MSI’s Trident 3 compact gaming PC reviewed

If you’re reading this site, it’s pretty likely that you either are or once were a PC gamer. If that’s the case, you likely have a gaming PC already, but with the relatively recent release of Intel’s Kaby Lake processors and the forthcoming Ryzen CPUs from AMD, a lot of folks are looking at upgrading. As we saw recently in our Core i7-7700K review and Colton’s upgrade experience, you might have a lot to gain from finally ditching your trusty old Sandy Bridge or Nehalem machine.

Still, there ain’t a one of us that’s getting any younger. It’s 2017, and your ATX full tower that you’ve customized with a hand-cut glass window, RGB lightstrips, and two separate water-cooling reservoirs still runs great and is cooler than ever. Problem is, it definitely has an insufficient Spouse Approval Factor, especially in the living room. Those of you fortunate enough to have a dedicated den or man-cave can get away with it. For the rest of us, maybe it’s time to go smaller, and more subtle. Maybe one of those mini-PCs we’ve been hearing so much about lately is just the trick.

Maybe something like this.

So yes, a warm welcome to single, married, and all other gerbils alike, because I’m back again with another miniature gaming PC to review. This time around, I’ve got MSI’s Trident 3 small-form-factor desktop. This is the smallest of MSI’s gaming PCs, the others being the Nightblade and the Aegis. MSI calls it “console-sized,” and at just 13.63″ long by 9.15″ deep by 2.83″ tall (34.6 x 23.2 x 7.2 cm), the machine is very nearly the same size and weight as a PlayStation 4 Pro. Despite its diminutive dimensions, however, it houses a full-powered desktop gaming PC powered by Intel’s four-core, eight-thread Core i7-7700 and a desktop GTX 1060 6GB graphics card.

Now, this machine is a fair bit larger than the Zotac Zbox Magnus EN1070 I reviewed a couple of months ago. In fact, it occupies over twice the volume: 5.8L, versus the 2.6L of the Zotac. With the EN1070, I was impressed by the machine’s graphics prowess but left wanting more from that machine’s low-power CPU. MSI solved the CPU power issue with the Trident 3’s 65W chip, but this larger PC trades the mobile GTX 1070 for a somewhat less powerful GTX 1060 6GB. Whether that trade was a good one to make will be a key theme in our investigations. For now, check out the full specifications.

  MSI Trident 3 VR7RC-025US
Processor Intel Core i7-7700
Memory 16GB Kingston DDR4-2400 (2x8GB SODIMMs)
Chipset Intel H110 Express
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 630 (normally disabled)

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with 6GB GDDR5 RAM

Storage Kingston RBU-SNS8152S3256GG5 M.2 SATA SSD, 256GB

Hitachi Travelstar 7K1000, 1TB 7200 RPM SATA HDD

Audio Realtek ALC1150
Expansion and display outputs 1 USB 3.0 Type-C

3 USB 3.0 Type-A

4 USB 2.0 Type-A

1 HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2

1 DisplayPort

1 DVI-D

Communications Intel I219-V Gigabit Ethernet

Intel 3168 Wi-Fi-AC + Bluetooth 4.2+LE

Dimensions 13.63″ x 9.15″ x 2.83″ (34.6 x 23.2 x 7.2 cm)
Weight 6.9 lbs (3.1 kg)
Included cables 230W power adapter, HDMI, DisplayPort
OS Windows 10 Home

Since the Trident 3’s custom motherboard is based on Intel’s H110 chipset, we won’t be doing any overclocking, and given that it comes with every one of its available expansion slots filled, we won’t be doing much upgrading. Those facts shouldn’t be much of a problem, though. The Core i7-7700 that the machine includes is lightning-quick, 16GB of RAM is plenty enough, and the combination of M.2 SSD and 2.5″ HDD gives us fast storage for the OS and lots of space for games.

Clever gerbils will note that further unlike the EN1070, this machine comes as a complete, ready-to-go system. As a result, we can judge the Trident 3 more specifically on its value proposition. We can also talk about the included storage hardware and the bundled software. All of that comes later, though. First, let’s have a closer look at the machine.

