The MSI Claw is an embarrassment


No one should buy an MSI Claw. It’s not technically broken: the first 7-inch Intel Core Ultra handheld gaming PC doesn’t regularly crash or anything like that. But the Claw falls so far short of the competition that it’s effectively dead on arrival.

In almost every way, the $750 MSI Claw feels like an inferior clone of the Asus ROG Ally — except it costs more, not less! You could get a far better experience while saving hundreds of dollars if you choose a Steam Deck OLED instead. 

I’ve spent weeks searching for a silver lining. In the end, I only found three tiny ways the Claw improves on the competition.

I didn’t start my MSI Claw journey by running benchmarks. My expectations were already at rock bottom, so I began with an easier test: making the Claw my daily driver for the not-particularly-intensive games I’d already been playing on other handhelds. I fired up the PC port of Studio Ghibli’s Ni No Kuni, Dave the Diver, and Fallout New Vegas — a game that’s nearly 14 years old. 

Every one of them runs smoothly on a $549 Steam Deck OLED. Not one ran smoothly on the $749 MSI Claw. They would stutter or hitch, even when the system told me they were hitting 60fps or above and despite a 48–120Hz variable refresh rate screen that should have smoothed things out. The Claw would also drop frames when the Deck stayed stable and delivered fewer frames to begin with. 

So, I fired up some more repeatable benchmarks. How bad could the Intel Core Ultra 155H really be compared to rivals? Here’s a peek:

Tested at 720p low, save Dirt Rally at 720p ultra, using each handheld’s various power modes.

In case your jaw has not yet hit the floor, let me bottom-line it for you: the less expensive Steam Deck OLED all but completely wiped the floor with the MSI Claw in power and performance. 

The Claw, set to maximum power and plugged into a wall for a turbo boost, ran some games slower than my Steam Deck did on battery power alone. Can you imagine paying two hundred dollars more to play games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 45 fps instead of 60 — and only when you’re plugged into the wall?

Against Windows gaming handhelds, the Claw fared no better: the competing Asus ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go offered anywhere from 10 percent more performance to over double the perf depending on the game and power mode. 

The functional quick access menu is one of the handheld’s very few bright spots.

There was one bright spot: Returnal, one of the most intensive PC titles I tried, actually ran better on the Claw than it did on the Deck or Ally. But not well enough to be playable… and when I sat down to play an hour each of Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Cyberpunk 2077, I didn’t find them playable either. Both are playable on the Steam Deck, ROG Ally, and Lenovo Legion Go at identical (low) settings, so the Claw has no excuse for delivering a choppy mess.

I even fired up 3DMark Time Spy and Fire Strike to see if MSI might have accidentally sent me a lemon, but no — my Claw scored slightly higher than MSI’s own internal benchmark. And yes, I ran these benchmarks on the recent Intel graphics driver that was supposed to deliver big improvements, not the one the Claw originally shipped with. 

One USB-C port and micro SD slot, next to the fingerprint reader power button.

At least the Claw doesn’t seem to have worse battery life than Windows peers. MSI gave it a 53-watt-hour battery pack, slightly larger than Legion Go and notably larger than Ally, and I saw roughly the same 1.5 hours of Shadow of the Tomb Raider on a charge. I got 2 hours and 25 minutes of Fallout New Vegas and achieved a maximum runtime of 4 hours and 19 minutes in Balatro, one of the least demanding games I’ve yet played on a handheld. (My first run lasted 3.25 hours; I got an extra hour by setting the system to Super Battery mode and aggressively dimming the screen.)

But compared to the Steam Deck OLED, which can easily go twice as long in Balatro and lets Lara Croft raid tombs for over two hours, it’s not great — and I have no clue how MSI can justify saying the Claw “lasts 50 percent longer” than the average handheld in its marketing campaign. 

The backs of the ROG Ally and the MSI Claw show differences and similarities.

It’s worth noting that MSI did put a decent amount of thought into the Claw’s UX. While the hardware may look like a low-rent Batman edition of Asus’ ROG Ally, cribbing the same exact button layout and most of the same curves, it can feel a tad better in the hands. I appreciate its larger grips, more substantial face buttons, and its Hall effect joysticks and triggers for longevity. Like the Ally, the Claw has some of the best speakers on a gaming handheld, here augmented with surprisingly good Nahimic virtual surround sound that delivered delightfully all-around-me echoes as I failed to delve through tombs. 

I do wish MSI hadn’t adopted a stiffer yet sloppier D-pad or added so many unnecessary spikes to its vents — they’ve repeatedly kept me from finding its charge port in a dark bedroom. The Claw’s rumble feels awful, too. At least MSI lets you turn it off! 

But the main thing I’d like to turn off is Windows.

The fronts of the ROG Ally and MSI Claw show almost identical curves and layouts.

It’s been almost a full year since Asus released the ROG Ally and over two years since the Steam Deck, but Microsoft has done nothing meaningful to make its operating system friendlier for a gamepad-operated screen. I could practically copy / paste my criticisms from the ROG Ally review: I ran into the same exact issues summoning virtual keyboards and playing games — things that mostly just work on a Steam Deck despite and / or because of its Linux underpinnings.

And, I ran into very similar sleep issues to the ones I saw on the Lenovo Legion Go: I simply can’t trust this portable not to wake itself up when I put it down or drop it into a bag. Only here, it’s slightly worse because the MSI Center utility has a tendency to hang when waking from sleep — sometimes disabling my gamepad controls until I reboot it.

MSI Center M, the company’s quick launch software.

While MSI Center also buries important features like remappable controls, I like that it includes launchers for every major PC game platform, comes with lots of handy Quick Access shortcuts that work right out of the box (like a switch that turns off RGB lighting), and is relatively snappy. The Deck, Ally, and Legion Go all had buggier, more sluggish interfaces at launch. 

Today, though, all of them are far more full-featured, and all let you natively install updates — while the Claw still expects you to navigate to MSI’s website and download important bits manually or wait for Windows Update to deliver the goods.

The MSI Claw vs. the Steam Deck. They’re roughly the same thickness, though the Deck’s joysticks are taller and there’s more grip underneath.

The MSI Claw isn’t the worst handheld gaming PC I’ve ever touched. Years ago, I played with some that didn’t even deserve a review, handhelds so poorly thought out and narrowly marketed I didn’t feel the need to warn you. But stores like Best Buy actually carry the MSI Claw — and in the current crop of competing handhelds, it’s the worst buy of them all.

Photography by Sean Hollister / The Verge



Source link