MSI Claw: One-minute review
The MSI Claw is the latest PC gaming handheld to hit the scene since the release of the Steam Deck a couple of years ago, but it's core distinction — being the first Intel-powered device in this category — makes it both exciting as well as somewhat perilous for both MSI and Intel.
Given the strong showing that AMD has had with its AMD Z1 and Z1 Extreme chips powering the Asus ROG Ally, Lenovo Legion Go, and likely many others to come, Intel can't afford to miss out on this fast growing market.
Meanwhile, MSI is taking a chance on the new Intel Core Ultra processor line that is powering many of the best laptops announced at CES 2024, and as yet, these chips are just getting into the hands of reviewers so it's too soon to tell if the integrated Arc graphics in the MSI Claw will have the same level of performance as the RDNA 3 graphics in the AMD Z1, especially since the MSI Claw and more recent AMD-powered handhelds feature full 1080p displays with high refresh rates.
If there was one thing I've consistently heard here at CES from both MSI and other laptop manufacturers betting their laptop lines on the new chips is that the Intel Arc graphics in the Core Ultra processors is absolutely up to the task and in my limited amount of time messing around with the MSI Claw, I can see why they'd be so confident.
The number of titles I was able to test out on the Claw was limited, but they played brilliantly all the same, and with several major advantages for Intel's iGPU over AMD's competing Z1 series, the MSI Claw might not just be an important beachhead for Intel in a very critical PC gaming market, it can also serve as powerful showcase for what its chips are capable of doing.
MSI Claw: Price & availability
There's no firm pricing or release date yet for the MSI Claw, but I've been told by MSI that it should launch between the middle of February and the middle of March, and it will be available in a few configurations, which will dictate its sale price.
The base configuration, with an Intel Core Ultra 5 135H processor and 512GB SSD, is expected to sell for $699 (about £560, AU$980), while the Core Ultra 7 165H processor with 1TB SSD storage configuration is expected to top out at $799, with the Core Ultra 5, 1TB SSD option costing somewhere in between.
Currently, there will only be a 16GB LPDDR5 memory option regardless of configuration, but I expect that depending on the success of the initial production run of the device, the spec configuration range might grow to include more memory as well, but MSI has no official plans for a 32GB memory option at this time.
MSI Claw: Specs
MSI Claw: Design
On the design side of things, the MSI Claw will be very familiar to anyone who has used one of the new PC gaming handhelds, but there are some design choices that are pretty solidly MSI.
With a very strong gaming laptop pedigree, MSI's Claw is very much in line with many of its best gaming laptops in terms of aesthetic and agressive gamer styling, but there are some functional differences between the Claw and its competitors as well that aren't purely for looks.
The cooling system on the MSI Claw is larger than on the ROG Ally, making for a somewhat thicker device, and the more open venting on the back of the Claw ensures that enough air is being pulled through to keep the Core Ultra processor cool.
There are also two buttons on the back of the device that are for programming your own macros into the device as well, something missing on its competitors, and the choice of FHD resolution and 120Hz refresh makes for a slightly less crisp looking picture than the QHD display on the Legion Go, but with such a small-sized screen, 1080p is way more than you probably even need and looks fantastic in practice.
Weight-and-size-wise, the MSI Claw is heavier than the Steam Deck, but it's not inordinantly bulky or unwieldy, at least not any more than its competitors. The buttons along the front could be explained a bit better, since the buttons around the screen that control things like opening the MSI Center M interface or opening the settings screen are important, but it doesn't help of you if you can't remember of immediately tell which button does what.
I will say that the MSI Claw did run somewhat hot under load, but it is hardly alone on that front, and it does an admirable job of helping bleed heat from the device at least.
MSI Claw: Performance
Given the limited amount of time I had with the MSI Claw, the last thing I'd have been able to do is put the device through any kind of formal battery of benchmarks, and the number of games I had access to were limited to a select few like Sonic Superstars and Assassin's Creed: Mirage, both of which played fantastic with little to no issues.
I spent most of my time playing Sonic as it terns out since I wanted to focus on a game where the speed of the onscreen elements would really show off the 120Hz refresh rate, and it was definitely the right choice. While not necessarily the most taxing title, the Sonic and friends (and enemies, and frenemies) all looked so crisp I kept thinking that the display was a higher resolutions than it was (it was 1080p), or that the display was OLED (it's not). Meanwhile, flying through a level with rings, structures, characters, and much more flew past Tails as I sped towards the end of the course and I couldn't produce any screen blur, ghosting, or screen tearing.
The Intel Arc integrated GPU features 8 Xe cores, which is the same as the Intel Arc A380, though the power draw of the iGPU in the Core Ultra 7 165H is naturally a much lower wattage (I was told it drew about 30-35W). This still manages to deliver some solid graphics performance, however, and the improvements that Intel has made for its Arc graphics driver over the past year has considerably improved my confidence in Arc GPUs. Older games will still likely run into problems though, especially anything from the DX9 era or earlier, so if you're hoping to do a lot of retro gaming on the go with this handheld, well, that is the risk with relying on an Arc GPU going forward. Anything DirectX11 or higher will play much better, however, and this likely includes most of the games that everybody is playing anyway.
The audio was also fairly robust for a handheld, so if you're planning on playing without a headset, you'll be absolutely fine. I only had about 20 minutes of total playing time with an MSI Claw, so I am very happy to report that the 53WHr battery did not noticeably diminish much in that time. How long it will actually last will need to wait until I do a formal review in a few weeks time, but MSI and Intel say that the battery should get you about a two hours of play time with full performance.
MSI Claw: Early verdict
While a full evaluation of the MSI Claw will have to wait for more rigorous benchmarking and extended play time, everything I saw was very promising, especially for a chip that's relatively new to the scene. Intel Arc has very strong hardware fundamentals, especially the hardware AI cores that power XeSS super sampling to boost frame rates and visual quality. It should be much easier hitting much higher frame rates on the MSI Claw than on the Asus ROG Ally (for those games that support it) as a result.
The price is a tad too high for my liking, but it's definitely in line with the market, and the MSI Claw is unmistakably an MSI device in terms of aesthetics. The MSI Center M also seems to have learned from the foibles of the ROG Ally and Legion Go's UI and kept things much simpler.
With nothing but my eyes and my gut to go on, I dare say that MSI and Intel have pulled off a hell of a device that is really going to distinguish itself from an increasingly crowded field of devices. Ultimately, February or March will tell the tale of whether Intel's new Core Ultra processors are up to the task of powering the next generation of PC gaming handhelds, or whether AMD can keep its current leadership position in the market.