Hands on with an imaginary Apple netbook

The computer industry is abuzz about “netbooks,” the hot new category of dirt-cheap tiny laptops made by companies such as Asus and MSI. And, as you might expect, the media is also buzzing about the fact that Apple doesn’t make one. (At $999, the least-expensive MacBook costs three times the street price of an MSI Wind laptop.)

As for Apple, it’s playing coy—as usual. In late January, Apple COO Tim Cook said that the company was “watching that space… We’ve got some ideas here.” But, Cook warned, “right now we think the products there are inferior and will not provide an experience to customers that they are happy with.”

I’m not at all convinced that Apple needs to produce a $300 laptop or risk losing its laptop market share to the netbook crowd. In its last financial quarter, the company sold more laptops than it’s ever sold before, all without deigning to play in the world of the netbook. And how much profit margin can Apple really wring out of any sub-$500 laptop?

So I bought a netbook

However, one of the best things about netbooks is that it’s cheap to buy one and take it for a test drive! So that’s what I did. In December I bought an MSI Wind U100 from Amazon.com for $340. It’s got a 120 GB hard drive, 10-inch screen, and 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. And then, to fully emulate the Mac netbook experience—because unlike my colleague Peter Cohen, I’m not interested in a tiny laptop if it’s running Windows—I installed Mac OS X on the thing.

A bird's-eye view of the MSI Wind U100.
Now, we’re absolutely not going to publish a step-by-step look at how you get an MSI Wind netbook to run Mac OS X. Wired’s Brian Chen tried that, and if you didn’t notice, you can’t read those stories or watch those videos on Wired’s site anymore. Of course, there are plenty of sources out there on the big, bad Internet that will let you know how to do it. (We also covered the whole Hackintosh thing recently in Rob Griffiths’ Frankenmac series — but again, without any step-by-step tips. You're on your own for those.)

Besides which, this exercise was not about hacking the Wind in order to run OS X. The entire reason I embarked on this journey was to try and imagine what an Apple netbook might be like. And if you take a few blows to the head, you could almost begin to imagine that the MSI Wind is a MacBook Mini that fell through a rift in the space-time continuum. Almost.

MacBook Mini from Earth-U100

Netbooks are cheap for a reason. The specs of my MSI Wind U100 are the very definition of “inferior”—a single-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM, a 120 GB hard drive, a limited-capacity battery, a tiny 10-inch screen, a shrunken keyboard, and no optical drive. In Mac terms, its closest cousin might be a 2005-vintage iBook G4.

On pure physical terms, however, the Wind has that classic Apple iBook styling—it looks like a shrunken-down version of Apple’s $999 MacBook, right down to the shiny white plastic finish. It’s got a built-in video camera and microphone above the display, a clamshell case that opens and closes without a latch, even a familiar-looking trackpad.

Comparing the MSI Wind netbook (left) to a 12-inch PowerBook.
And the Wind has a lot of things going for it. In a few key areas, the Wind even outstrips the functionality of Apple’s laptops, especially the Air.

Let’s start with the size. The 10-inch display (1024 by 600 pixels) is cramped, although I didn’t feel as miserable using it as I thought I would. (It’s only slightly smaller than the 1024 by 768 resolution on the old 12-inch PowerBook G4, and I dearly loved that laptop, but toward the end of its life it was clear that Apple was designing all of its software for larger, wider screens.)

While I was using the Wind, I felt obligated to set the Dock to hide, collapse as many toolbars as possible, and hide Safari’s Status Bar and Bookmarks Bar just to eke out a bit more vertical height. Some dialog boxes were too tall to fit on the screen, and iMovie wouldn’t run at all.

The Wind weighs 2.3 pounds, making it 23 percent lighter than the Air and a full half-pound lighter than Neal Stephenson’s latest hardcover. It’s quite a bit thicker than the Air, of course, but I found carrying around the tiny Wind to be a joy. Some of that has to do with the lighter weight, but some of it has to do with the shape of the thing. The Wind, being thicker but smaller, carries like a hardcover book. In contrast, carrying the Air—wide but thin—feels more like you’re toting a rigid manila folder or a portfolio.

Most impressively, it’s equipped with three USB ports to the Air’s one. It’s also got video out (it’s only VGA, but at least it’s such a commonly used port that adapters aren’t necessary), a 10/100 Ethernet jack, and—in a boon to digital photographers—a built-in SD card slot.

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