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MSI GL66 Pulse review: A solid all-rounder rather than a gaming great

10 Sep 2021
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
1,099
inc. VAT

The lack of graphics oomph and poor battery life prevent the MSI GL66 Pulse getting full gaming honours

Pros 
Decent display
Good keyboard
Powerful processor
Cons 
Terrible battery life
Too little video RAM
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Nvidia’s lineup of RTX 30-series graphics cards continues to grow. At the top, we have the fire-breathing RTX 3090, while at the bottom we now have the RTX 3050 and the slightly better RTX 3050 Ti. These new budget cards are intended to bring Nvidia’s latest graphics rendering tech to cheaper gaming laptops, essentially those with prices below £1,000.

Those of you paying attention will have realised that I’ve already reviewed an RTX-equipped gaming laptop with a price below £1,000, the Acer Nitro 5. That uses the RTX 3060, a GPU of proven capability, though it only just squeaks below the £1,000 barrier.

MSI’s new mid-price gaming laptop, the GL66 Pulse, also uses this new affordable GPU. However, it partners it with a very powerful Intel processor and wraps it in more upmarket garb than the Acer so that the end result actually costs more than the Nitro 5. It’s an interesting pitch, but does it work?

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MSI GL66 Pulse review: What you need to know

These new low-price Nvidia GPUs are all about bringing the unbounded joys of ray tracing to more and more affordable machines. It’s a worthy task, since ray tracing makes a world of difference to reflections and all manner of other lighting effects. But as time passes, a ray-tracing-capable GPU will become more and more de rigueur: the PC Enhanced version of Metro Exodus won’t run on a PC without a ray-tracing-capable GPU, for instance, so expect more games to follow suit.

To get technical for a moment, the GA107 Ampere chip in the 3050 Ti GPU uses 2,560 CUDA, 20 Ray Tracing and 80 Tensor cores. For comparison, the RTX 3060 uses 3,584 CUDA, 28 Ray Tracing and 112 Tensor cores.

To put it in as simple terms as possible, hardware-wise the 3050 Ti is roughly 75% of a 3060. More significantly, in a gaming machine the 3050 Ti is only offered with a maximum of 4GB of video RAM. TGP-versions (total graphics power) of the 3050 Ti range from 35W to 80W with clock speeds varying from 1,035MHz to 1,695MHz. The 3050 Ti in my review machine has a TGP of 60W and a maximum clock speed of 1,485MHz.

Another noteworthy thing about the silicon inside the GL66 is the Intel processor. Generally, gaming machines in this price category use quad-core i7 processors such as the 1165G7 and the 11370H, but MSI has opted for the more powerful octa-core 11800H. That should give the GL66 some serious grunt when it comes to productivity tasks.

The GL66 comes with a 15.6in display in a choice of either FHD (1,920 x 1,080) at 144Hz or QHD (2,560 x 1,440) at 165Hz. There’s also 8GB or 16GB of DDR4 RAM and a 512GB NVMe PCI-E SSD.

READ NEXT: The best gaming keyboard to buy

MSI GL66 Pulse review: Price and competition

The GL66 Pulse is available in three flavours with the Nvidia RTX 3060, 3050 Ti or 3050 graphics cards. The 3050 Ti version that I’m reviewing seems to be the only version generally available in the UK for just under £1,100, though that’s with 8GB of dual-channel RAM, not the 16GB my review machine arrived with.

An obvious competitor is Acer’s RTX 3060-driven Nitro 5. It can handle high-fidelity AAA games with ease and can be comprehensively upgraded after purchase, but the display is technically poor, battery life could be better and it all looks and feels a bit cheap and plasticky. The Ryzen 5 5800H model can be picked up for £999.

Asus’ Tuf Dash 15 features an Nvidia RTX 3060 GPU and an 11th-gen Intel Core i7 processor for £1,399. It has excellent speakers, is built to the MIL-STD-810H standard and is a good-looking machine, too – much more grown-up than what we come to expect from gaming notebooks.

Lenovo’s new Legion 5 is great value at just £1,199 for the RTX 3060 model. Gaming performance is very solid and the keyboard is excellent. In fact, the only drawbacks the Legion 5 suffers from are less than stellar battery life and a rather bass-lite speaker system.

If money is truly too tight to mention, then the Medion E10 Crawler is just about the cheapest gaming laptop you can buy at the moment, and is available for under £600. However, the combination of a 10th-gen Core i5 and GTX 1650Ti GPU means it will struggle with more demanding games, and ray tracing isn’t on the cards, either.

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MSI GL66 Pulse review: Design and build quality

The GL66 may be mostly made of plastic, but MSI has done a good job of not making it look or feel excessively cheap. The black body and keyboard deck are rock solid and while the lid has a bit of flex to it, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. The angular design and grey patterned aluminium lid lends a smart but still gamey feel to the design, and at 2.25kg it’s neither remarkably heavy or light. It’s an average size for a 15.6in gaming laptop, too, at 359 x 259 x 24mm.

