MSI's Megabook S250I type this sat in the visa application office at the Chinese Embassy in Rusholme, Manchester, in anticipation of a short trip to China after I've finished my tour of duty at Computex 2005, in Taipei, over the next few weeks. My preparations for Computex and the short two-day hop to ShenZhen have gone well enough, not least with the arrival of a laptop highly suited to extended lugging around trade show floors and long-haul flights.
If I'm honest, I'm not looking forward to Computex, my first visit to the show and that part of the world, as much as I probably should be. The weather, with 30 degree plus heat and 100% humidity, isn't the natural environment for a sun-shy wannabe technologist, especially one who baulks at exposure to the sun's rays and is much more at home basking in the glow from a bunch of LCD monitors.
Being away from more than two weeks requires taking a decent sized suitcase just for clothes, never mind bags for the other tools of my trade. That's why I wasn't looking forward to lugging my usual notebook, a Dell Latitude D600 with 14 inch screen, to Computex, despite it being fairly slim compared to some I've had the experience of using in recent months. The Dell is a comfortable travel companion in its carry bag, but I've found, most recently on a trip to Germany for CeBIT, that carrying it around a show floor for the better part of a day leaves it wearing unwell on my shoulder. I was very relieved at the end of CeBIT days to put the laptop down in the press centre to tap up a story or two.
Solace was to be found from the kind folks at MSI. They've arranged for me to borrow one of their Megabook S250s for the duration of my trip (and hopefully some time afterwards!) to Taipei and ShenZhen, and it's in a different class of portability to my usual Dell. You may have seen the sleek black Megabook S270 on HEXUS' pages in recent times. Powered by Athlon 64 or Turion, the S270 sports a 12" widescreen LCD in a tiny chassis, making it one of the smallest 64-bit notebook PCs that you can buy at the time of writing.
The S250 shares the same chassis, but packs Pentium-M under the hood instead, this time coloured white. The S260 is the same P-M notebook, just in black.
The chassis is aluminium to the best of my knowledge; the light weight of the thing and its coldness to touch definitely isn't plastic. Flipping up the lid, held shut by a decent spring-loaded catch, reveals a notebook tiny in size, yet not so small that diminutive size makes it a problem to use for extended periods. I've used things like Toshiba Librettos in the past, with sub 12 inch screens and tiny keyboards that you don't dare type on for long spells, but the Megabook S250 is no such beast.
The keyboard retains decently sized keys, with only the Enter and Backspace key smaller than I would like. It places the Fn function key modifier too close to the Control key down on the left, but that's an affliction of all recent notebooks that I learn to tolerate. Extending a pinky finger down to press Control often touches Fn instead, but these days I don't swear at myself when I do so. At least, I don't in the presence of the kind ladies at the visa office currently processing my application.
The function keys along the leading edge of the keyboard are the only keys to really sacrifice size for space, but unless you remap them to alphanumeric keys, you'll not be put off. With a US key layout and my subsequent remapping to a UK key-map, I'm left using Character Map to type backslash characters, but that's the only character I commonly use that's impossible to type without help. Of course, if you purchase a UK-localised model, you won't suffer that same issue. The keyboard itself is great to type on, even for long spells, although it's fairly noisy with your key action and the left hand side of the keyboard seems less secured to the chassis as the right side.
Above the keyboard's leading edge is a very Mac-esque power button with white LED surround to denote power to the unit. Four fixed-function keys, two either side, provide quick access to the default mail, web browser (with that button adorned by the Internet Explorer 'E', scandalously) and file search, with the fourth activating and deactivating the wireless radio for WiFi functionality.
The touchpad is smaller than I usually like, and very sensitive to light brushes across its surface by careless fingers, but its accuracy is impressive and I don't dislike using it, as I do on my Dell. The mouse buttons are small but remain easy to press, even on their front edges, which lets me use the edge of my thumb to depress them. That matches my preferred way of using a notebook in terms of where I lay my hands on the keyboard and wrist rest, which hasn't been possible with other notebooks I've used recently, and to some extent with my Dell.
There's generous room either side of the touchpad for resting your wrists or the ball of your hand, with the chassis only getting warm there with the heat from your body, rather than any mechanical heat generated by the unit. A set of status LEDs lie in between the lid's catch holes and they glow very diffuse, a nice change from the ultra-bright LEDs that spoil many consumer electronics items.
