The MSI Wind U100, released in June, was the first mini-notebook to sport a 10-inch display, a nearly full-size keyboard and a traditonal hard drive (as opposed to solid state). The company has now released in select countries (including Canada) the Wind U90X, a fraternal twin to the original, with a smaller 8.9-inch screen. While it still has some of the same features that helped the U100 garner our Editors’ Choice award, the U90X ultimately isn’t in the same league. Its SUSE Linux operating system is sometimes downright frustrating, and the sub–2-hour battery life is poor.
Simple, Small Design
The MSI Wind U90X’ chassis is identical to that of the U100. Its black exterior (also available in white and pink) is basic but feels solid. Similar to the black Dell Inspiron Mini 9, this system’s lid features a glossy finish, but it hides fingerprints surprisingly well.
Measuring 10.2 x 7.1 x 1.2 inches and weighing just under 2.5 pounds, the U90X’ footprint is a tad bulkier than other 8.9-inch systems on the market, since MSI merely shrank the screen size while using the same chassis. The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is 1.1 inches shorter in length and 0.1 ounces lighter. However, the size and weight of the U90X are still small; at 3.2 pounds with the AC adapter (2.4 without), it was hardly noticeable in a shoulder bag.
The right side of the U90X houses one USB port, a 4-in-1 memory card reader, mic and headphone jacks, a VGA port, and an Ethernet jack. Two additional USB ports and the power jack line the left side. Unlike the HP 2133 Mini-Note or Lenovo IdeaPad S10, the Wind U90X lacks an ExpressCard slot for adding a mobile broadband modem card, but you can always use a compact USB modem.
Comfortable Keyboard, Small Touchpad
Because the U90X is housed in the same chassis as the 10-inch Wind, the system maintains its stellar, almost-full-size keyboard. The matte keys were springy and offered a good amount of feedback when typing, and while the keys aren’t as large as those on the HP 2133 Mini-Note, touch typists should have no problems using the U90X for extended periods.
While most of the keys are positioned normally, there are two pipe/backslash keys (most keyboards have one). The left pipe key, about two-thirds the size of a normal key, is between the Shift and Z keys; we repeatedly hit the pipe key when we meant to hit the Shift or Enter key. Those who plan to buy the U90X in the U.S. from Canadian retailers should note that a few of the keys, including the Esc and Caps Lock, are in both French and English. Fortunately we didn’t find this distracting.
Our disappointment continues with the Wind’s small touchpad. Measuring 2.0 x 1.7 inches, it requires more finger movement than we would like. The mouse button, a single bar that serves as a left- and right-click control, is also less than ideal. It lacks a divot to separate the buttons, feels mushy, and requires a firm press. We would prefer two dedicated buttons with more tactile response like that on the Dell Inspiron Mini 9.
Smaller Display, Peppy Speakers
The 8.9-inch, 1024 x 600-pixel resolution display on the U90X is surrounded by a large bezel (which is where the 10-inch screen would extend on the U100). While the matte screen isn’t as spacious as the 10-inch version, windows fit to size and the display had enough real estate to have a Web browser and chat client open side by side. When we watched a Saturday Night Live Celebrity Jeopardy clip on Hulu.com, images came through clear and colors looked sharp. Vertical viewing angles fell short of our expectations; tilting the screen back caused a bit of glare. Horizontal angles were better: a friend sitting next to us had no problem seeing a YouTube video on the screen.
The U90X sports a 0.3-megapixel webcam, but the preloaded Skype application and other Web-based video chat programs could not recognize the cam because of SUSE Linux driver incompatibility. The microphone, which is located to the right of the webcam, worked fine in a Skype audio call but picked up some background noise, and our caller complained about not being able to hear us. Plugging in a headset solved the probleml; we spoke to a contact in Germany without a hiccup. The speakers on the bottom of the system produced a loud and steady sound; Everclear’s rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” played clearly and loudly in our bedroom.
Frustrating SUSE Linux OS
While we have been impressed with the intuitive Linux operating systems on systems such as the Acer Aspire one and the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 on the U90X isn’t for inexperienced users.
The SUSE desktop has a look and feel similar to Windows XP; a toolbar runs across the bottom of the screen and contains a Computer button to access all your applications (think Microsoft’s Start icon). We didn’t have trouble locating preloaded programs, including Skype, OpenOffice Writer, Firefox, and Pidgin.
Features such as translucent windows and the ability to rotate virtually to different desktops on the screen make the operating system fun to use. Our U90X was also preloaded with software that let us zoom in on the screen using a Ctrl+F5 shortcut and pan around the screen using the touchpad. This clever feature worked well on NYTimes.com and allowed us to enlarge a video to full-screen.
However, all the eye candy in the world can’t make up for the U90X’ lack of compatible drivers. Beyond not being able to use the integrated webcam, connecting to a wireless network was a hair-pulling experience—not only was it difficult to sign into a network, but the U90X also struggled to maintain a connection to a hotspot. This has been a documented problem with SUSE; we’re hard-pressed to understand why MSI would choose an operating system that’s lacking in the one area critical to the success of any netbook: the ability to connect to the Internet.
Performance, Hard Drive
This 1.6-GHz Intel Atom CPU, along with 512MB of RAM, helped the Wind perform up to our netbook expectations. Programs loaded at a decent clip even when several others were running in the background. We could listen to music, talk with friends over Google Chat, surf the Web, and write a document in OpenOffice Writer simultaneously. Occasionally the U90X would hang up, and parts of the screen would turn black. This may be a problem with graphics driver compatibility with the SUSE operating system.
Like the U100, the U90X forgoes a solid state drive for a 5,400-rpm, 120GB hard disk, which boots the system in a slower 55 seconds compared to other netbooks. However, the drive packs plenty more space than a solid state drive would for files and applications. Throughout all of our tests, the U90X ran relatively cool compared with other netbooks.
Wireless and Battery Life
Connecting to a WEP or WAP security-protected network is not as simple as entering the network password. The U90X won’t detect routers automatically; you need to configure the settings for a particular connection in the network manager and need to select the right type of encryption. This worked on some networks, but on others we weren’t able to connect. And as we said above, even when we were able to sucessfully connect to an access point, it was tenuous at best; the U90X frequently disconnected from a hotspot for no apparent reason.
The signal strength when we were connected was decent and remained above 75 percent when the system was 50 feet away from our access point. Web pages loaded quickly; NYTimes.com loaded in 7 seconds, and we had no problem streaming video from Hulu.com. An episode of Family Guy had minimal pauses and audio skips.
We expected more out of the Wind’s three-cell battery, especially since the 10-inch version with a six-cell battery lasted more than five hours on a charge. The U90X, however, ran out of steam in 1 hour and 39 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), almost 50 minutes less than the category average, and far less than the 5:30 of the U100.
MSI backs this mini-notebook with a one-year warranty but offers tech support only from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (PST) Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (PST) Friday. Unfortunately the call isn’t toll-free. It is also worth noting that, according to MSI, while the U90X can support up to 1GB of RAM, performing this upgrade will void the warranty; a conspicuous “warranty void if tampered” sticker resides on the system’s underside.
The MSI Wind U90X’ keyboard is the largest and most comfortable of any 8.9-inch mini-notebook on the market, and we like its spacious hard drive. But the SUSE Linux operating system was a mistake, and for that we cannot recommend the U90X over the Acer Aspire one or the Dell Inspiron Mini 9. While its $369 price is appealing, only those willing to replace the SUSE OS with a version of Windows or another flavor of Linux will find the Wind U90X a decent 8.9-inch netbook.