Although every major manufacturer has taken a stab at the gaming notebook market, the vast majority of entrants in the field carry high price tags. The PC gaming community can be a very lucrative market, but the reality is that few gamers may have pockets stuffed full of cash ready to splurge on the next powerhouse monstrosity from Alienware or Toshiba. If the generally poor showing of retail outlets this Christmas is any indicator, everyone is feeling the financial crunch right now. With cash in short supply but the desire to game still fueled by a fresh crop of holiday releases, where does the budget-conscious gamer go? MSI has come up with a pretty good option in the form of its GX630 gaming laptop.
The GX630 comes in at just $799a bargain for such a loaded machine and certainly less than what even a frugal enthusiast could to pay for something comparable from major vendors like Dell and HP. Wrapped in a surprisingly light 15.4″ package and equipped with a 32-shader GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor, this piece of kit stands to offer the complete gaming experience of its competitors at a fraction of the price. The big question, however, is: what corners did MSI have to cut to hit such a low price? Have too many concessions been made, or does the GX630 strike a good balance between build quality, performance, and value? That’s what we aim to find out.
The GX630 at first glance
MSI’s GX630 shares its basic chassis design with other 15.4″ builds in what MSI collectively terms its “G series.” The keyboard, brushed aluminum palm rest, and lid are common between the units, some of which sport red trim and others more neutral silver accents. The GX630 is the one of the few members of this family to use an AMD processor; the GX620 line employs Intel processors and chipsets, and comes with higher prices, to boot. MSI also offers the G series in the form of do-it-yourself whitebooks under the model numbers MS-1651 (for Intel-based hardware) and MS-1652 (for AMD-based hardware).
|Processor||AMD Athlon X2 QL-62 2.0GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR2-667 (2 SO-DIMMs)|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT with 512MB GDDR3 VRAM|
|Display||15.4″ TFT with WXGA+ (1280×800) resolution and CCFL backlight|
|Storage||5,400-RPM, 250GB Western Digital Scorpio mechanical hard drive|
|Audio||Realtek ALC888 HD audio|
2 USB 2.0
1 antenna input
1 4-pin FireWire
1 combination analog headphone output / S/PDIF output
1 analog microphone input
1 analog line out
1 analog line in
1 8-in-1 card reader
1 ExpressCard 34/54 slot
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Ralink RT2790
Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR
10/100/1000 LAN via nForce Networking Controller
56K modem via Motorola SM56
|Input devices||“Full size” keyboard with dedicated number pad
Trackpad with two-finger scrolling
|Camera||2.0 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||14.73″ x 9.69″ x 1.4″ (374 mm x 246 mm x 35.5 mm)|
|Weight||5.6lbs (2.54kg) with battery|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion 4800mAh|
|Warranty||One year limited parts and labor|
The biggest difference between the GX630 and both its kin and the competition at large is the use of a processor from AMD rather than Intel. The 2GHz Athlon X2 QL-62 is based on the same Griffin core AMD introduced with the Puma platform’s Turion Ultra processors. Thanks to its Griffin core, the QL-62 features a 3.6GHz HyperTransport interconnect and split power planes. It also enjoys a low 25W TDP, bringing its thermal characteristics in line with those of Intel’s P-series Core 2 Duo chips. Opting for this less expensive but still capable processor likely helped MSI lower the GX630’s cost. If 2GHz isn’t quick enough for you, the system includes a Turbo button that automatically overclocks the processor to 2.3GHz.
Backing the GX630’s Griffin-core Athlon X2 is a single-chip nForce MCP77 mobile chipset from Nvidia, complete with support for PCI Express 2.0 and HyperTransport 3.0. Given the low TDP of the processor and this single-chip motherboard solution, we should be able to expect reasonable battery life from the GX630. The MCP77 also includes an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, so there’s no need to power an auxiliary networking chip.
While the MCP77 has wired networking covered, it doesn’t offer anything on the wireless front. MSI taps third-party chips to give the GX630 support for not only Bluetooth 2.1, but also 802.11n Wi-Fi. 802.11n’s market penetration has been growing slowly but steadily over the past few months, and it’s nice to see this standard trickle down to an inexpensive laptop like the GX630.
The final element of the GX630’s silicon payload is a GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip with 512MB of dedicated video memory. Based on the G96 GPU that powers the desktop GeForce 9500 GT, the 9600M has a 500MHz core clock, 32 DirectX 10-class shaders running at 1250MHz, and a 128-bit memory interface that MSI hooks up to GDDR3 memory running at an effective 1600MHz. GDDR3 memory is a welcome choice here, since manufacturers using the 9600M tend to pair the GPU with slower DDR2 memory. The 9600M also has a PureVideo HD decode engine that provides hardware-accelerated video playback for all common high-definition formats.
