When it comes to laptop workstations, there are the big three—Dell, HP, and Lenovo, in alphabetical order—and everyone else. The MSI WS66 (starts at $2,599; $4,199 as tested) is the latest 15.6-inch aspirant from a company better known for gaming rigs. (Indeed, this model is based on the GS66 Stealth.) The WS66 has impressive hardware, including an eight-core Intel Core i9 processor and Nvidia’s top professional GPU, but our test unit’s lackluster screen spoiled its suitability for elite design and 3D rendering apps. HP’s ZBook Fury 15 G8 remains our Editors’ Choice winner among flagship mobile workstations, and we rate the Lenovo ThinkPad P15 Gen 2 and the Dell Precision 7560 above the WS66 as well.
The Components of a Contender
The $2,599 base model of the MSI WS66 combines a Core i7-11800H CPU with Nvidia RTX A3000 graphics, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB solid-state drive, and a full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) touch screen. Stepping up to a 2.5GHz (4.9GHz turbo) Core i9-11900H processor adds $400. For $4,199, our review model 11UMT-220US packed the same display and SSD, the Core i9 chip, 64GB of memory, and Nvidia’s RTX A5000 with 16GB of video memory.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
MSI’s website promotes the WS66 with an older 10th Generation CPU as offering a 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) display, but a company rep told us that 11th Gen 4K configurations are not available at retail, though they can be special-ordered. That’s a letdown since video editing, architecture, and many other workstation tasks are highly visual—and since others in this class offer superlative screens ranging from high-res OLED panels to HP’s dazzling DreamColor displays. But it still leaves opportunities for scientific and engineering jobs that prioritize crunching large datasets over presenting images.
Clad in black aluminum with a subdued MSI dragon logo on the lid, the WS66 measures 0.71 by 14.2 by 9.7 inches, a bit slimmer but roughly the same size as the Precision 7560 and ZBook Fury 15 G8. At 4.63 pounds, it’s almost a pound lighter than those systems, and much more svelte than the ThinkPad P15 Gen 2 (1.24 by 14.7 by 9.9 inches and 6.32 pounds). The Fury’s digital-content-creator sibling, the HP ZBook Studio G8, undercuts them all at 3.96 pounds.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
The WS66 has passed MIL-STD 810G tests for travel hazards such as shock, vibration, and environmental extremes; there’s little flex if you grasp the screen corners or press the keyboard deck. The screen’s side bezels are thin; the top bezel makes room for a face recognition webcam, which along with a fingerprint reader in a corner of the touchpad gives you two ways to skip typing passwords with Windows Hello.
Networking is one of the MSI’s strengths, with Wi-Fi 6E and 2.5Gbps Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi 6 and Gigabit respectively. On the other hand, while other premium workstations have two Thunderbolt 4 ports, the WS66 has just one. It’s on the left edge along with HDMI and USB 3.2 Type-A ports and the power connector. Two more USB-A ports join a USB-C 3.2 port, an audio jack, and Ethernet on the right side.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Not Much to Look At
Along with Disney+ and LinkedIn, the Windows 10 Pro software preload is bolstered by MSI Center Pro software that offers system stats, diagnostic routines, noise cancellation, resource optimization for selected applications, and several cooling or fan-noise modes. (We used the loudest or high-performance mode for our benchmark tests.) An MSI True Color utility lets you cycle through sRGB, movie, office, anti-blue-light, and custom color temperature settings.
The latter’s choice of sRGB, native, and Rec. 709 color palettes pales next to other premium mobile workstations’ Adobe RGB, DCI-P3, and other gamuts, and the WS66’s 1080p touch screen generally pales next to other panels—it’s a relatively low-quality display without rich, vivid colors or high contrast. Brightness is adequate, but the screen needs to be tilted quite far back (so far it gets floppy) to see white instead of dingy backgrounds. Fine details are sharp and viewing angles are pretty broad, but the dull, washed-out colors are a drag.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
The MSI’s keyboard is brightly backlit but has a shallow, wooden typing feel. The layout is slightly awkward, as well—there’s a stack of four keys at far right that would be good for Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down, but instead they’re Delete, Insert, Page Up, and Page Down. The latter two pair with the Fn key for Home and End, but the Fn key is close by to the right instead of left of the space bar, so it’s a clumsy combination.
