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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review - MSI Wind U100 Netbook

Just like everybody else, I am intrigued with the new "netbook" class of computers. I am curious if it will be useful to small businesses as a way for a worker to easily connect back to their desktop and access applications. Using Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) one should be able to run specialized applications from a netbook without actually installing the software on the netbook.

So, I undertook a "chore" that most computer geeks like me actually cherish: a review of a new IT hardware product. Unfortunately, no one is sending me free netbooks for review, so I needed to pick the one I thought was the best and give it test run in some of my customer sites.

The main thing that distinguishes the netbook is the use of the new Intel Atom processor, which comes in a package smaller than a child's fingernail. Besides using a platform built around the Atom chip, netbooks are less than 3 pounds in weight, don't have an optical drive, have from 512Mb to 1Gb of RAM, and 120 Gb of hard drive space. The screens range in size from 8 to 10 inches in size using a widescreen pixel layout (1024 by 600). Most have webcams. All of the viable netbooks run Windows XP Home. The sweet spot price for a well-equipped netbook seems to be $400.

These are clearly kid computers. Some adults will have a hard time seeing the densely-packed pixels on the small screens. Optimized for email and web surfing, netbooks also support real time video chat. I think they will amp up the already frenetic pace at which kids adopt technology.

Perfect for high school or even going off to college, they are affordable enough so that if they are lost or destroyed then it isn't a huge disaster. Netbooks aren't quite fast enough to handle business chores, like Office 2007, so I don't think that IT departments are going to care too much about them at this time.

ASUS is credited with shipping the first netbooks, and they also pioneered the use of flash memory for hard drives and the use of Linux as a desktop OS. Many of the other competitors matched the use of flash hard drives and Linux, but that now appears to be a dead end in the netbook market.

After sleuthing around I settled on the Lenovo Ideapad S10 mainly because, as an old fart, I needed the biggest screen possible and the Ideapad had a superior keyboard layout. They are also a leading global vendor, and my distributor had supplied this product in late 2008.

Much to my dismay, the channel was sold out so I had to make an alternative selection. I eventually settled on the MSI Wind U100 (model 432US). Mine is black and has a six-cell Lithium-ion battery, 1.6 GHz Atom N270 CPU, 1 GB RAM, 120 GB HD, Intel GMA 950 video with a VGA-out port, Ethernet 10/100, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, 10" widescreen (1024x600), 1.2 megapixel webcam, and a built-in microphone. The retail price is about $409. You can get this exact unit on Amazon.com for less than $400.

MSI, aka the Taiwanese giant Micro Star International, is a major motherboard and component manufacturer. Like ASUS, MSI is now trying to sell whole systems under their brand.

Basically, I am thumbs up on the MSI Wind netbook. It feels solid, the texture of the interior surfaces is nice, but the shinny outside surface can get a little messy with fingerprints. The trackpad should be bigger. The keyboard isn't perfect, with the comma and period keys being smaller than they rest of the alphabet keys. Power management is good with a pre-set that uses hibernate mode, which is usually more reliable than Windows sleep mode and saves on battery drain. We didn't really do a drain test, but we were able to get 3 hours of use without a charge.

There are no complaints when it comes to performance. With a full gigabyte of RAM, Windows XP works fine. I didn't install any heavy-duty programs, but I did manage to get some image editing programs to run OK. The Wi-Fi networking is reliable, but the range seems a bit limited, probably due to the limited size of the internal antenna. I was unable to test the N networking, so I can't confirm that it makes any difference. The hard drive performance is good, which in the past was a problem with budget portables. I wonder how the constant movement a netbook can experience impacts the reliability of the hard drive.

I think the main thing that concerns me is durrability. How will it survive a drop? When will the hard drive fail? How many power cycles will the battery survive? Does the hinge break or is there a seam that comes loose? Nothing like that has happened to mine, yet. In my personal experience, I have found that MSI motherboards can be overly sensitive to heat, so I suppose that is the source of my concern especially versus a vendor like Lenovo.

I have tried to use the netbook in a few business situations. Remote desktop works good, and one can get at applications running on the desktop. However, the small screen seems to be a problem for using catalog-type applications and looking a diagrams and instructions. So, I don't see a lot of adoption in business, yet.

I'll continue to test this unit at some other customer sites, so perhaps netbooks will find a place at Berkeley Logic customers. But, until then I think they are great little computers for young people. And, it fits nice in my bike messager bag!

-- Vern

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