MSI Creator Z16 review: thin isn’t everything
MSI’s Creator Z16 is one of a new cadre of “creator” laptops that have been popping up from companies that are traditionally gaming-oriented over the past two years. They tend to take the sorts of specs that you might see in a gaming laptop and cram them into a thinner chassis that looks more like something one might bring into a boardroom.
While you could certainly use the Z16 for gaming — it has an RTX 3060 discrete GPU and a heavy-duty “Cooler Boost” cooling system — it also has a more subtle look than even the most subdued of MSI’s gaming laptops, with a silvery-gray finish, a barely visible dragon logo, and MacBook-esque rounded corners. There’s a 16:10 QHD+ screen with a 120Hz refresh rate (my much-preferred aspect ratio for productivity devices). It ships with Windows 10 Pro. And the video conferencing features — the speakers, in particular — are a solid upgrade from what I often expect to see on a gaming laptop. The system would make a fantastic multimedia machine.
Unfortunately, it’s not priced like a multimedia machine — it’s priced like a workstation. That makes it a generally fine laptop that’s in a bit of an odd spot price-wise. It’s below the price of the leading laptops in this zone. My test unit (the cheapest one listed on MSI’s site, though I’ve found a few cheaper SKUs floating around other retailers) has a Core i7-11800H, a GeForce RTX 3060 GPU, a 2560 x 1600 touch display, 32GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage for $2,599.99 (currently listed at $2,349.99 for what MSI claims is a limited time).
A comparable Dell XPS 17 (with a bigger screen, but lower resolution) has the same MSRP, and a 16-inch MacBook Pro with comparable RAM and storage is $500 more at $3,099. But the Z16 is certainly still an expensive laptop — a Gigabyte Aero 15 with the same specs is going for a few hundred less at Walmart (though it’s sold out there as of this writing — there’s a 16GB model at Best Buy for $1,899 which you could easily upgrade). And it comes with some flaws that are uncharacteristic of a laptop of that price caliber. While I can see this product having an audience, those who can afford to spend more absolutely should.
The first thing to be aware of: this laptop is loud. The Z16’s fans got going the instant I fired up Cinebench, and they trucked along throughout the entire benchmark run. The noise wasn’t audible from the next room over, but it was certainly loud enough to be distracting as I worked at the same table.
MSI has made a big deal of the new cooling system, which is said to contain “the world’s thinnest 0.11mm sharp-edged fan blade.” These fans didn’t seem quite able to handle the power of these specs, even with the High Performance profile (which optimizes the Z16’s power limits and cooling behavior for heavy workloads) selected in MSI’s control center. (This control center, by the way, has been much smoother to use than iterations I’ve had to use on previous MSI laptops, so props to MSI for that.) The Z16’s 30-minute Cinebench score was lower than the 10-minute Cinebench score, and the CPU was very consistently hitting 95 degrees Celsius throughout the benchmark. Basically, this wasn’t a MacBook scenario where the Z16 took whatever we threw at it with no sweat — it was working hard.
That heat wasn’t as much of a problem on our real-world Premiere Pro 4K export test, which the Z16 completed in three minutes and nine seconds. That’s a competitive score and faster than almost every Windows laptop I’ve ever tested. But the Z16 only got a 769 on the Puget Systems benchmark for Premiere Pro, which tests live playback and export performance. The Aero 15 beat that handily.
Temperatures were more manageable during the Geekbench suite, and notably, the Compute benchmark, which leverages the GPU more than the CPU. Geekbench Compute, interestingly, was also the only test that the MacBook Pro models didn’t blow the Z16 out of the water on.
Overall, while the Z16 isn’t totally topping its category, you’re getting some real graphics power — and certainly more than you would expect from a thinner and lighter big-screen device. It seems like a compelling package — but that’s before we talk about battery life.
The battery life is bad. Even on the Z16’s Battery Saver profile and with the keyboard backlighting and the GPU turned off, I was still getting under five hours of continuous work at medium brightness — close to four and a half hours on average. And my workload isn’t anything close to what this computer is capable of — I was mostly jumping around between a dozen-ish Chrome tabs and running occasional Zoom calls overtop. You should certainly expect less if you’re doing anything more demanding on battery.
