Review MSI GE603 Notebook
The plastic gamer. Those who are looking for an entry level gaming machine on a tight budget, will bump into the GE603 by MSI. The i5-460M and Geforce GT 425M accelarate games an applications alike. Could this open the door to the gaming world for just 800 Euros?
The MSI's GE series could be described as the entry level key to the gaming world. This has been achieved by using a Geforce GT 425M which should perform in the same league as the new Radeon HD 6550M. Our test unit might still be far away from the gaming performance provided by the MSI GT663R (Geforce GTX 460M) or a GX660R (Radeon HD 5870), but these up market siblings cost twice as much.
It's predecessor is the GE600 (Radeon HD 5730), which we tested mid 2010. It impressed with its high performance and great connectivity (considering its 800 Euro price range). The input devices and the build quality fell a bit short however, which cost it few points at the time. Can the GE603 get past these issues and capitalize on its positive traits? Is the Geforce GT 425M the right choice or would it be better to chose the new Radeon HD 6550M instead? You will find all the answers in this in-depth review.
The chassis of the 16" laptop meets current production standards. However, as far as the glossy finish, rigidity and feel are concerned, it doesn't fair so well. The base unit creeks when lifting the chassis up by holding the front corners. The base is easily bent using two hands and the same applies to the lid. Rigidity is definitely not one of this units strengths.
On the other hand, the palm rest and the multimedia panel (above the keyboard), are quite stable, but not very scratch resistant due to their glossy finish. The only items which are susceptible to greasy finger prints are the lid and the previously mentioned multimedia panel.
The two speakers as well as the subwoofer underneath the base, are nicely mounted in chromed plastic. The hinges are very tight. One needs two hands to open the lid and there is barely any movement once the lid is open. The base unit does not seem to be reinforced very well. When opening the lid one can clearly see a visible amount of deformation at the back of the chassis. It is unlikely that anything will break, but this simply wouldn't happen if the build quality were of a higher standard.
A nice touch are the two magnets inside the palm rest which hold the lid shut firmly. Because of this it is highly unlikely that the lid will open accidentally during transport.
The underside of the case has large openings to suck in cold air. These openings deform easily when manipulated and do not aspire confidence. When carrying the laptop one notices that the area underneath the optical drive is also pretty weak.
Although money was saved on the build quality, users will not have to worry that the same applies to the connectivity. The possible multimedia extensions are impressive. External sound devices can be connected to 4 analog 7.1 ports and an SPDIF (optical out).
External hard drives won't have the possibility of USB 3.0 but there is an eSATA/USB 2.0 dual port. External monitors or flat screen TVs can be connected using HDMI or the analog VGA interface. Those needing FireWire for their camcorder will have to add it through an ExpressCard54. An appropriate card manufactured by i.LINK will cost between 20-40 Euros.
The analog modem (LSI HDA Modem), on the left hand side is a bit of a rarity. It can be used to send and receive faxes. The location of the ports on the right side does not seem to be particularly sensible. The USB, HDMI and eSATA are easy to reach but for those who like their desk looking neat and tidy will not be able to get used to the multitude of cables lying alongside their GE603. Lots of fine wires sticking out of the audio ports on the left, and several thick HDMI and eSATA-cables on the right.
A minor improvement to the situation is the single USB port at the back. Using a USB hub or docking station, one can place many cables out of sight. Unfortunately this won't apply to the HDMI, VGA, or eSATA.
The Intel wireless chip with Draft-N (WiFi Link 1000 BGN), provides the fastest technology available. There isn't an integrated Bluetooth module in our test unit, but this can be different depending on which version of the GE603 one buys. The Realtek PCIe GBE family controller has Gigabit technology making sure that this 16" laptop is well equipped for future networks. The missing Bluetooth is the only let-down.
The driver CD is the only CD one will find in box. Users are expected to make their own Recovery-DVD to backup the Windows Home Premium 64 Bit operating system (MSI BurnRecovery – link is on the Desktop). In addition, there are instructions for quick start and recovery procedures as well as a user manual. The initial installation is very quick. The only thing users must decide on is what to do with Norton Internet Security and Windows Live (various web services).
MSI will give you a 24 month warranty. The extension to 3 years with Collect & Return will cost 120 Euros. It is questionable whether this is worth it or not as the Collect & Return service is included in the 24 month package as well.
MSI uses the entire width of the chassis for its keyboard making the individual keys very wide and allowing for a full sized number pad as well. The keys are a good size with little space in between. When typing we often hit the edge of the neighbouring key. The initial pressure point and keystroke are good but they all suffer from a vague end stop which prevents any good feedback being felt from the keyboard.
