Acer has always been a global powerhouse, but the company has had a relatively anemic presence in the United States. Now that it has merged with Gateway (the two brands are still being treated as separate), we are seeing some inroads from Acer in this country, starting with a particularly bold move, the launch of the first laptop we've seen with an 18.4-inch display. The display has the same native resolution as a 1080p HDTV, and coupled with a Blu-ray drive and a unique set of touch-sensitive media controls, it's an impressive package for moviewatchers.
Our review model was the more expensive of Acer's two available configurations. At $2,499, the Acer Aspire 8920-6671 is pricey choice for a nongaming machine. The lower-end version, the visually identical Aspire 8920-6048, trades the Intel Core 2 Duo T9500 CPU for a T5550, goes from 320GB of hard drive space to 250GB, drops from 4GB of RAM to 3GB (which is the maximum amount 32-bit Vista can address anyway), and features an Nvidia GeForce 9500M video card instead of a slightly faster GeForce 9650M. Important differences to be sure, but the cheaper version is available from retail stores for $1,299--less than half the suggested price of the more expensive version, and a much better overall deal.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$2,499|
|Processor||2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9500|
|Memory||4GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||320GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 9650M GS|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Ultimate|
|Dimensions (WDH)||17.4x11.9x1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||18.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||8.9 / 10.1 pounds|
The Acer Aspire 8920 is a boat of a laptop, and its 16:9 display makes for a chassis that is wider but shorter than a typical 17-inch model that features a 16:10 screen. To fit the new panel, the Acer Aspire 8920 is about 1.5-inches wider overall than a 17-inch Gateway P-172. Even though both of these laptops are equally deep (11.9 inches), the Acer has a hinge that pivots the entire lid back, making it about 0.75-inch shorter when you've got the screen open at a 90-degree angle.
Acer refers to the 8920 as part of the company's Gemstone Blue series, which means it has a speckled automotive-style blue/black lid, with a black and silver interior. The large chassis means there's plenty of room on the keyboard tray for a full keyboard, a large touch pad with a separate scroll zone, a sizable wrist rest, and a large speaker grille area above the keyboard.
The usual array of touch-sensitive media controls commonly found on multimedia laptops have been moved from their normal spot above the keyboard to a panel on the left side of the keyboard tray. Acer calls this the CineDash media console, but it's really just the same capacitive touch controls found on other laptops, arranged in roughly the shape of a handheld remote control. It's a clever idea, very eye-catching, and once you get used to it, works fairly well, with a volume slider, transport controls, and an iPod-like directional control for scrolling through menus. Our main complaint about it is there doesn't seem to be a way to access the pop-up menus while a Blu-ray movie is playing. Acer's proprietary media playing software, called Acer Arcade Deluxe, uses its own generic pop-up menus, but it's a clunky compromise. Plus, we always encourage PC makers to stop spending so much time and effort duplicating Windows Media Center (we're talking to you, Hewlett-Packard's QuickPlay), since proprietary media applications usually fail to exceed or even meet Media Center's mediocre standards.
The 18.4-inch wide-screen LCD display is the real star here. The native resolution of our 18-inch screen was 1,920x1,080 (you know, like Blu-ray), while a high-end 17-inch laptop is usually 1,920x1,200. That means Blu-ray or other HD content will fit the screen better. Acer claims this display has twice the color range than normal laptop screens--we're not sure about that, but in playing HD content, the picture was certainly clear, bright, and vivid, and the screen had excellent off-axis viewing--which is important unless you plan on watching all your movies alone (how sad).
We also liked the 5.1 speaker system, with two speakers above the keyboard, and two more, plus a subwoofer, on the front edge of the system. Technically, they can pump out surround sound, but it's not the same as actually having speakers behind and to the sides. There was, however, a better-than-average stereo separation and decent bass for a laptop (but it still won't get your dance tracks bumping).
|Acer Aspire 8920-6671||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA-out, S-video, DVI or HDMI|
|Audio||5.1 speakers w/subwoofer, headphone/mic/line-in jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 2.0, SD memory card reader||4 USB 2.0, mini FireWire, multiformat memory card reader|
|Expansion||ExpressCard slot||PC Card and ExpressCard|
|Networking||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray with DVD burner||DVD burner or Blu-Ray|
With an 18-inch 16:9 screen, the Acer Aspire 8920 seems custom made for Blu-ray, even if there's dubious value to watching HD content on anything smaller than a 32-inch screen. The HDMI output allows you to hook the system up to a bigger display if you don't have a standalone Blu-ray player.
Intel's Core 2 Duo T9500 CPU is top of the line for Intel, unless you go all the way up to the Extreme processors (as in the Alienware Area-51 m15x). At that level, high-end systems all perform comparably in nongaming applications, and unless you plan to do some heavy video editing or other processing-intensive work, we'd even suggest trading down for the lower-end model in this line, the Acer Aspire 8920-6048, which costs about half as much.
We were perfectly happy with the cheaper model's Intel Core 2 Duo T5550 processor when we saw it in the budget Gateway P-6860FX 17-inch gaming laptop. Both the cheaper Acer and the Gateway cost roughly $1,299--but the Gateway includes Nvidia's high-end GeForce 8800 graphics chip, while the Acer delivers a Blu-ray drive; the choice depends on your preference for games or movies.