If you're looking for a reasonably portable gaming laptop, the MSI GX640-098US is a 15.4-inch multimedia powerhouse that might just be for you. At a bit under 6 pounds, it is easier to carry than similarly powerful laptops. Even so, it's still not the ideal, take-anywhere travel companion, unless, of course, you just can't live without Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Our review model features a 2.27GHz Intel Core i5-430M CPU, an ATI Radeon HD5850 graphics card with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, 4GB of system RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. It also has a 15.4-inch, 1680-by-1050-pixel LCD screen, as well as a nine-cell battery, an 8X DVD±RW combo drive, and a full-size keyboard complete with number pad. The GX640-098US supports Bluetooth connectivity and Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, and has both a 1.3-megapixel webcam and a microphone built in. If you want to pay a little extra, you have the option of upgrading the CPU (to a Core i7) or the optical drive (to a Blu-ray Disc player).
The MSI GX640-098US features a black, brushed-aluminum design with red accents. The cover is fairly simple, with a silver, mirrored MSI logo in the center and a thin red plastic strip at the bottom being the only details. The inside has a red plastic border around the keyboard and touchpad, plus a futuristic-looking red-and-black strip of touch-sensitive buttons above the keyboard. The buttons include rewind, stop, pause/play, and fast-forward media buttons, as well as an 'Eco' button (for cycling through a variety of modes, including gaming mode and office mode), a 'Cinema Pro' button, a webcam button, a Bluetooth button, a Wi-Fi button and a programmable button.
Though MSI touts the GX640-098US as a portable gaming computer, I don't recommend replacing your netbook with it just yet, it still weighs about 6 pounds with the nine-cell battery, and it measures a sizable 14.1 by 10.24 by 1.22 inches. The power block is also pretty clunky, and carrying both the laptop and the power block around is enough to make your shoulder hurt after about 15 minutes.
As for ports, the GX640-098US is pretty well equipped. You get an ethernet port, headphone and microphone jacks, two line-in jacks, a VGA-out port, an HDMI-out port, two USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, an Express Card slot, and a four-in-one multiformat card reader.
The keyboard is a "raised Chiclet" style, not quite regular, not quite Chiclet. It's easy to type on, the keys are springy and responsive, but it feels awkwardly placed, probably because it is. Remember, this is a full keyboard and number pad on a 15-inch laptop, so typing with your hands mostly on the left side of the keyboard will take a little getting used to. The keys are lettered with a modern font, which helps to contribute to the "futuristic" look of the laptop. The keyboard also caters, somewhat, to gamers: The W, A, S, and D keys are highlighted in red with the corresponding up, left, down, and right arrows on them, and the 8, 4, 6, and 2 keys on the number pad also have arrows. This is a nice touch, but probably not terribly useful if you're even a semiregular gamer. The Fn and Ctrl keys are swapped (the Fn key is in the lower-left corner, and the Ctrl key is to the right of that), which will take some getting accustomed to (unless you're an avid Mac user). Mastering the layout doesn't involve a terribly difficult learning curve, but it is a little annoying.
The touchpad, smooth, indented plastic with two cut-out buttons beneath, is a decent size but not as responsive as I would have liked. The buttons, which are flush with the remainder of the palm rest, are very modern-looking and easy to press, but are sometimes a bit slippery and hard to find (not ideal if you're in the middle of a quest). Though it isn't the best touchpad and button combo that I've ever seen, I assume that any serious gamer will tote around a portable mouse anyway. For basic, nongaming purposes, the touchpad is sufficiently usable.
The 15.4-inch, glossy, widescreen LCD has a native resolution of 1680 by 1050 pixels. Viewing angles are pretty good: From the sides, the screen becomes a little darker but remains quite visible. The screen brightness is merely decent however, the best brightness level is only a couple of steps down from the highest setting, and viewing the screen in bright or direct sunlight is hard on the eyes. One thing worth noting: The blue LEDs that illuminate the touch-sensitive buttons above the keyboard (as well as the power button and the battery lights) are bright enough to the point of being irritating if you're, say, watching a movie in a dark room.
Audio and video playback are both great. Streaming HD video clips from Hulu is a breeze, no stutter at all. The speakers are truly impressive, though. Located above the keyboard on either side of the touch-sensitive button panel, the speakers are shiny silver and very, very good for a laptop. The sound is crisp and clear, and the maximum volume is the loudest I've heard on a laptop. The speakers lack some bass, but other than that they're fantastic.
Playing games is a pretty good experience on the GX640-098US. Graphics are smooth and seamless, and shadows and textures render excellently. It's also worth noting that the chassis doesn't get very hot. Unfortunately, playing games with the screen brightness at its highest (which is, unfortunately, necessary if you're playing a darker game) cuts your battery life to about an hour. Looks like you'll be toting that power block around with you after all. And even though the chassis doesn't heat up much, the fan runs constantly and loudly, even when you're using only Word and Internet Explorer.
The included software is pretty basic. The GX640-098US runs Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), and comes with the regular trialware: Microsoft Office Home & Student 2007 (60 days) and Norton Internet Security. It also comes with a full version of Microsoft Works and a suite of ArcSoft software (including ArcSoft Connect, ArcSoft Print Creations, and ArcSoft Magic-i Visual Effects 2).
The MSI GX640-098US lives up to its gaming notebook reputation, its Core i5 processor and ATI Radeon HD5850 graphics definitely deliver. It still has a few flaws: The keyboard is a bit cramped, the fan is a little loud, the LEDs on the "dashboard" are a touch bright, and the screen is somewhat dim. The speakers, however, are fantastic, some of the best I've heard on a laptop, and the speedy CPU is impressive.