MSI Claw

MSI is attempting a competitor to Steam Deck, ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go. So how has it worked out?

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I'm quite happy that there's more momentum behind the development of handheld PC-based consoles. It suits me so well to be able to access a bursting library of exciting games that are are only available exclusively on a PC, but via a more closed ecosystem without some of the issues that can characterise such systems. For the same reason, I bought a Steam Deck OLED variant, which I have expressed great enthusiasm for in various podcasts and articles. Similarly, I have, to a more limited extent, been quite fond of Asus' ROG Ally, among others.

So let's maybe start by stating that I like this format, I like the concept, the idea, and despite the fact that having Windows 11 running under a lot of software makeup is actually far from an ideal user experience, and which consistently, continuously and constantly rears its ugly head, it also means a broader functionality.

We have the ROG Ally, a simple beast with no extra frills. We have Lenovo's far more ambitious but also compromised Legion Go, and then alternatives from China's Ayaneo, among others. So where does MSI's Claw fit into this eclectic picture? I take no pleasure in telling you that it doesn't fit in very well for a number of key reasons.

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MSI Claw

We've got our hands on the A1M model, which is available with up to an Intel Core Ultra 7 CPU, 16GB LPDDR5-6400MHz RAM, 1TB of space via an m.2 2230 drive and Intel Arc graphics. More specifically, we're talking about an Ultra 7-155H, a CPU with 16 cores, of which six are Performance cores, eight are Effencient cores and two Low Power E cores with a total of 22 threads and can run at up to 4.80GHz in Turbo. This is the first time we've seen one of these handhelds utilise Intel, and perhaps for good reason.

But before we get that far, it's worth noting that while the Claw isn't exceptionally designed in any way, and looks like a ROG Ally in more ways than one, the hardware itself is perfectly adequate. No, MSI is taking absolutely no chances here, but both the Hall Sensor analogue pins (which are a nice extra touch) for both the D-Pad and ABXY buttons work just fine. Furthermore, the two 2W speakers are actually acceptable, and WIFI 7 and Bluetooth 5.4 ensure fast connections to both the internet and headsets should the need arise.

The display is also fine. Once again, we're talking about a 7" 1080p IPS LCD display at 120Hz. It's touch-based and, due to the IPS technology, can reach approximately 500 NITS, which qualifies for reasonably capable HDR gaming. Not only that, we've also found that the display easily covers 100% of the sRGB colour spectrum, so there's nothing wrong with that as such. However, Lenovo did manage to give us a larger display, that's one thing, but also to eliminate more of the ugly screen bezel, which is really just wasted space in a chassis where every millimetre matters. The Claw has really thick bezels, both above and below the display itself, and it simply shouldn't have that.

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I hate filling reviews to the brim with disclaimers, but let's get one out of the way as soon as possible. Of course, it would make sense to test primarily with games that support the new XeSS technology, which, like FSR and DLSS, can optimise the gaming experience both in terms of making a lower resolution look more detailed or creating a higher frame rate. Whether XeSS is a competitive alternative at the time of writing is hard to say, and this is not the place for such a question to be answered, but I've tried to make a selection of relatively large titles, some of which support the technology and some of which don't, to best simulate real-world use. You can find the list for yourself here. In addition, there are videos and texts that go more in-depth on the advanced BIOS, TDP levels and individual frame-rate tests. I present here a selection that forms the basis of my personal judgement on Claw. I consider myself knowledgeable enough to take a critical look at the MSI Claw, but neither am I arrogant enough to suggest that this is the only review you need to read. Is this enough of a smoking gun? Probably not, but now you're informed.

MSI Claw

Okay, performance. Firstly, it's worth mentioning that Intel is usually hotter and uses more power than AMD. It's a truism, but that's how it works in general, and to compensate, the entire back of the Claw is perforated, although only a few parts of the back are actually open to the components. So is the top, by the way. So does it work? Well, first of all, this Ultra 7-155H is a bit of a beast with the ability to increase the amount of power available to a 40W TDP, which, on paper if nothing else, should put the ROG Ally to shame, which only has access to 25W. However, it really doesn't translate into actual performance. It does mean that there can be a pretty massive difference in individual games as to whether you have the charger plugged in or not, as this allows more horsepower to be extracted from the CPU. In fact, it can make an overall fps difference of something like 10fps. Additionally, the problem for some reviewers, including yours truly, is that there simply isn't wide enough support for Intel's Ultra Core CPUs yet, meaning that a lack of optimisation can often be the key issue rather than a lack of horsepower. Cyberpunk 2077 is a good example, where Claw averages around 25fps in 720p with FSR on and settings on Medium, but where constant stuttering makes it almost unplayable. Here, for example, it helps tremendously to use the charger. XESS helps, which is Intel's own Xe Super Sampling feature that is supported here, but in Cyberpunk 2077 it cannot climb over the Steam Deck.