 

Meeting it head on

Up here on the front of the Trident 3 we have a pair of USB 3.0 Type-A ports, a USB 3.0 Type-C port, an HDMI port for easy VR hookups, and a pair of analog audio jacks. One of the USB 3.0 Type-A ports is marked as a Super Charger port, and it’s meant to deliver extra power for quick-charging mobile devices. The Super Charger function comes disabled by default, though, and has to be enabled in MSI’s software. I tested it with my Snapdragon 805-based phone, but I really couldn’t tell you if it charged any faster than when hooked up to a typical USB port. It certainly didn’t charge as fast as it does when connected to its own boxed charger.

The USB Type-C port is in fact USB 3.1 Gen1, better known as USB 3.0. The Trident 3 actually doesn’t have any USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt connections at all. While looking at these two pictures of the machine you can clearly see my least-favorite feature of it: the shape. The angled surfaces on both ends mean that you cannot use the system standing without the included base. Also, to use the front HDMI port, you have to connect an HDMI pass-through cable to the graphics card like so:

On the back here, we have connections on the smaller-than-ITX mainboard and on the graphics card. The mainboard offers up (from right to left) three analog audio jacks, a Gigabit Ethernet connection above another USB 3.0 port, four USB 2.0 ports, a usually-non-functional HDMI port, the power connection, and then the HDMI-in connection for the front HDMI port. If that pass-through cable isn’t connected, the front HDMI port doesn’t even wake up monitors.

The motherboard’s HDMI port is connected to the CPU’s integrated graphics, like any desktop PC’s motherboard-mounted HDMI port. It’s a completely fine HDMI 1.4 port when there is no graphics card installed. However, when a graphics card is installed, the system firmware disables the integrated graphics. There is no option to change this behavior in the system’s UEFI setup utility. With a graphics card installed, the HDMI port between the power connector and the USB 2.0 ports seems to have absolutely no connection at all.

I feel like the integrated graphics being forcibly disabled is a real missed opportunity for MSI. The machine isn’t exactly swimming in display connections, and its dimensions and relatively subtle styling could make it a fantastic home-theater PC. Some folks like to use a second HDMI port on such a PC simply as an output to a high-end A/V system. Unfortunately, the Trident 3 doesn’t actually have a second HDMI port. Hopefully MSI can rectify this issue in a BIOS update.

Over on the graphics card, we have a DisplayPort connection, an HDMI port, and a DVI-D port. No complaints about the HDMI and DVI ports, but the single DisplayPort connection is pretty spartan compared to a typical GeForce GTX 1060’s triple-port offering. The options on offer seem all the more limited if you want to use the front HDMI port, because the machine really only has one practically useful HDMI port. If you want to use an HDMI monitor and a VR headset, you’re out of luck. I suppose you could use a DVI-to-HDMI cable, assuming your monitor doesn’t need an HDMI 2.0 connection.

Speaking of HDMI 2.0, don’t hook up an HDMI 2.0 monitor to the front HDMI port. When I initially set up the Trident 3, I lazily connected all of the devices to the front of the machine, and later, while testing GTA V, I noticed small-but-distracting artifacts all across the monitor. After some significant testing, I figured out that it was the front HDMI port. MSI confirmed to me that the front HDMI port is intended for VR devices—which only require HDMI 1.4—and should not be used with high-resolution or high-refresh-rate displays. I feel like this information should really be listed somewhere in the Trident 3’s documentation, but it isn’t.

 

Cracking it open

On the Zotac EN1070, all of the relevant expansion was mounted to the underside of the mainboard. That made it easily accessible by removing the bottom panel of the case. Getting into the Trident is a little more involved, although still pretty easy. Assuming the machine is laying down, the right-side panel simply snaps out of the machine. Underneath, there are five screws. Remove the top two, and then the top panel slides off easily.

With its guts exposed, we can see the sideways PCIe x16 slot where the Trident 3’s graphics card connects to the mainboard. You can also see the wireless card in the top-right, the two SODIMM slots to the left of that, and the 6-pin PCIe power cable just further left of that. At this point, you can replace the memory, remove the CPU cooler for cleaning (or to replace the CPU,) and replace the wireless card. If you want to remove the graphics card or a storage device, though, you’ll have to disassemble the rest of the machine.

I struggled a bit with disassembling the machine further, because it seemed to me like I would have to remove all the plastic fascia pieces to take it apart. It turns out that I underestimated MSI’s cleverness here, because I absolutely didn’t. Instead, I just had to unfasten two more screws underneath the same panel on the side of the Trident 3, two screws in the frame itself (at the top-left and top-right corners of the picture above), and another screw underneath the motherboard. Thankfully, MSI left a hole in the motherboard specifically to allow you to get to that screw.

