Poor man's MacBook Air or rich man's netbook -- call it what you want, but the MSI X340 is definitely worth talking about. It's a super-thin, super-light laptop that will appeal to users who either think netbooks are too small, or the MacBook Air is too expensive. It's available now for around £750.
Once we'd freed the X340 from its cardboard box, it took us several minutes to realise we were involuntarily drooling all over it. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, but that's mainly because it borrows so heavily from the Air's wardrobe.
It's so slim that it almost puts Victoria Beckham to shame. It measures 19.8mm at its thickest point, and just 6mm at its thinnest, which isn't far away from the Air's figures of 19.4mm and 4mm. It's difficult to notice the extra thickness, because MSI has used the clever technique of sloping the edges of the laptop inwardly towards the centre, which creates the illusion that each edge is razor sharp.
The X340 lacks the Air's sexy aluminium body and instead makes do with plastic. This has the obvious drawback of being less attractive, but it makes the X340 very light. It weighs 1.3kg, which is slightly less than the Air's 1.36kg. It has the edge over the Air in several other areas, too. The extra 0.4mm thickness has allowed MSI to fit in an Ethernet port, two USB ports and an HDMI video output. We'd take that above the ability to fit the laptop inside a manila envelope any day.
One thing we're not so keen on is the keyboard. It flexes considerably and has a spongy feel. Pressing the 'C' key, for example, causes the '4', three rows up, to move. This, unsurprisingly, decreases typing accuracy and is also a sign of poor build quality. We're not saying keys might be falling off after a matter of months, but, if they did, we wouldn't be that surprised. The mouse could be better, too. It lacks multitouch gesture inputs and dedicated scroll zones, which we're not too happy about.
The X340's most interesting feature is its brand new Intel Core 2 Solo SU3500. This runs at a rather modest 1.4GHz, which isn't even as high a frequency as an Intel Atom N270 CPU. But it has significantly more L2 cache memory than an N270 -- 3MB as opposed to 512KB -- and a faster front-side bus -- 800MHz versus 533MHz. What's more, it doesn't use significantly more energy than an Atom. The SU3500 has a thermal design power (TDP) of 5.5W, which isn't much more than the 2.5W used by an N270.
Memory comes in the form of 2GB of DDR2 533MHz RAM -- more than you get in your average netbook -- plus a 250GB hard drive. Both forms of memory are ample here. The Air has far faster DDR3 1,066MHz memory, but the X340 has more than twice as much storage -- perfect if you're the sort of person that likes to stash a wealth of multimedia content.
The X340 is well-suited to playing movies. Its 13-inch screen offers impressive image quality -- a narrow vertical viewing angle notwithstanding -- and its glossy screen finish isn't so reflective that it restricts use in direct lighting conditions. Its 1,366x768-pixel resolution dictates a 16:10 aspect ratio, meaning you do get black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, but we can forgive the X340 this particular trespass.
Audio playback on tiny laptops is tinny at best, and downright unlistenable at worst, but the X340's speakers are at least loud enough to hear what's going on in a movie when the laptop is a foot away. Listening to music out loud is an altogether different proposition. The lack of bass and relatively low volume means you'll need to connect some external speakers to get the best experience.
Arguably the most baffling thing about the X340's specification is its optical drive -- or lack thereof. We don't mind the fact it hasn't got one -- there's no room. But we can't fathom why MSI has supplied drivers, utilities and manuals for the system on a CD. What are users supposed to do with it? A USB key or an optional external DVD drive would have been a better idea, particularly as the webcam on our sample machine didn't work and we actually needed to use the driver disc for something other than Frisbee practice.
The X340 scored 2,013 in our PCMark05 benchmark test, which is impressive considering that the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, which packs an Atom N280 CPU, scored 1,514 in the same test. Let's not get too carried away, though -- we normally only get out of bed for machines that score above 4,000. Anything else usually struggles with multitasking or CPU-intensive applications.
The X340's CPU is touted as being very efficient, so we were expecting big things from its battery life. We were left disappointed, however, as it only managed to stay alive for 1 hour and 52 minutes in Battery Eater's intensive Classic test -- bloody awful.
That's the absolute least amount of battery life you can expect from the X340 though, due to the way the Battery Eater test tries to kill the battery in the shortest possible time. In less intensive, anecdotal testing, the X340 lasted approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. But that's still pants.
With the X340, MSI has drawn heavily on the MacBook Air for inspiration, which probably wasn't its smartest idea. The X340 certainly looks great and has good connectivity, but its poor keyboard and woeful battery life let it down badly.
Edited by Charles Kloet