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MSI Wind U135 Netbook Review
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Date: Feb 15, 2010
Section:Mobile
Author: Shawn Oliver
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Introduction and Specifications

 
We have been fans of MSI's Wind series of netbooks. They have consistently rivaled Asus' Eee PC range and HP's Mini line, and the competition has been good for the industry. MSI's Wind line has remained relatively consistent over the years, with the design staying mostly the same, but the internals progressively getting more advanced with newer hardware platforms from Intel and fresher operating systems from Microsoft (and Linux, truth be told). The Wind U135 is the first major contender in MSI's netbook line to ship with Intel's Pine Trail platform within, which means that it finally ditches the aging Atom N270/N280 CPU in favor of the newer Atom N450.


What's most interesting here is that our review should detail quite nicely what improvements are available from Intel's new platform. In most every other way, the Wind U100 that we tested early last year is exactly the same, save for the new CPU and new integrated GPU. The price has also fallen quite nicely, with the Wind U135 priced around $315. When the U100 launched, it was around $430. MSI has also made a few small improvements here in terms of usability, with a chiclet keyboard being implemented and the trackpad given a small bump in size. There's also the option for adding WiMAX support for those near Clear equipped cities, and the addition of Windows 7 (albeit the Starter edition) really makes this a compelling netbook for those who were waiting out the Windows XP phase.


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MSI Wind U135 Netbook
Specifications and Features (as tested)
  • Intel Atom N450 @ 1.66GHz, 667MHz FSB; 512K Cache
  • 1GB of DDR2 RAM (667MHz)
  • 10" LCD (1024x600 resolution); LED backlight
  • Intel GMA 3150 integrated graphics
  • 160GB (5400RPM) WD Scorpio Blue Hard Drive
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • No Optical Drive
  • 1.3 megapixel webcam
  • VGA Output
  • USB 2.0 x 3
  • RJ-45 (Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • SD / MMC / MSPro Multimedia Card Reader
  • Stereo Speakers
  • 2.64 Pounds (with 3-cell battery installed)
  • Removable 3-Cell or 6-Cell Li-ion Battery
  • 10.23" x 7.08" x 0.74"-1.24" (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Starter (32-bit)
  • Price (as tested): $315

 




You'll notice a lot of familiar specifications here, but the notable difference makers are the Atom N450 CPU (based on Pine Trail platform), faster memory, a new GMA 3150 GPU and Windows 7 Starter instead of Windows XP. We'll be putting this one to the test in the pages to come, so join us as we take an in-depth look at MSI's latest Wind netbook.

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Design and Build Quality

 
If you've ready our in-depth analysis of the Wind U100, you'll pretty much be up to speed with the design and build quality, save for a few key changes that have happened over the past year. The 10" frame is exactly the same as other Wind netbooks that we have handled, with a glossy black palm rest and LCD bezel, a glossy exterior, a matte underside and a glossy LCD. The chiclet style keyboard may be new for some of you, but this format has become somewhat of a standard choice in today's notebook world.


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MSI has also bumped up the trackpad size by 20%, which is a big upgrade in our minds. In our past experiences with MSI netbooks, we always felt that the trackpad was a tad cramped. 20% isn't huge, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. Netbooks deserve notebook-sized trackpads, and any increase in size is one we support.


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We were somewhat disappointed that MSI hasn't really altered the port layout over the past year. There's still just a single video output (VGA), while many other machines are moving on to DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI. There's also no sign of USB 3.0, and while we understand that it is just now gaining traction, it's understandable to think that some consumers will simply pass on any new machine coming out without USB 3.0. We estimate that most machines hitting the market by Q4 will support SuperSpeed USB, so unless you need one now, a machine with USB 3.0 is easy to pass on.

    
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There's no mistaking that the overall build quality of the U135 isn't exactly top-notch. It's a $300 machine though, so that's perfectly acceptable. Compared to the much more expensive Lenovo ThinkPad Edge that we just reviewed, this is a step-down in quality. But that said, it's plenty sturdy for the target market. This is a bargain-priced machine, and considering that it cost just over $300, the reliance of semi-flexible plastics is understandable. The LCD hinge, however, seemed extremely sturdy, with our only complaint there being that it won't recline 100% flat.


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There's still no optical drive, and there's still a rather large bezel surrounding the LCD. We do like the idea of having an option for integrated WiMAX, though it seems this approach would be more useful in the U.S. if they partnered with a major cellphone carrier (Verizon or AT&T, perhaps) and offered a subsidized version with integrated 3G WWAN.

