Acer's new Gemstone Blue line--more specifically, the Aspire 8920G--breaks the mold in more ways than one. Its 16:9, 18.4-inch screen offers true 1080p widescreen resolution; it's the first notebook to break the True 5.1 Dolby sound barrier; and Acer puts a whole new spin on multimedia controls, with its dedicated futuristic control panel. We tested the top-of-the-line configuration (AS8920-6671) and came away impressed. It delivers a sleek look, loads of multimedia features, and outstanding performance. This 9-pounder is hardly portable, but as a desktop replacement it shines.
Acer's Breakthrough Design
Acer continues its steady march up-market with its increasingly stylish designs, and the Aspire 8920G delivers a mix of textures and finishes to keep your senses stimulated. The glossy lid of our 17.4 x 11.8 x 1.6-inch review unit featuring Acer's Gemstone Blue holographic-like paint looks sharp, and we like the silver Acer logo and its white backlighting. The bluish-black lid attracts smudges, though that's less of an issue since users likely won't carry the Aspire 8920G that often.
Open the lid and you'll find a glossy black keyboard above a silver, textured palm rest. The full-size keyboard has a good feel and plenty of travel, and there's room for a separate number pad to the right. The recessed touchpad, with its separate scroll area discernible by feel, is comfortable to use but far too small (not to mention too square) given the screen's dimensions: Getting the cursor from one side of the screen to the other takes an awful lot of swipes.
Acer has included a fingerprint reader that not only logs you onto Windows but can be set to launch a spate of apps automatically with just a swipe of your finger. A 6-in-1 card reader is nestled on the Aspire 8920G's front edge, and on the sides you'll find four USB ports plus ports for VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, and modem, and a 54mm ExpressCard slot. We're surprised not to see a FireWire port, however.
A New Breed of Control Panel
To the left of the keyboard is the Aspire 8920G's singular multimedia control panel, called the CineDash. Resembling extraterrestrial markings from a prop off the set of The X-Files the LED-backlit, touch-sensitive console looks intimidating at first. But a closer look reveals a pretty intuitive layout. Media control buttons (Stop, Play/Pause, Skip forward, Skip back, Fast-Forward, and Rewind) are arrayed below a circular control with a centered Enter button and mimic the navigation functions of a Media Center remote control. A semi-circular volume control lets you adjust volume with a quick swipe of the finger, and a prominent Mute button kills the sound altogether. We found working with the panel easy, though doing so with your left hand will take some practice for righties (we found it easier to reach across and use our right hand).
Bring on the 18.4-inch Screen
The Aspire 8920G is a multimedia paradise, meant to replace or replicate all manners of A/V equipment for use in cramped spaces (a den, bedroom, small apartment, weekend place, and so on) or to shuttle--occasionally, given the 9-pound system weight--from place to place. The screen delivers a particularly sharp image ideal for text-based applications. Acer claims the panel's Wide Color Gamut (WCG) technology delivers 100 percent more color range than a standard LCD; we can't confirm that definitively, but we can say that colors were noticeably vivid. The panel's nearly 180-degree viewing angle let us share the screen among a small group.
Our configuration included a DVD burner/Blu-ray player combo drive, all the better to put the 1080p high-def screen to use. A Blu-ray edition of Live Free or Die Hard looked stunning, with deep colors and excellent motion reproduction. For standard-def DVDs, the screen looked good, though a tad dark; scenes in Pirates of the Carribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl showed natural color reproduction but loss of detail in shadow areas.
Dolby True 5.1 Sound Tested
Then there's the sound system. Acer claims that the Aspire 8920G is the first notebook to feature integrated True 5.1 surround: It includes six speakers--three in the keyboard deck above the Function keys, two in the palm rest, and a tube-shaped 10-watt Acer Tuba CineBass subwoofer running along the length of the machine. The design is clever and effective: Combined with Dolby Home Theater Audio Enhancement technologies, including Dolby Pro Logic II and Dolby Sound Space Expander, movies sounded rich and clear. There was noticeably more sound separation than we've experienced from other multimedia notebooks (though the Toshiba Qosmio AV680 andAV690still take the prize for bass presence among multimedia laptops). When watching movies or listening to music from Miles Davis and Kate Bush, the volume was more than adequate to fill a small room, and no clipping or distortion occurred even at full volume. F.E.A.R. also sounded impressive on this system.
