MSI just announced the Claw, a handheld Windows gaming PC following the Steam Deck’s lead. It’s destined to challenge the Asus ROG Ally and Lenovo Legion Go at the same starting price of $699 — only this one has an Intel Core Ultra inside, which MSI claims is the clear winner over AMD in performance and battery life.
I just got hands-on at CES 2024, and I can confidently tell you that as of right now, it’s impossible to say whether it’s any good — that depends on performance and battery life, which are not final. MSI is showing off engineering samples here at CES, ones that feel like they need the months of tuning they’ll hopefully get before a first-half 2024 launch.
Here’s the good news: if you like the Asus ROG Ally and wish it were just more comfortable and longer-lived, MSI might have you covered. The grips are bigger and comfier than Asus, without the overwhelming beefiness and dig-into-my-palms edges of the Lenovo Legion Go. In many ways, the Claw feels like it’s cribbed directly from the ROG Ally, save for those grips: it’s similarly shaped, with similar port placement (including an SD card reader right next to a vent), near-identical button placement, and similar screen bezels surrounding a similar 7-inch 120Hz 1080p IPS screen.
The user interface feels cut from the same cloth and similarly needs creature comforts that didn’t come to the Ally for a while, like the ability to map an Xbox button, and anti-deadzone to counteract joystick oversensitivity in some games.
Importantly though, you get a 53Wh battery, which is larger than the ROG Ally’s 40Wh pack and in line with Lenovo and the Steam Deck OLED. And it’s got Hall effect joysticks like the Legion Go.
MSI says it will even include the Ally’s best feature over the Deck and Legion Go: variable refresh rate, which can make the entire Asus experience smoother.
But smooth is not what I’m seeing from the Intel Core Ultra chip, at least not yet. The Intel Core Ultra-powered engineering samples MSI brought to CES are a bit stuttery in gameplay, with loads of frame spikes. The chip currently defaults to a 24W-27W TDP, which is more than I expected from what’s supposedly a more efficient chip than AMD’s. (Again, engineering samples! Likely months before launch!) The fans do seem relatively quiet under load, though it’s tough to tell in a crowded room.
It certainly isn’t competitive with the Steam Deck at lower wattage quite yet. When I set it to the “Super Battery Saver” 15W mode, like for like with the Deck, it struggled in an Assassin’s Creed Mirage benchmark even at 720p and lowest settings. I saw an average of just 24fps amid huge frame drops.
But like other Windows handhelds, you do get turbo modes, too: up to 35W on battery power or 40W while plugged into the wall. Even the 27W performance mode gave me an average 40fps at 720p and just over 30fps average at 1080p in Mirage. And you can set your own fan curves, map keys, and easily program up to 12-key macros with per-key delays. And the Claw has Wi-Fi 7. While an MSI rep says Windows 11 may not officially support Wi-Fi 7 until the second half of the year, they also claim they saw 4x the speeds in lab testing.
Oh, almost forgot, this handheld has artificial intelligence: you can turn on AI noise canceling, and there’s an allegedly AI-powered performance mode that uses the Intel chip’s NPU to dynamically adjust the screen backlight and chip power, says a rep. I saw chip wattage range between 24W and 27W in Mirage when I turned it on, so it did seem to be doing something.
Despite the electricity it’s consuming right now, MSI says we should still see two hours of battery on a charge from demanding games, with four hours from lighter fare and five or more hours of video playback. That’s definitely not more than I expect from the Deck OLED, but it hasn’t been a guarantee for Windows handhelds. One rep says they’re already getting two hours of Forza 5, where they’d see an hour from the Asus ROG Ally.
While I can’t verify that yet, I did see the battery dip 25 percent over 30 minutes of testing. The math suggests I might have managed two hours if I kept going.
Hasty tradeshow photography by Sean Hollister / The Verge