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I wasn't particularly impressed by the last 14-inch gaming laptop I reviewed. The performance from the Gigabyte P34W v5 was decent, but it was let down by a collection of issues, including a bland design, poor thermal performance, and a subpar keyboard and trackpad. So I reached out to MSI to see if their latest 14-inch gaming machine, the GS40 Phantom 6QE, is a truly better option.
The hardware inside the GS40 Phantom is well-rounded but won't pull any surprises either. It's loaded up with a 14-inch 1080p display, an Intel Skylake Core i7-6700HQ CPU, a GeForce GTX 970M discrete graphics card, 16 GB of RAM, and a combination of a 128 GB SSD with a 1 TB hard drive. It also packs the latest connectivity, including a USB Type-C port sporting Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 gen 2.
The Phantom isn't a flagship gaming laptop, but it does include a handy list of other features, such as Killer DoubleShot Pro networking, a SteelSeries keyboard, and a brushed aluminium chassis. All of this is available for a decent price of $1,599, with no configuration options available.
The aspect to the GS40 Phantom that I was most impressed with is the design. Having used gaming laptops from Alienware and Gigabyte previously, among others, the understated design to MSI's 14-inch laptop is appreciated. Yes, there are still some elements of 'gamer' style to this laptop, including various contours on the laptop's lid and around the keyboard, but it's far less than you'd get from some other over-the-top designs.
Despite the understated design, MSI has succeeded in giving this reasonably expensive laptop a premium look and feel. Both the laptop's lid and the keyboard surround are made from brushed black aluminium, which is visually appealing and a slight fingerprint magnet. There are some areas of plastic, although it's limited enough to not detract from the otherwise great metal chassis.
MSI has also done a fantastic job of not making this laptop just a black slab of materials. The majority of this laptop is black metal or plastic, but there are some slight red highlights found around the design that give it a bit of much needed interest. The shiny red rim around the trackpad is particularly nice, as is the surprisingly subtle red backlighting to the keyboard that's barely visible in natural light.
The design of the GS40 Phantom 6QE isn't perfect though. MSI has made no attempt to make this laptop exceptionally thin or light: at 22.8mm thick and 1.6 kg heavy, it's pretty average for this size and class of device. That's not to say the 6QE is bad in this respect - it's around the same weight as a 13-inch MacBook Pro - but it's not as compact or portable as some top-end gaming laptops of a similar size.
There are quite substantial bezels around the 14-inch display as well. Measuring in at 16mm or higher on all sides, MSI could have comfortably fit a larger display in this chassis. Luckily the display is matte-finished, rather than glossy, which significantly reduces reflections and cuts down on accidental fingerprints.
The GS40 Phantom comes with a typical selection of ports for a gaming laptop. On the left side you'll find Ethernet, a proprietary power connector for the 150W power brick, a USB 3.0 port, an SD card slot, and two 3.5mm audio jacks for headphones and a microphone. On the right is a HDMI 1.4 port, a USB 3.0 port, and a single USB Type-C port that provides Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 gen 2.
Like with the Gigabyte P34W v5 and the new Dell XPS 13, the inclusion of Thunderbolt 3 is great for a number of reasons. It provides 40 Gbps of bandwidth, which is enough for multiple 4K 60 Hz displays or multiple extremely fast external drives. It also supports USB 3.1 gen 2 for 10 Gbps connections and power delivery through an established protocol, and the reversible USB Type-C port is the future of USB connections.
On the back of the GS40 you'll find two large vents, each with fans for the CPU and GPU respectively. The GPU also gets a second vent along the right-hand side, as its higher TDP requires extra cooling. The back panel features a mini-DisplayPort 1.2 connector as well, which is in a convenient location for those who might be docking the GS40 into an external display.