Every year or two, it's the same story: a new CPU generation comes out, a new GPU generation ships. With CPUs, performance increases have been modest since chipmakers like Intel are focusing on reducing power and heat so we can have better battery life and smaller/thinner laptops. For GPUs, NVIDIA and AMD have focused on both performance and heat improvements, and the performance gains have been much more significant than in the world of CPUs. We've often seen 10 to 15 percent improvements with each NVIDIA GeForce GPU generation. This time, NVIDIA has wildly exceeded even the most optimistic expectations and the GeForce 10 series graphics cards are showing at least 40% improvement over the outgoing 900 series. That's a lot folks! Suddenly laptops are truly ready for VR with Oculus and HTC Vive, and 4K gaming is a distinct possibility at reasonably good frame rates in some games. With the 10 series NVIDIA mobile graphics cards, performance can fall within 10% of their desktop counterparts, which is why NVIDIA dropped the "m" designation from the mobile cards. Obviously, the mobile graphics modules are smaller and some components are different to fit inside a laptop, but we'll go with NVIDIA's decision to drop the "m" from their mobile graphics card numbers, even though it creates ambiguity (how do you know which part is inside?). MSI is always the first to ship updated models when a new CPU or GPU generation is available, and they've got several NVIDIA 10 series models to choose from. Asus has a few out too, and we're still waiting to review what Alienware, Razer, Acer and the rest of the gaming crew will offer.
Specs at a Glance
The MSI GS73VR Stealth Pro is a 15.6" super slim and light gaming laptop that's as capable as many big 17" 8.5 lb. gaming notebooks. It weighs just 3.96 lbs. and is as portable as the Dell XPS 15 and Asus ZenBook Pro UX501, but with significantly more graphics horsepower. It's akin to the GS60 Ghost Pro we reviewed in December 2014, and it seems that MSI is consolidating the 15.6" and 17.3" slim and light gaming models under the Stealth line (previously the 15" was a Ghost and the 17" was a Stealth). The Intel Skylake 6th generation Core i7-6700HQ quad core CPU is standard, as are 16 gigs of DDR4 RAM (32 gigs is max) and both a fast PCIe boot SSD and a 1 TB HDD for media and games (alas, 5400 RPM, so you might want to upgrade to a 2.5" SSD or a 7200 RPM HDD). Killer Double Shot Ethernet + N1535 WiFi 802.11ac is standard, as is an RGB backlit keyboard and a 1080p webcam. The gaming notebook is available with your choice of 1920 x 1080 or 4K displays (both are matte and non-touch). We have the 4K display.
Design and Ergonomics
Since we've reviewed the GS60 Ghost Pro that this heavily derives from, as well as the Origin PC EVO 15-S that's a rebadged MSI GS60 Ghost Pro, I won't go into heavy detail about design and chassis. The Stealth Pro GS63VR has a black brushed aluminum lid (though you won't see it in our video review unit where it has an xoticpc.com skin that we later removed so you can also see it stock in our photos). It has the same brushed black aluminum on the keyboard deck, and both surfaces are hard to clean fingerprint magnets. The bottom is plastic with a full faux suede (felt) cover to make the surface feel less hot ... and because it looks and feels good. The laptop is remarkably thin for a powerful gaming rig, and it fits easily into a bag. The charger is a big and hefty 180 watt brick, which is the price we pay for power-hungry internals. Looks are subjective, but I'd say MSI's laptops are neither homely nor dull nor great looking. They fall somewhere in between, with a black aluminum finish that doesn't scream "I'm a gamer" when you're at work, though the MSI red dragon logo is less than understated (you can put a decal over it if you need that buttoned down look). The design is fairly clean, though not minimalist like the 14" Razer Blade, and the MSI looks less plasticky than Asus' competing models like the GL552 and GL502. While the GS63VR might not outclass Razer and Apple, it wins the port war easily. This very slim machine has more ports than some thicker mainstream laptops: one USB-C 3.1/Thunderbolt 3 port, Ethernet, HDMI 1.4, mini DisplayPort 1.2, separate gold-plated headphone and mic jacks with SPDIF support and a high quality DAC capable of driving high impedance headphones, three USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, a lock slot and an SD card slot.
