MSI Wind U123 Review

The MSI Wind U123 is yet another 10” iteration of the MSI Wind netbook range. Apart from the original U100 release, the subsequent release of the U120 has failed to impress. The U120 isn’t much of an improvement and in fact is limited to 1GB of RAM and still has the same old Atom N270 processor.

The U123 changes all this by having the newer Atom N280 processor and is upgradable to 2GB of RAM. There are also two additional models. The U123T will have a built-in TV tuner and the U123H will have built-in 3G. The version I have today is the plain U123 which comes with neither of these features.

The MSI Wind U123 went on sale in Japan on the 11th April, and I hear it’s going on sale next month in the US. It is priced at 49,800 yen ($502) which is roughly the average price for newly released 10-inchers in Japan.

MSI Wind U123 Specs

10” 1024 x 600 LED Backlit Display (Anti-glare)
Intel Atom N280 Processor
Intel GMA950 Graphics
1GB DDR2-667 RAM (Max 2GB)
160GB HDD (5400RPM WDC WD1600BEVT-22ZCT0)
Bluetooth 2.0+EDR
3x USB 2.0, D-Sub, Microphone, Headphone ports
Multi-card reader (5 in 1)
LAN 10/100 Port
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
1.3MP Webcam
6-Cell 5200mAh Lithium-Ion Battery
1.35kg / 2.9lbs (with 6-Cell)
260 x 180 x 19.75mm Dimensions
Windows XP Home SP3

Installed Software & Packaged Contents

Provided in the box are two optical disks: one for drivers and one is the recovery disk, a padded case which provides good protection, a warranty paper and a quick start guide. Unlike other netbooks, you have to enable Wi-Fi first on MSI netbooks before you starting connecting to a network, don’t forget that.

Now onto the installed software.

It’s great to see Internet Explorer 7 installed by default where most netbooks come with IE6. For people who review netbooks all the time like me, or for the non-techies, it’s a pain, not so much for you though.

There is the CrazyTalk CamSuite to handle your webcamera needs. I had a lot of laughs playing with the Magic Mirror option where you can distort your face in real-time (look like an alien) or apply gag animations (like sleeping with a snot bubble that comes out of your nose!). Great fun!

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Lastly there’s the EasyFace Manager, where you can set up your login to only accept your face. I spent a good 10 minutes with this trying out as many things as I could to screw up the system and it did a pretty good job of recognizing my face in alot of situations (including taking off my glasses) but the problem is it doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t even work at all.

Last of all, there’s a restorable hidden partition and an option on your desktop to burn a recovery disk.

Build Quality

Very happy with the build quality. Almost no keyboard flex. Comfortable two-key trackpad. There are still two very small hinges holding the screen but unlike previous MSI Winds, they seem a bit stiffer. They don’t seem to wobble when someone walks past for example.

The weight distribution is mostly at the back of the machine so if you try to use it on your lap with the screen tilt full back, it will fall off your lap. Like wise if you use it on a soft surface like on your bed it tends to tilt back slightly, though typing is okay. I’ve had the same problem with the original MSI Wind U100.

Ports & Layout

One thing to take note of, is that an SD Card in the multi-card reader won’t go all the way in. It goes just over 3/4 the way in. Might have trouble with a tight fitting case.

The ports are all standard fare: On the left, Kensington lock, power, 2x USB ports. On the right: LAN, VGA, Microphone and headphone, 1x USB and Multi-card reader.

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There is only a power button on the top above the keyboard that emits a bright blue light (or a more subtle green light if you have ECO mode enabled). I’ve found the blue light irritating in a dark room when viewing the U123 from the right side of the machine, enough to make me think about getting some tape to cover it up.

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There are 8 LED indicators and I have no idea what three of them do. The power connector goes straight in and is not hooked like on the 10-Inch Acer Aspire One or ASUS Eee PCs.

There’s nothing on the back but the battery. If you remove the battery though, there’s a SIM card slot for a WWAN connection which will be available on the U123H model. In the plain U123 model the slot is empty.

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Audio and Webcam

Sound volume is good but it’s quite tinny. Seems the same as on the original U100. Overall I’m not really impressed with the U120’s sound quality as I’ve heard much better on a netbook. For instance, all three netbooks I have in the room right now sound better: The ASUS Eee PC 1000HE, Acer Aspire One D150 and ASUS Eee PC S101.

There’s that HD Audio Equalizer you some on many netbooks (brown speaker icon in the taskbar) where many have said will give you better sound if you adjust it. In my opinion an equalizer does little when the speakers are subpar in the first place.

Recording video from the webcam worked well, no problems here. The frame rate was fast enough and in a dimly lit room my face was still recognizable. The microphone, on the other hand, was problematic. I could barely hear my own voice recording in Skype. I tried every setting I could think of in Windows but nothing did the trick. Looks like a driver problem to me. That’s the first thing I’ve experience this problem out of all the netbooks I’ve tested.

Upgradability

The bottom half of the chassis is quite easily removable after unscrewing 9 or so screws but MSI do NOT want you upgrading parts yourself so they have placed a “void if tampered with” warranty sticker on top of one screw. Because of this I’m unable to take pictures of inside the machine. I can easily see though that you can upgrade the hard drive and RAM at least.

Regarding the warranty issue, it’s best to contact your local MSI support line and / or the retailer you bought it from to see where you stand regarding self upgrades.

Now, if they start selling U123s with 2GB RAM, that’s great but it still leaves the issue of the upgrading the hard drive. You may want to get a larger hard drive or switch to a solid state drive at some point.

