High-end gaming laptops have all the bells and whistles, but truth be told, you don’t need RGB keyboard lights to play or enjoy today’s games. MSI’s GL65 ($699 as tested) is a value-oriented gaming laptop that proves that in spades. This 15.6-inch rig’s hardware for the money is as good as it gets in late 2019, including a 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 GPU, a speedy Intel Core i5 quad-core processor, and a surprisingly roomy 512GB solid-state drive. The whole package is topped off by a bright full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) display, making the GL65 a stellar example of entry-level notebook gaming and our new Editors’ Choice among bargain gaming laptops.
A Value-Packed Cranker
The GL65 is hardly the only 15.6-inch gamer to retail for under a grand with a quad-core CPU and a 4GB GeForce GTX 1650, but it’s further under that mark than most. As a matter of fact, as I type this, the system I’m reviewing (model 9SC-004) is an unbeatable deal. A Lenovo Legion Y545 with comparable hardware rings up at $849 with only half the storage (256GB). The Dell G3 15 (3590) is in similar straits, costing $100 more than the MSI although that price buys you both a 128GB SSD and a 1TB hard drive. Another option is the Asus TUF Gaming FX505 series (a technology refresh of the TUF Gaming FX504G), but it’s also more expensive when outfitted with a comparable AMD Ryzen 7 3750H processor.
Now, that pricing comparison focuses only on core specs, but key hardware is what matters most in the budget gaming world. (Features like RGB lighting, for instance, don’t actually do anything for gaming performance. Blasphemy, I know.) Given that we’re down to basics in this tier, saving $100 or more is nothing to sneeze at. It can buy two or more AAA-level game titles, a gaming peripheral or two, or almost a year’s subscription to Xbox GamePass.
Getting back to the GL65, its 2.4GHz Core i5-9300H processor is a quad-core, eight-thread part with a 45-watt thermal design power (TDP) rating, qualifying it as a chip worthy of a desktop-replacement notebook. Gaming laptops in the next pricing tier usually step up to the Core i7-9750H, a six-core, 12-thread chip that’s better suited to multitasking and livestreaming duties.
Graphics-wise, the MSI’s 4GB GeForce GTX 1650 is Nvidia’s bread-and-butter “Turing” offering for both laptops and desktops. More potent than the “Pascal” GTX 1050 it replaces, it’s generally comfortable playing games at 1080p resolution without compromising on image quality settings too much. (I’ll hone that statement a little further in the benchmarks section of this review.) The next step up for notebooks is a big one, to the 6GB GTX 1660 Ti, as there’s no middle-ground GTX 1660 as in the desktop world. The Ti is much faster than the GTX 1650, but you’ll almost certainly spend four figures for a laptop that has one.
The only hardware spec where the GL65 disappoints a little is its memory. The single 8GB DDR4-2666 stick in my review model is the minimum required by many AAA game titles. During my testing, I noticed some sluggishness while gaming and trying to do other tasks at the same time. It’s possible to inexpensively add a second 8GB DIMM to double the memory, or to upgrade the GL65 to 32GB via two 16GB DIMMs.
Patience and caution are required for such an operation, though. The bottom panel is held on by a dozen screws, and you’ll need a pry tool to undo all the plastic clips holding the chassis halves together. When taking the plastic halves apart, special care is needed to route the chassis port openings around the actual ports (especially the headphone and microphone jacks) to avoid damage. It’s not a process I’d care to undertake more than once.
You’ve Got That Gaming Feeling
The GL65 shares its basic design with MSI’s pricier GE65 Raider. The two even share dimensions, at 1.1 by 14.1 by 9.8 inches. Though on the thick side, this notebook is hardly chunky. Its display bezels are about as thin as you can get.
Visually, the GL65 dips into gamer cliché with its red-and-black color scheme. Most of the red comes from the keyboard backlighting, with only a few accents on the chassis. Despite the colors, the overall look of the machine is conventional, though the MSI gaming logo on the lid (which is passively backlit by the screen) means it won’t be mistaken for anything but a gaming laptop.