Connectivity is sufficient rather than great, with two USB-A 3.2 Gen 1, one USB-A 2.0 and one USB-C 3.2 Gen 1 port scattered across the two sides, along with an RJ45 and an HDMI 2.0 connector. Charging must be done via the DC-in jack as the Type-C port doesn’t support power delivery (or DisplayPort video-out for that matter) and there’s a 3.5mm audio jack. Wireless communications are managed by an Intel AX201 card that supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1, so you’ll have no worries on that front.

The keyboard is a strong point of the GL66. Not only does it look good, but there’s no flex and plenty of well-damped key travel. MSI has also gone to town with shortcuts; one puts a large red crosshair on the screen to help with aiming, another forces the fans into maximum speed mode, while the F7 button cycles through the various bespoke MSI power modes. The numeric keypad is a welcome presence and there’s also a keyboard shortcut to isolate the 720p webcam.

And what a fine webcam it is; bright, clear and colourful. I was genuinely surprised by how good it is. The 105 x 65mm trackpad isn’t the largest I’ve encountered on a 15.6in gaming notebook, but it works well and the corner click-action feels satisfyingly precise and positive.

Open up the back of the GL66 and you’ll find you can easily access the SSD, wireless card and dual SODIMM RAM mount as well as the vacant 2.5in SATA HDD bay. When it comes to the solid state gubbins all you can do is upgrade what’s already there: RAM to a maximum of two 16GB sticks and the SSD to 1TB. That’s a shame as there’s ample room for a second SSD slot. Indeed, according to the MSI specification sheet, the RTX 3060 version of the GL66 can accept a second SSD. It seems silly to deny the facility to buyers of the RTX 3050 and 3050 Ti models.

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MSI GL66 Pulse review: Display and audio

Gaming laptops in this price range tend to have pretty diabolical screens, albeit ones with higher-than-usual refresh rates. The 1,920 x 1,080 15.6in 144Hz IPS panel fitted to the GL66 is above par: at 337cd/m² it’s usefully bright, and the 2.9 Delta E isn’t as wildly out of whack as I feared it was going to be.

The sRGB gamut coverage registered at 84.5% and the gamut volume at 92.2%: not results worthy of a ticker-tape parade but much better than the likes of the Acer Nitro 5, Medion Crawler E10 or HP Omen 15 machines I’ve tested recently.

The unbranded audio system didn’t disappoint, either. There’s ample volume and a satisfying serving of bass. Again, for the price, I expected less and so was pleasantly surprised with what I encountered.

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MSI GL66 Pulse review: Performance and battery life

The octa-core Tiger Intel i7 11800H chip in the GL66 makes it a very strong performer when it comes to productivity. It scored 284 in Expert Reviews’ in-house processing benchmark score, which is only two points below the impressive Lenovo Legion 7. The GeekBench 5 scores were up among the best, too.

However, when it comes to gaming performance, it’s rather less impressive, and to get really solid frame rates you’ll need to fiddle with the video settings. The Hitman 2 benchmark ran at 97fps but only after I’d dropped the supersampling from 2 to 1. The initial score with supersampling set to 2 was 37fps.

Moving to Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the GL66 managed a perfect 144fps with ray tracing off, 77fps with ray tracing on but no DLSS and 113fps with DLSS engaged. However, it only managed that with the video detail turned down to High (the third from the bottom of six possible settings) rather than set at the usual, and highest, Mein Leben. Try running the game on Mein Leben and you get a warning that you’re out of video memory and the game crashes. To get 50fps out of Rise of the Tomb Raider with ray tracing enabled, I needed to drop down to the medium detail preset and turn DLSS on.

It’s in these purely gaming-related tests that the GL66 compares somewhat poorly to the cheaper Acer Nitro 5, which just gets on with things at the maximum – or much closer to the maximum – video settings thanks to that more powerful GPU but more importantly that extra 2GB of VRAM.

Battery life is simply terrible. Our usual video rundown test drained the battery in 3hrs 48mins. Initially, I assumed this was perhaps because the Nvidia GPU was continually running rather than handing over to the Intel Iris graphics processor, an issue I encountered with the Lenovo Legion 7, but everything turned out to be working as it should.

The PCI Express 3.0 Kensington 512GB SSD performed reasonably well, recording sequential read and write speeds of 1,768MB/s and 889MB/s respectively. Not fast enough to set your trousers on fire, but not slow enough for any tardiness to be noticeable, either.

Finally, when testing I found that the GL66 ran a little on the warm side and was rather noisy when the fans were running at full tilt, but again neither metric was out of line with what I’ve experienced from other gaming laptops in this price bracket.

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MSI GL66 Pulse review: Verdict

The problem with the MSI GL66 Pulse is that it’s not the cheapest RTX 30-series gaming laptop, despite using one of the cheapest – and weakest – RTX30-series GPUs. The Acer Nitro 5 has the more powerful RTX 3060 but can be picked up for £999, so at £1,099 I can’t help feeling the GL66 is a bit more expensive than it should be.

Granted, the Acer has a much lower-quality screen and feels cheaper as a package, and I’d much rather use the GL66 as a day-to-day notebook. However, these are gaming laptops first and foremost so gaming performance is paramount. With comparatively weak gaming figures and poor battery life, the MSI GL66 isn’t much of a winner.

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