Keyboard and Trackpad
MSI uses a SteelSeries RGB programmable backlit keyboard with decent key travel, good damping and pleasing tactile feel. If you type quite a bit for work as I do, I suspect you'll enjoy this keyboard. For those who don't want a rainbow of colors when at work, you can set the keyboard to use a single color--even white if you like. There's a number pad for Excel fanatics and gamers, which makes the Stealth Pro a bit wider than some 15" laptops.
The good news is that the trackpad doesn't absolutely stink. In years past, MSI made some of the most infuriating trackpads in the business (simply dragging files in Explorer could result in misfiling mayhem). The buttonless trackpad is no longer a torture device, and I managed to forgo a mouse without grumbling. It's still not among the best trackpads on the market like the Dell XPS 15's, nor is it as reliable when it comes to recognizing finger taps and multi-finger gestures as the competing Asus ROG Strix GL502VS, but it's serviceable.
Like Asus, MSI provides very good but often not exceptional displays on most of their gaming laptops. If you want very wide color gamut for pro photo and video work, look to Alienware and Razer (if you're OK with glossy panels and generally higher prices). Likewise, if you want a touch screen, Alienware and Razer offer that while Asus and MSI gaming laptops stick with matte, non-touch screens. The 15.6" Stealth Pro is available with a 1920 x 1080 or 4K 3820 x 2160 IPS panel for $200 more (you also get a 512 gig SSD with that 4K display). In either case, they're IPS and matte non-touch panels. For our 4K display, color gamut is good with 97% of sRGB and 72% of Adobe RGB for our 1920 x 1080 model-- good enough for photo editing. Gamma is 2.3 rather than the preferred and more common 2.2, and the white point is 7000K. The 4K panel has brightness of 280 nits according to our Spyder 4 Pro colorimeter. Contrast isn't a high point at 390:1 with a black level of 0.71, and that hurts when gaming in dark environments like dungeons and it can make photo and video editing challenging. The competing Asus ROG Strix GL502VS with a 1080p display has a higher contrast display that worked better for dungeon and cave crawling in games (you can actually see things!). For those who really like the Stealth but need higher contrast and very high color gamut for pro apps or dark dungeons, MSI offers some better panels in the 17.3" GS73VR Stealth Pro line (also very slim and light).
Deals and Shopping:
MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro Video Review
MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro vs. Asus ROG Strix GL502VS Comparison
Performance and Cooling
Don't be fooled by the very thin chassis and portability--this is one of the most powerful laptops money can buy. The quad core, 45 watt Intel Skylake 6th generation Core i7-6700HQ is the fastest you can get short of the overclockable Core i7-6820HK for mobile computers. It's the same 2.6 GHz CPU with Turbo Boost to 3.5 GHz that you'll find in competing gaming laptops and a few pro apps laptops like the Dell XPS 15 and Samsung Notebook 9 Pro. The laptop is available with NVIDIA GTX 1060 dedicated graphics card with 6 GB DDR5 VRAM plus Intel HD 530 integrated graphics switchable via NVIDIA Optimus. The ability to automatically (you can override this) switch to integrated graphics can reduce heat, fan noise and improve battery life when using the notebook for productivity tasks that don't need dedicated graphics to perform well. There's no NVIDIA G-Sync since Optimus currently precludes G-Sync.
The laptop has 16 gigs of DDR4 RAM as two 8 gig modules in a dual channel configuration. There are two RAM slots so you could upgrade to 32 gigs if you discard the existing RAM modules and install two 16 gig modules. That requires a bit of work since only the 2.5" 5400 RPM HDD, battery and WiFi card are readily accessible once you remove the bottom cover. You'll have to unscrew the motherboard and disconnect ribbon cables to access the two RAM slots on the underside of the motherboard (the M.2 SSD is also on the underside). Xoticpc.com, who provided our review loaner can handle upgrades for you, if that sounds too scary. A 256 gig PCIe SSD is standard on our model, and most MSI gaming laptops of this generation are compatible with the fastest PCIe NVMe SSDs, though some still ship with older and slower SATA3 M.2 SSDs (check the specs before you buy if this matters to you). MSI laptops have a warranty sticker over one of the bottom cover Phillips head screws, and the rule is that it's OK to open for upgrades as long as you don't damage the laptop when doing upgrades yourself.
