What's Hot: Crazy fast for a 14", 3.75 lb. laptop, can game with the big boys. Nice matte IPS display, very good internals and specs. MSI includes 2 year warranty in the US rather than the industry standard 1 year.
What's Not: Battery life not great, fans are loud, bottom gets toasty.
The MSI GS40 Phantom is the BMW M2 of laptops: a small, high performance machine that runs a bit hot and loud, but that's how we like it. It packs the performance of a high end 17" gaming laptop into an Ultrabook-thin 14" chassis, and while we all tend to like our sports cars throaty and hot in the engine department, I acknowledge that's not everyone's cup of tea in a laptop. Given the current state of computer tech, it's a miracle that we get a quad core 45 watt Intel Core i7 CPU and dedicated NVIDIA GTX 970M graphics in such a small package, so we'll take the often audible fans and the very toasty but not flaming hot bottom as performance badges (check back in 5 years when that might no longer be the case because of technological advancements in newer chips). We were impressed with the 15.6" MSI GS60 Ghost Pro, and we're even more impressed with the technological feat that is the GS40 Phantom.
Specs at a Glance
MSI isn't deluging us with configurations and model numbers here, there's just one commonly available configuration and it has an Intel Skylake 6th generation 2.6 GHz quad Core i7-6700HQ CPU (the kind found in gaming laptops and mobile workstations rather than lower powered Ultrabooks), 16 gigs of DDR4 RAM in two slots, a 128 gig boot PCIe SSD, a 1TB 7200 RPM HDD to store your games and media files and NVIDIA GTX 970M 3GB DDR5 graphics dynamically switchable with Intel HD 530 graphics via NVIDIA Optimus. It has a full HD 1920 x 1080 matte IPS display with good color gamut and brightness (no touch or pen), a backlit SteelSeries RGB keyboard and Killer WiFi and Ethernet. The machine weighs just 3.75 lbs. and is slim at 0.87", which is something we couldn't have imagined just 2 years ago for a laptop with this much horsepower.
Our review loaner was provided by Xoticpc.com, and they do the upgrades for you (if you like). They upgraded out unit to a fast Samsung 950 Pro 512 gig PCIe SSD. They also offer custom skins for the lid, CPU re--pastes, and RAM upgrades where applicable for a variety of performance and gaming oriented laptops.
This is a wickedly fast laptop with the sort of performance you'd expect from chunky 15.6 to 17 inch gaming laptops and workstations weighing at least twice as much as the Phantom. In fact, it's as slim and light as many Ultrabooks that offer significantly less performance. This is actually pretty impressive stuff--14" laptops with this sort of CPU and graphics performance are very rare, and the Razer Blade 14" is one of the few. You can take your games on the road, and edit 1080p and 4K video without having to walk away and grab a cup of coffee or three while transitions render. It can compile code extremely quickly and crunch numbers in Excel like nobody's business. It doesn't throttle performance much when running on battery power, so you won't be tied to an AC outlet until it runs out of juice. The 1080p matte display is also quite nice and good enough for pro photo and video work, as long as you don't want a touch screen.
But wait, there's more. The laptop has a better than average selection of ports including gigabit Killer E2400 Ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports, mic and headphone with ESS Sabre HiFi, HDMI 1.4, mini DisplayPort for 4k monitors @ 60 Hz and USB-C 3.1/Thunderbolt 3. The programmable backlit keyboard makes for firm and pleasant typing with good key travel--it's a solid choice if typing is an important part of your daily routine.
Killer WiFi is tops--it has fast throughput and great range. We're glad MSI continues to include it in their high end gaming laptops. The machine has dual band 2x2 802.11ac Killer 1525 WiFi with Bluetooth 4.1.
What's the Catch?
Battery life isn't great. The 4 cell battery offers enough power for 4 hour runtimes when doing productivity work and streaming video at 40% brightness (considerably less when gaming or rendering video in Premiere Pro). A laptop this powerful and small lacks the space for a battery that can rival Ultrabook runtimes with their lower power CPUs and integrated graphics. That said, the machine can switch to Intel HD 530 graphics when you're not gaming, or editing photos and videos. Another issue: MSI includes a 150 watt charger when 160 watts would be appropriate to ensure that the battery won't discharge when plugged into AC and gaming hard.
The trackpad is typical of MSI, which is to say at best bearable. It supports multi-touch and gestures, but overall tracking and sane behavior are bare bones passable. It's better than older MSI laptops, which means it won't drive you absolutely mad, but it's no Microsoft Precision experience as with the Dell XPS 15 and Microsoft Surface Book. This is a small laptop with absolutely meek speakers-- don't expect the great speakers you get with MSI's larger gaming laptops. Audio quality out of the headphone jack is excellent.
Design and Ergonomics
The laptop has a brushed black aluminum lid and keyboard deck and a black plastic bottom. We won't complain about plastics on the underside since it doesn't get as burning hot as metal. It's a nice looking machine, but it lacks the design wow factor of the MS Surface Book and Razer Blade. Unlike those more expensive competitors, the lid will deform if you press it and the chassis isn't as rock solid (the price we pay for lower weight and price). The keyboard deck is fairly firm so keyboard bounce shouldn't be an issue usless you type with a heavy hand, and fingerprints do accumulate but aren't terribly hard to clean off. The trackpad stays clean, as do the keyboard's keys. Typical of MSI, the bottom section is very rigid with no flex, but the slim display section will flex if you grab it on both sides and twist. That's intentional--it keeps weight and thickness down and it's flexible so it will twist without breaking.