The screen, 1280x800 pixels filling the 12 inch diagonal, is too reflective for my tastes. As I sit here in the Embassy, the sun shining through thick curtains on ornate barred windows, I can see my ugly mug stare back at me in the screen all too easily, something I have an extreme dislike for. That type of screen often has great brightness - this one does - and contrast - not that great on this example - but the trade-off for the reflectivity is one I wouldn't make were I purchasing this Megabook with my own money. I can angle the screen towards me and minimise the effect without too much drop-off in visibility due to a fine viewing angle range, but brightness falls off, the unit's screen lamps seemingly only emissive if you stare straight at it, head-on.
It's a perfect resolution for such a screen size, though, and I've enjoyed web browsing and this spot of writing with plenty of pixel real-estate to spare. I wish my own 20 inch LCD at home had such a pixel-per-inch ratio. 12 inch notebooks are king, for this reviewer, in terms of their screen size and usual pixel area.
Unlike most notebooks, there's no port cluster on the rear edge of the unit. That space is where the removable battery lies for the Megabook S250, S260 and AMD-powered S270. Ports are therefore distributed along the sides and front. Down the left you've got the DVD rewriter's tray space, an integrated media reader slot that'll do SD, MMC and MemoryStick, USB2.0 port and a PC Card slot. Down the front you've got microphone and headphone and an unpowered FireWire400 port, and on the right you've got a pair of USB2.0, 100Mibit/sec Ethernet and modem ports, VGA output and the port to plug in the tiny power adaptor.
There are relatively few connectivity options with the S250, due to its size but those that are offered cover pretty much all the bases you'll want to visit.
Software wise, MSI loaded up the notebook with Windows XP Home, some Cyberlink software to watch and create DVDs and Norton AV and Internet Security. I'm not sure if that's representative of a retail software bundle but I imagine it's not far off.
The 1.5GHz Pentium-M is paired with 512MiB of memory, from which the integrated SiS M661MX graphics chip steals 32MiB for its own use. It's a bit much to drive a 2D frame buffer at 1280x800 and while it has basic 3D functionality, it wouldn't hurt for the graphics chip to make use of half the memory it does. Toshiba's 60GB (around 53GiB) MK6021GAS 2.5 inch hard disk is responsible for storage. As an aside, I have that drive and a couple of others in for a drive roundup, so look out for that shortly after Computex.
A Slimtype SOSW-852S is the S250's optical drive and it lets you burn CDs and DVDs using the supplied Cyberlink software. It'd be rude not to find the SiS 802.11g WiFi networking hardware in the S250, connectivity a big deal across the notebook world these days. It currently finds the Netgear access point in the Chinese Embassy and it hooks up to my Belkin hardware at home without any problems either, at full 54g speeds. Notably, it supports WPA encryption, a networking standard that far supersedes WEP as a way to keep your communications and home network safe.
All the hardware combines to give me, on the first few charges after getting the machine, around 2 hours battery life with the WiFi enabled, although the very first run of the battery after the initial charge revealed battery life closer to an hour. First-use peculiarities aside, it seems up to the task of letting me watch a few episodes of Stargate Atlantis, or a full DVD movie, from a single charge, on the flight to Taipei. Good stuff.
It was supplied with a made-to-fit carry bag which carries the S250, its tiny power adaptor and much bulkier power cord with ease, with room to spare for some DVDs I need to take, a couple of disks with films and TV episodes I've been saving and the usual peripheral stuff like pens and a small paper notebook. Even loaded with that lot, it barely registers as a weight on my shoulder, which bodes well for the all important march around the Computex show floor in less than two weeks time.
While I'd have preferred the looks of the black S260 over the iBook-looking white of the S250, the hardware's capable enough for what I'll use it for out in Taiwan, leaving me without lust for the sexier and more powerful S270.
To sum up this peek at MSI's mini marvel, it's the absolute perfect size for my uses, outshining the horrible DTR models I've reviewed for HEXUS by a massive margin. Plenty of disk space and rock solid WiFi, along with great basic ergonomics have me putting the screen's reflective nature to one side while I enjoy the size and lack of weight of almost a perfect notebook for my needs. I'm a journo with no need for on-the-go 3D performance. I just write, so all I need is something tiny with plenty of pixels, good wireless and a keyboard I'm happy to tap on for hours on end.
The S250 fits that bill just fine, thanks very much. MSI will have a hard time prying it away from me when I get back, I can tell them that much. At around £700 including VAT and delivery from a couple of places in the U.K., if I ever have cause to avoid tech journo's perks and buy my own hardware, an S260 or S270 will be close to the top of my list. I lust after the Sony S3XP currently, with a slightly larger 13.3 inch screen with the same resolution, but the MSI's run a close second.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm being beckoned over to pay for and collect my visa to visit China. The sub-2kg S250 will do me just fine for that trip and Computex, easing the ache on my shoulder significantly at the end of the long days. Cheers to MSI for the short loan of their newest notebook toy.