PC gaming is bigger than ever. Perhaps thanks to big-name PC-exclusive titles like League of Legends as well as PC-exclusive features like mods, kids are asking their parents for gaming PCs instead of gaming consoles. The money spent on PC gaming eclipses that spent on console gaming, too. A discussion of the whys and hows of that matter is a topic best left for another article, though. Instead, we’re here to take a look at just the sort of machine a parent might buy a budding PC gamer: MSI’s Aegis 3 compact gaming PC.
It’s a looker, isn’t it? To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think of the Aegis 3’s design just from the promo images MSI provided. After taking it out of the box and setting it up, well, I still wasn’t sure about it. Over time, though, I have to admit it’s grown on me. While 30-something gerbils might not approve of the Michael-Bay’s-Transformers-inspired looks of the Aegis 3, I have no doubt that the teenagers the machine is aimed at would find it enticing. This impression is furthered by the ecstatic gasp that my niece and her friends made when I showed it to them.
Under the cowl of Isaac Clarke’s mask rests a Core i7-7700 CPU, 16GB of DDR4-2400 memory, and a GeForce GTX 1060 3GB graphics card. To be honest, I would have preferred a Core i5 of some kind and a GTX 1060 6GB card, but that complaint is by no means reserved for MSI alone. The CPU and graphics card in the particular machine we’re playing with today aren’t the most interesting part of the story, though. Perhaps in light of the rising prices of NAND flash and the corresponding ceilings those prices put on economical SSD capacities, MSI skipped the SSD and instead employed a 2TB Seagate hard drive in combination with a 16GB Intel Optane cache module. The idea of Optane is, of course, that one gets hard-drive capacities with SSD-like speed most of the time. MSI and Intel claim that this setup is actually better for gamers than the usual SSD + HDD configuration, and it was this claim that I was most interested in testing.
Here’s a handy chart with the full hardware layout for our Aegis 3:
|MSI Aegis 3 VR7RC-078US|
|Processor||Intel Core i7-7700|
|Memory||16GB Kingston DDR4-2400 (2x8GB SODIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel B250 Express|
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 630 (disabled)
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with 3GB GDDR5 RAM
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda ST2000DM001 2TB SATA HDD
Intel Optane 16GB M.2 Cache Module
|Expansion and display outputs||1 USB 3.0 Type-C
4 USB 3.0 Type-A
4 USB 2.0 Type-A
1 HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2
|Communications||Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet
Intel 3168 Wi-Fi-AC + Bluetooth 4.2+LE
|Dimensions||17.05″ x 14.81″ x 6.69″ (43.3 x 37.6 x 17cm)|
|Weight||18.94 lbs (8.59kg)|
|Included cables||Power, HDMI pass-through|
|OS||Windows 10 Home|
All in all, the Aegis 3 is a nice little system, and it rings in at $1100 right now on Amazon. I could make various nitpicks about the choice of parts or the balance between CPU and graphics card for the money, but as I said before, those complaints wouldn’t really be fair to bring up here when they apply to virtually every system seller in this price class. MSI includes one of its Interceptor keyboard-and-mouse combos with the machine, so I’ll be talking about them a bit too. The included keyboard and mouse mean that an aspiring gamer would only need a monitor and headset to get fragging, so the Aegis package’s price tag is pretty reasonable for the novice who doesn’t want to dirty their hands putting together a system from scratch. Our thanks to MSI for providing the Aegis 3 so we could put it through its paces.
Without further ado, let’s get comfortable and see what makes this machine tick.
A little turn on the catwalk
The Aegis 3’s version number suggests an evolution from MSI’s first barebones gaming desktop in this family, but the chassis is fundamentally unchanged from the original model. It’s a pretty small machine, and it has a very sturdy carrying handle attached to the frame in the back with numerous screws. That said, it weighs almost 19 pounds (8.6kg), and I certainly wouldn’t want to carry it around for too long.
