What good is a mammoth 18.4-inch screen on a laptop if you have to sit right in front of it to fire up a slideshow or control movie playback? Acer thinks it has the answer with the Aspire Ethos 8951G, a notebook with a removable touchpad that doubles as a remote control. With a full HD display, Dolby speakers, and Blu-ray drive, the Ethos 8951G packs a veritable home theater into an 8.8-pound chassis. But with a price of $1,599, this system faces hefty competition for your hard-earned cash. Read on to find out if the Ethos is awesome or overkill.
The Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G's subdued all-black chassis won't clash with anything in your living room, but it won't stand out either. The lightly brushed aluminum-magnesium lid resists fingerprints. Inside, an all-black deck with a chiclet-style keyboard, glossy touchpad, and a few status lights completes the plain but functional aesthetic.
At 17.3 x 11.3 x 1.4 inches and 8.8 pounds, the Aspire Ethos 8951G is significantly heavier than such 17-inch competitors as the ASUS G73SW (16.6 x 12.8 x 2.3 inches, 8 pounds) and the HP Pavilion dv7 Quad (16.3 x 10.8 x 1.2-1.4 inches, 7 pounds). We wouldn't recommend toting the notebook with you to school or work, but you can easily move it around the house or put it in a large backpack and haul it across town to a LAN party.
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The Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G's island-style, backlit keyboard has large, well-placed keys, and provides a reasonable amount of tactile feedback. The palm rest felt a little hard against our wrists as we typed, but we managed a strong 86 word-per-minute rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, a bit higher than our 80-wpm average.
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Touchpad / Remote
The 4.25 x 2.25-inch glossy touchpad on the Ethos 8951G pops out of its socket to become a remote. With it, you can control media on the notebook from a few feet away. A mode-change button sits in the upper-right corner of the touchpad. In default mode, the pad remains unlit and you can use the entire surface to navigate around the desktop, tapping to left-click.
Click the mode-change button once, and video and music icons light up on the right side of the pad, along with a media mode changing button and a menu button. Tapping on the video or music icons launches the corresponding section of Acer's Clear.fi media player, and tapping the mode-change button toggles between the video, music, and photo viewing modes in Clear.fi.
Hit the button again, and the left two-thirds of the touchpad surface light up with media controls for pausing, playing, and forwarding through your videos, songs, and pictures. The player controls work in both Clear.fi and Windows Media Player, but not in QuickTime. If all of this sounds confusing, that's because it is. It took us a while to get the hang of the layout.
In our tests, the media remote was responsive at up to 5 feet from the notebook, but it became extremely jerky and then stopped working as we stepped back another couple of feet. After we stepped out of range and then back in, the pad sometimes became miscalibrated, so swiping side to side would move the cursor up and down. However, putting the device back into its bay always fixed the problem. The size of the Windows pointer presents a more serious problem, because it can be difficult to see the small white tip of the pointer when you're standing a couple of feet away from the high-res screen.
Unfortunately, when docked or used as a remote, the pad feels slippery; our finger sometimes slid around while we were navigating. Even worse, we found that the pointer often got stuck in the middle of the screen, forcing us to pick up our finger and swipe again.
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The Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G stayed pleasantly cool throughout our testing. After we played video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured a cool 87 degrees, the keyboard a reasonable 89 degrees, and the bottom a chilly 84 degrees Fahrenheit. We consider temperatures below 90 degrees extremely comfortable.
Display and Audio
The Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G's 18.4-inch, 1920 x 1080 LED-backlit screen offers plenty of real estate and vibrant colors. However, viewing angles leave much to be desired, as movies washed out significantly at just 45 degrees to the left or right. Whether we were watching a 1080p QuickTime trailer for Apollo 18 or a YouTube 1080p trailer for Mission Impossible 4, motion was smooth and images were relatively sharp. However, colors in dark scenes inverted as we moved left or right, which is not conducive to multiuser viewing.
The Dolby-tuned speakers on the Ethos 8951G provided accurate music playback that was loud enough to fill a room. When playing both the bass-laden "Forget Me Nots" and the guitar-heavy "Shout at the Devil," we were able to make out some separation of sound for bass and treble, though the playback was not rich and layered like it is on Dell's XPS line of notebooks. Toggling the Dolby Home Theater software on and off made little difference in the sound quality.
Ports and Webcam
Click to enlargeThe Aspire Ethos 8951G takes advantage of its size by popping a plethora of ports onto its huge chassis. On the left side are three USB 2.0 ports, a Blu-ray drive, an Ethernet port, and a Kensington Lock slot. On the left are VGA out, HDMI, audio in/out jacks, Firewire 400, eSATA/USB, and a single USB 3.0 port for a total of five USB ports overall. The front lip holds a memory card reader.
The 1.3-megapixel HD webcam provided sharp, detailed images even in low light. Speaking on Skype in our dimly lit living room, we noticed fine details on our face, including our skin tone. With the overhead sunlight in our office, colors were brighter.
With its quad-core, 2-GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM processor, 8GB of RAM, and Nvidia GeForce GT555M graphics (with Optimus graphics switching), the Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G offers desktop replacement-level performance. On PCMarkVantage, a synthetic benchmark used to measure overall system prowess, the Aspire Ethos scored 7,418--just above the 7,224 category average.
