One of the most common criticisms levelled against netbooks is that they're essentially all the same. MSI is out to prove the critics wrong with the Wind U115 Hybrid. Not only does it have both solid-state and hard disk drives, but it's also got a graphics chip that can help speed up high-definition video decoding. With a price tag of around £460, standing out from the netbook crowd obviously doesn't come cheap, so is the extra outlay worth it?
Under the bonnet, this netbook differs from rival models in a number of significant ways. Firstly, it uses Intel's new GMA 500 graphics chip, designed to speed up HD video decoding -- something that the vast majority of netbooks on the market today struggle with. The idea is that, when you watch a video that's encoded in HD, instead of the processor handling the load, it passes the hard work over to the graphics chip, leaving the processor free to keep other background tasks running without any slowdown.
It's worth noting, though, that this decoding acceleration only works on video that's encoded in MPEG-2, VC-1, WMV 9 or H.264, and the software video player also has to support the graphics chipset for it to work, so you don't get the benefit of the hardware decoding under all circumstances.
The addition of the GMA 500 graphics chip also means that MSI has had to use a slightly different main processor. It's still an Intel Atom CPU, but, instead of the more commonly used N270, it's a Z530. This is clocked at the same 1.6GHz as the N270 though, so you won't notice any difference in performance.
The other big difference between the U115 and other netbooks is the presence of two storage drives. MSI has kitted out the U115 with an 8GB SSD which is used to store the Windows XP operating system and most of your program files, and a 160GB HDD which can be used for storing larger files, like movies and music. This way, the system spends most of its time accessing the SSD, which is much easier on the battery, and only calls the HDD into play when it needs to fetch your documents. MSI has also implemented an eco mode. When you turn this on, it forces the netbook to rely solely on the SSD drive in other to eke out as much life from the battery as possible.
But how does the combination of SSD and HDD work in practice? Brilliantly, is the short answer. The U115 has simply amazing battery life. In Battery Eater's intensive Classic test, it managed to keep going for an astonishing 7 hours and 9 minutes.
Elsewhere, the U115 follows the well-worn path of other netbooks, which isn't surprising as, cosmetically, it's almost identical to the MSI Wind. The glossy grey finish on the lid is quite appealing, but the design is starting to show its age and it lacks the visual flair of some newer netbooks, such as those from Samsung. That said, we do like the keyboard. Although it's small, its layout makes the most of the available space. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the rather cramped trackpad.
The screen is another matter altogether. At 10 inches, it's a very usable size and the 1,024x600-pixel resolution means that it will comfortably display most Web pages. It's also very bright, and the matte finish means that, even if you significantly turn down the brightness to further save battery power, it's still very readable, as it doesn't suffer from reflections in the same way as displays with glossy coatings.
Connectivity isn't bad either. You get three USB ports, a VGA output, an SD card reader and an Ethernet socket. Wi-Fi is also present, as is Bluetooth -- something not included on all netbooks.
Apart from battery life, the U115 doesn't really stand out from the crowd in terms of performance. It scored 1,369 in the PCMark05 benchmark test, putting it in the same ball park as the majority of other netbooks. While it's fine for most day-to-day tasks, it will struggle if you try to run numerous processor-intensive applications at the same time.
No netbook has ever put in a decent performance in 3DMark06, and the U115 is no different. It clocked up an abysmal score of just 87, making it unsuitable for playing most games.
The MSI Wind U115 Hybrid has a good screen, relatively spacious keyboard and amazing battery life, thanks to its SSD and HDD combination. But, given its tired-looking design and rather average performance in areas other than battery life, we're not sure it's worth the £150 premium over most other netbooks.
Edited by Charles Kloet