Not since the MacBook Air have we seen an ultraportable as sexy as the X-Slim 320. Weighing in at 2.8 pounds, MSI's notebook is lighter than Apple's MacBook Air, although it's also a hair thicker. It doesn't feel as solid as the aluminum-clad Air, but its minimalist design makes up for it with a welcome lack of obtrusive branding and gaudy lighting (we're looking at you Dell XPS). Unlike most ultraportables, the X-Slim 320 features a full keyboard along with a spacious track pad and mouse button. The keys aren't backlit (like the MacBook Air's), but should be comfortable for extended periods of typing. For customization, the X-Slim 320 will come in a variety of colors including Champagne, Black, and White. Based on looks alone, both of these laptops are winners, although the MacBook Air's tougher shell gives it a better advantage on the road.
Features & Connectivity
Whereas Apple sacrificed ports and connections in the name of design, MSI managed to load its laptop with more than enough connections for the average PC user. In addition to your standard headphone and mic jacks (which are also found on the MacBook Air), the X-Slim 320 has three USB ports, Ethernet, and a Secure Digital card slot. By comparison, the MacBook Air only has one USB port and an Ethernet port. The ultraportable's hard drive size is yet to be determined, but like the MacBook Air, users will have the option of outfitting the X-Slim 320 with a solid-state disk (SSD). However, MSI's biggest advantage is its inclusion of a memory card slot and a 3G modem, both of which the MacBook Air lacks.
Although it's not a netbook, MSI's laptop relies on Intel's Atom processor. While this helps keeps the cost of the laptop down, it also means it won't be as powerful as the MacBook Air, which houses a Core 2 Duo processor and significantly faster front-side bus. (MSI plans on releasing a dual-core version of the X-Slim 320 after it debuts the Atom-based model.)
The Atom CPU is fine for checking e-mail and word processing, but stutters when it comes to multimedia such as streaming HD content. Most people wouldn't do that on an ultraportable, but the MacBook Air has the advantage with its more powerful CPU. MSI hasn't announced the type of video card we can expect on the X-Slim 320, but chances are it will be integrated video like the MacBook Air's. (Of note, the new MacBook Air received a graphics upgrade, but the current refurbished MacBook Airs pack the older integrated video). Nevertheless, with the help of a Core 2 Duo processor, MSI's Atom-powered laptop is no match for the MacBook Air.
With a rated battery life of 10 hours, MSI's notebook easily trumps the MacBook Air's 4-1/2-hour battery. The reason behind MSI's win lies partially in its CPU of choice — the Atom processor. Intel designed this processor with energy efficiency in mind, whereas the custom-built Core 2 Duo inside the MacBook Air, although efficient, drains the battery in under 5 hours.
While most PCs come with pre-loaded apps, PCs are typically known for their bloatware and 30-day trials. The X-Slim 320 will most likely follow suit with this tradition and include basic apps like Microsoft Works and Nero. The MacBook Air on the other hand comes pre-loaded with Apple's iLife '08, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, iDVD, and iWeb. These apps can help you do everything from organizing your photos to creating a website. There are free PC-based alternatives to some of these programs (such as Google's Picasa for organizing your photos), but value-wise, Macs generally come with all the software you need for basic computing, which is what ultraportables such as the MacBook Air and X-Slim 320 are mainly used for.
Although it beats Apple's MacBook Air in features and battery life, the X-Slim 320 lacks the extra muscle needed to leave Apple behind. In the end, its Atom processor is its biggest liability, limiting the type of work you can do on this laptop. If you want an ultraportable that will be strictly used for simple tasks, you might be better off with a netbook like the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, which uses the same processor as the MSI, but costs significantly less ($349 at Lenovo). Otherwise, despite its higher price tag, the factory-refurbished Apple MacBook Air Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6GHz 13.3" Notebook ($999 at Apple Store) gives you more power and value for your money than the X-Slim.
It's worth noting that Dell plans on releasing an ultraportable later this year. Details are scarce, but images of the Dell Adamo have already surfaced. Although the laptop is being marketed as a "luxury" laptop, its pricing might still fall underneath the MacBook Air's.
Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor.
Update: For this feature, we compared a new MSI X-Slim 320 to the cost of purchasing a factory-refurbished MacBook Air. Why not a new one? Apple's refurbished systems are backed by a full 1-year warranty and known for their exceptional quality; we chose to use this as the "base" MacBook Air in which to compare the "base" MSI X-Slim 320.