Although the 9600M’s core and shaders run a respective 50MHz and 150MHz slower than those of the desktop GeForce 9500 GT, the two are essentially equivalent in terms of their capabilities. This might not be the most exciting GPU for gamers, but it should nonetheless prove powerful enough to handle gaming at the GX630’s native 1280×800 display resolution.
A closer look
The latchless lid of the GX630 is black brushed aluminum with a silver MSI logo and cherry red accent at the hinges. Happily, the hinges are incredibly firm without making the unit too difficult to open; typical jostling from typing won’t make this one budge. While the brushed aluminum is attractive and understated, it’s also a substantial fingerprint magnet. This isn’t a major knock on the GX630, though. Most modern notebooks have some kind of glossy finish that picks up fingerprints just as easily.
Opening the GX630 reveals what is probably its singular fashion faux pas: the frankly hideous car-like grill above the keyboard. The grill hides the speakers, but it looks decidedly cheap. I guess if you’re going to make a laptop for gamers, you’re going to have to tart it up somewhere. The labeling on the touch-sensitive buttons within the grill doesn’t do it any favors either, but at least the buttons light up with the familiar, pleasing glow of blue LEDs that has been all the rage for the past half decade. You’ll also find indicator LEDs along the front of the unit, with the battery glowing green instead of blue while the system is charging.
Compared to more audacious gaming laptops, the GX630 isn’t as gaudy, or as liable to embarrass you in public.
The overall build quality of the GX630 is another in a series of trade-offs. With the lid open, a stronger individual could flex the entire unit. Even my puny musculature, atrophied from years of sitting in front of the computer typing reviews and playing Doom, can give the system a little twist. The lid itself is more flexible, but that’s par for the course with notebooks other than those made by Lenovo and not a serious issue. Of course, all this flexibility does come with one major bonus: the GX630 is remarkably light for a 15.4″ gaming laptop. At 5.6 pounds with the battery installed, it’s nearly a full pound lighter than the 15.4″ Asus G50V we recently reviewed.
The GX630’s underbelly features two panels that provide access to its internals. The larger one opens up on the processor, memory, wireless card, and a Type II MXM slot that houses the GeForce 9600M GT. All you’ll find behind the smaller access panel is the system’s hard drive. Unfortunately, warranty stickers cover two important screws that secure the access panels in place. According to MSI, removing or puncturing these stickers will void the system’s one-year parts and labor warranty, so there’s a price associated with do-it-yourself upgrades. The GX630 mercifully comes equipped with a decent Wi-Fi card and 4GB of memory, but not being able to upgrade to a speedier 7,200-RPM hard drive without sacrificing warranty coverage leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Risk-takers might also want to upgrade the system’s graphics module, although MXM cards are rarefied and don’t come cheap (even a Mobility Radeon HD 3650 goes for $200 on eBay). One should also keep in mind that the GX630’s cooling system is only designed to handle the GeForce 9600M GT.
Interfacing with the GX630
The screen on the GX630 is standard fare for a budget laptop, so don’t expect it to win any awards.
Measuring 15.4 inches across, the display has a relatively low 1280×800 resolution that should be modest enough given the system’s graphics horsepower. The screen has a glossy finish and isn’t hard to look at, but its viewing angles are somewhat poor, with the proverbial “sweet spot” difficult to find. A run through PassMark Monitor Test 3.0 reveals middling contrast and highlights some backlight bleed at the bottom of the screen. This kind of bleed makes the sweet spot hard to find, because it creates an imbalance between the brightness at the top and bottom of the screen. If you set the screen’s brightness based on the top, the bottom will be blown out. Likewise, if you set the screen’s brightness based on the bottom, the top will be too dark. At least PassMark didn’t reveal any obvious banding, leaving us with the kind of decidedly average screen one would expect to find at the low end of the market.
Below the screen and in the middle of the GX630’s heinous grill are touch-sensitive buttons that control MSI’s ECO power management software, the laptop’s turbo mode, and toggles for the webcam, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. There’s also a button designated P1 that can be configured by users to launch applications. Though touch-sensitive buttons have gained in popularity, their glossy surface is fingerprint prone, and the lack of feedback can be annoying. This last characteristic proved particularly problematic for the ECO button, which cycles through multiple power schemes. Without any feedback, you’re forced to tap away at the button and wait for MSI’s software to confirm which power mode you’ve entered.
