If you like the idea of a netbook but want something with a bigger screen and a little more oomph, consider the MSI Wind12 U210. This 12-inch ultraportable ($479, but available for $429 online) contains AMD's Athlon Neo processor, twice as much RAM as a netbook, and a larger hard drive. You have to sacrifice some endurance for this extra pep, and notebooks equipped with Intel's CULV processor tend to offer better performance, but overall the Wind U120 offers a decent combination of power and portability for a reasonable price.
Although the U210 isn't MSI's first notebook to rock an ultra low voltage processor, its design is a departure from the comapny's X Series laptops. While these systems have modern-looking island keyboards, with contrasting glossy black or white palm rests, the U210 has a more understated look: a glossy gray lid and deck with black matte, traditionally laid-out keyboard.
Aside from the glossy finish, one thing that keeps the U210 looking current, nevertheless, is that although the keys are close together, they have a flat surface and a shallow pitch, a far cry from more dated, pillow-shaped keys. Another subtle detail: the 12-inch screen's bezel is thin--just under half an inch on either side--leaving plenty of screen real estate.
At 11.7 x 7.5 x 1.2 inches the U210 is easy to hold in one hand. While we like that the six-cell battery is flush with the system (that is to say, it isn't jut out of the back) it does create a bump in the flat bottom surface, which makes it feel a tad bulky; still, this machine is easy to carry.
Keyboard and Touchpad
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Whether island or close together, flat or pillowy, all that matters is that this keyboard is comfortable to type on. Although the keys aren't as sturdy as the metal ones on the Toshiba mini NB205, the keyboard on the U120 still didn't show much flex as we pounded out e-mails and Word documents, a complaint we often have with plastic keyboards. We only wish it were slightly quieter.
MSI made good use of the 11.3-inch wide keyboard deck, leaving almost no blank space at either end of the chassis. Although the right Shift key is slightly undersized compared to the left one, it's to the left of 3 out of the four arrow keys, at least, and the rest of the keys are so large that we hardly made any typos. In the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, which we regularly use to gauge our typing accuracy on notebooks, we scored 86 words per minute, which isn't bad at all, but not as good as the 88 words per minute we managed on our desktop keyboard.
The touchpad has a slightly textured feel, which makes it easy to use. It's on the small side, at 2.5 x 1.8 inches, but since there are no touch features, such as a scroll strip, that's not a tragedy. The twin touch buttons are much too narrow, but they are easy to press and don't make much noise.
Display and Sound
The U210's 12.1-inch screen is remarkably bright, and its 1366 x 768 resolution ideal for watching HD video. For simple tasks, though, such as Web surfing and word processing, you might find yourself squinting; while this resolution is standard for slightly larger models, such as 13-inchers, it makes text look a bit too small on a screen this size.
In general, we weren't too impressed with the quality of the speakers--but then again, we rarely are on systems this size. Music videos and YouTube videos both sounded tinny, but at least when we watched some movie clips the volume was loud enough to fill a small room.
Ports and Webcam
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The U210, like other inexpensive ultraportables and 12-inch netbooks, lacks an optical drive. Moreover, it's just as prone to overheating: after an hour and a half of Web surfing and word processing, the vent, on the notebook's left side, was hot to the touch (we measured temperatures between 99 and 112 degrees).
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The notebook has a strong selection of ports including, most notably, HDMI output. It also has a VGA port for standard definition monitors, as well as three USB ports, an Ethernet jack, Kensington lock slot, headphone and mic ports, and 4-in-1 memory card reader.
The webcam produced pallid image quality, regardless of whether we took 5-MP photos or VGA video (the highest video resolution available. Although the video was smooth, we noticed some motion blur as we moved around. The sound was pretty weak.
The ArcSoft WebCam Companion 3 software is a huge improvement over previous versions, which we've seen on other notebooks. Although this program used to have a crude interface, it now has a sleek UI with more special effects, namely the ability to don "masques" while chatting with friends.
