A few weeks ago, I introduced you to Gipsy Danger: a beefy shared workstation for translating CAD data. Well, Gipsy made more than a few people in the office more than a little jealous of her power. Unsurprisingly, that heightened my users’ desire to acquire new mobile workstations to replace an aging fleet. Normally, that would mean ordering up a few of HP’s latest and greatest Zbooks. The stars weren’t quite aligned, though—the HP hexa-core machines of our dreams simply weren’t cart-able when we wanted them.
After some research, it turned out that only MSI had so far managed to put together a system with everything I was looking for that was also for sale. Enter the MSI WS63 8SJ: a bona fide 15.6″ mobile workstation in the body of an ultrabook. I have to admit that purchasing something other than my trusty HPs made me a bit nervous. The specs were just too good to resist, though, so I took the chance and ordered one up for “educational” purposes.
The specific configuration I chose for the WS63 comes with a Core i7-8750H processor and 32 GB of 2400 MT/s memory. It also sports a 512-GB Samsung PM981 NVMe SSD, Nvidia Quadro P2000 graphics, and an Intel Wireless-AC 9560 radio inside. A 1920×1080 “IPS-level” display and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity through a USB Type-C port round out the critical components. The rest of the port array includes a full-size HDMI port, a mini DisplayPort, uh, port, three USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports and a single USB 2.0 port. Niceties like a 720p webcam, card reader, stereo speakers, and a pair of audio jacks are, of course, built-in.
At this point I’ve got to mention the disclaimer that comes with this review. As a work system, my primary concern was to get this machine into its anxious user’s hands ASAP. I took good notes, ran a few tests, and documented what the user had to say after a few days with the system, but this is not an in-depth review with all the standard TR metrics. Think of it as light reading. If you want more performance numbers on the Core i7-8750H CPU that the WS63 has inside, take a look at our full review of Gigabyte’s Aero 15Xv8. That gaming machine runs on the same chip. I also want to specifically apologize up-front for the lack of battery run-down tests, but it just wasn’t in the cards. The machine comes with an integrated three-cell 65 WHr battery, though. As always, workstation users looking for the best performance will get it when the WS63 is plugged into the wall.
Looking the part
Aesthetics seem as good a place as any to start with this system. As a workstation, I’m going to call the WS63 close but no cigar. Don’t get me wrong: the WS63 is a handsome machine, but it seems like someone that had a hand in its design just couldn’t fully break free of the “gaming” mindset. The superfluous shield logo on the lid and bright neon accents just feel out of place. It’s funny—if this was a “gaming” laptop I’d be crowing about MSI’s design restraint, but since it’s a workstation even the reserved appearance isn’t quite bleak enough for my tastes.
The font on the keyboard is another giveaway that the WS63 may have gaming roots. It’s not something that will cause problems, but my personal preference would be for a more professional-looking typeface. It’s especially irksome that some of the letter labels are the same as others on the board but just rotated a bit. W, M, U, and N are guilty of this case-agnostic tomfoolery, for example. At least the backlighting on the keyboard is effective, and there’s not an RGB LED in sight.
Now, the next aspect of the look and feel of this machine is a bit of a weird one. Some of you may know that I’m no stranger to fuzzy computers. Even with the way fabric and consumer electronics are meeting more often these days, I wasn’t expecting the entire underside of the WS63 to be plush-ified. I think the material is a microfleece of some kind, and it seems to be well-adhered to the laptop. While I’m fairly amused by this underbody treatment, I’m also essentially ambivalent about its function. I guess it would be nice if you used the system on your lap, and it probably doesn’t affect thermal performance much in that case, but only time will tell how well it holds up to that kind of use. At least it doesn’t appear prone to generate lint or pill up and clog its own fans.
Speaking of cooling, the WS63 has three fans to move air through its svelte chassis. Those fans intake from the bottom and exhaust out the back and sides of the notebook. This setup was able to keep the 45-W Core i7-8750H processor between 82°–84° C after 20 minutes of Prime95 Small FFTs load. For comparison, a few-year-old Zbook 15 with an i7-4700MQ in it hit 98°C under the same load in the same environment. That said, the MSI had to get both noticeably louder and higher-pitched than the Zbook under load to maintain those temperatures, but not problematically so. Under normal operation, the MSI was inaudible over my office’s background noise. I didn’t check temps under a graphics load, but I’m left with the impression that there is thermal headroom to spare in this system—especially considering the GPU has its own fan and heat pipe.
I booted up the laptop as-delivered and used it just long enough to check out what apps came preinstalled. After grabbing the screenshot below, I immediately wiped the machine and installed the brand-new Windows 10 April 2018 update after hitting the old-school looking BIOS to tweak the boot device order. Nothing that MSI had loaded on the system was especially bothersome. In fact, it had a lot less garbage on it than a new system from HP would, but I like working from a clean slate all the same. I’d complain about the Windows Store apps that came pre-installed, but since even Microsoft installs crap by default now, I really can’t blame MSI for muddying the water there.
As soon as I laid hands to the keyboard, I noticed that my wrists were especially comfortable. The bevel on the front of the laptop is particularly generous and smooth compared to the same edge on other laptops I’ve used. Immediately following this discovery, I slid the laptop around on my desk a little—only to accidentally power it off partway through the Windows install thanks to the power button’s location on the front-right corner of the machine. Lesson learned, though, and I doubt that will be an ongoing problem. By the way, the touchpad is fine, but I tend to avoid using them at all costs so I’m not an expert there. I know I prefer hardware buttons, and the WS63 lacks ’em. The expected gestures worked fine and the pad does click if you’re into that kind of thing. I didn’t test the integrated fingerprint reader.
