Few things surprise us more than when laptop shoppers tell us that though they are planning to keep their new computer permanently chained to a desk (to essentially act as a desktop PC), they intend to buy a 13-inch (or even a 14- or 15-inch) laptop. If you're removing portability from the equation completely, there's little reason to ignore one of the most fun categories of laptops: the massive 18-inch desktop replacement.
These huge systems cross our door rarely--it's certainly a niche category--but the latest to do so has a potentially very clever gimmick. The $1,599 Acer Aspire Ethos AS8951G (yes, it has at least three names, plus a model number) includes a touch pad that pops right out from the laptop chassis and can be used as a portable remote control.
If that sounds like a clever idea, that's because it is. Unfortunately, in this implementation, there are a few problems that keep it from being as useful as it could be. First, the removable touch pad, called the Media Remote, is primarily designed to work with Acer's proprietary Clear-Fi media software, which the system makes hard to avoid. The pad lacks a right-click function, making it less than ideal for casual browsing, and it's oddly unresponsive at times, even with the sensitivity cranked all the way up.
Beyond that, the laptop's actual hardware is mostly top-notch. Acer and sister brand Gateway have always made excellent large 17-inch-and-bigger multimedia and gaming laptops. This one has a full HD 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution screen, Blu-ray, a fast Intel Core i7-2630QM CPU, and a decent Nvidia GeForce GT555 graphics card. Without the gimmicky touch pad, the 8951G might have been able to come in $100 or so less, but it's still an excellent big-screen miniature home theater for your den or dorm room, if you can get used to the remote touch pad and its limitations.
|Price as reviewed||$1,599|
|Processor||2.0GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM|
|Memory||8GB, 1,066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||750GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel HM65 Express|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT555|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||17.3 x 11.6 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||18.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||8.7/10.3 pounds|
The 18-inch Acer Aspire Ethos AS8951G is an imposing slab of brushed black metal. Despite being over 17 inches wide and nearly 9 pounds (without its AC adapter), the industrial design still makes it look sophisticated and, if not slim, than at least not overly bulky. The back of the lid and keyboard tray are black brushed metal, and the wrist rest has a matte black surface that picked up fingerprints a little too easily.
On a chassis as large as this, the keyboard feels like it's swimming in space, even with a full-size number pad included. The keys themselves are large and well-spaced, but no larger than you might find on a 15-inch laptop.
The row of function keys at the very top do not offer reversed functions, as we've seen on several other multimedia-friendly laptops recently. That means that on the Acer you'll have to hold down the Fn key while hitting F8, for example, to mute the speakers. Laptops this big should really have their own dedicated media transport and volume buttons, but at least in this case the unique touch-pad remote takes the place of some of that.
And that's what really makes the Aspire Ethos AS8951G stand out from the crowd. It's a neat party trick to show someone your laptop, then simply pop the entire touch pad off and use it as a wireless touch pad or media remote control. While it certainly looks impressive, and is frankly a pretty good idea we'd like to see others try, the actual implementation leaves something to be desired.
To pop out the touch pad, you hold a small locking switch on the front edge and lift the pad out of its dock. That's simple enough, and we were able to thumb-drive our cursor from across the room. The touch pad has an accelerometer-like orientation feature, so you can hold it horizontally or vertically, but in practice, the orientation detection was both laggy and oversensitive, so we often ended up moving the onscreen cursor in the opposite direction. After a little practice, however, we got better at working with the touch pad, but you have to be careful when waving it around (or even tilting your hand).
Pressing a small, flush button on the upper-right corner brings up some backlit touch buttons on the touch pad for video and music. Touching either of these automatically launches Acer's Clear-Fi media app. Pressing the button a second time brings up even more backlit touch buttons for volume control and media transport. The controls on the touch pad look very snazzy and high-tech. Unfortunately, while the on-pad media transport controls work with several different media playing apps (including iTunes), you'll find yourself accidentally launching Clear-Fi over and over again, no matter what your actual intention is, by accidentally brushing past the Video or Music buttons with your finger.
It's not that Clear-Fi is necessarily a bad media manager app, but people are more likely to stick with what they know, be it iTunes, Windows Media Player, VLC, or online services such as Spotify or Amazon Cloud Music (the play/pause buttons won't work on online services like that, but the volume controls will).
Another reason you might skip Clear-Fi is that it's built around the concept of sharing your media across your home network, but only if all the devices on your network come from Acer--you'd need to be sharing content from your Acer laptop to your Acer tablet to your Acer phone, for example. We've seen other companies hamper their network sharing/management applications in the same way; no one wants to feel like they need to buy all their gear from the same company to take advantage of promised features.
The biggest problem we had with the touch-pad remote is that it didn't work particularly well as an actual touch pad. The surface feels sticky under your finger, and we had to crank the sensitivity all the way up in the Windows menu to get a reasonable level of responsiveness. There's a large left/right button bar beneath the touch pad, but there's no way we could find to right-click from the pad itself, which is a problem if you're using it from several feet away.
The giant 18-inch display, with a native resolution of 1,920x,1080 pixels, is a real highlight on the system. The screen is covered by edge-to-edge glass for a clean look, and is made of Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass, the same as is found on the iPad. Off-axis viewing was reasonable, and the big, bright display looked great for video and games. The 5.1 speaker system was louder and deeper than the speakers of the average laptop, but there's still no substitute for a big pair of air-moving speaker cones.
|Acer Aspire Ethos AS8951G||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI, and mini-DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||5.1 speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||4 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB/eSATA, FireWire||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray player/DVD burner||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player|