Double vision on the third dimension:<br /> Acer's 3D laptop and Nvidia's 3D Vision

The $779 Acer Aspire 5738DG takes a different approach to 3D than Nvidia's 3D vision setup, using a special screen coating and standard polarized-lens glasses to produce the 3D effect.

With a burst of renewed interest in 3D technology, Acer seems to be slightly ahead of the curve with its Aspire 5738DG laptop, featuring a special combination of hardware and software to add 3D to games, photos, and videos. Thanks to projects such as James Cameron's Avatar, upcoming 3D TV monitors, and Nvidia's 3D Vision project, consumers are hearing more about 3D than any time since the 1950s.

The $779 Acer Aspire 5738DG takes a different approach than the 3D Vision product from Nvidia. While the Nvidia rig requires a desktop PC with a high-end video card, a dual-link DVI connection to a compatible 120Hz LCD monitor, a USB-connected emitter box, and a set of active, battery-powered glasses, Acer's laptop is mostly software-driven, using a special screen coating and standard polarized-lens glasses to produce the 3D effect.

Like the Nvidia 3D vision setup (previously reviewed here), movies and photos need to be rendered in a 3D format to be used, but virtually any video game will work, as long as it makes use of actual 3D data to generate its characters, settings, and in-game objects.

Acer versus Nvidia: Very different 3D setups
Before we even get to which 3D system works better, it's important to note that they are packaged and sold entirely differently. Nvidia's 3D Vision requires a bundle of specialized hardware. At a minimum, the active glasses plus the USB emitter cost $199. But since 120Hz LCD monitors are still not common (and Nvidia only lists two officially compatible models, along with some DLP TVs and projectors), it's practically a requirement to purchase a bundle including the 22-inch Samsung SyncMaster 2233RZ for $598. On top of that, a desktop (not laptop) GPU--generally GeForce 8000 series or newer--is also required. Basically, you're looking at $600, plus the cost of your desktop PC (although there's a good chance you may already own a compatible PC).

Acer's Aspire 5738DG is a much simpler complete package. For $779, the 3D-ready laptop includes a basic pair of cheap plastic polarized glasses, plus a second pair of completely ridiculous-looking clip-ons for those of us who already wear glasses (the Nividia specs fit easily over even our gigantic glasses). Acer's is a more convenient, and more portable, overall package.

But does it actually work?

We were dubious of the 3D claims made by the Aspire 5738DG, especially after a sneak peek at the technologyseveral months ago. That demo was wholly unimpressive and led us to expect the technology not to work at all. But after taking some time to play around with different screen positions and get used to its quirks, Acer's 3D laptop exceeded our admittedly low expectations.

The system includes several built-in demo videos, and they ranged from middling to mildly effective. Putting on the glasses, you have to tilt the lid back and forth until you find the sweet spot--for us it was about 120-degrees back, and with us sitting about twice as far from the screen as we normally would. The effect works best with objects that recede into the distance, where we could get an excellent level of 3D immersion. Objects that popped out of the screen toward us just got blurry or out of focus, and didn't work at all. It's also important to keep your head still to main just the perfect angle.

The screen also has what appears to have a series of fine lines running horizontally across it, even when you're not using any 3D software. It's a distracting look, and certainly not something you want to put up with during everyday computing.

Since there isn't a 3D section on Netflix or the iTunes video store, playing games in 3D is what the Aspire 5738DG is really for. The process is slightly more involved than launching a game normally, but not by much. Launching the TriDef 3D application from the desktop opens a listing of compatible programs. You can have the system scan for them, or drag and drop the apps yourself (by dragging the desktop launch icon for a game into the TriDef window).

TriDef offers a small number of specially tuned game presets, for titles from Call of Duty 4 to Left 4 Dead, but most games will simply have to use the "generic" preset. We loaded up a few games, and compared the experience with our Nvidia 3D Vision rig, which was hooked up to a Maingear small form factor PC equipped with dual GeForce GTX275 GPUs and an Intel Core i7 CPU.

