Design and Handling in Notebook Mode
Design and Handling: Notebook Mode
Sliding open the Slidebook S20 to use it in its notebook mode, you would notice that most of the interior is also plastic like its display front. The entire keyboard area, including the left and right space of the machine beside the keyboard, and the space behind the screen is all plastic. The only metal you’ll see when operating the device in this form factor are two metal strips that protect the edges from scratches from the rail mechanism behind the display. The decision to use mostly plastic on the interior and exterior is most likely the byproduct of the device's price point. It doesn't look bad, but neither does it look fabulous. Instead, we think of it as a decent compromise. After all, it doesn't flex, creak or bend thanks to the aluminum alloy structure underneath that makes the device rigid.
One thing we appreciate however, was that the external ports and connectivity options are clearly marked, which enables users to easily locate the ports on their convertible Ultrabook without flipping the machine around or craning your neck around the sides of the machine.
In general usage, we actually found the MSI Slidebook S20 to be very versatile as its convertible nature allowed it to prop the screen in any angle, while the compact keyboard formed a study base that you could use it in various undocumented positions on your lap or prop it anywhere on yourself while on the bed, couch, sofa or just about anywhere you can think of. The short distance from the screen also meant that in any situation where you felt you needed the mouse, you would actually reach out and touch screen to interact. Of course the drawbacks still persist such as when you need a precision input, the Slidebook S20 doesn't have a solution for you as there's no trackpoint or trackpad integrated; you would instead need to plug in your own mouse. Further to that, if you recall earlier when we mentioned the power button wasn't in an ideal position, that's still a problem in its notebook form factor when you're trying to juggle or prop the device. As photographed below, it's obvious that the location of the power button is in the way of handling the device. Of course if you intend to strictly use it on a table top, you're unlikely to encounter any issues.
We’re also not a fan of the tiny physical Windows button on the front of the S20. Other vendors either have a more manageable sized physical button that's easier to activate, or a soft Windows button. And for those who're really noticing the nitty-gritty details, the Windows button is also off-centre to make way for the MSI logo.
Keyboard and Input Options
So we already know that the keyboard area and the keys are entirely made up of plastic but yet, we enjoyed typing on it as the keys were shallow but springy and rigid. But we should forewarn those used to larger keyboards on desktops or 14-inch (or larger) notebooks that it will take time to transition to the more cramped keyboard layout (a common issue for notebooks sized like the S20) and key placements like the shortened right shift key and the presence of dedicated but small arrow keys. For the more observant end-users, you might notice the shoddy screen printing on the plastic keys that unfortunately detract from the decent quality of the keyboard.
That's not all. Unfortunately due to its small frame, the S20 forgoes a trackpad and neither does it have trackpoint stick. While the Sony Vaio Duo 11 faced similar space constraints, it at least has an optical trackpoint and left/right buttons as a trackpad replacement when reaching out to touch the screen gets tiring or when you need a more accurate mouse-like input option. The S20 on the other hand, doesn’t have any other input options save for the keyboard and touchscreen. As such, we found this to be annoying at times and we even encountered an issue where the display’s multi-touch wasn't as responsive as we hoped it to be (this was in a full screen PC game).
This wouldn’t affect users who generally use a mouse with their notebooks, but for those who prefer not to lug around a mouse, the Slidebook S20 might make it mandatory so do take note.
Display & Speakers
The S20’s display is a 10-point multi-touch screen, but it's unfortunately not using Gorilla Glass that's more resistant to scratches. We guess costing was a key factor in positioning the device to a different audience group than the Sony and Toshiba equivalent convertible notebooks. It is however, like Gorilla Glass based devices, extremely prone to smudges and stains from general handing and there’s no avoiding it unless you get a matte screen protector for the device. Fortunately, the screen is a full HD display supporting 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution that we found was bright, vibrant and crisp, as well as sporting good viewing angles thanks to the IPS LCD screen used. At a price point of S$1,599, you can't have it all (referring to the lack of tougher glass), but it should satisfy most users who do handle their products with care and use carriers or other protective covers for their tablets and notebooks.
The only usability concern you might face is that icons and text in the desktop environment in default settings would be too small, and strain your eyes. There’s an easy fix for that - you can actually scale the entire desktop and all its elements (Windows 8 has a desktop scale factor setting) or your could choose to just increase the text size. The latter might be preferable if you would like to retain the usable screen space though some items like the icons wouldn't scale with the text. This isn’t the S20’s limitation, but rather a problem that all small form factor, full HD display notebooks face when using the Windows OS. Your preferences may vary, but suffice to say, Windows 8 should be able to appease most users with either desktop scaling or individual text element sizing.
From an aesthetics point of view, you may or may not like the Slidebook S20's rather wide bezel that seems to have a black and white border surrounding the screen, thus making the usable screen area seem smaller than it really is. If the S20 comes in a black (which it unfortunately doesn't), the dual-layer of bezels might not have been prominent, but nevertheless, you still have a rather thick bezel. Then again, most other competitive devices like the Sony Vaio Duo 11, Toshiba Satellite U920t and the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro all have equally thick bezels. There's a combination of reasons for this and it comes down to the limitation of the platform underneath it, the design of the individual devices and of course the need for a reasonable sized bezel to assist in handling the device. Unlike smaller 7-inch tablets, bigger devices would require more grip, hence the thicker bezels to assist their cause.
The speakers on the S20 are decent for a machine of the S20’s size. Audio is loud and crisp enough for casual usage. However, take note that the speakers aren’t symmetrically positioned. The grill on the left is placed further upfront than the grill on the right. That said, in actual usage, we didn't hear any disparities from the uneven speaker positioning. Speaking about audio, the Slidebook S20 is endowed with Creative's THX TruStudio Pro Audio technology software suite, just like some of MSI's more premium products like the GT680 and GT70 gaming notebooks. It helps improve surround sound as well as improve audio delivery in general with further controls for tweaking in the control panel. This is probably why the audio on the S20 sounded reasonable for its compact form factor, but don't expect anything spectacular as it's still bounded by the hardware aspects like driver size, quality and audio circuitry.