Editor's Note (8/17/09): We initially tested a pre-production MVT (Mass Verification Test) sample of the MSI X340. Since then, we received a full production model, which had an improved keyboard and an 8-cell battery. Additionally, MSI reduced the price to $799 from $899. Because of these factors, we have increased its rating from 3.5 to 4 stars.
Ever since Apple released its MacBook Air, no 13-inch notebook has come as close to being as slim while also being affordable for the average consumer. MSI’s X340 changes that. Indeed, this $799 13.4-inch laptop looks strikingly similar to Apple’s $1,799 work of art—and can also fit in a manila envelope—but the X340 eschews the Air’s more powerful Core 2 Duo processor and Nvidia graphics for Intel’s new Ultra Low Voltage CPU and integrated graphics. The upshot is that MSI’s machine provides some of the best endurance we've seen in an ultraportable with good-enough performance for basic computing at a very good price.
Ultra Slim Design
When viewed from the side, the X340 is impressively slim. At 13 x 8.8 inches, the X340 takes up the same desk space as the MacBook Air, but the X340 is slightly thicker, measuring 0.24 inches at its thinnest point, and 0.78 inches at its thickest. (The MacBook Air, by contrast, is 0.16 to 0.76 inches.) At 2.9 pounds (and 3.6 pounds with the charger), the X340 is 1.6 ounces lighter than the Air, and its rounded corners give it a stylish aesthetic.
The X340’s overall look is impressive for the price. The system comes in black or silver, and the outer glossy plastic shell is adorned with an MSI logo that lights up when the notebook is in use, giving it an elegant look. However, the MSI X340 doesn’t feel as solidly built as the aluminum MacBook Air or other ultraportables such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X200; the unit has a slightly hollow feel to it. Also, the lid on our X340 picked up fingerprint smudges quickly.
While only slightly thicker, the X340 uses its extra girth to store plenty of port. The left side houses VGA, Ethernet, HDMI, and a 2-in-1 card reader. Two USB ports and headphone and mic jacks line the right side of the machine. On a machine this small, it’s nice to see this much connectivity.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on the MSI X340 is plenty large for touch typists, but the keys feel cheaper than the rest of the system. While the keyboard had a little flex, the keys didn't feel too soft under our fingers. The right Shift key is a bit small, but otherwise the layout is full size. The keyboards on the Lenovo ThinkPad X200, MacBook Air, and Samsung NC20 are more comfortable.
The 3.4 x 2.1-inch touchpad is plenty large and allowed us to navigate the desktop smoothly. We do wish that MSI used two dedicated mouse buttons instead of the single touchpad button; while it felt a bit mushy, it was comfortable for making selections. MSI includes a full-size corded mouse with a retractable USB cable, which was a nice alternative.
Display and Audio
The X340’s glossy 13.4-inch LED-backlit screen features a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, and it looked crisp and bright. When watching an episode of 30 Rock on Hulu.com, the picture was richly saturated, and we enjoyed generous viewing angles from the sides. We didn’t find the glossy screen distracting when surfing the Web or writing in Microsoft Word. With brightness all the way up, the screen was viewable outdoors on a partly cloudy day.
Two speakers are located underneath the front lip of the X340. When we cranked the audio when streaming “O Valencia” by The Decemberists on Blip.fm, audio was loud but somewhat tinny. Tina Fey’s voice came through loud and clear in an episode of 30 Rock.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam above the display provided clear images in a video call. The other caller could make out our new hair cut and hear our voice clearly with the built-in microphone located to the left of the cam.
The MSI X340 is the first notebook powered by Intel’s new ULV line of processors. The new family of CPUs was designed for very slim notebooks and promises better performance than Intel’s Atom but not as much power as Centrino 2 systems.