Once I removed those screws, I had to grip the chassis on the back with one hand and the front with the other before pulling the entire chassis away from the front of the machine. The motherboard tray will come free of the front bezel and the baseplate. After that, all of the parts are very easy to get to. Two screws in the back of the case and another one in the floor of the tray hold in the graphics card. Meanwhile, the storage devices are mounted just below the video card, in a flat chamber underneath the motherboard tray.

On the whole, I was pretty impressed with the build quality of the Trident 3. Everything fits together really tightly. There are a lot of screws holding this machine together, but that just means it’s solidly-assembled. I was surprised to see how few fans the Trident has inside, though. I didn’t notice the missing spinners until I saw the storage devices. As soon as I saw them, my first thought was that they must have pretty limited airflow. In fact, the whole machine has pretty limited airflow because the only fans in the entire system are the single intake fan on the graphics card and the exhaust blower on the CPU.

 

A hot time in the case tonight

MSI talks up its “Silent Storm” cooling solution, and I have to say that it certainly was quiet. Perhaps a little too quiet. There’s always a trade-off to be had between noise and cooling performance, and in this case it seems like the choice that MSI made was to trade off thermal performance for quiet running.

While testing Crysis 3, I observed peak CPU temperatures of about 90°C. That shouldn’t harm the chip, even under extended usage, but it’s certainly hotter than I like my CPUs to get. Even with those high temperatures, I couldn’t actually hear the fans on the machine at that point despite playing in a quiet room with only a ceiling fan running. After seeing that kind of thermal performance, Jeff and I wondered about what would happen under a truly heavy load. We fired up Prime95 in Blend mode and were surprised to see CPU core temperatures hang steady around 85°C.

We surmised that since the fan on the video card was the only intake, perhaps loading it would heat things up further. The idea is that blowing cool intake air across the hot heatsink on the graphics card would reduce the ability of the CPU cooler to remove heat from the CPU. When I fired up Unigine Heaven alongside Prime95 to test this hypothesis, things went awry. Put simply, the core voltage, clock rates, and temperatures on the Core i7 CPU were rapidly fluctuating between very high and very low values—up to 101°C. After a few moments, the machine simply shut off.

I tested to make sure this behavior was reproducible and then consulted with MSI, but the company hasn’t gotten back to us with its findings yet. Jeff and I conferred on the topic and our hypothesis is that the extremely heavy load on the machine is hitting either a thermal or power safeguard. Possibly the combination of extreme CPU, memory, and GPU load is overloading the 230W power adapter. Obviously, running Prime95 and Heaven concurrently is no typical usage scenario, but even in the worst case the machine should simply throttle.

I do have to say that outside of our torture test, the Trident 3’s Core i7 CPU stays pretty close to its maximum all-core Turbo speeds. The clock rate did dip slightly below the Intel-prescribed 4-GHz all-core turbo when things were really getting hot (such as in Crysis 3), but that could as much be a power limitation. In general and gaming use the CPU was more than willing to jump up to 4.1 GHz or 4.2 GHz with the slightest provocation, which is what we like to see.

Naturally, I wanted to turn the fans up to see if that would alleviate the shutdown problem I was having. Back when I tested the Zbox Magnus EN1070, I tested it with the stock fan profile and also with the fans set to full speed. While the EN1070’s firmware was, well, quirky to say the least, it at least allowed quite a lot of control over the machine. By contrast, MSI’s firmware on the Trident 3 is solid and very flashy, but it allows essentially no control over any part of the machine beyond boot order. That means no fan control.

In fact, you can’t adjust fan speeds in any way. There’s a very fancy screen in the UEFI setup where you can see the expected fan behavior across a range of temperatures, but you can’t actually adjust it. I tried several software utilities as well, including Speedfan and Open Hardware Monitor. The latter cannot even see the fan. The former does see it, but cannot control the speed. I can control the fan on the GeForce card easily, but the GeForce card runs pretty cool anyway. I rarely saw it top 80°C while gaming.

Another issue I noticed during testing is that the graphics card would sometimes not boost at all above its base clock of 1544 MHz. After some targeted analysis, it seems like it might have been down to a bug in the Nvidia 378.66 driver that I was using for testing. Updating to the 378.72 hotfix appeared to have resolved the problem. However, with an intermittent issue like this, it’s impossible to know if it was truly resolved. At the very least, I didn’t see it again while re-doing all my testing. When the card was behaving properly it happily boosted as high as 1911 MHz, well beyond the reference boost clock and even the listed boost clock of MSI’s own GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming X card.

