Laptop Review: MSI Prestige 15

This post is a laptop review of the MSI Prestige 15. I’ll be writing about my experience with it after about 2 months of consistent usage, explaining where it shines and where it falls short.

As a techie (and especially as a Linux techie), I always expect some sort of “gotcha” with any computer. Behind the shiny brushed aluminum of the latest designer laptop lurks a 2 hour battery, or a low-resolution screen, or shoddy thermal management. When you start throwing Linux into the mix, now you’re looking at things like incompatible hardware, terrible performance, or not even being able to boot at all.

Imagine my intrigue when I learned about the MSI Prestige 15. Here was an ultrabook that met all of my requirements, was cheaper than its competitors, and appeared to be Linux-friendly. I did my homework, pulled the trigger, and in short, I love it. I wrote this post to document my experience after about 2 months of consistent usage, including my initial impressions and some of the issues I had/am having with it.

Before I talk about the laptop itself, I’ll talk about my requirements when searching for a laptop and how that led me to the Prestige. If you just want the review, skip down to the “First Impressions” heading.

Requirements

First, let me explain why I was laptop-hunting and what kind I was looking for. I use my laptop for a wide range of activities: writing, programming, running virtual machines, and occasionally gaming. I wanted something with:

  • Decent Linux support
  • A Core i7 (or the AMD equivalent) or higher
  • 16+ GB of RAM, or 8 GB with expandable/replaceable memory
  • A 512 GB SSD
  • A dedicated GPU, or eGPU/Thunderbolt 3 support
  • Decent portability

Some “nice to haves” were:

  • A high DPI screen
  • USB-C charging

Price wasn’t as much of a factor, and based on some initial research, I was prepared to spend anywhere between $1,400 and $1,800. Plus, I’d rather spend a little more for better quality than get something that would fall apart after a year or two.

Options

When researching vendors, I started with Linux-centric ones (System76, Tuxedo Computers, and Slimbook) before branching out into the mainstream. After a couple of weeks, I narrowed my list down to five options:

  1. Slimbook Pro X 15
  2. System76 Oryx Pro
  3. Dell XPS 15 7590
  4. System76 Gazelle
  5. MSI Prestige 15

The System76 laptops were my first choice, but the only one with a dedicated GPU that really caught my eye was the Oryx Pro (call me picky, but I didn’t like the design of the Gazelle). My only hangups were the 1080p screen and complaints on various sites about bad battery life and poor cooling. Both laptops did, however, have higher class CPUs and GPUs than the ones you’d find in most ultrabooks. This gave them a bit more “oomph”, but also meant that they’d use more power and give off more heat.

The Dell XPS 15 was my second choice. It met all my needs, was within my price point, and even had a 4K touchscreen. But a lot of users complained about excessive heat when the GPU was active, and reviews from Linux users weren’t exactly glowing. Users had to jerry-rig the backlight controls with scripts, struggled with efficient power management, and complained about suspend not working. These might have been fixed recently, but at the time it was enough to move the XPS down my list.

Next was Slimbook. I’d heard about the company through the KDE Slimbook II, an ultrabook built specifically for KDE development. Slimbook is a Spanish company selling a range of systems, and the Pro X 15 is the one that caught my eye. It had everything I was looking for, but there were some quirks. For one, the company is relatively unknown and (perhaps unsurprisingly) only speaks Spanish. In addition to the cost of the laptop, there would be a €120 shipping charge and additional customs fees just to get it to the U.S. Plus, the U.S. English keyboard was out of stock at the time, with no clear indicator of when it would be back in stock.

Last was the MSI. Though it had a lower-power CPU and GPU than the others, it still met my requirements and then some: 4K screen, very Linux-friendly, USB C charging, Thunderbolt 3, good cooling, and a sleek design. I found a sale at Best Buy for around $1,450 after tax, and after another week or so of evaluating, I decided to go for it.

First Impressions

From the very first boot, the Prestige is a great experience. Windows 10 starts up super-fast thanks to the NVMe drive and really takes advantage of the 4K screen. Everything is clear, crisp, and bright. I wasn’t sure how I’d like the matte screen coming from the 15″ all glass touchscreen of my previous laptop, but I quickly grew to love it. The screen has super small bezels and is practically paper-thin, but the build quality is good enough to where it doesn’t feel too wobbly or brittle.

The keyboard is fully backlit with 4 different levels of brightness (including off). The keys aren’t amazing, but comfortable enough for typing for long periods. For what it’s worth, the arrow keys, page up/page down keys, and insert/delete keys are full size, rather than tic-tac size like many ultrabooks. The touchpad is extra wide, super smooth, and has a built-in fingerprint reader that you can set up immediately for quick logins in Windows. It does sometimes get in the way of typing, and while this is likely a configurable setting (i.e. palm detection), I haven’t yet found a way to tweak this.

