Intel never intended for the ultra-low-voltage Atom processor to power anything but ultraportable PCs, but its widespread popularity in netbooks has now earned the chip yet another new home in desktop computers as well. Manufacturers like Asus, Averatec and Shuttle have all turned to the netbook parts pile to begin churning out all-in-one PCs that employ the same hardware, and although performance isn’t a selling point for this new breed, price is. Consider MSI’s Atom-powered AE1900, which sells for just $530. For a full PC with all the accoutrements, including an 18.5-inch monitor, keyboard, and mouse, that’s an awfully inviting package in a cash-strapped economy. And, like HP’s TouchSmart (which utilizes the beefier Intel Core 2 Duo platform), this model has full touchscreen capabilities. But does all the bean counting add up to a barebones value machine, or a PC crippled by cut corners? Read on to find out.
Features & Design
MSI has never been shy about drawing inspiration for its products from elsewhere in the computer world, and the Wind Top clearly has the stylistic roots of an Apple tree. In fact, if you peeled off the mirror-finish MSI logo, you might even mistake it for the acrylic-rimmed displays that came with the old G4 – nearly everyone who stumbled across it in our office couldn’t help making the comparison. Of course, this one isn’t just a display: It’s a whole computer.
The entire package stands 14.37 inches tall, 18.74 inches wide, and just shy of two inches deep. Sure, the included mouse and keyboard add to its footprint, but we can realistically see an AE1900 at home in the kitchen or family room without dominating an entire table or countertop. A set of wireless peripherals (the included ones have wires) would definitely clean up the look, though.
The solid-feeling acrylic bezel and sure-footed rubber feet on the desktop itself give it a reasonably well-built feel, but the same cannot be said for MSI’s included accessories, which feel like they belong with a My First Computer playset from Toys R Us. The child-sized mouse feels light enough to lift off the desk like a balloon at any moment, and the flimsy keyboard drew the ire of the entire office with its clacky key presses. As partial redemption, MSI at least offers media controls on it.
True to the minimalist design ethos MSI adopted for the Wind Top, you’ll find no ports or connectors on the front, only a 1.3-megapixel webcam and mic up top, as well as a glowing power icon on the bottom to indicate when the machine’s running. The power switch, volume and brightness controls have been hidden to the right of the screen, but you can still easily access them from the front using the icons printed on the bezel to locate them blind.
The left-hand side contains all the ports you’ll need quick access to, including two USB ports for thumb drives and accessories, an SD/MMC/MS card reader, and a DVD drive. While the ability to play CDs and DVDs sets this desktop apart from netbook offerings, we would have preferred a slot-loading version. The tray on this version was awkward to load, and wobbled so much that we frequently snagged it on the surrounding bezel when trying to push it back in.
The back offers two more USB ports for the mouse and keyboard, an Ethernet jack, power jack (for the included power supply, which is external) as well as jacks for headphones and a microphone. Though we wouldn’t expect many all-in-one system buyers to look for expandability, the lack of a display output on this machine means it can never serve as a media center – not even a makeshift one. And if you ever want to run dual displays, forget about it. Considering that most netbooks manage at least a DVI port (and some an HDMI), this seems like a sloppy omission.
Like most all-in-one machines, the Wind Top goes from boxed to useable in minutes. Unwrap the desktop and plug in the power adapter, mouse, and keyboard, and you’re off and running. But the adjustable leg that props up the monitor from behind could use some improvement. Not only does it offer very little in the way of adjustment, by some oddity, leaning it all the way back disables both the mouse and touch screen, rendering the PC useless.
Firing the AE1900 up takes 55 seconds from button press to entering Windows, but you can expect to wait another 20 seconds or so until Windows will be useable. Part of the delay comes from MSI’s Wind Touch software, which opens automatically on bootup.
