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MSI GS30 Shadow Review - A Notebook and GPU GamingDock

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Manufacturer: MSI

Notebooks Specifications

Way back in January of this year, while attending CES 2015 in Las Vegas, we wandered into the MSI suite without having any idea what we might see as new and exciting product. Besides the GT80 notebook with a mechanical keyboard on it, the MSI GS30 Shadow was easily the most interesting and exciting technology. Although MSI is not the first company to try this, the Shadow is the most recent attempt to combine the benefits of a thin and light notebook with a discrete, high performance GPU when the former is connected to the latter's docking station.

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The idea has always been simple but the implementation has always been complex. Take a thin, light, moderately powered notebook that is usable and high quality in its own right and combine it with the ability to connect a discrete GPU while at home for gaming purposes. In theory, this is the best of both worlds: a notebook PC for mobile productivity and gaming capability courtesy of an external GPU. But as the years have gone on, more companies try and more companies fail; the integration process is just never as perfect a mix as we hope.

Today we see if MSI and the GS30 Shadow can fare any better. Does the combination of a very high performance thin and light notebook and the GamingDock truly create a mobile and gaming system that is worth your investment?

Continue reading our review of the MSI GS30 Shadow Notebook and GamingDock!!

The MSI GS30 Notebook

The MSI GS30 is comprised of two distinct components: the notebook and the docking station. A thorough look at the GS30 Shadow requires that we examine each of them independently before we see how they function together to create a total user experience. First up is the GS30 notebook itself, a product with surprising specifications.

  MSI GS30 Shadow Notebook Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-4870HQ (2.5 GHz - 3.7 GHz)
Graphics Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200 (200 MHz - 1.2 GHz)
Memory 16GB DDR3L 1600 MHz
Screen 13.3-in, 1920x1080, Matte finish
Storage 2 x 128GB Kingston M.2 (RAID-0)
Audio 2 watt Stereo Speakers
Connectivity Gigabit Ethernet
802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports HDMI 1.4
2 x USB 3.0
Microphone/Headphone
SDCard Reader
Operating System Windows 8.1
AC Adapter 65 watt
Battery 65 watt
Dimension 320mm x 227mm x 19.8mm (12.59" x 8.93" x 0.77")
1.2 kg (2.64 lbs.)
Total Price $1899 - Amazon.com - BHPhoto.com

There are some noteworthy items here, starting with the pricey and fast Intel Core i7-4870HQ, a CPU we usually only find on larger, gaming notebooks. Along with the included Iris Pro Graphics 5200, the 4870HQ has a TDP of 47 watts. This is quite high considering the size and cooling capability of the GS30. In many cases, even when doing some basic computing tasks in Windows, I found the GS30 machine to ramp up its internal fan to a level that created much higher than preferred noise levels.

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The screen is pretty solid on the GS30. It is a 1080p screen with a matte finish that is decent in our RGB color uniformity testing, although not as good as the Dell XPS 13 or Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro that we have looked at recently. The resolution and screen size are good mix and will require only 125% internal Windows scaling, if any, based on user preference.

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At just over 0.75" thick, the GS30 is a both thin and light, but doesn't get the Ultrabook branding of some other similarly built systems. The build is entirely plastic but it doesn't feel cheap when holding it in your hand. The smooth surface is susceptible to finger prints and smudgy more than other laptops I have had in the office recently, making me more likely to find a microfiber cloth or t-shirt to wipe it off on.

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Unlike many of MSI's other notebooks, the keyboard on the GS30 doesn't appear to be built by SteelSeries and so it might lack some of the weight and touch you are used to. I did find the keyboard reasonably able to keep up with me while typing. I did find myself missing a couple of keystrokes along the bottom of the keyboard ('c' through 'm') though, where it took a bit more force than expected to bottom out.

The keys have a single backlight option, which is better than nothing, but the keycaps themselves are not lit.

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Touchpads are a very individual and personal thing it seems these days, but the MSI GS30 has a decent one in my book. Palm rejection is pretty good and click and feel is solid.

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On the right hand side you'll find the SD card slot, a USB 3.0 slot, a full-size HDMI port, Ethernet and the power connection.

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Around the left hand side is one of the CPU fan ventilation areas, a second USB 3.0 port and discrete headphone and microphone 3.5mm jacks.

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The only thing interesting on the back of the GS30 is this oddly placed opening - this where the notebook connects to the GamingDock through PCI Express.

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The front of the GS30 features a pair of white LED lights that are powered up whenever you have the machine, docked or not. As far as I can tell there is no way to disabled these lights without putting the notebook to sleep or shutting it down. Hard drive and charging lights are between the "racing lights".

I admit, I like the look of these white stripes but I can see how others might not. I can also see how some might get frustrated by their brightness in a dark room.

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On the bottom of the GS30, you'll find a pretty empty landscape with the exception of quite a bit more air ventilation areas. All it takes is 8 philips head screws to be removed to get inside the notebook itself.