    
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Software and Accessories

 
It seems that the days of buying notebooks and receiving at least one or two unexpected surprises are coming to an end. The last three machines that we have tested, ranging from $300 to $1500 in cost, have all arrived with nothing more than the bare essentials. We understand that the accessory market is as robust as ever, but it seems that companies are losing touch with the value in tossing in something as thoughtful and simple as a notebook sleeve. The MSI Wind U135 shipped with the unit itself, an AC power cord, an AC adapter and a 3-cell battery. There's also a small paper guide, but there are no "extras" or "bonuses" to speak of. Understandable for a $300 machine, but when Asus has been known to throw in relatively nice sleeves with their own low-end netbooks, it leaves competitors in an awkward position when they pass on the opportunity to add a little something of their own.


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On the software front, there's Windows 7 Starter. This is the most stripped-down version of Windows 7, but it still feels far more polished and capable than Windows XP, which was shipping on practically every netbook just months ago. Thankfully, Microsoft axed the "3 app at a time" limit that was said to be included from the onset. We personally loaded seven applications at once, and no warnings were thrown, so we can safely say that Windows 7 Starter won't limit you on the amount of applications that you can run at one time. For most netbook users, Windows 7 Starter will be plenty for them. They probably won't even notice the subtle removal of certain aspects that are generally only used by power users with powerful machines, though the omission of certain MPEG2 codecs does worry us when it comes to full multimedia enjoyment (which we'll touch on specifically a bit later in the review).


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As with many netbooks, there was a bit of bloatware to deal with here on the Wind U135. Specifically, a "trial" copy of Norton's Anti-Virus suite was installed, and a pop-up tried to get us to register it each time we booted up the machine until we uninstalled it. We didn't mind having Adobe Acrobat Reader onboard, and the Microsoft Works Suite was also a fine inclusion. There's a trial version of Microsoft Office (60-day), and MSI's own WebCam Companion 3 software is included to video chat and the like with the integrated 1.3MP camera. Other than Norton, there didn't seem to be too much else hindering the bootup process, but we still maintain that the best solution for consumers is to just put a stock copy of Windows 7 on the PC, and put all of the "optional" software on a CD or flash drive that's bundled with the notebook itself.


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User Experience

 
Using the Wind U135 is like using any other 10" netbook, really. There isn't anything that makes it stand out in an exceptionally positive or negative light, though we do prefer the chiclet style keyboard that's here. The keyboard is obviously smaller than full-size, but typing on it was much easier than some of the cramped keyboards that we have used in the past. Overall, it's a great typing experience when you consider the size limitations and the $315 price tag.


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The trackpad is a mixed bag. On one hand, we're glad that it's 20% larger (which sounds more significant than it really is, but you have to realize just how small it was to begin with on last year's models). On the other, we're disappointed that no multi-touch capabilities are included. You can't scroll with two fingertips, and you can't even scroll by using a single fingertip down the right edge of the pad as you can on nearly every other trackpad made today. It's definitely a spartan trackpad, but we did like the texture and felt that it responded very well (without overreacting, as many pads do) to our gestures. The single silver mouse click button recognizes which side you're pressing (for right or left clicks), and while it's certainly not our favorite approach, it got the job done.


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The glossy display is sharp and crisp when looking directly on, and the viewing angles are also impressive. Of course, we would prefer a matte panel since those are easier to actually see when you venture outdoors (which is highly likely if you're buying a netbook), but alas, few netbooks are offered with a matte panel. The only one we know of is OCZ's Neutrino. We should take this opportunity to mention that the U135 is trying out a slightly new paint job for the Wind range. There's a bit of sparkle and style to the charcoal paint scheme, and while subtle, we thought it was a nice touch. We still think that having the outer shell as glossy, the palm rest glossy and the display bezel glossy is kind of overkill (your fingerprints will be everywhere in no time), but it's something we have come to accept and understand as "par for the course."


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As we mentioned earlier, Windows 7 Starter should be plenty for most. It's a far nicer experience than using Windows XP. We didn't enjoy having to uninstall the Norton Suite, which we consider bloatware, but otherwise the OS experience was fantastic. There's no 3 app at a time limit, and the machine had no issue having 7 applications open at once (though loading them took some time given the relatively low performing innards). Truthfully, loading up applications didn't feel incredibly quicker than the Windows XP netbooks that we tested last year with Atom N270 and N280 CPUs within. The clock speed of the Atom N450 (which is used in this netbook) is just 1.66GHz, and while the front side bus increased from 533MHz to 667MHz, there's just not enough of a leap in technology for you to notice a more speedy system.


