Stereoscopic shootout: Rounding up the latest 3D laptops

If last year was the year of the 3DTV, then 2011 is the year of the 3D laptop. See how the latest models stack up in our roundup.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

There has been much talk over the past two years about 3D televisions, 3D movies, and even handheld 3D game consoles. Less widely discussed is one of the easiest and most versatile ways to get into stereoscopic 3D: the 3D laptop. After seeing a handful of 3D systems in each of the previous few years, 2011 has become the year of the 3D laptop, with half a dozen crossing our desks so far this year.

Most of them follow a similar hardware path, pairing a set of active-shutter 3D glasses with a compatible 120Hz display and a supported video card from Nvidia, forming a stereoscopic ecosystem known as 3D Vision (a bit of Nvidia branding).

That particular setup remains the gold standard for 3D, allowing for plenty of flexibility in the use of 3D videos, Blu-ray discs, and video games. But, there are other options. We've seen a handful of 3D laptops (but only one so far this year) that uses a competing 3D app from TriDef with either active or passive glasses--but we've found the processing overhead required for that implementation to be too onerous. In this respect, the 3D landscape for laptops has changed surprisingly little since we first dived deeply into it a couple of years ago.

Standing apart from any of those is the Toshiba F755, a CES prototype brought to life, offering decent glasses-free 3D on a 15-inch screen. It's more of a proof-of-concept piece than anything else, but it works well for watching 3D Blu-ray discs. It doesn't yet support video games, which would be a pretty cool killer app (and is expected later this year as a GPU driver update).

For now, if you're very interested in a 3D laptop, a more traditional Nvidia 3D laptop with the packed-in glasses and a 3D emitter built into the chassis is probably the best way to go. A big part of the appeal will be for gamers, who on their living room consoles are locked into games specifically designed to work in 3D. In the world of PC 3D, in contrast, you can literally try to play any game on a 3D laptop.

Since the 3D Vision system simply exposes the 3D data already in the game, you'll see what's actually there. The effect doesn't always work, and frequently exposes the shortcuts game makers take in creating virtual worlds, but if you've ever wanted to play games such as Portal or Dragon Age in 3D, this is the only way to do it (and those two are examples that work pretty well). You do take a knock to the frame rate, as the PC has to work harder to pump out the stereoscopic image, so it's important to choose a powerful CPU/GPU combo if gaming is a priority.

The list below represents 3D laptops that run from midrange to high-end, with prices that start at about $1,000 and go to $2,000 or more (depending on your configuration).

Sony Vaio F215FX
Sony makes some of the best-looking multimedia laptops out there, and the 3D Vaio F215FX is no exception. But you'll have to be willing to pay extra for that sharp design.
Read the full review.

Toshiba Qosmio F755
More of a proof-of-concept than anything else, the glasses-free 15-inch 3D display on the Toshiba Qosmio F755 can be impressive when paired with the right content.
Read the full review.

Toshiba Satellite P755-3DV20
The 3D-enabled Toshiba Satellite P755-3DV20 is one of the more affordable 3D-enabled laptops, but it lacks the horsepower we've seen in more-robust 3D gaming laptops.
Read the full review.

Dell XPS 17 3D
Dell's XPS 17 3D is for those who want a powerful media and gaming 17-inch laptop, but in a more aesthetically upscale package than offered by Dell's Alienware brand. The stereoscopic 3D is gimmicky, but a certain breed of PC gamer will love it.
Read the full review.

Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV78
Those in the market to spend more than $1,000 and get a 3D-enabled, Blu-ray-equipped laptop with plenty of horsepower for games should strongly consider Toshiba's latest high-end Qosmio. It's not cheap or portable by any means, but it's certainly powerful.
Read the full review.

HP Envy 17 3D
HP's upscale-feeling Envy 17 3D offers great hardware at a decent price, but its 3D implementation isn't as good as that of laptops with Nvidia's 3D Vision.
Read the full review.

We fully recognize that just as 3D remains a niche area in both television and movies, the same holds true for laptops. With the added expense of 3D hardware, and the extra CPU/GPU power required for 3D gaming, it will be some time (if ever) before 3D laptops are offered at competitive prices. Is a 3D laptop something you'd consider investing in? If so, for 3D movies or games? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.