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Once inside, you get access to surprising amount of the internal hardware! You can see the pair of 8GB DDR3L-1600 memory, the pair of Kingston 128GB SSDs running in an Intel-powered RAID-0 array in addition to the cooler and fan responsible for the Core i7-4870HQ. You can even swap out the wireless/Bluetooth card should you choose to, in the back left-hand corner.

The large mass toward the front of the notebook is the battery, a 47.36 Whr beast that actually is smaller than it needs to be. Because this system pulls a high amount of power even when solely browsing the Internet, the battery life of the GS30 suffers; more on that on the coming pages.

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Finally, there is an odd connector up at the top of the motherboard, facing out the back of the GS30 notebook. Does it look familiar? It should. It is a physical x16 PCIe connection that is responsible for communication and power with the GamingDock that ships with the GS30 Shadow combination. That is what allows the GS30 to integrate an external discrete graphics card, storage and connectivity without losing performance along the way. It also helps charge and maintain battery levels on the GS30 when docked.


April 9, 2015 | 06:16 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Didn't mention that you'll have to use it standing up all the time if you were to dock it.

You will need to have serious flex ability in your legs to be sitting spread eagle all the time to use it.

A Thigh Master is cheaper if your looking for added flex ability.

April 10, 2015 | 10:27 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Why would you have to stand up to use it while it is docked? lol, you obviously did not read nor watch the video!

April 9, 2015 | 06:38 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Actually got one of these myself. The only real complaint is that it is indeed loud. Battery life isn't that important to me, but it is indeed on the low side, with 3-4 hours max under a light load.

I'm thinking of fabricating a small furniture piece to place it under the desk, so I can both free up space and reduce the noise levels that reach my ears. This is a performance beast though. CPU actually holds the maximum turbo clock speeds quite well, even during Blender renders and such, something most HQ CPUs don't. The fan will be spinning at 6000rpm though, so you can imagine the noise.

I have everything connected on my desk, so that when I reach home, I simply dock the laptop (the power adapter can stay on the bag, the dock charges the laptop). Monitor, mouse and keyboard are already connected, and it's extremely fast to boot up, so no big issue with needing to turn it off.

I know it isn't a cheap machine, but I needed a nice quadcore laptop anyway, and since I didn't want another brick like device (my previous laptop was a 4kg monster), this seemed the best option.

April 9, 2015 | 07:37 PM - Posted by Lance Ripplinger (not verified)

Eh....I think I will continue to stick with a desktop. And I sure as hell won't deal with a noisy lawnmower like that. Its the price you pay, you have to get the heat out, but at the same time they obsess with keeping the laptop thin and light. SO you get to put up with a lawnmower cooling system. I wonder how long the fan will last before it completely dies. For me "gaming" laptops will never work. This reminds me of the silly monster 20" "laptop" HP had come out with years ago, called the "Dragon."

April 9, 2015 | 09:04 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

It needs to be 15", have proper dissipation, a way to keep the laptop vertical (for even better dissipation), capability of using the iris pro and the discrete gpu at the same time (for that juicy quicksync encoding) and full support for undervolt and underclock for cpu and igpu before I consider it.

Oh, and lower price. With 1600€ i can buy a clevo with a 970m.

April 9, 2015 | 09:05 PM - Posted by djotter

I could definitely see the use case here since this system would describe quite a few users. Portable laptop for browsing on the couch and a gaming powerhouse at your desk. Why have two completely separate devices? Just more hardware sitting idle when you are using the other. I would have to agree with you, that a Dell XPS13 + Gaming dock would be very compelling.

Though, would the i5-5200U be a limit in gaming? Maybe upgrade it to a i7-5600U? It is kind of hard to find benchmarks showing mobile GPUs paired with desktop graphics. Exception being the Brix GB-BXi7G3-760 but that is still only kind-of...

April 10, 2015 | 12:20 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Any U SKUs is going to be of use only in the underpowered ultrabooks, the U series will not game well compared to the regular laptop form factor quad core i5s or i7s, and you are going to want a quad core i7 when DX12, and Mantle/Vulkan become the standard. Hopefully there will be a quad core Zen version dual threaded APU and HBM memory laptop derivative of that 16 Core dual threaded AMD HPC APU SKU that AMD is rumored to be developing.

The only way an Ultrabook would ever be able to game well is if AMD developed a PCI card based complete gaming APU, and that rumored HPC APU could provide the standard with which a full PCIe card based complete gaming system on a card could be derived. You would the be able to dock a weak laptop based U series, or any other weak SKU based laptop that came with a 16x PCIe connector in the back to the dock, and the dock with a gaming APU on a PCI card in its PICe slot would be a complete PC in its own right, able to run that game while the laptop provided the control input for the game. It would not be hard to stream the game right back to the laptops screen, wired, or wirelessly.

