Design and features
The VR603 doesn't pretend to be personalised to your needs, it doesn't pretend to be arty or fancy. It doesn't have lacquered designs or fancy features: it is a laptop, pure and simple. The AU$899 asking price should give this away — a price that makes it a fairly threatening competitor to the netbook market on price alone. Of course, if you're after portability nothing will beat an Atom-based laptop, but for performance and value, the MSI VR603 beats a netbook on all fronts.
Whether it's the 1280x800, 15.4-inch screen, the Pentium dual-core, 2.0GHz processor, the 2GB RAM or the 250GB hard drive, if you're looking for cheap, no frills computing without making too many sacrifices, the VR603 is it. It's equipped with a full-sized keyboard and numpad, four USB ports, a VGA port, ExpressCard slot, SD/MMC/MS card reader (with a spring so tight your card will be shot out about a metre upon release if you don't stop it), gigabit Ethernet and 56Kbps modem jacks. Line out and headphone and microphone jacks give it audio capability above the bog standard speakers, while 802.11g and Bluetooth round out the wireless capabilities. MSI's product page says it has 802.11n — but the Atheros 5007EG inside our laptop clearly is only capable of the g standard.
The power button is situated at the top right under the monitor, and next to it four quick access buttons for email, your browser of choice, wireless on/off and a button that switches between MSI's custom performance and battery profiles, which it calls "Eco mode", covering gaming, movie, presentation, office and turbo battery presets, as well as the ability to turn it all off and fall back on Windows' default profiles.
Software-wise, MSI still has the application on the desktop named Click Me.exe that does something then disappears, which makes us a little nervous, Microsoft Office 2007 trial is included, as is the Norton Internet Security 2009 trial. Ulead Burn Now and Crazy talk are also bundled, although what is not bundled, again, are touchpad drivers, and once again, MSI still hasn't managed to make them available on its site for download and Sentelic makes it highly difficult to obtain them too. This means by default you won't be able to turn off tap to click, or customise the sensitivity of the palm check. For those infuriated by this, you can find them buried in an MSI Wind user forum here.
Despite our fervent hopes, the Sentelic touchpad isn't dead either. This blight against usability requires you to either tap the top right of the touchpad to scroll up, or the bottom right to scroll down, rather than swiping the finger. Fine in theory, but in practice it often gets misinterpreted as a click, doesn't work at all or goes in the wrong direction. The sooner this hardware is gone the better.
With Intel integrated graphics the VR603 was never going to be a strong 3D performer, scoring 611 in 3DMark06. For general use though, it's perfectly fine, as reflected in the PCMark05 score of 3843. Running our brutally harsh battery test of playing back an XviD movie with all power-saving features turned off and screen brightness and volume up full, it lasted two hours, one minute and 14 seconds — about the expected result for a laptop of this power and in this price range.
If you're lured in by the price of a netbook but want more power, we can strongly recommend the step up to something like the VR603 for the same price. We hesitate to give our unconditional recommendation due to the inclusion of the terrible Sentelic touchpad and MSI's continued insistence to not provide drivers for it, but if you never use the scroll function and are on a budget, you might find the MSI VR603 suits you perfectly.