Introduction, Design Features
The unveiling of Nvidia’s Max-Q graphics technology at Computex 2017 made one thing abundantly clear: thin-and-light gaming notebooks with serious power are in. Max-Q, in a nutshell, is a package technology that essentially allows notebook makers to cram more graphics horsepower into a thinner, lighter, and quieter notebook design than ever. (At the link is plenty more about Max-Q.)
So far, things have been a little less active on the Max-Q-inspired notebook front than we expected. We’ve recently reviewed the Asus Republic of Gamers Zephyrus GX501, a 15.6-incher with a GeForce GTX 1080 graphics chip operating under the Max-Q umbrella. To be sure, it lived up to the Max-Q hype of being thin and light, and it was reasonably quiet in our testing. However, its chassis also got quite hot under load, and its battery life was all too brief. Its Max-Q graphics chip wasn’t as fast as a standard GTX 1080, but it performed within Nvidia’s claimed ranges.
Now it’s MSI’s first Max-Q shot, with its new GS63VR 7RG Stealth Pro. This 15.6-incher is just as thin as the Asus ROG Zephyrus, at 0.7 inch thick, but its 3.96-pound weight is nearly a full pound less. That’s a big difference.
Another big difference, though, is the graphics chip inside. This MSI model doesn’t have as much 3D performance as the Zephyrus we tested, packing “just” a GeForce GTX 1070. It also makes use of the Max-Q guidelines to work in this thin a form, and the lesser graphics chip allows for more leeway. However, our benchmarks will show that it’s more than potent enough for the screen this laptop has, and for the demands of most gamers.
Our loaded-to-the-gills $2,399 GS63VR test unit also included a Core i7-7700HQ quad-core processor, 32GB of memory, and a 512GB solid-state-drive (SSD)/1TB hard drive storage combo. That pricing seems fair next to the Asus Zephyrus; we tested the Zephyrus with a GeForce GTX 1080, but you can also get it in GTX 1070 Max-Q trim for $100 less than our GS63VR Stealth Pro, albeit with only half the memory and just a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD). Based on the economics alone, things are already looking up for this MSI model, but let’s see if a closer look bears that out.
MSI’s gaming notebooks, from family to family, have maintained a consistent look for some time now. The design has aged well, but a refresh to the Stealth Pro wouldn’t be unwelcome.
The GS63VR’s most visually impressive feature is its RGB-backlit keyboard, with lighting separated into three vertical zones. The rest of the notebook is almost all black, save for the red beveled edge going around the touch pad and across the rear edge. If you remove the rather prominent stickers on the palm rest, you might be able to get away using the GS63VR in a white-collar environment. In that situation, we’d recommend disabling the keyboard backlighting or making it plain white to complete the disguise.
The other design accents are limited in scale. On the back of the lid, you’ll see MSI’s reflective logo up top, and the illuminated MSI gaming shield logo underneath. The shield is passively backlit by the screen itself.
The 3.96-pound weight of the GS63VR Stealth Pro is downright gaunt for a 15.6-inch gaming notebook, and pretty much unheard of for one with the kind of power that’s inside our review unit. The chassis has an average footprint for a 15.6-inch notebook, at 15×9.8 inches. It’s not as trim as, notably, the non-Max-Q Gigabyte Aero 15 we just tested, but it is lighter and has significantly better gaming performance.
Most of the visible surfaces on the GS63VR Stealth Pro are brushed aluminum. The material on this machine has a finely grained pattern, visible in the right light. The finish tends to pick up fingerprints, but that problem can be solved with a microfiber towel.
The underside of this notebook is more interesting than most, in that it has a felt-like covering over most of its surfaces, and slots for the air intakes are carefully cut out…
The material looks and feels nice, but we suspect it’s really there to prevent the bottom of the notebook from becoming overly uncomfortable to the touch while gaming. (We’ll talk more about this in the Thermals section.) In case you’re wondering, the material doesn’t actually touch your desktop; rubber feet studded around the chassis elevate it.
Although the chassis on the GS63VR Stealth Pro is reasonably sturdy, it doesn’t take all that much effort to flex its exterior surfaces, a trait we’ve seen in more than a few of the thinner MSI gaming models in recent years. The area above the keyboard, for example, visibly gives way while pressing down on it with moderate pressure. We suspect this is because the brushed-aluminum covering the chassis is quite thin. The chassis feels somewhat hollow, as a result. The actual chassis support structure underneath the aluminum is likely where the chassis gets most of its rigidity.