We did not like the high edge underneath the space bar which we kept hitting with the side of the thumb. This isn't just an issue from an estethical point of view, it also has a severe negative impact on the ergonomics. Another drawback are the arrow, shift and enter keys which are squeezed into a small area. This can lead to frequent, incorrect inputs.
The Elan Smart-Pad (V5.1), is your typical multitouch pad. Zooming with two fingers can be performed as well as scrolling without the need for scrollbars. The software no longer supports the use of scrollbars along the horizontral or vertical edges of the pad.
The surface area of the pad feels like smooth plastic. It translates movements quickly but it is not sensitive to inputs right up to the outer edges. The mouse buttons need an uncomfortable amount of force and are very loud. If you were to use it in a library you could expect a few nasty looks form fellow visitors.
The multimedia panel above the key board has status indicators for modes such as Cinema Pro, Gaming and TurboBattery. The last two do not function as buttons as the switch between Intel HD (TurboBattery), and Geforce GT 425M (Gaming) happens automatically through Nvidia Optimus. The user only knows which GPU is being used through the visual indicator. We consider this hardware indicator to be a very sensible addition. Other functions on the panel include touch buttons such as play, stop, forward, and mute. They light up briefly when pressed.
The display is one which is typically used for general applications. The reflective HannStar-TFT (Typ HSD160PHW1) has a resolutioon of 1.366 x 768 pixels (16:9). The WXGA resolution is rather coarse for a 16" screen but is suitable for games and simple office applications. It is well matched with the Nvidia Geforce GT 425M, which would not have enough performance to handle a higher resolution.
The HannStar-Panel has a low contrast of 215:1. Office notebooks typically have 150 to 190:1. A good contrast value would be between 400:1 and 1000:1. The contrast describes the amount of white that can be found in a black area of the screen. This contrast value means that black colors are not as dark and crisp as they could be. As with this unit, glare-type (reflective), screens help to make the contrast appear better than it is. It adds more contrast and vibrance to colors than a non reflective screen could do. In reality, it doesn't actually change the contrast values however.
Better values would have been good to improve the color perception of movies, pictures and games. The missing colors on the Adobe- and sRGB pallets however, provide a clear indication that the GE603 will not be able to cater for these needs.
Brightness measurements returned below average results. On avearge, the brightness level was 179 cd/m². The illumination is relatively even with 89% despite the values ranging from 191 cd/m² down to 170 cd/m². For indoors users should not require anymore than 150 cd/m², but the low brightness level might become an issue when outdoors.
For those who are outdoors, the reflections on the screen, which are caused by the bright sunlight, do become a burden. The maximum brightness of 191 cd/m² is not powerful enough to counter-act these effects either, making it almost impossible to get a clear image when confronted with direct sunlight.
Good viewing angles are important when you wish to share your screen with others and ensure they get a picture without distorted colors. This is however a goal which even top level gaming notebooks can often not achieve. Budget gaming machines can therefore not be expected to do what even their more expensive counterparts can not.
The vertical and horizontal angels are both equivalent to low level office equipment. Horizontal viewing angles should not exceed 45 degrees as one image starts to darken and the colors become distorted.
Vertically the color inversions already start at 10 degrees. At this point the image rapidly becomes darker and the colors subside.
The MSI GE603-i5447W7P comes equipped with an Intel Core i5-460M. In comparison to the first Arrandale-Chips, such as the i5-430M (Q2, 2010), there has been a slight increase in clock speeds. The L2/L3-Cache (512KB/3MB), has remained the same. An Intel GMA HD graphics unit and memory controller for the DDR3-800/1066 RAM are also included.
The CPU has two physical cores which are manufacture using 32nm lithography standards and have 2.53 GHz each. The actual clock speed of the 460M varies between 2.53 and 2.8 GHz using Turbo-Boost. This technology enables dynamic over-clocking of the individual processor cores.
In addition there is Hyper-Threading, which provides two additional, virtual cores. Applications can therefore run on up to 4 threads. The GE603 also comes with 4.096 MB DDR3 RAM which is divided onto two chips.
A dedicated graphics processor called the Nvidia Geforce GT 425M (1.024MB), provides shading for games as well as hardware acceleration (CUDA, DirectCompute, OpenCL, OpenGL 4.0). The GPU was only introduced to notebooks quite recently but has already been superseded by the next generation GT 5xxM. Nvidias graphics switch, Optimus works together with the integrated Intel HD. It is interesting to note that Optimus can be deactivated in BIOS. So for those who just wish to use the dedicated Nvidia-GPU, they can simply switch off the Intel HD.
