The Creator Z17HX Studio is MSI’s attempt to give photographers and video editors the fit and finish of an Apple laptop, the color accuracy of a studio-grade computer display, and the performance that comes with the newest Intel and NVIDIA hardware. The good news is that MSI delivers surprisingly well on all of these promises; the bad news is that it had to make one huge compromise along the way.
The Z17HX is the flagship laptop in MSI’s “Creator” series, a subset of MSI’s lineup that trades the sheer bulk and RGB-everything aesthetic of a pure gaming laptop for creator-focused features like a color-accurate display, pen-touch input, and a much cleaner design language that would look at home in any studio or client meeting. Alongside the Dell XPS 17, it’s also one of the only 17-inch creator-focused laptops out there, since most companies are shifting their focus towards the 16-inch form factor instead (MSI included).
This is actually the third generation of the Creator Z17 laptop that I’ve tested, starting with the miniLED model from three years ago. Over that time, I’m happy to report that MSI has made noticeable improvements to the two things that probably matter most to creative professionals: performance and color management. The design is growing a little stale, the price is a bit steep, and I’m going to rail on about the lack of upgradability in a second, but I really appreciate MSI’s focus on two areas where creatives will squeeze out a ton of real-world value.
Like all “creator PCs,” the MSI Creator Z17HX includes some attention-grabbing gimmicks and silly design choices. I definitely won’t gloss over those. But if you’re in the market for a creator laptop read on, because there’s a lot that MSI got right in the design and execution of this 17-inch creator PC.
MSI Creator Z17HX: Available Spec
There is really only one configuration of the MSI Creator Z17HX Studio available from most retailers, and that’s the one we’re testing today: with a 13th-gen Intel Core i9-13950HX CPU, a 90W NVIDIA RTX 4070 laptop GPU with 8GB of GDDR6 memory, 64GB of DDR5-5600 RAM, and a 2TB PCIe 4×4 M.2 NVMe SSD. The display, which we’ll talk about in detail a bit later, is a 2560 x 1600 “QHD+” 16:10 aspect ratio IPS LCD with a 165Hz refresh rate and an advertised 100% coverage of DCI-P3 “typical,” which is just MSI’s way of saying that your mileage may vary by one or two percentage points.
All in all this is a really good setup for creative work, but it does leave me wondering why the laptop costs a whopping $3,600 at this spec.
Sure, the “equivalent” MacBook Pro 16—going by RAM and storage, with a maxed out M2 Max SOC—will run you $4,300, but for that price you also get a high resolution miniLED HDR display that wipes the floor with any other LCD on the market. And the comparison is worse if you look in PC land. The ASUS ProArt Studiobook 16 OLED and Gigabyte AERO 16 OLED both come with higher resolution OLED displays for just $2,700 if you match the laptops spec for spec. Even MSI’s own Creator Z16HX Studio, the 16-inch variant of this same laptop, costs just $3,000 and all you’re giving up is one Thunderbolt 4 port, an inch of screen real-estate, and 45Hz from the max refresh-rate.
Why does MSI think it can justify charging $800 more than its closest competition and $600 more than itself? In other words: what makes the MSI Creator Z17HX Special?
MSI Creator Z17HX: Design and Build Quality
The first reason you might want to opt for one of the MSI options is build quality. Sure, the design could use a refresh to keep things interesting, but both the chassis and the display housing are milled out of solid aluminum. That makes this an incredibly rugged machine that could definitely double as a weapon in case of home intrusion.
It’s also quite thin, the thinnest laptop to feature the “HX” variant of Intel’s 13th-gen Core i9 CPU, at least according to MSI. This is thanks in large part to the new vapor chamber cooling solution that used to be limited to the 16-inch model, but has now been added to the 17-inch model as well. The beefier CPU and vapor chamber did force MSI to totally redesign the motherboard in this year’s model, with some upgradability consequences, but it should translate into top-of-the-line performance.
Connectivity is also solid. On the left side of the device you’ll find MSI’s proprietary power connector, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, and an audio combo jack:
On the right, you get an HDMI 2.1 port that can support up to 8K/60 or 4K/240, a good ol’ fashioned USB Type-A port (USB 3.2 Gen 2) and an SD Express card slot:
The only additional piece of I/O that I would have liked to see is Gigabit ethernet, but alas, no dice. If you like to wire into your network when you’re home or in the studio, you’ll just have to rely on the WiFi 6E card instead.
