Summary: With GeForce 9600M GT graphics, a 2.0GHz Athlon X2 mobile CPU, and 4GB of DDR2 memory, MSI's GX630 gaming notebook is priced at just $800. The system is surprisingly light as well. Has MSI created the perfect notebook for gamers on a budget? Find out in our review!
For the gamer on the go looking to save a little money, the GX630 looks like a winner. But is it too good to be true? Has MSI cut too many corners to get the price below $900? Thatís what weíre here today to find out.
One of the keys to the GX630ís low price point is their choice of CPU: MSI uses AMDís Athlon X2 QL-62 CPU. The QL-62 is a dual-core CPU with 512KB of L2 cache per core (1MB total), 1.8GHz HyperTransport (3.6GHz effective), and 25W TDP. While the QL-62 isnít as powerful as AMDís latest Turion X2 Ultra processors, it is based on the exact same Griffin core. The key difference is the Turion X2 Ultra CPUs sport higher clock speeds (2.1GHz and up) and also feature a larger 2MB L2 cache (1MB of L2 cache per core).
The key ingredient to the GX630ís gaming credentials is without a doubt its GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor.
The GeForce 9600M GT is one of NVIDIAís most popular mobile GPUs due to its combination of price and performance. The chip sports 32 stream processors clocked at 1250MHz, while the rest of the graphics core runs at 500MHz. Paired up to the 9600M GT is 512MB of 800MHz (1.6GHz effective) GDDR3 memory with a 128-bit memory interface.
Based on these specs, the 9600M GT compares most similarly to NVIDIAís GeForce 9500 GT on the desktop. The 9500 GT features 32 shaders, just like the 9600M GT, and it runs at 550MHz core/1400MHz shaders. Both GPUs also feature a 128-bit memory interface with 800MHz GDDR3.
The 9500 GT isnít exactly the fastest chip on the block, but as we demonstrated last summer it is capable of running todayís latest games with playable performance as long as youíre willing to compromise a little on the graphics settings. Most games should run fine with midrange settings.
Also keep in mind that the GX630ís 15.4Ē display maxes out at 1280x800. This prevents the 9600M GTís 128-bit memory interface from becoming a bottleneck as youíre capped from running at higher resolutions where the GPU is constrained by its available memory bandwidth.
When comparing specs between various inexpensive gaming notebooks from other manufacturers, itís important to keep in mind that MSI opted for the full spec 9600M GT GPU, and not the 9600M GS, which runs at slower clocks and usually ships with DDR2 memory. Itís an easy mistake that we see a lot of people make that can reap a significant difference in gaming performance.
In terms of upgradeability, the GX630 relies on NVIDIAís MXM standard, so technically the systemís graphics could be upgraded if the user chooses to do so. In reality though we donít think this is feasible for anyone outside of MSIís own labs, as MXM cards are few and far between on the open market, plus youíd need to ensure that the GX630ís cooling would be sufficient for the GPU youíre upgrading to. Graphics upgradeability is a feature that the system manufacturer needs to offer in order for it to truly be a viable solution for gamers and unfortunately at this point MSI doesnít offer it. Fortunately we had no problems upgrading to NVIDIAís latest publicly available ForceWare 179.48 driver for notebooks released last month.
NVIDIA deserves huge kudos for delivering the worldís first universal driver for notebooks. This is a feature thatís absolutely vital in todayís age where many of the latest games donít run properly, or run with poor performance if they donít have the proper graphics driver. Previously gamers would have to wait months for their manufacturer to provide new drivers, if a new driver was made available at all, so NVIDIAís decision to provide universal driver updates to the public on a regular basis is of huge importance for any gamer shopping for a new notebook.
The MSI GX630 relies on a 15.4Ē TFT LCD display with a max res of 1280x800. Obviously 1280x800 is a bit on the low end of the resolution spectrum, particularly on a 15Ē notebook, but considering the $800 price tag of the GX630 itís another concession MSI had to make in order to hit such a low price point.
