MSI Wind Nettop CS 120 Compact PC
At a Glance
MSI Wind Nettop
Minus a touchscreen, the supersmall Wind Nettop delivers performance comparable to that of pricier entry-level all-in-ones.
Calling the MSI Wind Nettop CS 120 a "value PC" is like calling a McDonald's hamburger a feast. You know the kind of quality you're in for when you order fast food--and that's the same mindset you should use when approaching a $320 compact desktop like the Nettop (as of 5/4/09). But I'm not about to rag on this PC because of its price--if anything, that's the most compelling reason to pick it up.
The Nettop runs on an older 1.6GHz Intel Atom 230 processor, even though more-recent all-in-one systems like the Shuttle X50 have opted for the newer Atom 330 variant. Only 1GB of DDR2-667 RAM rests inside this 11.8-by-2.6-by-9.45-inch mini-PC; that's just enough to run the Windows XP Home operating system that comes preinstalled on the Nettop's single Western Digital 160GB hard drive. (MSI doesn't offer Linux as an option, though you could install it yourself.)
Don't expect to use the Nettop to play all sorts of games (aside from Flash-based ones). Its integrated Intel 82945G Express chipset couldn't handle any of our common PC benchmarks on any resolution. Although the Nettop's WorldBench 6 score of 42 was neck-and-neck with the marks of the more expensive Atom-based all-in-one PCs we've reviewed, including the aforementioned X50 and the Asus Eee Top 1602 mini-desktop, the new Atom chipset doesn't appear to make much of a difference in performance on the low end of the value PC spectrum.
As for connectivity options, the Nettop seems to be on a bread-and-water diet. A total of four USB ports, one gigabit ethernet port, and integrated 5.1 surround sound on the system's rear offer just enough functionality to get by, and two USB ports and a four-in-one card reader on the Nettop's front make a passing attempt at usefulness for your external devices. The case itself is as drab as can be: Its dull, black exterior helps the Nettop look just as you'd expect for the price. I was surprised, though, to find a slot-loading CD burner on the system's front. That's one feature that sets the Nettop apart from some of its all-in-one rivals, including the optical-drive-less Asus Eee Top 1602.
The Nettop doesn't come with any PCI-based devices, nor should you expect to be able to install any within the tiny confines of this compact computer. With some fancy twists of a screwdriver and the assistance of your friend the hacksaw, you might be able to remove and replace the Nettop's hard drive. Swapping the SODIMM RAM is as easy as taking the stick out and putting a new stick in; but again, you can only replace--not supplement.
Conspicuously, the Nettop doesn't come with any input devices. Although MSI probably figures that you'll just use a keyboard and mouse lying around your house, this is a grave omission for first-time PC buyers. There's budget pricing, and then there's "save me a trip back to the store"--I'd rather see MSI err on the side of caution, include the input devices, and jack the price up a measly $10.
What makes the MSI Wind Nettop compelling? It's not the performance or the parts--not directly, anyway. They're more a validation, as the Nettop's seemingly poor equipment actually matches what you can find in the super-low-end, all-in-one PC category right now. If you aren't in need of a system with a built-in touchscreen, the Nettop delivers identical performance and storage compared with those $500-to-$700 all-in-one machines, but for around half the cost.
You'll still need to throw in a mouse, a keyboard, and a monitor of your own to make this PC usable, however. And because of that, at this low a price point, you might instead turn your attention to some other contenders--namely, netbooks. Why would you want a slower, boring desktop PC when you could have all of its features--as well as a keyboard, a mouse, and a screen--in a sub-$400, portable PC?