Update: Now with video, see what we thought of the MSI GS30 Shadow with GamingDock
In the pursuit of even greater mobile computing performance, some gaming laptops makers have turned to desktop parts. The latest Origin EON-15X leans on a desktop processor, while the Alienware 13 hooks up to the company's Graphics Amplifier unit with a discrete desktop GPU humming inside.
To help gamers scratch the same itch for bleeding edge performance, MSI created the GS30 Shadow with GamingDock. The latter of which acts as an enclosure for just about any desktop GPU you can fit inside. By itself, the Shadow is an unassuming thin and light, 13-inch laptop that has more in common with most Ultrabooks. Lock the system into its GamingDock, and the GS30 turns into a beastly machine able to play most modern games on ultra settings at 60 fps.
On paper, this sounds like a winning combination: a compact, but powerful, 13-inch laptop that you can not only take anywhere, but can plug into a full-size graphics card for some serious gaming. As with most intriguing technology, we have to ask how it really handles in the real world.
The GS30 Shadow does not look like anything like a gaming laptop at first blush. The machine is incredibly small and light, even compared to some of the thinner machines I've reviewed recently, like the Origin EVO15-S. In fact, the machine is so light that it almost feels a bit hollow. This is partially due to MSI skipping out on including a discrete graphics card all together.
There aren't any red highlights or obnoxiously flared bodylines to call attention to the machine. Instead, the Shadow's chassis is sculpted with some attractive and subtle angles along its sharp edges. The front of the machine comes to a very soft and rounded bump rather than the sharp beak I've seen on other gaming laptops, like the Aorus X7 Pro.
This reserved styling extends to the plain black aluminum chassis and even a white keyboard backlight, rather than the stark red illumination that most gaming machines feature. It's a machine that could almost fit into a business office scene, especially with the excellent keyboard, but only almost.
The only unnecessary design flourish on this laptop is the white track lighting, which runs along the front edge of this machine. These illuminated strips look cool and add a bit of signature flair to this otherwise by-the-books laptop. However, some might find the extra band of illumination to be too distracting. Unfortunately, there's also no way to turn off or tone down the brightness on this extra lighting element either.
Of course, the most important bit of this laptop you might miss all together is the discreetly hidden PCI Express slot located on the laptop's rear end.
Some assembly required
The GS30 Shadow's better half is the GamingDock, a large enclosure that introduces an interesting wrinkle to PC gaming. Like Alienware's Graphics Amplifier, this printer-sized box is designed to house a full-sized desktop graphics card.
But rather than using a proprietary cable, MSI has employed a 16-pin PCI Express connector. If that sounds familiar, PCI-e is the very same connection a desktop motherboard uses to interface with graphics card and other components. And sure enough, inside the GamingDock is a custom-printed circuit board.
There's a bit of procedure to connect the laptop to this GamingDock. First off, you'll need to completely shut off the laptop before setting the notebook on top of the GamingDock. Afterward, you'll slide the arm on the side forward until it locks in place.
The only catch here is that, like Alienware's solution, you'll have to supply your own GPU. Luckily it's easy to get inside the GamingDock: remove six screws and peel off the front cover. Opening the system up reveals enough room inside to fit just about any two-slot graphics card, including the massive Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan Z.
That said, this dock isn't just for a discrete GPU either. The GamingDock doubles as a sound system with a 2.1 speaker setup. Meanwhile, tucked inside is also a 450-watt power supply, plus a compartment for an additional 3.5-inch hard drive. Once attached, you can also plug in an Ethernet cable and four peripherals to the unit's four USB 3.0 ports. In other words, the GamingDock offers everything a workstation dock does and then some.