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MSI’s Ultra Slim X370: Bigger Isn’t Always Better

First up is the MSI X370, an ultra slim 13.3” portable. The base model we received for testing measures less than an inch thick, making it comparable to the MacBook Air in some ways. Where it doesn’t compare is in performance or industrial design, as MSI is still using glossy plastic just about everywhere, and the frame doesn’t have the feeling of solidity and durability that you’d get from a MacBook Air or Pro 13. Here are the basic specs for our test system.

MSI X370 Specifications
Processor AMD E-350
(2x1.6GHz, 40nm, 1MB L2, 18W)
Chipset AMD Hudson FCH
Memory 1x4GB DDR3-1333 @ DDR3-1066 CL7
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6310 IGP
(80 Stream Processors, 500MHz core clock)
Display 13.4" LED Glossy 16:9 1366x768
(Samsung 134AT01-G01 Panel)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM
(Seagate ST9500420AS)
Optical Drive -
Networking Realtek RTL8168/8111 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Realtek RTL8188CE 802.11b/g/n
Bluetooth 2.1 (Windigo BTM01C2AC)
Audio Realtek ALC269 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Headphone and microphone jacks
Battery 4-Cell, 14.8V, 2.15A, 32Wh battery
8-Cell, 14.8V, 4.3A, 64Wh battery
Front Side Speakers
Indicator lights
Left Side Exhaust vent
SD/MMC reader
HDMI
Gigabit Ethernet
VGA
Right Side Exhaust vent
2x USB 2.0
Headphone and microphone jacks
AC adapter
Back Side N/A
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 4-cell: 12.99" x 8.94" x 0.82"-0.88" (WxDxH)
8-cell: 12.99" x 8.94" x 0.82"-1.78" (WxDxH)
Weight 4-cell: 3.37 lbs.
8-cell: 3.81 lbs.
Extras 1.3MP webcam
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD)
87-key keyboard
Warranty 1-year limited warranty (?)
Pricing Unknown at present

Other than the hard drive and the battery, a few differences in port selection and location, and coming with 1x4GB DDR3 memory, the X370 has the same basic specs as the HP dm1z. Keep in mind that despite having a single 4GB SO-DIMM, since the Brazos platform uses a single 64-bit memory channel there’s no advantage to two memory slots other than expansion. Total system memory bandwidth is just 8.5GB/s, which could be part of the reason some games struggle to reach playable frame rates. The other part of the reason is that, while the Bobcat core can easily beat up on Atom CPU in terms of performance, it’s no match for faster architectures like Core 2 or K10—in fact, even a 1.3GHz CULV is faster than the E-350. What you end up with is significantly better than Atom performance (particularly on the GPU side), with nearly Atom levels of battery life, and good (for a netbook/ultraportable) graphics. Or put another way, you get a much better IGP than Intel’s GMA 4500MHD that was commonly paired up with CULV processors, with similar power requirements but lower CPU performance.

One other area where MSI’s X370—along with most other Brazos laptops—beats Atom is in the networking options. Like the HP and Sony, we get Gigabit Ethernet along with the standard 802.11n networking. Considering there’s no internal optical drive and I like to install games and applications over my GbE network, I definitely appreciate the extra $0.25 MSI spent here. On the other hand, it comes with just two USB 2.0 ports, both on the right side; a third (or even fourth) on the left would have been nice to get.

Gallery: MSI X370

Moving on to the design and construction, the very thin body is comparable to Apple’s MacBook Air on a superficial level. Of course, outside of the thinness, there’s very little that the two platforms share in common. The X370 is predominantly plastic in construction, which is similar to the basic MacBook, only you get black with a pattern instead of glossy white. The MacBook is also slightly thicker and weighs more, but it comes with an optical drive and larger 63.5Wh battery by default. As we mentioned up top, performance is also heavily in favor of the MacBook, even with an aging Core 2 P8600; the GeForce 320M IGP is quite a large step up as well, even if it lacks DX11 support.

There’s another catch with the size and dimensions: the ultra slim form factor is only there if you use the 4-cell battery, which checks in at just 32Wh; MSI shipped us an 8-cell 64Wh battery wedge as well, which as expected doubles (slightly more) the battery life but bumps the thickness up to nearly 2” at the rear. Ideally, we’d like to get the higher 64Wh battery capacity while maintaining the slim form factor, but as far as protruding batteries go this 8-cell unit isn’t bad. It’s flat and wide, so you can still comfortably use the X370 on your lap or other surfaces. Still, there’s no sense in shipping a laptop with a 32Wh battery these days; it may last “long enough” for most users initially, but you know that a year or so down the road it will only hold half of its charge and suddenly you’re dealing with a 1-2 hour battery life at best. Spending $100 extra for the larger 8-cell doesn’t sit well either, considering the target market. Sony also goes with a smallish 38Wh battery, but HP packs in a 55Wh battery. Notice a pattern yet?

The keyboard works reasonably well, and while MSI doesn’t use the entire width of the chassis for the keyboard, it’s comfortable enough to use for hours at a time. There’s a small amount of flex if you type really hard, but nothing that causes me any concern. The touchpad also works well, with the standard multi-touch features. What doesn’t work well are the mouse buttons; MSI uses a rocker-style chrome (plastic) button, which may or may not please your sense of aesthetics. My issue with the buttons is that they don’t register very well, particularly the right button, where you have to put some thought into pushing it hard enough and in the correct spot. However, in disassembling the X370 we discovered the real problem with the right button: the button fails to register unless you put some flex on the PCB beneath the touchpad. Remember that this is an engineering sample; we’ll assume any final models will have functioning hardware, but we’d still prefer discrete left and right buttons.

