Review: 4 'large' netbooks -- are they better or just bigger?

Netbooks have been the small wonders of the mobile world. But are the latest models getting too big to deserve the name?

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MSI X340

Despite shoehorning a great configuration into the thinnest and lightest case, the MSI X340 misses the netbook mark. The problem is not weight, because the case weighs just 2.9 lb. (only a few ounces heavier than the Aspire One); adding the AC adapter brings it to only 3.7 lb. It's also the thinnest of the group, with a 0.9-in. profile.

However, the MSI measures 12.9 by 8.8 in., making it nearly two inches longer than the Aspire. Forget about having room for a drink on your airline tray table -- it can overwhelm the entire table. Plus, for its $900 price, you could purchase two or three smaller netbooks. In other words, this is more of a competitor for Apple's MacBook Air or Lenovo's ThinkPad X200.

I like the shiny, jet-black sparkle finish on the case, but the skin picks up fingerprints faster than an episode of Law and Order, and the entire case flexes so much that it doesn't inspire confidence as to its longevity.

Large netbooks
MSI X340

Inside, the MSI excels with premium components like its 1.4-GHz Intel Core2 Solo processor, 2GB of RAM (twice that of the others), a 320GB hard drive and a 13.3-in. screen (the largest of the bunch). It's also the only machine in the group that has a lit logo on the back of the display lid (increasing its similarity to the Air). However, if you don't have long fingernails, it can be hard to get your fingers between the lid and the base to pry it open.

As far as ports go, of the four netbooks, the MSI has the only HDMI connector for linking the system to a large-screen monitor or TV. However, it comes with only two USB ports, which are so close together that I found I couldn't use my 3G data card in one slot and a flash drive in the other. There are also connectors for wired networking and an external monitor, as well as jacks for a microphone and a headphone. It comes with Bluetooth and a flash card reader but lacks the ExpressCard slot of Lenovo's IdeaPad.

The MSI excels when it comes to Wi-Fi networking, with the ability to work with 802.11b/g/n. It also has the greatest reach, with a wireless range of 120 feet, 10 feet longer than Acer's Aspire.

Its keyboard has 19mm keys, but I found them to be mushy and so sensitive to the touch that I was making more mistakes with it than with any other keyboard in memory. Like the others, the system has a webcam above the display.

With the best configuration of the group, it's no surprise that the MSI earned top-performance honors -- with a 314.8 on the Passmark benchmark and the fastest time to get my presentation going -- but it was one of the slowest to start up. In addition, its three-cell 2,150 mAh battery lasted a disappointing 1 hour 57 minutes. That's less than one-third that of the Aspire One.

On top of Vista Home Premium, the MSI comes with Norton Internet Security (with 60 days of updates) and Microsoft Works. Its three-year warranty is the longest of the group. The system also comes with a nice optical mouse with a retractable cord.

But these extras don't come close to justifying its $900 price tag. All told, the MSI is an interesting hybrid design but is too big and expensive to be a good netbook.

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