MSI GS30 Shadow Review - A Notebook and GPU GamingDock
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.
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?
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|
2 x USB 3.0
|Operating System||Windows 8.1|
|AC Adapter||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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.