On the other hand, the comparably priced HP Pavilion dv7t Quad Edition scored a much higher 13,565. This notebook has the same CPU but sports both an SSD and a 7,200-rpm hard drive instead of a single 5,400-rpm hard drive. The $1,600 ASUS G73SW, which has the same Core i7 CPU but a 7,200-rpm hard drive, also beat the Aspire 8951G with a score of 8,226.
The Aspire Ethos 8951G's mediocre 750GB 5,400-rpm hard drive is the probably the main reason this system is slower than many of its competitors. The drive took 3 minutes and 14 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test for a rate of 26.2 MBps, more than 20 percent slower than the 33.3 MBps category average and about a third the speed of the HP Pavilion dv7t (77.1 MBps). The ASUS G73SW and its dual 7,200-rpm hard drives were also faster at 37.4 MBps.
The Ethos 8951G took a modest 55 seconds to boot Windows 7 Ultimate. (Note: Our review unit had Windows 7 Ultimate, but production models come with Home Premium 64-bit). That's a tad faster than the 64-second category average, but way behind the 37 seconds it took the SSD-enabled HP dv7t Quad Edition to start.
The Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G is no slouch when it comes to video encoding, as it took just 43 seconds to convert 114MB MP4 to AVI format using Oxelon Media Encoder. That's 14 seconds faster than the category average, and on a par with the HP Pavilion dv7t Quad Edition (43) and ASUS G73SW (43).
Graphics and Gaming
Though the Aspire Ethos 8951G isn't marketed as a gaming notebook, its Nvidia GeForce GT555M graphics chip and quad-core Core i7 CPU make it powerful enough to play demanding games at full HD resolution. On 3DMark06, a synthetic benchmark which measures overall graphics ability, the notebook scored a solid 10,377, comfortably above the 9,222 category average, but behind the 11,697 turned in by the HP Pavilion dv7t Quad Edition and its Radeon HD 6770M GPU, as well as the 14,058 provided by the ASUS G73SW and its Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M graphics.
The Aspire Ethos 8951G provided a solid frame rate of 100 fps in World of Warcraft with autodetect settings, which dropped to a still-strong 50 fps when we turned up the settings to the max. Though very respectable, those numbers fall below the 155/58 fps category average and the 155 / 81 fps offered by the ASUS G73SW.
In the more-demanding game Far Cry 2, the Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G provided strong frame rates of 62 fps at 1024 x 768 resolution and 37 fps at its native resolution of 1920 x 1080. Those numbers are definitely playable but come up shy of the 81/34 fps category averages. Both the HP Pavilion dv7t Quad Edition (127/45 fps) and the ASUS G73SW (143/57 fps) fared better.
Battery Life and Wireless
Click to enlargeDue to its eight-cell battery and Nvidia's Optimus graphics switching technology, the Aspire Ethos 8951G lasted a whopping 5 hours and 44 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test. That's the longest runtime we've seen on a notebook this size and nearly double the 2:55 desktop replacement category average. However, it's important to note that our test involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi, so you'll see less endurance when playing movies or games.
You may want to look for an Ethernet port when using the Aspire Ethos 8951G. The notebook's Atheros AR5B97 802.11n wireless radio provided only sub-par transfer rates of 25.5 and 12.1 Mbps at distances of 15 and 50 feet from the router, respectively. Those numbers are way below the 36.5 and 20.9 Mbps category averages.
Software, Security, and Warranty
Acer preloads the Aspire One Ethos with several useful software utilities. Acer Crystal Eye Webcam allows you to take still or record video with the 1.3-megapixel webcam. Acer Backup enables users to make a copy of your system in case of emergency, and MyWinLocker encrypts files.
The Clear.fi media player software not only allows you to play and organize your photos, music, and videos, but also lets you to share them with other Clear.fi enabled or DLNA-enabled devices, such as phones, tablets, and other computers. You can launch Clear.fi by hitting the media button to the upper left of the deck or by using the icons that light up when the touchpad is in media mode. As mentioned above, the touchpad itself serves as a remote control for Clear.fi.
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Security conscious users will appreciate the Aspire Ethos 8951G's built-in fingerprint reader. Using the Acer Bio Protection software, we were able to easily enroll our index finger and assign it to launch the app of our choice. You can assign up to three applications or web pages to each of your fingers. For example, swiping your right ring finger could open your browser to Gmail or your pinky finger could start Clear.fi.
The Acer Aspire Ethos 8951G has some things going for it: a full HD screen, Blu-ray playback, solid sound, and a unique removable touchpad. It's a good choice for those who crave the largest screen possible. If you can live with a 17-inch screen, the similarly-priced HP Pavilion dv7t Quad Edition offers much stronger overall performance due to its SSD and 7,200-rpm hard drive, though it lacks Blu-ray. Gamers should probably scoop up the ASUS G73SW, which offers much stronger graphics performance but much shorter battery life. Overall, the 8951G is a solid choice for those who want the freedom to control their media from a (limited) distance.