How much is having Intel’s new CULV processor under the hood worth to consumers versus the tried and true (but slightly sluggish) Atom? That’s the question posed by the MSI X340, which we got some hands-on time with tonight after the CTIA Mobile Focus event here in Las Vegas. Read on for our first impressions.
Like its cousin, the $699 X320, the 13.4-inch X340 (which will retail under $1,000) rivals the MacBook Air in terms of its sheer thinness and lightness, weighing 2.8 pounds and measuring 0.7 inches thick. But instead of sporting an Atom CPU, this affordable ultraportable is powered by a 1.2-GHz Intel CULV processor, which is desgined to deliver better performance. There’s a trade-off in terms of battery life, but we think some buyers will be willing to live with less endurance in exchange for more pep. We like the overall look and feel of the X340, but it’s not without some flaws. The glossy lid feels sturdy, and we like that the MSI logo lights up when the notebook is in use. The deck, however, felt kind of hollow when we tapped it. Despite some complaints we’ve heard elsewhere, the keyboard didn’t exhibit much flex. The keys provide a nice springy feedback when typing. The right Shift key is a bit small, but otherwise the layout is full size. The single touchpad button is a different story. It felt a little cheap and had too much give, but MSI did emphasize that this is an engineering sample, so this issue might not exist in the final vesion of the X340. The left side of the unit houses both a VGA port and HDMI port, something the X320 lacks. HDMI would be a relative waste on the X320 because only the X340 was designed to support 1080p video playback. An Ethernet jack and memory card reader also line the left side, and there are two USB ports on the right side along with mic and headphone jacks. The 13.4-inch display (1360 x 768 pixels) is certainly large and sharp enough for the X340 to serve as one’s primary PC. And although there is a glossy finish, we didn’t find the glare to be distracting. Watching Hulu at full screen looked quite good, even from the sides. What is disappointing, at least at this early stage, is that the speakers on the bottom of the system produce weak sound. In a quiet room it was certainly easy to make out the dialog in a Heroes episode, but streaming Pandora lacked punch. So what can CULV do that Atom can’t? We’ll have to wait until we do our full benchmarks to find that out, but in general the X340 seems speedy enough to run Vista without a hiccup (having 2GB of RAM certainly helps). Applications like Mozilla and Adobe Reader loaded quickly, and having multiple browser tabs and applications open simultaneously didn’t strain the notebook. On Geekbench, which measures total system performance, the X340 scored 952. That’s 175 points higher than the NC10, and 138 points higher than the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, which has a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom Z530 processor. We’ll be running a lot more benchmarks on the final production unit. We did notice some fan noise; it’s faint but certainly loud enough to be a bit distracting. Again, this is an engineering sample, so we hope the sound will be even lower on the final version. On the plus side, the X340 stayed pretty cool as we streamed Heroes. Only the bottom of the notebook got slightly warm after about 10 minutes of playback. With the standard four-cell battery the X340 should go for 3 hours vs. 4 to 5 hours for the X320. If you spring for the 8-cell battery, the X340 should last up to 6 hours vs. 8 for the X320. And that’s the choice consumers will have to make. A slower Intel Atom processor and extra endurance for less money or more oomph and less runtime for more cash. We’ll be able to give you a definitive answer once we’re able to run our full suite of tests.