That Rumored AMD HPC APU fits the bill for a revolution in gaming, and we all know that that is where the consumer SKUs are derived from, so AMD could take that HPC Zen APU, and derive a PC/Laptop line of APUs for gaming, it could even go to the next level with a complete gaming system on a PCIe card and allow PC users to add CPU power, along with GPU power and merge the discrete GPU with some CPU cores, and the motherboard CPU would be almost relegated to a service role, as the real gaming would be done on the PCI based Gaming APU, with its HBM, and ability to host the game, gaming engine, and Gaming OS on the PICe card.

Just imagine having a complete gaming APU on a PCIe card, and have the ability to plug one or more of the cards into a PC's available PCIe slots, you would have essentially a gaming/computing cluster with each card, or additional card adding more CPU cores to your gaming cluster, or a dock like device as in this article for laptops able to host one or more gaming APUs and doing all the gaming work, while the laptop's CPU does not even factor into the gaming equation, hell you would not even need a full PCIe x16 slot, you could just connect up with a cable and have the laptop control the gaming APU/system through a PCI-SIG PCI Express® External cable, or thunderbolt/other.

Most OSs would already be able to plug and play PCI Card based APUs, or CPUs. There is not much difference between having only a GPU on a PCI card, and having an APU on a PCIe card, as log as the motherboard's BIOS/UEFI, and OS had the proper settings for multi processing/multi OS set. there is really very little difference driver wise, and PCI standards wise, to having a CPU on a PCIe card, APU, or a discrete GPU, the signaling and Bus mastering protocols are the same. You just need to look at the PCIe based SSDs and see that the controller for the SSD is a complete CPU, running an embedded OS, and it's using the PICe and bus Mastering control lines to communicate with the motherboard's CPU/SOC with the help of its installed drivers.

April 9, 2015 | 09:44 PM - Posted by -- (not verified)

LOL what the hell hahahaahaha some people really WILL do anything to game on a laptop.

April 9, 2015 | 10:38 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Why is this even being compared to any ultrabook SKUs, what is the reasoning. This is a specialized gaming laptop/external discrete GPU combo, why not compare it with a competing product. Hell at least throw in one regular form factor laptop, like an HP probook with quad core i7, and even at that, this reviewed system offers a 16x PCIe connection. If the next iteration comes with a expansion box that sits behind the laptop that would be better for desktop use. I'm wondering just why the laptop portion has to sit on top of the expansion box, it just seams like a kludge of a design. Certainly this type of arrangement has its uses, and maybe some way could be found to get a video signal back into the laptop portion and to the laptop part's built-in display. The lack of engineering on this is definitely evident. This concept if carried a little further, and offering PCIe external GPU a PCIe pathway to output to the laptop portion's display, this inability to send the output back to the laptop's display appears to be a driver issue, or lack of properly written drivers to achieve this. There certainly is enough bandwidth over that PCIe x16 slot to do this.

MSI should work on a portable workstation laptop/external GPU expansion device like this, and supply the laptop with a Xeon SKU, and ECC memory, and let the users choose their brand of pro graphics card, as long as the system is able to send the GPU output back to the laptop's screen the engineers would be all over an SKU like that for on the road work that required a bit more than mobile GPU power. That expansion box needs to be made to sit behind the laptop portion not under it.

April 10, 2015 | 09:59 AM - Posted by cookiecutter (not verified)

Is the dock compatible with the titan Z since its a dual gpu card.

April 10, 2015 | 10:53 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I think the biggest limiting factor of all of this is the proprietary connection. If it was a standard the prices would go down and adoption rate would go up.

April 10, 2015 | 11:09 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Really! It's a PCIe standard connection you can't get any more hardware open standards than PCIe!

You need to do some research, you have really made and egregious error with your post!

April 10, 2015 | 11:58 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

look at the way it is implemented perhaps? just because it is using PCIe doesn't mean it is a standard way of implementing it. Alienware is doing something similar, but they use a cable that implements a PCIe connection.
Two different implementations of PCIe and neither are interchangeable.
What we all want, including you, is for a standard connection implementation that I can hook up any laptop I want to any external gfx box I want.

April 10, 2015 | 12:37 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

That is because the Alienware's cable/plug is propitary, not so for the MSI, the MSI is a straight up bog standard PICe x16 connector that would slot right into a motherboard's PCI slot, is the space was made available. If They were to use the PIC-SIGs standard external PCIe specification cable standard instead of a proprietary connecter that Alienware chose things would be different. For that matter there is no stopping any aftermarket company for developing a 16x PCIe cable for the MSI device, or any other external box, it would be just a matter of MSI whitelisting the drivers, and external hardware. Hell Thunderbolt would be fine for most, but Intel, Apple and the laptop OEMs put the Kibosh on that, except for a few modders using windows on their Apple Macbooks, and some driver/configuration magic!

April 12, 2015 | 04:30 PM - Posted by djotter

Good point. The connection is a standard PCIe connector, but try and find a PCIe to something you can plug into a laptop adapter cable. If the connection was over Thunderbolt the base station could be used on any thunderbolt equipped laptop.

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