We’ll see how the machine actually performed in a bit, but first let’s talk a bit about MSI’s software.

 

A fresh start

MSI ships the Trident 3 as a ready-to-go gaming system with Windows 10. The pre-installed copy of Windows also includes some bundled software, including MSI’s own as well as XSplit Gamecaster, Norton Security, and a few other things. To make sure our test results represent the system’s peak performance, we always test on a fresh and clean copy of Windows, so while I wanted to experiment with the boxed install, I dutifully loaded up my retail copy of Windows 10 and went to work.

The OS install proceeded with rapidity, and in minutes I had a lightning-quick desktop ready for testing. The Trident 3 boots with all the haste you expect from a modern Core i7 PC. Applications launch smoothly, and games play well. The experience is no different from using a custom-built desktop PC, which is fairly high praise. The Magnus EN1070 could feel a little sluggish when browsing script-heavy websites, or while moving files around. I suspect the 1.5 GHz of CPU core clock that the Trident 3’s Core i7-7700 has over the EN1070’s Core i5-6400T makes up the bulk of the difference.

I went ahead and re-installed MSI’s software before testing because certain functions of the device aren’t available without it. MSI’s Gaming Center and the Nahimic Audio software were the two applications I fooled around with. The Gaming Center app includes various functions for managing the MSI-specific features of the Trident 3, while the Nahimic Audio application is the same one that MSI makes available to owners of its motherboards. Out of curiosity I tried to install both applications on my own custom desktop, but they spat out errors stating that no supported hardware was found and refused to install. Fair enough, MSI.

MSI Gaming Center

MSI’s Gaming Center application is pretty straightforward. Tabs on the left side allow you to select various pages that each contain myriad settings for adjusting the machine’s special features. The app starts on the EZ Profile page, which allows you to set up custom modes for working and for gaming. The four options available to set in a profile are ScenaMax, Nahimic audio effects, Windows theme, and speaker volume. A simple toggle lets you completely disable the EZ Profile feature, as well.

The next page down gives you a quick means to launch MSI’s other utilities: the MSI Gaming App for system tuning and overclocking, the MSI MouseMaster app to customize mouse performance, and the MSI Gaming Hotkey app to set up custom keyboard macros on any keyboard. All three were included with the MSI Gaming Center app. MSI claims that the Mouse Master and Gaming Hotkey apps are tied to the Gaming Device port on the motherboards that support them, and I don’t know if the Trident 3 actually supports those apps. In any case, the Mouse Master app didn’t seem to work for my Corsair Vengeance M95 mouse.

The ScenaMax page gives the option of applying a filter to the entire display. The presets are Gaming, Cinema, and Eye Care. Curiously, even though there is a preview window, there is no “apply” button, so selecting a preset applies it to the entire screen anyway. Selecting “Personal Settings” gives four tabs, each with four sliders. The tabs represent the red, green, and blue color channels, as well as a fourth tab for “all.” Meanwhile, the sliders allow you to adjust the contrast, brightness, gamma, and level of the display. I’m not crazy about software adjustments for things I should be fixing on the hardware (in this case, the monitor), so I can’t say I’m too fond of ScenaMax. It’s nice for machines where the display lacks such options, though.

Of course, the Trident 3 is a gaming PC, so it has RGB LED lighting. Thankfully the lighting on the Trident is relatively modest: two RGB LEDs that shine at a plastic diffuser in the top (side) corner of the machine. Modest as it may be, you still need a means to control it, and that means is the next page of the MSI Gaming Center. You can select from Static, Gradient, Audio, and Breathing modes, and you can toggle whether or not the lighting stays on when the machine is in sleep mode. Everything on this page worked exactly as you would expect, so let’s move on.

The next page lets you adjust the system audio volume, the microphone input volume, and toggle the Wi-Fi adapter, the disk access indicator, and the Super Charger function. Of note is the fact that the Super Charger function is off by default, so users who want to make use of that feature will have to come turn it on. I suppose for those who want absolute darkness, the ability to toggle off the HDD LED is useful, but frankly it’s so dim I can’t imagine it being a problem for anyone. In fact, next to the bright RGB LEDs immediately above, it can be difficult to actually see the HDD access light.

