MSI GE40 Review: a Slim Gaming Notebookby Jarred Walton on July 16, 2013 3:00 AM EST
MSI GE40 Subjective Evaluation
There are generally two ways of looking at laptops like this: either you want as much performance as possible in the smallest form factor possible at the lowest price possible, or else you’re looking for a reasonably balanced system but you still care about things like the keyboard and touchpad. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that while I can get by with just about any keyboard and touchpad in a pinch, they’re actually critical elements in the overall experience that are very easy to get wrong. Thankfully, MSI actually does quite well with the GE40 in the keyboard area and slightly less so in the touchpad. Where they fall short is in the same place where the Razer Blade fell on its face: the LCD quality is poor, which is a shame as almost everything else works quite well. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s start with the overall build quality and impressions.
The most succinct way of putting things is that there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary with the MSI GE40; it’s a slightly dated design aesthetically speaking, but it gets the job done. The bottom of the chassis is made out of plastic, with brushed aluminum veneers on the top and palm rests. Unfortunately, there’s still glossy plastic on the display bezel and around the keyboard. As far as the idea that “black goes with everything”, I’m ready to leave black behind now as it’s very good at picking up fingerprints, particularly on the brushed aluminum (you can see this in the above gallery, and that's after wiping the surfaces down with a microfibre cloth). This is where the decision to use silver by Apple and ASUS (and others as well) ends up scoring points in my book. Considering that MSI did the right thing and equipped the GE40 with a matte LCD, I do wish they would get rid of the glossy plastic at least; it’s simply unnecessary.
Build quality is serviceable but not exceptional as well. The LCD cover is a little flimsy—not so bad that you’re afraid you’re going to break it, but it’s definitely not as rigid as you might find in higher quality laptops. Looking at the back of the LCD, we also find the “Dragon Eyes” (also referred to as “Devil Eyes” in some places, like on the palm rest sticker)—lightly glowing orange LEDs that attempt to add some visual flair. I don’t necessarily mind the idea, but I’ll be honest: they don’t shine nearly as brightly as you would expect when looking at MSI’s photos, and they're more orange than red. I suppose all they had to do was put some red plastic on the back of the LCD backlight and poke some holes in the cover, so no harm done, but that also means there’s no way to turn off the “eyes”.
Moving over to the input side of things, opinions on what makes for a good keyboard vary from user to user; personally, I really like having dedicated document navigation keys. Several years ago, the most common layout placed the document navigation keys in a column on the right of the keyboard, but for some reason we’ve moved away from that standard. Sometimes progress doesn’t actually move us forward, and I’m happy to see that MSI uses the tried-and-true layout. (In this case, MSI’s lack of aesthetic “enhancements” actually helps.) We are dealing with a chiclet keyboard, perhaps with a very slight amount of flex but nothing I’m overly concerned with. Key travel is good, the keys are reasonably sized, and about the only omission on the keyboard side is that there’s no backlighting. Backlighting would’ve taken this keyboard from being “good” to “great”, but it’s still far better than many of the laptop keyboards I’ve used in the past few years.
As for the touchpad, MSI uses ELAN hardware with rocker-style buttons below the touchpad surface. It supports all the usual multitouch gestures, including (in theory) the Windows 8 “side-swipe” gestures. While two-finger scrolling gestures work well enough, the Windows 8 swipe gestures are a different matter. Swiping in from the right hand side works properly most of the time, but try as I might I never could get the left swipe or top swipe to work. I don’t know if that’s a glitch with the drivers or something else, but since the first thing I usually do with Windows 8 is to install Classic Shell so that I have a real start menu, I’m okay touchpad experience. If you’re the type of user that wants the Windows 8 gestures to work properly, however, short of a driver update I cannot recommend the current touchpad implementation.
We will get to the LCD numbers later, but while the 1600x900 resolution works well enough in games, the contrast is quite poor, and viewing angles are bad even by TN standards. Maximum brightness levels are also pretty limited; we measured around 250 nits, whereas the Razer Blade was able to hit 450 nits. For the most part such high brightness levels are only truly useful if you’re going outside, but battery life when the GPU is not engaged is such that the GE40 could easily be used all day.
One last item to address before we get to the benchmarks, the GE40 has a built-in amplifier to improve the quality of audio when you’re using a headset. I definitely didn’t find the audio bad when I had headphones on, but I will say that the Sound Blaster Cinema software isn’t able to hide the fact that the built-in speakers are pretty anemic. There’s no subwoofer, so bass response is lacking at best; if you’re looking for a laptop with awesome built-in audio, you’ll probably need to look elsewhere.
Now that we’re finished with the visual inspection and kicking the tires, let’s start this puppy up and see what it can really do.