MSI Wind U115 Laptop Review

The MSI Wind U115 has been long awaited by netbook fans and is known as the first netbook to come with hybrid storage. That is, both an SSD and HDD inside the netbook. The ability to shut off the HDD and run the OS on the SSD, together with the Atom Z CPU, bring superior battery life to the MSI Wind U115.

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It saw a release in the UK and Japan for a couple of weeks before it finally hit the US and priced very expensively at $499.99. In the US it comes with a higher capacity 9-cell battery and 2.0MP Webcam which makes adds much more value.

Recently, Microsoft has placed a ban on netbooks with Hybrid storage and they have told MSI to remove the MSI Wind U115 from shelves before the end of this month. It’s uncertain what is going happen.

So, is the MSI Wind U115 worth the high price tag and how does the battery life fare? Read on to find out!

MSI Wind U115 Hybrid Technical Specs

Windows XP Home SP3
Intel Atom Z530 (1.6GHz)
10” 1024 x 600 LED backlit display (matte)
1GB RAM (upgradable to 2GB)
8GB SSD (1.8” ZIF, faster SLC type) + 160GB HDD (2.5” SATA, 5400rpm)
Intel SCH US15W chipset + GMA500 graphics (Poulsbo)
HD Audio, stereo speakers, noise canceling microphone
1.3MP Webcam (2.0MP in the US)
Multi-card reader (5 in 1)
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, 10/100 MB/s LAN
VGA out, 3x USB 2.0, Microphone and headphone jacks, RJ45 LAN ports
6-Cell Lithium-Ion Battery (5200mAh) – 9-Cell Battery in the US
260 x 180 x 19-40 mm Dimensions
1.32kg Weight (with 6-Cell battery)
1 Year Warranty

Box Contents

Sleeve (didn’t test it, I always buy my own anyway)
Quick start guide
Warranty paper
Recovery DVD
Utilities DVD
Power brick and cable

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Build Quality

Everything feels solid. Little to no flex on the keyboard. Screen opens up nicely and not too stiff like on some other netbooks.

There is only one color available for the U115, in Silver and across the whole surface of the lid is a pattern of dashes, very subtle.

There the balance issue that all MSI Winds have. The back is heavier than the front, so you have to very VERY careful when using this on your lap, it can fall off easily, especially when you have the screen folded right back.

Also, an SD Card fitted into the card reader does not sit fully flush with the machine. About 10% sticks out. Not a problem if you’re only using the card reader to copy files off your SD Card as opposed to longer term storage, which you won’t be needing to with a 160GB HDD in there as well.

And if I had to point out anything else it would be the cheap feeling of the chassis material, like cheap plastic.

Heat
Very impressed here. Even when running the benchmark test with full CPU usage, I didn’t notice the bottom getting warm at all. Stayed cool, which goes for the air pumping out of the air vents too. Probably thanks to the more energy efficient Atom Z series processors over the Atom N series.

Dual Hybrid Storage

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The biggest feature of the MSI Wind U115. It’s draw card. It’s why you’re reading this review.

The MSI Wind U115 comes with a unique feature not seen on any netbook yet. It comes with both an SSD and HDD. Why did they do this? So you can run the OS on the SSD and shut off the more power hungry HDD when it’s not in use. This is activated by turning on ECO mode. A dialog will pop up asking you if you want to shut down the HDD.

A hard disk icon appears in your taskbar so you can tell if your HDD is shut off. When you’re in ECO mode, the power light turns green.

I’m glad to report that it works. In benchmark tests I gained an extra 5 – 7 hours of battery life by initiating ECO mode AND shutting down the HDD.

Now, practically, in real life. The situation is not so easy. In order to shut down the HDD, you must not be running anything from the HDD. This includes playing music, watching movies or reading documents stored on the HDD or background programs running which might write to the HDD.

“No problem, I’ll move what I need to use to the SSD”, is what you might be thinking. The SSD is 8GB in size (actually, 6.69 GB in size). A default Windows XP install will use up most of that space. I only had enough space to install Firefox, video codecs and a couple more programs before I started getting “out of space” pop up dialog boxes starting to bug me. You have roughly 331MB of disk space to play around with on a default out-of-the-box setup, or up to 1.67GB if you disable hibernation and recycle bin storage.

So you end up HAVING to use the HDD because there is no room on the SSD, which rules out the turning off HDD feature. For 99% of consumers they are not going to know how to install a nLited XP, or even bother installing Linux or whatever, let alone taking the MSI Wind apart and putting in a larger SSD (and voiding your warranty in the process).

