A gaming laptop named after an iconic blade will be the best in budget gear. MSI Katana GF66 starts at $799, $1,199 for in-store Micro Center models tested here), and offers an Nvidia GeForce RTX3060 GPU, an 8-core Intel Core i7 CPU, and a 1TB solid state drive. Although the Katana's battery life and screen quality are less than ideal, it still covers all the essentials of gaming without any major flaws, particularly in this era of increasing core-component costs and the redefining of what constitutes a budget gaming laptop. The Katana replaces MSI's Bravo 15, which was our Editors' Choice winner for affordable 15 inch gaming rigs.
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You won't find a more wallet-friendly gaming laptop than the Katana GF66. Base model at $799 is great for 1080p gaming or esports. It has a Core i5-11400H CPU, a 4GB GeForce RTX3050 GPU, a 144Hz refresh rate screen, 8GB memory and 512GB solid-state storage. For even better performance, step-up models come with Nvidia's upgraded 4GB RTX3050 Ti graphics card. All models come standard with Windows 10 Home as well as a 1-year warranty.
The top-tier $1,199 model seen and tested here has an eight-core, 2.3GHz (4.6GHz turbo) Core i7-11800H, GeForce RTX 3060 graphics with 6GB of display memory, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. The price only applies in-store at Micro Center, but even if you spend up to $200 more online, it's still reasonable: Asus' comparably equipped TUF Gaming F15 commands $1,399 on Amazon. You can find an RTX 3060 for less in the Gigabyte G5 KC (I saw that model for $1,049 after rebate), but that laptop is saddled with a previous-generation Core i5-10500H chip and half the storage (512GB).
Visually, the Katana GF66 makes its gaming credentials plain. The black-and-red color scheme is far from unique among gaming laptops (take a look at the Acer Nitro 5 for a seeming sibling), but it still provides a sense of identity. An angled lid and large cooling vents complement the look.
Inward-sloped edges help the Katana look sleeker than its actual measurements of 0.98 by 14.1 by 10.2 inches (HWD). Its weight is within budget gaming expectations at 4.96 pounds. Ditto for its all-plastic build, which feels solid if not luxurious.
The Katana GF66's 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display could be better. Its 144Hz refresh rate is its best feature, enabling a silky-smooth gaming experience; the GeForce RTX 3060 GPU has no trouble pushing it to the limit in many games, as our benchmark tests will show below. But its picture quality is ho-hum for discriminating eyes; our Datacolor SpyderX Elite measured a meager 62% coverage of the sRGB color gamut and a peak brightness of a modest 267 nits.
The MSI Katana GF66 only really shows a nod to gamers with its red keyboard backlighting. The keys' edges and tops are both illuminated. I also like the futuristic font used for the keycaps.
Keypresses, unfortunately, lack tactile engagement; there should be more up-and-down travel. The number pad also seems like a squeezed-in afterthought, with undersize keys and a nonstandard three-column layout. The touchpad, offset in line with the keyboard, has a similar mix of pros and cons: It's rightly sized and has a smooth, stutter-free surface, but it makes you work with its stiff physical click-down action. Relying on gentle, virtual tap-to-click is an easy way to get around that.
There are three USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports on each side of the Katana, two Type-A and one Type–C. A legacy USB 2.0 port is also available (great for connecting a mouse), headset and Ethernet cables. An HDMI 2.0b video output is also provided.
Thunderbolt 4 is still on our wishlist. The display's webcam, which is 720p in resolution, does not have privacy shutter and there are no biometric options. The palm rest's twin speakers produce a strained, but clear sound.
Although the memory and storage can be upgraded by users, removing the bottom panel may prove difficult. You will need to remove numerous screws and use a trim-removal instrument to carefully pry at its edges. You'll find 2 M.2 2280 PCI Express 3.00 SSD slots, and 2 DDR4-3200 sockets. You can increase your RAM to 64GB by using two 32GB modules. The Intel AX201 WiFi 6 card is also available, as well as the battery with 53.5 watts. You can also read our article on upgrading your laptop.
Our Katana GF66 unit, which we have just refreshed, has an 8-core Intel Core i7-11800H processor, a 6GB GeForce RTX3060 GPU, 16GB RAM and a 1TB solid state drive. As our benchmarks show, this recipe works well for 1080p gaming. As shown here, the RTX3060 GPU is rated at 85 watts.
