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When you’re looking for a budget laptop—we define these as models under $500—you can’t expect a magnesium-bodied slimline with all the latest mod cons. Instead, the aim is to compromise as little as possible. MSI’s Modern 14 threads that needle, delivering a nice mix of price and features in our $449.99 test configuration. Sure, it includes a modest Intel Core i3 processor and just 128GB of storage, but that’s on par for this price range, and it’s made up for with 8GB of memory, a screen that won’t offend the eye, and a nice, compact build. The component choices are reasonable, and we found little downside for the bucks, with its style, good port selection, and eight-hour battery life. Unless you prefer a much larger screen (we like the Asus VivoBook 17 M712 for this), it’s hard to do much better between $400 and $500. It earns an Editors’ Choice award for this price tier.
In the Modern World, Keeping Up Appearances
For a highly affordable laptop, the Modern 14 looks pretty classy. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but the overall style is nice, if simple. A charcoal-metallic paint job covers the whole chassis, sparkling with just a little flair when it catches the light. The body is aluminum, though the paint job on our sample hides the fact; that’s a nice change from the plasti-chassis norm in this price range. The keys are also rimmed white and even feature white backlighting, which adds a bit more perkiness. (Keyboard backlighting, too, is uncommon in this class of laptop.)
The tight, compact design also helps the overall look. The Modern 14 measures 0.7 by 12.6 by 8.6 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.8 pounds. That’s about as thick as the Asus VivoBook 15 (F512JA) we reviewed recently, but about a pound lighter, due in part to the smaller screen size. That’s in line with much more expensive ultraportables. (It’s the same weight as the Dell XPS 13, for one.)
Speaking of the screen size, this 14-inch display features a full HD resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels). The screen is not a standout, but it’s clear and bright, so there’s no room for complaints. The IPS panel has good off-axis viewing angles, too, without much distortion or darkening when seen from an angle. This is more or less the screen you should expect in a laptop at this price, and perhaps a bit better than that.
Take, for example, the VivoBook 15 just mentioned. Its display is subpar in quality. The basic level of clarity is wanting, and the color and picture quality degrade rapidly if you look at it from even a modest off-center angle. A satisfactory screen is by no means a given at this price, so kudos to the Modern 14 for that.
Next up, the keyboard. It’s a serviceable typing experience. The key presses feel a bit soft, but you do get some tactile feedback, so it’s not totally mushy. And the layout is a thumbs-up. Some compact laptops have keyboards with keys that look smushed together, or keys that feel (or are) small. Everything is roomy here, despite the 14-inch frame. There’s little to say about the touchpad, but it isn’t flimsy, and the material feels better than the textured finish used on many cheap laptop touchpads.
Overall, it’s a pretty pleasant laptop to use and carry around. It’s easy to tuck under your arm and fit in a bag, and its light weight won’t drag you down. At the risk of repeating myself, these positives are especially easy to appreciate for the price, though much of the cut cost comes in the form of low-power components and not necessarily the physical design. Still, a good or even passable build is hardly guaranteed in this range, so this competent, portable design gets our approval.
Finally, the ports. The left side holds a USB Type-C port, an HDMI connection, and a microSD card slot. The right side is home to just two more USB 3.0 ports, but the total array of connections is more than enough for basic needs, and ports like USB-C are not always included on laptops in this price range.
Testing the Modern 14: Just Enough Pep to Stay Current
The parts that make this laptop tick are modest, which is to be expected. The goal here is a working everyday laptop for home and light office tasks, and to that end, the system packs an Intel Core i3-10110U processor, 8GB of memory, and a 128GB SSD. The processor is a humble two-core, four-thread chip that doesn’t chew up much energy, but it should have enough pep for simple multitasking. That 128GB of storage is definitely a bit restrictive, but for documents and a moderate number of photos and videos, it will do.
