Look and feel
For a machine with the word "slide" in the name, it's awfully hard to open.
Back when we first saw the S20 at Computex 2012, we came away wondering if perhaps MSI was returning to its netbook roots. Chiefly, we were referring to its cramped keyboard but as it happens, our dismissal could easily apply to the rest of the design as well. Part of that has to do with the materials used. Save for the underside, which is made of aluminum, the entire thing is fashioned out of plastic. White plastic, with a couple chrome accents thrown in near the keyboard for good measure. The screen, in particular, is ringed with a wide band of shiny stuff -- it has a subtle metallic sheen if you look closely, but from afar it just looks plain and tacky.
On the plus side, the underbelly -- you know, the area that becomes exposed when you slide the screen up -- is much more polished than on other sliders we've seen, like the Toshiba Satellite U925t. Which is to say, you can't see any exposed hinge mechanisms or anything of that ilk. What you will find, however, is a large vent sitting right behind the display -- a trade-off for having a perfectly smooth bottom side. That fan had to go somewhere, right?
All our snark aside, it's the build quality that makes it impossible for us to take the S20 seriously. For a machine with the word "slide" in the name, it's awfully hard to open. Every time you slide (nay, push) the display back, you can feel it rubbing up against the keyboard underneath. There are other off-putting details too: if you press the Start button on the lower bezel while the screen is propped up, the entire display moves. The screen is easy to jiggle once it's upright.
If we can offer a ray of sunshine here, MSI did get the overall shape right. The build quality, not so much, but at least it's comfortable to hold. The curved edges and rounded-off corners mean it'll never dig into your palm when you're holding it one-handed.
Scattered about the machine is an impressive collection of ports -- Ultrabooks are usually lacking in that department, with 11-inch models getting the shortest end of the stick. Somehow, though, MSI squeezed in an Ethernet jack and full-sized HDMI socket, along with two USB 3.0 connections, an audio port and a memory card reader, tucked around back.
You know what's fun? Writing a laptop review using a keyboard that has no built-in touchpad or tracking stick. It's not something that bothered us either of the times we got hands-on, but it's plenty annoying once you try to get some real work done in desktop mode. For those of you who have a Bluetooth mouse handy, this shouldn't be a big deal, though even then, who wants to have to pack a mouse every time they take this thing on the road? If you're okay bringing your own peripherals, that's fine, but if MSI attempts to build another Windows 8 slider, we'd suggest adding a small touchpad like Toshiba did, or even an optical tracking point à la Sony.
It's a shame because we don't hate the keyboard quite as much as we thought we would (you know, given our previous experience with sliders). Considering the keyboard only takes up about half the available deck space, the keys feel fairly well-spaced, though the layout is still cramped compared to a normal clamshell laptop, and the underlying panel could definitely be sturdier. More than anything, we struggled with the shallow pitch, which meant our key presses didn't always register. It's unfortunate, for sure, and it's a problem we have with most Ultrabooks, frankly -- can't have a thin laptop with a fat keyboard panel, don'tcha know?
Finally, in case you're wondering, the keyboard isn't backlit, which sort of stinks when you're paying $1,200 for a laptop. It's a feature you might not need, per se, but at this price it's one you'd expect to have.
Display and sound
Though we're not normally into sliders, the S20's display, ironically enough, might be our favorite thing about it. For starters, it comes stacked with excellent credentials: IPS technology for wide viewing angles, with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels crammed into an 11.6-inch panel (talk about dense). Just as important, though, MSI did a very smart thing in making the screen angle adjustable -- something you won't find on other sliders, or most dockable tablets, for that matter.
The S20 has two speakers, each located on the bottom side, though not in any sort of symmetrical arrangement. Despite the asymmetry there, the soundstage feels balanced -- until we went hunting for the speakers, we weren't sure exactly where the audio was coming from. And that's a good thing: no one wants to watch a movie with the sensation that all the explosions and sound effects are coming from somewhere on the left. I also found that although the speakers sit on the underside of the device, the sound didn't really get muffled when listening to music with the laptop in my lap. As you can imagine, the quality itself is a bit tinny, but it's no worse than most other laptops we've tested. Keep the volume somewhere short of the top level, and you should get by without much distortion.
Performance and battery life
Unlike most other Windows 8 Ultrabooks we've tested, the S20 comes standard with eight gigs of RAM, not four. And while that doesn't appear to boost the performance very much, it certainly doesn't hurt it either. If you look at the benchmark scores, the S20 actually notches slightly lower results than other Core i5 machines, such as the Toshiba Satellite U925t, the Dell XPS 12, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and even the Microsoft Surface Pro on certain tests.
