joi, 25 august 2016

MSI GS43VR Phantom Pro.

Manufacturer: MSI
UK price (as reviewed):
 £1,499.99 (inc VAT)
US price (as reviewed): $1,499.00 (ex Tax) (128GB SSD)

There was something of a revelation when we first heard about the latest laptops sporting Nvidia's Pascal architecture. In short, there are no M-series GPUs this time around for the simple reason that even Nvidia's top-end mainstream card - the GTX 1080, only had a TDP of 180W, falling to 150W for the GTX 1070 and a paltry 120W for the still respectfully powerful GTX 1060 (the Titan X leaps up to 250W but at $1,200, it's hardly considered mainstream).What you will be seeing, then, are fully-fledged desktop Nvidia GPUs in the latest range of laptops, and that's rather exciting. Previously, if you went for a GTX 970M-based laptop, you could expect something in the region of GTX 960 (desktop) performance - in essence, just drop a level lower to convert from laptop to desktop performance, as the GPUs were cut back in terms of frequency or other features to reduce power.Now, though, laptop manufacturers feel confident that their latest cooling tech can handle full-on desktop GPUs, even in laptops as small as the 14in MSI GS43VR Phantom Pro we're looking at today. Clearly, then, the hope is that at last, you'll see desktop performance in laptops. That might not quite materialise in the way we hope, though, for the simple reason that some small cutbacks have had to be made to reduce power consumption, even given Pascal's power efficiency. For instance, the GTX 1060 in the MSI GS43VR Phantom Pro is clocked 100MHz lower than its desktop counterpart, with a noticeably slower boost clock too.



With that out the way, let's take a look at the MSI GS43VR Phantom Pro - a £1,500 pocket rocket that weighs just 1.6kg - that's about the same as one of Dell's super-light magnesium 7000-series Latitude business laptops. Despite this, a 61Wh battery is included that should mean a decent life away from the mains. With a depth of less than 25mm at its deepest point, the GS43VR Phantom Pro is extremely portable, and the 14in screen is still very useable - much more so than its 13in and 12in cousins, but it's less of a dead weight than a 15in model, albeit with less screen real estate.
There's not too much pizazz in terms of lights and stickers - in fact it's a fairly minimalist chassis with a few red-tinged edges with a mix of brushed aluminium and plastic. The touchpad is large and responsive although if you're not a fan of the rocker-type pad and prefer physical buttons for your mouse controls, it's probably not for you. The surface has very low friction and it felt very solid too - no complaints here. The keyboard is typically small, as are all 14in laptop keyboards but the enter, space and shift keys are large enough not to cause typing headaches. In fact, typing for long periods was fairly pleasant, and while the chiclet keys are responsive with a fair amount of travel, they are a tad noisy. The keyboard sports red backlighting, although it's fairly subtle and not very visible outside of dimly lit rooms.
It's certainly an attractive laptop, with cooling vents at the rear and sides as well as intakes underneath. The lid and hinges feel sturdy with only small amounts of flex, although the screen does have a fairly hefty bezel with an integrated HD webcam. There's no USB 3.1 support - instead, a USB 3-powered Type-C port is included along with a smattering of USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports, plus HDMI and mini-DisplayPort sockets, the latter being the only port on the rear of the device. The power, USB, SD card and audio ports are all located on the sides - probably due to the packed interior here catering for the cooling system, which you can see over the page.
The specification, of course, includes a GTX 1060 with the full 6GB of GDDR5, plus an Intel Skylake Core i7-6700HQ quad-core, hyper-threaded CPU offering eight threads and 16GB of 2,400MHz DDR4. MSI has opted for a PCI-E M.2 interface and includes a 256GB Samsung SM951 SSD along with a 1TB hard disk. The screen is a 14in affair, with a non-glossy coating (there's no touch-enabling here). It's an IPS panel and our particular model offers a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, which is a sensible choice for gaming seeing as the GTX 1060 should offer silky smooth frame rates in all games. There are 4K versions available, though, but you'd likely have to dial down the settings to get playable frame rates in a number of games.

Specifications

  • CPU Intel Core i7-6700HQ (2.6GHz/ 3.5GHz turbo-boost)
  • CPU cores Four physical (quad core) + Hyper-threading
  • Memory 16GB (2 x 8GB) Kingston 2,400MHz DDR4
  • Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
  • Storage 1 x 256GB Samsung SM951 SSD (OS), 1 x 1TB hard disk
  • Chipset Intel H170
  • Screen 14in non-glossy IPS, 1,920 x 1080
  • Dimensions (mm) 345 x 245 x 23 (W x D x H)
  • Networking 1 x Killer Gigabit LAN, Killer N1535 Combo 
  • Audio 8-channel ESS SABRE HiFi audio DAC, microphone, headphone, 2 x 2W speakers
  • Keyboard backlighting Yes (red)
  • Battery Li-Po 61Wh
  • Webcam HD
  • Weight 1.6kg (with battery)
  • Operating system Windows 10 64-bit
  • Ports 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, HDMI, mini-DisplayPort, headphone, microphone
  • Warranty 2 Year Collect & Return (1 Year Global)