To measure this machine’s performance, we’re going to run it through our usual suite of benchmark tests and compare the results to the competition. You can find the names and specs of these competitors in the following table…
These are all inexpensive machines, as well, falling right in the same price range (with some variation). The Asus Laptop L410 is the least expensive ($264.99), with a low-power Intel Celeron CPU and just 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage. The VivoBook 15 ($399.99) is similar to the Modern 14 in terms of components, but of course with a larger 15-inch screen (and a good deal for its speed and size). The Dell Inspiron 15 3000 (3505) is another 15-inch laptop, priced at $369 as tested. Finally, the Asus Vivobook 17 M712 is a bit more expensive ($519), and one of our top picks for any budget laptop, albeit with a giant 17.3-inch screen.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL. The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing. Unfortunately, the test would not complete on this laptop, which sometimes happens with budget systems. It doesn’t mean this system is incapable of these tasks, just that it has a conflict with this benchmark.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s boot drive. Both tests yield a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. We can at least compare these results in the table below, and you can also catch the PCMark 10 performance of the other systems.
As mentioned, there is no PCMark 10 result for this system, but you can see the SSD stacks up to the rest. They’re all in line with one another, offering quick boot and load file times. The Asus Laptop L410 has slower eMMC flash storage, and couldn’t complete this test. That is a key distinction in laptops in this price zone; under $400, you’ll see a mix of “true” SSDs and pokier eMMC (often at 32GB or 64GB capacities). The former is better.
Next come the media tests, which I’ll analyze all at once. First is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It’s a timed test, and lower results are better.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image, timing each operation and adding up the total. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here.
Fortunately, though we missed out on a PCMark 10 score, the Modern 14 powered through these three media tests. The VivoBook 15 is the fastest overall, but the Modern 14 falls in nicely with the rest of the competitors. That needs context, though: None of these systems is overly well equipped for sustained media-editing work, and should really only be used for one-offs or in a pinch. You’ll definitely be waiting around for any significant photo or (especially) video edits. Not a surprise at the price, but a heads-up.
We run two tests apiece in two gaming simulations. The first, 3DMark, measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. 3DMark’s Sky Diver and Fire Strike subtests are both DirectX 11 benchmarks, but the former is more suited to midrange PCs with integrated graphics, while the latter is more demanding and made for high-end and gaming PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Another graphics test, Unigine’s Superposition, similarly renders and pans through a complex 3D scene but measures results in frames per second (fps), with 30fps generally desirable for smooth animation while serious gamers prefer 60fps or more. We run the test at 720p and 1080p resolution with low and high visual quality settings, respectively.
As with the media tests, these laptops are not meant for 3D tasks or gaming—they include only the graphics chip integrated into the processor. Our recent testing of integrated graphics showed that hope is not lost for all systems without a discrete GPU, and some are capable of gaming.
However, that doesn’t quite apply to this group of budget-friendly laptops. Integrated graphics can get by when paired with a good processor and plenty of RAM, but these laptops are not providing much of that support, leaving the weak chips to do a lot of lifting on their own. Other than the simplest games, don’t expect to play much on these systems.
In the case of the Modern 14, though it has a relatively recent 10th Generation Intel processor, that Core i3 didn’t kick things up to the latest version of Intel’s integrated graphics, Iris Xe, instead relying on Intel’s older UHD Graphics solution. MSI does have pricier configurations of the Modern 14 that have upticked graphics, but if gaming what you are after, basic gaming laptops start at just a few hundred bucks more and will be much more powerful.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the same Tears of Steel short we use in our Handbrake test—with screen brightness set at 50% and volume at 100% until the system quits.
The Modern 14’s battery life is one of its high points, even if it doesn’t break with the pack. Nearly nine hours of runtime lets you use the laptop away from the charger without keeping a constant eye on the meter, and it gives you some confidence to travel with the system. For a laptop this portable, that is a key concern. So even if some tasks use up more juice than others, you will get at least several hours of off-plug productivity out of this machine, and likely as much as a full work day.
The Verdict: A Well Balanced Modern Budget Laptop
The MSI Modern 14 may not do anything too special, but delivering some bright spots and avoiding any major compromises is enough to stand out at under $500. You can find more-affordable alternatives if keeping it base-budget is your main criterion, but you can expect compromises galore. In contrast, it’s tough to find much to complain about with the Modern 14 for the money.
It’s not the fastest machine relative to mainstream laptops in the $600 to $1,000 range, but it delivers the goods within its price tier, doing what is asked of it. If you’re looking for an affordable everyday laptop that leans on the side of portability, reasonable connectivity, and overall comfort, the MSI Modern 14 balances all those items better than most budget machines we’ve seen.