As an affordable ultraportable--not quite a netbook, technically--the U210 has a 1.6-GHz AMD Athlon Neo CPU, 2GB of RAM (twice what you'd find on a netbook), and 32-bit Windows Vista Home Premium. Together, these components scored 1,423 on PCMark Vantage, a Vista benchmark. That's 1,300 points below the category average for ultraportables, but almost identical to the HP Pavilion dv2, which uses the same Athlon chip as the MSI. The Gateway LT3103u, another tweener 11.6-inch netbook (which uses a 1.2-GHz AMD Athlon 64 L110 CPU), scored 1,143 on the same test.
The U210's performance is just a shade under single-core ULV systems from Intel, such as the $699 MSI X340 (www.us.msi.com), which scored 1,658, but well below dual-core ULVs; the $799 ASUS UL30A (which has a 1.3-GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor), was 1,000 points higher. Meanwhile, the U210 scored 1,186 on Geekbench, which is higher than what we've seen netbooks achieve: the Toshiba mini NB205 (www.toshiba.com), for instance, scored just 904.
Moreover, it took 75 seconds to boot up, which is slow for a Vista notebook; we blame the bundled trial software (more on that later). However, the U210's 250GB 5,400 rpm hard drive (larger than the 160GB variety found on most netbooks) transferred a 4.97GB mixed media folder at a rate of 23.3 Mbps, which is speedy for any class of notebook.
For our simple needs, we found the U210's performance to be nearly flawless: we were easily able to work on a document in Microsoft Works (this comes bundled), download and install Google Earth, and navigate between four tabs in Internet Explorer 7, including refreshing our Twitter feed, watching Hulu and YouTube videos, and checking e-mail.
As for more intensive computing--something AMD's Neo platform doesn't claim to excel at--the U210 took 21:46 to transcode a five-minute-and-five second MP4 clip to AVI. That time is faster than the average netbook (29:48) but slower than the single-core ULV MSI X340 (18:12) and dual-core ULV ASUS UL30 (10:55). To be fair, both the MSI and ASUS are considerably more expensive.
Editor's Note: Although MSI lists the U210 as having an ATI Radeon Xpress 1250 GPU, our review unit came with a slightly better X1270 chip.
The U210's integrated ATI Radeon Xpress 1270 graphics card scored dismally on 3DMark06, a heavy-duty gaming benchmark (its score of 295 is 200 points above the netbook average, but 535 points below ultraportables). We noticed no delays while rapidly changing objects onscreen, whether that meant closing or minimizing windows, or opening new programs. However, the graphics card even choked on Google Earth; it took about 10 seconds to arrive at a location, and between 8 and 12 more to fully sharpen the maps, loading 3D buildings and points of interest.
We also tried playing HD video (both 720p and 1080p files) on the U210, and then exporting it to a 32-inch full HD Samsung television. While our 720p MPEG-4 files looked pretty smooth (with some delays and motion blur, mind you) the 1080p videos were slow enough that we can't see anyone electing to watch them on this notebook.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The U210's six-cell battery lasted 3:53 on the LAPTOP battery test, which falls an hour short of the ultraportable category average, not to mention between two and five hours short of a spate of stellar netbooks and ultra-low voltage systems. The $799 ASUS UL30A, which has an Intel ULV CPU (along with twice as much RAM), lasted 9:55 on the same test, while the ASUS Eee PC 1101HA, a $429 netbook, lasted 8:44. Indeed, while sitting with the U210 on our couch, we had only been Web surfing and word processing for about 70 minutes when we found the battery was down to 59 percent.
The good news is that this ultraportable delivers a strong Wi-Fi connection. The machine's 802.11b/g/n wireless radio delivered throughput of 22.6 Mbps and 18.5 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet respectively, which is above average for ultraportable systems.
Software and Warranty
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The U210 comes with a fair share of trial and bundled software, which might help explain the sluggish 75-second boot time out of the box. These programs include the aforementioned ArcSoft WebCam Companion 3 titles, a trial of Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Works, a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security, and the MSN Toolbar.
The U210 has a one-year warranty. Unfortunately, MSI doesn't offer 24/7 phone support; rather, agents are available to talk on the phone Monday through Friday, between 8am and 11pm EST.
At $479, the MSI Wind U210 is pretty good for the price. It's not as powerful or long lasting as more expensive ultraportables powered by Intel's ULV processors, but it's a viable option for someone who is willing to spend just a little bit more to get a bigger display and better performance than a netbook. Just be sure to remove some of that bundled software if you want a faster boot time.