The machine’s aggressive styling is a major part of its purpose. With the headphone hooks extended, it reminds me of the Gundam RX-78-2. Sadly, that big red dragon logo is not the power button—those controls run down the right edge of the front panel. The shield does light up when the machine is on, though. In fact, most of the front and right side of the machine are swathed in configurable RGB LED Mystic Light. It is regrettable that I can’t yet capture shots of machines and peripherals with their lights on, because the Aegis 3 really does look much cooler that way.
Up front here you can see the headphone jacks and the actual power button off to the right, and then a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a USB 3.0 Type-C jack over on the left. Down in the bottom is the VR-Link HDMI port. I’ll talk more about that in a moment. It’s worth noting that MSI’s own specifications on its website for this machine are inaccurate—among other errors, they list the front panel USB ports as USB 3.1 Gen 2 (Type-C) and Gen 1 (Type-A). The specifications I listed above are correct.
Moving around to the back panel, there’s the usual proliferation of ports we’d expect from a desktop PC. The Aegis 3 takes a standard power cable, although it houses its power supply in the “foot” of the chassis. That little 40-mm fan in the PSU caused me concern at first, but it never made so much as a squeak the whole time I was using the Aegis 3. You can’t see it in this photo, but there’s also an exhaust fan mounted in the base of the top chamber, directly above the foot. There’s also an intake grille in the base of the foot, toward the front of the system.
Moving upward from the bottom, there’s the VR-Link “input” port. On the graphics card, you get a DisplayPort connection, an HDMI 2.0 port, and a DVI-D port. The motherboard’s I/O cluster offers a PS/2 port for a keyboard or a mouse, two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, a plethora of audio plugs, and a Gigabit Ethernet connection for the Killer E2500 adapter. There are also DisplayPort and HDMI connections on the motherboard, but they are totally non-functional.
That’s right: just like on the Trident 3, the Intel processor’s graphics are completely useless here. There is no option to enable them, and they do not function. Also like on the Trident 3, the front-panel HDMI connection requires the use of an included pass-through cable. While using the “VR-Link” connection, it is limited to HDMI 1.4 operation. It also (obviously) prevents you from using an HDMI display at the rear panel. I felt like this arrangement was a major inconvenience on the Trident 3 since I use multiple monitors, and it’s no more endearing here. If you’re not using a VR headset or you stick with a single display, however, no harm, no foul.
The right side of the Aegis 3 has an intake vent for the graphics card and a window to let users peer at the cable mess inside. I suppose the window is probably meant to allow the RGB Mystic Light illumination to shine through, but the intake grille above does that well already. If nothing else it’s symmetrical with the opposite side.
Over on said opposite side, we can appreciate one of the SO-DIMMs mounted to the back of the motherboard through the window. This is also where the various logo stickers ended up. To understand more about the Aegis 3, however, we need to open it up.
A casual vivisection
Taking apart the Aegis 3 is very simple. On the back of the machine, you remove one screw and then gently pull backward to dislodge the top panel of the case. This offers you access to the DVD-RW bay and a 2.5″ drive bay which is empty on our particular machine. This step also voids your warranty, as you’ll have to break the “factory sealed” sticker to remove the top panel. Given how easy it is to access this bay I feel like it could be pretty handy for various uses, like drive cloning. It’s a shame MSI puts even this basic expansion option behind a warranty-voiding seal.
Remove two more screws and the left side (right side, from the back) slides off. This gives you access to one SO-DIMM slot and the M.2 socket. Both slots are occupied on our sample, but that isn’t the case for every model of the Aegis 3. The side panels are attached very securely to the machine with slots on the bottom, front, and top. That makes them feel very solid while attached, but it also makes them a real pain to get back on.
Remove another two screws and you’ve got the right side (left, from the back) off. This opens up the main chamber of the machine where all the magic happens. The graphics card is the exact same model I saw in the Trident 3 some time ago, save for being a 3GB version of the GeForce GTX 1060 instead of a 6GB model. Toward the left you can see the bracket that holds the 3.5″ hard drive. There’s actually a second space and a pre-installed SATA cable there for another hard drive. That means you could, in theory, have two 3.5″ hard drives, a 2.5″ drive, and an M.2 SSD in this machine. Quite a bit of storage for the volume this thing takes up.
