With variants of the Eee PC dominating the burgeoning netbook market, it seems as though every manufacturer is now rushing to squeeze out its variant on the theme. MSI’s Wind U100 was announced early on. It was initially pegged as a competitor for Asus’ original Eee PC, promising a brighter ten-inch screen, a bigger and nearly full-size keyboard, a higher capacity mechanical hard drive, and improved battery life. Those initial specifications proved prescient, foreshadowing the eventual direction the netbook market would take.
The Wind U100 sits as a sort of standard bearer for this new wave of netbooks. It’s a remarkably balanced piece of engineering, delivering on nearly all of MSI’s early promises. But rather than facing off against the original Eee PC, the Wind must now contend with a fresh batch of rivals, including HP’s Mini-Note, Acer’s Aspire one, and new Eee PC 900 and 1000 series models from Asus. Keep reading to see whether MSI has crafted a worthy competitor in the U100, and whether the system is a compelling netbook in its own right.
Wind, stars, and waves
Welcome to MSI’s entry into the netbook market, the Wind U100:
|Processor||Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz|
|Memory||1GB DDR2-400 (soldered to motherboard)|
|North bridge||Intel 945GSE|
|South bridge||Intel ICH7M|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950|
|Display||10″ TFT with SWGA (1024×600) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||80GB 5400-RPM Western Digital Scorpio|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC6628 codec|
|Ports||3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Expansion slots||1 4-in-1 SD/MMC/MS/MSpro card reader|
|Input devices||92% keyboard
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||10.23 x 7.08 x 0.748-1.24″|
As far as specifications go, the U100 doesn’t diverge wildly from the modern netbook template: it features an Atom N270 processor clocked at 1.6GHz, an 80GB 5400-RPM hard disk in a 2.5″ form factor, 1GB of DDR2-400 RAM, and 802.11b/g wireless connectivity. The Wind also houses a comfortably-sized 10″ widescreen running at 1024×600 resolution. You can get the system in black or with our review unit’s simple and attractive white finish.
The U100 measures 10.23 inches wide, 7.08 inches deep, and 1.24 inches at its thickest point. Shaped like a wedge, the Wind slims down from its beefiest point at the rear hinge to just 0.78 inches thick along the front edge of the system. On its own with the battery installed, the U100 weighs about two-and-a-half pounds, putting it right in the mix with the competition. While a bit larger than the first Eee PCs, the Wind’s form factor still fits well within the confines of netbook classification. In fact, it’s actually a little smaller than Asus’ new Eee PC 1000.
Ultimately, the Wind hits a sweet spot in terms of scale. As you can see, it’s basically the size of a pair of Blu-ray cases placed side by side. That makes the U100 large enough to accommodate a big screen and relatively spacious keyboard without impinging on portability.
Overall, the build quality of the Wind is actually quite sturdy. The lid is latchless as is typical of most modern notebook designs. However, there exists one substantial flaw that I have never experienced in a notebook: the Wind is top heavy. If the lid is opened and tilted back too far, the unit actually leans back, lifting its front edge off the table. The U100 doesn’t outright topple, but it becomes much more precarious in this position.
I was honestly taken aback by the display MSI included in the Wind. This 10″ 1024×600 screen has outstanding viewing angles in virtually every direction, and its legibility in indirect sunlight makes a strong case for moving away from recently popularized glossies and back to screens with a matte finish. I took several photos trying to properly display the viewing angles of the Wind, but the shifts were just too minimal for my camera to capture. The viewing angles aren’t perfect in person, but they are remarkably good.
Another point difficult to articulate in a photo is the sheer brightness of the screen. Without exaggeration, the screen on the Wind is the brightest notebook screen I have ever seen. At 100% brightness, it rivals desktop LCD panels. Dialing the screen back to 50% brings its brightness within the realm of most modern laptop screens at their maximum. Impressively, the brightness can also be dropped so low that the screen becomes unreadably dim. While the screen is the chief power draw of most notebooks, the one on the Wind is a gross overachiever that should probably never be set at 100% unless you’re trying to blind someone.
I am very fond on the screen overall. The contrast is excellent, the colors feel neither too warm nor too cold, the viewing angles are wide, and the backlighting is nice and even.
