25 July 2008

A quick review of the MSI Wind

The demands I place on my portable devices aren't great. I generally use them for the odd bit of word processing or spreadsheet data entry, and if I am particularly adventurous, might also read emails or surf a bit of the web. That is why until now I have been quite content with my combination of an old handheld PC and an old XP notebook. Then the MSI Wind came along, and it met my needs for a lightweight, relatively powerful and suitably cheap computer, and I rushed out (or actually, logged on) and bought it.

As a portable device the Wind in its Advent 4211 incarnation is a small and light notebook. It feels about the same weight as my MobilePro 900C, and much lighter than my Fujitsu Lifebook P2120. As it happens, the Wind is significantly thinner than the Lifebook (it lacks an optical drive after all) but still deeper than the MobilePro, so the latter still wins on size. However, I never really understood the point of laptops smaller than this because, to me at least, the reduction in usability is not made up for by the gain in portability. After all, unless the computer is the size of a mobile phone you still have to carry a bag to put it into.

The most major advantage of the MobilePro is that it boots instantaneously; it is, after all, running an embedded operating system. In contrast, the Lifebook with its 800MHz Transmeta Crusoe processor used to take nearly five or six minutes to boot up into XP! So my usage patterns of the two devices varied. When I am out and about, but with access to a regular desktop I'd carry the H/PC, but when I was travelling it was the notebook which would go with me.

To be honest, I hardly ever do a cold reboot on my XP systems anyway, preferring to hibernate over shutting down. The Lifebook could just about do it, but a wake up would still take a couple of minutes, so it was still frustrating and nowhere near as convenient as the H/PC. Thankfully, the Wind is running Intel's new Atom processor and has a healthy 1GB of RAM. That means that it does boot up quickly, and it takes a very tolerable 15 seconds to go from hibernate to a useable desktop. The processor and RAM combination means that once you are booted up, there is just so much more you can do.

I like to configure my desktops (one I use for sound/ video editing and website management, and one which I use as an HTPC) with Rocket Dock, Yahoo! Widgets and a Vista-esque skin with transparency, animation and drop shadows. Until now I could never ever dream of doing that with the Lifebook without it being crushed. In contrast, the Wind desktop looks and behaves exactly like my desktop. In itself, this is just eye candy, but it reflects how well the system is able to cope with multitasking and processor intensive activities. Until now, for instance, I would never have been able to reencode a video using Super which simultaneously watching a show on BBC iPlayer on my laptop, but this is handled with aplomb on the Wind.

The main purpose of the MSI Wind is as an internet connected device, and this it handles very well. For one thing, the all-important wireless connections of Bluetooth and WiFi are built-in which means none of the nasty PCMCIA cards/ USB dongles of my former two devices . I’m using Firefox 3, and it handles the Silverlight-based ITV catch up website with no problems at all. Flash videos play as well on the netbook as well as on my HTPC. Better yet, the built-in webcam means that I can Skype/Windows Live Messenger my parents and friends on the other side of the globe wherever I am. This is not, I hasten to add, always a good thing. None of these are things which I could ever do on my MobilePro, and only with great difficulty on my Lifebook. It does not have any GSM/3G technology built-in, but internet connection sharing using my phone is not a problem. This means access to the web is feasible even when I am away from WiFi.

I realize that I am making the MSI Wind sound totally wonderful, and there is no doubt that it has almost supplanted the MobilePro 900c and the Lifebook P2120 as my portable device of choice, but it is not all a bed of roses. My first and most major complaint is the battery life. Now I admit that all those wireless radios do suck up the juice, but I would expect more than 2 hours on a screen at half brightness with wireless off. With wireless on I am barely eking out 90 minutes of uptime. On my Lifebook I was probably doing no better, and in fact the productive time was probably less as I waited for the processor to grind through things, but with the 900c I was easily getting four hours and more on a full charge.

Secondly, unlike the Lifebook, there are no hardware quick launch buttons. I have taken for granted the ability to launch Firefox with a single button press, and while launching a program from the dock is not a huge hassle, it is less convenient.

Thirdly, the MSI Wind has a track pad. I am well aware that users fall into two different groups as far as track pads and pointer nipples go, but I am very much a fan of the nipple (oh ho ho!) as it is implemented on the Lifebook. The Lifebook also has the all important third mouse button which enables opening of links in new tab in the web browser. I’ve still not figured how to do this in a convenient way on the Wind. The 900c is even better in that it has a touch screen and, apart from price, it baffles me as to why this was not incorporated into the Wind.

Fourthly, the built-in speakers are very feeble. I can understand that they decided not to put it under the palm rests. This is an annoyance for me on the Lifebook in that you are always covering the speakers with your hands while typing. But the fact that they are on top means that the sound passes through unobstructed and the Lifebook actually doubles up as a pretty good DVD player. There is no optical drive in the MSI Wind, but to be honest, I rarely used it in the Lifebook, and if I really need it I can use a virtual one with Virtual Daemon Manager, or if pushed, use an actual USB external drive.

Many reviews I have read on-line go on about how wonderful and spacious the keyboard is on the Wind; it certainly is when compared with the EeePC, its closest competitor, but is about the same size as the keyboard on the Lifebook and the 900c. But size really isn’t everything, and the keyboard on the wind has a very solid feel to it, with very good key travel. I can type without problems on it, and it beats the fragile feel of the Lifebook keyboard hands down. With the Lifebook it feels like you could mistype, jab your fingers under a key and pop it off all too easily.

So, all in all, I think I am really enjoying my new gadget. It has finally supplanted my duo of a Handheld PC and a subnotebook, in a convenient, attractive and inexpensive package. I’m very pleased with it!

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