Our GE603 does a pretty good job with its i5-460M: The processor test with Cinebench R11.5 (64 Bit), awards our test unit with 2.3 points. 520M-CPUs are roughly the same with 2.2 points (same standard clock speed). The 430M gets 2.0 points and a i3-330M only gets 1.75 points.
When performing single core calculations the 460M wins over the 430M (standard 2.26, Turbo 2.53 GHz). The latter would get up to 3.362 points using Cinebench (Cinebench R10 Single Core 64 Bit, Sony Vaio VPC-EB1S1E/BJ). The 460M in our GE603 manages 3.806 points. That is an increase of 12 percent. Relative to the 520M (3.624 to 3.815 points, Lenovo Thinkpad T410s; Asus G73JH), the 460M The i5-460M (2.53 GHz), is roughly equivalent to a i5-520M and it is faster than a 430M. The higher turbo clock speed of 2.93 GHz does not appear to give the 520M that much of an advantage.
|PCMark Vantage Result||5574 points|
Before we could do any application or 3D testing, we needed to perform a BIOS and firmware update. Out of the box, the MSI GE603 only managed about 40% of the expected results (GT 425M), in the 3D-Benchmarks and in our test game StarCraft 2.
The switch between the integrated VGA (via Optimus), was not the cause as the performance stayed the same even after we had switched off the Intel HD in the BIOS. As usual, we suspected the ForceWare driver was at fault (version in box: 259.70), and performed some updates. After we had upgraded first to ForceWare 260.99 and then to 266.35 Beta without any effect (current version 266.58), the only things that remained were the BIOS and firmware. We updated the Intel HD driver while we were at it (out of box version: 18.104.22.1685 to 22.214.171.1249).
We did the following updates using a DOS-Boot Stick:
The Boot-Disk tool UNetbootin (unetbootin-windows-494.exe), recommended by MSI, prevents the execution of batch files due its FreeDOS-Distribution license. We decided to use an HP Drive Key instead (HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool V2.0.6; HPUSBFW.EXE).
After the torturous update process the PCMark Vantage awarded our test unit with 5.574 points. This score is an indication of how fast applications will run. Thanks to its powerful processor, this type of score puts the MSI GE603 close to the big league's along with the Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch 2010-04 (540M, GT 330M) or Acer Aspire 8943G (720QM, HD 5850). The gaming sub score was 4.780 points. This is therefore less than the 5.376 points achieved by the Acer Aspire 3820TG with the ATI HD 5650.
|3DMark 03 Standard||17833 points|
|3DMark 05 Standard||13374 points|
|3DMark 06 Standard||6762 points|
|3DMark 11 Performance||846 points|
The 500 GB hard drive from Hitachi (HTS545050B9A300, 5400 rpm), is satisfactory, but not particularly quick. The drive reads at 61.8 MByte/s during sequential read (HD Tune). The Crystal Disk Mark 3.0 put it a bit higher at 77.6 MByte/s (read and write), which can be explained by the different test routine. The HDD-Score of the PCMark Vantage comes in at around 3.479 points (Sub-Score).
The evaluation does not point towards a quick drive. Faster drives with 7.200 rpm have a greater output of up to 85 MB/s. Those who really want big performance gains when using applications , should invest in an SSD drive as found in the Acer Aspire 4820TG.
Those who buy the GE603 should expect an intermediate performance level from the NVIDIA Geforce GT 425M (DirectX-11). This should make it possible to run current games with a native resolution of (1.366 x 768), at least with an intermediate level of detail. The GT 425M units we have tested so far (Sony Vaio VPCF13Z1E/B; Asus N73JQ-TZ087V; mySN XMG A500; etc.), achieve the following scores: 3D-Benchmarks 3DMark06 (~6.700), 3DMark 11 (1.577), 3DMark Vantage (2.804) and Unigine Heaven 2.1 (11.1). These values are slightly higher ore on par with the Radeon HD 5650.
Before the BIOS and firmware update the GT 425M had frighteningly low results, which could result in games simply not being "playable". After the ForceWare 260.99 AND 266.35 Beta updates were performed in vain, the previously mentioned BIOS and firmware updates provided some descent results.
GE603 266.35 Beta / with BIOS & EC-Update
3DMark06: 2.672 / 6.762
3DMark 11: P338 / P846
3DMark Vantage: P1170, 901, 10811 / P3770, 2993, 17057
Unigine Heaven 2.1: 4.3 fps, 109 / 11.6 fps, 292
StarCraft2: 85, 16, 11 / 151, 38, 28 (Low, Med, High)
The GT 425M has 1.024MB DDR3 video RAM. The GPU has a clock speed of 560 MHz, the memory is at 800 MHz. The 3DMark2006 test is rounded of with 6.762 points which is less than an HD 6550M (7.182) or HD 5730 (7.265), but is on par with an HD 5650 (6.674). The score can be influenced by the CPU however (+/- 400 points).