I didn’t completely disassemble the whole machine—mostly because you can see everything worth seeing in this shot here. On the left is the blower-and-riser assembly into which the graphics card installs. Obviously, toward the bottom of the image is the graphics card itself. If you look carefully in the picture above, you can pick out the other SO-DIMM as well as the M.2 Wi-fi card next to it. Removing those four screws around the CPU socket allows you to remove the small heatsink responsible for cooling the CPU, revealing the standard LGA 1151 socket assembly.
Don’t let the small size of the cooling hardware fool you, though. The Aegis 3 is not susceptible to the same cooling issues that the smaller Trident 3 suffered. Its GPU temperature hovers around 72° C in the most taxing scenarios, while that tiny little radiator-and-blower arrangement keeps the CPU under 85° C even under a stress test. The coolers remain quiet, too. I couldn’t hear the computer at all while gaming. Targeted stress testing with OCCT did produce a bit of noticeable fan noise, but I wouldn’t call it loud by any means.
Disassembling the Aegis 3 is remarkably straightforward, and I have to give MSI due credit for that. It’s a compact, clever design. However, MSI talks quite a bit in its marketing for this machine about how upgradeable it is. The company even put out a video tutorial. While it is very easy to upgrade, opening the machine to upgrade it will void your warranty. I think it’s a little bit shady of MSI to advertise the machine as upgradeable in light of the fact that it’ll void your warranty if you do. I suppose it’s not likely that you’ll have to upgrade the machine within its one-year warranty, though.
The Aegis 3 includes a couple of peripherals from MSI’s Interceptor gaming line in the box. The DS4200 keyboard and DS-B1 gaming mouse are decidedly budget-oriented input devices, but that’s not really a bad thing. As I mentioned before, the Aegis 3 we’re reviewing is kind of an entry-level gaming PC, so having entry-level peripherals suits it just fine.
The Interceptor DS4200 keyboard is a full-sized gaming keyboard with RGB LED backlighting and “mechanical-like” membrane keyswitches. MSI claims that the experience of typing on the DS4200 is “very close” to a mechanical keyboard, and I actually have to agree. The keys have a very clearly defined breakpoint much like a tactile mechanical switch. I found the MSI’s switches especially reminiscent of Cherry’s MX Brown switches. Also like mechanical switches, they don’t actually require you to bottom out to register a keypress. The key switches themselves have Cherry MX-compatible cross-shaped stems, so you can change out the keycaps if you like.
Naturally as a budget keyboard the DS4200 doesn’t have any kind of programmability or macro functions. It does have media keys, and the popular “gaming mode” that disables the Windows key. It also comes with a palm rest, although I have to say that I would rather MSI have just let me save the space on my desk as the palm rest is too low to really use anyway.
Image from MSI promo materials
My biggest complaint with the Interceptor DS4200 is actually in its backlighting function. Note the picture above. If you’re versed in RGB LED-backlit hardware, you would likely assume that the picture is capturing the keyboard in the middle of a “wave” shifting color pattern. That assumption would be incorrect. When I say that the Interceptor DS4200 is an RGB LED-backlit keyboard, I only mean that in the strictest possible sense: the pattern you see above is fixed. You can manually alter the backlight brightness, but there are no other options. You can’t configure the color, you can’t make the colors shift or animate, and if you turn the backlight off the keys are essentially unmarked.
Worse still, MSI left off the right-side Windows and Context Menu keys in favor of placing the Fn key and a quick brightness toggle there. I think the Fn key’s home on the right side of the keyboard is a mistake, because it means you can’t easily use one hand to use the media controls while gaming. The quick brightness toggle key is redundant given that there are also brightness control functions on PgUp and PgDn. I also have to nitpick at the placement of the backslash key immediately to the right of the quote key. I’m used to a double-width enter key with the backslash key above, and this keyboard caused me no end of mis-keys when I attempted to press Enter.
