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MSI EX720 review: MSI EX720

MSI's EX720 isn't a bad laptop, but it certainly strikes as one with too many shortcuts taken. Still at AU$1,649 it's affordable, and if you're budget and technically minded you'll likely get some decent mileage out of this laptop.

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
5 min read

Design
MSI's EX720 is a large beast of a machine — big enough to be qualified as a media-centred laptop. It doesn't really make a big deal of this, in fact only a few media control buttons near the screen and the small sticker showing it's "Dolby Home Theater" certified really give it away, otherwise it's just a big, 17-inch laptop.

7.0

MSI EX720

The Good

Built well. Affordable. Weight is decent for a large laptop.

The Bad

Software setup is frustrating and broken. Trackpad drivers not included. Keyboard squashed to incorporate power button. Air vent on right hand side. Low resolution for a 17-inch screen.

The Bottom Line

MSI's EX720 isn't a bad laptop, but it certainly strikes as one with too many shortcuts taken. Still at AU$1,649 it's affordable, and if you're budget and technically minded you'll likely get some decent mileage out of this laptop.

The screen is passable, being glossy and not particularly bright. It's a lower resolution than one would hope at 17 inches, coming in at 1440x900. The requisite webcam and mic are at the top of the screen, while beneath it on the chassis are the aforementioned media controls, buttons to turn the Bluetooth on and off, wireless and webcam functions, and two quick launch buttons — all of them touch sensitive.

Featured here is also MSI's "Eco" button, which simply gives quick access to MSI's built-in battery profiles for different applications such as gaming and movie watching. As usual, some of the presets seem completely out of kilter with what you'd actually want, so you may wish to customise this yourself — or at least, you would if MSI included any tool to do so. As it stands, you'll have to use the Windows power management utility, which never lists all of MSI's options in one go, requiring you to first set the power option through the Eco button, then edit the profile through the Windows tool.

The keyboard isn't the best we've used, the coating in particular caused fingers to slide over it more than usual, resulting in more typos than strictly necessary. Keys on the right-hand side between the main keypad and the numpad are also horizontally squashed, although most people use their smaller fingers to press these keys so it may not present much of a problem. Still, it seems the only reason they are squashed is that MSI has installed a strip on the left-hand side that only has one function — to house the tiny power button, which realistically could have been moved anywhere else.

The trackpad is usable enough, although curiously the Synaptics software isn't bundled for configuration, nor is there any indication it's a Synaptics touchpad. While the driver is easy enough to find for the experienced user, the novice is going to wonder why the touchpad scroll function doesn't work in every application, and why every time they type text seems to randomly select, or the cursor jumps to a random spot on the screen and they start typing in a different area. The answer is that the touchpad sensitivity is too high, and there is an option to compensate for palm swiping in the Synaptic drivers — so we're curious why MSI did not include them.

The wrist rest of the laptop is brushed aluminium, with the mouse buttons being a part of the wrist rest itself. The rest of the chassis is a mixture of matte silver and black, except for the area around the touch-sensitive buttons which is piano black, with speakers set on either side.

The speakers do attenuate slightly on loud volume, but the laptop features a small subwoofer which overcomes the typically weedy laptop sound. While an admirable volume is achieved by the speakers, they are nonetheless still laptop speakers, and an external set or a set of headphones will gain you much better sound quality.

Features
During the Windows Vista set-up we were introduced to something we'd not seen before — an option to not install some of the crapware included with the laptop, including an "Office Trail Work8.5 for English [sic]" (which turned out to be a full version of Microsoft's Works suite as far as we could tell), and ReAllusion's CrazyTalk. While Ulead's BurnNow was in the list, it was unable to be deselected.

Once Windows had loaded we discovered Norton Internet Security (complete with nagware installed in the Vista sidebar), Microsoft Office 2007 trial and, curiously, WinRar trial were already installed. We also discovered the BurnNow scripted install was faulty, the executable claiming there was missing files and no shortcut appearing in the Start menu. After finding the original install files on the hard drive and reinstalling, it worked fine.

Upon the first install, UAC was disabled, yet when the machine reset, it was enabled again, meaning that very simply, MSI has to get itself a significantly better software team.

Extras were decent, with MSI supplying a halfway decent external mouse, a cloth to wipe the screen with, and thoughtfully, two blank DVD-Rs to create recovery discs. You'll need these, as the laptop doesn't actually come with a Windows disc, so make sure you do use them.

On the right-hand side there is a microphone port, dual-speaker ports, headphone port, mini-FireWire, combined eSATA/USB and another USB port. An SD card reader is here, as well as an ExpressCard 54 slot. There's also an exhaust on the right-hand side, meaning right-handed external mouse users may get their hand lightly roasted during extended use.

The left side features a DVD drive, two USB ports, gigabit Ethernet and a 56Kbps modem, while the rear gets another air vent, HDMI and VGA ports.

Internally it features wireless N, Bluetooth, an Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 at 2.26GHz, a 9300M GS graphics card, 320GB hard drive and 4GB RAM. Sadly, MSI has used a 32-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium, leaving the system only able to use 3.07GB of RAM.

Performance
Coming with a moderate CPU and GPU, we expected a decent showing and the EX720 did just that, registering 1861 in 3DMark06, and 5112 in PCMark05, making it suitable for productivity work, online use, movie watching and older games. When turning off all power-saving features, setting screen brightness and volume to maximum and playing back a DVD, the battery lasted one hour, 30 minutes and 28 seconds — OK for a 17-inch desktop replacement.

MSI's EX720 isn't a bad laptop, but it certainly strikes as one with too many shortcuts taken. The poor software implementation will frustrate new users, and the average keyboard will likely deter most. Still at AU$1,649 it's affordable, and if you're budget and technically minded you'll likely get some decent mileage out of this laptop.