MSI netbook costs $120 less than the iPad, does actual work

Netbooks have been evolving for the past couple of years, and this MSI Wind U160 is the most refined example of the breed we've seen yet. MSI lent us one of the slim, light, cheap bronze-colored baubles, and we took it on the road for a week, testing its ability to get real work done on the go. The tiny PC aims to be a net-surfing, versatile netbook, and it nails it at a price that's way less than the iPad.

At first glance, this baby is a beauty. With its "Fancy Gold" color (we'd call it more of a classy-looking bronze), wispy 2.2 pound weight, sharp 10.1-inch LED-backlit screen, and clean lines, it's no wonder it won a product design award. Its pulchritude goes more than skin deep, because its 1.66GHz Intel N450 Atom processor is just fast enough to breeze through processor-intensive tasks such as Photoshop image editing and speech recognition.

That energy-efficient Atom processor is part of Intel's next-generation Pine Trail platform, with MSI claiming an astonishing 15-hour battery life for this U160. With our constant use, that didn't seem possible unless we kept the screen dimmed way down and let it sleep most of the time, but we did get a good 7 to 8 hours' worth of use before the battery fizzled. Even though that's less time than advertised, it's remarkable — long enough to get a day's work done.

A highlight of the design is the seamless touchpad, blending itself into the laptop's surface with a pleasant nubby texture. And that 10-inch screen, while at first seeming too small, is just large enough to get the job done, and its graphics performance smooth enough to enjoy a movie or two on the plane. In fact, the size of the 10-inch screen proved itself nearly perfect for a cramped airplane seat when that rube in front of me reclined his seatback into my lap.

The U160 as tested can be found for around $380, but there's a slight penalty for that rock-bottom price: its Windows 7 Starter operating system. Although it's not crippled to just three applications running at the same time as Microsoft originally announced — and it was pretty much like other versions of Windows 7 — it wouldn't let us change the desktop wallpaper. We found that annoying enough to go ahead and install a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate, which ran like the wind. It's an aptly named notebook, indeed.

While we'd like to see more than the standard 1GB of RAM on board, that configuration still allowed us to run five or six apps at the same time with barely any slowdown. Even though this is a tiny laptop, its keyboard is almost the size of much larger notebooks, with keys that push down to a shallow depth but feel just right.

It's hard to believe you can get such a quality laptop for such a low price. With its upgraded Intel N450 Atom processor, it's just fast enough to get work done on the road. Will you be able to do that with an iPad? Or would a $500 ASUS convertible netbook be a better candidate? Like the iPad, this MSI Wind U160 is excellent for viewing movies and browsing websites, but unlike the iPad, you can choose your browser. We'll compare the two side by side, but for now, we're digging the value and versatility of this gorgeous laptop.