You don’t usually think of gray as a sexy color, but the MSI PS63 Modern (starts at $ 1,499; $ 1,599 as tested) could change that. This 15.6-inch laptop is a slim, slate-hued slab with glistening blue accents (MSI boasts of its diamond-cut edges), giving it an understated look. The company’s rampant-dragon logo is visible on the lid only from certain angles, and the overall design will appeal to its target audience of business execs and 2D and 3D creators and editors. (That’s the same demographic as MSI’s P65 Creator, but the Modern has a quad-core rather than six-core CPU and costs $ 500 less.) The PS63 is an attractive machine, but a few minor gripes keep it from challenging like-sized Editors’ Choices such as the Dell XPS 15 and Apple MacBook Pro.
Two to Choose From
My test unit, model 8RD-008US, features Intel’s 1.8GHz (4.6GHz turbo) Core i7-8565U (“Whiskey Lake”) processor, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB solid-state drive, a Max-Q implementation of Nvidia’s 4GB GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics chip, a full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) non-touch display, and Windows 10 Home. A nearly identical sibling, model 8RD-085US, is $ 100 cheaper and has GeForce GTX 1050 graphics (and, oddly, Windows 10 Pro). The SSD, in one of my pet peeves, is divided for you into C: and D: partitions with 253GB and 156GB free respectively.
The Modern measures 0.63 by 14.1 by 9.2 inches, virtually matching the Dell XPS 15 and smaller than the average desktop replacement. (Compare the Lenovo ThinkPad L580 at 0.9 by 14.8 by 10 inches.) At 3.5 pounds, it’s about half a pound trimmer than the MacBook Pro or the non-touch-screen version of the Dell XPS 15.
Lifting the lid reveals a screen surrounded by stylishly thin bezels, with subtle MSI branding below the display and Prestige branding below the keyboard. The power button is subtle too, easy to overlook at the top of the keyboard deck. A 720p webcam—in a nice touch of security, it’s turned off unless you press the key combination Fn+F6—is centered above the screen. It captures detailed images of average brightness.
The MSI does not have a Thunderbolt 3 port for desktop docking, storage, and video solutions, which we consider a flaw in a $ 1,000-plus laptop. Otherwise, connectivity is good: On the left side, you’ll find USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports, along with an audio jack, an HDMI port, and the connector for the commendably small AC adapter. Two more USB Type-A ports join a microSD card slot on the system’s right edge.
Barely Bright Enough
The 1080p screen is disappointing in only one respect: Brightness is adequate, but no more than that, and only at the top one or two backlight settings. The dim display keeps colors from popping, although they’re rich and well saturated. Contrast is fine, with solid blacks and clean white backgrounds. Viewing angles are wide. Details are sharp, and videos look smooth.
Videos and streaming audio sounded pretty good, as well, thanks to the Modern’s bottom-mounted speakers. They’re not spectacularly loud, but they can fill a modestly sized room with clear voices and soaring mid and high tones when cranked to the max. The bass tends to be swallowed up, though supplied Nahimic software lets you tweak bass, treble, and voices a bit.
The backlit keyboard includes dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys. (Note: There’s no numeric keypad.) It took me some time to get used to the Fn key being to the right, not the left, of the space bar, just a couple of keys over from the cursor arrows. If you can’t accommodate that, MSI’s Creator Center software (more on that in a second) lets you swap the functionality of the Fn and Windows keys.
The actual typing feel is comfortable, although it felt awkward to have my right hand resting on the extra-wide touchpad. Travel is a bit on the shallow side, but the keys feel snappy, with a quiet plastic clatter as you get to cruising speed. The 5.5-by-2.5-inch touchpad glides and taps smoothly; it has a fingerprint reader in the top left corner for Windows Hello sign-ins.
MSI preinstalls several overlapping utilities, the chief of which is Creator Center. This program can recognize and optimize settings when you’re using a certain app such as Adobe Premiere Pro or Corel PaintShop Pro; let you keep tabs on CPU, GPU, memory, and disk usage; and switch among sound (music, movie, gaming, or communication) or display (sRGB, movie, gaming, office, or designer) profiles. It also lets you choose High Performance, Balanced, Silent, or Super Battery modes, which combine various CPU, cooling fan, and screen and keyboard brightness presets.
Strong Performance, Some Battery Subtleties
For our benchmark tests, I compared the PS63 Modern to four other 15.6-inch Core i7 laptops, with the Asus ZenBook 15 probably the closest match. The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1 and Microsoft Surface Book 2 are hybrids—a convertible and a detachable, respectively—while the Dell XPS 15 has the only six-core instead of quad-core processor in the group. The contenders’ basic specs appear below.
The MSI acquitted itself admirably in our performance tests, consistently finishing in the front half of the pack. I ran into a snag when measuring its battery life that I’ll explain in a minute, but even there its result was thoroughly respectable.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, Web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the laptop’s storage subsystem. The result is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
Four of the five laptops exceeded the 4,000 points that we consider excellent in PCMark 10’s office productivity suite. The PS63 eventually settled for silver, but went toe to toe with the XPS 15 despite the latter’s two additional CPU cores. It also won PCMark 8’s storage race in a photo finish with the Asus.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
The XPS 15 was a predictable winner, while the Modern and ZenBook tied for second. The Surface Book 2 brought up the rear.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. (Lower times are better.) The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The Asus, MSI, and XPS 15 basically crossed the line three abreast. Of the three, image-editing pros would probably prefer the Dell for its 4K rather than 1080p display, but of course it costs by far the most.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
At least in the more challenging Fire Strike subtest, the MSI finished second to the Microsoft detachable, as you’d expect from their respective GeForce GTX 1050 Ti and 1060 graphics. For what it’s worth, the PS63 outpaced the other GTX 1050 Ti-based system here, the XPS 15. The Inspiron’s GeForce MX150 graphics left it at the starting line.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets.
The Modern and XPS 15 tied in this event. Both can play the latest games, though you’ll have to dial down the image-quality settings and possibly the screen resolution to do so—fair enough, considering that neither is positioned as a gaming laptop.
Video Playback Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
When sending the PS63 Modern for review, MSI suggested that we run the battery test in Creator Center’s Super Battery mode. I did so (I used High Performance mode for the other benchmarks) and the system lasted for an impressive 17 hours.
So, why isn’t that figure in the chart above?
Because it wasn’t a fair test versus the other laptops. As the battery got low, the system kept turning the screen backlight off, or nearly off, instead of leaving it at 50 percent till the bitter end. It even turned into a tug-of-war as I repeatedly dragged brightness back to 50 percent before being overruled.
When the same thing happened in Balanced mode, I reached for CCleaner‘s startup manager and temporarily disabled the Creator Center software. The result was a time of 13 hours and 18 minutes—good enough to land in the middle of the pack. The Surface Book 2, which has two batteries, cruised to victory.
Going in Style
The MSI PS63 Modern is a welcome addition to the ranks of surprisingly portable, slim-bodied, slim-bezeled desktop replacements. I can grouse about little things like the placement of the Fn key and the subdivided solid-state drive, and more substantially about the less-than-dazzling display and lack of a Thunderbolt 3 port. I also can’t help noticing that a Dell XPS 15, comparably equipped except for a six-core CPU, is only $ 100 more.
But if quad-core horsepower is sufficient for your needs—and I bet it is—the PS63 Modern is a good-looking, good-performing choice. It’ll go well with your most elegant gray outfit.