Saturday, May 30, 2009

MSI X340 Review: The Unemployed Man's MacBook Air [Laptops]


It's impossible not to be at least a little impressed with the MacBook Air, but who can spend almost $2,000 on that laptop? The solution? The MSI X340, a $900 MacBook Air. And it's a great theory...

First, let's focus on what the X340 gets right. It's a 13-inch (16x9, 1366x768) laptop that weighs just 2.86 pounds with its 4-cell battery. It measures .78 inches at its thickest point and .24 inches at its thinnest. (The MacBook Air measures but .76 inches at its thickest point and .16 at its thinnest.) In real life application, the X340 seems a tad bulkier than specs might reveal because the tapering isn't as dramatic as the Air's. But it's still thin.

The 1.4GHz Core2 Solo processor is quite a bit faster than your average Atom, and its HDMI I/O port and draft n Wi-Fi are a welcome addition to such a tiny machine.

OK, now for the bad stuff.

The keyboard feels dreadful. Not only are the keys...mushy...the center of the keyboard literally bends while you type. It's frightening to watch and extremely disconcerting as you wonder if they next keypress will greet your fingertips with a charged circuit board.

As for the remainder of the machine, it doesn't feel much better. The only way to describe the plastic body is "cheap." Not only does the glossy black finish reveal a strange, flecked iridescence under light, tap on the palm wrests with! your kn uckle and something about the hollowness of the pitch assures you that it could easily crack under a moderate amount of pressure.
Molding the trackpad into the case...that was a bad idea. The surface simply doesn't feel lacquered as a working trackpad. Literally, it feels unfinished, like someone on the assembly line went on break instead of gluing on the proper touch sensitive rectangle.

When you hold the Air, it's an incredible sensation not just because of its size but because of how sturdy it feels at its size. The X340 misses the pleasure of this dichotomy and gives us what I'm willing to wager is the most fragile laptop I've ever put my hands on.

Believe it or not, while the X340 is burdened by Vista's heavy footprint, it's quite usable. General navigation seems infinitely faster than running Vista on a true netbook, like the Dell Mini 12. The benchmarks support the fairly fluid experience of the OS.
The X340 is clearly closer to a netbook than the MBA in performance, but that performance gap between netbook and X340 is definitely noticeable in your general day to day experience of loading apps.

The X340's graphics chip is the Intel GMA X4500MDH. All you really need to know is that this architecture is nowhere near as good as NVIDIA's 9 series stuff, like the 9400M. And it's not powerful enough for heavy gaming (the 9400M is already scraping the barrel pretty hard). You can see the two platforms side by side here:

Sti! ll, MSI claims that the system can handle smooth 1080P playback. Can it? In a word, no. Neither HD web content (like Vimeo) nor 1080P MPEG4 played back smoothly on the system. The Blu-ray quality MPEG4 probably never broke 15fps.

In reality, the X340 performs up to most of my expectations (since I never believed it could handle 1080P clips anyway). Just don't expect it to be some sort of dream multimedia machine. In that regard, the X340 is like a netbook on steroids—fine for general use, just not juiced up enough to handle the next tier of graphics-intensive operations.

The battery lasted 1 hour, 43 minutes - ouch*
You could probably stretch the life beyond two hours with a few tweaks, like gimping the processor or squinting at the screen, but if you're planning on watching a movie during your next flight, it'd better be from the 90-minute Pauly Shore Archives.
*MPEG 4 playback, Wi-Fi on, screen at full brightness, "balanced" performance. You can purchase an 8-cell battery that should hit 3 hours for a bit more weight

The Sad Conclusion
I should be thrilled with the X340. It's lighter than many netbooks that have smaller screens. While not as tailored as the MacBook Air, hey, it's damn close. It also runs Vista at a reasonable speed.

The problem is, I just can't look at this machine, as thin and light as it may be, and feel good about dropping nearly $1000 to make one mine. If the X340 were much cheaper (unlikely) or sturdier (quite feasible), there's a good chance I'd be thrilled in this review. I just can't imagine showing this machine off to a friend, or getting extreme satisfaction when pulling it out of a bag. And if I've lost those attributes, I might as well settle for a somewhat thin full-blown laptop for less money, or a very light netbook for even les! s money.

But if you're looking purely for the lightest way to fit a 13-inch screen into your bag that's waaayyyy cheaper than the Air, and you only want to use a computer for 1 hour and 34 minutes at a time, then I'm not stopping you.

Extremely light and thin form

Runs Vista adequately

Short battery life

Weak for multimedia applications

Unreasonably poor build quality

[Additional research from Geekbench]