The keyboard, however, is a trickier beast. I’m a small man with small, spidery fingers, and even through the Wind’s keyboard is 92% of full size, I still found typing to be difficult. MSI has certainly maximized the real estate the keyboard can reasonably use, and it’s much bigger than what you got with the original Eee PC, but the keys nonetheless feel cramped and too easy to fat-finger. I found myself making typos fairly frequently and having a devil of a time entering my wireless key properly. Again, the keyboard isn’t as silly small as that of the first Eee PC, but it’s going to cause users at least a little bit of grief. Fortunately, the Wind’s keyboard follows a more conventional layout than that of the Eee PC 1000, and it’s devoid of quirks like misplaced right shift keys.
In my experience reviewing notebooks, I’ve found touchpads to be tricky to evaluate, as what one person finds comfortable another may find incredibly difficult to use, and vice versa. The recessed touchpad on the Wind coupled with its smooth texture makes mousing fairly breezy, at least for me. However, the MSI design trips up on a single mouse button. While not as awkward as the side-mounted touchpad buttons found on the HP Mini-Note, the Wind’s single button operates as a sort of rocker switch. You can left and right click just find by pressing down either end of the button, but the feel isn’t as comfortable as having separate buttons. The single button favors aesthetics over practicality, and though it’s a small gripe, it’s a gripe all the same.
The Swiss Army netbook
The MSI Wind boasts an impressive suite of peripherals and connectivity options that in some cases exceeds what’s found in standard notebooks. This ample connectivity is perhaps best expressed in the substantial array of lights at the bottom right of the front bezel.
In order from left to right, the Wind features Bluetooth and Wi-Fi lights indicating whether the respective wireless modules are enabled, a sleep mode indicator, a light to indicate whether or not the 3-cell battery is charging, a series of three lights for the Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock toggles, and a hard disk activity LED.
The top of the screen bezel includes a webcam that produces images at 640×480 resolution, down from the 1.3 megapixels claimed in MSI’s specifications. Though the example above is slightly scaled down, it still illustrates that while the webcam is serviceable, its image quality is a bit below par. This image was taken with the cat illuminated in direct sunlightideal conditions for producing a clear and crisp picture. The pixelated coloring, banding, and generally dull saturation is disappointing. Under the best possible circumstances, the MSI Wind’s webcam produces a very underwhelming picture compared to the webcams featured in most modern notebooks.
The remainder of the ports included with the U100 are respectable. On the left side is a Kensington lock connector, the A/C adaptor jack, the unit’s primary fan vent, and two USB 2.0 ports. Over on the right side we find the third USB 2.0 port, a flash memory reader, microphone and headphone minijacks, a VGA port, and an Ethernet port. Despite this wealth of connectivity, MSI elected to forego the inclusion of an RJ11 modem jack. This is a reasonable omission given the system’s robust wireless networking capabilities.
The bottom of the unit features the battery bay in the back and the smattering of ventilation slats typical of modern notebooks. The two grills on the bottom corners are for the remarkably respectable speakers. Laptop speakers are generally of poor quality, and oftentimes in the pursuit of reducing the size of a notebook, they can be one of the first corners cut in the design. This isn’t the case with the MSI Wind. While the speakers won’t blow you away with their quality, they nonetheless produce crisp, clear sound at a healthy volume level. Compared to the pitiful speakers of the Eee PC and Apple MacBook Air, the U100 is a welcome change of pace.
On the bottom you can also see a series of screw holes, one of which is covered by the warranty sticker. The Wind’s memory is meant to be use-upgradeable, and MSI will send you a replacement warranty sticker should you need to breach the original to open the unit. Upgrading the hard drive will void your warranty, however.
Inside the Wind
The MSI Wind is designed to be very simple to open while still feeling sturdy. That said, in the process of trying to remove the bottom panel to reveal insides of the unit, I ran into a snag I have found uncommon with notebooks: removing the battery. Basic computing safety requires the removal of all power sources from a system before opening it. In a desktop, this means disconnecting the power supply, turning it off, and waiting for the power in the motherboard to dissipate. In a notebook, you disconnect the A/C adapter and remove the battery.