Aluminum, which covers the GL65’s top and lid backing, is nice to see on a laptop at this price point. The Asus TUF Gaming FX505 and Dell G3 15 both make exclusive use of plastic. The rest of the MSI’s construction is plastic, keeping its heft in check; I weighed our review model at 4.6 pounds, although MSI’s official specifications say it’s supposed to be 5.1 pounds.
Put It in Red
The red-only keyboard backlighting is one of the ways this GL65 unit keeps costs down. (MSI sells upscale models in the GL65 line with per-key RGB backlighting.)
The keyboard is familiar if you’ve used an MSI gaming notebook recently. The feel is rubbery but pleasant, with enough key travel for communicative feedback. Layout-wise, the left-side Windows key is missing, but the preinstalled MSI Dragon Center utility lets you swap its functionality with the Fn key to the right of the space bar. A dedicated button at the top right of the keyboard launches Dragon Center; next to it is the power button and another to engage maximum fan speed (which I never needed; see the cooling section later in this review).
Speaking of software, note that the GL65’s keyboard, while it’s designed in conjunction with peripheral maker SteelSeries, isn’t compatible with the SteelSeries Engine app like the keyboards of some higher-end MSI notebooks. As such, it doesn’t support remapping keys or saving profiles.
Located left of center in the palm rest, the GL65’s touchpad is spacious enough. It’s marred only by its overly loud button clicks; I found myself tapping the pad to click to avoid the noise.
Built-in biometric features are lacking on the GL65, a drawback it shares with many gaming notebooks. I point this out in reviews since non-gaming laptops that cost much less often include a fingerprint reader, face recognition webcam, or both. At least the GL65 measures up when it comes to its 720p webcam, which offers a reasonable picture in the right light. On the audible side of the spectrum, the MSI’s speakers are just so-so. While they have enough volume, their tinny sound and lack of bass will have you reaching for your headphones.
Bright and Full HD
The GL65’s display is everything a value-oriented gaming rig’s should be. Not only is its 1080p resolution just right for gameplay with the GeForce GTX 1650, but games are brought to life by its bright and colorful picture, wide viewing angles, and anti-glare surface.
The panel’s refresh rate is 60Hz, not the 144Hz (or even 240Hz) supported by deluxe gaming screens, but that’s not a biggie at this price. Outside of some less demanding esports titles, the GTX 1650 isn’t likely to push beyond 60 frames per second (fps) in modern games.
Port Locations Aren’t Ideal
The MSI’s ports are all located on its sides. This wouldn’t be a talking point if it weren’t that most them are too close to the front edge, which can be problematic if you plug in a device that sticks out and encroaches on external mouse space. The good selection almost makes up for the inconvenience, however. On the left, you’ll find an Ethernet jack; HDMI and mini DisplayPort video outputs; USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports; and separate headphone and microphone jacks…
Meanwhile, the right edge is graced by two more USB 3.1 Type-A ports, a full-size SD card reader, and the power connector.
The 150-watt AC adapter has a right-angle jack so it doesn’t stick out too far. For wireless communications, the GL65 offers 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.
Solid Entry-Level Performance
Now let’s see how far the GL65’s bargain hardware can carry it in our benchmark suite. I pitted the MSI against the following gaming laptops, most of which pack harder-hitting (and more expensive) components:
The Acer Nitro 7, despite having the same basic hardware as the GL65, has a more premium build and features. Up the performance scale from there is the Lenovo Legion Y545, packing a 6GB GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPU, followed by the Asus ROG Strix Scar III and Dell G7 15, each equipped with a 6GB GeForce RTX 2060. The MSI GL65 is, on paper, the least capable in the CPU department; its Core i5-9300H has two fewer cores than the Core i7 chips in the others.
CPU and Media Tests
We start with UL’s PCMark 10, a general productivity or system assessment benchmark. The GL65 was a little off the pace here, though still above the 4,000-point mark we expect from a high-performance machine.
Also included here is the PCMark 8 storage benchmark, which we use to evaluate the performance of the PC’s primary drive. The MSI and its 512GB PCIe SSD kept up just fine.