MSI Creator Z17HX: Keyboard and Touchpad
When you do get down to work, you’ll be typing on a full-sized keyboard that is… well, it’s okay. I hesitate to criticize a keyboard unless there’s something really wrong with it, because keyboard feel is such a subjective category/ However, the 1.5mm of travel on this particular model just makes the keyboard feel mushy to me. It also offers a surprising amount of resistance, which makes it feel like I’m fighting for each key press.
On the bright side, the larger form factor allowed MSI to squeeze in a usable number pad, a fingerprint reader, and per-key RGB lighting, all of which I really like to see.
The touchpad is also a so-so experience. It’s a big 16:10 glass-topped option that feels buttery smooth and mostly behaved as I would have hoped, but MSI’s multi-touch detection could use some work. Palm rejection is solid, but I can’t tell you how many times I was trying to scroll (two-finger swipe) and the laptop just minimized my window (three-finger swipe).
There’s always a learning curve when switching from one laptop trackpad to another, and pretty much all Windows trackpads fall short of Apple’s implementation, but I literally had to adjust the way I hold my hand when using this laptop so I don’t accidentally trigger the super sensitive trackpad. Your mileage may vary.
MSI Creator Z17HX: The MSI Pen 2
The third and final way you’re going to interact with this computer is using the optional MSI Pen 2. This new version of the MSI Pen picked up some headlines when MSI showed off the third generation Creator lineup at CES, because the pen can write on both the display and on a white piece of paper.
Let’s get the paper stuff out of the way first. The pen comes with a special graphite tip that will work on paper given enough pressure… and I mean a lot of pressure. On the one hand, the pen requires so much effort to make good marks on paper that it essentially fails at this gimmick from the get-go; on the other hand, I have yet to run into a situation where I felt a burning need to switch from computer to notebook and back again so rapidly that my stylus was getting in the way, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.
My biggest issues with the MSI Pen 2 have nothing to do with the graphite gimmick. There are two main problems: (a) the pen is battery-powered, so you need to charge it between uses, and (b) when you have it magnetized to the side of the laptop it covers all of the ports on the left side of the machine. I had the exact same complaints about last year’s model, and its these two things that make the pen a pain to use.
The other issue is that pens like this are just not very good for creative work. They’re great productivity devices for navigating your desktop, making the occasional note, or controlling a PowerPoint presentation. That’s part of the reason the pen is battery powered: so you can use it as a PowerPoint clicker. But as a creative pen for photo editing, it falls flat.
I attempted to do some dust removal on the photos for this article using the MSI Pen 2, but it’s just plain uncomfortable. There’s no way to set up the display at a good angle for drawing or photo editing, so you’re always just awkwardly hanging your arm out over your keyboard with nowhere to rest your palm.
The MSI Pen 2 and devices like it are genuinely useful, but the marketing around these pens consistently fails them. They’re touted as a “creative” cool that’s usually available on “creator” laptops, but they’re really just a solid productivity tool for day-to-day work, and nothing more. Don’t go throwing away your Wacom tablet just yet.
MSI Creator Z17HX: Upgradability
The last design feature I have to
complain talk about is the laptop’s upgradability. Or, rather, the lack thereof. If you’re in the market for a creator laptop and you’re buying a PC instead of a Mac, there’s a good chance that upgradability played some part in that decision. I don’t want to be stuck with the amount of storage and/or RAM that I was able to afford at the time of purchase, and most creator PCs feature an extra empty M.2 slot and easily accessible RAM so you can upgrade your system after the fact.
The MSI Creator Z17HX Studio has neither of these, and I personally consider it the laptop’s fatal flaw.
As I mentioned above, MSI had to totally redesign the motherboard in order to fit the bigger “HX” variant of the Intel Core-i9 into such a thin chassis. The problem is, in order to keep thermals under control for such a large and powerful CPU, the company sacrificed an entire M.2 slot and moved everything else to the other side of the motherboard.
