I’ve been a proud owner of the MSI GS60 for about 18 months now and I’ve shared with you the impressions on the model that I still use, but also on one of the updated models with the 4K display.
Because of its powerful CPU and GPU in such a thin and lightweight design, it has completely replaced my desktop for both productivity and gaming. Of course, as things progress, good things are bound to come in even smaller packages. Enter the MSI GS40 Phantom.
I’ve been looking at this machine in anticipation for a few months now and have finally gotten my hands on one for a few days. Does it live up to the GS60 in terms of quality and performance? Is it enough for me to trade up? See the detailed article below for my answers.
The specs sheet
|MSI GS40 Phantom|
|Screen||14.0 inch, 1920 x 1080 px resolution, LG IPS, matte, non-touch|
|Processor||Intel Skylake Core i7-6700HQ CPU, quad-core 2.6 GHz, 3.5Ghz turbo|
|Video||integrated Intel HD 530 HD + Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M 3GB|
|Memory||16 GB DDR4 2133 PC4-17000|
|Storage||1x 128 GB M.2 SSD PCI-e + 1TB HDD 7200rpm|
|Connectivity||Killer N1525 Wireless AC , Qualcomm/Atheros Gigabit ethernet, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Ports||2x USB 3.0, 1x USB Type-C HDMI v1.4b, mini Display port 1.2, RJ45, mic, earphone, SD card reader|
|Operating system||Windows 10|
|Size||345mm or 13.58” (w) x 245mm or 9.65” (d) x 22.1mm or .87” (h)|
|Weight||1.84 kg or 4.07 lb|
|Extras||red-colored backlit keyboard, trackpad, HD camera|
The GS40 has a striking resemblance to the GS60, but in a smaller footprint.
The lid appears to have the same brushed magnesium alloy and also has a couple ridges for a special look. The top edge is plastic, which might be for Wifi antenna purposes and is separated from the metal with a red border. In fact, red is pretty much the highlighted color all over the laptop, but MSI managed to keep it pretty subtle for the most part and to me it looks quite nice. What’s no so subtle is the same “Gaming G series” dragon shield adorning the lid (which I hate btw). Not only does it glow with the backlight on your screen, it also sticks out a couple mm – so there is no way to shut it off or cleanly cover it up with a decal.
The build quality is pretty solid for the most part but I’ve definitely felt better. It feels good in the hand, being an appropriate weight and not overly thick. Weighing under 4 pounds is a real plus for a high end gaming laptop. It’s a little thicker than my GS60, but nothing I can complain about. To be honest, it feels a lot like the Lenovo Y50, which I really liked, except for the awful screen. When holding it, I did feel the lid flex a little, which I don’t really like all that much. It’s certainly something I could get used to, but I think it could be better. Also, you might feel a little flex when grabbing it on the rear end with all the vents, but it really depends how tightly you hold it. One thing I want to note is my unit weighed just over 4 lbs, contrary to 3.75lbs MSI advertises. This makes it only 5 ounces less than my GS60.
If there’s anything I can get nitpicky about, it’s the lack of a tapered contour. I literally needed to use two hands in order to pick it up – something I often found annoying. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to it before, but one-handed lifting is something I would expect of a laptop so thin and light. I think most laptops have a tapered lip in the front at least – something to get your finger under and lift it a little. Or maybe even more of a gap with the rubber feet would help. Maybe I’m too picky, but I thought it was worth noting.
Looking from the bottom, it appears to be made out of plastic, but I couldn’t verify it since I wasn’t allowed to open this one. It’s a pretty stylish underside though, with some red accents on the vents of both sides. The look gets ruined though by the absurd amount of stickers they put on the bottom. You can peel them all off, but it’ll affect your warranty considering one of the stickers has your S/N and the other is specifically a sticker that says void if removed.
On the right side of the laptop, you have the intake vent, an HDMI port, a single USB 3.0 port and a USB 3.0 type-C port. On the left hand side, there’s an Ethernet jack, power connector, USB 3.0 port, SD card reader, earphone and mic. The rear offers a single mini-display port and both exhausts for the CPU and GPU.
