There are desktop replacements that are designed to replace the traditional desktop PC. Then there are desktop replacements that are designed to replace your entire desk by sheer volume alone. The Acer Aspire 9504 is one such beast, measuring in at 402 x 286 x 38.2mm and with a not-terribly shoulder friendly weight of 3.37kg. For that size, though, Acer's thrown just about everything it could at the Aspire 9504, including one thing that's a true rarity for notebooks -- a full sized keyboard, including a number pad. For those who live and die on the spreadsheet -- or live and die on a number of PC games that presume you're always using a full-sized keyboard -- this is an enticing offering all in itself.
The real reason why the Aspire 9504 can offer a full-sized keyboard on the 9504 is because it also includes a 17-inch widescreen display, which immediately makes the Aspire 9504 highly suitable for DVD playback, and, thanks to the integrated analog and digital tuners within the notebook, TV watching. The multimedia nature of the notebook is further enhanced via a series of media playback buttons on the front face of the system. These include standard play buttons -- which plenty of multimedia notebooks have -- as well as a tiny little selection rocker, and buttons for switching the integrated wireless and bluetooth functionality on and off.
Like most notebook manufacturers, Acer sells the Aspire 9500 series under a variety of configurations with a variety of price tags to match. You can check system configurations via Acer's Web site.
The unit we tested with came with a Pentium M Processor 760 (2.0GHz on a 533MHz FSB with 2MB of L2 cache, for the technical types), 1GB of DDR2 memory, a 100GB hard drive and a slot-loading dual layer DVD burner. Graphics are provided via an ATI Mobility Radeon X700 with 256MB of memory of its own, which is enough for at least playing all the current PC titles, although not all of them at full resolution. Networking was provided via 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11g Wireless and Bluetooth.
Although Acer does offer true Media Center desktops, the Aspire 9504 goes down the Clayton's route, offering what Acer calls "Acer Arcade", although you'll see no coin slots or dodgy drug dealers here. Acer Arcade is Acer's Media-Center like utility that takes advantage of the unit's dual TV tuners to capture TV signals, as well as play back music CDs and DVDs. Like Media Center, this involves launching an application that by default maximises to the entire screen -- to aid in this the 9504 includes a dedicated Arcade button on the front of the notebook.
The Aspire 9504 is no slouch in the computing stakes, although it totally spat the dummy at the highly aging MobileMark 2002 suite we threw at it, causing much crashing and conniptions along the way. In lieu of that testing, we ran a number of very testing applications at it. Well, OK, you got us. We used this little beast of a notebook to play games. Are you happy now? Still, this wasn't just for the fun of it, as we threw testing titles such as Civilization IV and F.E.A.R. at the Aspire 9504, simply to see how well it handled them. It managed well with both titles, although we did notice that the trackpad was a little sluggish for use in rapid response situations -- they're never really built with gaming in mind, but this was just a generally sluggish trackpad. It's also worth noting that the trackpad is situated in the normal position for such things (under the space bar), but because the 9504 includes a number pad, that's not the middle of the notebook. Those accustomed to "standard" notebook layouts will thus find themselves tapping at the notebook panel rather than the touchpad, at least until they adjust.
The Acer Arcade software is competent enough, and the included miniature antennae that Acer provides is easy enough to install -- there's even a clip to attach it to the top of the display. In our testing in far north Sydney with the external antennae we struggled to get either a digital or analog signal with the supplied antennae either inside or outside. Intermittently we'd get good SBS digital reception, but little else, although that's something that could clearly differ depending on your reception circumstances. Switching to a true rooftop antennae cleared up all of our reception woes.