Introduction, Design Features
Small-form-factor (SFF) desktops come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We’ve seen everything from the designer Gigabyte Brix Gaming UHDMSI TridentFalcon Northwest Tiki. Most SFFs on the market, including those just mentioned, have rather conventional shapes as far as PCs go, with straight sides and squared-off corners.
But just like in almost any other class of tech gear, there just has to be someone who goes about it in a different manner. The dissenter, in this case, is MSI. We aren’t sure what MSI’s exact inspiration was when it designed the new Aegis 3 SFF gaming desktop. But we’re pretty sure it was along the lines of not wanting to look like the other guys.
By that metric, it’s a big win. One glance at the Aegis 3 is enough to convince us that MSI accomplished that goal…
What the Aegis 3 is supposed to look like, we couldn’t say, but it’s definitely different. (Our first impression: an angrier Alienware, bent on planetary domination.) And on the performance front, it’s every bit as fearsome as it looks.
The $1,599 Aegis 3 we’re reviewing, specifically SKU VR7RD-013US, is the top-end pre-configured model that was available for sale at this early-April 2017 writing. That money buys you a 1440p-ready gaming machine that needs nothing more than a monitor to hit the grid. The price includes a gaming-grade keyboard and mouse. Inside, you’ll find an Intel Core i7-7700 “Kaby Lake” quad-core processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state-drive (SSD), and a rather spacious 3TB hard drive for secondary storage.
A multitude of SFF models on the market compete directly with the Aegis 3, but one in particular that stands out is the Lenovo Ideacentre Y710 Cube. A recent Editors’ Choice winner, the Ideacentre Y710 Cube has a squatter design than the Aegis 3, but it packs the same caliber of components, and it goes for an almost identical price. They’re two of the few pre-built gaming desktops you can find with an integrated carry handle. The handle may not seem like a huge deal, but if you’re a frequent LAN-party-goer, or have a need to move your setup around, you should take all the help you can get.
The edgy exterior design of the Aegis 3 looks like it was inspired by Independence Day. Its otherworldly appearance is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The case itself is angled upward, while the base of the unit anchors it all down. You’ll be pressed to find any 90-degree angles on the thing.
The Aegis 3 stretches the definition of an SFF to the limit. The exterior is 17 inches long, 14.8 inches tall, and 6.7 inches wide. Compare that to a mid-tower, such as the Lenovo Ideacentre Y900 Razer Edition, which is 19.8×18.9×8.1 inches. An SFF like the Falcon Northwest Tiki is significantly more compact, at 13.3×13.5×4 inches. Much of the extra size of the Aegis 3 is attributable to its angled design, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse the width.
One thing’s for sure, though, and that is the Aegis 3 can only be oriented one way. Don’t plan on laying this unit on its side and slipping it into your TV cabinet.
The RGB LED case lighting in the Aegis 3 is clustered into five general zones. Four banks of LEDs are stacked up the front panel of the tower, projecting faint silhouettes of the black air-vent grates in front of the desktop while the lighting is on. The last zone is the LED strip shining through the window on the right side of the case. Within, you can see the video card in all its glory. The GeForce GTX 1070 in our review unit was an MSI Gaming model, with a custom heatsink design and dual-fan setup. It looked great, though that’s all you can see through the panel. Seeing the rest of the interior requires a bit of disassembly. (More on that in the Components section coming up.)
The case lighting on the Aegis 3 is far more advanced than what we saw on the Lenovo Ideacentre Y710 Cube, as well as on most other SFF gaming desktops that have passed through our hands. We think it looks fantastic, though it could use a bit more in the way of software customization. As you can see in the pre-installed MSI Mystic Light setup software, you can change the lighting to any color you want, but the setting applies to all zones; we’d like to see them be individually customizable…
In terms of effects, you can choose from color cycling, breathing, and an audio visualizer, but that’s it; Mystic Light offers no options to create your own. We do like, however, that the lighting can be turned off completely. When it’s turned off, the only lighting on the exterior of the Aegis 3 is MSI’s gaming-shield logo, and the power-button LED on the front of the unit.
The power supply in this SFF is housed in its base, which accounts for much of the system’s 18.9-pound weight. All that weight down there helps with system stability; it feels firmly anchored. Underneath it are four square rubber feet that keep the system from sliding around. As you can probably guess from the shape, the power supply is a slim model, with 450 watts of total output. That should be enough power to accommodate most conceivable video-card upgrades down the line. It didn’t break a sweat powering the GeForce GTX 1070 in our test system.
The black case exterior is predominantly plastic. The exception to this is the solid-metal carry handle at the rear of the unit. The handle is supremely sturdy, and we felt confident carrying the system around the room. The unit tips forward when you carry it, so just be careful not to bump it on anything. The competing Lenovo Ideacentre Y710 Cube is easier to carry by its handle, which is center-mounted and thus better balanced. Still, we’re happy the Aegis 3 has one. You might not think much of the carry handle until you have to move the machine.
