscle at a low price.
Nothing screams "gamer rig" more than neon coloring, and the fire red accents around the GT627's black body deliver that message loud and clear. The 14.1 x 10.2 x 1.1 inch, 5.8-pound unit feels solid, thanks to the anodized brushed aluminum on the lid and around the keyboard. But the palm rest did exhibit a bit of flex, which raises concern about this system's long-term durability.
The Achilles' heel of the GT627 is a sardine can of a keyboard that sacrifices functionality to fit a full numeric keypad, which is great for adding in-game macros, but the Ctrl, Shift, and Enter keys are all the size of Chiclets, and are tough to locate without looking down. The keyboard also exhibited a bit too much flex. At least the WSAD keys are highlighted in red, a nice touch for newbie gamers who are just getting the gist of keyboard movement.
The touchpad is fairly large and smooth enough for easy navigation, but it's too close to the space bar. Your left palm will likely hit it and bounce the cursor around while you're typing. It's awfully frustrating. While they offer good tactile feedback, the touchpad buttons, which are built into the chassis below the mousepad, feel a bit stiff, which can get annoying in games where frequent clicking is required (to shoot a weapon or move around the screen).
Click to enlargeAbove the keyboard and below the display are buttons for media controls, the Turbo and Eco CPU clock settings and quick-launch buttons for the webcam, Bluetooth settings, Wi-Fi settings, and a user-defined application. It will take the love only a true gamer can deliver to appreciate the gaudy grille surrounding these control buttons.
While the resolution of the GT627's 15.4-inch screen is just 1280 x 800--a reasonable concession for the price--the display was very bright, and colors popped. Straight-on gaming was fine, but the screen's glossiness led to some reflections when we gamed with the lights on. While the bright colors remain intact while viewing at 180-degree angles, the glare from office lights was much more intrusive than when we looked straight at the display; glare is also much more noticeable in darker scenes, specifically inside the first safe house in Far Cry 2.
Webcam, Audio, and Ports
We used the 2-megapixel camera for video chatting in Google Talk; callers noted that the extra 0.7 MP was a vast improvement over the typical 1.3-MP webcams in most computers. They noted that images were very smooth and clear, and you can adjust the camera's brightness in the included CrazyTalk Suite software settings. However, video quality in Skype and Google Talk was even better.
The speakers produced clear, crisp sound, but bass was lacking and audio on the tinnier side while playing a Jason Mraz track. The lack of bass was even more pronounced while playing games; when we blew up cars in Far Cry 2, explosions sounded tinny. Thankfully, the GT627 offers 7.1 surround sound audio output, so you can hook up a full set of surround-sound speakers for a much richer audio experience.
The GT627 has an HDMI port on its back, making it easy to run a cable out to your HDTV or large LCD monitor. There's also one eSATA port and two USB 2.0 ports, one on each side of the unit. On gaming laptops, we generally expect more USB jacks for added accessories like a full keyboard, mouse, or gamepad; however, the eSATA port doubles as a USB connection. To the right of the keyboard is an ExpressCard slot and a 4-in-1 card reader for SD, MMC, MS, and MS Pro memory cards. Last, you get a Gigabit Ethernet jack and a FireWire port.
Like the GX630, the GT627 runs a 32-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium. Compared to the GX630's relatively bland system specs--a slower 2-GHz AMD Athlon X2 processor, and an Nvidia GeForce M 9600GT graphics card--the GT627 has a more powerful 9800M GS graphics solution under its hood, 4GB of RAM, as well as a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU. On paper, that should provide a good performance boost, and that's exactly what we saw in our tests. The GT627 held its own in PC Mark Vantage, besting the category average by 823 points with a score of 3,930.
The GT627's 3DMark06 score of 8,780 was 3,446 points higher than the GX630 and 5,789 points above the mainstream average. When we activated the Turbo mode (which overclocks the CPU), the GT627's 3DMark06 score increased to 9,180. Not bad, considering the Alienware Area-51 m15x scored just 100 points better, and costs a sky-high $4,789 for our configuration.
The GT627's 7,200-rpm, 320GB hard drive was noticeably better than the 5,400-rpm drive in the GX630: Using the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media files), the hard drive delivered a speed of 26.1 MBps; that's a noticeable 8.3 MBps faster than the class average and 6.4 MBps faster than the MSI GX630.
The GT627 has a substantial amount of gaming muscle under the hood for its price, and we weren't let down by its performance. It's rare to see a $1,150 system that can run today's first-person shooters so well. The system whirred through older titles like F.E.A.R.with 119 frames per second at its native 1280 x 800-pixel resolution and maximum settings; that's much better than the pricier ASUS G50V ($1,699); that system was able to muster only 56 fps with F.E.A.R. at native resolution.
We were even able to cruise around in our jeep and blow up cars using our rocket launcher in Far Cry 2 at a playable 42.9 fps with the resolution set to native and the DirectX 10 effects activated. Trees and bushes swayed in the wind and we were able to drive through the African landscape without a hiccup. Massive bushfires burned and cackled brilliantly. By comparison, the Alienware M17 could only pull off 23.6 fps with the eye candy on; however, the M17's resolution was set to its max of 1920 x 1200, well above that of the GT627.
In Call of Duty 4, we cranked the graphics as high as they could go and played with the GT627's screen resolution set to native. Details popped; in the first level, rain on the deck of a ship was shiny and reflective, and characters looked more realistic. The game was fluid, and we didn't feel any graphics lag, even when the system had to render grenade explosions.
As noted above, the deck of the GT627 features touch controls that let you over- or underclock the CPU. After we pressed the Turbo mode button, we ran both of our CPU cores at full throttle using CPU Burn-in, then launched CPU-Z to check our clock speeds. With Turbo mode activated, the CPU's speed jumped from 2.26 GHz to 2.62 GHz. When we ran our benchmark tests again, PCMark Vantage jumped 482 points, to 4,412, and our 3DMark06 score also increased by 400, to 9,180. Eco modes are available for Movie mode, Presentation mode, Office mode, and Turbo Battery mode; in addition to slowing the processor, we noticed that the screen dimmed further for each one to help save battery life.
Battery Life, Wi-Fi, and Software
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On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the GT627 managed 2 hours and 27 minutes of battery life. That's 56 minutes less than the mainstream average, and you can expect much worse performance while gaming off of the battery since the graphics card and CPU will need to be chugging along at full speed. Still, most gamers will leave their systems plugged in during frag sessions.
The GT627's Wi-Fi performance was slightly above average. The system delivered 19.4 Mbps of throughput at a distance of 15 feet and 15.7 Mbps at 50 feet. The mainstream average is 18.4 Mbps and 15.7 Mbps, respectively.
The GT627 is remarkably clean in terms of trialware; the system ships with Reallusion's CrazyTalk Cam Suite for Web conferencing, Dolby Launch Control Center, a 30-day Microsoft Office 2007 trial, and a trial for Norton Internet Security. MSI covers the GT627 with a three-year limited warranty. Phone support is available Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (EST). The company said that 24/7 toll-free support is expected soon.
MSI GT627 Verdict
MSI has created a machine that delivers a good gaming experience for a very reasonable $1,149. But there are a few compromises; while it packs the right hardware in a portable 15.4-inch form factor, the keyboard congestion really irked us. Gamers will appreciate the ability to use a full number pad for macros, but we think they would have appreciated a larger, more spacious keyboard instead. However, that the GT627 was able to cruise through Far Cry 2 without a glitch and that it outperformed the more expensive Alienware M17 in our PCMark Vantage test was impressive. If you need a system that will fit in your backpack and allow you to enjoy the latest titles, then the MSI GT627 is a good value.