The laptop has MSI's Trinity cooling system, which is three fans (two for the GPU and one for the CPU), rather than the more common 2 fan design. The 3 fans are necessarily a little smaller than a 2 fan solution, and I can't say if it's more effective. It certainly does make the machine sound a little less like a vacuum cleaner when gaming, and that's a good thing because the Ghost Pro GS60 that preceded it could get loud enough when gaming to drown out game audio. The bottom does get hot when gaming, and we measured up to 128F at the hottest spots at the bottom rear. That will indeed feel toasty since it exceeds human body temperature by a good bit, but it's down from the 2014 Ghost Pro that hit 140F (which is absolutely burning hot). Even with the felt cover on the bottom, you won't want this on your lap when gaming, but it probably won't burn your skin either. That's the price we continue to pay for impossibly thin gaming laptops.
Performance in games exceeds the old top dog NVIDIA GTX 980M, a graphics card that was too hot and power hungry to include in slim laptops like the 15.6" Stealth Pro. That's very impressive and exciting--performance is so good with the Pascal generation mobile graphics cards that the GTX 1060 replaces the old 970M rather than the 960M. The 1060 has the same power requirements as the 970M, so thermals and battery life are roughly equivalent from a design perspective. The MSI GS63VR can handle VR (it's roughly 3x faster for VR than the outgoing generation in terms of graphics), and it's powerful enough to handle the most demanding games on very high settings, 1080p at 60 fps. You can even use Ultra settings for some games, but not the Witcher 3, which is notoriously demanding and is best played on high settings and 1080p resolution if you want 60 fps. Battlefield 4 hits 140 fps, which far exceeds the display's native 60 Hz refresh rate, but is great if you're using a faster refresh external monitor. Some games are even playable at 45 to 60 fps at 4K resolution, which even the big MSI Dominator GT72 with NVIDIA 980M graphics couldn't do reliably. Wow. High end gaming laptops have finally arrived. We demo Fallout 4 and Far Cry Primal in our video review so you can see frame rates and companion settings.
Gaming laptops are rarely a good choice if battery life is paramount (again, the Razer Blade and some Dell XPS 15 configurations are the exception). The quad core CPU and high end graphics are simply too power-hungry, as are the bright displays. The 15.6" MSI Stealth Pro averaged 3.5 to 4.4 hours for productivity and streaming video tasks with brightness set to 50%. With lower brightness and a low power plan selected, you might do better. The 63 WHr, 3 cell battery isn't particularly high capacity for a laptop of this size with powerful internals, hence the mediocre battery runtimes despite NVIDIA Optimus allowing us to use Intel HD 530 integrated graphics. Why not a larger battery? Because MSI wanted to make this laptop as thin and light as possible while offering both an SSD and HDD bay plus RAM slots. Those components take up space, and that's why the Razer Blade has soldered RAM and no HDD bay, and the longer running Dell XPS 15 option removes the HDD bay and fills it with a bigger battery.
As ever, MSI is first with next generation gaming laptops (a few Asus models are out too). As ever, MSI offers the lightest and skinniest high end gaming laptops on the market starting under $2,000 (Razer specializes in the higher price tier, with casing materials and miniaturization to match that higher price). There's a lot of value here in terms of ports, headphone audio quality and expandability, though some things like RAM and the SSD aren't readily accessible. Though the $1,699 Asus ROG Strix GL502VS-DB71 high end configuration competes strongly with a faster GTX 1070 video card, faster PCIe NVMe SSD and a faster 7200 RPM HDD, it's also thicker and a pound heavier. MSI still has the thinnest and lightest 15.6" gaming rig you can buy in this price range.
Price: $1,799 for model 034 with a 1080p display. $1,999 as tested for model 021 with a 4K display
Display:15.6" IPS full HD 1920 x 1080 matte, non-touch IPS display. 4K IPS display also available. Intel HD 530 integrated graphics auto-switching via NVIDIA Optimus with NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB DDR5 graphics. HDMI 1.4 port, USB-C 3.1 gen. 2/Thunderbolt 3 port and mini Display port.