Opening the lid with one finger is a cinch and under the hood is your typical keyboard layout. This keyboard is recessed a little but it’s pretty subtle, as the metallic palm rest is only slightly angled to give the keyboard some spacing from the screen. Unlike other MSI laptops, the Windows key is located on the left side on this one. Directly beneath the spacebar is the trackpad. I’ll cover the keyboard and trackpad in more detail later, but the trackpad has a pretty nice red border around it to match the accents on the rest of the machine.
The power button is on the upper left corner. It may look a little funny to some, but it’s nicer looking than some of MSI’s past choices. The LED indicator is a single light and isn’t all that bright, but bright enough. It glows red when running on integrated graphics and then turns orange when the 970M picks up the load. It’s a VERY difference between the two, especially when you compare it to the blue/orange power button of the GS60.
The amount of branding on the laptop is pretty aggressive. There are two MSI logos – one on the lid and the other below the screen. A “Sound by Dynaudio” logo is painted on the metal above the keyboard and “keyboard by Steelseries” is painted below it. I was able to remove these logos, on my GS60, with some acetone, so I assume they could be removed on this GS40 as well. The Intel sticker is located on the lower left of the keyboard, which is also removable. Of course, as I already mentioned, this is all in addition to the many stickers on the belly and glowing dragon logo on the hood.
Keyboard and trackpad
The GS40 comes with a SteelSeries branded keyboard. On the outside, it looks exactly like the GS60 keyboard, but unfortunately it falls a little short in terms of performance, which I’ll get to in a minute. The backlighting is red in color and cannot be changed, unlike most other MSI keyboards which are chroma. The layout is pretty typical for your average 13 or 14” laptop, with no keys in any unusual spots.
The keys are pretty well spaced apart and the travel is also normal, but my typing was still a little lacking, which I noticed right away. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from bad. I just found this disappointing since I love the GS60’s keyboard and the GS40’s keyboard just isn’t as good.
I decided to dig deeper to find the difference and I can only attribute it to the amount of force needed to depress the keys. On the GS60, the force needed was 65 grams while on the GS40 it was only 50 grams. This is my first time measuring this, so I don’t know what’s appropriate, but I like the feedback of the GS60 keys a lot better.
The font on the keyboard is a little strange and will take some getting used to, especially if this is your first MSI notebook. The backlighting is pretty bright and can be adjusted to 3 brightness levels via Fn hotkeys. Looking head on, there’s no visible light bleed, but you can certainly start to see it when looking at the extreme angles. It’s certainly nothing abnormal to look at. At first I was disappointed that the keyboard was stuck at the red color, but I think they made the right choice in the end. It really adds to the look to keep a consistent color scheme with the laptop.
The only other notable thing for the keyboard is the ability of control through software. In the Steelseries software, you’re able to disable the Windows key, on demand. You’re also able to create custom macros for just about any key combination except for the Fn key. This is especially useful for games.
My keyboard unfortunately came with a defect and it’s something you’ll want to look out for as well, if you choose to purchase this laptop. On mine, the tab key has a tendency to click and sometimes even stick. And when it sticks, it can’t be pressed again. It’s not something I think I can fix and I definitely couldn’t live with it since I use the Tab key so often. I did check the forums to see if anyone else had the issue, but nobody spoke up – so there’s that.
Onto the trackpad, MSI has improved in this department compared to their previous iterations. The trackpad surface is still plastic, but it is much smoother than the previous ones I’ve used and feels more premium. This trackpad is a clickpad type, with right click built into the lower right portion.
Overall, tracking and scrolling was smooth and accurate, but there are a lot of adjustments that I needed to make in order for it to feel “just right”. Luckily the included Elan drivers have a lot of options to customize. The only thing Elan lacks (and this is across all devices) is support for the advanced multi desktop/app switching gestures in Windows 10. Something I can live with, but I’d like to see this implemented in the future.
The model I received has a 14” 1920×1080 resolution panel. HWinfo says it’s an LG panel with the model number LP140WF3-SPD1. It’s a matte display, so reflections from ambient light are properly dampened. It’s also an IPS display, so the viewing angles are fantastic. As far as matte FHD panels are concerned, there’s not a whole lot I can complain about, really.
