MSI Wind U135 notebook review

We were impressed with MSI's original Wind, which captured exactly what a netbook was in 2008: it was compact, affordable, well enough made to withstand a few knocks and had pretty miserable battery life. Times have moved on and the netbook market has segmented into two streams: standard netbooks and those offering more advanced features notably sporting Nvidia's ION chipset and bringing with them a wider performance palette.

The U135 falls firmly into the former category, offering up a typical spec for a notebook. Internally it is running an Intel Atom N450 processor at 1.6GHz with 1GB RAM (expandable up to 2GB) and a 250GB hard drive. The Atom N450 is Intel's latest processor to make its way into netbooks, offering greater efficiency over the chips we saw last year. It doesn't bring with it any really noticeable gains in processing power, but is much more efficient, so you get longer battery life.

The U135 has a 10-inch LED backlit display, with a native resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels, which is typical for this type of netbook. Some will always complain about the resolution however, accepting the limitations of a small format notebook, we think it is good enough for most daily tasks on the move. You can hook the U135 up to a larger display using the VGA port when back at your desk. The screen has a glossy finish, so it can be prone to reflections. Brightness is easily adjusted using keyboard shortcuts, offering nine steps of brightness, again, fairly typical.

The design doesn't offer up any surprises (from the outside at least), with a subtle pin stripe-esque finish to the glossy lid. Glossy plastics are used throughout and it will be a matter of hours before it is covered with fingerprints. Although of a plastic construction it feels sturdy enough, as with previous Winds. The screen doesn't flex worryingly and you don't get any creaks when you get to work on it either. Although not showy, the U135 is sturdy. It weighs in at 1.25kg (with 6-cell battery) and measures 260 x 180mm and up to 44mm thick at the backend with the 6-cell battery in place.

The bottom sees rubber feet to stop it sliding around, two of which reside on the protrusion which the battery makes. This battery bulge also provides a bit of a tipping point, so if you are using the U135 on your lap and you tilt the screen too far back, you'll notice it wants to topple backwards. It's a common problem in notebooks that are small, where the screen constitutes a considerable proportion of the overall weight. That said, the nature of the hinges allows the screen to drop over the back of the body, saving vertical height making it particular adept in small spaces, like economy airline seats, or tray tables on trains.

Inside the U135 you'll find a keyboard that is close to the best around. It is an isolated/chiclet keyboard, which fills the scan of the base, making great use of space. The isolated keys are small, but we found that we were typing at speed with accuracy in no time at all. Despite the affordable price point, the keyboard response is excellent; the action of the keys it great, with a satisfying degree of travel and not offensively noisy. Some elements are welcomed, like the left-hand layout putting all the keys where you'd expect to find them on a regular keyboard, however, the right-hand shift is too small and is ill-placed, making it tricky to hit.

Function keys offer a range of shortcuts, with brightness and volume as you'd expect, as well as toggle to engage Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (if included, our review model doesn't have it). There is also an Eco shortcut, which didn't work on our review model, but in previous models it essentially flips you down to a more conservative power mode, throttling the processor and dimming the screen.

The battery life, like other netbooks of this generation, is impressive. This is thanks to that more efficient processor, but mostly due to the 6-cell battery. MSI are claiming 7.5hrs of battery life and we managed over 6hrs with normal but lightweight tasks - low-key web browsing on Wi-Fi and some word processing. Ask the U135 to do more and you'll see that lifespan plummet as you will with other netbooks of this ilk.

In performance the U135 behaves as you'd expect it to and doesn't differ from other netbooks offering up the same specs; the U135 ships running Windows 7 Starter Edition. It is fine for daily computing tasks and handles web-browsing and office tasks with ease. Video playback is fine for normal web video or SD material; 720p online video, YouTube HD for example, doesn't play acceptably. You can just about play 720p footage from a camcorder, but you will drop a lot of frames. If you plan to use your netbook to preview footage you've shot in HD, then you'll want to step-up to a machine that offers more on a graphical front, with the likes of an Nvidia ION chipset, accepting that it will cost you more money.

MSI are shouting about the trackpad in this edition of the Wind, claiming it to be 20% larger, offering greater control. We can't really say that it is any different from any other netbook trackpad. It is as big as it practically can be, with a button bar beneath offering left and right clicks. The button bar is finished in chrome and needs just a little too much of a press to confirm the action. The trackpad itself we found to be a little too sensitive, but you can easily disable it with a shortcut when typing if it is a problem and for best results, a USB mouse is better.

In terms of connectivity you get Wi-Fi b/g/n and Ethernet, with Bluetooth 2.1 as an option on some models. Three USB 2.0 are present, with two on the left and one on the right. A card reader offers SD, MMS, xD and MS support and 3.5mm headphone and microphone jack round out the physical ports. An embedded microphone sits in the screen bezel along with the 1.3-megapixel webcam.

The sound is surprisingly poor from the U135. It really lacks the rounded sound that bass brings and high tones come across as shrill. You'll have to crank the volume up to hear dialogue in movies, with distortion being a problem. It's fine for system sounds, but beyond that, we'd recommend using a headset.

Ventilation takes up most of the left side of the chassis and although we could feel a constant draft, we never found it to be running hot or getting excessively noisy - another advantage of the new Atom N450 is that it performs much better thermally than older Atom processors.

Verdict

Using the MSI Wind U135 is a pleasure when it comes to typing, except for the irritation of that small right-hand shift key - we often found we hit the neighbouring up arrow, moving the cursor into the line above when typing. Still, we otherwise appreciate the quality of the keyboard given that this is a relatively affordable device. Poor sound is a bit of a surprise, detracting from what are otherwise fairly typical specs for a standard netbook.

The MSI Wind U135 isn't just a new netbook, it's a celebration of the Wind's success since its launch. The box shouts that this is the Wind 1,000,000 Special Edition, with the tagline "one million dazzling stars". Is the Wind U135 a star? It's certainly a nice netbook to use. It might not have the svelte lines of the likes of the Asus Seashell models, but we like the solid constuction and the feel of the keyboard. It's not without niggles, but in a market which offers comparable performance across a number of devices, we'd recommend that you take a look at the U135.