While disconnecting the U100’s A/C adapter was as easy as it ought to be, the battery proved incredibly stubborn. It was so difficult to remove that I actually visited MSI’s website to examine the user manual, checking to see if I was even going about things in the right way. But even after following instructions in the manual and those printed on the bottom of the Wind, the battery wouldn’t budge. In the end, I wound up using a small flathead screwdriver as a lever to wedge the battery out. I can’t tell you if this is typical of all retail units or if our review sample was particularly snug, but it’s a issue that bears mentioning.
Once I was able to remove the battery, disassembling the rest of the Wind proved to be a breeze. After removing the screws, the left side of the back panel (the side with the vent) comes loose. If you tilt it up, you can pop the rest of the panel off fairly easily, taking care not to damage the bezel around the VGA port and headphone jacks.
The Wind’s internals are neatly and cleanly assembled, with the wireless card visible along with the 2.5″ notebook SATA hard drive, chipset, speakers, and fan. Take note of the open DDR2 SO-DIMM slot, which allows for easy memory upgrades. 1GB of DDR2 already comes soldered onto the motherboard (visible behind the memory slot), with the spare bay allowing users to add a module of their own.
Included software and Windows performance
The MSI Wind U100 comes equipped with Windows XP Home Edition SP3, not unlike some of its peers. Performance within Windows is typical of what we’ve seen from the Atom platform, which we’ve covered in greater depth several times. Suffice to say the Wind is snappy enough for its intended purposes: Internet usage, word processing, and standard-definition video playback.
As is becoming typical of netbooks, the U100 keeps bloatware to a minimum. Some software is included, though, and it ranges from reasonable to downright perplexing.
One nice change of pace is that the Wind doesn’t come with antivirus software. Most systems tend to come bundled with bloated trial versions of Norton or McAfee, but not the Wind. Users are free to choose from the mountain of free antivirus apps available on the market, or side with their retail product of choice. Not having a bloated trial version of something most folks will probably remove keeps the U100 running snappy out of the box.
MSI does include a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office 2007, and my feelings on this are decidedly mixed. Office 2007 is certainly a great software suite, but the time-limited install means that users are going to have to shell out money for the full version at some point. A freeware office suite like StarOffice or OpenOffice would probably suit the Wind much better. The theory behind netbooks thus far has been to offer the essentials in the box while minimizing fuss; bundling trial software feels counterintuitive.
After Office 2007, MSI’s bundled software decisions get increasingly bizarre. The recovery software suite burns CDs, yet the Wind has no optical drive. Even more perplexing is the inclusion of Ulead’s disc burning software. Again, the Wind has no optical drive. I can understand the inclusion of recovery software, but it would be nice if it allowed for the installation of a recovery partition on a flash drive, which the U100 can boot from. The inclusion of the Ulead burning software makes less sense, since if a user is going to need an external burner, that drive probably came with its own software.
Back to recovery software, MSI includes a built-in recovery feature that can bring the contents of the Wind’s hard drive back to its factory defaults in the space of a half hour. When the unit boots, there’s an “F3…” prompt before it goes into Windows. If you press F3 at this time, the Wind will take you to its recovery program. This is a nice little touch, but labeling the prompt “Press F3 to enter Recovery Manager” would be less apt to confuse the mainstream audience that the Wind is trying to attract.
Within Windows, network connectivity was perfectly stable. The Bluetooth adaptor proved finicky, having incredible difficulty initially connecting to my Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000. In fairness, the mouse had the same issues with my HP dv2500t. Once the mouse drivers have been installed and an initial connection made, reconnection is a breeze.
Heat, noise, and battery life
In a welcome change of pace, the MSI Wind is by far the coolest-running notebook I have ever used, made all the more impressive by its diminutive form factor. The keyboard and wrist surface barely get warm to the touch, and the bottom remains equally comfortable. These reasonable temperatures are likely aided by the Wind’s fan, which runs constantly. We’ve seem similar fan behavior from the Eee PC 1000, and like that system, the Wind’s fan is fortunately only faintly audible.