These are all pretty minor complaints, though. The mix of colors on the Interceptor DS4200 is pleasing enough, and for a basic keyboard like this it’s arguably more interesting than having a single-color backlight. I understand that having the backslash key directly to the right of the quote key is common in the UK, and perhaps other European countries. Again, it’s not a major issue, but it certainly takes some getting used to.
The Interceptor DS-B1 mouse included with the Aegis 3 carries a similarly no-nonsense mission. In essence, this is a very basic five-button optical mouse with red LED accents. MSI claims it has a “gaming-grade” sensor, and I beg to differ. I didn’t have time to properly disassemble the mouse, but my best guess is that it makes use of a decidedly non-gaming-grade PAW3529DH sensor from PixArt (or a close relative). But is that a problem?
Well, not really. The Interceptor DS-B1 does have a touch of angle snapping, but it’s minimal. While gaming with it, it performed acceptably. Besides the standard five buttons and wheel, there’s a sixth button on top to toggle the DPI through three hard-coded settings. MSI doesn’t explain what these settings are explicitly, but in my informal testing I figured that they’re probably 400 DPI, 800 DPI, and 1600 DPI. Like the keyboard, it has no software, and no programmability. I don’t think that’s a problem, though.
A small door on the bottom of the mouse twists free to reveal eight two-gram weights that can be removed. With the door and weights removed, the mouse weighs just 81g, and with the full set installed it comes out right at 100g. In either case it’s pretty light, so I’d say the difference is more down to adjusting the center of mass than the weight. Overall, the Interceptor DS-B1 mouse slides smoothly on its PTFE feet and tracks reliably. Considering that it goes for just $15 on Amazon, I think it’s a fine rodent.
The Interceptor peripherals aren’t going to impress someone used to fancy Corsair, Logitech, or Steelseries hardware. Still, taken as a pair, they’re a whole lot nicer than what you typically get with a budget PC. That’s particularly true for gamers who can make use of the responsive keyboard and sensitive mouse. As this is a gaming PC, I’m glad to see suitable peripherals in the box.
Optane in the real world
If you were looking for an in-depth analysis of the performance of the Aegis 3, prepare to be disappointed. I could have taken the Aegis 3 to task, meticulously measuring frametimes. However, its combination of a Core i7-7700 CPU and GeForce GTX 1060 GPU are already well-explored. You can check out our review of the GTX 1060, where we used a very similar configuration. Since the Silent Storm 3 cooling system is well up to the task of keeping the machine chilled during operation, the Aegis 3 performs exactly as you’d expect.
Digital Extremes’ Warframe looks and plays great on the Aegis 3.
Instead, the main thing I was interested in investigating with the Aegis 3 was the performance impact of Optane caching. Jeff already wrote a full review on the topic, and you should check out his impressions there first if you haven’t already. My experience with Optane on the Aegis 3 was not far different from his, although I’ll still offer my own perspective on the matter. If you’re impatient, here’s the bottom line: using a machine with an Optane cache drive is very like using a machine with an SSD most of the time.
I say “most of the time” because there are some pitfalls to be aware of. Application installs and program launches happen very quickly, just like on an SSD. Some things are still going to proceed at hard drive pace, though. The initial Windows setup after I unboxed the machine took around 30 minutes. After that, I decided to go ahead and let the machine do all of its updates. The PC came with Windows 10 Anniversary Edition (version 1607) installed, so Windows decided to update itself to the Creators Update (version 1703). This took more than an entire workday. The Creators Update itself took over six hours to install.
I’ll be honest: I have only ever done this process on a few other PCs, and they all had solid-state drives. I don’t know how long it usually takes to do the Creators Update on a hard-drive-only machine, but I was a bit taken aback at how long this update took on the Aegis 3. Years of SSD use will do that to a person. After the Creators Update, there were still yet more updates to be done, and that took the better part of another hour. All told, including game downloads, it was a whole two days after I got the machine hooked up before I got to actually play anything on it.