The Prestige is surprisingly well built for its size. It has an aluminum body with very little flex. With my last laptop – a Sony Vaio Flip 15 – you could feel the entire keyboard flex while typing. I can press down on the Prestige and it won’t budge at all.

For thermal management, the Prestige is a mixed bag. Under normal load, the keyboard and touchpad are perfectly cool to the touch. The CPU and GPU seem to be located in back behind the keyboard. Cool air is drawn in from the bottom, sucked through the core of the laptop, and vented out up along the screen, leaving the keyboard cool to the touch even under heavy load. The fans are whisper quiet under normal usage, and barely audible even under heavy load. However, the CPU temps can get very hot under load, and you may notice some throttling especially when gaming. This isn’t unexpected for an ultra book, and after playing a few fairly modern games (Black Mesa, Grim Dawn, Subnautica), I never noticed a substantial drop in FPS or responsiveness. It’s a minor trade-off, and the price of having a cooler and quieter machine.

The Linux Experience

If your Linux experience has been anything like mine, you know how finicky hardware support can be. The same components can work flawlessly with one vendor, and not at all with another. Finding a good Linux laptop usually means waiting for someone else to be a guinea pig and buy the laptop first, or just cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Luckily, a lot of users had already ran the latest Ubuntu (20.04) on this laptop with incredible success. The linuxhardware and MSILaptops subreddits were especially helpful for answering some of the less obvious questions, like whether or not suspend worked (a big problem with the Vaio). I installed Pop!_OS 20.04, an Ubuntu derivative by System76, and I’m glad to say that almost everything works flawlessly out of the box. This includes hybrid graphics with the dedicated Nvidia GPU, which means Pop will only activate the higher-power GPU for 3D and gaming applications, and use the low-power Intel GPU for everything else. A lot of distros seem to struggle with this, but Pop has it nailed down.

This goes a long way towards reducing heat and increasing battery life. Pop reports an estimated 7 hours at 79% battery, and some reviewers are claiming 12-15 hours in Windows. I haven’t yet timed a full drain of the battery, but rest assured this laptop will last for quite a while on a single charge, even with Linux having notoriously poor battery life compared to Windows. This laptop does appear to have some sort of overcharging protection built in, so you might not see the charge exceed 75 or 80% even while it’s plugged in. The same behavior is apparent in Windows, and while there might be a way to change this, I haven’t yet looked into it.

Performance

This isn’t a gaming laptop by any stretch of the imagination, but it still works exceptionally well for modern games. If you’re looking for 60+ fps at 4K resolution, or want to get into VR, this isn’t the laptop for you. But if you occasionally play games and don’t mind lowering your resolution or reducing detail, this is about as good as it gets for a laptop of its class. Probably the most intensive game I’ve played so far is Black Mesa, which runs incredibly smooth at 1080p on very high settings. This laptop could push 4K, but not without a huge performance hit.

CPU performance is fantastic, despite it being a low-power version of a Core i7. It’s a six-core hyperthreaded CPU, giving you 12 total threads to work with. Part of setting up my development environment involves compiling a static copy of Qt. With the Vaio, I would have to let my laptop churn for 30+ minutes while doing something else. With the Prestige, I can run it in the background while browsing the web, watching videos, and playing games, and it will still finish faster than the Vaio. This is a great multitasking machine and is perfectly suited for developers, video creators, 3D modellers, and anyone else who works with processor-intensive applications.

Problems and Headaches

Of course nothing’s perfect, and there are a couple of nagging issues with this laptop.

First, the fingerprint reader doesn’t work at all in Linux. It’s made by Validity, who doesn’t offer (or plan to offer) Linux drivers. There’s a reverse engineering effort underway, but I wouldn’t expect it anytime soon.

Second, there’s an issue with the driver for the built-in Intel WiFi adapter that causes it to crash when transferring large amounts of continuous data. For example, if I’m downloading a game off Steam, watching a 1080p or 4K YouTube video, or even just copying files from a remote PC, the wireless driver will crash and restart. This isn’t a huge problem for things like file downloading, but for real-time things like online gaming, it becomes a real problem. This is a known issue,  and the only workaround that I’ve seen so far is to create the file /etc/modprobe.d/iwlwifi.conf and add this line: options iwlwifi 11n_disable=8.

Final Thoughts

I honestly wasn’t expecting to like this laptop as much as I am. It’s got some quirks, but overall it’s an incredibly well-made package with great Linux support, really powerful internals, and a unique style. It’s a fantastic work laptop and a capable gaming PC. Pairing it with Pop!_OS 20.04 makes it a nearly perfect Linux system, despite some issues with the WiFi adapter and fingerprint reader.

If I find a solution to any of the problems mentioned, I’ll update this post. If you’re in the market for an ultrabook and can afford a more premium price, definitely check this one out.

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