The only complaint I can note of is the backlight bleed I can see in the upper right hand side of the panel. It’s going to vary from unit to unit, but I’m going to guess that some backlight bleed will exist on everyone’s version. The cause of the bleed is almost definitely from the lid being so thin and the mediocre support of such a thin plastic bezel. These IPS panels are prone to backlight bleed if there’s even the slightest bend in the panel. To further prove my theory, if I push or pull the lid from that corner, the backlight bleed disappears and shifts to another portion of the screen. Note that this is only noticeable on a black screen in a very dark room. In no way can I see this light bleed in daylight or on a non-black screen.
Aside from that, the picture is very nice for a FHD screen, having nice colors and proper contrast. I took some measurements using my colorimeter and the gamut measured to be 91% sRGB, 68% NTSC and 71% aRGB. I’ve seen many panels get a sRGB closer to 98%, but I really can’t tell the difference with the naked eye. Other specs I measured was a contrast of 620:1, maximum brightness of 292 nits and blacks measured at .47 nits. These are all pretty good values, although I so wish the screen could be a little bit brighter for outdoor use.
- Panel HardwareID: LG Philips LP140WF3-SPD1;
- Coverage: 91% sRGB, 68% NTSC, 71% AdobeRGB;
- Max brightness in the middle of the screen: 292 cd/m2 on power;
- Contrast at max brightness: 620:1;
- White point: 6800 K;
- Black on max brightness: 0.47 cd/m2.
I also checked the brightness distribution, which you can see the results below. The bottom of the screen is a little lower in brightness than the upper parts, but it’s very minor and almost impossible to see with the naked eye. These measurements are also at maximum, so they’ll be much closer together, the lower in brightness you go.
Hardware and performance
My GS40 came fully loaded with an i7-6700HQ quad-core CPU and an Nvidia 970M GPU. I haven’t seen any other configurations out there yet, but they may possible offer a 965M version like they did with the GS60. My unit also came with 16GB of Ram, which seems to be the standard now for gaming laptops. What’s nice is it’s DDR4 2133 MHz, so there’s little need to upgrade it any further. I have no way to confirm it, but this laptop should support 16GB sticks, so you could potentially go up to 32GB of RAM if you desired.
Also equipped in my unit was a 128GB M.2 SSD and a 1TB 7200rpm HDD. Thankfully, the M.2 slot is PCI-E, so your R/W speeds are phenomenal (which I cover below). Unlike the previous gen GS60s, there’s no second M.2 slot though. I was pretty bummed about this with the Skylake GS60 as well, since it removed the ability to have a third storage drive. MSI probably removed it since the need for RAID isn’t there anymore with the PCI-E slot. If you’re like me, you’ll probably look to replace the HDD with a SSD right away, since that 128GB is going to fill up REAL quick.
As usual, I ran my typical benchmarks to test both the CPU and GPU. There were no surprises here really. I fully expected the GPU to perform very similar to my GS60, and it did. There was a significant performance bump with the CPU, which is also expected and welcomed. My only worry was the cooling, but it looks like MSI has it under control. Here were my results:
- 3DMark 13:IS – 85132, Cloud Gate – 21454, Sky Diver – 18344, Fire Strike – 6549 with max CPU 87°C and max GPU 82°C;
- 3DMark 11: P9085 with CPU at 85°C and GPU at 79°C;
- PCMark 8: Home Conventional- 3349; accelerated – 3890;
- Cinebench R11.5: OpenGL – 50.38fps, CPU – 7.44 pts, Single Core CPU – 1.62 pts;
- Cinebench R15: OpenGL – 58.92fps, CPU – 680 pts, Single Core CPU – 142 pts.
I tested out a number of different games and was very impressed with how they performed. The smaller footprint certainly didn’t affect the 970M as I was able to play some of the latest titles on maximum without any throttling issues. Here were the scenarios and my results:
- Fallout 4– Ran from one end of the Commonwealth to the other, constantly looking and shooting all over the place.
