Monday, December 15, 2008

MSI Wind Netbook Review

I bought an MSI Wind U100-420US netbook at Microcenter just before Thanksgiving. They had it on sale for $299; their regular price is $349. My intended uses for the box include ham radio programming, PSK-31 once I get my General Class license, and portable computing when I don't feel like schlepping around my 15" MacBook Pro. It will also fill a role as a commo and navigation box in the event of an emergency and we need to evacuate.

The Wind hardware is pretty slick. Mine has a black case but it's also available in white, pink, and a "Love Edition" which is white with hearts on it. (Barf.) It weighs 2.6 lbs., came with a 120 GB hard disk, 1 GB of RAM, and a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPU. It has 802.11g wifi, a 10/100 Ethernet port, a 56k modem, A/V input/output, VGA out, 3 USB ports, and a card reader. I bumped the RAM to the maximum supported, 2 GB (a Kingston 1 gig stick was $13.99 + free shipping from NewEgg). The keyboard is good for the size of the unit, just a bit cramped. A few months ago I had the chance to play with a 7.5" Asus Eee PC 4G which while handier, is much harder to type on. Also, the 10" 1024x600 screen of the MSI is much better for web browsing. Based on using the Wind I've decided that it's as small as I want to go. To demonstrate how small the Wind is, I've posted some pics of it along with my 12" G4 iBook and my copy of Black's Law Dictionary here .

By pressing Fn-F10 you can put the Wind into "Turbo mode." Contrary to what you might think, this actually underclocks the CPU to 800 MHz, to save battery power. Similarly, you can enable or disable the wifi radio to save power by pressing Fn-F11. In fact, wifi was disabled out of the box and it took me a little while to figure this out, which was annoying. For some reason, I had to reenable wifi after I upgraded the RAM.

The Wind came with XP Home SP3 and was surprisingly free of crapware, unlike most consumer PCs. While I prefer OS X or Linux, I'm leaving XP on it so I can run a few Windows programs. Specifically, the two apps to program my ham radios -- FTB7800 from G4FHQ and ADMS-1E from RT Systems -- require Windows and I had problems getting them working properly in a Pareallels Desktop VM on OS X (mainly due to the need to use a USB-to-RS232 adapter). Aside from those apps I spend the bulk of my time in a web browser, so the OS is just in the background. And like it or not, having a copy of Internet Explorer is sometimes useful when dealing with web sites designed by clueless webmasters who don't abide by Internet standards. I am leaving it at IE6, as I don't want the performance hit incurred when loading IE7.

Another Windows app I'm using is MS MapPoint 2009. Although I have a GPS in my truck, and can take it with me if I have a rental car, MapPoint provides me with more advanced mapping capabilities, including finding nearby restaurants or other businesses while traveling. Since MapPoint includes maps for the entire continental US in its highly compressed database, it's useful even without an Internet connection. (MS Streets and Trips would provide the functionality I need, but I got MapPoint through our MSDN subscription.) However, if I'm in a Verizon area, I can connect the Wind to my Blackberry and get online using Verizon's EVDO network, with DSL-like speeds.

I've been running the Google Chrome web browser on the Wind, with the "phone-home" features disabled. (I confirmed it wasn't sending data back to Google home by running a packet trace using Wireshark.) Chrome is very fast and can be configured with minimal toolbars to make best use of the Wind's small 10" screen.

Upgrading the RAM involved removing 9 screws and pop off the bottom half of the case. Doing so requires you to punch through a sticker warning you that by opening the case you're voiding the warranty. Before I did this I googled and found several references to MSI NOT voiding the warranty if all you're doing is upgrading the RAM, and possible the hard disk. Both the RAM slot and the hard disk are easily accessible with the case open.

A 1.3 megapixel webcam is positioned in the bezel at 12 o'clock. Picture quality is about what I'd expect for such a webcam (not very good), but it'll be good enough for use with Skype if I'm traveling. My kids will be able to recognize Daddy. There's also a microphone for use with messenger programs, and of course a couple of speakers. The mic and speakers worked OK during a test phone call made with Skype. The speakers really aren't adequate for listening to music but the sound when using external headphones is fine, so the sound card is decent.

MSI's standard software load for the Wind includes a Bluetooth manager, even on Winds like mine which ship with no Bluetooth module. With the case open the slot to connect a Bluetooth module is accessible, so I may add one if I can do so cheaply, though I have no pressing need for it. The software load also includes Ulead disc burning software which will come in handy if I connect an external burner. I have an unused Plextor dual layer DVD-RW drive in an old PC which could fill the bill, using a USB-to IDE adapter that I have. (This is OK for home use but would be clumsy for travel.) MSI also installed a full version of WinRAR, which aside from being useful for dealing with compressed archives can also open .ISO disc images.

Out of the box the hard disk was divided into a 40 GB C: drive labelled "OS_Install," a small hidden restore partition, and the remainder as D:. I will be keeping my data on D: so that in the event I need to reinstall the OS, I shouldn't need to restore my data. Among the data I'll keep on the box will be a backup copy of the TrueCrypt volume storing all my important stuff on my MacBook Pro, various USGS topo maps, reference materials including a copy of FM 21-76, a first aid manual, and other documents which would be useful in an emergency. For more on the usefulness of a laptop in an emergency situation, check out Shane S's excellent site, Listening to Katrina  .

Other software I've installed includes MS Word and Excel 2007, 3.0, Wireshark for packet sniffing, VLC, AVG antivirus, Ad Aware,'s anti-malware hosts file, CCleaner, Verizon's connection manager, Firefox 3, Opera 9, Pidgin, Skype, and TrueCrypt. Keeping in mind the travel uses for the box, I've also downloaded some USGS topographical maps for my local area, along with others to which I travel, in PDF format.

The Wind did not come with any kind of a carrying case, so along with it I bought a Case Logic netbook sleeve made of neoprene. This will provide some cushioning when it's carried inside of my pack.

So far the only thing I'm dissatisfied with is battery life. It has a 3 cell battery so it only lasts about 1.5 - 2 hours before needing to be plugged into A/C. This is barely adequate for around the house use, much less while traveling, in the field, or during a disaster. I'm therefore looking at getting a 6 cell or 9 cell battery. (Performance in the battery saving Turbo mode is noticeably slower than when the unit is running at full speed, so I haven't tested it to see how much it will extend battery life.)

Aside from the short battery life the MSI Wind is a great little PC. It makes a nice secondary computer for desktop PC owners or those with large "desktop replacement" laptops looking for a machine that's easier to tote around.

Edit:  Well, this afternoon I hit Amazon and ordered a 9-cell battery for the Wind.  It'll be shipped from an Amazon affiliate, Battery1Inc, and I should get it before Christmas.  I'll post a follow up once it arrives.

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