Display

The display is a 10” anti-glare 1024×600 sized display. It’s excellent with vivid enough colors. Seems pretty much the same as every other 10-inch non-glare screen I’ve used on a netbook. It’s slightly brighter than the 1000HE but you can always bump the brightness up on the 1000HE with EeeCtrl. The MSI Wind doesn’t go as dark as the 1000HE though and I wish it went a tad tarker for use without the lights on. Viewing angles were the same on both the 1000HE and the U123 as far as my eyes can tell.

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The screen lid doesn’t go as far back as the 1000HE or 10” Acer Aspire One as you can see in the picture below (U123 is in the middle, Eee PC 1000HE on the left, and Acer Aspire D150 on the right).

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There are two areas that ripple on the screen when I press the left and right bottom-hand sides of the screen. Doesn’t seem like much to worry about though. I’m unable to replicate any ripples on the 1000HE.

Touchpad & Buttons

The touchpad is slightly undersized, horizontally. If it were slightly wider it would be very good. The surface is slick and I can easily glide my fingers over it. There are two buttons which feel very satisfying to press, very pleased with that. The one huge problem I have is that there is no hardware support for scrolling! There’s no touchpad software installed and no drivers for it on MSI’s driver page for the U123.

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Weight & Size

I have a 1000HE and 10” Acer Aspire One to compare with, but first I’ll rule out the 1000HE, it’s the Goliath of 10-inch netbooks and the U123 is slimmer, lighter and has a smaller footprint.

It’s much more comparable in size to the 10-Inch Acer Aspire One. The U123 has the same width as the 10-inch Acer Aspire One but the U123 is slightly shorter in length. The U123 is thinner at the front but ends up slightly higher at the back due to the 6-cell battery pushing the bottom up slightly.

The U123 weighs 1.3kg / 2.9 lbs with the 6-cell battery. The 1000HE weighs 1.44kg / 3.2 lbs. I’d compare my Aspire One but it only comes with a 3-cell battery. I notice the different in weight but doesn’t make any practical difference to me. The S101 on the other hand.. completely different beast.

The power brick for the U123 is larger than both the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE’s and 10-Inch Acer Aspire One’s as you can see in the pic below. The Eee PC brick (same for all models) on the left, Acer Aspire One D150 in the middle and the U123 on the right. The U123 also has a thicker cable like on the D150.

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Keyboard

The keyboard has remained unchanged since the original MSI Wind U100. Which has it’s good and bad points.

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Good because there’s very little flex, close to none actually, there’s a big right shift key and the keys have a very satisfying feel, and personally, I like these more than the chiclet keys on the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE.

Bad because they haven’t bothered to fix the CTRL and Function key placement which is the wrong way around and they make the function key much larger. If you’re only using this as a single machine you’ll get used to the key placement quick enough, but if you use multiple machines it can get frustrating.

Note that I have a Japanese keyboard, so the keys are slightly smaller than the English counterpart.

Heat & Noise

I’ve been very pleased with the noise levels. You can hear the fan noise, in a very quiet room, but it’s very low and if step just over a meter away then I can’t hear it.

It’s stayed very cool all over. A very pleasant experience coming straight over from the 1000HE which has huge heat and noise problems.

Battery Life

Due to the newer N280 Atom processor, the U123 should be able to squeeze a little more battery life than older MSI Winds. I don’t have an older MSI Wind around to test this directly though. Previous versions of MSI Winds have shipped with lower rated batteries in Asia, so this could vary, but in Japan this 6-cell Lithium-Ion battery for the U123 is rated 5200mAh, 58Wh. I was expecting a little more though. The latest Samsung netbooks are shipping with 5900mAh batteries, for example.

Anyway onto the battery life benchmarks

Settings: Wi-Fi, Webcam, BT, Sound OFF, ECO Mode ON, No mouse, Lowest Brightness
Battery Eater Idle – 6 hours 35 mins.
Battery Eater Classic – 4 hours 48 mins

Settings: Wi-Fi, Webcam, BT OFF, ECO Mode ON, No mouse, Brightness 100%,  Sound 100%
Looping 480P DivX movies – 3 hours, 55 mins

So, at best you will be able to squeeze out 6 hours and 35 mins out of the 6-cell battery, assuming you don’t turn off your screen. If you’re looking for superb battery life on an MSI Wind netbook, wait for the MSI Wind U115 which gets over 10 hours on a single charge, though it hasn’t been released yet.

The battery life is above average, but compared to newer netbooks on the market, like the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE, HP Mini series or the newer Samsung netbooks, it falls 1-3 hours short.

One thing that has bothered me since the original U100 is that you have to manually enter ECO mode every time you unplug the AC adapter. Furthermore, the settings are lost so you will have to alter the brightness etc every time too.

Recharging the power brick takes just under 3.5 hours at 3 hours 26 mins.

Performance

Don’t expect any noticeable speed improvements with the newer Intel Atom N280 processor. The only difference you notice is higher figures in these benchmark results below.

The hard drive is nice and speedy with 69 / 68 read/write speeds.

crystaldiskmark

Pros
Improved battery life over MSI Wind U100 (up to 6.5 hours)
Excellent keyboard, save one key placement.
Upgradable RAM and HDD, unlike the U120.
Nice bright, vivid display.
Low, non-intrusive fan noise.
Two good touchpad buttons.
Cons
No touchpad scrolling ability.
Can’t place it in your lap, falls off.
Power brick bigger than it needs to be.
ECO Mode not initiated when switching to battery.
Upgrading RAM / HDD voids warranty.
Very tinny sound quality.
SD Card sticks out, doesn’t go fully in.
Microphone volume extremely low.

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