The lid is surprisingly stiff, but that said, it could have used a bit more reinforcement. We saw ripples in the screen when we pressed in from behind the lid, but only if we put some effort into it. (Don’t try that, by the way.) On the plus side, it’s convenient that the display can be opened one-handed. We also like that the display tilts back 90 degrees, instead of the usual 45 degrees.
The familiar SteelSeries keyboard on the GS63VR is like the ones we’ve tested on other MSI gaming notebooks this size or larger. The key feel is somewhat rubbery, but overall solid. The keys make little noise when pressed, and the keyboard deck showed no visible flex while using normal typing pressure.
From a layout perspective, we’d have much preferred if the Home and End keys were dedicated keys. They’re instead secondary functions of the Page Up and Page Down keys, respectively, at the top right. In addition, we’d like to see a Windows key on the left side of the keyboard. We appreciate the fact that this keyboard is designed for gamers, but at the same time, we can’t see the harm in including a Windows key over there and simply providing a way to disable it. The number pad also takes adjustment. Its keys are two-thirds width, and the “0” key is much smaller than usual.
The keyboard’s RGB lighting zones are split in three as you can see here…
The key lighting is bright enough to be visible during the daytime. You can control both the lighting color and patterns in the pre-installed SteelSeries Engine software…
The backlighting control isn’t nearly as fancy or elaborate as it is on the Gigabyte Aero 15, and its per-key-programmable RGB keyboard. However, we’re not taking points away for that, as the backlighting still looks great.
The GS63VR has no dedicated gaming macro keys, but you can use the SteelSeries software to remap any existing key. We like the fact that you can save an unlimited number of profiles.
Down below the keyboard, the clicking action of the touch pad felt a bit over-stiff to us. On the plus side, the pad’s surface was easy to glide across, and it was amply sized for the GS63VR’s 15.6-inch display.
The speakers in the GS63VR face downward from under the front corners of the chassis. They have a dull and muted sound, but enough volume for casual listening with a friend. There’s little in the way of bass.
The 15.6-inch display on the GS63VR is designed for gaming. We’d normally expect a panel with wide viewing angles at this price point, but the GS63VR makes do with a TN-type panel that washes out if you tilt it too far forward or back.
TN-type panels like this one still have the best response times, making them ideal for gaming. This panel also has a 120Hz refresh rate, double what you’ll find on most notebook displays. In our gaming benchmarks, we found that the GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU in the GS63VR produced triple-digit frame rates in some games at its native 1080p screen resolution, meaning that more than a 60Hz refresh rate would be needed to display them all to best effect. We wouldn’t have minded a higher-resolution 1440p panel, but the fact remains that 1080p is today’s sweet spot for high-fps gaming. This panel doesn’t support Nvidia’s G-Sync technology (hit the link for our primer on G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync alternative), but with the high level of gaming performance that we just described, we don’t miss it too much.
MSI says the display on the GS63VR covers 94 percent of the NTSC gamut. We didn’t verify this, but we can say without hesitation that the colors weren’t lacking for saturation. The contrast and brightness were plenty, as well. The limited viewing angles aren’t likely to be an issue for gamers, who will be looking at the display head-on.
Centered on top of the display is the GS63VR’s Webcam. Its 720p/30fps recording quality wasn’t anything to write home about. We were also mildly disappointed at the lack of an IR camera or a fingerprint reader built into the GS63VR. As it stands, this notebook has no built-in biometric capability.
The GS63VR does very well when it comes to connectivity. The ports are concentrated along the left and right edges of the chassis. The back of the chassis is dominated by cooling vents, and the front of the chassis has only a bank of status lights, which are rather nice to see nowadays.
The left edge holds the Kensington-style security-cable locking notch, a full-size Ethernet jack and SD-card slot, a trio of Type-A USB 3.0 ports, and separate headphone and microphone jacks…
The right edge has a Type-A USB 2.0 port, a Type-C USB port (with support for Thunderbolt 3), a full-size HDMI video-out, a mini-DisplayPort connector, and the AC power jack…
The power button is located, oddly, near the front of the laptop on this edge. The resistance it gives is not stiff enough to keep you from pressing it by mistake when pushing the laptop around your desk or lifting it; we did so by accident, once or twice, in moving the notebook around. We’re not sure why it’s located here.
For connections without wires, the GS63VR has an Intel 8265AC wireless card with Bluetooth 4.1.
The gaming prowess of our GS63VR 7RG review unit starts with its Intel Core i7-7700HQ quad-core processor. This processor is one of the fastest available in the mobile space. It can’t be overclocked like the current flagship Core i7-7820HK chip can, but it’s plenty fast for gaming as it is.
The GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q edition GPU inside of our GS63VR deserves special attention. Here’s how it compares next to the standard GTX 1070 (non-Max-Q) chip in the Alienware 15 R3…
Most of the power and thermal savings of the Max-Q chip likely come from the significant reductions in the core clock. The reduced clocks are also the primary cause of its lesser performance relative to the standard card. The Alienware’s standard GTX 1070 was, on average, 16 percent faster than the MSI’s GTX 1070 Max-Q chip in our real-world game benchmarks. The GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU just fits within Nvidia’s claim that it has 85 to 90 percent of the performance of the standard card.
The GS63VR’s end-user upgradability is practically limited to its 2.5-inch storage drive. The bottom panel of the chassis comes off after removing the 15 Phillips-head screws holding it down. It was a hair-raising process to undo the plastic clips securing the panel in place; we had to pry up one edge at a time, and very carefully at that. Once we did, it was clear just how packed this machine is inside…
There’s no sign of the M.2 slot for SSD storage, or the two DIMM slots for memory on the underside of the notebook. The memory upgrades may or may not be a concern; the 32GB configuration in our review unit was the maximum supported amount. But it looks like much more complicated disassembly is required for accessing either the RAM or the M.2 SSD. Buy what you need up front.
You can see the three slim fans that cool the GS63VR in our photo above. The two silver squares between them are the processor and GPU mounting points. Those components and their heatpipe assemblies are on the other side of the motherboard.
The fans were occasionally audible while we were doing everyday productivity-related things, such as surfing the Internet, but they mostly kept a low, non-intrusive profile. They were much more audible while we were gaming. Someone sitting in the same room as you will be able to tell the notebook is working hard. The decibel (db) level isn’t at the point where it should prove a distraction, though. This is one area where Max-Q definitively pays off; Nvidia says Max-Q notebooks should have a peak sound level around 40 decibels. We didn’t have a controlled environment in which to measure this, but we can say with certainty that the GS63VR was clearly quieter than many slim gaming notebooks we have tested in the past.
The outside chassis temperatures on the GS63VR were just lukewarm while running basic tasks, but they increased rapidly while gaming. Here’s a look at the peak chassis temperatures we measured over a gaming session. The temperatures we consider too hot are in red…
The temperature readings on the bottom were considerably higher…
The top of the chassis peaked at 111 degrees F in the center and to just above the keyboard. Although relatively hot to the touch, those temperatures aren’t unheard of on a thin gaming notebook. The palm-rest areas hit the lower 90 degree F range.
The underside of the chassis was the biggest concern, where we recorded a blistering 140 degrees F in the center. The felt-like material covering the bottom of the chassis definitely helped it feel cooler. Under no circumstances would we recommend touching the underside of the GS63VR while gaming or running anything demanding; give it a couple of minutes to cool down first. The moral of the story here is that despite Max-Q, thin gaming notebooks still can’t escape the laws of physics. The metal chassis on the GS63VR certainly gives the heat a convenient place to go; you don’t want that to be your lap, too, though.
The Core i7-7700HQ processor in our review unit reached 94 degrees C during a 30-minute gaming session in Rise of the Tomb Raider. That’s hot by our standards, even though it’s a few degrees below Intel’s rated maximum. The GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU went to 82 degrees C, which is cool enough. We graphed the card’s temperature and its core and memory clocks over the gaming session:
The memory clock (black line) maintained its rated 2,002MHz frequency the entire time. You can see that the blue core-clock line fluctuated quite a bit, but the important thing is that it didn’t dip below its minimum rating of 1,215MHz at any point. Some fluctuation in the core clock is normal. Further observe the trendlines imposed on the core clock and GPU temperature (red line). The core clock gradually decreased as the temperature increased, eventually leveling out. The boost clock for the GTX 1070 Max-Q in the GS63VR is 1,379MHz; its real-world average core clock over this session was 1,290MHz. That’s comfortably above its minimum clock, but in an ideal situation, the card would have utilized its maximum boost clock the entire time.
Overall, the GS63VR didn’t throttle its GPU clocks below their minimum ratings, which tells us it performed as expected. However, it didn’t appear to take full advantage of its boost clock, probably for thermal reasons. Given the temperatures we recorded, it’s safe to say that there’s no or minimal realistic room for GPU overclocking in the GS63VR. (And no overclocking feature set or software is offered on this model, anyway.)