With a 1.4-GHz Intel Penryn Core 2 Solo SU3500 ULV processor and 2GB of RAM, the X340 has enough horsepower to run Vista. This notebook notched a score of 1,658 in PCMark Vantage, which measures Vista performance; that’s 228 points higher than HP’s Pavilion dv2, which is the first notebook powered by AMD’s Neo processor (also aimed at the same type of slim system). The X340’s score was 575 points higher than a typical netbook with a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, such as the Workhorse PC Certeza MC10. On the other hand, the average PCMark Vantage score for ultraportables is 2,751 and the MacBook Air (which has a Centrino 2 processor) notched 3,684, making the X340 only about half as fast as a premium system such as the ThinkPad X200 (which costs at least $250 more).
On the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media), the X340’s 320GB hard drive took 3 minutes and 49 seconds, or a rate of 22.2 MBps, which is both higher than the category average for netbooks (14.4 MBps) and ultraportables (19.4 MBps). The X340 took 1 minute and 5 seconds to boot Vista, which is average for an ultraportable.
While the X340 performed well during everyday tasks, such as writing in Microsoft Word 2007, surfing the Web with multiple tabs open in Firefox, and watching a 720p video in Windows Media Player, it had a bit of trouble multitasking. We transcoded a 5-minute-and-5-second MPEG-4 video clip (114MB) to the AVI format using Handbrake. The X340 completed the task in 18 minutes and 12 seconds—almost 4 minutes faster than the Pavilion dv2 performed. However, when we performed the same task while zipping a 4.97GB folder in the background, the dv2 performed better, finishing in 30:45, compared with the X340’s time of 33:24.
The $799 Gateway UC7807u, which has an 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 processor, took just 7:53 and 15:11, respectively, to complete the same task. However, that 13-inch notebook is much heftier (5.3 pounds) and thicker than the X340.
Given that the X340 uses Intel’s Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD, we weren’t expecting much in the way of graphics performance. The notebook’s 3DMark03 score of 1,597 was 226 points below the category average for ultraportables, though only about 50 points lower than the Lenovo ThinkPad X200. Its 3DMark06 score of 643 is lower than the $899 Acer Aspire 3935’s (797) and 229 points below the ultraportable average.
While we couldn’t get our usual gaming tests to run, we didn’t have a problem walking around the graphics-intensive Second Life; buffering was minimal and the system was still able to run a number of other programs in the background as our avatar toured the virtual world. Similarly, the notebook easily played the 720p WMV “Coral Reef Adventure” clip downloaded from Microsoft’s WMV HD Content Showcase. That same clip played without a hiccup when we output the audio and video to a Samsung HDTV using the X340’s HDMI connection. What’s more, that same clip looked just as smooth in 1080p resolution on the big screen, with the audio and visuals in sync and no stuttering. Today’s netbooks can’t do that.
Battery Life and Wireless
The X340 comes with an eight-cell lithium ion battery, which lasted for 8 hours and 48 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). That's almost 4 hours longer than the average ultraportable, and 40 minutes longer than the Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T. Consumers who purchased the X340 with a 4-cell battery (which lasted 3 hours and 38 minutes) can buy an 8-cell battery for $99.99.
The X340’s 802.11b/g/n wireless card delivered strong performance. We saw average throughput of 19.3 Mbps at 15 feet from our router and 17.7 Mbps from 50 feet, both which are higher than the ultraportable averages of 18.9 Mbps and 15.7 Mbps, respectively. Web pages downloaded quickly in the office and at home, and streaming videos over Hulu.com were smooth. There is no mobile broadband option for the X340 at this time.
Software and Warranty
Besides Windows Vista Home, the X340 comes preinstalled with Adobe Reader 7.0, ULead Burn Now, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office, and a 90-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2006. MSI backs the notebook with an 18-month warranty and offers tech support from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. (EST) Monday through Friday.
At launch the X340 will be sold as a single configuration, but MSI will be making other configurations and options available in the near future with a different selection of Intel’s ULV processors. Pricing for these options will be announced at a later date.
For $799, the MSI X340 delivers on the promise of an affordable ultraportable as thin and light as the MacBook Air. Its main rival may be the $899 Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T; although it costs $100 more and has slightly less endurance, it offers better performance in a more solid chassis. But that may not matter to those who like that the X340 costs half as much as the base model Air, and has more ports and almost four times the battery life, to boot.