And I do mean everything. If you want to access the one-and-only M.2 slot or you want to swap out your RAM, you will need to remove the bottom panel, disconnect and remove the battery, detach numerous fragile ribbon cables, and then unscrew/remove the whole motherboard to gain access. By the time you’re done, you’re basically staring at a bare chassis with a display attached.
For most people, this design decision essentially makes the laptop non-upgradable. And since the standard configuration of the Creator Z17HX ships with a PCIe Gen 4.0 drive, not the faster PCIe Gen 5.0 that the slot also supports, your only real option for getting Gen 5 speeds is to order one from Xotic PC where you can pay them an extra $418 for that upgrade.
Even if you are brave enough to take the PC apart and upgrade the drive yourself, you’ll need an enclosure so that you can clone the system drive onto your new, faster SSD… and then you’re left with an extra 2TB M.2 SSD and nowhere to put it.
It’s just plain silly, and the one biggest entry in the “cons” column for this laptop as far as I’m concerned. For the $3,600 that MSI is charging for this, its flagship Creator laptop, the company should have included a Gen 5 drive to make up for the lack of upgradability and further differentiate the Z17HX from the cheaper Z16HX that’s nearly identical. As it stands, I’d categorize this laptop as only slightly more upgradable than something from Apple. For all intents and purposes, you’re stuck with whatever configuration you buy at checkout.
MSI Creator Z17HX: Display Quality
Okay, I’ve done enough complaining. Let’s talk about the best part of the MSI Creator Z17HX Studio: the display.
The 17-inch 165Hz 2560 x 1200-pixel 16:10 touchscreen display isn’t particularly special on its own. It’s a big, bright, fast IPS LCD panel with ~100% coverage of DCI-P3—that doesn’t really differentiate it from the competition. What does differentiate it is MSI’s True Color system.
Using the included MSI True Color app, you can take as much control over this display as you could with the on-screen controls of a traditional monitor.
If you have a colorimeter handy, the app will let you manually adjust your white point and profile the full native gamut. That will get you the best possible results with the widest color gamut. But if you don’t own a colorimeter or you don’t want to mess with calibration, MSI has partnered with Calman to include three factory-calibrated modes—sRGB, DCI-P3, and Display P3—that are extremely accurate out of the box.
Each of these modes allows you to skip calibration entirely, and I was able to confirm that they are, indeed, spot on. The native color gamut can comfortably cover 100% of DCI-P3 in my testing, so if you have a colorimeter then set it to the WLED backlight correction, adjust your white point to suit, and profile the display while it’s set to “Native” mode in the “Customize” tab of MSI True Color.
That will get you the best possible performance.
But if you don’t have a colorimeter or you don’t want to bother with profiling and calibration, then don’t. The pre-calibrated Display P3 and sRGB modes are excellent. I measured an average Delta E of less than 1 in both modes and a maximum of just over 2.2, which was limited to a single patch (the blue primary on my unit is a little off).
That pretty much matches the Calman “calibration reports” that are included in MSI True Color, which makes me feel confident that MSI isn’t just making stuff up to trick you into trusting the color output of this display. As of this writing, I’m confident in saying that MSI offers the best out-of-the-box color management experience of any laptop I’ve tested, and I can gladly recommend it to creatives who want professional-grade color accuracy without all the faff.
MSI Creator Z17HX: Performance
The other dynamite feature of the Creator Z17HX is its performance. MSI gave up a lot in the interest of sticking a bigger CPU into a thinner chassis. Performance and cooling are the reasons the company gave me for the upgradability compromises that I’m so upset about. So… was it worth it? How does the MSI Creator Z17HX Studio compare to other laptops we’ve tested in creative apps like Lightroom, Photoshop, and Premiere Pro?
BlackMagic Disk Speed Test
Let’s start with SSD performance so you know I wasn’t lying when I said the computer ships with a PCIe Gen 4 drive:
As you can see, we’re maxing out around 4500 MB/s write and 4750 MB/s reads. To be fair, that’s plenty fast enough for just about all creative work, but if you want to go faster you can. The slot supports Gen 5×4, unlike the M.2 slots used in the MSI Creator Z17HX’s main competitors from ASUS and Gigabyte. You’ll just have to jump through some hoops in order to upgrade (see above).