Top-row function keys include a microphone mute and webcam toggle as well as volume and brightness controls. The touchpad is buttonless, never a good thing for a workstation since many independent software vendor (ISV) apps make extensive use of right and middle buttons; it glides and taps smoothly but has a stiff, plasticky click.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
The webcam has the usual, minimal 720p resolution; it captures fairly colorful, soft-focus images with a lot of noise or static. Sound from the speakers above the keyboard is too weak to fill a room even at top volume; you can dimly make out overlapping tracks but it’s hollow and muffled, as if a blanket had been thrown over the laptop.
Performance Testing the WS66: A Five-Way Workstation Melee
The obvious machines to join the MSI WS66 in our benchmark comparison charts are other high-end 15.6-inch mobile workstations, the abovementioned Lenovo ThinkPad P15 Gen 2, the HP ZBook Fury 15 G8, and the Dell Precision 7560. The last spot went to HP’s ZBook Studio G8, a content creation workstation with one of Nvidia’s GeForce gaming GPUs instead of its A-series professional silicon. You can see their basic specs in the table below.
The main benchmark of UL’s PCMark 10 simulates a variety of real-world productivity and content-creation workflows to measure overall performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. We also run PCMark 10’s Full System Drive test to assess the load time and throughput of a laptop’s storage.
Three benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to rate a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon’s Cinebench R23 uses that company’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).
Our final productivity test is Puget Systems’ PugetBench for Photoshop, which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe’s famous image editor to rate a PC’s performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It’s an automated extension that executes a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks ranging from opening, rotating, resizing, and saving an image to applying masks, gradient fills, and filters.
The WS66 did fine in PCMark 10 and Photoshop (all these systems are sheer overkill for everyday apps like Word and Excel), but its Core i9 processor underwhelmed in HandBrake and Cinebench, beaten by others including the Dell’s Core i7.
We test Windows PCs’ graphics with two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL’s 3DMark, Night Raid (more modest, suitable for laptops with integrated graphics) and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs).
We also run two tests from the cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 5, which stresses both low-level routines like texturing and high-level, game-like image rendering. The 1440p Aztec Ruins and 1080p Car Chase tests, rendered offscreen to accommodate different display resolutions, exercise graphics and compute shaders using the OpenGL programming interface and hardware tessellation, respectively. The more frames per second (fps), the better.
These mobile workstations are built for serious tasks, not for shoot-’em-ups, but have more than enough graphics muscle for our gaming simulations. The MSI took the silver medal behind the ThinkPad.
We run two additional programs to simulate workstation applications. The first, Blender, is an open-source 3D suite for modeling, animation, simulation, and compositing. We record the time it takes for its built-in Cycles path tracer to render two photo-realistic scenes of BMW cars, one using the system’s CPU and one the GPU (lower times are better). BMW artist Mike Pan has said he considers the scenes too fast for rigorous testing, but they’re a popular benchmark.
Perhaps our most important workstation test, SPECviewperf 2020, renders, rotates, and zooms in and out of solid and wireframe models using viewsets from popular independent software vendor (ISV) apps. We run the 1080p resolution tests based on PTC’s Creo CAD platform; Autodesk’s Maya modeling and simulation software for film, TV, and games; and Dassault Systemes’ SolidWorks 3D rendering package. The more frames per second, the better.
Go figure: After frankly underperforming in several benchmarks including Blender, the WS66 simply crushed SPECviewperf. It’s a point in its favor, but we have to admit the renders and viewsets looked much better on the other four systems’ superior screens.
Battery and Display Tests
We test laptops’ battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file (the open-source Blender movie Tears of Steel) with display brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100%. We make sure the battery is fully charged before the test, with Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting turned off.
We also use a Datacolor SpyderX Elite monitor calibration sensor and its Windows software to measure a laptop screen’s color saturation—what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts or palettes the display can show—and its 50% and peak brightness in nits (candelas per square meter).
Workstations spend nearly all of their time plugged into wall outlets or power strips, not on airline tray tables, so battery life is less important for them than it is for ultraportables, though the MSI showed good stamina. By contrast, it performed miserably in our display brightness and color fidelity tests—the screen’s certainly usable or passable, but it’s more what we’d expect from an inexpensive general-purpose laptop, not an elite workstation.
When You Strike at a King
The 15.6-inch flagship workstations from HP, Lenovo, and Dell are expensive, exotic laptops that deliver topmost performance for demanding professionals. The MSI WS66 isn’t in their league, partly because of a somewhat subdued Core i9 CPU but mostly because of an unimpressive screen. If you have $4,000 to spend, you can do better.
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