MSI's Stylish But Sluggish X340

MSI is a little-known player in the notebook computer business. To grab more attention, it's become one of the first PC makers to offer one of a new class of notebooks called ultra-thins.

But while MSI's new X340, which can be found for about $750, might be mistaken at a distance for either an Apple (AAPL) or Sony (SNE) laptop, its cheap construction and annoying quirks ultimately trump its stylish design.

Ultra-thins are the PC industry's attempt to get consumers to step up from cheaper, $300 or $400 netbooks. They weigh only about 3 lbs.—about the same as many netbooks—but feature larger screens and keyboards and more robust processors than netbooks do.

Keyboard Too Springy Judging from its external finish, MSI is hunting bigger game than just low-priced netbooks. The X340 on its surface nearly matches Apple's MacBook Air spec for spec. At most it's only a little more than three-quarters of an inch thick, about the same as the Air. It weighs 2.86 pounds, just a shade under Air's 3.04 pounds. Like the Air and other notebooks of the same class, MSI's machine lacks a built-in optical disc drive.

But its glossy black lid and matte black body can't hide the fact that MSI skimped on materials when making the X340. The molded plastic frame feels like it's one drop away from ruining your day, while Apple fans have delighted at the Air's sturdy aluminum construction.

The MSI ultra-thin's keyboard also feels too springy, and crams extra keys such as page up and down on the right-hand side of the keyboard. If you've got big hands, that can cause problems when you're trying to hit "enter," which is placed directly to the left of the "page down" key.

Hit F5 to Save Power MSI makes up for some of those deficiencies with a bright 13.1 in., energy-efficient LED whose 1366 x 768 resolution actually makes reading things on screen enjoyable.

Under the hood, MSI is one of many PC makers that have begun using a class of Intel (INTC) chips called "consumer ultra-low voltage," or C-ULV. The energy-sipping single-core Intel Core 2 processor running at 1.40 GHz sharply improves the X340's battery life (4.5 hours in energy-saving mode) and offers greater performance than Intel's Atom chips, which are used in netbooks.

The company also includes an "eco-button" on the F5 key that can quickly adjust screen brightness depending on whether a user is playing a game, presenting a slide deck through a projector, or watching a movie. By remembering to do this while changing tasks, users can squeeze out a few more minutes of battery life before needing to recharge.

Not Enough Power for Gamers The X340 also includes a 1.3 megapixel Web cam, 2GB RAM, a 320 GB hard drive, and an integrated graphics chip, used mainly for tasks like word processing and surfing the Web. For communications, it sports 802.11n wireless (with an optional WiMAX chip), Bluetooth, and gigabit Ethernet capabilities. It comes with the 32-bit version of Microsoft's Windows Vista Home Premium software.

In my tests, I found the X340 responsive and snappy when launching programs. Laptops with C-ULV chips outperform netbooks for watching Web videos and working on office productivity tasks.

There were drawbacks to using a smaller machine vs. a full-fledged notebook though. For gamers, the processor and integrated graphics are too underpowered for all but the simplest of titles. MSI says the X340 can play Blu-ray DVDs, but to do so, users will need to buy an external drive that costs about half as much as the laptop itself.

Silver Adds Class MSI's set-up process for the machine also takes an annoyingly long time, and includes what seems like endless user license agreements.

Things are better on the design side. MSI's engineers made a nice choice by ringing the peripheral ports with silver metal to add a little class. The X340 comes with two USB ports, VGA and HDMI out, the ability to connect two sets of headphones (a microphone jack doubles as a second headphone jack), and an SD/MMC card reader.

In the end, the X340's price is its biggest problem. Even during tough times, many consumers are willing to pay for nice designs. But the unit is too underpowered, with too few features to be a standout. My bet is many consumers pricing the machine against nearly as capable netbooks will balk at spending an extra $400 for the benefit of a larger keyboard and screen.