The antenna-like protrusions on each side of the Aegis 3 are fold-out headphone hangers. This is a great feature, and will go totally unappreciated until you realize how much space your headphones take up sitting on your desk. We also smiled at how they look like devil horns when extended, giving the Aegis 3 a flat-out evil look.
The Aegis 3 has an HDMI port on the front of the desktop, designed for connecting VR headsets. If you have a VR headset, such as the Oculus Rift, you know that you need all the slack you can get in the HDMI cable, so an HDMI port in front of the chassis is a big bonus. To use the front HDMI port, you’ll need to connect the included “VR link” HDMI-to-HDMI cable from the video card to the VR link HDMI port on the rear of the desktop. This cable is included with the Aegis 3.
On the front of the desktop, you also have a USB Type-C 3.1 port, two USB Type-A 2.0 ports, and separate headphone and microphone jacks. The rectangular power button is on the right side. It has a white LED when the Aegis 3 is turned on. We’re always glad to see front-mounted ports on desktops.
A slim optical drive pops out of the top of the front panel; it was a DVD burner in our review unit. We didn’t even realize it was there at first. It’s probably not going to see much use, at least until you find your long-lost CD-ROM copy of TIE Fighter. (If you bought the 3.5-inch floppy version of the game, you’re out of luck.) All that’s missing up here is an SD card reader.
The rear of the desktop has the remaining connectivity. The power cable thankfully connects to the base of the desktop, where the power supply is located…
The four red-tinted USB Type-A ports on the motherboard panel are version 3.1, while the black ones are version 2.0. The cluster of audio connections includes S/PDIF and optical-out. A Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet jack and a legacy PS/2 port round out the functional port list. The DisplayPort connector and HDMI port on the motherboard are disabled, in favor of the video-out connections on the installed video card. The MSI Gaming GeForce GTX 1070 card in our review unit had three full-size DisplayPort connectors, an HDMI port, and a DVI-D, like most cards of its class.
Internally, our Aegis 3 had an Intel 3168 wireless card with 802.11ac band support, plus Bluetooth 4.2. Neither had trouble connecting to our wireless devices.
Our review unit SKU included a gaming-grade keyboard and mouse…
The keyboard is the MSI Interceptor DS4200. We couldn’t find it for sale at a major e-tailer, but it’s a budget gaming keyboard that makes use of membrane keys. The multi-colored backlighting is bright and looks great in person, though the colors aren’t customizable. In other words, it will always look like a rainbow. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence that at the end of the rainbow keyboard’s cable is a gold-plated USB connector.)
MSI claims that the keys have a feel that is like a mechanical keyboard, but it felt rather rubbery to us, if less mushy than a typical membrane keyboard. It was a perfectly usable keyboard for most situations, though. We especially liked the built-in palm rest. The only oddity with our keyboard was the Euro-style Enter key.
This keyboard has no configuration software or dedicated shortcut keys, though you can use the Fn key at the lower right in conjunction with the F1 to F12 keys to activate various multimedia shortcuts. Pressing Fn+F11 enables Gaming mode, fancy talk for disabling the Windows key. The key to the right of the Fn key is dedicated to controlling the two levels of backlighting brightness, which can be shut off completely. The braided cable is another nicety.
For an included peripheral, we have no room to complain about the Interceptor DS4200. It’s not in the same league as an aftermarket mechanical keyboard, such as the Razer BlackWidow Chroma V2, but it gets the job done.
The included mouse is MSI’s Interceptor DS B1. We did find this budget gaming mouse separately on Newegg.com for a little under $20. It has an impressive feature set for a mouse this inexpensive, including an adjustable weight system. The shape fits medium-size hands just about perfectly. The shape is actually ambidextrous, but it’s designed for right-handers, given the two thumb buttons are on the left.
The top side of the mouse has a silicone finish. The slides are rather slick, but our fingers didn’t have a problem finding purchase there. The thumb buttons are within easy reach. The forward button is textured, while the rear button is not, making it intuitive to tell them apart by feel alone. The scroll wheel has tactile notches on it, and a positive overall feel. Scrolling is practically silent, noise-wise, and the center-click action is positive.
The red LED bling on the exterior of this mouse is intense. The palm-rest logo is lit, as are the side buttons and the two clear-plastic strips flanking either side of the mouse.
You’ll turn the wheel on the bottom of the mouse with your fingernails to disengage the weight module. Inside are eight 2-gram weights, which you configure as you see fit.
