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After years of being one of the boys hanging on the couch, content to play games, MSI is slowly starting to grow up and look for a respectable job. Over the past year, it's begun rolling out notebook families like the Prestige, which are built with the high-performance components MSI is used to placing in their gaming laptops, but which feature a more subtle aesthetic in an aim to appeal to content creatives on the go.
As its name suggests, the newly launched Summit series is looking to climb even higher, with a more refined design (complete with new corporate logo) and the latest 11th-generation Tiger Lake Core processors from Intel. Although the series won't start being available until mid-November, we received an early evaluation unit to determine if the Summit can get the job done.
The Summit takes its cues from MSI's previous productivity portables, including a chassis made from sandblasted aluminum that is both rigid (meeting MIL-STD-810G testing standards for a number of durability conditions) and lightweight. The Summit E14 – reviewed here – weighs just 2.9 pounds, while the bigger E15 tips the scales at 3.7 pounds. While MSI offers fun color options like white, blue, and a pinkish concoction called "beige mousse" in the Prestige and Modern lines, the Summit family wears only a sensible suit of black matte.
In addition to the larger 15.6-inch display, the E15 also has room for up to 64GB of RAM and includes a second M.2 drive slot for either another solid-state drive or SATA hard drive. MSI also offers a B series of the Summit for those looking to spend a little less. The scaled-down B14 and B15 have a top processor of the Core i7-1165G7, graphics come courtesy of Intel's new Iris Xe integrated solution instead of a discrete card, and there is no 4K display option.
One downside to the Summit 14's totable dimensions (12.6 by 8.6 by 0.6 inches) is a slightly narrower keyboard than I would prefer (including a truncated right Shift key), though it's hardly a deal breaker. On the other hand, you have control over its backlighting brightness via the MSI Center for Business and Productivity app – four options from maximum to none. The touchpad's rim of orange lighting appears to vary its brightness, however, based on the display's brightness, which can be controlled more granularly in one-percent increments.(The palm rest area to the left and right of the touchpad is a bit of a magnet for fingerprints, a disadvantage to the black finish.)
The app also provides the user with four usage scenarios: the default is balanced, along with high performance, silent, and super battery. Each sets the panel and keyboard brightness (and fan setting, in the case of high performance), but lets the user override them. The MSI Center includes an Application Optimizer that allows you to choose which pieces of software receive system resources priority, though you currently can't remove a piece of software from the list, despite the presence of a remove icon that was grayed out when we attempted to edit the list.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources to allocate, as MSI timed the release of the Summit roster to coincide with the launch of Intel's latest mobile processors, Tiger Lake. Our test unit included the Core i7-1185G7 quad-core CPU, which MSI claims can provide up to 20 percent faster performance than its 10th-generation predecessor. Our review unit was an early production model that wasn't finalized to allow benchmarking, though tech sites have been given the nod from Intel to test the new laptop chip.
The Summit is exactly the type of system Tiger Lake was designed for – a class of laptop that balances power and portability. That means even the top-of-line i7-1185G7 isn't intended for full mobile workstation workloads, but it should be able to offer solid performance without a massive power draw. For basic tasks, our test configuration – which also included 32GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti graphics, and a 1TB SSD drive – was nearly overkill. Booting up was quick and loading Microsoft Office apps nearly instantaneous even with multiple Google Chrome browser tabs open.
Looking to push its capabilities – and being a hobbyist shutterbug – I installed the desktop version of Adobe Lightroom, a known resources hog, and sure enough, importing images into a new catalog gave the CPU a bit of a workout. While that task pushed the i7-1185G7 into the 30-percent usage range, processing photos using Topaz AI Denoise resulted in the processor occasionally spiking over 90 percent. (Granted, some of that surge may be related to the use of an external USB drive for the Lightroom catalog.) Nonetheless, that still compares favorably to my older 8th-generation Core i7 laptop, which struggles mightily with the RAM-hungry Lightroom and probably couldn't even handle Denoise.
Using resource-heavy apps like Lightroom and Photoshop taxes battery life, and there was a notable dip in unplugged time compared to basic web surfing and Office document work. You can probably get close to a full workday of juice in the latter scenario but doing anything that relies on the graphics card will appreciably cut into that time. While MSI claims 10-hour battery life for the Summit E14 and the B series, it says the E15 can get up to 16 hours as a result of its larger battery. The Summit can fully charge back up in roughly an hour, so at least you don't have to wait long to be back in business without being plugged in.
The introduction of Tiger Lake also brings with it the marketing rollout of Thunderbolt 4 connectivity, though the update from Thunderbolt 3 is more about Intel placing additional conditions on certifying compatible products than a speed update. It will support USB 4.0 Type-C to take advantage of Thunderbolt's 40Gbps transfer rates and provide power to external devices. Along with the pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports (the B Series just gets one), the HDMI output (on the E15 only) lets you connect three monitors to the Summit. Other connectivity includes a USB 2 port (instead of a pair of USB 3.2 connections on the E15) and a microSD card reader, while 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1 provide networking capabilities.
As befits a laptop designed for business, the Summit comes with a bevy of security features such as Trusted Platform Module 2.0 technology and optional fingerprint reader and facial recognition support. A 720p HD webcam is included with built-in AI-powered noise cancellation to reduce the volume of your kids' screaming in the background during Zoom calls.
At $1,799 for a configuration similar, though not identical, to this pre-production unit (the official release includes multitouch capabilities), the Summit E14 is a bit on the high side for performance thin and lights. However, if you consider the combination of specs, especially 32GB of RAM and discrete graphics, it might be pretty hard to beat for under $2,000 -- if you can live with a 1080p screen.
A second E14 configuration costs $100 more for which you move up to a 4K display but receive only half the RAM. The Summit E15 actually starts $100 less than the E14, though again with 16GB of RAM and a 1080p display, with two editions with a 4K display or 32GB of RAM and touch support, respectively, each costing $1,899. If you value the Summit's portability over the top processor and discrete graphics of the E14 and E15, the B series is more affordable, with the B14 starting at $899, and the B15 at $999, for a Core i5-1135G7, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD.
Despite a couple of minor caveats, the Summit E14 is a great choice for those looking for Intel's latest processing technology in a highly portable package, squeezing much of the power of a mobile workstation into a svelte package. You'll pay quite a bit for the privilege, but it should be able to handle with aplomb most of the applications its target market would throw at it.