So, in theory works very well, but it’s just not very practical with the default 8GB SSD in there.

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Ports & Layout

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On the left, there is a kensington lock, power plug, air vent and 2 USB ports.

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On the right, one USB port, Multi-card reader, microphone and headphone jacks, VGA out and RJ45 LAN port.

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On the back, nothing. On the front, nothing except LED indicators.

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On the inside, there is a single power button where it has always been.

Display

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The U115 has a 10-inch display with a matte, anti-glare coating and sports the same 1024 x 600 seen on pretty much every netbook. The screen is great, bright and colors are vivid enough. The U115 is brighter than the Asus Eee PC 1000H though with EeeCtl you can boost the brightness up to the same level.

The way the hinge is designed allows the netbook to have a low profile, but it restricts the opening angle of the screen. It’s a little less than the 1000H for example, but more than enough in most situations.

I notice some screen wobble. For example, shaking the table the U115 is sitting on which make the screen wobble a little. It doesn’t feel flimsy and too loose though. Doesn’t bother me.

Keyboard

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The keyboard is excellent. No flex and the tactile feedback of a keypress feels great. The keyboard doesn’t waste any space and occupies as much space as it can without leave any room on the left and right edges. This is what you want to see on a netbook. Also large arrows keys, enter, right shift and backspace keys (not in Japanese models).

The only complaint I have with the keyboard is that Fn and CTRL keys are in the wrong order. You’ll end up hitting Fn by mistake when you want to perform keyboard actions such as cut and paste. It can be very frustrating at times. You’ll get used to it though.

Sound

Sound remains unchanged as with all previous MSI Wind models. Good volume to fill a small room but plenty of tinnyness in the sound. The 1000H sounds excellent in comparison with good bass, clarity and depth to the sound.

Touchpad

The touchpad is small and could use some enlargement, mainly in horizontal space. Vertical space is adequate. The actual surface of the touchpad is slick enough, I didn’t have any problems with fingers getting stuck like I do at first on some netbooks. The single rocker bar button does the job but it’s slightly on the stiff side and I occasionally hit the middle of the bar which does nothing. I actually enjoy the feel of both.

Given that this is MSI’s 2nd/3rd iteration of the MSI Wind, I except at least some kind of tweaking of the touchpad. MSI have been lazy here. They should follow Samsung’s lead here. They have been making slight improvements on their touchpads on each new Samsung netbook iteration.

Lastly, like with the MSI Wind U123, this touchpad does not support scrolling out of the box. You’ll have to hunt down your own drivers somewhere. Can you imagine a laptop without scrolling built-in these days? If you’re not a double-clicker you’ll need to use two hands for scrolling web-pages.

Noise
Very Quiet. Most of the time I can barely hear the fan in my living room, which is constantly running but the volume is very low. Occasionally the fan ramps up but it’s still quiet. Overall I’m satisfied with the sound levels on the MSI Wind.

Upgrade Options
Regarding the battery. The MSI Wind U115 sells with either a 6-cell 5200mAh battery or a 9-cell 7200mAh battery. In the US, it is selling with a 9-cell battery. Places like Frosty computers sell the 9-cell battery with free international shipping if you get a 6-cell battery by default.

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As for upgrading the HDD and RAM, the situation is a little more difficult. Again, like on previous MSI Winds, one of the screws on the back is covered with a warranty sticker. Remove that and you void your warranty. Lovely, MSI. A lot of people have told me that it is okay to open your MSI Wind as long as you confirm it with MSI support. Depends on where you live.

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I can easily see a Wi-Fi card and HDD that are removable. As for the RAM and SSD I’ve got some outside sources. See picture of the RAM and SSD. The RAM is upgradable to 2GB and the SSD is certainly removable. No SIM Card slot behind the battery.

Battery Life

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Another big feature of the MSI Wind U115. You’ve probably read news on how awesome the battery life is on this netbook. I have the 6-cell battery. I am currently getting 7 hours of battery life with web-usage which included playing a couple of flash videos. That’s with the HDD turned on (ECO mode ON). If you can get more space on your SSD and run the browser from the SSD you should be able to get much more battery life, up to 5 hours more. With the HDD turned off (ECO mode ON), I’m getting 10 hours of battery life. Very cool.

