MSI Alpha 15 Review
MSI’s Alpha 15 made waves at its debut a year ago for using all AMD hardware, the only gaming laptop to do so at the time. Other vendors have joined the ranks since then, but MSI prepared well by refreshing the Alpha 15 ($1,199 as tested) at the end of 2020 with a more powerful “Renoir” Ryzen 7 processor and a beefier 6GB Radeon RX 5600M graphics card. The new notebook churned out great 1080p gaming performance in our testing while keeping the high-end features of the original, such as its per-key RGB backlit keyboard. Our top choices among upper-entry-level gaming rigs remain the HP Omen 15 and the Acer Predator Helios 300, but the Alpha 15 is a creditable alternative, especially if you can catch it on sale.
Touched Up by ‘Renoir’
The new Alpha’s eight-core Ryzen 7 4800H CPU (2.9GHz base, up to 4.2GHz boost) gives it a leg up on similarly priced Intel gaming notebooks powered by the six-core Core i7–10750H. The Helios 300 is one example, going for $1,174 on Amazon with a 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti as I typed this review.
That said, the Alpha 15 must also contend with AMD-powered notebooks; HP offers a comparably equipped Omen 15 (model 15-en0029nr) for $1,249 while the Dell G5 15 SE goes for $1,205. These minimal price differences highlight the fierce competitiveness of this segment.
The MSI looks much the same as before on the outside. Its dark silver palm rest contrasts nicely with the black of the rest of the laptop, though I’m still lukewarm about the green logo on the back of the lid. At least it’s not backlit.
The lid backing is the only metal on this laptop. Considering the Alpha 15 is now $100 or $200 more expensive than last year’s model, it could stand more of it to feel as sturdy as the Acer and HP laptops. That said, all its surfaces do a good job of resisting flex.
The system is slightly oversize and overweight for a 15.6-inch gamer. Its 1.1-inch thickness is 0.2 inch more than the Omen 15, and it’s heavier at 5.3 pounds versus 4.6 pounds. Trim side display bezels translate to a reasonable 14.1-inch width, though a thick bottom bezel extends its depth to 9.8 inches, 0.4 inch more than the HP.
The full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) screen leaves little room for complaint. It not only offers IPS technology for wide viewing angles, an anti-glare coating, and a 144Hz refresh rate, but AMD FreeSync Premium technology to smooth out frame rates. Laptops with Nvidia G-Sync are far more expensive.
The screen has average brightness but an overall enjoyable picture with its rated 72% coverage of the NTSC gamut (about 100% of sRGB).
The Keyboard: Per-Key RGB Backlighting
Its SteelSeries-designed keyboard is one of the Alpha 15’s high-end touches. It integrates with the SteelSeries Engine app for its per-key RGB backlighting and reprogrammable keys, features usually reserved for more expensive gaming notebooks. (The Omen 15 and Predator Helios 300 offer neither.)
The island-style keys have satisfyingly soft key presses and a font that says “gamer.” Layout-wise, the keyboard is partially nonstandard since the arrow keys are forced into the main keyboard area, downsizing the right Shift and number pad 0 keys. (The Lenovo Legion 5i avoids this traffic jam by properly divorcing its arrow keys below the keyboard.) The Windows key is also located to the right instead of left of the space bar, though the MSI Dragon Center app lets you swap it with the Fn key if you wish. A maximum-cooling-fan button, a key to launch Dragon Center, and the power button sit above the number pad.
Meanwhile, the traditional two-button touchpad offers a smooth surface and ample space, though its physical clicks are loud.
The Alpha 15’s generous port selection includes four USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports (three Type-A and one Type-C), Ethernet, full-size HDMI and mini DisplayPort video outputs, separate headphone and microphone jacks, and a full-size SD card reader.
The ports are divided between the left and right sides, though some are positioned right up against the front edge (near the user) so plugged-in peripherals can protrude into external mouse or elbow-resting territory. Fortunately, the included power adapter has a right-angle connector to keep a low profile.
The Alpha 15 uses an Intel AX200 wireless card for Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 connectivity, an upgrade over the original Alpha’s previous-generation wireless standards. However, like most gaming notebooks, it still lacks a fingerprint reader and face-recognition webcam to support Windows Hello biometrics. The 720p webcam also delivers merely average quality, like most laptops’ in this price range. The stereo speakers located beneath the palm rest are equally unremarkable with their bass-shy sound.
Team Red on the Bench: Testing the Alpha 15
The Alpha 15 model A4DEK-004US that I’m testing packs an eight-core AMD Ryzen 7 4800H processor, a 6GB AMD Radeon RX 5600M graphics card, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB NVMe solid-state drive for its Windows 10 Home operating system. MSI backs it with a one-year warranty. The system was hard to find for sale as I typed this, though the close-cousin A4DEK-005US model (which doubles the SSD storage to 1TB) was available for $1,199 on Newegg with a $100 mail-in rebate that brought it to just $1,099. That’s commendable hardware for the money.
