MSI Creator Z16 review: Gaming and content creation collide

This 15-inch creator-oriented laptop provides all the tools for on-the-go editing and gaming, but there are a few things that may be deal-breakers for you.

MSI Creator Z16 Review
Henri Robbins / Input

With how technically demanding creative work can be today, a full gaming setup can feel necessary to get anything done. Sure, Photoshop can run on pretty much any laptop, but anything more resource-intensive — like 3D modeling, video editing, or game development — requires a device with a lot more power behind it.

To create a laptop that can tackle both gaming and color grading, MSI’s Creator Z16 combines an RTX 3060 with a color-accurate, 15.6-inch QHD display, creating a powerful and sleek laptop that can handle most creative software.

The Creator Z16 starts at $2,599 for a model with an 11th-gen Intel Core i7-11800H, 16GB of memory, and a 512GB PCIe SSD. The model MSI provided us with for review has an i9-11900H, 32GB of memory and a 2TB PCIe SSD, which is priced at $2,999.

The Creator Z16 is mainly intended for content creators, artists, and students who need both portability and power. As a college student, I used the Creator Z16 regularly for a month to see how it held up to work, games, and daily travel.

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Sleek and solid

Overall, the Creator Z16 feels fantastic to use. The aluminum construction has the same sheen and style as an Apple product, and ensures the laptop has almost no body flex when open or closed. In addition, it gives the laptop a great heft when placed on your lap and provides the keyboard a good amount of rigidity when typing, as opposed to the incredibly cheap feeling that some laptops with plastic cases can have.

The Creator Z16 is also incredibly thin, with my measurements coming in at just above 17mm at the laptop’s thickest point and 16.3mm at the thinnest. This compares to the Alienware M15’s 20.5mm, the Razer Blade 17’s 19.9mm, and the 2021 16-inch MacBook Pro’s 15.5mm thickness. While the Creator Z16 isn’t the thinnest laptop on the market, it isn’t far from it , and it’s not like 0.5mm will make a massive difference in day-to-day use.

The Creator Z16’s keyboard is underwhelming, however. The Steelseries-branded scissor switch keyboard has a short travel time and an unsatisfying key feel. While the metal case does a bit to mitigate this, there’s only so much that can be done to make a boring keyboard feel good.

The Creator Z16’s keyboard is underwhelming despite the metal case.Henri Robbins / Input

The keyboard’s RGB functionality, which is powered by Steelseries’ GG software, works incredibly well. It boasts multiple programmable settings including color shifts, breathing effects, and lighting that reacts to your typing, all on a per-key basis. The main issue I ran into was that the keyboard’s lights often didn’t always match those of my Steelseries Aerox 3 mouse even when I set them to the exact same color — it’s not a huge issue if you’re willing to fine-tune things, but was still irritating.

The Creator Z16’s trackpad is snappy, responsive, and smooth, and retains the same metallic feel as the rest of the laptop’s finish. The mouse buttons have a satisfying click that feels much better than your average trackpad, too — although I still found myself plugging in a wireless mouse regularly for creative work and gaming.

A+ usability

The laptop’s screen is a 2,560 x 1,600 QHD display running at 120Hz that’s intended for photo and video editing. As a result, it’s clear, crisp, and looks great. And with MSI’s True Color software, it’s easy to switch between multiple settings for different color profiles, including sRGB, AdobeRGB, DCI-P3, Display P3, and anti-blue light (which is similar to eye-saver mode), along with dedicated movie-watching and office work settings.

AdobeRGB represents a traditional CMYK color profile, which is useful for designing print media, and DCI-P3 is the current standard for video editing, which is great for anyone editing promotional video, film, or other video content.

Another benefit of the True Color software is the ability to easily swap between multiple color profiles. The software can quickly open from the taskbar, and choosing a new color option immediately switches to it. I found myself almost always wanting to use the anti-blue setting when the work I was doing didn’t require a high degree of color accuracy.

The keyboard’s function keys include volume controls, trackpad, microphone, camera, and keyboard lighting toggles, a key to switch between performance modes, brightness controls, a print screen key, and — the most surprising inclusion — a key to rotate the display image 180 degrees.

The keyboard’s function keys include a key to rotate the display image 180 degreesHenri Robbins / Input

Most of these keys are useful for everyday work like writing, video editing, and gaming. I found extensive use for the trackpad disable and the performance swap keys with video games, and the camera/microphone disable keys are good for anyone concerned about privacy (or looking to slack off during a video call) — although I’ll always prefer a physical cover over my camera. While I couldn’t find a use for the dedicated 180-degree screen rotation key, MSI said it can combine with the laptop’s ability to fold completely open to show your screen to the person across from you.

You can push the screen down 180 degrees flat with the keyboard and then press a button to flip the content so someone across from you can see it.Henri Robbins / Input

While the display does have a touchscreen option, I pretty much forgot it existed until it posed a problem. Since the Creator Z16 is a fairly heavy laptop (4.8 pounds) with no way to use it as a tablet, the touchscreen — which was, for the most part, fast and accurate — went completely unused and unnoticed. The only reason I even remembered its existence was because it randomly started detecting touches that weren’t there, something that was quickly resolved by turning the laptop off and back on.