So Windows Updates take forever, but the actual experience of using the machine is enjoyable. It feels exactly like an SSD-equipped machine the overwhelming majority of the time. While it was a little sluggish at first, after a few hours of using it you would never know that Windows is installed on a 2TB mechanical drive. Microsoft Edge and File Explorer launch immediately, Steam comes up in a flash, and everything generally proceeds more or less as you would expect on a modern PC with a Core i7. Even app installs, like the MSI Afterburner setup I did just a few days ago, happen in the blink of an eye.
Slide from MSI marketing materials
The advantage of Optane caching a single hard drive is that even your games can benefit. At least, that’s the idea. MSI and Intel aggressively advertise the benefits of Optane to gamers. I set out to test the idea using GTA V, Warframe, Dark Souls III, and Fallout 4. My idea was that I would play one game until I noticed the benefits of Optane caching (in the form of quicker load times, assumedly). Then, I’d swap to another game for a while, and finally go back to the first game to see if playing a different game caused the Optane caching advantage to evaporate. The problem was, I never really noticed a difference.
While playing all four games—in offline mode where applicable, to avoid network-related nuances—the machine launched games and loaded levels at more or less the same pace as my personal desktop. That’s absolutely not a bad thing; my desktop is very fast. However, my desktop runs all these games off of an un-cached hard drive, which means that Optane didn’t seem to be making much difference.
To confirm my impressions, I disabled the Optane cache in the Intel Rapid Storage utility. Doing so requires a reboot, and afterwards the machine took upwards of 2 minutes to boot. Applications were incredibly sluggish to launch. Using the machine this way was not much fun. I had been fortunate enough to avoid using Windows 10 off of a hard drive until this point, and I was stunned at how much worse the machine performed without the cache drive enabled. In that regard, Optane is a huge success.
However, the difference in game load time and performance was negligible. I’m sure I could have recorded a difference with a stopwatch, or software monitoring tools, but subjectively speaking it was nil. I picked the titles I picked because they’re games with notoriously long load times (GTA V and Fallout 4) or because they’re games with frequent loading screens (Warframe and Dark Souls III). I was careful to launch each game three times in succession to make sure the cache was engaged. Despite my efforts, I didn’t notice a major difference in game load time when disabling the Optane cache. It’s possible that GTA V loaded in a bit faster, but the difference was pretty marginal at best.
In his review, Jeff did observe some significant difference in game load times, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why I didn’t. It’s not unimaginable that the 16GB drive is already loaded up with Windows files and doesn’t have room to cache enough of a game to be relevant. It’s also within reason that I simply didn’t stick to one game long enough for the cache driver to decide to cache the game. Intel may also have tweaked its Optane algorithm between our initial review and my experience with the device.
Whatever the case, I feel comfortable saying that Optane caching is pretty much a wash for gamers versus running games directly off a hard drive, at least with the 16GB module. Obviously, games will load faster from an SSD, but few can afford to stick their entire Steam library on solid-state storage. If you’re someone who spends a lot of time playing one game, like an MMORPG you play every day, you might see more convincing results—but then, those kinds of games don’t usually have much loading anyway.
One other peculiarity of the Aegis 3 is that MSI splits the hard drive into two partitions. I used to do this myself back when I was using a single drive in my system. It makes Windows re-installs a lot more convenient when all your apps and data are stored on a separate partition. However, MSI’s split of the 2TB drive strikes me as a bit strange. The partition where Windows is installed is 1.1TB in size. Meanwhile, the “Data” partition occupies the rest of the disk, making it only around 700GB in size. If MSI were going to split the system disk to make OS installs more manageable, I would have rather seen a 1.5TB data partition and a much smaller Windows partition.
