MSI Vortex review

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 Here’s the thing: the system I configured has dual 980 Tis and not vanilla 980s, and it still costs $1400 less than the Vortex. I have enough money left over to upgrade from dual 128GB NVMe drives to a pair of 512GB 950 Pro SSDs, and then toss in a 2TB 850 Evo SATA drive for good measure.

Or I could stick with two 980s and pocket the $1700 difference. Granted, the 980s inside the Vortex have 8GB of RAM instead of the stock 4GB you find on desktop cards, but the 980 Ti remains substantially faster. But hey, two GTX 980s should offer excellent performance, right? Well, not exactly.

Nvidia’s spec for the GTX 980 desktop version lists a 165W TDP, but Nvidia recommends at least a 500W PSU—and that’s for a single card. The Vortex only has a 450W power supply, and it packs two 980s. This tells us that the 980s in the Vortex are mobile versions that run slightlyslower than their desktop counterparts. How much slower? We built an equivalent system with two desktop 980s for comparison.

Benchmark Desktop Vortex Difference
Cinebench R15 single 177 170 4.12%
Cinebench R15 multi 886 867 2.19%
3DMark FS Ultra 5557 5320 4.45%
3DMark FS Extreme 9804 9487 3.34%
The Division Ultra QHD 60.6 50.41 20.21%
The Division Ultra 4K 32 29 10.34%
Rise of the Tomb Raider VH QHD 72.6 61.96 17.17%
Rise of the Tomb Raider VH 4K 39.62 29 10.34%
Tomb Raider (2013) Ultimate QHD 122.6 115.9 5.78%
Tomb Raider (2013) Ultimate 4K 64.6 50.5 27.92%
Shadow of Mordor Ultra QHD 99 83.66 18.34%
Shadow of Mordor Ultra 4K 61.59 53.05 16.10%
Metro: Last Light VHQ QHD 85.15 78.49 8.49%
Metro: Last Light VHQ 4K 53.37 39.83 33.99%
PCMark 8 Creative 8690 7322 18.68%
Average difference     15.73%

There’s not a single benchmark where the Vortex comes out ahead. In some cases, the Vortex is nearly 34% slower in gaming. I went digging to find out why this was happening and found some strange answers.

I was expecting that the two GTX 980s would be operating in PCIe Gen3 x8 modes, but they weren’t. According to both the NVIDIA control panel and GPU-Z, both GPUs were running in only PCIe Gen2 x8 modes. Even more strangely, one of the cards was operating in Gen2 x8 1.1 mode while the other was operating in Gen2 mode. This is strange considering MSI’s own GT80S notebook, which has dual 980s, operates both in PCIe Gen3. In case you’re wondering, operating in Gen2 x8 1.1 is equivalent in performance to running at Gen3 x2!

Storage speeds on the Vortex are pretty great
Storage speeds on the Vortex are pretty great

Working through the strange numbers with Jarred, we thought maybe the Vortex was using a PLX bridge chip to connect the two GPUs, but MSI claims there’s no PLX chip in the Vortex. But there’s no normal SLI bridge either.

Desktop versus Vortex gaps aside, you aren’t going to be able to use the Vortex for gaming at 4K except for less demanding games. For most, you’ll want to be sticking to a maximum resolution of 2560×1440.

MSI tells us that we’re able to achieve 100% desktop performance with overclocking of GPU and its memory. But judging from the benchmarks above, no amount of stable overclocking is going to yield 100% desktop-class performance. Besides the odd PCIe configuration, the 450W power supply is also going to be pushing nearly 100 percent loads to deliver true GTX 980 SLI desktop frame rates.

Admirable intentions

For what it’s worth, I do like the Vortex a lot. It’s compact, well built, and is an impressive manufacturing exercise in form-factor design. When you hold one, you know MSI put a lot of effort into making the Vortex. The exterior is almost all aluminum, and there’s an impressive array of ports on the rear for all your needs. In fact, the Vortex can even connect up to six displays—two would connect to the Thunderbolt 3 / USB Type-C ports. I really like the amount of performance per liter.

But size is where the Vortex also frustrates me. It just doesn’t have enough power to deliver on the promise of desktop-class graphics performance. At most, it’s on-par with a heavy gaming notebook that has dual GTX 980 mobile GPUs. You also lose internal expansion, and SO-DIMMs and MXM cards—good luck trying to find an MXM upgrade—are more expensive than desktop components.

And then comes the sticker price of $4000. It’s just way too expensive for what you’re getting. I know: you’re thinking the Vortex is for folks who don’t want to or don’t know how to build their own system. Sure, but that’s where gaming system integrators come in, and they can build a system for a lot less. Not only did I build a system for less, it was $1400 less, and it offered way more performance.

Maybe there’s a BIOS update that will improve frame rates. Maybe there will be a driver to fix the Killer NIC’s wireless issues that I experienced, like routinely not being able to connect to a Google OnHub until I rebooted the router. Maybe MSI will lower the price a bit to make things more attractive. But truthfully, no BIOS fix is going to address some of the huge gaps between the Vortex and our high-end desktop system. We also would have been far happier with Intel or Broadcom wireless.

If MSI is able to address the performance aspect and get both GPUs to deliver on their performance potential, the Vortex might fill a niche. But for the price premium, the Vortex needs to be just about perfect everywhere else, and that just isn’t the case. Impressive as an engineering feat, the Vortex isn’t worth its size.

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