The Katana's cooling is not silent, but it's quiet. Its fans don't block your view and the chassis doesn't have hotspots.
The Katana GF66 faces an uphill battle against most of the gaming laptops I used for comparisons, which are listed below. They include the Alienware x15, MSI's own Delta 15, and the XPG Xenia 15 KC. The smaller Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 is the only one that also sports an RTX 3060 GPU. As tested, however, all of these models cost at least several hundred dollars more than the Katana.
Our first test was UL's PCMark 10. This simulates real-world productivity, office workflows and overall system performance. It also contains a storage subtest. Katana GF66 did well and scored far more than the 4,000 points that we consider a strong indicator of productivity. Although it did not excel in storage, the SSD provides ample power for general usage.
The CPU is the other benchmark that we use to evaluate a computer's ability to handle processor-intensive tasks. Maxon's Cinebench R23 renders complex scenes using Cinema 4D, and Primate Labs Geekbench Pro simulates many apps such as PDF rendering, speech recognition, machine learning, and more. We use HandBrake, an open-source video converter to transform a 12 minute video clip from 4K resolution to 1080p (lower speeds are better).
Puget Systems' PugetBench for Photoshop (Opens a new tab) is our final productivity test. It uses Adobe Creative Cloud 22 to evaluate a computer's ability to create multimedia content and multi-media applications. This extension automates various tasks in Photoshop, including opening, rotating and resizing images, saving them, applying filters, gradient fills and masks.
It is disappointing that the Katana GF66 has a poor CPU performance. The XPG, Alienware and especially the Alienware performed better using the same Core i7-11800H. It is possible that the CPU has reached a limit in performance or power. Although the bargain MSI still performs well, it is not as powerful as it should.
We run real-world and synthetic gaming tests on Windows PCs. Two DirectX 12 simulations are included in the former: Night Raid is a more modest one, which can be used on systems that have integrated graphics, and Time Spy, which is more demanding and suitable for gaming rigs using discrete GPUs. The cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 5 is also included in that group. This benchmark allows us to measure OpenGL performance.
Our real-world gaming testing is based on the benchmarks for F1 2021 and Assassin's Creed Valhalla. These games represent simulation, open-world action and competitive/esports shooting games. Laptops run Valhalla or Siege twice. Valhalla is at medium and ultra quality and Siege at low and very high quality. F1 2021 runs once with Ultra quality settings. GeForce RTX laptops run F1 221 again, this time with Nvidia’s performance-boosting DLSS Anti-aliasing on.
Fortunately, Katana GF66 didn't have any problems with its CPU performance in GPU-focused testing, which saw it outperform the Asus equipped with the RTX 3060. Notable: The Katana GF66 achieved a staggering 144fps while playing Rainbow Six Siege. This was despite not making use of the 144Hz display. The RTX 3050 has not been tested in our benchmarks yet. However, the RTX 3060 performs better and offers more memory (4GB vs 6GB). It's worth the investment if you have the budget.
PCMag checks the battery life of laptops by running a locally saved 720p video file (the Blender movie Tears of Steel). The screen brightness is set at 50%, and the audio volume set at 100%. This will continue until PCMag stops testing. During the test, Wi-Fi is disabled and keyboard backlighting turned off.
We also use a Datacolor SpyderX Elite monitor calibration sensor and its software to measure a laptop screen's color saturation—what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts or palettes the display can show—and its brightness in nits (candelas per square meter) at the screen's 50% and peak settings.
The KatanaGF66's display quality and battery life are not strong points. A 15-inch gaming laptop should last at most six hours. On the display side, we would like 100% of sRGB as well as at least 300 nits brightness. The 144Hz refresh rate is what saves the Katana screen from being used for gaming, as I mentioned.
We wish that the MSI Katana GF66 could have a brighter screen and a longer battery life. However, it is still a decent budget gaming laptop. The laptop comes with GeForce GTX 3060 graphics for a RTX3050 Ti or regular RTX 3500 price. This GPU makes the most of the 144Hz screen. This is a remarkable achievement in a budget laptop. Equally impressive for the price is the 1TB solid state drive. It's well-suited for today's growing game installations. The Katana GF66 laptop is a great value, and it has been awarded an Editors Choice Award for cash-strapped gamers.