Rounding Out the Multimedia Experience
If the Aspire 8920G's screen and speakers aren't thrilling enough, Acer has included an HDMI port for connecting to an external HD display and sound system. Acer has even included a full-size Media Center remote control, so you can control music, photo, and DVD playback from across the room. The full-size remote is more comfortable to handle than the scaled-down remotes that come with other multimedia systems, and buttons are numerous (like on most MCE remotes) but intelligently laid out.
The only multimedia goodie missing from our configuration was a TV tuner, a feature we've come to expect in this class. Acer says that for now, it will offer configurations with an internal TV tuner only for models sold outside the U.S. We can say, however, that a good-quality external USB tuner will deliver better picture quality than an onboard tuner anyway. In its favor, we are happy to see that Acer's software engineers remembered to allow recorded Media Center TV content (which we loaded into Media Center via an external hard drive) to be burned as a video DVD; some machines we've tested could only create data DVDs with those files.
Aspire 8920 Storage
To store all your multimedia content, Acer has equipped the Aspire 8920G with two hard drives totaling 320GB. That's fine for the class, though less than theHP Pavilion HDX's500GB of storage. The included optical drive plays Blu-ray discs but can't create them; for removable storage, you'll have to use the drive's multi-format CD/DVD-burning functions.
Webcam Good in Low Light
Acer has given its integrated webcam the Crystal Eye moniker, which is a stretch given the camera's top video resolution of 640 x 480. Video images in bright light were fine, though they had the soft focus look we expected with such a low resolution. In the camera's favor, low-light performance was impressive: At night with only one lamp on in a large room, images were fine (though light colors took on a greenish tint), and with just the screen's glow as a light source, video was still usable. The included webcam utility is very basic, however, and lacks the extra features (face tracking, effects, and so on) we're seeing in other utilities.
Solid Performance, but No Gaming Rig
Our AS8920-6671 configuration came equipped with a fast 2.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9500 processor, a maxed-out 4GB of RAM, and Intel's Turbo Memory. Graphics power comes from the 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9650M GS GPU. That combination of components delivered very good performance across the board, with a PCMark Vantage score of 3,461, about 600 points above average for the desktop replacement class. As for multimedia performance, the Aspire 8920G needed just over 4 minutes to re-encode about 2 hours of music from MP3 to AAC format, which is competitive with multimedia desktop machines out there.
The 8920G's 3DMark03 and 3DMark06 scores of 7,403 and 2,307 were below average, but that's due to the high-end gaming notebooks included in this class. We were able to run F.E.A.R. at a playable 28 frames per second (at 1024 x 768) with the game's autodetect settings and saw only a minor drop to 25 fps at maximum settings, so the Acer entry is still usable for occasional 3D gaming as long as you keep the resolution and effects in check.
Battery Life and Wireless
As expected, battery life is short, though not terrible, given the number of pixels to light up on that big HD screen: The Aspire 8920G lasted just 1:41 minutes on our DVD rundown test, which means you should get closer to 3 hours for mild productivity use. This is right on target for a desktop replacement, but you still won't want to venture too far from an outlet. Wireless throughput from the Intel 802.11a/g/draft-n chipset was good at 15 feet from our router (18.6 Mbps) and a touch low but still acceptable at 50 feet (13.1 Mbps).
Software and Warranty
Acer includes a bevy of its own utilities, including the webcam and fingerprint-reader applets; its Acer Empowering tools (accessible via a quick-launch button) for system recovery, settings, and more; and Acer InstantOn Arcade for multimedia playback, which allows for (most importantly) Blu-ray Disc playback. You also get Microsoft Works 9.0, Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer, and NTI's multimedia-creation and backup suite. Acer also includes its share of trialware, including space-eating teasers for Microsoft Office, CyberLink PowerDirector, and a bunch of games (in the Acer GameZone console).
That said, the boot time out of the box was still a relatively speedy 40 seconds (compared with the 60 seconds we typically see on Vista machines), thanks in part to the included Intel Turbo Memory in our configuration. The Norton Internet Security Suite is only a 60-day trial; at this price level, a full-year subscription wouldn't be too much to expect. On the plus side, Acer backs this top-of-the-line model with a generous three-year warranty; less expensive Aspire 8920 models are backed with just one year of coverage.
Acer Aspire 8920G Verdict
Acer has nailed multimedia desktop replacement standards with the Aspire 8920G. The stunning 18.4-inch display provides more room than those on 17-inch models but is not quite as ridiculous as screens on 20-inch behemoths. Aside from the promised TV tuner (which you may just want to add externally yourself), everything is here: performance, a high-def screen, Blu-ray, top-notch sound system, and a very cool way to control it all.