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That said, applications did open up fast enough when you consider that you're on a $315 netbook, and multitasking was handled with poise if you gave the machine enough time to digest the app switching. The Pine Trail platform may not help much in the overall speed department, but it certainly helps in the multimedia department. With many Atom N270/N280 systems, we were unable to easily play back 720p and 1080p content. It either wouldn't play back smoothly, or it would tax the system so heavily than even a widget notification in the background would grind everything to a halt. The GMA 3150 GPU isn't as good as a discrete GPU, but it's plenty powerful to chew through the 720p movie trailers that we threw at it. YouTube HD and Hulu viewers should also take comfort in knowing that this system is perfectly capable of handling your needs in terms of smooth SD video playback, but we did have trouble getting some 1080p material to play without lag.


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At well under 3 pounds, the Wind 135 is also easy to lug around, and while it's over an inch thick, it's still no burden to slip it in your bookbag. We're eagerly awaiting the day where netbooks can slim down to Adamo XPS-level thinness, but we get the impression that it won't be happening for quite awhile unless we're willing to pay hundreds more for our netbooks.

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Test Setup and 3DMark 06 CPU


 
  
HotHardware's Mobile Test Systems
Covering the bases
MSI Wind U135

Intel Atom N450
(1.66GHz)

1GB DDR2

Intel GMA 3150


On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x160GB Hard Drive          
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7
Starter (32-bit)

10" LED LCD Display
(native 1024x600)
HP Mini 311

Intel Atom N270
(1.6GHz)

2GB DDR2

NVIDIA Ion GPU
(Based on 9400M)


On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x250GB Hard Drive          
5400 RPM SATA


Windows 7 Home
Premium (32-bit)

11.6" LED LCD Display
(native 1366x768)
Asus Eee PC 1201N

Intel Atom 330
(1.6GHz)

2GB DDR2

NVIDIA Ion GPU
(Based on 9400M)

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x250GB Hard Drive          
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7 Home
Premium SP1 (32-bit)

12.1" LED LCD Display
(native 1366x768)



 Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.



You'll notice that the Wind U135 is no champion in the 3DMark 06 CPU benchmark, but that shouldn't alarm you. In fact it barely even finished the litany of tests, with one particular test failing. No netbook is built to really handle the stresses of hardcore benchmarking, and you shouldn't reasonably expect a netbook to blaze through much of anything--particularly one without NVIDIA's Ion. It's a low-cost, portable solution to owning an energy-slurping, heavy notebook. In reality, using the U135 isn't as sluggish as these numbers would make it seem. You wouldn't want to do any serious number crunching on here, but for casual web browsing, multimedia watching and document processing, it's plenty potent. The unit's full 3D Mark 06 benchmark is below:


MSI Wind U135 3DMark 06 CPU Score; Click To Enlarge

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Futuremark PCMark Vantage

 
We also ran the MSI Wind U135 through Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric, PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.



This is one of the first netbooks with Windows 7 Starter that we've been able to run PCMark Vantage on. Until recently, the software wasn't capable of dealing with the omission of certain MPEG2 codecs (a limitation of Windows 7 Starter edition), and so the software would refuse to run. A recent build enabled the testing to continue without relying on those missing codecs, so we're able to present this data to you. The TV & Movies benchmark failed on Win7 Starter, however. With this new build of PCMark Vantage, we should be able to start compiling a database of Windows 7 Starter scores over the course of the next year.


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SiSoftware Sandra Benchmarks

Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed.

 
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge


CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge


Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge


Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge

Here you'll see that the Wind U135 stacked up well against the competing hardware platforms, largely due to the fact that the Atom N450 is one of Intel's newest and most advanced Atom processors. It's obviously capable of providing more performance than the older N270 and N280 options, but it's not leaps and bounds better. The GMA 3150 does enable it to perform better with multimedia, though. The 5400RPM hard drive certainly isn't ideal for power users; an SSD would make this entire system feel worlds faster, but it would add significantly to the cost. Also, 1GB of DDR2 RAM is "enough," but 2GB would dramatically increase the speed at which multitasking could happen. If we were to suggest a single upgrade for you should you buy this, it would be doubling the RAM to 2GB; it's cheap and effective.

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Power Consumption and Battery Life


It's no secret that our battery life figures are generally less than those claimed by the PC maker. We've found that most published battery life figures are based around "ideal" conditions, which generally means that the screen is dimly lit, Wi-Fi is switched off and no real intensive tasks are done during the duration of the test. We use Battery Eater Pro, an application that taxes the system for the duration of the test to mimic heavy real-world usage. We had the screen brightness locked at 60%, Wi-Fi switched on and all other applications closed.


