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May 28, 2009

MSI X340

The MSI X340 (021US), which debuted at CES 2009 as the X320, is nearly an identical twin to the Apple MacBook Air (Nvidia 9400M GT). Other than color—our review unit was black, and there's also a silver version—it's hard to tell them apart at first glance. The X340 is a cheap Air knock-off, to put it lightly, but there's more to this exceptionally thin ultraportable than its cellar-low price. Matching the Air's weight and dimensions is an impressive feat in its own right, yet MSI adds a full array of physical ports and a removable battery, which won't find in the Air. But the X340 will need to revisit Apple's blueprints if it wants to match the Air's build quality.

The X340 isn't close to being as sturdy or as rigid as the Air, and even though they weigh the same (2.9 lbs), the X340's plastic exterior is inferior to the Air's aluminum frame. The Air may cost a lot more, but as is the case with a Rolex watch, for your extra investment you're rewarded with a durable yet stylish exterior. The same can be said of the carbon fiber used in the Sony VAIO VGN-Z590, magnesium alloy in the Lenovo ThinkPad X301, and aluminum in the Dell Adamo. The rest of the X340's design is almost identical to that of the Air: Its slim profile measures less than an inch thick (13-by-8.8-by-0.78 inches), and both sport 13-inch widescreens.

Actually, the X340 houses a 13.4-inch widescreen. It uses a 16-by-9 form factor, as is common in HDTVs, and registers a 1,366-by-768 resolution, while the Air uses the traditional 16-by-10 widescreen and a 1,280-by-800 resolution. Screen resolution is a common tradeoff with budget laptops—while the Air's and X340's are ho-hum, the Sony Z590 has a 1,600-by-900 standard resolution and the Lenovo X301 has an optional 1,440-by-900 resolution. The X340's LED screen is bright and pleasant to look at, but the Air's viewing angles are noticeably better. The X340's keyboard is arguably the biggest disappointment. Although it's full size, the center of the board bends. And when you're typing at a quick pace, the keys vibrate. The mouse buttons are a little wobbly, but are tolerable once you get past the clicking noises.

A brighter spot is the X340's feature set, putting the that of the Air (what little it had) to shame. For one, it has two USB ports, to the Air's one. It also adds built-in VGA and Ethernet ports and an SD slot, which the Air lacks. (They both come with Webcams.) Aside from VGA, the MSI has a second video streaming option—an HDMI port is a nice touch, though the Air (Nvidia) has a DisplayPort of its own. Give MSI props for including a 320GB, 5,400rpm hard drive at this price, especially when the Air's hard drive tops out at 120GB and spins at 4,200rpm (a 128GB SSD drive is a pricier but better option). It lacks internal 3G wireless, which is found in the X301 and the Z590 for now, but does support Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. For obvious reasons, an internal optical drive was omitted.MSI X340 (021US)

The X340 (021US) is powered by a 1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Solo U3500 processor. It's a single-core processor, which is a rarity these days. And it's slower, at least on paper, than the dual-core chips found in the Air, the X301, and the Z590. Even the similarly priced Acer Aspire 3935 runs a dual-core processor. The 2GB of memory is nothing to write home about either, given that many value systems are including 3GB to 4GB of memory. Because of its price and paper-thin dimensions, using Intel's integrated graphics was a no-brainer for MSI. Though the Air uses integrated graphics as well, its Nvidia GeForce 9400M chipset is better equipped to handle high-definition video and 3D-intensive games.

A single-core processor is at a disadvantage when multitasking, as it doesn't have a second core to rely on when the first one is busy at work. This is obvious in PCMark Vantage, which tests a system's ability to perform day-to-day tasks (the X340's score was the lowest of the group), and in our test that uses a multi-threaded application, Adobe Photoshop CS4. The X340's 1 minute 14 second score in Photoshop tests lagged behind the Air's 48 seconds—despite using the same amount of memory. The X340 closed the performance gap in the Windows media encoder test, though, beating the Air by 13 seconds and the Dell Adamo by 3 seconds.

The X340's removable battery is an underappreciated feature, one the Air lacks. The 32Wh battery scored 3 hours 45 minutes in MobileMark 2007 testing, and can easily be swapped out for a second one in case more battery life is needed. The Air's 3 hour 18 minute score is not only meager for an ultraportable, but it cannot be improved with a second battery. MSI plans to ship an 8-cell battery at some point, from which it claims to get 10 hours of battery life.

The MSI X340 (021US) is basically your poor man's MacBook Air. It's the closest anyone has come to ripping off Apple design-wise, which by itself deserves a lot of credit. Plus it has all the handy features—the variety of ports and the removable battery—typical of Windows laptops but which the Air lacks. Still, its craftsmanship, including the typing experience, reflects its price and is inferior to Apple's. If you're going to spend $900 on a slim ultraportable, consider the Acer Aspire 3935 instead, which includes an optical drive and a better keyboard.

Check out the MSI X340 (021US)'s performance test results.

More Laptop Reviews:

MSI X340 (021US)
ASUS EeePC 1008HA (Seashell)
HP Pavilion dv7t (2043CL)
HP Pavilion dv6t (1054CL)
Samsung NC20 (21GBK)

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