The top of the GX630ís chassis is based around a brushed aluminum frame that contributes to the systemís light weight. Plastic is only used for the vital parts like the underside of the system and on select parts of the lid, where aluminum could get scratched easily. The red trim is also decked out in plastic.
The black aluminum will collect fingerprints rather easily, but this is pretty common among notebooks today: pretty much everyone is opting for glossy finishes.
The frame of the GX630 feels remarkably solid for an $800 notebook. Honestly we expected compromises here, but itís pretty apparent that MSI didnít skimp in this regard: the GX630 sports the same basic frame that MSI uses on their pricier gaming notebooks. The system has very little flex and is remarkably solid considering its light weight.
The lid on the GX630 is also very well built. It features a latch-less design, simply lift the lid to open the notebook. The hinges on the lid are quite firm Ė the lid doesnít budge one millimeter unless you pull on it. Considering the number of times weíve bumped lids on laptops while walking with it open, this is quite reassuring. At the same time though, the lid isnít so firm that opening and closing the notebook repeatedly can become a workout. MSI has found that perfect balance between maximizing durability while preserving usability.
Again, considering the $800 price tag and specs of this system, we were expecting to get a cheaply built, all-plastic notebook with lots of flex, but MSI has actually delivered a system with excellent build quality befitting that of a more expensive system.
An example of this can be found in the quick launch buttons found to the left of the system power button, just above the keyboard. These buttons are all touch-sensitive, merely brush your finger across the button to activate it.
MSI provides touch-sensitive quick launch buttons for turning on/off the integrated wireless, Bluetooth, and the integrated webcam. Blue LEDs are used to indicate when each of these devices is activated. Additional touch-sensitive quick launch buttons are provided for toggling between the GX630ís five power modes (Gaming, Movie, Presentation, Office, and Turbo Battery), enabling or disabling the Turbo function (which automatically OCís the CPU 300MHz), as well as media playback buttons such as rewind/fast forward, play/pause, stop, etc.
Thereís also an additional touch-sensitive button that can be programmed by the user to launch whatever app youíd like.
The GX630ís minimalist design continues in the port clusters. The back of the GX630 features just two outputs: one VGA and one HDMI output. In addition, the system sports just two dedicated USB ports. A third port actually serves double duty as an eSATA, so you can either use it as a third USB port, or as an eSATA port, but not both. Weíd like to see MSI offer a third USB port on the GX630, bringing the grand total of USB devices supported to four. With the proliferation of USB thumb drives and external hard drives, not to mention a dedicated gaming mouse, MP3 player, cell phone, and other accessories, it isnít hard to run out of USB ports nowadays.
MSI also provides mini-1394, Ethernet, modem, and audio jacks on the left and right sides of the GX630.
MSI likes to tout the GX630ís keyboard as designed for gamers, with its highlighted WASD keys and numpad, but we actually think the keyboard is one of the weakest links on the GX630.
In the images above you can see what weíre talking about. See how the comma key is full-sized, but the period key isnít? You can also see this with the L key and semicolon. The right shift key is also tiny.
Itís the period key that probably caused the most frustration though. Normally simple tasks like typing sentences and entering .com, .org on the end of web addresses becomes a frustrating endeavor, as your brain has to adjust to the fact that the period key is squished in comparison to the other keys right next to it. Meanwhile, youíll have to use the function key in order to use the home and end keys for navigation.
Weíre also not big fans of the location of the left control key. We feel its position should be swapped with the function key, so it can be used more easily with your pinkie when gaming.
In our opinion, MSI should either ditch the numpad or shrink its size significantly so a full-size keyboard can be implemented. After all, a full-size numpad isnít nearly as important for day-to-day use as a full-sized period and enter key.
MSI employs a blower-style fan for cooling these components. Blower-style fans are becoming increasingly popular because they can push a large amount of air without generating a lot of noise. The GX630 is whisper quiet under normal operation. Crank it up to Turbo mode though and the fan will spin faster to compensate for the OCíed CPU. The system also runs cool for the most part. Heat only becomes noticeable after extended gaming sessions, although this is typical of any gaming notebook.