It practically goes without saying that the LCD panel is mediocre, with limited vertical viewing angles, mediocre colors, and a poor contrast ratio. If you need to get at the internals—for example, if you want to upgrade to an SSD or access the memory slot, though the 4GB unit we received will likely never need the latter—you run into another problem: there’s no quick access to the internal components. Instead, you have to get through the keyboard (secured by three clips), and then remove the top plastic panel (including the palm rest, but strangely enough not the chrome plastic border). It’s not particularly difficult, and you can safely ignore the “Warranty Sticker – Void if Tampered” label on one of the screws in the battery compartment, as you don’t need to remove those screws. All of the important screws (seven of them) are under the keyboard.

Somewhat perplexing is that after disassembling the laptop, I had some real difficulties getting the front plastic clips (near the touchpad) to snap back together properly. Ultimately, I had to remove the touchpad rocker button so that I could get the two clips underneath it to snap into place. It was an annoying process and the numerous plastic clips would very likely break if you were to access the internals more than a few times, but this should only be necessary if you want to replace the HDD. Of course, we want to do exactly that as an SSD will definitely improve the overall experience, but that’s another story.

Assuming the MSI X370 is priced similarly to the X350, we have some serious concerns with the product line as a whole. The X370 doesn’t have the greatest build quality as the whole laptop feels a little cheap, and the difficulty of upgrading the components doesn’t help, but it comes reasonably equipped. Unfortunately, the X350 had an MSRP of $800 for a CULV design, which is about $200 more than we’d be willing to pay for the overall build quality and package. If the MSRP of the X370 is indeed $750, that’s once more at least $200 more than we can recommend. Dustin feels the Sony VAIO’s MSRP of $600 is too much (and it is!), but anything north of $650 for a plastic-shelled E-350 laptop is ludicrous. At $700+, the MSI X370 will be DOA.

Introducing the Brazos E-350 Contenders Sony's VAIO YB Ultraportable
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  • Gigantopithecus - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    It will be interesting to see if MSI offers the X370 in the North American market; though at $700+, I can't imagine why you'd want to buy it. MSI isn't exactly known for the build quality of its netbooks, and their logo on something this thin makes me very leery.

    I've not handled a YB so I appreciate your comments regarding its keyboard. You don't paint a particularly compelling picture, especially since the Lenovo X120E and HP DM1Z both offer very solid keyboards. Again, it has a Sony logo on it...but is that logo worth hundreds of dollars?

    I'm not sure whether these even have WWAN slots, but if they do, would you mind checking to see if they support mSATA drives? That feature on a Brazos netbook would be very groovy...
    Reply
  • Arnulf - Tuesday, March 15, 2011 - link

    Thank you for testing those older game titles ! Reply
  • Kaboose - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    Good to know i can do some mining while on the go for cheap, My habit is usually to find a mountain and make myself a nice cave with an extensive mine system. This type of laptop will be perfect for me because I don't go outside much anyway. Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Tuesday, March 15, 2011 - link

    Mining is very important!

    .)

    I like to go straight down in a cylindrical path until I hit bedrock and then move out from there. All the good stuff is deep in the ground.
    Reply
  • Pirks - Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - link

    two cubical pervs, yuck Reply
  • nitrousoxide - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    These two offer some overclocking features, USB 3.0 and a not-so-big-not-so-small form factor (12.1''). Can't wait for their shipment. Reply
  • nitrousoxide - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    Will user experience be significantly improved? Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    That article is still in work, but the page 1 text says that any current SSD will help. Reply
  • ninjackn - Tuesday, March 15, 2011 - link

    Maybe I was expecting too much but I shoved an ocz agility into my acer 1410 (with a su2300) and didn't really notice much. It booted faster but I generally sleep/resume so it was hard for me to notice any significant differences. Reply
  • Quizzical - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    I've got an Acer Aspire 5253-BZ602 (upgraded with a 64 GB SSD and 4 GB of memory), which isn't one of the models reviewed here, but it should be roughly equivalent for gaming performance, as it is based on the same Zacate E-350 APU.

    I think the processor is likely to be the dominant factor in whether games can run smoothly. Usually, if the video card isn't terribly powerful, you can turn down video settings and be fine. (Well, within reason; people who buy a GeForce 6150 SE from Wal-Mart today are likely to be disappointed.) But if it's a processor bottleneck, you're stuck.

    I tried running Guild Wars, and it ran nearly the same as it does on my desktop (capped by vsync), and at nearly the same settings (shadows off because they're annoying, everything else in game maxed, including anti-aliasing, but 1366x768 resolution instead of 1280x1024). Of course, Guild Wars is so light on processor usage that my desktop processor declares itself idle and downclocks while the game is running, and without affecting performance. The bigger impediment to gameplay was that a monitor resolution a meager 768 pixels high is awkward with the default UI, though that's adjustable.

    I also tried Champions Online, which is known to be a lot more processor intensive. Even at extremely low graphical settings (safe mode in the launcher, /renderscale 0.1 for an effective resolution of 137x77), it was stuck at about 20 frames per second. I could turn up video settings quite a bit from there without the frame rate budging much.

    I don't like the idea of Civilization 4 on a netbook, though. Even my desktop Core i7 doesn't run the game that well--and not nearly as well as my old Pentium II ran Civ 2. It's a processor issue, not a graphics issue; the game can render smoothly at high settings on a Radeon X1300 Pro. Civ 4 only proves that no matter how fast your hardware is, a sufficiently badly coded game can still run poorly.

    So I'd expect that one proxy for whether the Zacate E-350 APU can run a game smoothly is whether a high end desktop can hit 200 frames per second or so at low settings, without running into a processor bottleneck first.
    Reply

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