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MSI sells a gaggle of gaming laptops, but only one ultraportable: the new PS42 (starts at $899; $1,299 as tested). It's a svelte 14-inch conventional notebook in silver that seeks to compete with category titans like the Dell XPS 13, the Apple MacBook Pro, and the HP Spectre 13. The PS42 is an admirable effort from the Taiwanese PC maker, and it gets a lot of things right, including a well-designed keyboard and an excellent display. There's a lot of room for improvement, though. From ho-hum styling to lackluster audio output to a minuscule touchpad, the PS42 fails to make a compelling argument for why you should choose it over more-established competitors. As a result, it's best suited to MSI loyalists who might want an ultraportable to tote around so they can leave one of the company's excellent but often bulky gaming rigs at home.

At 2.64 pounds and measuring 0.62 by 12.6 by 8.74 inches (HWD), the PS42 is thin and light even for an ultraportable. Anything less than 3 pounds is in the vanguard for this category. You can certainly find thinner 14-inch machines; the gorgeous Acer Swift 7$1,699.99 at Amazon is just 0.35 inch thick, although at 2.6 pounds it weighs about the same as the PS42. The Dell XPS 13, Razer Blade Stealth, and the HP Spectre 13 all have smaller displays, which makes their chassis a bit smaller but doesn't have much effect on weight. The XPS 13 is 2.68 pounds, and the Spectre 13 is just a few ounces lighter at 2.45 pounds, while the Blade Stealth is actually heavier, at 2.98 pounds.

One of the downsides of the PS42's light weight, despite its additional inch of screen real estate, is that the build quality doesn't feel as solid as you might expect from a premium ultraportable. There's significant flex if you press on the large speaker grille forward of the keyboard, and even more flex on the bottom border of the display, where the MSI logo is. These aren't areas where you'd normally place your fingers, and thankfully the keyboard deck is much sturdier, but it's clear that some flimsier material was used to achieve weight savings.That material is etched aluminum, which lends an air of sophistication to the otherwise stodgy-looking design. There's nothing sleek about the PS42, especially when you compare it to the museum-worthy chassis of the Spectre 13 or the iconic chiseled, symmetrical edges of the MacBook Pro. An MSI shield is etched into the back of the display, which evokes the laptop's gaming heritage and will certainly stand out in a college lecture hall that is likely full of half-eaten fruit logos.

The design isn't helped by the black power brick, an off-the-shelf black block that prominently displays its serial number and electrical certifications. It wasn't subjected to an industrial designer's critical eye in the same way as adapters from Dell and Apple have been. (Either that, or the designer lost the argument.) The kludgy power adapter is as sure a sign as any that in designing a premium ultraportable, any lapse in attention to detail will be glaringly obvious.This is certainly far from MSI's first stab at creating a laptop, though, and its experience shines through in a few key ways. The first is the excellent 14-inch full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) display, using In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology to prevent washouts at off-center viewing angles and a matte finish to guard against distracting reflections from ambient light. Matte finishes are common on gaming laptops but rare on ultraportables, which tend to support glossier screens that make colors appear more vivid. But the PS42's very bright matte display still manages to display crisp text and vivid colors. In fact, they're the crispest and most vivid I've encountered recently from a non-glossy screen.

If you prefer a glossy finish, a 4K resolution, or even a touch screen, however, you're out of luck. The display on our review unit is the only option. The lack of touch support is especially glaring, since it's offered on all of the PS42's main Windows competitors.Because the borders around the display are so thin, there's no room to stick a webcam in the conventional spot, centered above the screen. Instead, MSI makes the same compromise that Dell makes with the XPS 13: The webcam is mounted below the screen in the hinge, where it mostly captures a view of your knuckles if you happen to be typing during a Skype session.

Other than this obstructed view and a lack of infrared sensors for face-recognition Windows logins, the camera is actually quite decent. It has good picture quality, and MSI offers you the ability to disable it at the hardware level by pressing the F6 key. Verify it's off by opening up the Windows camera app, which should display an error message explaining that it can't find a camera. This disabling feature is not quite as comforting as a physical door to people who are worried about webcam snoopers, but it's better than just hoping that the camera is off.

The chiclet keyboard is another of the PS42's bright spots. The backlit keys are large and well-spaced, although they have the short travel distance that you'd expect from such a thin laptop. Best of all, the directional arrow keys are arranged in the preferred inverted-T arrangement, and they're even full-size instead of the up and down arrow keys squeezed into a single row like you'll find on the MacBook Pro or many HP laptops. This arrangement necessitated some rearranging of other keys and the elimination of the left Function key, but this is a worthwhile compromise that I wish more laptop designers would make.

The touchpad below the keyboard is woefully small. I found my fingers frequently slipping off the edge, and a few times I inadvertently pressed the spacebar located extremely close to the pad's top edge. A diminutive touchpad isn't unique to the PS42, since the Spectre 13 also suffers from this problem, but it's especially acute if you can't use a touch screen as a fallback input option.A fingerprint reader is built in to the upper left corner of the touchpad. It is among the more accurate readers I've used, failing to recognize my print only twice during several days of testing.In addition to wireless connectivity (802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2), input and output options are very generous for an ultraportable that's this thin and light. On the right side, you get a full-size SD card slot, a USB Type-C port, and two USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports. On the left are the power jack, an HDMI output, another USB Type-C port, and a headphone jack.

Two USB 3.1 ports and two USB Type-C ports is a very generous USB complement for any laptop, let alone one that's this compact. So is including a full-size SD card slot. For comparison, note that Apple's MacBook includes just a single USB Type-C port, a headphone jack, and nothing else. Stepping up to the entry-level MacBook Pro gets you nothing more than an additional USB Type-C port. You won't fare much better with the XPS 13 or the Spectre 13$1,299.99 at HP, both of which lack USB Type-A and HDMI.

The PS42 boasts upward-facing speakers that occupy a significant amount of space above the keyboard, but their lackluster quality is about what you'd expect from a thin-and-light laptop. Bass is almost non-existent, and the laptop failed to fill our living-room-size audio-testing room even at maximum volume while watching several movie trailers on YouTube.Because the mainstream ultraportable market is so crowded, laptop manufacturers don't have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to choosing internal components like the CPU, the graphics chip, storage, and the memory. If it were economically and physically possible to squeeze a full-power Intel Core i9, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 10-series GPU, and a 1TB solid-state drive (SSD) into a thin $1,299 laptop, someone would have done it already.





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