That said, the company’s choice is even more confusing in light of the fact that it leaves the user two (logical) disks to manage. One of the more easily-overlooked advantages of Optane caching versus an SSD+HDD arrangement is that, as far as the OS is concerned, the machine only has one disk. That makes file management much simpler for novice users who may not be comfortable installing apps or finding files on a second disk. It also helps for some poorly-programmed games—like many Games for Windows Live titles—that expect all their data to be on the C: drive.
Ultimately I went into testing expecting to be disappointed with the Optane cache. Instead I came away impressed, at least to some degree. Optane is an amazing benefit for a machine that spends most of its time on the desktop. Edge, Excel, and Word open instantly, web pages load and re-load in a blink, and it’s a great user experience all around. For gamers, the benefit is less tangible, but it certainly didn’t hurt anything. While it’s not quite the same as having an SSD, I came away from my time with the Aegis 3 more convinced of Optane’s benefits than not.
When I received the Aegis 3 and noted that it lacked a solid-state drive, I have to admit my enthusiasm for testing it was severely dampened. It didn’t help that around the same period, I had Zotac’s Zbox Magnus EN1080 to test. Now that it’s almost time to send the Aegis 3 back to MSI I can’t help but feel like I may have been unfairly prejudiced against it.
The MSI Aegis 3 handles Final Doom with aplomb.
After spending a week with the Aegis 3, I did come away with quite a few nitpicks. I still think that requiring the user to hook up a pass-through port on the rear panel to enable the VR Link front HDMI out is a bit janky. The eternally-disabled video ports on the motherboard for the CPU’s IGP don’t impress me, nor does the paltry selection of display connections on the graphics card. Similarly lacking is the warranty support for upgraded Aegis 3 machines. That’s not unusual among pre-built systems, so I really can’t knock MSI for it—Corsair does the same thing with its One tower. I just wish both companies would stop advertising their machines as upgradeable when cracking either one open voids any manufacturer support.
Looking at the Aegis 3’s spec sheet, I would have preferred to trade a bit of CPU power for a little more GPU power. The 3GB version of the GTX 1060 is already running up against video memory barriers in GTA V, Doom, and other titles. It is the opposite of future-proof. A Core i5-7600 would have offered very similar gaming performance to the Core i7-7700 in the machine for games, and it might have allowed MSI to slot in a GTX 1060 6GB and keep the price about the same. Once again, over-speccing the CPU and under-speccing the GPU is a complaint I have with a lot of pre-built PCs.
Newegg has already stopped selling this model of Aegis 3, but Amazon still has stock. Likely, MSI will be shipping an updated model with Coffee Lake CPUs before long. The last price on Newegg was $949, and you can still find this machine on Amazon for $1100. For $949 it was a really nice value, and for $1100 it’s still good, but only just. It would cost us around $950 to build this machine ourselves. Throw in the Windows install and the peripherals and we’re all the way to $1100, even before we start talking about RGB LED lightstrips.
The Aegis 3 did change my mind about one thing in that hypothetical custom build: an Optane-cached hard drive would certainly be something I’d include in the parts list. Before using this machine, even having read Jeff’s article, I was still pretty leery on the idea of skipping an SSD entirely in favor of the Optane cache module. After having used it, I have to say: it’s pretty solid. That 16GB module goes for a little under $50 on Amazon. That’s a lot cheaper than a decent-sized SSD. It’s a real shame that Intel has locked down Optane support to Kaby Lake Core i3 and better CPUs, because those drives could make real sweet upgrades for slightly older hard-drive-only office PCs and even new budget builds.
So, with a unique (if divisive) aesthetic, solid gaming performance, and no real faults to disqualify it, I’m going to call the Aegis 3 TR Recommended. It’s a solid gaming PC for a fair price. No, it isn’t going to set speed records, and it only has a one-year warranty. It’s also not much more expensive than a custom-built machine of the same speed, and it includes peripherals that are a cut above what you usually find in the box with pre-builts. If you’ve got a growing gerbil ready to gear up for PC gaming, an Aegis 3 could be just the ticket.