- Ultra settings, Max AA and AP 1080p – 45-60fps with occasional drops to 35fps. Fully playable.
- Default high settings 1080p – 50-60fps with occasional drops to 40fps.
- Peak CPU temp 86°C, peak GPU temp 80°C
- Crysis 3– Played through the opening scene for 10 minutes.
- Very High settings, no AA 1x AF, 1080p resolution – 30-45fps
- Peak CPU temp 85°C, peak GPU temp 78°C
- Dragon Age: Inquisition – Walked around one of the first camps and got into a battle. Played for about 10 minutes for each session.
- Default ultra settings at 1080p – 35-40fps
- Default high settings at 1080p – 55-60fps
- Peak CPU temp 86°C, peak GPU temp 78°C
As you can see, the 970M in the GS40 is able to handle even some of the most demanding games. It helps that the screen is limited to 1080p too, considering how I’ve witnessed the 970M struggle with 3k and 4k resolutions.
You should also know that the size of the screen is going to affect how much you can tell the difference between your graphics settings. For example, in Dragon Age, I couldn’t tell the difference between high and ultra settings at all. And given that it’s a difference of 20 fps, there’s absolutely zero reason to keep it on ultra. Unless you’re outputting to an external display, you might want to consider dialing back the settings to achieve even better performance (and lower temperatures).
Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers and others
And now on to my favorite part about the laptop. Many of you will be asking how well the GS40 is able to handle heat dissipation. It’s a smaller footprint and still a pretty thin design, so many would probably expect it to struggle. I’m happy to say I found no evidence of that. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say the GS40 does an excellent job at removing the heat.
I took some thermal readings on the top and the bottom, both during normal usage and my Fallout 4 test. Here were my results:
Sure, when gaming, the underside gets hot – but it’s cooler than on many previous laptops I’ve seen. With the exception of the part that never touches your legs (top middle, which gets actually HOT; the exhaust on the back reaches high temperatures as well, around 57 C), the underbelly temps were consistently 5-10°C lower than the Broadwell GS60 I reviewed. I didn’t need a thermometer to tell me that, it felt cooler on my lap as well. In fact, most of my gaming was done on my lap and I didn’t get all that uncomfortable.
You can credit the fan and heatsink configuration for the improvements. Instead of having the standard GPU and CPU in single heat pipe lineup, MSI chose to beef up the GPU side and add more copper heat pipes. From the pictures on a disassembly guide, it looks like they have two intake heat pipes going onto the GPU and the fan evacuates half of it while another heat pipe supplies the CPU. The CPU fan then evacuates the heat on the other side. It looks like passive air can be drawing in from the bottom, but the main intakes and exhaust are not on the underside, which is good for your lap. Overall, I give them an A+ in this department.
As for physical noise, the CPU fan will constantly run and the GPU fan will stay off until needed. This is the same as many of their other models. I didn’t get a chance to see if their fan tweaking software works for this model, unfortunately. I would assume it does, and if so you’ll be able to edit the fan profile to run silent until the CPU reaches a certain temperature threshold.
I took some noise readings at head level with my cell phone. I used a sound app, which is far from professional in terms of measuring actual results but it’s good enough to compare to ambient levels I read. Here’s what I got:
- Ambient noise – all fans off: 20dB
- Idling with lowest CPU fan, GPU off: 25dB
- Both fans on: 30dB
- Maximum I measured during gaming: 40 dB
For connectivity, MSI decided to go with the Killer N1525 Wireless AC, which has been a great performer in their other laptop models. For my week of usage, I had a solid connection with no drops whatsoever. From 30 feet from my router, I reached download speeds of over 70Mbps. There is also a Qualcomm/Atheros E2400 Gigabit Ethernet controller onboard and Bluetooth 4.0 included with the wireless card.
Speakers – I’ll come right out and say it: the speakers on the GS40 are just plain awful. I thought they would be the same as the GS60, which were decent at best, but they are way worse. The sound is heavily dampened and I even brought my GS60 into the same room and mimicked all the settings to directly compare. It was night and day.
