Although the process has becoming increasingly easier over the years, building a PC is considered a daunting task. There’re loads of cables, loads of different ports and sockets, and a ton of cable management to sort though. It’s a soothing process for some (like me), but for others it’s the single hindrance between them and a kickass gaming machine. Usually skipping this process costs a pretty penny, and more often than not doesn’t justify it with middling performance returns.
The MSI Vortex is, at its best, only guilty of one of these things.
Miniature and striking, the MSI Vortex is probably the smallest PC I’ve seen capable of doing what it can. Taking hints from some of the Apple Pro designs in the past, the Vortex channels a cylindrical design that might confuse some into thinking it’s a desk mounted trash can. A gorgeous, metal encased trash can with striking curve, strips of bright customisable LED lighting and the recognisable MSI dragon print. It’s not a PC you want hidden under a desk – it’s one you want proudly sitting next to your monitor for everyone to see.
And given its small size, that’s possible. It took me a while to accept that this compact marvel of engineering absolutely dwarfed my primary desktop in terms of raw power. Encased inside are two (yes two) Nvidia GTX 980s in SLI, accompanied by a full Core i7-6700 Skylake processor, 16GB of DDR4 2133 MHz RAM, two 128GB SSD drives in Raid 0 configuration and another 2.5-inch 1TB drive. It fits snugly into a case that’s no taller than my 23 inch monitor, and no wider than an Xbox One. Better yet, it weighs a measly 4kg in total. It’s simply stunning.
Its size doesn’t mean skimping out on options either. The Vortex offers a range of input options , from 2 standard HDMI ports to an additional two Mini-DisplayPorts. They’re joined by four USB 3.0 ports, another two USB 3.1 Type-C ports, audio in and out and a LAN slot. That’s on top of the in-built Bluetooth and Wireless chips, meaning you don’t need to deal with the cabling if you don’t want to.
But the real beauty of the Vortex is in its simplicity. Windows 10 comes pre-loaded, so it’s matter of hooking up power to the tiny 450W power supply (which is an important point for later), hitting the power button and choosing a Username and Password. If you’re looking for the most no-fuss way to extreme PC gaming performance, I’ve yet to try something that makes it more streamlined than the Vortex at this point. There’s no guess work involved, and it delivers where it matters most.
That 450W power supply does really present the first real concession that the Vortex makes. Considering MSI is shoving two 980s into it, there simply isn’t enough power there to suggest that these are the desktop-grade versions of this card. And they aren’t, with MSI opting for the much smaller mobile versions of the 980. These newer chips feature a full 8GB of GDDR5 memory each (as opposed to 4GB), and generally keep up with their larger brothers. They’re not laptop chips in a desktop body – as Nvidia made very clear when they first revealed them.
Having that type of horsepower in such a small case lends itself to heating concerns (especially when overclocking, which the Vortex is fully capable of doing at the click of a button in its included Dragon Centre software, among other things), but the most impressive part of the design compensates. The Vortex case comes with a massive fan at the bottom, which sucks cool air out from underneath the elevated design and spirals it through the body and out the top.
It’s a genius implementation that keeps the system consistently cool at all times, with the cards themselves never exceeding 80 degrees during the most stressful testing. Better yet, the system is silent during casual usage, and only slightly noisy during your load operations. It’s never as loud and annoying as a full desktop, with none of the fuss of keeping the system clean included.
That all sounds well, but it means nothing without the Vortex showing off where it counts: raw performance. Given that the gains seen from traditional SLI can somewhat disappoint at times, the Vortex surprised me in most of its tests. Throwing both GTA V and Metro: Last Light’s strenuous benchmark modes at it, the Vortex managed to keep things smooth all the way up to 4K. Getting there was easy, but the system clearly showed some struggle as it reached the highest gaming peaks players are currently trying to play at. The Vortex might get to 4K, but it certainly won’t stay there for much longer – as the concessions in the mobile architecture start to crack under real pressure.
This is evident in the Futuremark FireStrike Extreme tests, although it must be said that the Vortex scored well into the upper echelons of the software’s entire testing database. It’s clear that the Vortex struggles when compared to traditional desktops of the same specifications, but it’s still head and shoulders above even enthusiast builds you might have actually seen in person.
No question about it – The MSI Vortex is the fastest configuration we’ve ever had the chance of testing, but it does present an interesting opportunity for comparison. In the past we’ve gone hands-on with two different versions of ASUS’ GTX 980Ti – the regular and Matrix variants – and stacking their numbers side by side with the Vortex presents something telling. Although the Vortex edges out on top, it does so only marginally. A big factor to consider when looking at the price of such a setup.
Because without beating around the bush, the Vortex is expensive. Very expensive. It comes in two flavours, with the main differences being the GPUs inside. While we tested the beefier GTX 980 SLI version, it does come with smaller and considerably slower GTX 960s in SLI too. That configuration costs no less than R46,999.00. The version we tested out?
Well, it retails for a staggering R82,500.
There is no question about it: The Vortex is definitely not a cheap configuration, and it’s one that a standard desktop build will be able to outmatch in performs of price without absolute ease. In fact, a configuration with two 980Ti cards in SLI might even cost you less, so it really comes down to one fundamental question. How hands-free do you want your PC setup to be? And are you willing to pay a premium for that luxury.
Because that’s where the Vortex is being marketed – a small niche of potential PC gamers that want the absolute best performance they can get with absolutely none of the fuss. MSI isn’t going to compete with traditional desktop gaming with the Vortex, and it’s not their intention to. The Vortex, at it’s core, simply can’t be smaller, more compact and as powerful as a standard desktop while staying even close to marginally price competitive, so it would be silly to think of it as such.
What the MSI Vortex is, however, is a marvel in engineering that costs enough to make you believe it. It’s powerful, quiet and incredibly easy to use, and it was truly depressing to have to let it go. If you want some of the best gaming performance with the least amount of effort, and you have the deep pockets to bank roll it, there’s simply nothing better than the Vortex.
But if you’re not stressed with cables, you’ll find it easy to build something better for the fraction of the cost.
Last Updated: May 9, 2016