The fervour surrounding netbooks seems to be abating, as tablets rear their heads and fight for the same space, a middle space, between the phone and the laptop proper. When we think of a netbook, the MSI Wind always comes to mind and here we see the latest iteration of the device, the U160.
It comes with typical specs for the current generation of netbooks: you'll find an 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 processor with 1GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive. It runs Windows 7 Starter edition and features a 10.1-inch screen. Nothing here really makes you sit up and take note: there are many options out there for this type of portable notebook.
It measures 265 x 165 x 19.8mm, swelling to 39mm at the rear with the addition of the 6-cell battery. This also takes the weight up to 1.2kg.
MSI have revised the design from previous Winds, so we now have an edgier design, with a central barrel running across the back incorporating the bump of the battery and the screen hinge, with the power button neatly slipping down onto the right-hand end of this barrel. It's a shame the power supply doesn’t plug into the other end which would have been really tidy - instead it connects halfway down the left-hand side. It looks like a design that found inspiration in some of Sony's recent models, but it is a good look overall.
The lid, incorporating the 1024 x 600 pixel resolution display, is slim, but ridged enough to let you open and close without bending the screen. Protection to the rear is a little light however, and the screen will easily distort if you apply any pressure on the outside - we'd recommend a protective case if you are planning to throw this in a bag with anything with hard edges.
The MSI Wind U160 is finished in glossy plastics, so if fingerprints concern you then you'll be forever polishing this little number. However, the backlit MSI logo on the lid and the deep black colouration has a metallic sheen to it, so it looks good too.
The 6-cell battery takes on a double bulge, one fitting into that gap between the hinges at the rear, as mentioned above, the second bulge dropping down below mening the rear of the netbook is raised approximately 15mm, so the keyboard falls under your fingers at an angle.
Whilst on the battery, MSI's biggest claim with the U160 is the 15 hours of battery life. These sorts of numbers have been bandied around with the latest generation of netbooks and it’s a welcome change from the 3-hours-at-a-push from models a couple of years ago. Like before, the MSI Wind features an "eco" mode found on the F10 button which toggles through various power modes. The top is ambitiously called "gaming mode" then cycling through movie mode, presentation mode, office mode and finally turbo battery mode.
Getting 15 hours might be a bit of a stretch, but we did manage to get in excess of 8 hours from it carrying out normal tasks, which is impressive. To get closer to the maximum you'll have to engage the turbo battery and then essentially sit and peer into the gloomy screen and do as little as possible.
As an Intel Atom netbook it won't venture into the worlds of heavy 3D gaming or HD video playback. We found the SD playback was fine, but it struggles with HD material online or from a local source, quickly dropping frames. This is standard for a netbook and shouldn't be a cause for concern - it will handle your light office and online tasks with ease. If you want better graphics performance, you need to seek out a netbook with an Nvidia ION chipset, but you'll pay a premium for it.
We like the isolated chiclet keyboard but we also know it is not to all tastes. We found the response from the keys to be good, although there is a distinct bounce when typing on the left side of the keyboard, suggesting it isn't supported well enough in this area. The raised rear makes for comfortable typing on the move and we found it to be good for the sorts of short typing stints that you typically do on a netbook.
There is a lot crammed into the keyboard which runs from edge to edge. For the most part the keys are of a reasonable size, with usable number keys. The Fn keys do get a little smaller, but we're happy that ctrl and del sit right in the corner so are easy to find. Fn shortcuts are liberally plastered all over the place, making it easy enough to change the screen brightness, volume or toggle Bluetooth. Our only gripe is the small right-hand shift key which takes some getting used to - we were regularly pressing the cursor up instead.
In terms of physical connections you again get a standard offering of VGA for an external monitor or projector, 3x USB 2.0 slots, an SD card reader, mic and headphone sockets and an Ethernet connection. Wireless connectivity comes in the form of Wi-Fi b/g/n and (optional) Bluetooth. Conveniently there is a toggle switch for Wi-Fi so it is easily disabled to save battery life.
Although the screen doesn’t give you a resolution boost, it is fitting for the size of the screen, making Windows 7 easy enough to use. It is LED backlit and as we've said, it is reasonably bright, but it does have a glossy finish to the screen. This makes the colours nice and vibrant when watching movies in darkened conditions, but does mean you have to deal with reflections when working on the move.
The trackpad has been seamlessly integrated into the body and has a dimpled finish that helps distinguish it from the surroundings, but does make it feel rather odd. As with most netbooks, the size is limited, leading to tedious navigation - a small mouse will give you a much better experience. There are no scroll sections or anything else either, but the single chrome-look button beneath it gave a good response.
If there is one particular failing that the MSI Wind U160 has as a netbook, it is that it only comes with 1GB RAM, meaning you'll be wanting to upgrade almost as soon as you get it home (about £30). Otherwise there is little on offer to differentiate the MSI Wind U160 from other netbook rivals.
But at the same time the Wind U160 doesn't do anything wrong. There are cheaper netbooks that offer almost identical performance if budget is a concern, but in a category where everything is much of a muchness, the long battery life and interesting design might appeal.