Given that most ultraportable notebooks have traditionally cost north of $1,500, a budget 12-inch laptop might seem like something of an oxymoron. But the colorful $699 MSI VR220 YA Edition is among the first notebooks to shake up this once expensive category. Using an older-generation Pentium processor, the VR220’s performance is nothing to write home about, and its keyboard is ridden with flex, but students or consumers scouring for a notebook with an optical drive and more performance than a netbook will find it to be an acceptable choice for light everyday use.
Colorful, Potentially Off-Putting Design
The VR220’s design reminds us of a mismatched '70s outfit. Its matte Wasabi Green lid is an attention getter; a black option may best suit those looking for something more demure (it’s also available in Coral Pink and Denim Blue). The lip and interior match the exterior color but in a lighter, metallic shade. At the top of the deck is a silver speaker bar, and below a white keyboard that looks completely out of place. While the overall build of the MSI VR220 is solid, it isn’t anywhere near as sleek as the similarly sized and priced Dell Inspiron Mini 12.
While the MSI VR220’s size (11.9 x 9.1 x 1.2 inches) is comparable to some of the most expensive ultraportables, its weight of 4.4 pounds (5.2 pounds with the AC adapter) makes it much heavier and more akin to a thin-and-light. For example, the VR200 is just 0.4 inches thicker than the Toshiba Portégé R500, but is 2.2 pounds heavier. (Then again, the Portégé’s starting price is $1,000 higher.) Part of the reason for VR220’s bulk is its standard eight-cell battery, which weighs 1 pound by itself and bulges out of the back.
Decent Screen, Weak Audio
The 12.1-inch 1280 x 800-pixel glossy display on the MSI VR220 is surrounded by an inch-thick bezel, and is large enough for long viewing stretches. We were able to watch DVDs comfortably off its optical drive and when cranked up to full brightness, Dazed and Confused looked crisp. Vertical viewing angles were decent, but moving off-axis horizontally to the screen’s maximum viewing angle of 130 degrees made for a substantial reflection shift. The integrated 1.3-megapixel webcam above the display provided decent video in a video call over Skype. Our caller could see our new hair-do, but mentioned that we looked a bit washed out.
The speaker strip above the keyboard is far from booming; we struggled to hear our favorite lines while watching our DVD, even with the volume cranked up all the way. Listening to an MP3 in Windows Media Player was slightly better, but still not loud enough to fill a small bedroom. We recommend plugging in a set of external notebook speakers or headphones.
Flexy Keyboard, Loud Mouse Buttons
The keyboard on the MSI VR220 is comfortable and well spaced for touch typists, but its make feels cheaper than the rest of the system. The white keyboard had too much flex. We got used to the keyboard over time, but it’s a sacrifice we wish we didn’t have to make.
The touchpad is decently sized and offered a nice textured feel as we navigated around the desktop. The right and left click buttons are a bit loud, however; we preferred to double-tap the pad to keep things quiet.
Like most 12-inch systems, the MSI VR220 is well equipped with ports: VGA, three USB, Ethernet, headphone, and microphone. A 3-in-1 card reader and a TV tuner port (though an antenna not included in the box) is on the right side. There are plastic coverings over an empty HDMI port and ExpressCard slot; MSI clearly stripped these components from the chassis to lower the price.
The MSI VR220 is powered by a 2.0-GHz Intel Pentium T3200 processor with 2GB of memory (expandable up to 4GB). It notched 2,511 on PCMark Vantage, which is around 300 points below both the ultraportable and thin-and-light averages. While the VR220 won’t win any performance awards, it is perfectly capable of everyday tasks. We didn’t notice any system hang-ups during normal activities, and we wrote a document in Microsoft Word, surfed the Web in Firefox 3, and ran a DVD in the background simultaneously without a hiccup.
While the Intel GMA graphics aren't going to blow gamers away, it notched 1,545 on 3DMark03 and 602 on 3DMark06, which is 1,254 and 714 points, respectively, below the thin-and-light category average. However, we found that the system handled the virtual world of Second Life well; there were no hang-ups while running through a virtual mall. Similarly, watching a streaming, high-def episode of The Office on Hulu.com at full-screen was not an issue.
The system’s 250GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive excelled on the LAPTOP Transfer Test, copying 4.97GB of mixed media files in 4 minutes and 31 seconds, a rate of 18.8 MBps—1.9 MBps faster than the average. The drive booted Vista Premium in an acceptable 46 seconds.
Wireless and Battery Life
The VR220’s 802.11b/g/n connection delivered decent throughput. At 15 feet, it pushed data through at 19.6 Mbps, and 15.0 Mbps at 50 feet. Our Web-surfing experience was smooth; watching an episode of NBC’s Lipstick Jungle on Hulu.com was fluid and void of pauses.
The system’s eight-cell battery lasted 3 hours and 58 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which is about 20 minutes shy of the thin-and-light average, and nearly 1:20 short of the ultraportable average. The eight-cell battery comes standard, so MSI offers no other extended battery options. MSI’s power-saving Eco Engine switch, located above the keyboard, allows for swapping among five different modes: Gaming, Movie, Presentation, Office, and Turbo Battery.
Software and Warranty
Besides Windows Vista Home Premium, the VR220 comes preinstalled with Adobe Reader 7.0, CyberLink DVD Solution 4, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office, and a 90-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2006. MSI preloads the system with CrazyTalk CamSuite, which allows you to tweak the webcam and take still shots and record video. MSI backs the notebook with an 18-month warranty and offers tech support from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (PST) Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (PST) on Friday.
Instead of putting a mini-notebook’s insides into a larger case (as with Dell’s Inspiron Mini 12), MSI took the guts of a budget mainstream notebook and crammed them into a 12-inch chassis to create the VR220. And as with most budget systems, you have to expect budget performance. While it costs nearly half as much as more traditional 12-inch notebooks, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X200, it’s not nearly as light, nor does it have the endurance of those systems. But those machines are meant for road warriors with expense accounts. The MSI VR220 is intended for students who need something relatively light and inexpensive for day-to-day tasks. As long as you can live with its subpar keyboard and relatively large size, MSI’s netbook alternative is worth a look.