Our Lightroom Classic benchmark involves manually importing, editing, and exporting 110 60MP Sony a7R IV and 150 100MP PhaseOne XF RAW files. The import times represent the time it takes to import and generate all of the 1:1 previews, while exports are done for both 100% quality JPEGs and 16-bit uncompressed TIFFs.
Before we run our export test we apply custom presets that include heavy global edits. We also ensure that all caches are cleared between runs and any GPU acceleration that can be turned on has been turned on. The final results are the average of at least three runs per test. Let’s start with import and preview generation:
As you can see, the Creator Z17HX Studio benefits greatly from using the latest 13th-gen Intel CPU and cooling it properly inside that vapor chamber. In this test, which is directly measuring CPU performance and RAM speed, it outperforms last year’s MSI Titan, its flagship gaming computer, and wipes the floor with Apple’s current M2 Max MacBook Pro 16.
Exports, which are now GPU accelerated in Lightroom Classic CC, aren’t as impressive. The 90W RTX 4070 is able to crank through JPEG exports about as quickly as an M2 Pro MacMini, which isn’t bad, but nowhere near the performance of the RTX 3080Ti in last year’s Titan or the best that Apple has to offer in the M2 Max and M2 Ultra. This is probably due to a lack of video RAM. The RTX 4070 is actually quite powerful, but it has half the VRAM of the 3080Ti in the Titan.
TIFF exports, for whatever reason, did quite a bit better, even outperforming the M2 Max for PhaseOne files, but you still can’t make up that massive gap in GPU performance and memory when compared with a high-end PC.
For our Photoshop benchmark we use the industry standard PugetBench for Photoshop from our friends at Puget Systems. We actually use an older version of their benchmark, partly because it includes a test of the PhotoMerge feature that’s been removed in more recent versions of the benchmark and partly because it guarantees we can compare scores against every other computer we’ve ever tested without worrying about PugetBench unexpectedly updating the plugin.
Overall, the Creator Z17HX splits the difference between the M2 Pro and M2 Max, falling a bit short of the best computers we’ve tested but putting in a very respectable performance. When you consider how big last year’s MSI Titan was, it’s kind of incredible that the Creator Z17HX can do this well.
Category scores paint a similar picture, with the Creator Z17HX Studio falling short of the M2 Ultra Mac Studio and the Intel NUC Extreme 13 that Jaron tested back in January, but coming extremely close along the way. These scores also show the benefit of using the latest 40-series GPU from NVIDIA. The NUC and Titan we tested both featured 30-series GPUs, and they both fall far short in this scenario where the VRAM doesn’t play as big of a role.
Finally, we recently began using Puget Systems’ PugetBench for PremierePro in order to test video editing performance. We run the so-called “extended” test here, where the benchmark tests performance on both 4K and 8K projects across four categories: LongGOP, Intraframe, RAW, and GPU Effects. The benchmark then assigns an overall score that lumps this all into one easy to digest number.
Unfortunately Puget changed its Premiere Pro benchmark recently, so we weren’t able to include the M2 Max MacBook Pro or M2 Pro Mac Mini in this comparison. I have a feeling those computers would have put the Z17HX into better perspective. As it stands, the Creator Z17HX Studio scores lowest Overall compared to our big boys, but comes tantalizingly close to matching last year’s bigger, bulkier Titan.
And it’s the same story in the category scores. It’s basically neck and neck between this much sleeker and more creator-friendly laptop and last year’s gaming monster. Even if both fall short of the M1 Ultra Mac Studio (and would probably fall short of the M2 Max MacBook Pro 16) this is extremely impressive performance from a laptop that can legitimately be called a laptop.
Overall, I’m extremely impressed with the performance of the Creator Z17HX Studio. I didn’t expect performance to be one of the big justifications for buying the 17-inch variant, but my guess is that the larger chassis with the larger vapor chamber allows MSI to properly cool and power the latest chips from Intel and NVIDIA so it can squeeze out a few more megahertz.
