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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

MSI Wind - is it any good?


Netbooks. The Dream: a tiny, full featured computer in your bag, a device so small and light you never notice it's there. A machine with a battery life so long you treat it like a cellphone. The reality? Actually closer than you might think.

I picked up a netbook this weekend, a clone of the MSI Wind. Rebadged for the German market as the "Medion Akoya Mini" (and sold in Spain), the clone is exactly the same as the Wind. Well, almost. The model I have loses Bluetooth but gains a 160GB HDD, a quite ridiculous amount of storage in such a small computer. It cost €400 ($570), which is around €50 less than the actual MSI Wind.


I chose the Wind (Akoya, whatever) over the Eee PC or the Acer Aspire 1 for several reasons, but the main one was the keyboard. Compared to my MacBook Pro, the Wind's keyboard is absolutely terrible. But compared the the Asus, it's a dream. The keys have a fair amount of travel and bounce, and they are big enough (just) to touch type. If you can touch type, which I can't.

The second reason is that the Wind seems to be the easiest of netbooks on which to install Mac OS X (more on that later). While XP is actually pretty good on the Wind (there is no off-the-shelf Linux option), I just prefer OS X.

And third? It's so much fun! Having a tiny computer in your bag is, for someone who grew up in the 80s, science fiction. I feel like I'm living in the future, and that alone is worth the €400. Details:



The Wind (as we shall refer to it here) has a set of specs that actually put the MacBook Air to shame. A 10.2" LED backlit display, which is very bright and clear, runs at 1024 x 600 (widescreen). On the sides you'll find three USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, a VGA-out for connecting another monitor, a Kensington lock socket (why bother when you can almost put the whole thing in your pocket?), an ethernet (10/100) port (take that MacBook Air) and a card reader (SD, MMC and MS formats).


This last is actually a great little addition. I can carry the Wind and a camera and easily off-load photos. The slot is spring loaded so you just push to eject.

The processor is a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom with Intels GMA950 on-chip graphics card. These are surprisingly fast. In fact, Winds running OS X benchmark slightly faster than the old PowerBook G4s. Not bad.

You also get a decent webcam and built in mic, making this a good little Skype machine, and the trackpad, while not multitouch like the Asus Eee 900 (which has two-finger scrolling), does allow vertical scrolling if you run your finger down the right-hand side. Note. Newer Winds ship with a touchpad made by Sentelec, which allows you to configure hot corners to scroll. Accounts on the web say this doesn't work very well. Mine has the older Synaptics pad with the one-finger scrolling, and it works great. Sadly, you can't tell which one your Wind might have until you actually start using it.

The mouse button isn't so good. It looks like a single bar but rocks to allow left and right clicking. You need to give it a good push to register the click. But then, with three USB ports, you could always sacrifice one to the Logitech Nano mouse.


The keyboard has some annoyances -- some caused by Windows and some by the hardware. The keys are still small and you'll hit the wrong ones occasionally. The top contains the usual function keys, and hitting them in conjunction with "Fn" gives access to volume, brightness, Wi-Fi on/off, sleep (or, in Windows-speak, suspend) and a switch to choose whether external displays are mirrored or spanned. It would be nice if these could be accessed without the function key, but XP won't let you change it.


Here you see one of the rubber feet (great. Five of them make the Wind quite stable) and the speakers, which are truly, truly horrible. That said, iTunes works fine with Airtunes to send music wirelessly to bigger speakers. And here comes another big surprise: The Wi-Fi card actually has draft 802.11n.



What's this? Amazingly, this little diagram perfectly describes the sound from the speakers -- tinny, jarring, thin, and just like having an electric nail put in your ear. So refreshingly honest!


Surprisingly good. In fact, just to be nasty, I installed the trial version of Adobe Lightroom:


Not only does it run, but it's actually usable. Importing RAW images was neither slow nor fast (and I upped the torture-quotient by making the Wind convert the RAW files to DNG). Browsing images is as fast as any average laptop. In fact, it only slows down when moving to the Develop Module, something which causes even my MacBook Pro to hiccup. Combine it with the SD card reader and the big HD, and you have a neat little photo shoot companion.

Next up, iTunes (I know. I loaded it up with Apple software). ITunes works just fine. It shows up as a share on the local network, and I can control it using the Remote App on my iPod Touch. While testing, I had this quite ridiculous setup: Library on MacBook Pro, streaming to iTunes on the Wind, controlled with the iPod Touch, streaming to speakers connected to AirTunes. Sure, one cable would have taken care of all that, but I'm a nerd.

The Wind also does okay with the iTunes visualizers. Here you can see a video. First, Magnetosphere, the new iTunes 8 visualizer. YouTube has mashed the quality, but you can that see it works, albeit in a cut down manner.

Movies are fine, as long as you use headphones. Which brings us to battery life. Running at full whack (without any energy saving options), you'll get a good two hours or even more. I have the smaller 3 cell battery (there is a bigger 6 cell model). Movies will obviously take more juice, but the Wind never gets hot. Those grills in the side actually put out a fair breeze. Anecdotal evidence from the net says that the processor doesn't get much above 50ºC.



The next stage is to install OS X. I'm waiting on a new Wi-Fi card, as the supplied one doesn't have any Mac drivers, and a netbook without Wi-Fi is rather pointless. It actually seems pretty easy, and reports say that Leopard runs very well, with a few caveats. From the Modaco forums comes this list from hacker Paul:

- Graphics card running accelerated at 1024x600 native resolution

- Ethernet- Webcam

- Internal speakers

- USB- SD card slot

- Sleep

- Bluetooth

- Hotkeys for display, volume etc.

- Touchpad

WORKING OK (i.e. with caveats!)
- VGA out (working as a secondary display, but not in mirrored mode!)

- Keyboard layout (for some reason the backslash on the UK keyboard between shift and Z is not detected, remapped to key to left of '1')

- WiFi (see below!)

- Headphone port

- Mic port

- Internal mic

- Hibernate - native macs hibernate using EFI signals, which doesn't work on 'hackintoshes.' Still pursuing a fix for this!

With this huge 160GB drive, I'm going for a dual-boot -- whoever installed XP saw fit to make the recovery partition around 30GB, which is perfect for a test OS X install. I'll be writing this up when it's done.

Overall, I love it. It will never be a main machine, but for a carry everywhere computer the size-performance ratio is hard to beat. With the addition of a 3G network card (to be bought this afternoon), its mobility outweighs the shortcomings. If only those speakers were a little better.