Pitting Acer's multimedia desktop replacement, the Aspire 9500, against our Editors' Choice-winning is like enacting a standoff between two notorious gunslingers: both are so evenly matched that it's hard to guess which will remain standing when the smoke clears. Each laptop offers compelling features, including a huge 17-inch wide-screen display, multimedia controls, an integrated TV tuner, and very similar configurations. The difference ultimately comes down to price vs. performance. The Aspire 9500 is slightly less powerful than its competitor but also considerably less costly--at $1,999, it's one of the least expensive models available with a built-in TV tuner. If you're looking for absolutely top-shelf performance, you'll want a system that can be configured with Intel's new Core Duo processor, such as the or the Dell Inspiron E1705. And anyone willing to chuck the integrated TV tuner and get by with less power can save several hundred dollars on competent alternatives that start at much lower price points--the , for example.
The Aspire 9500 is a true desktop replacement. It weighs 8.5 pounds and measures 15.8 inches wide, 11.3 inches deep, and 1.6 inches thick. These dimensions are about the same as those of the 8.2-pound Inspiron E1705 and the 8.4-pound , and they're slighter than those of other multimedia desktop replacements, such as the 9.5-pound Qosmio G25 and the 9.7-pound Fujitsu LifeBook N6210. The Aspire 9500's large AC adapter adds another 1.1 pounds to the system's total weight.
Working with the Aspire 9500 is a thoroughly pleasant experience, thanks to its copious design perks. The benefits begin with its sweeping 17-inch wide-aspect display. Its 1,440x900 native resolution, often found on 15.4-inch displays, provides sufficient detail without making text too small. For a finer resolution, look to the Inspiron E1705 or the Pavilion dv8000, which offer displays at 1,900x1,200. The Aspire 9500's keyboard contains a dedicated numeric keypad, similar to the Pavilion dv8000's, the LifeBook N6210's, and the VAIO AX series' (the Qosmio G25's keyboard lacks this feature), but the arrow keys are less than full size. The touch pad and the mouse buttons are also wide, and the scroll rocker that resides between the mouse buttons makes it easy to move horizontally and vertically through documents and windows.
The Aspire 9500 packs a competitive set of entertainment features. Four handy programmable application quick-launch buttons sit above the Aspire 9500's keyboard, and another eight buttons line the front edge. Two of the eight function as on/off switches for the built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cards; the remaining six serve as multimedia controls for the laptop's impressive audio and video features. Hit the Arcade button when the system is either booted up or powered down, and Acer's Windows XP Media Center-like menu screen appears, presenting you with options to play videos, manage photos, listen to CDs, or watch and record TV, compliments of the integrated TV tuner--though you can't record TV unless you've booted up the system. You may scroll through and select options using the laptop's controls or the included remote control. Acer placed the speakers along the front edge of the laptop, so you can still hear them when the lid is closed. That said, they're not quite as good as the Pavilion dv8000's or Qosmio G25's speakers, though they sound much better than those of the average laptop. Another noteworthy design touch is the double-layer DVD burner, which sports a sweet slot-loading design that eliminates the hassle of a flimsy tray-based drive.
While it's one USB 2.0 port shy of the Dell E1705's impressive six, the Aspire 9500 comes with an impressive number of connections. Its inventory includes four-pin FireWire, DVI-D (still a relatively rare connection to find on a laptop), Gigabit Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, S-Video-out, microphone, audio in, S/PDIF audio out, parallel, and two IR ports (one dedicated solely to the TV remote). The system also provides slots for a Type II PC Card, an ExpressCard, and a five-in-one media-card reader. The system ships with CyberLink's PowerProducer and NTI's CD Maker for disc-burning tasks, plus a few Acer system-management utilities.
We tested the top-end system in the Aspire 9500 series, the 9504WSMi, which includes Windows XP MCE 2005, a 2GHz Pentium M processor--not the newest Core Duo technology--a big 2GB chunk of 533MHz memory, a massive 120GB hard drive spinning at an average 5,400rpm, and a decent ATI Mobility X700 with an abundant 256MB of VRAM. Priced at $1,999, this configuration comes in a couple hundred bucks less than the similarly outfitted, $2,199 Toshiba Qosmio G25-AV513 and the Fujitsu LifeBook N6210, which is no longer an official member of Fujitsu's lineup (check back soon for our review of its replacement, the LifeBook N6410) but is still available at retail outlets for about $2,200. The more economical and modestly configured HP Pavilion dv8000 sells for $1,199. Less expensive configurations of the Aspire 9500 start at $999.
In CNET Labs' benchmarks, the Aspire 9500 proved a very respectable performer. It completed our suite of office-productivity and Internet-content-creation tasks 10 percent faster than the LifeBook N6210 and ran dead even with the Qosmio G25, though it fell behind the new breed of laptops equipped with Intel's Core Duo processor, such as the Qosmio G35-AV600. The performance of all three will suffice for most productivity and entertainment tasks. Compared to the Qosmio G25 and the Lifebook N6210, the Aspire 9500 mustered second place in our Doom 3 trials, showing 21.1 frames per second (fps), which is a bit below our threshold for a serious gaming machine. The Qosmio G25 emerged victorious with 27.2fps, and the LifeBook N6210 finished third with 10.1fps. Not one of the three even came close to the mind-blowing 87.5fps managed by our current top pick for hard-core gamers, the considerably pricier .
The Aspire 9500 ships with the one-year warranty and mail-in service that accompanies most consumer-focused laptops. Though Acer also provides toll-free tech support during the warranty period, the company's phone lines are available only Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m CT. Acer should also pay more attention to its support Web site, which lacks useful features such as the ability to chat in real time with a tech-support rep.
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Windows XP Media Center; 2GHz Intel Pentium M 760; 2GB PC4300 DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon X700 256MB; Seagate Momentum 5400.2 120GB 5,400rpm
Dell Inspiron E1705
Windows XP Media Center; 2GHz Intel Pentium M T2500; 1GB DDR2 SDRAM PC5300 666MHz; Nvidia GeForce Go 7800 256MB; Fujitsu MHV2080BH 80GB 5,400rpm
Fujitsu LifeBook N6210
Windows XP Home; 1.86GHz Intel Pentium M 750; 1GB DDR SDRAM PC4300 533MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon X600 128MB; two Fujitsu MHV2100AT 100GB 4,200rpm
Windows XP Professional; 2GHz Intel Pentium M 760; 1GB PC3200 DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce Go 6600 128MB; two Fujitsu MHT2060BH 5,400rpm
Windows XP Media Center; 1.83GHz Intel Pentium M T2400; 1GB PC4300 DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; Nvidia GeForce Go 7300 512MB; Toshiba MK8032GSX 75GB 5,400rpm, Toshiba MK8032GSX 80GB 5,400rpm