The last page is a basic system activity monitor that more or less repeats what you can see in the extended view of Windows 10’s Task Manager. You can monitor disk activity, CPU load, memory load, GPU load, and both of the machine’s network connections. The ability to see GPU load in a screen like this is kinda nice. You can see the same statistics in a more detailed fashion using Process Explorer or MSI’s own Afterburner, but those don’t come pre-installed on the machine.

The MSI Gaming Center app works completely as expected, but I have to say it’s a little frustrating that there are four different applications from MSI all with very similar purposes. Certainly at the very least, the Gaming Center and MSI Gaming apps could be integrated with one another. There’s an argument to be made for keeping the Mouse Master and Gaming Hotkey apps separate, but since they’re included with the Gaming Center installer anyway, it seems like all four should really just be one application.

 

The sweetest sound

The Nahimic Audio suite is a feature MSI’s been cheering about on its motherboards for a while, so I was actually pretty interested to see what all the fuss was about. My own system uses an MSI mainboard, but it pre-dates the introduction of the Nahimic branding. As it happens, Nahimic isn’t any sort of hardware feature or capability; it’s just a software DSP package. With that said, it’s not as if I have software like this on my machine. Let’s have a look.

The first tab is actually two pages. There’s an option over on the left that lets you select what type of audio device you’re using, and then you can use the big power button in the middle to toggle the entire effects suite on or off. With it enabled, you can select presets for various types of games or media that enable and disable the individual effects at various levels. You can also fiddle with the effects yourself.

Over on the second Audio page, you can apply full-spectrum audio shaping via a graphic equalizer that ranges from 32 Hz to 16 KHz. The equalizer includes six presets as well as a custom option that lets you fiddle with the sliders to your heart’s content. Unfortunately the Nahimic software doesn’t give you a way to save multiple custom settings, so hopefully you really like the presets they offer.

The microphone settings page lets you apply effects to your microphone input. This could actually be pretty handy for livestreamers and people producing video content, and it’s really the biggest feature I saw in the Nahimic software that I felt really set it apart from the Realtek control panel it replaces. The noise suppression and voice leveling features worked very well. The voice shaper produced some weird sounds, but I think that might really be the point of such a feature. It certainly appeared to be doing what it was meant to do, anyway.

The HD Audio Recorder 2 page gives access to the Audio Launchpad. This is basically a soundboard meant for livestreamers to add sound effects to their stream. The default offers three configs of six buttons each, and each button can be set to a unique sound effect. While I think this is a pretty neat feature, it’s weird to me that they only offer six buttons per page. Surely eighteen buttons could fit on one page of the app? The launchpad can be controlled via keyboard shortcuts and you can record and define your own sound effects for each button. Not my thing, but I could see people getting some use out of it.

Finally, the last page in the Nahimic app is the Sound Tracker. This feature of questionable merit can place a radar-like display on-screen in games that will indicate the direction of noises happening around you. There’s a reasonably-sized list of supported games and I have to say that once again, while I think this is a cool feature to have available, I can’t personally imagine using it. However, for the hearing-disabled it could be a nice way to get the benefits of positional audio.

All in all, the Nahimic Audio software is pretty cool. It’s not something I would ever really use, though. As I said before when talking about the Gaming Center’s ScenaMax adjustments, I don’t really like software solutions to hardware problems, and that includes audio DSP effects. However, some people do really enjoy this kind of feature, and I think the Nahimic software is easy to use and implemented well.

With that said, I also don’t think it’s a very good replacement for the Realtek HD Audio Manager. It lacks most of the options of that software, including the ability to adjust speaker placement (“Room Correction”), the ability to re-task audio connectors, and the option to adjust the default format of the audio device, among others. Furthermore, even though the Trident 3’s custom motherboard uses a Realtek ALC1150 codec, installing the latest Realtek drivers didn’t install the HD Audio Manager software for whatever reason.

Now that we’ve seen MSI’s included software, let’s get to the real meat of the review and find out how this thing runs.

 

Clash of the tinies

What’s a hardware reviewer to do when faced with another example of something he just reviewed? Well, throw them up against each other, of course. I ran the MSI Trident 3 through benchmark scenarios in GTA V, Doom, and Crysis 3. For comparison, I also ran Crysis 3 on the Zbox Magnus EN1070 from before. I also ran a whole bunch of in-depth CPU benchmarks on the Trident 3, but ultimately we’ve decided to skip most of those results. Suffice it to say that if you want to know how a Core i7-7700 runs, you can consult our in-depth review of the unlocked 7700K part and subtract around 5% from every result. So without further ado, let’s get into those game benchmarks.