Keep in mind that by way of comparison, the hardware on the Aspire 5738DG was easily outmatched, with only an ATI Radeon HD 4750 graphics card and a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 CPU.

Testing games in 3D
In our first side-by-side test, Batman: Arkham Asylumwould barely run--we had to dial the resolution down to 800x600 pixels and turn all the graphics settings to low or off. Running the TriDef 3D software in the background didn't help matters -- pressing ALT-SHIFT-MINUS turns the processing off and on, and the frame rate took a major hit in 3D mode. Unfortunately, the Aspire 5738DG wasn't able to run the game in 3D properly, even with after we downloaded a custom profile for the game from TriDef--the effect popped in and out randomly, making for a very disjointed experience.

By way of comparison, we were able to run the same game at high settings easily on our Nvidia 3D Vision desktop rig, and the 3D effects were excellent, adding context and detail without getting in the way of the game. To be fair, this is a game specifically tuned for 3D Vision, and one of Nvidia's preferred demos showcases for the technology.

Our next test was Call of Duty 4--an older game more suited to mainstream laptop components (we've even played it on an HP Mini 311 Netbook). This was a much better match for the Aspire's hardware, and the game ran reasonably well, with 3D effects that were for the most part impressive. Our only issue was with the laser sight on our gun, which sat uncomfortably in the foreground, forcing us to close one eye when aiming down the sight (which kind of defeats the purpose of 3D gaming). If you dig around the 3D options (by pressing ALT-SHIFT-F1), you can turn the laser sight off, as well as tweak the 3D depth.

With same game using the Nvidia 3D Vision system, we got a crisper, clearer 3D image (although the active shutter Nivida glasses make everything seem dark, and we had to crank up the brightness)--and we didn't have the same troublesome laser sight issue. The Nvidia 3D software's custom settings for this game made everything look right.

Just as were about to give up on the idea of a 3D laptop, a colleague suggested we try Half-Life 2. It turns out that the TriDef software works especially well with games using game developer Valve's 3D engine. Half-Life 2 looked great and ran smoothly, and the effect was a reasonable substitute for Nvidia's more complicated 3D Vision technology.

On the more casual side, Sega's Mini Ninjas worked well, but onscreen text, including the in-game menus, vanished in 3D mode. We've heard anecdotally that World of Warcraft and Left 4 Dead also produce good results.

Which 3D technology is right for me?
We could have easily gone down a list of a dozen games, noting bugs, quirks, and occasional success stories, but the point is that the 3D technology in the Acer Aspire 5738DG clearly isn't the kind of easy to use, widely supported toolset that is going to break through to the mainstream anytime soon. The entire process can be best described as "finicky."

As a mainstream laptop, the Acer Aspire 5738DG is fine 15.6-inch Core 2 Duo workhorse, with middle-of-the-road specs and Acer's typically solid construction. We especially like the wide, flat keyboard and separate number pad--but the fine horizontal lines on the display are a constant distraction.

But if you specifically want to play the handful of games that work really well, and don't mind the not being able to crank up the graphics settings, then this is worth at least a test run; but we strongly suggest an in-person demo first, and checking the TriDef Web site for custom profiles of your favorite games. The Aspire also has the benefit of being an all-in-one solution, with nothing external to buy or configure.

If you're serious about 3D gaming, however, Acer's package can't hold a candle to the Nvidia 3D Vision. Even though that system is expensive, complicated, and has an exacting set of hardware requirements, the effect worked (to varying degrees) with every 3D game we threw at it.

The results ranged from mildly interesting to completely mind-blowing. With some of the games not specifically supported by Nvidia, including the new MMO game Aion, and the racing game Fuel, the 3D effect still worked well, but some objects were out of place, and onscreen text could sit uncomfortably in the foreground.

While the effort required to put together an Nvidia 3D Vision setup is cumbersome, we've heard that some PC makers are working on compatible laptops, which is a development we'd be keenly interested in seeing.

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