Interior

Quite how everything is packed into this tiny 14in laptop we were keen to see and as expected, the top third section of the GS43VR Phantom Pro is largely dominated by the dual fan cooling system and a mass of heat pipes cooling the GPU, CPU and various other hotspots. The fans are fairly diminutive, though, so it remains to be seen how they fare in dealing with the hefty heat load from such a powerful setup. 
The battery is a sizeable one for such a small unit with an 8060mAh capacity, although this is slightly less potent than the 73Wh unit Aorus managed to shoehorn into its 13in X3 PLUS V5. Whipping off the rear cover was simple and provides access to the full array of ports and slots for upgrades.
There's no additional cooling for the M.2 drive, although this has been less of an issue than it was with previous generations. Still, it's good to know that swapping out the hard disk, M.2 drive and memory are fairly easy tasks, should you want to tweak the specification in future.
There is one issue with the cooling system, though, which is that the intake vents on the underside are extremely small. In addition, one vent doesn't quite clear one of the internal fans, blocking it by around a third. We'd imagine every cubic millimetre of air is important in keeping a tiny pocket rocket like this cool so it's a shame there's such an oversight, especially in an area where a larger vent would have zero impact on aesthetics.

Battlefield 4

From our Battlefield 4 review:
'From the start to the end of the campaign you literally have no idea who’s who, why they do or don’t like each other and even what part you play in the whole thing – the latter point not being helped by the fact you’re mute throughout the whole game. You just meander from mission to mission and get on with the task set before you. Still: who cares, right? Battlefield has long been about its multiplayer, and sure enough here, again the game truly shines. Largely it’s a continuation of what came before but there are enough extras that it feels, if not totally new, different enough to learn all over again.'With its demanding Frostbite 3 engine, Battlefield 4 is a tough challenge for any GPU. We run the game at its highest 'Ultra' settings with motion blur at 50 percent and the resolution scale at 100 percent. We also manually disable MSAA at 4K, as it's unnecessary and too demanding at this resolution. We run a 60 second benchmark on the game's sixth campaign level, Tashgar, during the on rails section at the level's start, and begin the recording as soon as the subtitle for the first line of dialogue appears on screen.

Crysis 3

Mixing the open-world combat of Crysis with the more tightly scripted urban jungle of Crysis 2, Crysis 3 is a smorgasbord of visual effects and polygons galore. With DirectX 11 support, high resolution textures and incredibly detailed characters models, it's laid down the gauntlet for the next generation of consoles and games alike when it comes to gorgeous graphics.We test using the Very High detail preset and with Very High texture resolution. lens flare and motion blur are both enabled, although due to its heavy performance impact, anti-aliasing is disabled. As explained earlier, we use a custom macro-driven 60 seconds play-through from the single player mission Red Star Rising. The 60 seconds of gameplay takes place in a large open environment heavy on water and particle effects. Each test is repeated three times, with the average result taken.

Unigine Valley 1.0 Benchmark

Unigine's free Valley 1.0 benchmarking tool works well as a graphics benchmark as it is GPU limited and is thus incredibly taxing on the GPU whilst placing the CPU under very little stress. Unigine's scoring system is effectively linear: a card with 2,000 points is considered twice as fast as one with 1,000 points, and half as fast as one with 4,000 points.

PCMark 8 Video Editing

Video Editing V2 Part 2 (Creative 3.0 test suite)

This workload uses FFmpeg to apply video enhancement filters to a high bitrate H.264 video and then encode it to a format suitable for distribution. The FFmpeg binary used is custom-built by Futuremark using a development version of the source available from the project's code repository. The test applies a deshaking filter to a source video at 3,840 x 2160 (4K UHD) before scaling down and outputting at 1,920 x 1,080 (1080p).

PCMark 8 Photo Editing V2

This workload involves making a series of adjustments to a set of photographs using ImageMagik - an open-source image processing library to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation and gamma. When a favourable balance is found, the changes are then applied to the rest of the images in the set. TIFF files up to 67MB in size are used.

Terragen 3

Planetside Software’s Terragen 3 is a highly realistic landscape generator used to create background images in films and games such as Star Trek: Nemesis, Stealth and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Our script renders a single frame of a snowy mountain scene at 640 x 480 on all the available CPU execution units.

Cinebench R15 64-bit

Cinebench uses Maxon's Cinema 4D engine to render a photo-realistic scene of some shiny balls and weird things (we miss the motorbike). The scene is highly complex, with reflections, ambient occlusion and procedural shaders so it gives a CPU a tough workout.As Cinema 4D is a real-world application - used on films such as Spider-Man and Star Wars - Cinebench can be viewed as a real-world benchmark.

Battery Life

We complete two separate tests to assess battery life. Firstly, we run Unigine Valley's benchmark continuously to simulate a lengthy gaming session. This is performed at half brightness with Wi-Fi enabled and the maximum performance mode enabled in Windows.The other test uses PCMark 8's Coventional Battery Test. This simulates using web browsers, spreadsheets and other light non-gaming tasks that should give you an idea of how long the battery will last under typical conditions. For this test, we reduce brightness to minimum and the power setting to Power Saver mode, but leave Wi-Fi enabled.