The GX630’s keyboard spans the entire width of the notebook and features a dedicated number pad, distinguishing the system from many of its 15.4″ peers. The keys are responsive, and the board is largely flex-free. Yet the dedicated number pad brings with it some complications. In order to accommodate the number pad, several keys had to be squished, and two of the page navigation keysHome and Endare only available on the number pad when Num Lock is disabled or as part of a Fn combo with the Page Up and Page Down keys. The arrow keys are also roughly two-thirds the width of the normal keys, but this arrangement isn’t nearly as troublesome as the period and question mark keys, which have undergone similar shrinkage. I understand compromises had to be made to squeeze in the number pad, but squishing frequently used keys can make typing on the GX630 difficult, especially compared to more elegant implementations like the ones found in Asus’ Nv series of laptops. The placement of the Fn key on the far left, rather than between the Ctrl and Windows, keys may also be a sticking point for some users.
Placement aside, the keyboard’s color scheme is also questionable. MSI uses white lettering for most keys, but the text on the function and arrow keys is an incredibly dark red that’s very difficult to read in anything other than direct light. The blue text used to denote Fn functions is only marginally brighter than the red, making secondary functions fairly difficult to read without squinting. What makes these colors particularly unfortunate is the fact that the GX630 is targeted at gamers, who often play in the dark or with dimmed lightingenvironments in which many of the system’s keys are virtually impossible to read.
Below the keyboard sits the touchpad, which is just textured enough to be useful. The touchpad is very sensitive, but the buttons are cut into the aluminum palm rest and feel a little stiff as a result. They’re clicky, although not overly so, and certainly not enough to draw attention. Incredibly, the touchpad only uses the default Windows driver, which doesn’t offer dedicated scrolling zones or multi-touch capabilities.
To the far right of the touchpad is a small hole in the surface of the palm rest that leads to the built-in microphone. The placement of the microphone seems odd, since the mic is liable to be muffled by the user’s right palm. This placement isn’t likely to be a big deal while gaming, since the user’s right hand will likely be busy with the mouse. However, it could be an issue for those who want to talk and type at the same time.
Port and slot placement
MSI spreads the GX630’s diverse array expansion ports across the sides, front, and back of the system. It’s nice to see manufacturers starting to include eSATA ports on laptops, and the one here is hot-swappable. The rest of the usual suspects are accounted for, including a four-pin FireWire connector next to the right-hand USB port and an HDMI output at the rear. Overall, the placement of the ports makes sense, in particularly since video outputs are located at the rear where their bulky cables are least likely to interfere. That said, there are only two USB ports: one per side. Given that the GX630 can be used as a desktop replacement, limiting the number of USB ports seems counter-productive, especially given the real estate the four audio minijacks take up on the left side. There’s certainly plenty of room for additional ports, leaving a blemish on an otherwise excellent array of connectivity options.
Software and bloatware
The GX630 was surprisingly snappy when I booted it up, which is a welcome change of pace from most notebooks from bigger manufacturers. MSI equips the system with Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit, Service Pack 1, and fairly minimal bloatware. However, considering that the GX630 ships with 4GB of memory, a 64-bit version of Vista would have been more appropriate.
As one might expect, the GX630 includes trial versions of Norton Antivirus and Microsoft Office 2007. It also comes with the Cyberlink suite, Ulead disc writing software, and Reallusion’s CrazyTalk Cam Suite, but that’s pretty much the extent of the bloat. MSI’s own software, smartly centralized under a System Control tray icon, stays out of the way. None of these apps really clog up the system tray, but the Cyberlink software suite is a curious one. It places a widget on the desktop for writing and reading CDs (making the Ulead software somewhat redundant), yet doesn’t include the one piece of software you’d really want from Cyberlink: PowerDVD.
MSI’s ECO power management and Turbo overclocking software work well enough. The overclocking software takes the processor up to 2.3GHz, but after a reboot, the CPU reverts back to its stock 2GHz speed. On the other side of the coin, the ECO power management software offers a limited number of pre-configured power saving schemes that are unfortunately closed to user modification. You can also ditch ECO in favor of Vista’s own built-in power management functionality.
What’s in the box
MSI ships the GX630 in a package about as sparse as one might expect given the system’s low price tag. Outside of a handful of software discs, the system only comes with a battery and an AC adapter.
