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MSI Creator Z16 review: thin isn’t everything

MSI’s Creator Z16 is one of a new line of “creator” laptops that have popped up over the past two years at companies traditionally focused on gaming. They tend to take the kind of specs you might see in a gaming laptop and cram them into a thinner chassis more like something you might bring into a boardroom.

While you could certainly use the Z16 for gaming — it has an RTX 3060 discrete GPU and a heavy-duty “Cooler Boost” cooling system — it also has a more subtle look than even the most understated of MSI’s gaming laptops, with a silvery finish. – gray finish, a barely visible dragon logo and MacBook-like rounded corners. There’s a 16:10 QHD+ display with a 120Hz refresh rate (my most preferred aspect ratio for productivity devices). It comes with Windows 10 Pro. And the video conferencing features — especially the speakers — are a solid upgrade from what I often expect to see on a gaming laptop. The system would be a fantastic multimedia machine.

Unfortunately, it’s not priced like a multimedia machine – it’s priced like a workstation. That makes it an overall great laptop that is a bit odd in price. It is below the price of the leading laptops in this zone. My test unit (the cheapest on the MSI . sitehas a Core i7-11800H, a GeForce RTX 3060 GPU, a 2560 x 1600 touchscreen, 32 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage for $2,599.99 (currently listed at $2,349.99 for what MSI is claiming is a limited time).

a comparable Dell XPS 17 (with a larger screen, but lower resolution) has the same suggested retail priceand a 16-inch MacBook Pro with comparable RAM and storage is $500 more for $3,099. But the Z16 is certainly still an expensive laptop – a Gigabyte Aero 15 with the same specs will go for a few hundred less walmart (although it’s sold out there at the time of writing – there’s a 16GB model at Best Buy for $1,899 which you can easily upgrade). And it comes with some flaws that are uncharacteristic of a laptop of that price range. While I can see this product has an audience, those who can afford to spend more should absolutely.

The MSI Creator Z16 seen from behind, half open on a wooden table.

4.85 pounds, 0.63 inches thick.

The first thing to look out for: This laptop is loud. The fans of the Z16 got going as soon as I started Cinebench, and they went through the entire benchmark run. The noise was inaudible from the next room, but it was certainly loud enough to distract me while I was working at the same table.

MSI has done a lot on the new cooling system, which is said to contain “the world’s thinnest 0.11mm fan blade with sharp edges”. These fans didn’t seem quite capable of handling the power of these specs, even with the High Performance profile (which optimizes the Z16’s power limits and cooling behavior for heavy workloads) selected in MSI’s control center. (By the way, this control center was much smoother to use than the reps I’ve had to run on previous MSI laptops, so props to MSI for that.) The Z16’s 30-minute Cinebench score was lower than the 10-minute Cinebench score, and the CPU reached 95 degrees Celsius very consistently throughout the benchmark. Basically, this wasn’t a MacBook scenario where the Z16 took everything we threw at it without a sweat — it worked hard.

That heat wasn’t too much of a problem in our real Premiere Pro 4K export test, which completed the Z16 in three minutes and nine seconds. That’s a competitive score and faster than almost any Windows laptop I’ve ever tested. But the Z16 only got a 769 on the Puget Systems benchmark for Premiere Pro, which tests the performance of live playback and export. The Aero 15 beat that handy.

Temperatures were more manageable during the Geekbench suite, and especially the Compute Benchmark, which uses the GPU more than the CPU. Interestingly enough, Geekbench Compute was also the only test where the MacBook Pro models didn’t blow the Z16 out of the water.

All in all, while the Z16 doesn’t quite top its category, you get real graphics power – and certainly more than you’d expect from a thinner and lighter device with a large screen. It seems like an attractive package, but that’s before we talk about battery life.

The MSI Creator Z16 speakers seen from above.

There is an audio jack to connect peripherals, as well as four 2W stereo speakers.

The battery life is bad. Even with the Z16’s Battery Saver profile and the keyboard and GPU backlights turned off, I was still able to work continuously for less than five hours at medium brightness—almost four and a half hours on average. And my workload isn’t close to what this computer is capable of – I usually jumped between a dozen Chrome tabs and occasionally made Zoom calls. You can certainly expect less if you do a little more what the battery demands.