For our performance benchmarks, I compared the Alpha 15 to the gaming notebooks listed below…
The HP Omen 15 teams its Ryzen chip with a GeForce GTX 1660 Ti to make an ideal comparison with (and foil for) the Alpha 15’s Radeon RX 5600M. The Acer Predator Helios 300 will show what a more expensive GeForce RTX 2070 (Max-Q) can do, while MSI’s Bravo 15, another all-AMD model from earlier this year, uses an entry-level Radeon RX 5500M to save money. (It was $999 as tested.) Let’s go.
Storage, Media, and CPU Tests
Our first test, UL’s PCMark 10, assesses general system performance across different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. The Alpha 15’s score of 5,950 points is outstanding, far above the 4,000 points we like to see from high-performance PCs. The system’s showing in PCMark 8’s storage subtest is also competitive. (That said, most modern SSDs ace this test.)
Next up is a pair of CPU-crunching tests: Cinebench R15 stresses all available processor cores and threads while rendering a complex image, while in our Handbrake test, we transcode a 12-minute 4K video down to 1080p.
The Alpha 15 kept pace with the Omen 15 and Bravo 15, since all three use AMD’s Ryzen 7 4800H CPU. The Intel-based Acer and Lenovo trailed.
The final test in this section is photo editing. We use an early 2018 release of Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud to apply 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG image, timing each operation and adding up the totals. This test is not as CPU-focused as Cinebench or Handbrake, bringing the performance of the storage subsystem, memory, and GPU into play.
The Predator Helios 300 and Legion 5i did better here mainly because of their higher-clocked Core i7–10750H chips, which top out at 5.1GHz; the Ryzen 7 4800H reaches just 4.2GHz. The “bursty” Photoshop test tends to reward machines that can ramp processing-intensive tasks up and down quickly. Nonetheless, the Alpha 15 still makes a powerful photo-editing platform.
Our first two benchmarks in this section measure the gaming performance potential of a PC. In UL’s 3DMark, we run the Sky Diver (lightweight, capable of running on integrated graphics) and Fire Strike (more demanding, for high-end gaming PCs) subtests, both DirectX 11-based. Our other gaming simulation, Unigine Corp.’s Superposition, uses a different rendering engine to produce a complex 3D scene.
The Alpha 15 and Omen 15 slugged it out, though the Alpha took the lead in 3DMark Fire Strike. However, the Superposition 1080p benchmark shows their GPUs are neck and neck. Both were far ahead of the Bravo 15.
Next, we’ll try some real games. We use the built-in 1080p benchmarks of Far Cry 5 (at its Normal and Ultra presets) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (at its Medium and Very High presets). Far Cry 5 uses DirectX 11, while we flip Rise of the Tomb Raider to DirectX 12.
The stalemate between the Alpha 15 and Omen 15 continued; it’s clear that the Radeon RX 5600M and GeForce GTX 1660 Ti are well-matched. The GeForce RTX-equipped Predator and Legion performed slightly better.
As far as Intel versus AMD goes, the Core i7–10750H is just as capable of gaming as the Ryzen 7 4800H, though the AMD chip’s two extra cores can be advantageous for livestreaming or recording gaming sessions. It’s undoubtedly an all-around faster CPU.
Impressively, the Alpha 15 didn’t get more than lukewarm on its top and bottom throughout my gaming sessions. Its processor and graphics card also stayed under their maximum rated temperatures — the Ryzen 7 4800H topped 86 degrees C while the Radeon RX 5600M reached just 68 degrees C.
That said, I wish the fans were quieter. It was easy to pick out the noise from across my living room while the Alpha 15 was running full tilt.
Battery Rundown Test
For 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 where available, turn off Wi-Fi, and even disable keyboard backlighting to squeeze as much life as possible out of the system.
The Omen 15 lasted another hour, but the nearly nine hours of the Alpha 15 is an excellent time for a 15.6-inch gamer. MSI deserves a shout-out for vastly improving the battery life versus last year’s model, which lasted barely five hours in this same scenario.
Well-Priced AMD Power, Take Two
MSI’s refreshed Alpha 15 is a much stronger performer with its eight-core Ryzen CPU and Radeon RX 5600M graphics card, as it’s now able to go toe-to-toe with GeForce GTX 1660 Ti notebooks. It offers high-end features not often seen at its price point — a 144Hz FreeSync Premium screen and per-key RGB backlit keyboard — and showed impressive stamina in our battery test.
It’s a little chunky and could use quieter cooling fans, but its low price makes those downsides easier to digest. Well-priced and well-rounded, the Alpha 15’s value torch continues to burn brightly among upper-entry-level gaming laptops.