The battery is slight, and with a 4800mAh rating, its stores are typical for a six-cell laptop unit. Also typical is the power brick, which appears to be a generic Lite-On unit and seems ridiculously large for what should be a modest system power requirements. The GX630 may be light for its class, but the bulky power brick cancels out some of that goodness. The adapter’s connection to the system also feels a little loose when plugged in, unlike the battery, which locks securely into place.
Our testing methods
Because the GX630’s automatic overclocking mode doesn’t stick after a reboot, we were unable to test WorldBench with it enabled (WorldBench automatically reboots after each individual application test). We also had trouble getting MobileMark’s DVD playback test to run on the MSI system, but this isn’t the first time we’ve had issues with that particular test. For tests run on the battery, we used the “Gaming” preset built into MSI’s ECO power management software and 50% screen brightness.
Today we’ll be comparing the GX630’s performance with that of Asus’ G50V-A1. The Asus system runs about double the price of the MSI, so the two aren’t direct rivals. Still, this comparison should give us an idea how the GX630 stacks up against more expensive competition.
All tests were run three times and their results were averaged.
AMD Athlon X2 QL-62 2.0GHz
Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 2.53GHz
HT 3.6 GT/s (1.8 GHz)
1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)
INF update 22.214.171.1241
4GB (2 DIMMs)
4GB (2 DIMMs)
DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz
DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz
|CAS latency (CL)||
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||
|RAS precharge (tRP)||
|Cycle time (tRAS)||
Realtek ALC888 with 126.96.36.19957 drivers
Realtek ALC663 with 188.8.131.5243 drivers
GeForce 9600M GT 512MB GDDR3 with ForceWare 176.10 drivers
GeForce 9700M GT 512MB GDDR3 with ForceWare 175.80 drivers
Western Digital Scorpio WD2500BEVT 250GB SATA
Western Digital Scorpio WD2500BEVS 250GB SATA
Windows Vista Home Premium with Service Pack 1
Windows Vista Home Premium x64 with Service Pack 1
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- WorldBench 6.0 Beta 2
- MobileMark 2007 1.5
- 3DMark06 Build 1.1.0
- Call of Duty 4 1.7
- Enemy Territory: Quake Wars 1.5
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
The GX630 is squarely targeted at gamers on a budget, so we’ll kick things off with a round of 3D and gaming tests.
Although the GX630’s GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip is essentially identical to the G50V’s GeForce 9700M GT, the 9700M has an extra 125MHz in the core and a 300MHz shader clock advantage. That pays dividends in 3DMark, where the MSI system trails the Asus. The performance gap is particularly wide when running on battery power, suggesting that MSI’s clock throttling is considerably more aggressive than Asus’.
Keep in mind that CPU performance does play a role in 3DMark06’s overall score, as evidenced by the 280-point jump when the GX630’s Athlon X2 QL-62 is overclocked from 2GHz to 2.3Ghz. Unfortunately, this boost isn’t sufficient to allow the GX630 to catch the G50V, whose 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo has not only a higher clock speed, but superior clock-for-clock performance. Of course, it’s important to remember that the GX630 retails for $799. The GX50V-A1 has since been retired in favor of a new model with a GeForce 9800M GS, but it’s still at least $500 more than the MSI, depending on the configuration.
A couple of real games are up next. First, we tested the GX630 against the G50V at 1280×720 resolution with high in-game detail levels.
Although it can’t quite match the frame rates offered by the G50V, the MSI notebook does a good job of keeping up. Again, however, we see a significant drop in performance when the GX630 is running on the battery. You’ll definitely want to plug in, or disable the system’s power management schemes, to play games.
Our second set of gaming tests focuses on what sort of in-game detail settings deliver playable frame rates at the GX630’s native 1280×800 resolution. 40 frames per second is our target here, and given the system’s relatively low native resolution, we didn’t change much.
Call of Duty 4 runs at right about the 40 FPS mark with game details cranked, so you won’t have to turn down the in-game detail levels to get smooth gameplay at the system’s native resolution. In fact, in Quake Wars, we were able to bolster high detail settings with 2X antialiasing and still hit our target frame rate. Turbo mode has little impact on the GX630’s real-world gaming performance.
I spent some additional time trying out a couple of other games while reviewing the GX630 and found its performance to be adequate in my personal favorite, Mass Effect. The GX630’s combination of GeForce 9600M GT graphics coupled with the Athlon X2 QL-62 made the game quite playable at native resolution and high detail levels, and I expet other titles based on Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 should fare at least as well. Call of Duty: World at War also ran well, as did the older (but still beautiful) BioWare classic Jade Empire, which maintained smooth frame rates even with 4X antialiasing.