As the GT 425M has already done several of our gaming tests (see data sheet), we will only take a quick look using StarCraft 2. 28 FPS was measured with the detail level set to high (1.360x768), which is exactly the same level as the HD 6550M and HD 5650. It could be that our ForceWare update (266.15 Beta), enabled our test unit to beat a XMG A500 (i5-580M, GT 425M), with a slightly more powerful CPU, by 3 FPS. For more detailed gaming reviews with this GPU, please refer to our mySN XMG A500 test.
The GeForce GT 425M is suitable for resolutions up to 1.366 x 768 and can project the current games fluidly up to an intermediate level of detail. As we have seen in StarCraft 2, the installation of the most current ForceWare drivers 266.35 (Beta, not public), can deliver results. Hardware hungry games such as Risen, Metro 2033, or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 cannot be played using the high detail settings. In these games, the recently tested AMD Radeon HD 6550M with the same i5-460M CPU turned out to be a better performer: Risen (+22%), Metro 2033 (+26%) and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (+23%)
|StarCraft 2 (2010)||151||37.8||28.1||fps|
Gaming notebooks have a tendency of being a bit loud sometimes, although we can't really consider this as a negative point. The MSI GE603 behaves itself in this respect as it does not get particularly loud while gaming. The cooling system goes up to 39.3 dB(A) when playing a 3D game (15 centimeters in front of the front edge of the test unit. The noise level is constant).
It is not until we perform the stress tests, with Furmark & Prime95 at the same time, that the fan has to work very hard resulting in 43.5 dB(A). The noise level is constant here too. We didn't manage to achieve this level during any of the gaming sessions however.
The GE603 can be very civilized in an office environment. We measured an average of 34.8 dB(A) at idle. The hard drive goes up to 34.2dB(A) when put under load. The fan never switches off even when the Optimus has activated the Intel HD instead of the GT 425M (automatically).
32.9 / 33 / 34.8 dB(A)
||37.6 / dB(A)|
||39.3 / 43.5 dB(A)|
min: , med: , max: Voltcraft sl-320 (15 cm distance)
If there is one thing the MSI GE603 is not, it's a portable heater. When playing the top only heats up to 35 degrees (right palm rest). The keys never exceed 34 degrees and remain nice and cool.
During the stress test the work surface reached a maximum of 36 degrees (right palm rest). Underneath the unit, we measured exactly 42 degrees near to the exhaust vent. Hot is something else. The average does not go above 29 degrees and the other areas are actually substantially cooler. User should still take care to leave the air intakes underneath the unit free of any obstructions. This includes the woolly carpet or bedspread.
Gaming notebooks should have a bit of "oompf", behind the little stereo speakers so that one can enjoy the games atmosphere without the need for headphones or external speakers. MSI integrated a 2.1 soundsystem, with stereo speakers (above the keyboard), and a subwoofer (in the baseplate).
The subwoofer is not active by default and has to be activated with the Cinema Pro key. The SRS sound enhancement provides various presets for music, games and movies. SRS should be left on as otherwise the sound is pretty lifeless. With it on, the sound is impressive, especially when playing games. Games which are optimized for spatial effects take full advantage of the 2.1 sounds.
The subwoofer makes the palm rest vibrate and provides some substantial low tones. The bass is not forced upon music however. Our MP3 files sounded well ballanced, crisp (even at max volume), and had plenty of depth. The bass is not "massive" however. The volume levels are pretty high for a 16" laptop and the membranes don't distort even at the highest levels.
The Asus N73JQ Sonic Master has better overall sound (no subwoofers, but bigger membranes). Those who wish to connect external speakers can either go for a 2 speaker option or go "all out" and hook up a 7.1 Dolby Surround system. The GE603 has four analog audio in and out jacks (3.5mm). The headphone output is combined with an SPDIF. Fans of true Hi-Fi will opt for the SPDIF.
The MSI Eco Engine is the equivalent to what Asus calls the Power4Gear mode. These pre-defined energy settings can be activated using the Fn-key. Unlike previous MSI notebooks, there is no possibility to over-clock the graphics card. The Eco-Mode works irrespective of the graphics card which has currently been selected. This means that in Turbo-Battery Mode an application can chose to activate the GT 425M and is not forced to settle for the Intel HD. For the battery life tests, we decided not to use the predefined Eco-Settings. Instead we opted for our own energy saving and high performance setup.
