MSI Creator Z16 laptop review: Gamer meets creator
“The MSI Creator Z16 has its charms, but can’t quite beat its rivals where it counts.”
- High refresh rate screen
- Excellent content creation performance
- Clicky, comfortable keyboard
- Thin, sleek chassis
- Not a bad gaming machine
- Small, flimsy touchpad
- Very expensive
- Mediocre battery life
Everyone wants to take a shot at the MacBook Pro. The Creator Z16 is MSI’s attempt at taking on the 16-inch model, and on paper, it looks like a serviceable alternative.
It has the same 16:10 high-resolution screen and ultrathin chassis. It even has a similarly sky-high price, with a starting configuration costing $2,549.
But the MSI Creator Z16 will need to go above and beyond to lure buyers away from the MacBook Pro, or even Windows rivals like the Dell XPS 17, Asus Vivobook Pro X16, or any number of others. The Creator Z16 has a unique set of features, but its appeal will likely remain limited to people who have a unique interest in both PC gaming and content creation.
The MSI Creator Z16 is an odd bird. The inspiration from the MacBook Pro is front and center, of course, whether it’s the “space gray” color, the rounded corners, or even the 16-inch 16:10 screen size. But many of those features have become standard in a tech world that follows Apple’s lead closely.
What makes the Creator Z16 stand out? Well, MSI is known as a gaming company first and foremost, and that shows. Despite its supposed target audience for the Creator Z16, MSI wasn’t able to completely shake off those PC gaming trappings.
The most obvious element is the RGB backlighting in the keyboard, powered by SteelSeries. Per-key RGB backlighting is an effect exclusive to gaming laptops and peripherals, and it’s off-putting to see it here. Sure, turning it to a static color isn’t difficult, but it’s weird to pay for something extra that most non-gamers won’t want.
The other holdover from its gaming roots is the vents. I can appreciate good airflow in a system, but the Creator Z16’s extra vents force other elements of the laptop into awkward locations. The extensive series of vents above the keyboard squish down the touchpad to be overly squat. Meanwhile, the vents on the sidewalls force the ports further down the device as well. That’s not an inconvenience, but it makes for an awkward-looking setup. Again, it’s a common thing to see in a gaming laptop — just not in a laptop for content creators.
There are undoubtedly some who will appreciate the slight gaming influences on the Creator Z16. When it comes to the performance and the display, there are even benefits to be had. But from an aesthetic perspective, MSI has a bit more purging to do before the Creator Z16 is ready to compete.
MSI has managed to make the Creator Z16 impressively thin, though. It’s just 0.64 inches thick, which matches the MacBook Pro 16-inch almost exactly. That makes it thinner than options such as the Dell XPS 15 and ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4. It’s also quite a bit heavier than all these laptops at 5.07 pounds. It’s enough extra weight to easily tell the difference when carrying it in a bag or even just moving it from room to room.
The side and top bezels are fairly small, but the laptop has a sizable bottom chin, especially compared to the Dell XPS 15. It’s nothing too egregious, but it’s certainly not the most modern-looking laptop, either.
The MSI Creator Z16 offers a 16-inch screen with a 2560 x 1600 resolution. That’s a 16:10 format, exactly matching the size and shape of the MacBook Pro 16-inch. Again, that’s no coincidence.
The resolution, though, is a bit lacking. While the screen looks sharp enough for this screen size in casual work, you’ll notice that many of the rivals of the Creator Z16 use a higher resolution. The MacBook Pro 16-inch has a 3072 x 1920 resolution, while many Windows rivals offer a higher-resolution 4K screen.
The MSI Creator Z16 has a couple of key features, though, that give it an upper hand over the MacBook Pro 16-inch and a number of other laptops. First, it has a 120Hz refresh rate. Yes, that’s another holdover from MSI’s gaming roots — and it does help provide the Creator Z16 with a more legitimate PC gaming experience.
But smoother animation is also a boon to everything else you do, too. Whether it’s the movement of the cursor or the scroll of a webpage, it’s all enhanced by a higher refresh rate. We’re going to start seeing this more in the future, especially on OLED panels, but as of now, it remains a unique feature that gives the Creator Z16 an interesting advantage.
The second noteworthy feature of this display is found in its touch capabilities. Though it’s become fairly common in Windows laptops, like the Dell XPS 15, it’s something the MacBook Pro 16-inch lacks. I don’t expect creators will be relying too heavily on the touchscreen, but it’s a nice addition to use casually.
As for image quality, the MSI Creator Z16 has a few different color modes to benefit from. Content creators will gravitate toward the Display P3 mode. This produces the best color saturation and accuracy, which was impressive. At 100% sRGB, 91% AdobeRGB, and 93% P3, it’s every bit as colorful as the MacBook Pro. The Delta-E of just 0.76 is a fantastically low average of color error. All of this makes for the kind of display that professional color graders and photo editors will love.