The Z16 just isn’t realistic as a portable laptop with this battery capacity. We wouldn’t necessarily expect a laptop in this category to last all day, but this result is disappointing even large-screened competitors. I regularly got between seven and eight hours out of the last Dell XPS 17 I reviewed. And, of course, even the more powerful 16-inch MacBook Pros last at least twice as long. We’re no longer in an era where hefty power means chopping hours off a device’s battery life, even for thin and light products.
MSI Creator Z16 Benchmarks
|Cinebench R23 Multi||10350|
|Cinebench R23 Single||1437|
|Cinebench R23 Multi looped for 30 minutes||9991|
|Geekbench 5.3 CPU Multi||8613|
|Geekbench 5.3 CPU Single||1555|
|Geekbench 5.3 OpenCL / Compute||89287|
Performance aside, the Z16 is generally a well-built and nice-looking device. It’s fairly thin, at just 0.63 inches thick. It’s sturdy with a comfortable finish — a step above most MSI devices I’ve reviewed before when it comes to build quality. The display, in particular, is gorgeous, and the 120Hz refresh rate makes scrolling a very smooth experience. Details are crisp — I had no problem sifting through a batch of photos for some light editing. I also appreciate that there’s a row of handy hot keys on the right side of the keyboard, which is slightly more convenient to reach than the function row.
But the biggest pleasant surprise, to me, was the speakers. There are four of them, and they sound great, easily reaching the volume of a decent external speaker. I could hear both the bass notes and quieter midrange tones that I don’t usually hear from laptop audio. Did you know there’s some cute, subtle harmony in the first chorus of Harry Styles’ Falling? I did not until I heard it on the Creator Z16 for the first time.
These features, again, make the Z16 a solid machine for productivity and entertainment. But they may not be as important to the Z16’s target audience as some of its glitches. And there are a few dings that are surprising to see in a device at this price point.
For one, while the port selection should be fine for general use (two Thunderbolt 4, two USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A, one microSD reader, and a headphone jack, in addition to a DC-in for the barrel charger), there’s no HDMI. This may be inconvenient for folks who need certain external displays or tablets for their work — which is at least a chunk of the Z16’s professional target audience.
I also had a terrible time with the keyboard on my unit. The spacebar would every so often not register my right thumb’s tap — my colleagues can attest that I was constantly sending Slack messages with missing spaces. MSI didn’t have a replacement unit available to send me but says it’s not an issue they’ve heard about before. Still, the fact that I received a unit with this issue makes me slightly worried about the durability of the keys.
There’s also no 4K screen option. There are some upgradeability hassles as well — teardowns have shown that the RAM is a whole pill to get to due to the placement of the motherboard. And — most frustratingly to me — there’s bloatware. I was getting antivirus nagware popups as soon as I opened this thing, and I had to close all my tabs and reboot the unit in order to uninstall it. I complain when I see this kind of thing on $1,000 devices. It is unacceptable for MSI to be shipping $2,600 laptops with crapware preinstalled on them — it’s the equivalent of Hulu shoving ads on people who are shelling out for their highest subscription tier. While this won’t impact your experience long-term if you uninstall it right away, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth nonetheless.
Ultimately, the strongest argument in favor of buying the Creator Z16 is the power it packs into such a thin and attractive chassis. Many workstations of this size, including the Aero 15 and the XPS 17, are noticeably thicker — and the MacBook, which is similarly thin, is also significantly more expensive.
But I’m not sure that argument is quite strong enough. The battery life, in particular, is a significant compromise for anyone who might want to use this away from their desk for an extended period of time. And given the number of other concerns I have with this device, which are really uncharacteristic in such a premium tier, I think most people who are wed to this price point and don’t mind bad battery life will have a better time with the Aero, which we’d expect to deliver similar performance, but with a much better port selection and better reparability (albeit in a clunkier chassis) for even less money. Those who are looking for a general-purpose multimedia machine and don’t quite need the Z16’s power can expect better battery life and a more premium experience from the XPS 17. And folks who can afford to spend more money will get a massive improvement on all fronts from the MacBook Pro. That doesn’t make this a bad device, but it does mean it’s mostly geared towards people for whom thinness is the top priority.