Doom

When I think of gorgeous games right now, id Software’s latest Doom title is the very first thing that comes to mind. Doom makes an interesting test case for the Trident 3, since its GeForce GTX 1060 6GB likely won’t prove a challenge for the Core i7-7700 to feed. Going into the testing, I didn’t expect that the super-fast CPU in the Trident 3 would make much difference versus the slower chip in the EN1070, particularly not at the high settings we use for testing.

Doom is absolutely stunning with the settings turned up, and that’s how I tested it: with every single setting slammed to the ceiling at 2560×1440. I stuck with the OpenGL API, as our previous testing has shown that Vulkan doesn’t help Nvidia graphics cards much. I played through an easily-repeatable 60-second portion at the beginning of the third level (“Foundry”) while recording frametimes with OCAT.

And so, as it happens, I was right. The faster CPU doesn’t do much to help the Trident 3’s little GTX 1060 versus the EN1070’s much larger GP104 GPU. To be clear, though, playing Doom at these very high settings on the MSI Trident 3 is still fantastic. The game looks amazing, as usual, and gameplay is very smooth. Even when things (or demons) are exploding in the most dynamic moments of the game, the framerate stayed pretty high. Let’s take a look at the 99th percentile frame time distributions for good measure.


Yep, pretty much as expected. If you’re just joining us here at The Tech Report, you might be confused about this business immediately above. The “time spent beyond X” graphs tell you how much real time our test system spent rendering frames that took longer than 16.7ms, 8.3ms, and so on. 8.3ms corresponds to a framerate of 120 FPS, 16.7ms is roughly 60 FPS, 33.3ms is roughly 30 FPS, and 50ms is 20 FPS. This gives us a good way to pick out stutters and hitches during gameplay. If you drop below 20 FPS during gameplay, even for a moment, it’s going to cause a noticeable stutter, and our “time spent beyond” graphs aggregate that roughness.

Doom is a game that loves a big fat GPU, and while the Trident 3’s GTX 1060 turns in a very good showing, it obviously can’t keep up with the much more powerful mobile GTX 1070 in the Zotac machine. I think it’s worth pointing out that the Trident 3’s average framerate was 62 FPS, yet it spent less than two seconds (of our sixty-second test run) under 60 FPS. That’s a really consistent performance, and that’s what we like to see from any gaming system.

 

Grand Theft Auto V

Man, I love Grand Theft Auto V. I first played it on the PlayStation 3, and I actually didn’t care for it because of the poor performance and uninspiring visuals. When the game came out on the PC, I was a little slow to pick it up because of that. What a mistake that was. Even after more than three years, Grand Theft Auto V‘s PC release looks and plays amazing.

To benchmark the game I ran Franklin through the standard TR test in offline mode. This test won’t maximize the CPU load compared to the game’s online mode, but it does provide standard, reproducible results.

Look at that spikey frametime graph. At these extremely high settings, GTA V is pretty rough on a machine. While neither system is providing as smooth an experience as we’ve come to expect from GTA V with modern hardware, the likely reason behind each machine’s performance in these tests is different. We bet the Zotac box is struggling a bit thanks to its power-sipping CPU, while the Trident 3 is mostly limited by its graphics card. As a result, our testing duo delivers relatively similar performance despite the differences in raw resources between each of them.


The relatively high resolution and very high settings we’re using to test GTA V put the hurt on the Trident 3’s GeForce GTX 1060, but flip over to the 33.3ms chart real fast to confirm what more experienced gerbils will have already picked up on from the line graph above. The Trident 3 spends less time churning away on tough frames than the Magnus EN1070 does, but the more powerful GTX 1070 lets the Zotac spend more time above 60 FPS when it’s not CPU-bound.

Frankly, I probably wouldn’t really want to play GTA V on these settings on either machine, as nice as it looks configured this way. Dropping the resolution down to 1920×1080 cleans things right up on the Trident 3, and it still looks pretty nice. Meanwhile, changing the resolution on the EN1070 has no real effect on performance—the Core i5-6400T is the primary bottleneck of that machine.