Audio and videoconferencing
Audio duties are handled by Realtekís ALC888 CODEC. The ALC888 is a 7.1-channel HD audio CODEC and is used on a number of MSIís desktop motherboards, including the 790FX-based K9A2 Platinum. Itís no longer Realtekís flagship audio offering, but it does deliver good audio quality and respectable specs (97dB DAC signal-to-noise ratio, support for Dolby Digital Live, DTS, etc).
Considering this is a gaming notebook, we werenít expecting miracles in the battery life department, as discrete graphics can take a huge chunk out of the batteryís available power, however we were surprised to see the GX630 system run out of juice at the 1:34 mark after basic desktop use. Gaming shaved this figure down to just 46 minutes.
MSI ships the GX630 with a copy of Windows Vista Home Premium x86 (32-bit), as well as 60-day trial versions of Office and Norton Antivirus. Thatís it. Thereís really no bloatware or other annoying software programs that load up upon system bootup.
With its GeForce 9600M GT, the GX630 put up respectable numbers in the games we tested: 30-32 fps in Crysis, over 40 fps in Fallout 3, and 30 fps in Far Cry 2, all with moderate or in the case of Fallout 3, high settings. Turning on turbo mode yielded mixed results, in Left 4 Dead and Crysis performance improved by about 5%, while the other games yielded no performance gains.
Specs, specs, specs: For an $800 notebook, MSIís GX630 sports very impressive credentials. For starters, gamers will appreciate the GX630ís GeForce 9600M GT graphics. The 9600M GT features a 32-shader architecture, with higher clock speeds than many other similarly-priced notebooks that are outfitted with 9600M GS or 9400M graphics (not to mention faster GDDR3 memory). But the GX630ís impressive spec list doesnít stop there.
MSI has also outfitted the system with 4GB of 667MHz DDR2 memory. As any enthusiast will tell you, 4GB really is the sweet spot when it comes to price/performance right now. Vista in particular really begins to shine with 4GB of RAM. The system also features a 2.0GHz Athlon X2 QL-62 processor, 250GB hard drive, 802.11b/g/n wireless networking, Bluetooth, and 2.0 megapixel webcam.
Price tag: Obviously the GX630 systemís $799.99 price tag is its second most distinctive feature. Never before has a gaming notebook with these kinds of specs been offered at a price tag this low. Dellís popular XPS M1530 now starts at $999 and features slower GeForce 8600M graphics, while ASUS gaming systems with GeForce graphics start at about $1,000 and weighs a little more than the GX630.
Now sure, both of these systems ship with faster Core 2 CPUs, but as weíve showed you time and time again, the GPU plays a greater role in gaming performance than the CPU. So itís okay that MSI skimped a little on the processor in order to bring the GX630 to such a low price.
Aluminum chassis: Okay, so youíre impressed with the specs and the price tag of MSIís GX630 notebook. If youíre like us, you would figure they accomplished this by housing everything in a cheap, all-plastic, hulk of a chassis. However the opposite is actually the case.
MSI uses the exact same brushed aluminum housing that they use on more expensive gaming notebooks.
Measuring in at 14" long, 10.2" wide and 1.22" tall, and weighing in at 5.9 pounds, the GX630 is also pretty diminutive.
Low noise/Cooling: As long as you keep the Tubo mode setting off, the GX630 generates very little noise. The GX630ís cooling subsystem also does a great job of dissipating heat.
Keyboard layout: By integrating a full-size numeric pad on such a diminutive chassis, MSIís forced to sacrifice space somewhere, and unfortunately the sacrificial keys theyíve chosen to squish are some of the most commonly used keys on your keyboard: the enter key and the period key. In our opinion, MSI should have shrunk the numpad in order to integrate a full-sized keyboard, or skipped the numpad entirely.
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