Small. Powerful. Quiet. That trio may be what the “Tri” (or even the “3”) stands for in MSI’s Trident 3 Arctic desktop. Looking more like a game console than a conventional gaming PC, the Trident 3 (starts at $ 849; $ 1,299 as tested) is one of the smallest virtual-reality-ready PCs you can buy. It’s powered by a desktop-class Intel Core i7 processor, plus a true, removable PCI Express graphics card, the latter far from a given in the often-proprietary innards of sized-down gaming systems. Given that and its aggressive pricing, we like this ready-built powerhouse for basic VR and no-compromise gaming at 1080p.
Ice, Ice Gaming
The Trident 3 Arctic goes head-to-head with the likes of the Zotac ZBox Magnus E-series, and is a good alternative to MSI’s own Vortex G25VR. A traditional, much bigger midsize tower PC like the Dell Inspiron Gaming Desktop (5680) can give you more benchmark points for your dollar, but the Trident 3 surprisingly doesn’t command as much of a premium as you’d expect.
The Trident 3 Arctic gets its name, of course, from its snowy-white case, giving it a much brighter look than the all-black design of the standard Trident model. The difference between them is just the case color; the feature set and pricing are the same across identical configurations. Above all else, the choice is refreshing in the gaming-PC market, which is dominated by darker color schemes.
The Trident 3 can sit vertically in its included plastic stand, or rest horizontally, like a game console, on its four rubber feet. It measures 13.9 by 3.9 by 9.9 inches (HWD) in the stand, and slightly trimmer at 2.8 by 13.4 by 9.2 inches off the stand. That makes it roughly the size of a Microsoft Xbox One. The desktop weighs 7 pounds, but that’s exclusive of its laptop-style external 230-watt power adapter. (Note that the GTX 1070-equipped Trident 3 Arctic 8RD-002US model sold in the United States includes a larger 330-watt AC adapter.) External power is a theme with mini PCs; you’ll have to find a place to hide the adapter. It’s a minor inconvenience, but think of it this way: It’s a lot harder to hide a mid-size tower.
The Trident 3’s plastic case is rock-solid. It’s not prone to tipping over in its stand, but a good push will send it past the point of no return. That’s not a fault of the desktop; it’s just physics. The RGB LED illumination strip at the top corner accents the edgy exterior. The LED can be only one color at a time, but you have 16.8 million of them to choose among. MSI’s pre-installed Mystic Light software lets you select various lighting effects, including a pulsing/breathing mode. The light can be turned off completely, a thoughtful setting if you plan to sleep with this PC running in your room.
Plugging Into VR, and Much More
Front-mounted ports are welcome on any desktop for ease of access, and the Trident 3 Arctic has plenty, considering its size…
Left to right, you have the microphone-in and headphone-out jacks, a USB 3.1 Type-C port, a pair of USB 3.1 Type-A ports (the first is always-on, allowing you to charge devices off of it while the desktop is asleep), and the so-called “VR Link” HDMI port. For virtual-reality headsets, having a front-mounted HDMI port is borderline essential. Using the HDMI port up here requires you to plug in the included HDMI-to-HDMI VR Link loopback cable at the rear of the chassis. This cable runs from the graphics card to the VR Link HDMI port back there, which creates a passthrough to the front HDMI port.
The back-panel connectivity includes three audio jacks (line-in, line-out, and microphone-in), another USB 3.1 Type-A port, an Ethernet jack, a quartet of legacy USB 2.0 Type-A ports, an HDMI-out port, the AC power jack, and the VR Link HDMI. The ports on this desktop are labeled in highly visible red lettering, a detail that I always appreciate. You’ll also find a security-cable lockdown notch along the back, something you’d be wise to make use of if you keep this desktop in a public space.
The GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card has two DisplayPort-out connectors, two HDMI-out connectors, and a legacy DVI-D port. Wireless networking capability comes from an Intel 9461AC wireless card with Bluetooth 5.
Not all mini-PCs use desktop-grade components like the Trident 3. Performance-wise, the 65-watt Intel processors this model is based around are a noticeable step up in performance from the 45-watt chips typically used in gaming notebooks.
The Core i7-8700 hexa-core processor in our review unit is the top choice. It has a 3.2GHz base clock and a smoking 4.6GHz Turbo Boost clock for brief stints. (Compare that to the 45-watt Core i7-8750H for laptops, which runs at just 2.2GHz, and tops out at 4.1GHz in Turbo Boost.)
Our review unit is something of a unicorn due to its GeForce GTX 1060 6GB graphics card. MSI told us the sole Trident 3 Arctic configuration it currently sells in the United States is the $ 1,499 8RD-002US model, which includes a faster GTX 1070 8GB card. That said, you can get the non-Arctic Trident 3 with the GTX 1060 (both 3GB and 6GB variants), or even a GTX 1050 2GB in the least-expensive model.
Despite being introduced in the first half of 2016, the GeForce GTX 1060 is still more than capable of running today’s AAA-level titles at a 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second (fps) or better. For 1440p gaming, the GTX 1070 (which, again, is the only graphics card the Trident 3 Arctic comes with in the United States) is a wise choice, offering 30 to 40 percent better performance.