I also played some GTA Online on the Trident 3. Recall from my review of the Magnus EN1070 that while the average framerate in GTA Online on that system isn’t much lower than it is in the offline game, the 99th percentile frame time rises considerably. I’m sensitive to framerate, but I can enjoy a game that runs at a stable 30 or 40 FPS just fine. The original Dark Souls is one of my favorite games of all time, after all. GTA Online on the EN1070 is wildly and weirdly inconsistent, and it’s really jarring.

By comparison, GTA Online on the Trident 3 feels just like playing offline. In fact, it feels more or less just like playing GTA Online on my personal machine with a Core i7-4790K and an R9 290X. The difference in the two is that the MSI Trident 3 is a nearly-silent box the size of an Xbox 360, while my personal machine is a gigantic crate that sounds like a vacuum cleaner.

 

Crysis 3

I talked a bit about how old GTA V is, and how impressive it is that it can still put the hurt on systems. However, Crysis 3 is probably the most extreme example of that phenomenon in our stable. Nearly a year before GTA V came out, Crysis 3 was making machines cry, and it is still so demanding of CPUs and graphics cards alike that we still love it as a benchmark.

Here we see the gap in performance potential between these machines close even further. Those average framerates don’t tell the whole story, though. Look at that frametime graph for the EN1070. While my frame-rate counter said 50 FPS during my test run, the large spikes in frame times during the most CPU-intensive portion of our test lead to a bumpy experience. Looking at the 99th-percentile frame-time distributions for these systems makes the difference in perceived smoothness all the more apparent.


Yowza. Now, the point here is not to pick on the EN1070. It’s a great little machine and it does well in many titles. In fact, if you feel bad for it, just click back over to the Doom results. Crysis 3 is not Doom, though, and while this game wants a fast graphics card to run well, it also wants a fast CPU and a fast memory subsystem. The Trident 3 has a number of advantages here: besides the Core i7-7700’s high clock speed, it also has Hyper-Threading and the benefit of faster memory. All that adds up to a slightly worse average framerate, but a much better 99th percentile for MSI’s mighty mite.

What this translates to is that even though the EN1070 is delivering a higher average framerate, Crysis 3 actually appears to run more fluidly on the Trident 3. It’s certainly a more pleasant gameplay experience, although once again as I said for GTA V, I wouldn’t particularly care to play the game at these settings on either machine. A drop to 1920×1080 is all it takes to clean things up on the Trident 3, while reducing the resolution does little for the EN1070’s performance.

 

Conclusions

When I reviewed Zotac’s Magnus EN1070, I really wanted to love that machine. It’s so small, and the mobile GeForce GTX 1070 it packs is so potent, even as power-limited as it is. I talked a lot in that review about the relatively slow CPU that Zotac used and how it negatively affects the experience of gaming on that machine. MSI’s Trident 3 solves the CPU-grunt issue with a beefy Core i7-7700, but I feel like the GTX 1060 6GB card in this machine is holding it back.

The Core i7-7700 is a blisteringly fast chip, and MSI didn’t hamper it in any way by pairing it with dual-channel DDR4-2400 memory. The combination makes a super-solid platform for a gaming PC. If anything, a machine like this is crying out for a GTX 1070 or 1080. There’s nothing wrong with the GTX 1060 6GB in the Trident 3, to be clear. It’s just that when taken as a matched set with the Core i7-7700, it seems a little anemic. What I would give for this machine with the EN1070’s graphics card.

Given the choice between these mighty mites, however, I’ll take the Trident 3 every time. Not only do I prefer the smoother delivered performance of the faster CPU and memory in the MSI box, but the Trident 3 is also more upgradeable. It doesn’t look like CPU performance will be moving beyond the standard set by Skylake and Kaby Lake any time soon, so when 10nm or even 7nm graphics cards hit the scene, I could swap out the GeForce GTX 1060 for something more potent that still remains within the 120W-or-so power envelope that the Trident 3 supports.

That’s not to say that I have no complaints about the machine, though. The limited display connections on the Trident 3 are baffling. The EN1070 is a much smaller system, but it boasts a pair of HDMI ports and a pair of DisplayPorts. I’d happily trade away the Trident’s DVI port for another HDMI port or DisplayPort. Furthermore, the fact that the system firmware entirely locks out the Intel processor’s integrated graphics and its associated HDMI port means that owners of this machine can’t take advantage of the Kaby Lake chip’s PlayReady DRM support to enjoy 4K Netflix.