The Wind may be quiet and cool, but the careful balancing act notebook designers continually struggle with tends to inevitably result in something getting short-changed. With the Wind, it’s battery life that pulls up a little short. With the Wind idling with its screen at a reasonable 50% brightness, its wireless networking enabled, and its Bluetooth module disabled, battery life tips up at a little over two-and-a-half hours. The culprits for this mediocre battery life are likely unit’s 3-cell battery along with the power draw of Intel’s less than frugal 945 chipset. The U100’s abnormally bright screen may have something to do with the system’s uninspired battery life, as well, but with LED backlighting it should consume substantially less power (and produce better colors) than a CCFL-backlit screen. And keep in mind that we’re only running the screen at 50% brightness here.
MSI’s 3-cell battery just doesn’t give the Wind the mileage a computer of its diminutive stature demands. A netbookor any notebook, reallyshould get at least three hours of battery life. The Wind’s sub-three-pound weight and small form factor are designed for portability, and that encourages users to run on the battery rather than being tethered to a wall socket.
Students, in particular, may find the Wind’s battery life an issue. There’s enough juice for quick jaunts or a couple of classes, but if you’re going to be out any longer, you’ll need to bring the A/C adapter.
As you can see, the adapter is pretty tiny, but the use of a beefy three-pronged power cable is suspect. A netbookespecially one running off of an Atomshouldn’t need such a heavy duty cable. It’s hardly an inconvenience, since most outlets are three-pronged, but the Eee PC 1000 runs just fine with a much smaller two-prong cable.
Discussion of the battery life brings us to one of the Wind’s more curious features: a “turbo” button. When turbo is enabled while running on the battery, the power light glows green instead of blue, and battery life can be further reduced. Beyond that, there are two problems with this function. First, and most obviously, having a turbo function for the Intel Atom feels somewhat silly. The Atom offers minimal computing power to begin with, leaving little room for improvement through overclocking. Underclocking seems equally ridiculous, since the Atom’s modest thirst for juice is far from the chief power draw in the Wind. Also, MSI’s documentation of this turbo feature is minimal at best. The key used to toggle turbowhich is only usable while running on the battery, we might addis dubbed the “ECO” key, and no mention of it is made anywhere else in the manual. We asked MSI to provide more information on the Wind’s turbo mode, but its response wasn’t any more detailed than what’s available in the limited documentation that comes with the system.
Our discussion of the MSI Wind U100 must unfortunately end with its least attractive feature: the price. Despite the fact that the system is well-rounded and only truly falling short in the battery life department, its price threatens to sink the whole endeavor. With a suggested retail price of $499 for the 3-cell unit we reviewed and $549 for a version with a 6-cell battery, the Wind is a hard sell given its competition. Asus’ Eee PC 1000 offers nearly the same functionality (and faster 802.11n Wi-Fi) with substantially better battery life on the 40G model we reviewed recently. That model features a 40GB SSD and is nearly $700, but the 6-Cell Wind costs the same as the Eee PC 1000H, which features a similar 80GB mechanical hard drive. Based on our experience with the 40G, we’d expect the 1000H’s battery life to easily eclipse that of a 6-cell U100.
It would be nice to see a little more polish on the Wind, since despite relatively weak battery life, the system does have potential. Little things like improving the recovery prompt at system boot or removing some of the more eccentric programs included with the machine could go a long way toward making the Wind more friendly for the average consumer. The back-heavy nature of the system that allows it tilt off-balance could be easily mitigated by adding a little more weight to the front of the machine. Including a custom-fit sleeve carrying case like the one Asus packages with its Eee PCs would make the whole package more attractive, as well.
All that said, though, the Wind proves itself largely worthy of consideration. The bundled software is unobtrusive and easily removed, the memory is easily upgradeable should you wish to add another gigabyte of RAM, and performance is very snappy. While the keyboard is on the small side, it’s as large as MSI can make it given the size of the chassis, and there are no layout quirks to worry about. Aesthetically, the Wind is quite pleasing to look at, too. The system also comes in black, but the glossy white finish is attractive and less of a fingerprint magnet.
Ultimately I would be quicker to purchase the Wind over some of the more eccentric netbooks like Everex’s Cloudbook or HP’s Mini-Note. The U100’s comfortable surface temperatures and low noise levels are welcome, and tweaking may be able to extend battery life up to three hours. Don’t forget the screen, either; it offers excellent viewing angles and is one of the most attractive screens I’ve seen on a portable system. There’s really a lot to love here, and if you’re in the market for a netbook and not too concerned about price, the MSI Wind U100 needs to be on your short list.