The Acer Aspire 9800 is one supersize laptop. Weighing 17.3 pounds (without its AC adapter) and featuring a 20.1-inch display, it sounds ridiculous to call the computer a laptop. Yet there it is: a screen hinged to a keyboard deck, like any other laptop--except a lot bigger. We've seen large laptops before, and they all have some feature that sets them apart in the portable realm: the 19-inch Eurocom M590K Emperor boasts two graphics cards, while the 20-inch Dell XPS M2010 has a detachable Bluetooth keyboard and a handy travel handle. The Aspire 9800's claim to fame is its built-in HD-DVD drive, making it one of only two systems we've seen to support the new format (the other being the Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650). And its case is stocked with some pretty high-end components that should make for a decent multimedia experience, whether you're watching or editing movies. Unfortunately, the Acer's monster size is its greatest weakness: it's too heavy and bulky to be considered portable, and yet its laptop form factor, with the keyboard attached to the display, is an ergonomic nightmare. For $2,799, we'd rather buy a more portable laptop and hook it up to a 20-inch display when we're using it at home.
Measuring 18.7 inches wide, 13.9 inches deep, and 2.4 inches high, the Aspire 9800 will not fit into any laptop bag currently on the market. It's not quite as large as the Dell XPS M2010, but Dell at least attached a handle to its machine so that mere mortals could carry it. It's worth noting, too, that the Aspire 9800's dimensions don't include the extra 1.5-inch rail of plastic sticking out its back side; as best we can determine its sole purpose is to keep the laptop from tipping over when the lid is up. With its brick-like AC adapter, the Aspire 9800 weighs a crushing 19 pounds.
The Aspire 9800's 20.1-inch, WSXGA+ display may make for an awkward laptop, but the screen itself is a beauty. To check the display's ability to handle high-definition content--a must, given that the Aspire 9800 is equipped with an HD-DVD drive--we downloaded a few high-def clips from Apple's QuickTime HD Gallery. We were impressed with the display's vibrancy at lower brightness levels: colors were rich, blacks were very dark, and the screen's glossy finish didn't distract us with reflections. When the display was set to its highest brightness level, though, the colors seemed to wash out. When you're not watching movies or playing games, the large screen has plenty of real estate for several open windows, making multitasking a breeze.
Of course a case that's big enough to accommodate a desktop-size display has plenty of room for a full-size keyboard with a 10-key number pad. Typing is comfortable enough, though key travel feels shallow. We also wonder why Acer didn't include its signature ergonomically curved keyboard on the Aspire 9800; it would seem that this of all laptops could use all the ergonomic help it can get. (At least the Dell XPS M2010's keyboard detaches from the machine, allowing you to move an appropriate distance from the screen.) The trackpad and mouse buttons are amply sized, and we like the four-way scroll key located between the mouse buttons. Above the keyboard sit three programmable application launch buttons; an Acer eManager key for quick access to backup, presentation, and power management utilities; and a key to quickly put the system into hibernate and wake it up when you're ready to start computing again. Lined up to the left of the keyboard are handy controls for volume and disc playback and a button (confusingly labeled Arcade, to reflect Acer's branding) to quickly launch the Windows Media Center application. The final design element of note is a 1.3-megapixel Webcam located above the display; we like the knob next to it that lets you rotate the camera 30 degrees without having a rotating part on the lid.
The Aspire 9800's feature set is as complete as you could possibly want from a desktop replacement. Video ports include VGA, AV-in, S-Video, and DVI ports, plus coaxial input (there's also a built-in TV tuner). High-end audio features include an S/PDIF line out, two integrated microphones, and great-sounding stereo speakers with an integrated subwoofer. In addition to the standard array of ports, including FireWire and four USB ports, the Aspire 9800 incorporates legacy parallel and serial ports to connect to older peripherals if needed. For expansion there are PC Card and ExpressCard/54 slots, and a five-in-one flash card reader reads MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro and xD cards. Integrated Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR and 802.11a/b/g radios are standard, as is Gigabit Ethernet. Plus, there's the aforementioned HD-DVD drive, which lets you play high-definition discs. This feature set is nearly identical to that of the Toshiba Qosmio G35, the most fully loaded Media Center laptop we've seen thus far.
The Aspire 9800 is available in only one configuration that costs a hefty $2,799. Almost three grand will buy you some top-notch components, including a 2.16GHz Intel Core Duo processor, a whopping 2GB of fast 667MHz RAM, and a sweet Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 graphics card with 256MB of dedicated VRAM. Perhaps coolest of all, though, are the two 120GB hard drives, which give you plenty of room to store volumes of digital media. The Aspire 9800's high-end components did not disappoint on CNET Labs' performance benchmarks--at least when it came to multimedia. The system posted some of the highest SysMark scores we've seen, racing well beyond the Qosmio G35-AV650 and the Eurocom M590K Emperor on office-productivity and content-creation tasks. The Aspire 9800's gaming scores, however, were a bit of a disappointment: it processed only 41.4 frames per second (fps) on Doom 3; the XPS M2010 displayed 61.0fps while the Eurocom, which has two graphics cards running in a scalable link interface, scored a mind-boggling 121.9fps. In short, the Aspire 9800 should be a great system for media junkies and content creators, but gamers should look elsewhere.
Not surprising for a machine with such a large display, the Aspire 9800's battery could not even last the 90 minutes required to run our battery life benchmarks. Then again, given the laptop's gargantuan size, it's likely to be tethered to a wall socket for most of its life.
Acer backs the Aspire 9800 with a one-year warranty, which is standard for consumer laptops. Acer's tech-support phone lines are open only Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT. The company's online support could stand some sprucing up; though it does offer easy driver and manual downloads, it lacks helpful features, such as forums and real-time chat with a tech-support rep.