The Z16 just isn’t realistic as a portable laptop with this battery capacity. We wouldn’t necessarily expect a laptop in this category to last all day, but this result disappoints even large-screen competitors. I regularly got between seven and eight hours out of the last Dell XPS 17 I tested. And of course, even the more powerful 16-inch MacBook Pros last at least twice as long. We are no longer in an age where high power means shortening a device’s battery life for hours on end, even for thin and light products.

MSI Creator Z16 benchmarks

Benchmark To score
Benchmark To score
Cinebench R23 Multi 10350
Cinebench R23 Single 1437
Cinebench R23 Multi-looped for 30 minutes 9991
Geekbench 5.3 CPU Multi 8613
Geekbench 5.3 CPU Single 1555
Geekbench 5.3 OpenCL / Compute 89287

Performance aside, overall the Z16 is a well built and nice looking device. It is quite thin, only 0.63 inches thick. It’s sturdy with a comfortable finish – a step above most MSI devices I’ve reviewed before when it comes to build quality. The screen in particular is beautiful and the refresh rate of 120 Hz makes scrolling a very smooth experience. Details are crisp – I had no problem flipping through a series of photos for some light editing. I also appreciate that there is a row of handy shortcut keys on the right side of the keyboard, which is a little more convenient to reach than the function row.

The fingerprint sensor of the MSI Creator Z16.

You can log in with fingerprint or facial recognition.

But the biggest pleasant surprise for me was the speakers. There are four of them, and they sound great and easily reach the volume of a decent external speaker. I could hear both the bass tones and the softer mids that I normally don’t hear from laptop audio. Did you know there’s a cute, subtle harmony in Harry Styles’ first chorus? traps? I didn’t do it until I first heard it on the Creator Z16.

These features once again make the Z16 a solid machine for productivity and entertainment. But they may not be as important to the Z16’s target audience as some of its glitches. And there are a few dents that are surprising to see in a device at this price.

The webcam of the MSI Creator 16 up close.

There is a kill switch for the camera, although I prefer physical shutters.

First, while the port selection should be fine for general use (two Thunderbolt 4, two USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A, one microSD reader, and a headphone jack, in addition to a DC input for the barrel charger), there isn’t one. HDMI. This can be inconvenient for people who need certain external displays or tablets for work – which is at least part of the Z16’s professional target audience.

I also had a terrible time with the keyboard on my device. The space bar occasionally failed to register my right thumb tap – my colleagues can attest that I was constantly sending Slack messages with missing spaces. MSI didn’t have a replacement unit available to send me but says it’s not an issue they’ve heard of before. Still, the fact that I received a device with this problem has me somewhat concerned about the durability of the keys.

There is also no 4K display option. There are also some upgradeability issues – have shown disassembly that the RAM is quite a pill to recover due to the placement of the motherboard. And – most frustrating for me – there is bloatware. I got antivirus nagware popups as soon as I opened this thing, and I had to close all my tabs and reboot the device to remove it. I complain when I see things like this on $1,000 devices. It’s unacceptable for MSI to ship $2,600 laptops with crapware pre-installed — it’s the equivalent of Hulu pushing ads on people looking for their highest subscription tier. While this won’t affect your long-term experience if you remove it right away, it does leave a sour taste in my mouth.

The keyboard of the MSI Creator Z16 seen from above.

It is a miniLED per-key RGB keyboard from SteelSeries.

Ultimately, the strongest argument for buying the Creator Z16 is the power it packs into such a thin and attractive chassis. Many workstations of this size, including the Aero 15 and XPS 17, are noticeably thicker – and the MacBook, which is equally thin, is also significantly more expensive.

But I’m not sure that argument is strong enough. Battery life, in particular, is an important compromise for anyone looking to use this outside of their desk for an extended period of time. And given the number of other concerns I have with this device, which are really uncharacteristic in such a premium level, I think most folks married to this price point and don’t mind the battery life being bad will have a better time with the Aero, which we’d expect to offer comparable performance but with a much better port selection and repairability (albeit in a clumsy chassis) for even less money. Those looking for a general purpose multimedia device that don’t quite need the power of the Z16 can expect better battery life and a premium experience from the XPS 17. And people who can afford to spend more will get a huge improvement on all fronts from the MacBook Pro. That doesn’t make this a bad device, but it does mean that it’s primarily aimed at people for whom being thin is a top priority.

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