The Creator Z16 has lots of technical features that are useful for media editing and workflow, and many of them also translate over to gaming utility. While it obviously won’t match up to a desktop unit purpose-built for video editing, it’s a good option for an efficient and portable workstation.

So much power

With an RTX 3060, an i9 processor, and 32GB of DDR4 memory in the higher-end model that I tested, the Creator Z16 handled pretty much anything I threw at it. I was able to natively run games like Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 on Steam, and creative software on Steam without any trouble.

The cooling is impressive, too. I used the Creator Z16 on my lap for high-power gaming and editing without any issues of overheating, discomfort, or loud fans — something that can’t be said about other gaming laptops I’ve used, many of which would definitely have burnt my lap if I had left them there for too long, and almost all of which sounded like a jet taking off while doing so.

Overall, the Creator Z16 feels fantastic to use.

The Creator Z16’s battery often ended up falling short, however. I found that the laptop was apprehensive to run at full power unless plugged in, and only lasted for an hour or two of high-performance use. Even at the most efficient setting, the laptop’s battery only lasts for around six hours, resulting in at least one point in the day where you’re searching for an outlet (or lamenting the fact that you forgot your charger at home).

Short battery life is something of a constant for powerful laptops, though, and while it can be frustrating, it wasn’t any worse than most gaming-oriented laptops with similar specs that I’ve tried.

Weird stuff

The Creator Z16’s large display also ends up being its main downfall. Because of the sheer size of the laptop, I often found it fairly hard to carry around in a backpack: It was almost too large to fit in my usual bag, and was a lot heavier than a smaller device like a Surface Pro 8. While I could have likely found some kind of carrying case or bag that fit the laptop better, it is frustrating to potentially need an entirely new backpack just to carry around a larger laptop.

The Creator Z16 is also incredibly dense compared to less powerful laptops. While it isn’t so much that it feels uncomfortable to have on your lap, this does result in a lot of uncertainty when passing the laptop to someone else or if trying to use the laptop while standing — two situations that I noticed myself avoiding.

The large display is big and vibrant.Henri Robbins / Input
The lack of ports on the Z16 is a pain point.Henri Robbins / Input

In terms of ports, the Creator Z16 has two USB-A 3.2 Gen 2, two Thunderbolt 4, a microSD reader, and a 3.5mm audio jack. While I appreciate that MSI hasn’t abandoned the audio jack yet, the lack of ports is frustrating. A normal SD reader, Ethernet port, an HDMI port, and/or DisplayPort would all have made the laptop much more user-friendly for creators than the mess of adapters and cables needed to use the laptop’s two Thunderbolt ports for anything other than USB-C connections.

The Creator Z16’s charger is a bit disappointing, too. As magnetic chargers are making something of a comeback, I’m realizing how nice they are to have: Tripping over a cable stops being a major issue and instead becomes a minor inconvenience, and the satisfying click of a magnetic charger snapping into place just can’t be beat. While I recognize that this may be difficult to engineer in a device with such high power wattage, it does make the Creator Z16 feel notably lower-quality.

Not upgrade friendly

The Creator Z16 seems like it doesn’t want users to repair or upgrade it: The back has a tamper-evident seal over one of the screws and, due to a snap-in fit, is difficult to remove. In addition, dissections of the laptop show that getting to the RAM (to either upgrade or replace a damaged stick) is a cumbersome and time-consuming project due to the motherboard’s placement.

However, the laptop’s complex and densely-packed design likely isn’t difficult without reason. For a laptop this thin and powerful to have functional cooling, the internals will likely have to be fairly complicated and, as a result, hard to work on. While it is frustrating, it’s something I’m willing to accept.

The laptop’s difficulties are due to the complex and densely-packed designHenri Robbins / Input

However, some of the software issues don’t share the same necessity. The Creator Z16 has, by default, multiple apps installed by the manufacturer including Skype, Spotify, Music Maker Jam, and… Norton Antivirus. While it’s now fairly easy to uninstall through Windows’ Apps and Features menu, seeing Norton installed by default is disappointing. The now-useless app has been a mainstay of preinstalled software for years, but honestly doesn’t do much except get in the way, especially when apps like Windows Defender come with Windows 10 by default. There’s almost no reason for it to be included in the device, and the choice to pre-install a subscription-based software that replaces a free one feels fairly predatory, especially considering the Creator Z16 will likely see first-time Windows users switching over from macOS who aren’t aware that Windows Defender exists.

Creator delight

The Creator Z16 is incredibly dense compared to less powerful laptops.Henri Robbins / Input

Overall, the MSI Creator Z16 is a great laptop for both gaming and content creation. It feels solid, works well, and can handle almost everything without breaking a sweat.

However, I can’t see myself using it. The lack of substantial ports results in multiple situations where the Creator Z16’s power can’t be fully utilized, and the issues with repairability raise concerns about the device’s long-term usability. The laptop looks and feels good, but these underlying issues raise enough concerns that I would personally have trouble ignoring them.

If you aren’t particularly concerned about repairs and ports, or if you really need a thin and powerful laptop with a big, high-res display, then the Creator Z16 is one of the best options on the market. Everything that it has works great, and it provides massive amounts of utility through its power, form factor, and highly-accurate display.