Despite using the same processor and integrated Intel graphics chip as most netbooks, the AE1900 seemed slightly more sluggish in the course of normal Windows operations. We suspect resolution has something to do with it. While most netbooks run at 1024×600 resolution, the Wind Top has to handle 1366×768 resolution, giving it about 70 percent more pixels to drive. Even so, the difference was barely noticeable, and most users should have no issues carrying out their everyday work with it. Without Windows Vista on board, the experience was nowhere near as painful as using the overworked Atom in Sony’s Vaio P. All but the most frazzled multitaskers should find the included 1GB of RAM (which sadly can’t be upgraded due to the PC’s design) adequate.
We were, however, disappointed with the Wind Top’s multimedia capabilities. MSI advertises the screen’s 16:9 aspect ratio as being ideal for movies, but the hardware wasn’t entirely up to the task. In our experience, movie trailers in both 720p and 1080p bogged down when played in full-screen mode. DVDs played back acceptably, but the included CyberLink PowerDVD software had trouble filling up the screen on some movies without improperly scaling them. (VLC Media Player – a great, free alternative – handled it without problems, though.) YouTube videos in standard and high quality played fine, but 720p footage again presented a problem.
Given the Wind Top’s touchscreen and Windows XP’s lack of touch-oriented features, MSI has equipped the box with a customized suite of software and launch bar for it that helps users use it without a mouse and keyboard. MSI Wind Touch opens with Windows and presents the user with four tabs: Work, fun, tool, and Web, with finger-sized icons under each one. Many of Windows’ standard applications have been worked into these categories, but MSI has added a handful of its own freeware choices, too. These include some familiar faces like GIMP 2 and Adobe Reader, along with some smaller titles, like FreeMind for making tree charts and Dia for diagrams. First-time users will probably appreciate this raft of free software, but we couldn’t quite figure out why more notable (and important) titles are omitted, like Firefox. Even if MSI was unable to preinstall it due to licensing restrictions, leaving the preinstalled version of Internet Explorer at version 6 – which was released in 2003 and doesn’t even include support for tabs – seems like a major oversight. More frustratingly, you’re not able to add shortcuts to the list, meaning that after you add your browser of choice, install some games or office software, none of it will be available through Wind Touch. We can quickly see most users abandoning it entirely after getting over the initially installed applications.
Beyond the actual launcher, MSI hasn’t included much in the way of touch-tailored apps. EasyViewer purports to offer some sort of slideshow experience setup especially for the touch interface, but we found it buggy, weak in features and less than intuitive, despite a rather slick scrolling effect. SoftStylus, a Motorola program meant to facilitate finger writing, was so painfully slow to produce characters with, we couldn’t even imagine trying to use in place of a real keyboard.
Oddly enough, MSI actually includes more programs catering to the webcam built into the Wind Top, which is a far less exotic feature than the touchscreen. You can take goofy photos with q-Face, use your face as a password with EasyLogin, and even play games by moving your head back in forth in the creatively named Chicken Game and Star Game. Of these, only the facial login, which worked remarkably well, really saw any use from us. The games were both far too imprecise and frustrating, and q-Face probably won’t appeal to anyone older than 13.
Though our touchscreen worked flawlessly right off the bat, it’s worth noting that the touch calibration tool included under Wind Touch wouldn’t even load – we had to find the utility in the system tray and open it manually, which less tech-savvy users may have trouble with.
For the bargain basement price, MSI’s AE1900 Wind Top makes a fine living room machine, spare computer, or e-mail station. Though it costs about $130 more than your average netbook, the Wind Top offers a bigger screen with touch capabilities, an optical drive, and full-sized peripherals, making it a better choice for use as a sole computer. All of the Wind Top’s comparably-priced competitors will offer about the same performance from the same hardware, but MSI’s cheap peripherals, small collection of programs that make use of the touchscreen, and bizarre monitor stand glitch would all make us think twice before buying this particular incarnation of an Atom-powered desktop. Averatec’s $550 version remedies the video output situation with a VGA connector, and Acer’s upcoming Revo should improve the high-def situation with Nvidia’s Ion GPU under the hood. The AE1900 works, but there are plenty of reasons to look elsewhere, too.
- Energy efficient (50 watts at full bore)
- No trialware
- Face login works well
- Monitor stand glitch
- Low screen resolution
- Cheap peripherals
- Not powerful enough for HD multimedia
- No video output
- Weak touch-based software