Time to go Portable: Welcome to the Family, MSI Phantom!

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November 21, 2016

I still have a few days before I can write up a full review, but I’m too excited right now not to share – I finally, after weeks and weeks of deliberation and analysis, made the jump and ordered a VR-ready laptop to accompany my arsenal of headsets and to be my new travel companion for portable virtual reality demos!

I had a few specific things that I wanted in a VR-ready laptop, and the MSI 14″ Phantom ended up checking the most boxes that I wanted. I wanted to be able to hit the specs for the Rift and for the HTC Vive, and to be as light-weight as possible due to the amount of traveling that I do. I used to take my DK 2 and rig up (admittedly pretty bad) demos on my MBP when I was working with new developers, but for the most part over the last year and a half, the only demos that I’ve done have been at my apartment. I had almost bought one of the 980 GTX laptops (which were running about $3000 in the earlier part of the year) and I’m really glad that I waited with the new lineup.

My requirements:

  • Thin & Light – under 4lbs was ideal for me, about what my current laptop (2014 MBP) is
  • 13.3″ to 15.9″ range screen – I prefer smaller laptops to large ones
  • At least 256GB of space – my desktop has 1.5TB, and my MBP with Bootcamp at 256GB ran out of space all the time due to the dual OSes. I figured 256, while maybe a bit on the small side, would be enough for a portable demo and dev rig
  • GTX 1060 or higher, but since I have a 1080 in my desktop, I was actually leaning towards the lower end card to test against

Why I chose the MSI 14″ Phantom:

 

I don’t have anything against Razer or Alienware (I had a 12″ Alienware laptop on loan for a few months in college and I flipping loved it) but both of those seem to have a bit of a price hike for two reasons: branding and a 4K screen. I did spend quite a bit of time looking at the Razer Blade, but ultimately decided that the MSI Phantom stood up to my requirements and were cheaper. The 4K screen would have been nice, but given that this was a demo machine for portable VR demos, I ultimately decided I didn’t really need that.

MSI Phantom Laptop, Amamon

MSI Phantom Laptop, Amamon

Because this machine isn’t meant to be a full desktop replacement for me, I ended up compromising a bit on the SSD – if there had been an option to buy the 14″ laptop with a larger SSD, I would have, but I’m going to give the 128GB SSD + 1TB HD combination a try and if need be, I’ll upgrade the drive to a 500GB SSD instead.

Other contenders:

  • Aorus X3 – the price on this slowed me down, especially since it seemed to be mostly for the better screen resolution and larger SSD. If I didn’t have my desktop, this would have been a more appealing buy, and as it stood, it was the second-place option that I considered next to the MSI range. It was slightly heavier than the Phantom I ended up with (3.97 lbs vs. 3.75 lbs) and for an extra $400, I just didn’t end up wanting the additional upgrades that much.
  • ASUS ROG STRIX – at 15.6″, this was already on the larger side for me, but the price was appealing at first glance. When I realized that the default config didn’t have the SSD included, and that it came in at 4.8lbs, I decided it was a bit too big for me (like the Aorus, this would have been a bigger contender if I was looking for a full desktop replacement)
  • Razer Blade – as gorgeous as this laptop looks, it had quite a bit going against it for me. While it had the 256GB SSD option, the starting price for that configuration was already $300 more than the MSI Phantom. It also was heavier (4.16lbs)  and the increase in price didn’t seem to offer as much as I would have liked to see, given the similarities in the configurations with competitive laptops.

Final thoughts:

I was impressed with the options that I found for thin & light VR-ready laptops, and I’m so excited to do a full review when my Phantom comes in later this week. Ultimately, my deciding factors after getting the basic requirements for VR in came down to weight, screen size, and SSD size – and I’ll see how I end up doing with a 128GB SSD to boot from and a 1TB disk for storage on the Phantom. Stay tuned for a full review on the Phantom, once I get a chance to throw it into my somewhat aggressive day to day life as a VR dev!

Bonus Section: To give some context on how I’ll be using my machine, I’ll give you a quick rundown on my work flow!

  • Unity Development – Usually, I’ve got at least two copies installed (Beta / HoloLens test build & Latest Stable)
  • Blender for simple 3D modeling
  • Node.JS development environment for web dev stuff
  • Git command line tools & LFS
  • At least 2-3 VR titles to demo with when I travel
  • A number of WIP apps
  • The Android SDK for Cardboard/Daydream development, which comes in at a whopping 11GB
  • Visual Studio 2015 and the suite of tools for Holographic Development (Windows 10 SDK, Emulator)
  • OBS for recording videos for Just A/VR Show and making tutorials
  • Visual Studio Code for web dev, documentation

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