Nahimic is the software bundled with this laptop, to help try and improve the audio experience. For the GS60, you actually needed this software to make the speakers sound decent, but it doesn’t do the trick for the GS40. MSI’s marketing literature also speaks of an internal subwoofer, but I found no evidence of one at all. The bass on these speakers is barely existent at all.
I played a song off of Youtube and cranked the volume all the way up and the maximum reading I got was a mere 44dB. For comparison sake, the same song on my GS60 measured about 75dB. For people who use headphones (which is probably most gamers), this will not be an issue at all. For people who don’t use headphones, I suggest you invest in a pair, if you plan on buying this laptop. When you have fans that make 40dB and speakers that only go up to 44dB, you won’t be hearing the game you’re playing all that well.
My battery test consists of using the stock “Power Saver” power profile, 30% brightness(80 nits), WiFi off, Bluetooth off, and running a 720p movie in a continuous loop at full screen with the volume muted. I start the clock when it’s unplugged and stop it when the unit performs a self- shutdown. This GS40 lasted 5 hours and 37 minutes before shutting down. This is pretty impressive when comparing it to the GS60.
Using Batterymon, I was also able to test the discharge rate at certain conditions and estimate how long the laptop would last under those conditions. Wifi and Bluetooth were on for all situations and the volume was set at 50%. Here are my results:
- Balanced mode, full brightness, surfing the web in Chrome – 20.0W – 3 hours
- Balanced mode, 100% brightness, surfing the web in IE – 16.3W – 3,7 hours
- Balanced mode, 100% brightness, Youtube 1080p IE – 17.6W – 3.5 hours
- Balanced 30% brightness, Youtube 1080p IE – 15.8W – 3.9 hours
- Power Saver, 100% brightness, Idle – 14.6W – 4.2 hours
- Power Saver, 30% brightness, Idle – 12.5W – 4.9 hours
- Power Saver, 0% brightness, Idle – 12W – 5.1 hours
Overall, battery life is pretty decent on this machine, considering it’s using a quad core CPU that isn’t designed for power savings like the Ultrabook CPU models. It’s certainly a step up from the GS60 and is about on par with Gigabyte’s P34W and the new Razer Blade.
Price and availability
It’s a pretty good value considering the price of the similar specked Razer Blade and the GS60. I haven’t seen any other configurations other than the one I currently have, but I’ll be sure to keep you all informed if I see any.
Overall, I’ve got mixed feelings about the GS40.
It certainly has it where it counts in terms of hardware and performance. The cooling capability is also almost ideal, considering it has a 970M inside. I haven’t personally handled the new Razer Blade, but from what I’ve researched, it’s about the same in terms of cooling. I’m also very impressed with all the connectivity options and multiple hard drives being in such a small package. These things really make it shine over the Razer Blade.
I do wish they would have improved the performance on the keyboard though, and I think it’s the one of the two faults of the machine that I can really ding them for. Sure, I’m biased from using the GS60, but I know the potential is there and I would expect to receive it in my future purchases from MSI. The other fault being the poor speaker performance holds less weight to me, but it’s certainly something you all should think twice about before purchasing. This is especially if you plan on watching movies on it and using the internal speakers. I can honestly say I would never use this laptop to watch a movie without headphones.
If I were in the market for a 14-inch gaming laptop, this one would certainly be in my top three, especially considering the price is considerably lower than the Razer Blade. The Gigabyte P34W would also be on my radar though, because it has almost identical specs and is $100 less. Of course Gigabyte laptops also have build quality and keyboard issues sometimes, so there’s that. The Razer Blade offers a much better build quality and a better screen (and a touchscreen for that matter) but prices start near $2000 and they have only the SSD with no 2.5” bay.
In the end, I think most people’s decisions would be driven on the specs and the price. For me, if the keyboard was the same as of my GS60, I would consider converting – that’s how close I am to liking it. It’s not though, so I’ll be sticking with the GS60, but I think many of who who prefer a smaller laptop would be fine with what the GS40 has to offer.
If you guys have any questions or need me to clarify on anything, please leave a comment below. Also, if you’re an owner of the machine, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how you like it.