Our test unit came equipped with the standard 3-cell battery, though a 6-cell battery is available as an optional accessory. MSI chose not to publish battery life figures for the U135, so we had no real benchmark to reference. Per usual, we tested this machine with Battery Eater Pro, which is a tool that runs a continual graphic in the background while also taxing the CPU and monitoring battery drain. This simulates real-world use, while most notebook manufacturers report battery life figures that were obtained with little to no activity going on in the background. This Battery Eater Pro approach is much more like a real-world experience; if you own a netbook, and you're using the battery, chances are that you're working on it to some degree at all times. Otherwise, you'd shut the lid and conserve battery life by letting the system sleep.


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Our testing found that the U135 could last for 3 hours on a single charge, which is equally as good as many of the other netbooks that we've tested over the past year or so. Particularly for just a 3-cell battery, we were quite impressed with the life. Mind you, this is also with Wi-Fi on, the screen at 60% brightness and some sort of task going at all times. If you used it less, you could easily get that figure to 4 - 5 hours on a single charge, and even higher if you opted for the 6-cell battery.
 
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Summary and Conclusion


Performance Summary:  In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the MSI Wind U135 put up decent scores, largely thanks to the new Atom N450 and more advanced GMA 3150 GPU. Both of these are at the top of the class in the netbook realm (for now, anyway). The 5400RPM hard drive held things back somewhat, and the choice to include just 1GB of DDR2 memory instead of 2GB definitely hurts application load times and multitasking. Overall performance within Windows 7 Starter wasn't noticeably quicker than the Atom N270/N280 / XP based netbooks that we tested throughout the course of last year, but multimedia playback was markedly better thanks to the newer hardware and software. Most Windows XP netbooks with integrated graphics couldn't play back 720p content very well, yet the U135 plowed through it with no real issues to speak of (though 1080p content was a no-go). Bootup time and wake from sleep were both noticeably quick, though loading major applications for the first time definitely took a few extra seconds. Overall, it's hard to complain much about the speed when you consider the bargain $315 price tag though, and the ability to play back multimedia is a huge plus when considering the U135 over older machines that shipped before Intel's Pine Trail platform was available.



If you have ever seen an MSI Wind netbook, you've pretty much seen the U135. Aside from the slightly more fashionable lid, everything else is standard fare. The chiclet keyboard was one of the better netbook keyboards that we've used, and the 20% boost in trackpad space was much appreciated (though still not enough). The port selection felt like an afterthought; we've had the same layout on Wind netbooks for months now, and with DisplayPort, HDMI and USB 3.0 gaining traction, it seems as if MSI could have added at least one of those three new standards in order to make this feel like an absolutely new machine rather than a simple refresh.


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It's an odd time to be in the market for a netbook. Smartbooks, MIDs and tablets are all making a new surge, and smartphones are getting larger displays and more potent innards seemingly by the day. It's not that netbooks don't have a place in the world anymore, but the question of "Do I really need this?" is certainly more relevant now than ever before. For just over $300, the Wind U135 offers a solid, though not remarkable, netbook experience. It doesn't make a cramped experience feel un-cramped, and it doesn't feel significantly faster than the netbooks of last year. The additional multimedia push is nice, but far too many elements of "last generation" are still present here for us to recommend this to current netbook owners looking for a netbook upgrade.


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If you're just now starting to look for a netbook, however, the U135 will serve your needs well. It won't blow away any expectations, but it probably won't let you down, either. The real questions are whether you should wait for a netbook with USB 3.0 and / or Bluetooth 3.0, or whether you should look into getting into another class of device entirely. The tablet is poised to take off this year according to some, and while an on-screen keyboard definitely isn't ideal, neither is a cramped one that's shoved into the frame of a 10" netbook. Smartphones are also becoming more capable of handling basic web needs, though they'll leave you wanting more when it comes using an application like Microsoft Word, for example. In summary, the Wind U135 is a fine step forward in the slowly progressing netbook space, but it doesn't set a new standard for all future netbooks to follow.

     
  • Nice Overall Design
  • Great Value At $315
  • Nice Chiclet Keyboard
  • Great Battery Life
  • Ultra Quiet And Cool
  • HD Playback Support
  • Atom N450 CPU

 

  • Glossy Display
  • Only 1GB of RAM
  • No Optical Drive
  • No Multi-Touch Trackpad
  • Only A 5400RPM HDD
  • No USB 3.0 Ports

 



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