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Innovation can be a double-edged sword. While we've been frank in our criticism of netbooks for their lack of just that, it's as much a reflection of the sector and its demands as the strategy of any manufacturer - when you're trying to make low-cost devices there isn't a great deal of wiggle room! It's a problem that's amply demonstrated by the MSI Wind U115 (U115-025UK), which MSI terms a 'hybrid netbook' due to its use of both solid state storage and a mechanical hard drive. This is without doubt an innovation, but it comes at a price.
That price is £450 - yes, you did read that correctly. That, in anyone's book, is a lot of money for a netbook, but MSI has thrown the book at the U115 where features are concerned. Notwithstanding the hybrid storage element (which we'll get onto in a moment) the U115 joins a select group of netbooks that use Intel's GMA 500 graphics chipset. Unlike most netbooks this offers a hardware video decoder for HD video, just provided it's encoded in MPEG-2, VC-1, WMV9 or AVCHD (h.264) codecs. It's also very dependent on a software player that supports this hardware decoding, so there are a few hurdles to jump over before you can benefit from this feature.
This change of chipset even necessitates a change of processor, though don't get too excited, since it's still a 1.6GHz effort, the Intel Atom Z530. This is joined by the usual 1GB of RAM, but Draft-N Wi-Fi and Bluetooth also make the trip - as does a 1.3 megapixel webcam. Also included in the box is a very smart slip-case, among the best we've seen with any netbook. It's a well-padded effort that also features a useful accessories pouch that's perfect for carrying the power supply, a pen and a notepad.
Clearly it's the storage configuration that's the key component, though. In the U115 you get an 8GB internal flash drive, onto which Windows XP is installed. This is then supplemented by a 160GB hard drive for data storage. This means that the mechanical drive, which creates heat and draws more power, is only accessed when you're looking at data stored on the hard drive. This all has a cumulative effect in improving battery life, something that should be pretty good given the six-cell, 5,200mAh capacity battery supplied.
In fact, the U115 is among the best netbooks around where battery life is concerned. During web browsing we managed a projected 10 hours of use, which could be increased further by reducing the screen brightness from 40 per cent (the level at which we tested) to the minimum available. Moreover, an anti-glare finish to the 10in, 1,024 x 600 resolution display ensures it's easily viewable in normal household lighting at this level, so this needn't be an irritating compromise.
This 10-hour figure is impressive, but our video playback testing demonstrated rather well how effective MSI's hybrid configuration is. When playing a video from the 160GB 'data' drive the U115's battery life is reduced to around five and a half hours. This is still a decent result, but clearly using the hard drive has a noticeable impact on battery life. More's the pity manufacturers seem to have turned away from SSD storage on netbooks.