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Apple MacBook Air vs. MSI X340: The Super-Slim Ultraportable Face-Off

If you've taken a gander at our MSI X340 review, you read that we deemed the machine a very good ultraportable for the price, despite its flaws.  You also would've noticed comparisons to the Apple MacBook Air sprinkled throughout, as Cupertino's notebook was the prototype for super-slim systems. Considering that both notebooks offer roughly the same weight and dimensions, we thought it appropriate to pit them in a 6-round knock-down, drag-out competition to determine which laptop is the best when factoring in price, design, value,  and general usability (while leaving the inevitable Mac OS X vs. Windows arguments aside). Consider it Ali-Foreman for super-thin ultraportables. Let's get ready to rumble! Design and Ports The MacBook Air may have set the new standard for super-svelte ultraportables and served as the inspiration for the X340, but its tiny 12.8 x 8.9 x 0.7-inch frame comes with a number of compromises that the similarly-sized MSI (13.0 x 8.8 x 0.8 inches) doesn't possess. Save for the MagSafe power cord connection, the MacBook Air's three ports (USB 2.0, mini-DisplayPort, headphone) are tucked away in the back-right corner of the system in a drop-down flap. The small opening makes it a pain to connect gear, which isn't a problem that comes with the X340 as all of it ports are easily accessible. MSI also includes several connections that Apple doesn't: HDMI,VGA, Ethernet, mic, modem, 2-in-1 card reader, and an additional USB port. In terms of build, the MacBook Air's aluminum frame is far sturdier than the X340; the latter has a rather hollow feel to it despite being virtually the same weight as its Cupertino rival (2.9 pounds vs. 3.0 pounds). In addition, the MSI's lid also has alot of flex, and draws all manner of smudges and fingerprints (the latter is nothing that a cloth or paper towel couldn't take care of). Of course, the X340 we tested was a pre-production model so it's possible that the frame will be a little bit sturdier in the final build. WINNER: MSI X340. Easy access to ports (and lots of them!) allowed us to overlook the flimsy feel. Keyboard and Touchpad Both notebooks have full-size keyboards, but the MacBook Air's trounces the X340's. The MacBook Air features Apple's familiar Chiclet-styled keys that deliver good tactile feedback. It also has very cool backlighting that kicks in during low-light situations. The multitouch trackpad allowed us to scroll through Web pages, and zoom in and out of photos using pinch gestures. Despite offering plenty of room for touch typists, the X340's keyboard simply feels cheap in comparison. Its keyboard has way too much flex, and the keys are mushy. In addition, the right Shift key is about half the width of the MacBook Air's. Again we must emphasize that our X340 was a late pre-production model so the final version may have a little less flex. Still, the X340's keyboard would have to be completely different to best the MacBook Air's. WINNER: MacBook Air. A solid, comfortable keyboard is conducive to a pleasurable typing experience. Display The MacBook Air and X340 both offer similar-size, LED displays (13.4 vs. 13.3), but MSI's machine serves up a 16:9 resolution at 1,366 x 768 pixels (the Air serves up a 16;10 1,280 x 800). Both screens kicked back too many reflections when viewing Web pages with dark backgrounds, but the X340 better replicated skin tones and demonstrated deeper color saturation when we watched Hulu clips. WINNER: MSI X340. The sharper colors and slightly crisper visuals one-upped the Apple MacBook Air.

Performance When it comes to raw processing and graphics performance, the Air has a huge advantage, given its 1.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU (with 256MB of memory). The X340, with its 1.4-GHz Core 2 Solo  ULV processor and integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics, was designed to offer decent productivty performance and battery life. To do an apples-to-apples comparison between the Mac OS-based Air and the Vista-based X340, we installed Vista (via Boot Camp)  on the MacBook and ran both systems through a couple of popular performance benchmarks. On PCMark Vantage, which measures overall system performance, the Air scored a whopping 3,684 compared to the X340's 1,658. On 3DMark06, which measures graphics performance alone, the Air notched 1,385 to the X340's 643. WINNER: The MacBook Air, by a mile. Clearly, these two systems are not in the same class when comes to processing power and graphics. However, the X340 was more than adequate for common tasks like surfing the Web, sending e-mail, writing documents in Word, or watching 720p video. Battery Life Battery life is a notebook essential that we can all agree is vital, especially in the ultraportable category, as the systems are designed to be toted around town and from office to office. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air dropped the ball here, big time. Our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi) revealed a scant 2 hours and 8 minutes of battery life. The X340's endurance, however, was 1 hour and 30 minutes longer, at 3:38, which gives you additional time to work on documents, check e-mail, and watch YouTube clips. For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that the Air's CPU and GPU  offer more computing punch and thus user power juice than the MSI's processor and graphics card. WINNER: MSI X340.  The Air may have better performance, but these are both meant to be ultraportable systems, not high-end workstations. You can't be too mobile when you only get two measly hours of battery life. Value and Verdict The MacBook Air certainly offers a lot of power given its svelte design; our $2,499 configuration includes a 1.86-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics (with 256MB of memory), 2GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive. A lower-priced model is available for $1,799, which offers a 1.6-GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and the same graphics chip but a slower, 4,200-rpm 120GB HDD. Conversely, X340 is nearly as good a performer but is far more wallet-friendly at $899 -- $900 less than the Air's lower-end configuration. The system houses a 1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500 UL3V processor, 2GB of RAM, 320GB, and 5,400-rpm hard drive. It's build quality and keyboard aren't as good as the Air, but these are trade-offs we think many consumers will be willing to make. Some may be turned off, however, by MSI's limited tech support hours. Ultimately, selecting a champion in this contest can be tricky, particularly if you favor either the Mac OS X or Windows Vista operating system. But in terms of usability and bang for the buck, the X340 offers a similarly slim design with more easily accessible ports and better battery life for considerably less money.

MSI X340MacBook Air
Price$899$1799 - $2,499
Weight2.9 Pounds3.0 Pounds
Size13 x 8.8 x 0.8 inches12.8 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches
Ports2 USB, Ethernet, HDMI, Modem, VGA, headphone, microphone, card reader1 USB, headphone, Mini-DisplayPort
Display13.4-inch 1366x76813.3-inch 1280x800
CPU1.4-GHz Core 2 Solo SU35001.6 / 1.8-GHz Core 2 Duo
Storage320GB 5,400 rpm HDD120GB 4,200 rpm HDD / 128GB SSD
PCMark Vantage1,6583,684
3DMark066431,385
Battery Life (hours)3:382:08