The bottom cover is affixed with several Torx T5 screws, and it's easy to remove should you need to service the battery or upgrade the RAM, SSD and HDD. The wireless card isn't readily accessible but it's a top of the line Killer 1525 dual band 802.11ac card with Bluetooth that you most likely won't want to upgrade. This is an improvement over the bigger MSI GS60 Ghost Pro, where the RAM and SSD weren't readily accessible (you had to remove the motherboard and flip it over to access these parts). The laptop has two fans, one for the CPU and one for the NVIDIA GPU. There are 6 heat pipes, and that helps keep the bottom cooler than the GS60 Ghost Pro. The bottom reached 120F when gaming and benchmarking, which will feel hot since it's well above human body temperature, but is many degrees cooler than the GS60 that required factory felt pads on the bottom to prevent burning your legs.
Deals and Shopping:
MSI GS40 Phantom Video Review
MSI GS40 Phantom vs 2016 Razer Blade Comparison
There's only one display option, but happily it's a good one unless you fancy glossy or touch panels. The matte IPS display is bright at 307 nits, and there's little glare since it's not glossy. The full HD, 1920 x 1080 panel represents 91% of sRGB and 72% of Adobe RGB, which is competitive with other high end laptops. The factory color calibration is too cool (toward the blue), which is typical of laptops, unless you select the sRGB preset (MSI offers a few presets). It's easily brought to very good color accuracy using a colorimeter, and is thus suitable for serious photo and video work. I do a lot of pro photo editing and I'd be happy using this display for my work. Contrast and black levels are good, with a 0.36 black level at max brightness and a resulting contrast ratio of 650:1.
Performance and Horsepower
Currently, there's one CPU option, the 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ quad core, 45 watt CPU. This is an Intel 6th generation Skylake CPU, and it's the same as that used in the Dell XPS 15 Infinity, latest generation Razer Blade, Asus ZenBook Pro UX501, Alienware 15 and 17 and other (usually 15.6" and above) quad core gaming and workstation laptops. It's roughly twice as fast as the more commonly available dual core 15 watt Ultrabooks on the market. For web browsing and MS Office, it's overkill, but if you compile large programs, crunch huge spreadsheets in Excel, routinely process 1080p or 4K video or game with demanding current 3D titles, then this is the sort of laptop you want.
The machine has 16 gigs of Samsung DDR4 RAM in two slots and an M.2 PCIe SSD slot with a 128 gig NVMe SSD (ours was upgraded to a very fast Samsung 950 Pro by Xoticpc.com). There's a 2.5" SATA drive bay with a 1 TB, 7200 RPM HDD for your large storage needs (multimedia files and games). That makes for a capable and versatile laptop with fast boot drive storage and lots of conventional HDD storage for big program and files. You can of course upgrade the HDD to an SSD to speed game load times at launch and during scene changes.
The NVIDIA GTX 970M 3GB DDR5 is a small step lower than the fastest gaming graphics card on the market (the GTX 980M). It can handle the newest and most graphically intense games at high to very high settings at native resolution at 50-60 fps. Far Cry 4, Fallout 4, the Witcher 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition all play well on the MSI. The 970M is a significant step up from the NVIDIA GTX 960M in the Dell XPS 15 and Asus ZenBook Pro UX501, and while those are very capable the 970M means better future-proofing for next year's games and higher settings for this year's games. In terms of 3D benchmarks, the 970M in the MSI is up to twice as fast the 960M in the Dell XPS 15 and ZenBook UX501.
PCMark 8 Home accel: 3859
Geekbench 3: 3760 / 13,525
wPrime: 11.52 seconds
3DMark 11: P9577 / X3382
3DMark Cloud Gate: 21,664
3DMark Fire Strike 6775
Would I like to own the MSI GS40 Phantom? Yes, indeed! It's extremely portable at 3.75 lbs., in fact it's lighter than the Dell XPS 15 and it has a faster graphics card too, which means high to very high settings on today's AAA titles. It's a nice looking, though not exceptionally attractive notebook and the SteelSeries RGB keyboard is good for gaming and typing at length. The matte full HD 14" IPS display is sharp, bright and colorful with little glare--the only drawback is that there's no touch. The trackpad is borderline acceptable, WiFi performance is as good as it gets and the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 will work with future peripherals and (we assume) external graphics card amplifiers like the upcoming Razer Core. However, if heat and fan noise bother you, this isn't the laptop for you. The fans are loud when gaming, and you'll even hear them cycling on and off during productivity work. Thankfully it's not loud when streaming video. It's a viable somewhat more affordable counter to the 2016 Razer Bade. The Razer Blade trumps the GS40 on design, rigidity, build materials, trackpad, display (both higher resolution and touch) and having a higher capacity SSD, but it also costs $400 more.