The result is that, in one year, MSI was able to take most of the performance of its biggest and baddest gaming laptop and cram it inside a much thinner, sleeker, and more professional-looking chassis that a creative professional might want to use. And don’t forget, the color accurate QHD+ screen still boasts a 165Hz refresh rate, so if you want to game on this thing you can. It’s just that it’s useful for more than just gaming and heating up your desk at home.
Overall, I’d say performance is one of the big bright spots pushing me towards recommending this laptop to creators who want something big and powerful but still at least somewhat portable. Would a 16-inch laptop—even MSI’s own Z16HX Studio—be able to pull off this kind of performance given the smaller chassis? I somehow doubt it.
MSI Creator Z17HX: An Excellent Creator PC with a Fatal Flaw
Over the past few years, companies like MSI, ASUS, Razer, and Gigabyte—computer manufacturers who are best known for making high-powered gaming machines that can barely be called laptops—have put more and more effort into releasing “creator” or “studio” models. This new breed of machine shifts the focus from power-and-FPS-at-all-costs to a more appealing balance of power, build quality, upgradability, and color accuracy packed inside professional looking designs that would feel at home in a business meeting.
With one very notable exception, I think MSI has nailed this balance of features with the Creator Z17HX Studio. The company has chosen to focus its energy on performance, color accuracy, and build quality, all areas where the Creator Z17HX shines. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best first-party color management system of any PC laptop I’ve reviewed, giving you the same level of control as a typical studio display.
Where MSI has decided not to focus, unfortunately, is on upgradability. The company makes a big deal about how this PC supports PCIe Gen 5×4 M.2 SSDs, but the computer ships with a PCIe Gen 4 drive and upgrading it requires that you remove the entire motherboard. And the same goes for RAM: if you want to upgrade the RAM in this system, you need to be ready to do serious iFixit surgery with a high probability that you’ll accidentally tear a ribbon cable and set $3,500 on fire in the process.
All of the rest of my complaints—the battery-powered pen, the middle-of-the-road keyboard and trackpad, even the price—are just typical reviewer nit-picks. I can justify the price on performance and color accuracy alone. But releasing a creator PC in 2023 and making it this hard to upgrade is a mistake I can’t forgive.
Are There Alternatives?
There actually aren’t a lot of 17-inch laptops left on the market. Many manufacturers have downsized their “creator” PCs to 16-inch displays, and even MSI makes a Creator Z16HX Studio with a slightly smaller screen and smaller price tag. That, incidentally, is probably the first and best direct competitor to the Z17HX Studio. The Creator Z16HX is essentially the same laptop with a slightly smaller and slower screen and one less Thunderbolt port, but it only costs $3,000.
The smaller chassis means that it probably can’t perform quite as well as the 17-inch version—the laws of thermodynamics are pretty stubborn—but we haven’t tested it so we can’t say for sure how much performance you’d be leaving on the table by going with the 16-inch variant.
Looking outside of MSI’s lineup, the Z17HX Studio’s main competition comes from the ASUS ProArt StudioBook 16 OLED, the Gigabyte AERO 16 OLED and, of course, the MacBook Pro 16 with M2 Max. All three of these laptops offer superior resolution and contrast from either OLED or miniLED displays, and the ASUS and Gigabyte models are cheaper and more upgradable to boot. All three deserve a very close look if you’re interested in this category of device.
Finally, another alternative is the Dell XPS 17 9730, but it’s a slightly different sort of laptop. It features the smaller non-HX variant of the Core i9, a lower wattage RTX 4070, and if you want to match the MSI spec-for-spec in terms of RAM and storage you’ll pay a whopping $4,000 for the Dell. So the Dell is sleeker, more portable, and features a gorgeous 4K display, but it sacrifices performance in order to achieve these things and it will cost you more in the bargain.
Should You Buy It?
If the upgradability issue doesn’t bother you, then I can highly recommend the MSI Creator Z17HX for creative workflows. It’s built like a tank, it’s surprisingly fast for its size, and it features one of the best out-of-the-box color-accurate displays and color-management systems we’ve ever tested. For many creative professionals, that covers everything they need from their work laptop.
But if upgradability is a priority, if you’re fine with calibrating your own display, and/or the $3,600 price tag is just too rich for your blood, there are at least three excellent alternatives, including MSI’s own Z16HX Studio, that are worth a closer look.