This is more personal, but I’m also not thrilled with the balance of cooling performance versus noise that MSI went with in this PC. I keep my home pretty cool, and between the air conditioner, two ceiling fans, and air purifier in my space, I have a lot of air moving around my workbench. Home-theater cabinets and other confined spaces may be less kind to the Trident 3. I never once could even really hear the fans in the Trident 3, so I think a little more noise for a little lower temperatures could be justified.

Ultimately, the Trident 3’s worth is best judged by its price tag. MSI sells the Trident 3, configured as tested, for $1300. That’s a much better value for the level of performance we get than the Magnus EN1070, which is only $100 cheaper without storage, memory, or a Windows license. A custom-built Mini-ITX machine might approach the Trident 3’s small size for less money, but MSI’s box is a ready-to-run solution without many of the headaches of building a tiny PC from scratch. All told, I think the Trident 3 is a solid performer that could be truly great with a few minor refinements.

While I like this machine as it is, MSI says it has a version of the Trident 3 coming soon with the GeForce GTX 1070 Aero ITX inside. Depending on the price, that might be an even better choice. Regardless, MSI has a solid small-form-factor platform to work with, and we’re pleased by just how much power the company is packing into console-sized boxes.

Comments closed
    • psuedonymous
    • 3 years ago

    A better attempt than most ‘small form facto’ machines that are larger than some ATX cases. Lots of pointless wasted space on big plastic angular bezels that contain dead air though, pushing it up in size past the NFC S4 (5.8L vs. 4.3L) with both having similar capability: ITX motherboard, short GPU, internal DC-DC PSU with external AC-DC brick. Josh even [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9Ks5ps68iA<]managed to cram a 1080 in the S4[/url<] with a bezel swap, one-upping the 1060.

      • Khali
      • 3 years ago

      I was thinking the same thing. Lose the ugly plastic and make it a rectangular box that is functional yet classy.

      Heck I have been wishing for years some one would finally bring back the old IBM XT/AT style cases. There are some HTPC cases that come close but they all have some type of issue. Usually they are too small, lack external drive bays, or have lousy ventilation for what I want to use it for.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 3 years ago

    Kinda disturbing that the machine shut off. True that Prime95 + Heaven isn’t a typical workload, but if today’s AMD presentation (complete with live demo crashes) is an indication, very high CPU load + graphics load could be the way of the future.

      • EzioAs
      • 3 years ago

      Could’ve been the PSU, possibly overcurrent protection being triggered.

        • synthtel2
        • 3 years ago

        That’s still bad. There should be a lot more headroom between max load and PSU rating than that.

          • rwburnham
          • 3 years ago

          I have an Alienware X51 R3 6310BLK desktop pc that has a similar PSU setup, where the rated wattage isn’t much more than the components, and it worries me. I understand the need to reduce cost on these pre-built systems, but these companies need to pick PSUs with a reasonable amount of headroom.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 3 years ago

        Probably, but that just means they didn’t select a large enough power supply. It’s definitely a flaw.

      • chuckula
      • 3 years ago

      If crashing under heavy load is the next big thing then maybe they just want to be future proof.

      A little more seriously, that external power brick is probably fine for running the machine normally but I could definitely see pathological conditions in which the hardware could run flat-out and still outdraw the power supply for brief periods. As for hardware throttling, the internal hardware components themselves are probably not running out of spec and still have thermal headroom, so they wouldn’t naturally throttle.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 3 years ago

        See, this is why I over-buy for power supplies. I don’t NEED a 620W power supply, but I bought one so that if the PC is really super-stressed, it won’t do that accidentally. I can never seriously consider one of these mini PCs as an every-day thing.

          • synthtel2
          • 3 years ago

          Mini and overbuilt [url=http://www.jonnyguru.com/modules.php?name=NDReviews&op=Story&reid=477<]aren't[/url<] mutually exclusive, depending on the definition of mini.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 3 years ago

            Well, I was talking about prebuilt mini PCs, and that’s definitely for somebody in the DIY market.

      • synthtel2
      • 3 years ago

      [url=https://i.imgur.com/jOXwMoq.jpg<]LOLWUT MSI?[/url<]

    • swaaye
    • 3 years ago

    I think I tried a Oculus Rift demo at Best Buy that was powered by one of these. The guy told me it had a 1070, but maybe it was actually a 1060. The case definitely looks similar.

    Anyway, these little PC “console” ish things are an interesting development I suppose. Mostly reminiscent of those SFX machines, but with stylish cases and interesting hardware.

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