The brightness and contrast didn’t blow me out of the water. The screen maxed out at 385 nits and had a contrast ratio of 800:1 at 100% brightness. This is where OLED laptops like the Samsung panels featured in the Asus Vivobook Pro 16X or Dell XPS 15 really shine.
Keyboard and touchpad
The keyboard and touchpad are a mixed bag on the MSI Creator Z16. On one hand, the keyboard provides a comfortable typing experience, with large keycaps, clicky keys, and a fairly standard layout. The full-size arrow keys are nice, though they might take some time to get used to.
One small oddity in the layout is the lack of a function key on the left side. Instead, MSI has opted for an enlarged Control key. You still have a function key on the right side of the layout, but only as a half-key shared with a second Control key.
As I mentioned in the design section, the keyboard features per-key RGB backlighting, although the SteelSeries software isn’t the most usable. For what it’s worth, the indicator light on the Caps key on my review unit didn’t light up when toggled on.
The touchpad is where my bigger issues are. It’s both too small and poorly implemented. Because of the placement of the keyboard (again, see above in the design section for more info), the touchpad has been squished down into a squat shape. This is one of the smaller touchpads you’ll find on a laptop designed for creatives. Most designs follow the lead of the MacBook Pro by offering an enlarged touchpad that leaves plenty of room.
The click of the touchpad is the most frustrating part, though. While tracking and gestures are all smooth on the glass surface, the click mechanism isn’t well-executed. It depresses when you apply pressure, and then requires a secondary push to register a click, and I found the mechanism to be too loud and stiff. Over weeks of use, I did get used to the faulty touchpad, but returning to a MacBook Pro or XPS laptop felt heavenly.
If this were a gaming laptop, the importance of the touchpad is lessened. On a device where the touchpad is expected to be your primary input, it’s disappointing.
The MSI Creator Z16 has a fairly limited set of ports. On the left side, you’ll find a USB-A 3.2 Gen2 port, Thunderbolt 4 USB-C, a headphone jack, and an A/C power adapter. On the right side, you have access to one more USB-A, USB-C, and a Micro-SD card slot.
This is disappointing on a number of levels. There are two different approaches that rivals laptops take. Laptops like the MacBook Pro 16-inch stick with just four Thunderbolt 4 ports, which supply a ton of power to the device, removing the need for a separate power adapter and simplifying the setup. The other option is to throw the entire kitchen sink in, including HDMI, USB-A, and SD card slots. The MSI Creator Z16 is somewhere in between. It doesn’t include HDMI, requires an A/C adapter to supply full power to the device, and only has a Micro-SD card slot rather than a full-sized one.
That will present an inconvenience for creatives who primarily work off a camera and will be forced to use adapters and dongles when uploading raw content.
The MSI Creator Z16 has some powerful components packed into its thin chassis. MSI doesn’t sell any cheap configurations of the Creator Z16, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a high-end device meant for a professional audience. The $2,549 starting configuration still gives you an Intel Core i7-11800H, RTX 3060 (with up to 65 watts of graphics), 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of SSD storage. This base configuration even comes with the same 1440p 120Hz screen.
My review unit was a slightly spruced-up model, bumping the memory up to 32GB and the storage to 1TB, which raised the price to $2,727 (you can get it as low as $2,599 on Amazon). If you want to spend over three grand, you can get it with an additional terabyte of storage and a higher-clocked Core i9 processor.
What you get with the Creator Z16 is a very powerful (and expensive) laptop, regardless of the exact configuration. It’s within the same range in most of the benchmarks as the XPS 15 and 17, as well as the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4.
|Cinebench R23 (single/multi)||Handbrake (seconds)||PCMark 10||Pugetbench Premiere Pro|
|MSI Creator Z16 (Core i7-11800H)||1444/9615||102||6486||738|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4 (Core i7-11800H)||1519/10497||106||6251||432|
|Dell XPS 15 (Core i7-11800H)||1513/9979||103||6024||509|
|Dell XPS 17 (Core i7-11800H)||1525/10145||109||6209||692|
|Asus Vivobook Pro 16X (Ryzen 9 5900HX)||1486/11478||90||6486||6287|
Video editing was a standout benchmark for the MSI Creator Z16 in my testing. In Pugetbench Premiere Pro, which tests everything from applying effects to timeline exports, the Creator Z16 took home the prize for the high score, which was bolstered by an incredible score in video playback. Yep, that means it even beat the Dell XPS 17.
What’s the secret? Well, I mentioned the numerous vents in the chassis earlier, and they could be allowing the system to push the components harder without overheating. The processor was able to sustain around 4.5GHz throughout PCMark 10, with occasional bursts over 5.0GHz. Internal temperatures never spiked over 95-degrees Celsius during testing. That’s hot, but it’s on par with what you see in similar systems.
