When MSI introduced its svelte X-Slim series last year, it seemed as if the line of super skinny notebooks was built of equal parts potential and disappointment. The 13.4-inch X340, for example, had attractive slim lines, but suffered from a mediocre keyboard and weak single-core performance. What a difference a year makes: the dual-core, $899 MSI X350 offers stronger performance than its predecessor, and includes a responsive keyboard, comfortable touchpad, and one of the most stylish decks we've seen on a notebook. This ultraportable doesn't have the power of some heavier 13-inch notebooks, but overall it's a solid choice for those who want to travel light.
At 8.8 x 13 inches with a thickness ranging from 0.3 to 0.8 inches at its thickest point, the MSI X350 has one of the slimmest profiles you'll find in any notebook. The eight-cell battery gives the back bottom a little bump, and the machine has a total weight of 3.8 pounds, making it a little heavier than competitors such as the 3-pound MacBook Air. However, the additional weight is worth the significant increase in battery life (more on that below).
Like its predecessor, the X350 comes in a sleek shade of black. Its glossy lid sports a subtle grey honeycomb pattern that looks very refined, but picks up fingerprints. The X350's unique deck is the star of the show, featuring a raised honeycomb texture that feels rubber-like to the touch. Combining this deck with the sleek island keyboard, chrome trim, and smooth black touchpad results in a high-class look. The X350 appears equally at home in the boardroom, the dorm room, and the trendy coffee shop.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The MSI X350's large island-style keyboard is one of the most comfortable and responsive we've tested. After just a few minutes of using the notebook, we managed to get a score of 92 words per minute on the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test, 12 wpm above our typical 80-wpm score and a new personal best for this reviewer. We found the 4-inch-long palm rest a comfortable place to put our big wrists, but those with particularly short arms and fingers may find themselves stretching a little to get to the keys. Our only gripe is that some keys are undersized, including the right Shift, Enter, and Backspace keys.
The large, 3.5 x 2-inch touchpad on the X350 has a comfortable black surface that gave us plenty of room to navigate around the desktop with accuracy. It also supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom; the Sentelic driver software that comes pre-installed gave us very fine control over the pad's sensitivity and various multitouch gestures. Because the touchpad is so large and does not have palm rejection capabilities, we initially had a problem with moving the pointer while we were typing. However, after we turned on the touchpad's typing detection, our problems were solved. While we always prefer discrete mouse pad buttons to a single bar, the X350's single bar offered decent tactile feedback and was not too stiff.
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Most of the key touchpoints on the X350 stayed pleasantly cool throughout our testing. Even after 15 minutes of streaming a Hulu video at full screen, the keyboard measured only 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the center bottom measured a mere 93 degrees, and the touchpad was a reasonable 94 degrees. However, there was a significant warm spot in the lower left corner of the notebook that reached a more severe 104 degrees. The left palm rest also reached a somewhat high 102 degrees, though the soft plastic kept our wrists from feeling too uncomfortable.
Ports and Webcam
Despite its svelte frame, the X350 has a reasonable collection of ports. On the left side is a VGA port, HDMI out, an Ethernet jack, and a 2-in-1 memory card reader. On the right side sits the only two USB ports and two audio jacks. While most notebooks today have at least three USB connections, we can't remember a time when we needed all three at once; most users probably won't notice.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam managed to take detailed images in low light, but they were pixelated and dull. When talking over Skype from our dim living room, images were nearly devoid of color.
Display and Sound
Click to enlargeThe MSI X350's 13.4-inch 1366 x 768 glossy screen offered generally sharp images and bright colors. The notebook's 1.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU and integrated Intel GMA 4500 graphics handled all kinds of high-definition video with aplomb. Whether we were watching a downloaded 1080p WMV from Microsoft's HD Showcase or streaming a 720p episode of Fringe from Fox.com, playback was smooth, sharp, and free of visual noise. Viewing angles were solid up to 45 degrees to the left or right, though video colors started to wash out as we moved close to 90 degrees.
The X350's speakers provided loud but less-than-stellar audio. When listening to both a metal tune, "Epic" by Faith No More, and a jazz standard, "Morning Dance" by Spyro Gyra, the sound output was tinny and unpleasant. However, at maximum volume, the X350 was definitely loud enough to fill a room.
