Business netbooks: IT revolution or contradiction in terms?

InfoWorld sifts the wheat from the chaff in the current crop of enterprise-oriented netbooks

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MSI Wind U123

MicroStar International (MSI) is another in a growing list of Asian PC parts manufacturers that jumped on the system building bandwagon in an effort to cash in on the netbook craze. Like Asus, MSI has always been better known as a source for the components you put into your PC than for the PC itself. However, unlike its trailblazing neighbor, MSI seems content to focus on no-frills solutions that trade homogeneity for attractive price points.

Case in point: The MSI Wind U123, which as netbooks go is as bland as they come. Sporting the most common specifications -- Atom 280 CPU (1.66GHz), 1GB of DDR-2 RAM, 160GB hard disk, 10.2-inch screen -- the U123 is the very definition of a generic netbook. And this is the general idea: MSI isn't trying to reinvent the wheel with the U123. Rather, the goal seems to be to capitalize on the pent-up demand for a low-cost solution that incorporates the best of the first-generation Atom CPU platform.

[ Business-class netbooks are blurring the distinction between consumer-oriented toys and the traditional corporate laptop. See "When does a netbook stop being a netbook?" ]

On that point, MSI succeeds admirably. With the Wind U123, MSI manages to squeeze a solid if basic netbook configuration into a reasonably sturdy, serviceable package with a price well under $400. This makes the Wind U123 an attractive option for IT shops seeking to maximize their netbook purchasing dollars. However, when viewed in light of the much more IT-friendly HP Mini 2140, the MSI's deficiencies as a business netbook become more apparent.

For starters, the Wind U123 has no ExpressCard slot or free-fall sensor; the HP, in contrast, has an ExpressCard 54 slot and 3D DriveGuard. The unit also features a 10/100 LAN adapter (it's GbE in the HP), and the wireless card is limited to 802.11b/g (again, the HP has a/b/g and draft-n). And while it's hard to fault MSI for using the ubiquitous 1,024-by-600-resolution LCD panel -- both the ASUS N10Jc and the Acer Aspire One feature the same display resolution -- it's still difficult to ignore the loss of screen real estate when moving over from the HP Mini.

One area where I can find fault is with MSI's build quality. Simply put, the Wind U123 is not well put together. The chassis is a study in the evils of injection-molded plastic, while the keyboard is reminiscent of the first-generation Eee PC: cramped, with an awkward layout that includes the inevitable shortened right Shift key violation. (Hint: Next time hire a touch typist to test your design.) And in a page straight out of the low-budget Chinese toy factory playbook, the Wind U123 sports what has to be the worst track pad buttons I've ever had the displeasure of using. Cheap feeling and hard to depress, they make working with a click-happy UI like Windows Vista a real chore.

Fortunately, the Wind U123 redeemed itself a bit during OfficeBench testing. Its completion time of 118 seconds placed it a few seconds ahead of the Asus N10Jc, and its battery life of nearly 7 hours on a six-cell (87 watt) charge led the roundup. However, the MSI unit fell behind the Asus once we enabled the more expensive machine's discrete Nvidia graphics. Still, the fact that the Wind U123 was able to keep pace with a system costing more than twice as much is a credit to the MSI engineers. MSI seems to have gotten the basics right with the Wind U123, as evidenced by its competitive showing versus the more powerful N10Jc, though neither unit can match the HP's pace of 113 seconds.

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