Hands on: MSI Backpack PC review

It's here but far from finished

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

MSI's Backpack PC is a sound and working concept for untethered virtual reality experiences, but there are still some rough edges to work out.

For

  • Attractive design
  • Compact case
  • Upgradable

Against

  • Hangs too low
  • Battery life is too short

Virtual reality gaming and experience have finally been full realized with headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. However, there are still a few things that can pull you out of the immersive experience with the biggest one that damned cable tipping you up.

Well MSI wants to do away with that problem with a gaming PC that you wear on your back. The entire system is self-contained from processor to the graphics and even internal batteries making it more portable than any PC case designed for LAN events.

And that really is the central idea behind the Backpack PC. It's meant to be a portable gaming desktop you can take anywhere to experience virtual reality wherever you are. Beyond eliminating the worry of tripping over power cords in VR, it also opens up the opportunity to free roaming experiences such as the Void VR theme park.

MSI Backpack PC

Design

The Backpack PC takes strong inspiration from motorcycle backpacks, but it has a bit of space age flair to it. Alternatively, I could easily imagine the Tony Stark pulling an Iron Man suit out of this pack thanks to the hot rod red paint job MSI decided to go with.

That said, there's definitely a coolness factor to the way the Backpack PC's aesthetics. That's a good thing because you'll definitely look like the biggest (and happiest) dork while wearing it.

Although MSI claims its Backpack PC weighs less than five kilograms (about 12 pounds), it's not the most comfortable thing to put on your back and it hangs a little lower than I prefer. This could be easily fixed with harder and sculpted shoulder straps that distribute more of the weight on your shoulders.

MSI Backpack PC

That said, MSI has made some smart decisions with the Backpack PC's design. Behind the straps you'll find a metal frame to help keep the PC from burning a hole onto your back. This metal frame also extends above and below the main case to act as a carrying handle elevated foot for the Backpack PC to stand on when placed on the floor.

The only other noteworthy piece of the design is there are two motion controller holsters sewn into the hip belt – which will hopefully play into some fun western-styled gun duels in VR soon.

MSI Backpack PC

The beast within

The Backpack PC almost seems deceptively small. Despite being loaded up with and mobile-based Intel Core i7 K-series processor, desktop-grade Nvidia GTX 980, all the other essential PC bits and two big old batteries to power the whole thing, the system is smaller than both the Xbox One and PS4.

On paper, MSI's system meets the recommended spec requirements – and you'll be able to upgrade it too – to power a smooth VR experience and it absolutely delivered during my short time with a working demo at Computex 2016. During my demo time I was able moved freely while playing the Arcade Space Ship Shooter game from the The Lab.

After experiencing so many Vive demos in the past I've gotten used to dancing around the power cords even without seeing it. But by completely removing it, you can move around without a care in the world and are much more maneuverable in the VR world.

MSI Backpack PC

Portable and powerful (for a time)

You can also have a decently long VR experience with the Backpack PC thanks to two large battery packs stuffed inside of the case. MSI claims users can get up to five hours of viewing 360 videos or an hour and a half of usage while playing demanding VR games.

That said, the batteries aren't hot swappable as they are on HP VR gaming backpack concept. Instead you'll have to jack out of your VR experience and open up the case to swap out battery packs. A MSI spokesperson explained the company doesn't really see this as an issue as even an hour in VR is intense enough.

Aside from being a wearable VR-ready system, MSi also sees its Backpack PC as an excellent solution for gamers who want to bring their PCs to events. Given that it's much easier to lug around than a Mini-ITX system with a handle, there could definitely be interest here.

MSI Backpack PC

Early verdict

There are some appealing aspects to MSI Backpack PC. It's attractive, smaller than most consoles and fully delivers on the promise of powering an untethered VR experience. However, there are some big things MSI needs to work on including comfort and the chipset hasn't been finalized yet, as the electronics firm hopes to integrate Nvidia's new GTX 1080 graphics card and other Pascal-based GPUs.

Battery life also seems a bit to short to warrant the inevitably high price of this portable gaming PC. That said, I came away really liking my first experience with the Backpack PC and look forward to how the system will turn out in the coming months.

Additional reporting and images by Lucy Wang

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.