Here’s some real life usage figures:

50% sound, 4/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi ON, webcam OFF, eco mode ON (HDD OFF)

10 hours, 6 mins – Real-life usage. Web browsing, lots of youtube watching, Idle time included.
50% sound, 3/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi ON, webcam OFF, eco mode ON (HDD ON)

7 hours, 51 mins – Real-life usage. Web browsing, flash videos, Idle time included.
50% sound, 8/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi OFF, webcam OFF, eco mode ON (HDD OFF)

7 hours, 51 mins – Looped fullscreen 480p videos
100% sound, 8/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi ON, webcam OFF, eco mode OFF

5 hours, 45 mins – Looped fullscreen 480p videos
Then, I have a whole bunch of benchmark tests here, below:

sound OFF, 1/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi OFF, webcam OFF, eco mode ON (HDD OFF)

17 hours, 52 mins – Idle Battery Eater benchmark
14 hours, 20 mins – Classic Battery Eater benchmark
sound OFF, 1/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi OFF, webcam OFF, eco mode OFF

10 hours, 45 mins – Idle Battery Eater benchmark
9 hours, 12 mins – Classic Battery Eater benchmark
sound 50%, 1/8 brightness, bluetooth OFF, wifi ON, webcam OFF, eco mode OFF

7 hours, 31 mins – Classic Battery Eater benchmark
HD Video & Flash

With the U115 I can play 720P video, smoothly, out of the box, thanks to the on-board Poulsbo chipset which provides support for H.264/MPEG-4 AVC playback. CPU usage varied from 20% – 55% but the average was around 33%.

With most other netbooks, you will have to follow my 720P video on netbooks guide to be able to watch 720P video.

1080p video and HD flash content is still way unplayable. There’s no hardware support for both and the Atom Z530 processor in the U115 is just not powerful enough to decode 1080p video and HD flash. But it’s not surprising, nobody was expecting either to work on this netbook anyway.

Webcam & Microphone

I used Skype and the included CrazyTalk Cam Suite to test these features out.

My model comes with a 1.3MP webcam but the image was excellent and video was very smooth. I was able to take picture snapshots of up to 1600 x 1200 pixels. Worked well in low light situations. The MSI Wind U115 in the US comes with a 2.0MP webcam, so it should hopefully provide a sharper image.

Microphone volume, was unfortunately, way too low, even when turning up microphone volume to 100% in the HD Audio control panel. You’ll have to talk as loud as you can.

Size and Weight
The MSI Wind U115 weighs 1.3kg / 2.9 lbs with a 6-cell battery. MSI lists 3 lbs with the 9-cell battery but will be over that.

It feels satisfyingly lighter than the ASUS Eee PC 1201T and 1000H which weighs in heavier at 1.45kg / 3.2lb but not as light as newer netbooks such as the HP Mini, Dell Mini or the ASUS Eee PC 1008HA, but that is not a fair comparison since the battery life is higher capacity and provides superior battery life anyway.

Regarding size, the U115 has a smaller footprint that the Eee PC 1000H but the same thickness, roughly, judging by eye I see no difference. The U115 screen is also slightly lower due to the way the hinges are designed.

Performance

Compared to most netbooks that come with an Intel Atom N270/280 processor the MSI Wind U115 feels slightly slower when browsing the web. An Eee PC with a standard hard drive running on battery mode is a good comparison. Toggling full screen mode in Firefox, for example, is a little jerky with it’s animation. I would say this is due to the very slow write speeds on the SSD, where I have been running Firefox off of.

I would have liked some power options like on the ASUS Netbook to easily overclock or underclock the CPU.

Now, some benchmark figures of the SSD and HDD and overall performance.

HDD
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SDD
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Overall performance.

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Linux Compatibility
Due to the Poulsbo platform (Atom Z530 processor and Intel GMA500 graphics), forget about running Linux distros on this netbook. There could be some hope for Linux fans though, Tariq Krim of Jolicloud OS fame, has recently mentioned that his team has managed to support GMA500 cards with Jolicloud, though it is running slowly at the moment.

MSI Wind U115 Review Summary

Pros
Excellent keyboard
Bright, matte display
The best battery life seen on a 6-cell battery netbook (10 hours)
Hybrid storage (contains both SSD and HDD)
720P HD video playback
Very quiet and cool

Cons
Touchpad remains small and unchanged from original MSI Wind U100
Slow SSD performance
Barely enough room on the 8GB SSD
Very expensive
Warranty issue if trying to self-upgrade
Microphone volume extremely low

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