The DS B1 has a 1,600dpi sensor. The DPI-switching button behind the scroll wheel is reachable—just—with an index finger. There are three preset DPI levels, and though we could tell the mouse became more or less sensitive as we changed them, there was no telling what the DPI levels actually were. This mouse has no software front end, which is its biggest problem. It also doesn’t have a braided cable, but we aren’t going to complain about that for under $20.
On second thought, scratch both of those complaints. This mouse was included with our review unit, and it was way better than most included peripherals. Even if we had to fork over an Andrew Jackson for it, we’d still consider it a fine value. Again, you’re lucky if a keyboard and mouse is included with a pre-built desktop these days at all, let alone ones that offer more than the bare essentials.
Core i7-7700K often seen in boutique gaming desktops, but it is close.
The GPU inside our Aegis 3 VR7RD-013US review model is, as we mentioned, a special MSI Gaming edition of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1070. The MSI Gaming card has higher core and boost clocks than the Founders Edition version of the GTX 1070, which we usually see in pre-built desktops, but the difference is so slight that we doubt it translates to any real difference. The Founders Edition has a 1,506MHz core clock and a 1,683MHz boost clock, while clocks of the the MSI Gaming Edition card in our review unit were at 1,519MHz and 1,709MHz, respectively. There is a software overclocking feature in the preinstalled MSI Gaming Center software, but in our testing, it added less than 20MHz to the core and boost clocks. Again, that’s a difference probably too small to notice.
The Aegis 3 uses notebook-style DIMMs for memory. There are only two slots, each capable of accommodating a 16GB stick for a maximum of 32GB. Our review unit had a dual-channel 16GB configuration via two 8GB DIMMs, running at DDR4 2400 speeds. That’s an ideal amount of memory for gaming, and it runs plenty fast.
The storage inside the Aegis 3 is limited to an M.2 Type-2280 (80mm) slot on the motherboard, and a single 3.5-inch bay for SATA drives. The M.2 slot had a 256GB Intel SSD 600p PCI Express-bus drive installed. It had NVMe protocol support, and it provided very snappy performance. For storage, our review unit had an amply sized 3TB hard drive. That’s appreciably larger than the 1TB and 2TB drives we typically see in pre-built gaming desktops. (Even the $4,999 Asus Republic of Gamers GT51CA we tested had just a 1TB drive.)
Getting to the guts of the Aegis 3 takes a Philips-head screwdriver and patience. Removing the desktop’s left panel is straightforward enough, requiring the removal of two screws. It slides to the rear with a gentle tug. The underside of the motherboard is available over here, where you’ll find one of the DIMM slots for memory, in addition to the M.2 slot. The other DIMM slot is on the other side of the motherboard.
The top of the desktop needs to come off next; one screw holds it on at the rear. Remove that, and then slide it toward the back of the unit. (Just the plastic piece, not the handle part.) To remove the right side panel, a screw under the top panel needs to be undone first, and then another screw at the rear of the desktop holding on the side panel. It finally slides to the rear.
That puts you face-to-face with the video card. Taking it out is a requirement to get to other components. The operation is rather delicate; the connection to the PCI Express slot must be unlocked first, via the plastic tab. We were then able to ease the card out gently.
The CPU air cooling is handled by a single fan, though another fan on the bottom of the unit also draws out air…
The second DIMM slot for memory is located right underneath the CPU fan. It might be possible to remove the memory module without further disassembly, though it would require nimble fingers.
The 3.5-inch bay is behind the motherboard. Let’s just say we didn’t see an obvious way to get the drive out of there, and we didn’t try. The drive got in there somehow, so it has to be possible. But it will involve a screwdriver and some forethought.
The Aegis 3 did reasonably well when it came to thermal performance. The beefy heatsink and fan setup on the MSI Gaming GeForce GTX 1070 GPU kept it under 65 degrees C during a 30-minute Rise of the Tomb Raider gaming session. In the Lenovo Ideacentre Y710 Cube we tested, its GTX 1070 Founder’s Edition card reached 79 degrees C. The GTX 1070 GPU silicon itself is rated for 94 degrees C, so to say the MSI Gaming Edition in our review unit was well-cooled is an understatement. Its fans were almost imperceptible to hear, as well.
The Core i7-7700 CPU topped 82 degrees C in our gaming session. That’s a little warm, but not close to the point where the chip would throttle its performance.
The noise level of the Aegis 3 is low and non-intrusive. You can hear the fans running in a quiet room, but there’s no whine to speak of. There’s also not much of an increase in noise while gaming, certainly not one that would annoy or distract. The only annoyance we found was that the CPU fan, although quiet, did ramp up and down too abruptly and too often. That said, the behavior isn’t noticeable unless you’re listening for it. Essentially, if we loaded an animation-heavy Web page that required some CPU grunt, the fan immediately bumped up its RPM for a few seconds, and then ramped back down just as quickly. We’d like to see the fan curves smoothed out to address this.