The MSI X350's 1.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU, integrated Intel GMA 4500 graphics, and 5,400-rpm hard drive won't set any speed records, but they offer more than adequate performance for everyday tasks, from watching high-def videos to surfing the web, transcoding video, and navigating the globe in Google Earth. However, several larger and heavier 13-inch notebooks in the same price range carry more powerful processors that turned in stronger results.
On PCMark Vantage, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the X350 scored 2,631, which is nearly 1,000 points better than last year's single-core MSI X340, but 600 points below the ultraportable category average. The 4.8-pound ASUS U30Jc-1A ($879), which costs $20 less than the X350 and sports a 2.26-GHz Intel Core i3 CPU, scored a massive 5,334. And the 4.8-pound Apple MacBook ($999) managed an impressive 4,259 as well.
The MSI X350's 5,400-rpm, 500GB Toshiba hard drive booted into Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit) in a mediocre 64 seconds, 5 seconds slower than the category average. Perhaps part of the problem is the 14 seconds of BIOS POST time that takes place before Windows even starts loading.
The X350's hard drive took 3 minutes and 58 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Transfer Test, in which we copy 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 21.4 MBps, which is a little slower than the category average of 25.3 MBps, but still faster than some of its competitors. The U30Jc-1A managed only 20.9 MBps and, when running Windows 7 via Boot Camp, the MacBook was even slower at 19.6 MBps.
The X350 took 1 minute and 52 seconds to transcode a 114MB MPEG-4 video to AVI format using Oxelon Media Encoder. That's 15 seconds faster than the category average of 2 minutes and 7 seconds. However, the U30Jc-1A finished in only 1 minute and 12 seconds, while the MacBook took only 1 minute and 7 seconds.
While its integrated Intel GMA 4500 graphics aren't powerful enough for the latest games, the X350 is more than capable of playing high-def videos and flying around in Google Earth. On 3DMark06, a benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the X350 scored only 699, far less than the category average of 1,067 and miles behind the U30Jc-1A (3,711) and Apple MacBook (4,778).
When playing World of Warcraft at 1024 x 768 resolution with special effects on default, the X350 managed only 22 frames per second, way below the category average of 35 fps and pretty much unplayable. That rate dropped to a slideshow-like 6 fps when we raised the resolution to 1366 x 768 and effects to max.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
Click to enlargeThe MSI X350's low-voltage CPU and eight-cell battery allowed it to last a strong 7 hours and 5 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi. That time is an hour and a half longer than the category average, and about on par with the U30Jc-1A (7:07) and MacBook (7:22). The older MSI X340 with an eight-cell battery lasted an even longer 8:48, but that system had a single-core CPU.
The X350's Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11a/g/n radio managed reasonable transfer rates of 29.9 Mbps and 26.8 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet from our router, respectively. The U30Jc-1a had a stronger 15-foot rate (39.8 Mbps) but was weaker at the 50-foot distance (21.4 Mbps).
Software and Warranty
The X350 houses 4GB of RAM, but inexplicably comes with the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium installed. As you may know, 32-bit Windows cannot even utilize an entire 4GB of system memory. By using 32-bit rather than 64-bit Windows, the system only recongizes about 3GB of RAM.
MSI includes a few modest utilities on the X350. The most visible of these is the S-bar, a dock that sits by default at the bottom of the screen and houses shortcut icons for your favorite programs. Though the S-bar is highly configurable and even has switchable profiles for different groups of programs you choose (like Entertainment or Tools), we found it a waste of space and system resources compared to Windows 7's task bar.
Other utilities include MSI Easy Viewer, which we like because it provides a more attractive photo gallery function than the one that's built into Windows. Its snazzy UI reminds us of Google Android 2.1's photo gallery for smart phones. MSI EasyFace logins provide facial recognition, and MSI BurnRecovery allows you to create a system restore disc. Arcsoft WebCam Companion allows you to take photos or videos with the webcam.
MSI provides a lengthy three-year limited warranty with the X350. Unfortunately, the company offers phone support only from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (EST) on weekdays. To see how MSI did in our latest Tech Support Showdown, click here.
At first blush, the $899 ($999 MSRP) MSI X350 seems rather expensive by today's standards, particularly when you compare it to faster competitors such as the Apple MacBook or the ASUS U30Jc-1A. However, for its premium price, MSI provides a notebook that's easier to carry. We also appreciate the comfortable keyboard and long battery life. Though we wish the MSI X350 achieved better performance and included 64-bit Windows, this fashion-forward ultraportable is a strong contender. If you crave more speed, hold out for the X360, which will feature a Core i5 processor.