Who'd have thought super-small, super-cheap laptops would be the hottest property in the world of computing? Asus certainly did and its success with the EeePC has led to other manufacturers competing for a slice of its pie.
MSI — peddlers of graphics cards, motherboards and the occasional overclockable laptop — is the latest to try its hand in this area. Its effort, dubbed the MSI Wind, isn't just here to make up the numbers. It's stylish, has a strong enough specification to give its rivals a scare and is cheap — just AU$699.
The Wind is very pretty. MSI will sell it in a variety of colours, but we're very happy with the white review sample we were sent. It's the sort of thing the Sex and The City characters would love to show off in a trendy NY coffee shop. The curved corners and pearlescent white finish give it a very contemporary look and although the MSI logo on the lid might spoil it for Carrie and company, the rest of us will adore it.
There are two USB ports on the left side and a third on the right. That's two more than a MacBook Air and one more than the HP 2133 Mini-Note.
It's very portable, too. It only weighs 1kg with the 3-cell battery — or 1.1kg with the 6-cell battery — so it's easy to carry. It's large by netbook standards: its dimensions are 260 by 19 by 180mm, so while it dwarfs the EeePC 901, it lacks some of the cute factor people find so appealing in netbooks.
The main reason for its extra girth is the fact it's designed to use a 10.1-inch screen, instead of the more common 8.9-inch display used on most of its rivals. There's a large bezel surrounding the screen — complete with a 1.3-megapixel webcam and mic — but that doesn't negatively affect the looks. MSI has said it will release an 8.9-inch version of the Wind later this year.
The biggest benefit of the Wind's large chassis is the fact it can accommodate a large keyboard. This one is infinitely more comfortable than the keyboards on most netbooks and large enough to touch type on. The shift keys are an ample size, as are the return and cursor keys. The only flaw is the left-most CTRL button, which isn't at the bottom left of the keyboard — the Fn button is, and this can be annoying to anyone that uses CTRL-based keyboard shortcuts. We're not so keen on the mouse track pad, either. It's about 51mm square, which is unnecessarily small.
The MSI Wind currently sells in Australia with only Windows XP, although the intent to sell later with Linux is there. Both have an identical specification — a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and 1GB of DDR2 667MHz memory — upgradeable to 2GB. That might not sound like much in a world where clock speeds and memory quantities go far higher, but in our experience, this level of performance is fine in a netbook.
The F10 key no longer doubles as an overclocking button. It now reduces the clock speed of the laptop's CPU to 800MHz to help preserve battery.
Disappointingly, the instant overclocking feature seen on early engineering samples has been removed from the final retail model. Instead, the laptop can be instantly 'underclocked' to 800MHz by pressing the Fn and F10 buttons in conjunction, reducing both the strain on the battery and the heat generated.
Using the Wind is always a positive experience. The screen in particular is impressive — it's sufficiently bright and the 1,024x600-pixel display is adequate for most purposes. The vertical viewing angle is shallow, but it's fine horizontally. People can sit side by side with a Wind, watch a movie and still be able to see what's going on. If you're anywhere near a projector — or any large display — you can output the video signal via the D-Sub port on the right side.
Storage in the Wind comes courtesy of an 80GB hard drive of the mechanical, moving parts variety. This provides enough room for around 20,000 MP3s or over 100 DivX movies, which is way more than the 40GB EeePC 901 and 8GB Acer Aspire One (although the XP version of the Aspire One will ship with a 120GB drive). A solid-state option would have been nice, though. If nothing else, an SSD would have made the Wind less susceptible to data loss after an accidental fall. If you're the clumsy sort, you might want to bear this in mind.
More storage can be added via the SD card slot on the right side of the device. This will happily accept SDHC cards of up to 32GB, along with SD, MMC, Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro. In addition, there are 3 USB ports. Two live in very close proximity of each other on the left, while the other sits adjacent to the SD card slot and mic and headphone ports.
The wireless connectivity on the Wind is merely average. Its Wi-Fi is of the 802.11b/g variety and it has Bluetooth. There's no 802.11n support, which would have allowed theoretical wireless speeds of up to 300Mbps. Also, there's no integrated 3G capability — as will be available soon as an option with the Acer Aspire One — so you can't go online just anywhere. If you want to surf the Web with a Wind, you'll have to use it at home, at a hotspot or connect a third-party USB dongle.
We alluded to the Atom CPU's solid performance earlier and our benchmarks have reaffirmed this. The device is rarely sluggish in general use. It renders Web pages quickly, launches most applications without becoming too bogged down and generally doesn't feel like it's a budget laptop. It scored a 1,449 in PCMark 2005, which is a respectable tally for a device of this ilk. To put this into perspective, the EeePC 900, which uses an older 900MHz Celeron M CPU, scored 1,133.
Here's the Wind next to an EeePC.
Graphics horsepower was predictably lame. The 3DMark 2006 score of 600 is testament to this: it's not going to run the latest 3D games. It'll happily play high-definition movies, show pictures and run very basic games, though.
Battery life in the Wind is not as impressive as we'd first hoped. MSI had planned to ship it with a 6-cell battery as standard, but shortages have forced it to switch to a 3-cell unit instead. Worse still, the capacity is a lowly 2,200mAh — a far cry from the EeePC 901's 4-cell, 6,600mAh power cell.
It lasted 1 hour 55 minutes in our CPU-intensive Battery Eater test, which obviously isn't as impressive as the 4.5 hours we achieved with the EeePC 901. A larger 6-cell battery is promised, but its price is to be confirmed.
Throughout our test period, the Wind ran cool, quietly and unobtrusively. It does have an internal cooling fan, but this isn't particularly loud.
The MSI Wind is a fabulous mini laptop. The keyboard is a joy to use, the screen is fantastic and it definitely looks the part. It lets itself down with a lack of integrated 3G and the standard battery life is relatively poor. Those willing to splash out on a larger battery and perhaps a 3G data dongle will really enjoy using it.