The fans can get really loud. If you dare change the fan settings to “Performance,” you’ll see what I mean. That’ll buy you even higher scores than what I’ve listed above, but the fan speed is pretty unbearable. Meanwhile, the Creator Z16 does an excellent job of keeping surface temperatures low while you’re not doing anything intensive. Again, thank the thermals for that, which include three fans and five heat pipes.
Of course, while gaming or video editing, the surface can still get fairly hot, even around the WASD keys.
The MSI Creator Z16 is also a great choice for someone who wants to do some PC gaming on the side. The RTX 3060 is a powerful graphics card, and the 120Hz refresh rate opens up the use of those higher frame rates.
|3DMark Time Spy||Battlefield V||Assassin’s Creed Valhalla||Civilization VI||Fortnite|
|MSI Creator Z16 (RTX 3060)||6322||102 fps||50 fps||92 fps||56 fps|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4 (RTX 3060)||6691||106 fps||48 fps||n/a||85 fps|
|Dell XPS 15 (RTX 3050 Ti)||4540||103 fps||n/a||73 fps||50 fps|
|Dell XPS 17 (RTX 3060)||7039||109 fps||n/a||104 fps||78 fps|
|Asus Vivobook Pro 16X (RTX 3050 Ti)||4601||90 fps||n/a||68 fps||57 fps|
The games listed above were tested at 1080p (or 1920 x 1200 for 16:10 laptops) at max graphics settings. The XPS 17 remains the fastest in the group in most games, outside the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4’s excellent Fortnite performance. There are dozens of factors that play into the frame rate of a game on a laptop, and the Creator Z16 sits in the middle of the pack, trading blows with other laptops in this category. Thanks to the 120Hz refresh rate, you’ll likely prefer playing in 1920 x 1200, which provides a much smoother gameplay experience.
The fact that it can even handle difficult games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, even at 50 frames per second (fps), is impressive.
The MSI Creator Z16 has a 90 watt-hour battery inside. That sounds large, but it wasn’t enough to make this laptop a battery life champion. Among other laptops in this category, all of which have high-resolution screens and RTX graphics cards, the Creator Z16 ranks among the worst in battery life.
The Creator Z16 can last up to over eight hours if all you’re doing is watching a local video. In light web browsing, that goes down to five hours and 20 minutes. In my actual workload, which consists of more multitasking and web applications, that dips down under five hours. The ThinkPad X1 Extreme gets you an extra two hours, while a Ryzen-based laptop like the Asus Vivobook Pro 16X gets an amazing 16 hours on that same test.
Part of the problem with the Creator Z16 could be that higher refresh rate screen, which is something you could switch down to 60Hz to gain some extra juice.
Cameras and sensors
The MSI Creator Z16 features the standard set of cameras and sensors. Above the display, you’ll find a 720p webcam. These kinds of poor cameras are typical in laptops — and have been for years. You’ll find the occasional 1080p webcam in 2021 laptops, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4 or even MSI’s own GE76 Raider gaming laptop.
Unfortunately, the Creator Z16 is stuck with 720p, and the results aren’t impressive. In bright lighting, your video calls will look blown out to adjust for your skin tone. In lower lighting, there is heavy artifacting and strange colors. It’s not ideal if your daily work involves lots of video calls. Then again, a laptop like the Dell XPS 15 won’t do you any better.
MSI also includes an IR camera for Windows Hello facial authentication. Logging in to Windows can also be accomplished with the fingerprint reader, which is located just under the arrow keys. The placement is a little odd, but it registers fingerprints well.
The MSI Creator Z16 is the right laptop for a very specific person. If you want a laptop for content creation but don’t want to lose any of the PC gaming experience, the MSI Creator Z16 manages that balance better than most. The 120Hz screen and excellent performance allow it to shine in both worlds.
But with its lower-resolution display, mediocre battery life, faulty touchpad, and high price, its faults are a few too many.
Are there any alternatives?
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme, now in its fourth generation, is a great alternative that comes with better configuration options (up to an RTX 3080 and Core i9) and a more affordable price.
The Dell XPS 15 and 17 are also great contenders. The XPS 15 isn’t quite as powerful, but it has a design that I prefer and options for a 4K OLED screen.
I wouldn’t recommend buying the current Intel-powered MacBook Pro 16-inch, but the rumored update to the M1X MacBook Pro is waiting in the wings and looks to be quite impressive.
How long will it last?
The MSI Creator Z16 is an expensive laptop, so you should expect it to last at least four or five years. The performance and components are all high-end and should keep you productive for many years. The sturdy build quality, meanwhile, should also hold up well.
MSI offers one year of accidental damage protection with a limit of one claim per laptop. If you want an extended warranty, you’ll need to depend on what’s offered through online retailers.
Should you buy it?
For most people, the answer is no. There are laptops that have a better focus on content creation. The exception is for someone who wants a 120Hz screen without having to sacrifice the content creation performance.