Getting back to CPU performance, the Cinebench R15 test uses all available cores and threads to render a complex image. With only four instead of six processing cores, the GL65 was at a clear disadvantage…
Next comes our Adobe Photoshop test, in which we add up the total execution times while using a 2018 release of Photoshop Creative Cloud to apply 10 filters and effects to a standard JPEG image.
The 8GB of RAM in our GL65 is enough to run Photoshop without slowdowns, though for serious use as an image editing system, it’d be better to have 16GB.
For the 3D-focused testing, we’ll start with UL’s 3DMark suite. The two gaming-style benchmarks we use are Fire Strike and Sky Diver, both of which are DirectX 11-based. In the more demanding Fire Strike test, the GL65 kept up with the Acer Nitro 7, using the same 4GB GTX 1650 GPU.
The GTX 1660 Ti in the Lenovo Legion Y545 was far ahead, however. This general pattern carried over to Unigine’s Superposition test, which we run at two resolutions. It uses a different rendering engine than 3DMark for a second opinion on a PC’s graphics performance.
The MSI slightly edged out the Acer. Note the GeForce RTX 2060-based Asus and Dell laptops didn’t greatly distance themselves from the Lenovo—the latter’s GTX 1660 Ti was close in performance, although it lacks the ray tracing and DLSS features inherent in Nvidia’s RTX product line. (None of our tests leverages RTX-specific features.)
Finally, we use the built-in benchmarks in two real-world AAA games, Far Cry 5 (at its Normal and Ultra 1080p presets) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (at its Medium and Very High presets). Far Cry 5 uses DirectX 11; we flip Rise of the Tomb Raider to DX12.
The MSI GL65 finished neck and neck with the Acer Nitro 7, indicating that its Core i5 CPU isn’t holding it back to a meaningful degree. That said, I found the 57fps average reported by the Rise of the Tomb Raider at the Very High preset to be optimistic. While actually playing the game for an hour, the frame rate often strayed well below that level, so I ended up lowering the detail settings to make the game more playable. The GeForce GTX 1650 will be stretched to its limits at full HD resolution in the most demanding titles, so don’t expect to be able to use maximum visual quality settings in every game.
Battery Rundown Test
In our last benchmark, we measure a laptop’s unplugged runtime while playing a locally stored video with screen brightness at 50 percent and audio volume at 100 percent. We use the notebook’s energy-saving rather than balanced or other power profile, turn off Wi-Fi, and even disable keyboard backlighting to squeeze as much life as possible out of the system.
The days when gaming notebooks conked out after only 90 minutes or so away from a power outlet are over. The MSI’s five and a half hours isn’t a record, but it’s not a negative, either. It’ll let you step away from a wall socket without having to constantly keep an eye on the battery percentage.
Good Cooling Performance
The GL65 has two cooling fans positioned at its back corners:
Their air intake comes from the underside of the chassis, most of which is grated for airflow.
While I played Rise of the Tomb Raider, the fans’ noise level was noticeable, but not pronounced above the usual household bustle. You won’t game unnoticed, but you won’t drown out nearby conversations, either.
Here’s a look through our FLIR One Pro thermal camera at the GL65 during the gaming session…
The center of the keyboard is a little toasty (113 degrees F), but the temperature drops off drastically elsewhere. Under the hood, its Core i5-9300H CPU topped off in the mid-70-degree C range, which is quite acceptable. The GTX 1650 GPU reached just 65 degrees C.
An Exceptional Value
Above all else, the GL65 is notable for the gaming performance it delivers for the money. For $699 in our tested guise (and potentially even less, as I spotted it online for as little as $599 after a rebate), it can play the latest games at 1080p resolution with decent visual quality settings. A bright screen and a comfortable keyboard complete the package. There’s even some aluminum in its build, a bonus that its plastic rivals lack.
The downsides are few and relatively minor: The laptop’s speakers could be better, its touchpad buttons are noisy, and some of its ports aren’t ideally placed. Sure, it would be nice if the system had a Thunderbolt 3 port or RGB-backlit keyboard, but those are features you’d expect to find on a notebook that retails well into four figures. The GL65 manages to be inexpensive without eschewing the essentials.
Overall, this MSI has exactly what it needs to be a great buy and our newest Editors’ Choice among value gaming laptops.