Although it’s sold as a gaming system, odds are you’ll want to do other things with the GX630. WorldBench runs through a series of common desktop application tests, distilling system performance down to an overall score.
A 27-point gap in WorldBench performance is huge, and it nicely illustrates how much slower the GX630’s Athlon X2 is next to the G50V’s Core 2 Duo. Let’s break down WorldBench’s overall score into individual application test results to see what’s going on.
The QL-62 inside the GX630 runs at 80% of the clock speed of the G50V’s Core 2 Duo, yet it consistently takes about 50% longer to complete the same tasks. Only in the Nero test does the MSI system turn in a quicker completion time. The K8 core architecture behind the Athlon X2 is definitely long in the tooth, and these poor WorldBench results emphasize why AMD’s mobile hardware has largely been relegated to budget systems like the GX630.
MobileMark’s DVD playback test crashed consistently on the GX630, leaving us with the app’s productivity test. We’ve had problems with MobileMark before, so I wouldn’t pin the DVD playback test’s failure on MSI’s shoulders.
The productivity test measures battery life with typical desktop tasks, and the GX630 doesn’t quite reach the two-hour mark. Asus’ G50V, which also has a six-cell battery rated for 4800mAh, runs for nearly forty minutes longer. The GX630’s processor has a 25W TDP and its graphics chip should sip less power than the one used in the Asus G50V. The Asus also has a second hard drive and a higher resolution display.
Not content to let MobileMark monopolize DVD playback testing, I popped in my trusty DVD copy of Brotherhood of the Wolf and set the GX630’s power management software to “Movie” mode with 75% screen brightness. Just 80 minutes in, the battery ran out of juice, suggesting that the GX630 won’t make it through many full-length movies on battery power. That’s really a shame, because the unit is much lighter than typical 15.4″ notebooks, begging that it be used off the mains (and without having to lug around the bulky power brick).
Heat and noise
We took temperature measurements with an IR thermometer at idle (shown in yellow), under load (orange), and with turbo mode overclocking the processor (red). Turbo mode was tested with the system under load.
The GX630’s surface temperatures show that the system handles heat dissipation quite well. It’s mostly quiet, too. When idling, the GX630 is almost whisper quiet. Once under load, the fan spins up and produces a dull drone that’s probably low enough to be ignored by the average user or drowned out by game music. However, in turbo mode, the fan kicks into high gear and is definitely loud enough to be distracting. I don’t want my laptop getting so hot it kills off my swimmers, but I don’t want to listen to it struggle to salvage future generations of Sklavos men, either.
Since turbo mode is optional and doesn’t do much for game performance, it’s easy to keep the GX630 relatively quiet. However, the system’s cooling design does have one flaw that’s more difficult to avoid: the exhaust vent is on the right side of the unit. The vast majority of users mouse with their right hands, and since this is a gaming system, it’s probably going to be used frequently with a mouse. Having the system spew hot air directly onto a gamer’s mousing hand probably isn’t a good idea. If you shift your mousing hand a bit lower, you can successfully dodge the heat blast, but it’s silly to have the vent on the right side at all.
MSI has successfully produced a remarkably well-rounded gaming notebook in the GX630. The system’s Athlon X2 QL-62 may not be able to hang with faster Core 2 Duos, but it’s a good match for the unit’s GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor and 1280×800 display resolution. Even recent games run reasonably well on the GX630 with high detail levels, which is commendable given the system’s price. Keep in mind, though, that there isn’t a lot of horsepower headroom for future and potentially more demanding titles.
Performance aside, the GX630 has just about everything a user could ask for, including a generous array of expansion ports that includes HDMI and surround sound outputs. You even get a full number pad, and although MSI may have crunched the wrong keys to squeeze it in, it’s still a nice perk for a 15.4″ notebook. Speaking of perks, the GX630 is lighter than most 15.4″ notebooks, and is design is more tasteful than most gaming notebooks, which tend to resemble portable rave machines.
Of course, there are problems with the GX630. The system’s battery life is rather poor, and little design quirks like dark keyboard lettering and an exhaust fan that blows hot air onto your mouse hand can be annoying.
The real key to the GX630’s appeal is its modest $799 street price. That’s a bargain considering the fact that it’s equipped with 4GB of memory and enough horsepower to run current games comfortably. If you’re looking for mobile gaming value, you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal than MSI’s GX630.