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MSI Claw A1M review: A touch late and bit too pricey

Msi Claw A1m Review A Touch Late And Bit Too Pricey

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One of my favorite PC trends has been the explosion of gaming handhelds. Even after big names like ASUS and Lenovo entered the market last year with the ROG Ally and Legion Go, more manufacturers continue to join the fray. But with the Claw A1M, MSI is taking the road less traveled by opting for an Intel chip instead of something from AMD. And that has made all the difference, even if many of those changes are not for the better.

While MSI may have zagged with the Claw’s processor, its design is incredibly familiar. That’s because aside from being black instead of white, it almost looks like a carbon copy of the ROG Ally. That said, a few subtle changes have a bit of an impact. The Claw’s grips are more pronounced, so it’s more comfortable to hold, while its rear paddles are smaller and located a bit further down so there’s less of a chance you press them by accident.

MSI also opted for Hall effect joysticks, so they are a touch more precise and should wear better over time. However, the springs inside are rather light, so they don’t feel quite as tight as I typically prefer. Unfortunately, while its triggers are nice, the Claw’s bumpers are a bit too spongy.

Meanwhile, nearly the entire rear panel on the Claw is vented to provide ample room for cooling. And along the top there’s a built-in microSD card reader, 3.5mm audio jack, a volume rocker and a single USB-C port with support for Thunderbolt 4. That last one is a very nice inclusion as it’s fast enough to hook up peripherals like an external GPU dock. I just wish there were two of them so I had a spare slot for accessories.

Nearly the entire back of the Claw is vented to prevent overheating.
Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Of course, in the middle there’s a 7-inch 1080p IPS LCD display. It’s relatively colorful and with a tested brightness of around 450 nits, it’s easy to view even in sunnier rooms (though direct sunlight is still an issue). However, aside from a 120Hz refresh rate, there’s not much else going on. There’s no variable refresh rate to help reduce tearing in more modern games and it can’t match the size or more saturated hues of the Legion Go’s 8.8-inch OLED panel. And while this isn’t really a design consideration, with the Claw priced at $750, I wish MSI shipped it with an included case like Lenovo does with the Legion.

Here’s where things get a bit tricky, because at least on paper, the Claw is pretty well-equipped. Our review unit features an Intel Core Ultra 7 155H CPU with Arc graphics, 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. There is also a less expensive model with an Intel Core Ultra 5 135H chip and a 512GB SSD. Unfortunately, the Claw’s real-world performance lags behind MSI’s claims and rival handhelds. Back at CES 2024, MSI touted that the Claw would be 20 to 25 percent faster than AMD-based alternatives. But no matter what I do or how much time I spend tweaking settings, I simply can’t produce numbers anywhere in that ballpark.

The MSI Center app is meant to be a one-stop shop for launching games, tweaking performance and more. Unfortunately, the app feels kind of clunky.
Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 1280 x 720, high graphics and in Balanced Mode (30 watts), the Claw hit 52 fps, which is slightly behind the 54 fps I got from the ROG Ally at just 15 watts. To make matters a bit worse, those numbers didn’t improve much when I switched to the Claw’s 35-watt Extreme Performance setting, which only bumped the framerate up to 59 fps compared to 60 fps for the Ally when set to 25 watts. So despite running at a higher TDP (total device power), the Claw is just barely keeping up.

It’s a similar story in other titles too. In Cyberpunk 2077 at 720p on medium graphics, the Claw hit 50 fps in Balanced mode, which is the same as the Ally. Finally, in Returnal at 720p on medium, it was essentially a tie again with the Claw hitting 32 fps versus 33 fps for the Ally. Overall, the Claw’s performance isn’t bad, but it’s not as prodigious as MSI promised.

The Claw features a microSD card slot for expandable storage and a USB-C port with support for Thunderbolt 4 for charging and data transfer.
Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

The underlying issue seems to be the Claw’s optimization and graphics drivers. I’ve been using the Claw for about a month, and in that time it’s gotten a ton of updates including two or three BIOS flashes and a seemingly endless number of new graphics drivers. There was even one in late May that boosted performance by as much as 30 percent in some titles. So just imagine how rough performance was at launch earlier this spring.

In some respects, this level of support is reassuring because it shows Intel’s commitment to improving the graphics on its latest chips. That said, the Claw has been on the market since as early as April depending on the market, so it clearly wasn’t ready at launch and its performance continues to be a work in progress.

The MSI Center app features a quick settings menu that allows you to quickly adjust things like control mode, brightness, volume and more.
Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

With a 53Wh cell, there was hope the Claw could provide significantly longer runtimes than the Ally and its smaller 40Wh power pack. But because of the Claw’s higher TDP, the difference in real-world longevity isn’t quite as pronounced. When I played Diablo IV on medium graphics, the Claw lasted an hour and 43 minutes, which is 12 minutes better than the Ally’s time of 1:31, but more than 20 minutes less than the Steam Deck’s mark of 2:07.

One of the biggest issues with Windows-based handhelds is that while they are great for gaming, doing anything else without an external mouse or keyboard can be a chore. Windows 11 generally works as you’d expect, but the MSI Center app feels much less polished. Similar to ASUS’ Armoury Crate, MSI Center is meant to be a one-stop shop for launching games, tweaking settings and downloading updates. And while it works, it just feels clunky. The app often stutters when you open it and I ran into a couple of instances when patches stalled while trying to update software.

While it doesn't have OLED display, the MSI Claw's 7-inch LCD screen is still plenty bright and colorful.
Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Ultimately, timing may be the Claw’s biggest enemy. If it had come out last year when the ROG Ally and Legion Go hit the market, the Claw may have been a more interesting rival. But ASUS is about to release a successor to the Ally – the Ally X – next month with a completely redesigned chassis, 24GB of RAM and a huge 80Wh battery. That leaves the Claw in a really tight spot. And our top-spec review unit costs $750, which is $100 to $200 more than an equivalent ROG Ally (albeit with half the storage) and has basically the same performance and an almost identical design.

Meanwhile, thanks to recent price cuts, the Claw is also more expensive than the Legion Go, but doesn’t have the OLED screen, kickstand and detachable controllers found in Lenovo’s handheld. This doesn’t even factor in Intel’s drivers, which clearly weren’t ready at launch and even now after multiple updates, don’t offer a significant advantage in performance. But the Claw’s biggest opponent may be MSI itself, because while we’re still waiting on an official release date, the company has already announced a successor in the Claw 8 AI+. The Claw isn’t a bad handheld gaming PC; it just arrived too late and without the tuning it needed.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/msi-claw-a1m-review-a-touch-late-and-bit-too-pricey-143009327.html?src=rss
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