Netbooks are falling out of vogue for two reasons: the rise of tablets and the fall of prices for laptops with larger displays. Priced at $499, MSI's 15-inch CR650 is the first mainstream notebook powered by AMD's Fusion processor, which combines the CPU and graphics on a single chip to give Intel's Pentium a run for its money. So is the CR650 a good value?
The CR650's glossy black lid has a very subtle grid pattern and is flecked with metallic sparkles. Inside, the palm rest is a silver/gray color with the same pattern as on the lid. The gray fades to black when it reaches the island-style keyboard, above which are two speakers flanking dedicated media buttons. Overall, the look is fairly sleek for such a low-cost notebook, but the lid is a fingerprint magnet.
Above the keyboard are dedicated media buttons. From left, they are: DVD eject, Screen off, TurboBattery (a utility that helps conserve battery life), a configurable hot key, media player, and power. Dedicated volume controls would have been nice, but the Fn shortcuts work fine.
Measuring 15 x 9.8 x 1.25 inches, the CR650 is an average size for a mainstream notebook, as is its weight: 5.4 pounds.
The CR650 stayed very cool during our testing; after playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad, G and H keys, and the middle of the underside were a chilly 83, 85, and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. We consider anything above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable, so the CR650 met our expectations and then some.
Keyboard and Touchpad
For the most part, we liked the CR650's island-style keyboard. The keys themselves are slightly concave, making them easier to hit, and they have a nice, snappy return. We appreciate the full number pad as well, but MSI had to make a few compromises in order to accommodate it: The right Shift and Control keys are slightly shrunken, and the arrow keys are crammed in as well.
The Elan-powered touchpad below has a nice dimpled surface which our finger glided over smoothly. At 2.9 x 1.75 inches, it could be larger, but then again, it's the same size as the touchpad on the larger Sony Vaio EC. We wish there were discrete mouse buttons, or at least a notch on the mouse bar that distinguished the left side of the button from the right.
Display and Audio
The glossy 15.6-inch panel (1366 x 768 pixels) gets the job done, but it could be better. When we watched videos both online and from the hard drive, colors were a bit tepid. While three people sitting side by side could all comfortably see the display, it had to be tilted back at just the right angle--a few degrees back from vertical--for colors not to seem reversed.
By contrast, the stereo speakers on the CR650 were some of the best we've heard from a budget notebook. While not chest-thumping loud, they were good enough to accurately render the more delicate flute and guitar picks in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." The deeper bass in Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" came through clearly and cleanly. The SRS PC Sound control panel let us tweak settings to get the most out of the speakers, too.
The right side of the CR650 has an Ethernet, VGA, USB, and DVD drive, and the left has two more USB ports, HDMI, and headphone and mic jacks. Under the front lip is an SD card reader.
We were interested to see how AMD's 1.6-GHz E-350 processor would hold up in our tests. We weren't shocked that it fell well below the mainstream category averages--which reflect much more powerful Intel Core i5 and i7 notebooks--but in everyday tasks, it performed fairly well. The CR650 scored 2,377 in PCMark Vantage; that's about half the category average. The Dell Inspiron 14R, equipped with an Intel Pentium P6100 CPU, scored about 1,400 points better.
We saw similar results when transcoding a 114MB MPEG4 to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. The CR650 took 2 minutes and 47 seconds, compared to the 1:02 category average. The difference was even more dramatic when we used CyberLink MediaShow Espresso to convert a 5-minute 1080p video to an iPod touch format. The CR650 took 7:20, where the Acer 5742 needed just 1:48.
The CR650's scores were more in line with the HP Pavilion dm1z, which has the same processor. That notebook scored 2,198 on PCMark Vantage, and had nearly identical results with Oxelon and Media Show Espresso.
The 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive in the CR650 was a bit of a slowpoke, duplicating a 4.97GB folder of multimedia in 4 minutes and 17 seconds, a rate of 19.8 MBps. That's a little more than 4MBps slower than the category average. It also took a somewhat lengthy 1:18 to boot into Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium.
Regardless of benchmark numbers, we found the CR650 was able to handle everyday tasks well--such as surfing the web, writing documents, listening to music on Pandora, and watching videos on Hulu. However, we did see the spinning Windows circle more often than on notebooks with more powerful processors.
The CR650 features an AMD Radeon HD6310 GPU, which scored 2,377 on 3DMark06. While this showing is a little more than half the mainstream average of 3,559, the MSI did beat out Intel's integrated GPU inside the Aspire 5742 (1,752).
Likewise, with effects set to the recommended Good setting and the resolution at the native 1366 x 768, the CR650 delivered an average of 24 frames per second in World of Warcraft; while well below the category average of 82 fps, it's 5 fps better than the Aspire 5742. Still, you'll want to decrease the effects a little to get smoother gameplay.
As the dm1z has the same AMD GPU as the CR650, it also got nearly the same scores: 2,217 in 3DMark06, and 24 fps in WOW.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
One of the main benefits of the AMD Fusion APU is its power-conserving properties; the CR650 lasted 4 hours and 38 minutes on the Laptop Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi), which is nearly 40 minutes longer than the category average, and about 90 minutes longer than the Aspire 5742 (3:11). Those who like to surf the web on the sofa will appreciate the extra juice.
At 15 feet from our access point, the CR650's Realtek RTL8188CE 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi saw throughput of 32.9 Mbps, which is a hair above the category average (32 Mbps). At 50 feet, the CR650's wireless score dropped to 17.5 Mbps, which is 4 Mbps slower than average.
Software and Warranty
MSI bundles the CR650 with its own unique blend of utilities and software. The notebook has the Nuance PDF Reader, a trial of Norton Internet Security, Magix Music Maker 16, Photo Manager 9, and Video Easy SE.
The most intriguing of the MSI-branded utilities is the S-Bar. When activated, a blue star appears in the top middle of the desktop. Mousing over it reveals a dock akin to Dell's, where you can configure the Function keys, open oft-used programs, and change settings such as brightness, volume, and Wi-Fi. Other MSI apps include the Game Corner Console, a Battery Calibration Utility, Burn Recovery, EasyFace 2, and Easy Viewer. It's much less intrusive than the previous version of the S-Bar (on systems such as the P600), which took up way too much screen real estate.
MSI offers no other configurations of the CR650; however, a red-colored version, known as the A6500, will also be available for the same price.
We like the fact that MSI fit AMD's new Fusion APU into the 15-inch CR650. You wouldn't want to use this $499 notebook for heavy-duty multitasking or video editing, but for those who need a simple machine for tasks such as e-mail, checking Facebook, and watching videos on Hulu or YouTube, it will more than suffice. Consumers will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of its audio, too. Those looking for more processing muscle in a similar screen size should check out the Acer Aspire 5742 ($50 more), but if you want a better-sounding and longer-lasting laptop with pretty good graphics chops, the MSI CR650 is a strong value.