That said, we'd be crazy to write off the S20 for delivering bad performance. What's not to like about an eight-second startup time? It's not like other Ultrabooks will boot into the Start screen faster, anyway. And while the SanDisk SSD's peak read speeds of 484 MB/s rank slightly below what we've seen, those 286 MB/s writes are right on par with the competition. All told, we had no problem writing this review on the machine while juggling various open tabs in IE10. Well, no problems except for that cramped, bendable keyboard, anyway.
It's a sad, sad day when a laptop lasts just four and a half hours on our battery life test, and we say, "Hey, it could've been worse." Still, when we saw the S20's battery life results, we did little more than shrug. Yes, 4.5 hours is bad, but given that most touchscreen Ultrabooks with Ivy Bridge processors deliver poor battery life, we've had to lower our expectations a bit (or a lot). Consider, for instance, that the 11-inch ASUS TAICHI 21 lasted 3:54 in the same test, while the Surface Pro squeezed out a similar 3:46. Even so, the Toshiba Satellite U925t and the Sony VAIO Duo 11 are each capable of about five hours, give or take a few minutes.
Software and warranty
The good news is that it's slim pickings as far as unwanted pre-installed software goes. All we found on our test system was Evernote, Fresh Paint, Music Maker Jam, PuzzleTouch, CookBook and a trial of Norton Internet Security. There's also Skype, but that doesn't even register as bloatware, seeing as how Microsoft owns Skype now, and it's a useful, widely used application. If you're not a gamer, you might not appreciate the pre-loaded Xbox Live games but fortunately, they're few in number: it's just Adera, Microsoft Mahjong, Pinball FX2, Taptiles and Microsoft Solitaire Collection. As for the warranty, the Slidebook S20 comes with one year of coverage, putting it on par with almost every other consumer laptop we've tested.
Configuration options and the competition
In the US, at least, you'll find just one configuration for sale: the $1,200 model we tested with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. That means you better be willing to do without Core i7 or a bigger 256GB drive if you're going to go all-in.
You're better off with a different form factor.
If, after all our kvetching, you still think a slider is the way to go, we'll begrudgingly walk you through some (slightly) better options. Starting with Sony, the VAIO Duo 11 also lacks a touchpad, but at least has two small touch buttons and an optical tracking stick wedged into the middle of the keyboard. Again, the battery life is longer, too, at around five hours. The bad news? The $1,200 model starts with lesser specs -- a Core i3 processor and four gigs of RAM -- but at least you even have the option to upgrade to Core i7 and a 256GB drive. Meanwhile, Toshiba's Satellite U925t starts at a more reasonable $1,050 with a Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM, but the screen resolution is fixed at 1,366 x 768, and you can't configure it with better specs.
Honestly, though, you're better off going with a different form factor altogether. Our reigning favorites are the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, whose screen folds all the way backward like a book, and the Dell XPS 12, a laptop whose display pops out of its hinge allowing you to flip it over into tablet mode. Both offer comfortable keyboards with comparable performance and battery life; the Yoga is probably the more versatile of the two, though the Dell XPS 12 benefits from a sharper 1080p display (the Yoga 13 is 1,600 x 900 only).
And who knows what other convertibles we're going to see in the coming months, particularly once Intel starts shipping its Haswell chips? We're already waiting with bated breath for the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, an 11-inch laptop / tablet hybrid with a keyboard dock that lets you insert the tablet with the screen facing either forward or backward (great for presentations). That's delayed until at least next month, though. And that's not even counting all the Ultrabooks we don't yet know about. So, it might be worth waiting -- good advice regardless of whether you want a notebook from MSI or any other manufacturer.
Nope. Still not sold on the slider form factor. Like we've been saying, Ultrabooks with this design are flawed almost by definition, with the propped-up display usually ruining the typing experience. That's true of the Slidebook S20 too, though the build quality is so lacking that we're almost insulted MSI dared to charge $1,200 for this thing. It's also tough to recommend a laptop with high-end, Ultrabook-grade specs when it doesn't even have a mouse or touchpad for navigating desktop apps in 1080p.
If nothing else (and really, there aren't many nice things to say), we appreciate that the battery life is longer than on some other 11-inch PCs with similar specs. What's more, MSI figured out how to make a slider with an adjustable display, which other OEMs should take note of -- if they decide to make any more systems with this form factor. Truly, though, we'd suggest getting another slider or, better yet, an Ultrabook with a different design altogether.