The Trident 3 is similar to a desktop-replacement notebook when it comes to storage and memory expansion. The motherboard has two laptop-style SO-DIMM slots for DDR4-2400 memory, each occupied in our test unit by an 8GB module (making for 16GB total). That’s plenty for gaming and multitasking.
Storage-wise, you have one M.2 Type-2280 slot and a traditional 2.5-inch bay, filled respectively by a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) and a 1TB hard drive in our unit. The Trident 3’s internal storage potential is obviously limited versus what you can do with a mid-tower desktop, but you can always go external or to the cloud if need be. Windows 10 was installed on the SSD, where I also found an unwanted Norton anti-malware trial. MSI covers the Trident 3 Arctic with a one-year limited warranty.
The guts of the Trident 3 are clean, organized, and relatively easy to access. (You’ll want to consult the service manual—MSI’s so-called “Quick Guide”—to get in there the first time, though.) It’s probably not a good idea, though, to expect to upgrade the Trident 3’s graphics card. The Mini-ITX-format card, an MSI Aero-branded one, is a removable card, not an MXM module, but cards like these are relatively uncommon.
To swap it out, you would have to find a card that physically fits, not to mention you would also need to stay within the power limits of the external power adapter. As I noted, the Trident 3 ships with adapters of different wattages depending on the configuration. My advice: Buy this machine with the graphics card you want from the get-go.
Quiet Running, Power Pushing
The fans in the Trident 3 Arctic are nearly silent for basic tasks. Gaming workloads cause them to spin up, but you’d be hard-pressed to hear them over almost any kind of background noise. During a 30-minute stint of Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recorded the Core i7-8700 processor topping out at 81 degrees C, and the GeForce GTX 1060 at 77 degrees C, both of which are well within the acceptable range.
You wouldn’t guess that the Trident 3 Arctic is a shaved-down PC when you look at its performance numbers. Its hexa-core processor, dual-channel memory, and fast storage earned it top honors in our PCMark 8 test at the Work Conventional setting, although it wasn’t far ahead of most of the other mini PCs in that test, including the tiny Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK. It outperformed the MSI Vortex G25VR in the highly CPU-centric Handbrake and Cinebench R15 tests, even though both machines use the same Core i7-8700 chip.
The GTX 1060 graphics card in our Trident 3 kept it near the back of the pack in our 3D-related benchmarks, since most of our comparison systems here used GeForce GTX 1070 or GTX 1080 cards. Its 5,850-point showing in 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme is a good score for a system with that graphics card, though, and indicative that it’s well-suited for 1080p gaming. Thanks to its GeForce GTX 1070, the Vortex G25VR scored an expected 30 percent better, while the leading GTX 1080-powered Corsair One Pro was just bit less than twice as fast as the Trident 3 Arctic. These differences were reflected in our Heaven and Valley 3D gaming simulations. The 4K numbers from the Trident 3 Arctic in those tests are unplayable (below 30fps), but even a GeForce GTX 1080 card can struggle at that resolution.
Real-World Gaming Tests
Synthetic benchmarks are just predictors of real-world results, so I also tested the Trident 3 with the built-in benchmarks in two AAA-level games, Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider.
In Far Cry 5, it achieved the best results at a 1080p resolution, producing an average of 77fps at the Normal detail preset, and 66fps at Ultra. Moving to a 4K resolution didn’t deliver playable frame rates at either setting, the Trident 3 Arctic churning out 26fps and 23fps, respectively.
The results were similar in Rise of the Tomb Raider. At 1080p, the Trident 3 Arctic produced an average of 105fps at the Medium detail preset, and 75fps at Very High. Pushing that to 4K resolution with Medium detail was choppy at 34.4fps, dipping to an unplayable 26.1fps at Very High.
That said, the GeForce GTX 1060 isn’t intended for playing today’s titles at 4K, so don’t take those numbers the wrong way. It’s still a great card for 1080p gaming, and should be for some time yet. The GTX 1070 improves on its numbers some 30 to 40 percent, making it ideal for 1440p gaming. (And again, the GTX 1070 is your only choice if you want the Trident 3 in the Arctic color scheme in the United States.)
One thing to note from my game trials: Should you opt for a non-Arctic version of the Trident 3 with a GTX 1060, try to make sure it’s the 6GB flavor, not the 3GB. Far Cry 5 reported 3.83GB of video memory in use during my benchmark runs. It’s not like future AAA games are going to have less-detailed textures.
Snow-Compromise 1080p Play
The MSI Trident 3 Arctic is a refreshing choice among gaming-minded mini PCs. Its desktop-grade components are an impressive accomplishment inside a chassis this small, granting it excellent performance and easy end-user serviceability. MSI’s sole US-bound configuration in white, which uses a GeForce GTX 1070 card, will be even faster than the GTX 1060-equipped model we reviewed. It’s surprisingly competitive in price with similarly configured mid-towers, too. It doesn’t have the storage or memory expansion of one, but that’s expected in a chassis this small.
Overall, we’re smitten with the Trident 3 Arctic. This game console-like PC isn’t just cool—it’s a stone-cold frame pusher, too. We just wish we could get the white model in the GTX 1060 flavor, too, seeing as that’s the perfect match for 1080p play.