CrystalDiskMark Benchmark Results

CrystalDiskMark uses incompressible data files. We report the read and write results of the sequential and 4KB random tests

PCMark 8 Storage Traces

We've selected two benchmarks from PCMark 8's array of storage tests - the Battlefield 3 and Photoshop Heavy storage traces. These mimic real-world usage, for instance, loading a game and entering a save game or performing image editing. The final results are given in seconds.

Display Performance

The 92 percent coverage of the sRGB spectrum is on par with other IPS laptops we've seen from the likes of Aorus, while the brightness is well above average at 315cd/m2 and combined with the anti-glare screen, the GS43VR Phantom Pro was easily visible outside in sunlight. Similarly, the backlighting evenness at 100 percent brightness was similar to other laptops we've seen, with a maximum 12 percent variance thanks to figures from the bottom right corner of the screen.Colour accuracy was reasonable, and in general the screen looked sharp and vibrant thanks to the decent brightness and 1080p resolution crammed into a 14in screen, although the delta-E was a little higher on average than the Aorus X7 Pro V5 for example. Our Datacolor Spyder 5 Elite colorimeter churned out a score of 4/5 - actually the same as the Aorus thanks to the latter's average luminance uniformity at lower brightness levels.

Performance Analysis 

First up are the all-important game benchmarks and the GS43VR Phantom Pro wowed us with frame rates vastly superior to the GTX 970M and in a different league to the GTX 965M. In fact, performance wasn't far off two GTX 970M's in SLI, which we've seen in a couple of laptops - an amazing feat from a 1.6kg 14in laptop. It managed a minimum frame rate of 69fps in Battlefield 4 at the ultra detail level, with an average of 83fps.Crysis 3 was a similar story, with a minimum and average of 64fps and 71fps - again not far away from GTX 970M SLI and vastly superior to the GTX 970M. For reference, a GTX 960 only managed a minimum of 40fps here and the GTC 1060 in the GS43VR Phantom Pro is performing better than a desktop GTX 970 - a huge amount of performance from any laptop.
However, under sustained load in Unigine Valley, which dishes out plenty to for the GPU to do over a 5-10 minute benchmark, we noticed that the GPU would regularly top 80°C or more, even with the fan set to maximum in the included software. As a result, we're fairly sure it's throttling as the Unigine Valley result of 3112 is only a little faster than a desktop GTX 960, which would otherwise be battered by the might of the GTX 1060. This is a shame as it means that longer gaming sessions under heavy loads may see performance suffer, although given the native resolution, seeing the minimum frame rate drop from 70fps to 50fps may not even be noticeable.
There was a slightly slower set of numbers coming from the Core i7-6700HQ than we've seen with other laptops sporting the same CPU as well. For instance, the Aorus X3 PLUS V5 managed to complete the PCMark 8 4K Video Editing test in 132 seconds compared to 149 for the MSI. It was two seconds slower in the Photo editing test and noticeably slower in Terragen 3 too - again this could be down throttling.Noise-wise at low and medium loads, the GS43VR Phantom Pro does a good job of keeping noise to a minimum and there's very little heat emanating from the chassis too. Ramping things up does see the fans become quite loud and there's a fair amount of heat at the top rear of the chassis and underside too.Storage performance was fantastic, as expected with an SM951 at the helm, with a read speed of 2,254MB/sec in CrystalDiskMark and a chart-topping result in the PCMark 8 Battlefield 3 Storage Test too. We're not entirely sure about the Photoshop storage test - the result was much slower than several other laptops we've seen, but this appears to be down to the use of RAID, which seems to boost the scores here.Finally, we come to battery life, and we were suitably impressed here too. The GS43VR Phantom Pro managed over an hour in Unigine Valley's 3D benchmark while perhaps more importantly from a battery life point of view, PCMark 8's conventional battery test puts the GS43VR Phantom Pro at lasting nearly 4 hours of typical tasks from web browsing to dealing with word processing, meaning that as a portable gaming machine, the GS43VR Phantom Pro is hard to beat.

Conclusion

There's a lot to consider with the GS43VR Phantom Pro and sadly it isn't all rosy. The throttling issues are a shame and possibly even avoidable if MSI had used larger vents for the intake fans. However, this may or may not be an issue depending on the games you play - during repeated testing in Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4, we didn't see any issues, but under sustained heavy load in Unigine Valley the result was much lower than expected. The CPU results were a tad slow too.On the plus side, though, not only is the GS43VR Phantom Pro cheaper than other 14in gaming units we've seen, but its screen offers solid performance and good brightness, its storage is lightening fast and its low weight and generous battery life (for a gaming laptop) mean that it's far more flexible and portable than we'd been expecting. Considering that even when the slow downs did occur you're still getting better than GTX 960 level performance, the GS43VR Phantom Pro is a fantastic 14in gaming laptop that's otherwise very well rounded. Despite the mentioned issues, we'd still buy it if we had £1,500 to spend on a portable gaming system, although we'd probably want to wait for the competition to show its hand before splashing any cash.

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