The MSI GE603 achieves good runtimes with its 58 Watt battery (5.200 mAh). During a non-stop Internet surfing session using WLAN the notebook managed three hours (193 minutes).
If you are careful you can even get 2 more hours out of it. The maximum duration during the BatteryEater reader test was 306 minutes (5:05 hours). A DVD movie ran for almost 3 hours (167 Minuten), with Cinema Pro (subwoofer) not active. When the GE603 asks the most from its CPU the battery life drops to 1:13 hours (73 minutes). That is how long the 16" laptop managed to last in our BatteryEater Classic test.
The battery life is not brilliant, but quite satisfactory. Why the GE603 does so well, can be seen in the data concerning the power consumption.
|Idle (without WLAN, min brightness)||5h 06min|
|WiFi Surfing||3h 13min|
|Load (maximum brightness)||1h 13min|
As was to be expected looking at the relatively long battery life, the GE603 has a low power consumption. The i5-460M system requires 12.2 Watts from the power supply (battery not recharging), when the most economical energy settings have been activated (lowest brightness, wireless modules switched off). Similar competitors such as the mySN XMG A500 (also Optimus), require 18 or even 22 Watts (Sony Vaio VPC-F13M1E/H, no Optimus).
If you forget to switch off the high performance mode you do not need to worry that you will end up with a large electricity bill. This is thanks to the automatic de-activation of the graphics card. When the GT 425M is deactivated in high performance mode, the remainder of the GE603 requires only 16.8 Watts at idle.
Those who enjoy computer games can expect a moderate power consumption of around 81 Watts. During our stress test with 100% load on both the CPU and GPU this increased to 88 Watts. It should reach much more than this however as the power supply is 90 Watts. Up until now we have not seen any performance restrictions occurring because of this. The 374 gram power supply only warmed up to 42 degrees.
|Off / Standby||0.7 / 0.9 Watt|
|Idle|| 12.2 / 15.9 / 16.8 Watt|
81.4 / 88.4 Watt|
Key: min: , med: , max: Voltcraft VC 960
For 800 Euros MSI offers the 16" MSI GE603-i5447W7P to the public, which is good value for money, but does suffer from some serious disadvantages. At the top of the list is the low level of quality. The rigidity of the main housing is simply not up to market standards. The keyboard gives way and the mouse buttons are stiff. This in addition to the finger print prone high gloss finish reduce its apparent value, and with that also the impression of the owner.
The advantages of our test unit should not be forgotten however. The Core i5-460M is quick in the benchmark tests and the Geforce GT 425M accelerates games with DirectX-11 with at least an intermediate level of detail. As far this is concerned, it is still outperformed by the Radeon-Generation, HD 6550M. The latter is a few frames faster using the same CPU for support. A nice extra for gamers and music lovers is the subwoofer (base), and the 7.1 Audio output (4x3.5 jacks).
One thing that we must add to our list of complaints is the fact that the production units which were purchased from an online shop (we bought two), had outdated BIOS and firmware. This reduced the performance of the GT 425M dramatically (up to 60%). As not everyone is capable of performing such an update (create a DOS Boot Disk, follow a precise sequence of steps), we can not consider this fault to be a minor offence. Any regular person would have ended up buying a notebook which was not suitable for games at all.
Note: Not all the GE603 supplied by MSI are affected. You can check yours by looking up the BIOS version in the system properties. This is the current version:
BIOS: 2.00.1201 / E1675IMS Ver. 10I (outdated: 10H)
Firmware (EC): E1675EMS1 Ver.0.22
Thanks to the Optimus graphics de-activation the battery life is good and the power consumption is low. Three hours of surfing using WLAN and almost 3 hours when watching a DVD movie are realistic. One won't be able to take advantage of this outdoors however as the weak contrast and small viewing angles of the display as well as the fact that it is dark and prone to reflections make it completely unsuitable.
On the positive side we see the many interfaces that are available (ExpressCard, eSATA, Modem), as well as the ergonomics. The temperatures remain very manageable as well, and it only gets loud when playing games.
For 800 Euros the 16" MSI GE603-i5447W7P is good, but considering its weaknesses, also not a perfect contender. If one can spend just a little more, one can buy an ASUS X5MJL-SX040V (850 Euros), the Acer Aspire 5745DG-5464G50Mnks (800 Euros) or the Sony Vaio VPC-F13E4E/H (850 Euros). They all have the same CPU/GPU combination.
Those who can wait, should hold out for the successor to the GE620. This 16" will be assembled with Intel's new Sandy Bridge generation of processors and a newly designed chassis which is more stable.