First look: MSI's Wind low-cost laptop

It's got a 10-in. screen, an 80GB hard drive and a slightly larger keyboard than some rival mini-notebooks

Taiwan's Micro-Star International announced its competitor for the new low-cost laptop market, the Wind, early this month at Computex, and I got a chance to try it out at MSI's offices in Taipei late Wednesday.

I've been skeptical about the new segment of low-cost laptop PCs, or mini-notebooks, because they seem to either be cheap at a low price or are priced so high you wonder why someone wouldn't just by a regular notebook PC.

Some product reviewers compare these devices with normal laptops, and that's fair when the price of the mini-notebook is similar. But overall, the low-cost versions aren't designed to compete with normal notebook PCs. These are small laptops aimed at people who want a small, light device that makes them easy to carry around and surf the Internet for hours and hours.

So, battery life, performance, screen size and the size of the keypad were my biggest concerns, and MSI's Wind wins high marks in each of those categories.

The company plans to sell them for $599 (U.S.) in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere starting from mid-July.

The first version of the laptop will come in a variety of colors with Microsoft Windows XP, a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom microprocessor, 1GB of dynamic RAM and an 80GB hard disk drive (HDD). It's built to connect wirelessly to the Internet via Wi-Fi 802.11b/g.

The $599 version of Wind also carries a 6-cell battery, good for five to six hours of use, and a 10-in. LCD screen, which is bigger than some rivals that use only 7- or 8.9-in. screens.

You can cut corners to make the laptops cheaper, for example, by choosing a smaller, 3-cell battery, using a Linux OS, which won't be available at the launch, and a smaller HDD. The one component I wouldn't scrimp on is the battery, unless money is really tight.

I liked the 6-cell battery for a few reasons. First, knowing you have at least five hours of battery power means you don't really have to take a power cable with you or search for a seat by a wall socket. But one unexpected benefit of the larger battery is that it tilts the laptop up in a way that makes typing more comfortable.

MSI tried to make the keypad bigger than other mini-notebooks and put on a touchpad, important for me because I have beefy hands. The only other portable laptop I've tried is the first version of Asustek Computer's Eee PC with a 7-in. screen, and typing on that keypad takes some getting used to because the keys are so small. I kept hitting the wrong keys or two keys at once.

By comparison, Wind was a nicer experience, albeit still not like a normal laptop PC. Some of Asus' more recent versions of the Eee PC, such as the 1000, have larger keypads.

The Wind, as is, performed fairly well when I used it. I wasn't able to run a thorough test; I just played with it for a while to see how it worked.

But if you want a small device that weighs about two and a half pounds and is able to connect to the Internet and multitask with simple software, the Wind is pretty nifty.

I was able to play music while surfing the Net, and open and work on a text document. It's not a machine aimed at video editing, so I didn't bother trying. The device found MSI's wireless network quickly and logged on, but I couldn't do much downloading because MSI blocks music, video and other Web sites, such as YouTube, to keep workers focused.

The Wind's 1.3-megapixel webcam is a nice extra for talking to friends on video chat via Skype or MSN Messenger. There are also several slots for mini-storage cards and USB ports so you can add other devices, such as a 3G wireless card to stay connected to the Net over mobile phone networks.

I plan to test as many mini-notebooks as possible over the next few weeks, but I don't expect them to be too different in performance, since they nearly all use similar components, such as Intel's Atom microprocessor.

For Wind, the 10-in. screen is one differentiating feature, as is the 80GB HDD. Most rivals carry 8.9-in. screens and much smaller storage space: 10GB to 20GB.

Still, laptop makers are excited about this emerging product line because of the early success of the Eee PC, and they're trying to pack in more functions at low costs -- and that's where I expect to see some of these devices outshine others. Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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