Compared to synthetics, Claw scores lower in 3D Mark's Night Raid test, which is GPU-centric and therefore places Intel Arc opposite Radeon Graphics in ROG Ally's Z1 Extreme. Especially with synthetics, it's so much about optimisation, and for that reason they don't really take up much space in the overall picture. 3D FireStrike, for example, is a completely different picture, where Claw's Intel Core Ultra 7-155H beats the Ally itself. Generally speaking, Claw defeats its key competitor in most synthetics, but as with Cyberpunk, it's much more about optimisation on Intel's part. And it's lacking.

Horizon: Zero Dawn also achieves an average of just over 35fps in 720p with FSR unpowered (FSR also works for Intel Arc), a result that is simply put to shame by Steam Deck, which easily managed to maintain 50-55fps in the internal benchmark. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has the same problem, but to a lesser extent, with Claw actually managing to pass Deck and run at well over 50fps in the internal benchmark. This is not to say that the MSI Claw is definitely bad at running big games - it's not - but it's not much faster than the competition.

Even in games that are supposed to use XeSS, and thus be specially optimised to take advantage of Intel's architecture, it's mixed. In Forza Horizon 5, which is officially XeSS-supported, I saw generally better frame rates on the ROG Ally in 720p on Medium.

As you can see, it's a bit of a mixed bag. However, it's fair to say that the Claw has pretty much never performed better than Steam Deck in the games I threw at it, which consists of the aforementioned, as well as Far Cry 6, Helldivers II and a number of smaller titles from my so-called "backlog" that I'm working my way through these days. Not only that, it hardly ever passed the ROG Ally with the Z1 Extreme chip. This becomes a particular problem when you consider that even though the Claw has a larger 53Whr battery, my test unit exhibited the same behaviour that other reviewers have reported, namely huge power consumption, even at idle. I don't have an exact TDP here, but The Phawx has reported an idle TDP of 7.5W, which really drains the battery when the machine really isn't doing anything, and that's even after I followed a guide and turned off a number of MSI features. This means the Claw struggles to hit that hour and a half of use on a single charge. Try an hour. Or maybe half an hour.

It gets noticeably hotter than the Steam Deck OLED, ROG Ally, and Lenovo Legion Go, but the perforated back is quite effective at dissipating heat. MSI offers Cooler Boost HyperFlow, which pushes heat out of the top of the device, so it doesn't become uncomfortable. Not only that, the internal ventilation is surprisingly quiet and MSI has clearly tuned it to favour low noise levels over power. The temperature seems to be high, however, because after about 30 minutes of gameplay there are signs of thermal throttling and a chip rumbling around 95 degrees. Of course, you can turn up the ventilation and it works.

MSI Claw

And then there's the whole software issue. MSI Centre is... fine. You have to set up an MSI Claw as a Windows 11 computer, which remains the opposite of intuitive, and the same can be said for the Intel-specific drivers required. I downloaded a total of five for Intel Arc, Iris Xe and other technologies that require the latest updates. It wasn't much fun, and Windows 11 crashed during setup once. On top of that, there are just more problems with having Windows 11 running under a pseudo-interface. If you select a Steam game from MSI's launcher, Steam sometimes pops up as an application, forcing you to use touch to find and launch the game. I haven't experienced as many MSI Centre-specific errors as others, and it works even slightly better than Asus' launcher, but this is far from consistent enough and often requires outright troubleshooting to launch a game, which really shouldn't be the case on a £700 machine.

So should you buy a Claw? I have a hard time recommending a Windows-based handheld at all, especially when Phil Spencer is clearly interested in making a more comprehensive OS for such devices in the future, but if you love to tinker and optimise yourself, the price is probably what will ultimately break it. It's even more expensive than Valve's most expensive Steam Deck OLED variant. This makes it difficult to visualise exactly where Claw fits in, and exactly why MSI chose to go Intel when it clearly doesn't quite fit with the vision for a capable handheld PC-based gaming console in 2024, well, I really don't know. With dedicated software support, fixes, optimisation and the like, it may well be that Claw will get significantly better over time, and then we'll plan a return visit - but here today? No, thank you.

05 Gamereactor UK
5 / 10
overall score
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HARDWARE. Written by Magnus Groth-Andersen

MSI is attempting a competitor to Steam Deck, ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go. So how has it worked out?

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