The last thing I want to talk about before sharing my meager performance numbers is the WS63’s Thunderbolt 3 implementation. This laptop is actually my first bit of experience with Thunderbolt 3, and so far I’m less than impressed. I’ll spare you the full-blown rant, but standards people, standards! In my opinion, the whole Thunderbolt, USB-C, power delivery, and eGPU “thing” is a total disaster. Thunderbolt 3 wasn’t one of my main concerns when choosing the WS63, so anything that benefits from it is mostly a bonus, but not knowing exactly what features you’re going to get until the laptop arrives is far from ideal. Luckily, I’ve gone and done some learning for you on the subject.
Not quite what I’d hoped for.
My users are used to having docks for their workstations, so I picked up the CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 dock to go with the MSI. This dock is very highly regarded online, and I have no reason to believe that any of the problems I’m about to describe can be attributed to it. In fact, I contacted CalDigit’s support about a couple things and their online chat was knowledgeable and quick to reply, but they ultimately pointed the finger at MSI.
In theory, the only thing someone in possession of a TS3 Plus would need to plug into the WS63 is the Thunderbolt 3 cable. The dock has plenty of USB ports, an Ethernet port, and can run up to two displays simultaneously (but you’ll need a USB-C video adapter for one of them). It also provides 85 W of power for charging connected laptops. In reality, though, the WS63’s TB3 implementation isn’t nearly so elegant. Even after contacting MSI and applying the latest firmware, the WS63 doesn’t charge itself over Thunderbolt 3, and it can only drive one external screen at a time using the dock (both outputs do work fine individually, though). That makes my $300 dock little more than an expensive USB hub with an Ethernet jack built in—not exactly the user convenience I was hoping for. Hopefully, future firmware updates will change the situation, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
As I mentioned up front, I don’t have in-depth numbers to share in this section. What I do have is a collection results from CPU-Z and an assortment of laptops and workstations I had laying around. I also ran some rendering tests in SolidWorks’ PhotoView 360 and tapped Crystal Disk Mark to take the Samsung PM981 for a ride. Let’s start with the SSD results.
The 960 Evo was the only logical comparison I had on hand to pit the PM981 against, and it turned out to be a good match. The 960 Evo wins out most of the time, but the PM981 puts up a respectable showing. At any rate, I don’t think the average client workload is going to be slowed down by the storage system.
I used the simple benchmark built into CPU-Z to help quantify the performance of Gipsy Danger and Godzilla. I’ve built upon those results to produce the numbers below. My eclectic collection of CPUs is simply a result of what was on-hand combined with what I thought would prove most interesting.
I was a bit surprised to see the i7-8750H pull out a win here, but it’s not by much. The cores and clocks are so closely matched that we’re probably looking at some of the consequences of the high core count and on-die mesh of the Core i9. At any rate, the performance of the i7-8750H is impressive, even if it’s only one benchmark. While we’re here, I also found it interesting that the i7-2860QM beat out the i7-6500U. A quick check of Intel’s ARK reveals that the older Sandy Bridge chip can boost 500 MHz higher than the 30 W-less-power-hungry Skylake part, though. I was also surprised to see the i7-4700MQ mobile Haswell CPU hanging with the i7-4820K Ivy Bridge-E, but again, it’s just one thread of one benchmark
Now we’re starting to see a bit more separation. Once you digest the single-threaded results, I don’t suppose anything in the multi-threaded numbers comes as a shock. More cores, higher scores or something like that. These results did mean it was my turn to be jealous, though. My personal desktop at work is the i7-4790K seen in the i7-8750H’s rearview mirror. Ouch. Let’s move on to the final graph.
In this test, we’re rendering the image below using Solidworks’ PhotoView 360 application. Never mind what it is. Looks like I don’t have to throw out my Devil’s Canyon sweetheart just yet. This is why we don’t just rely on one benchmark, people. Other than evening out that score, the rest of the lineup remains very similar to the previous results. If anything, I think we’re seeing the impact of the sustained loads on the all-core boost clocks of the mobile chips drag them down a bit. That reminds me: when I had the WS63 fully loaded, the i7-8750H bounced between 2.3 GHz and 2.4 GHz, just a bit over its base frequency. It sure is an opportunistic little scamp, but the WS63 doesn’t seem to be giving it much opportunity.
Let’s wrap this up. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not yet sure if the MSI WS63 is the system I’ll roll out to the rest of my users. The biggest disappointment stems from the current status of the system’s Thunderbolt 3 implementation. Without an easy-to-use dock, my users are going to complain, and not just to me, which isn’t good for anyone. If MSI can figure that stuff out, there’s a much better chance I’ll buy more of these systems.
Additionally—and I didn’t mention it previously, because I don’t have the equipment to quantify it—the screen is just OK. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either. I’ve spoiled my users for a long time by making sure they got nice IPS screens. Maybe they wouldn’t notice, but I would know. Otherwise, the WS63 is a fully modern and well-built machine that packs a lot of punch into not a lot of space. Might work for me.