The Acer Aspire 5738DG-6165 grafts a 3D panel onto a mainstream laptop. It’s a gimmick, a feature that caters to maybe 1 percent of the computing population–and at first I was completely skeptical. People are offering 3D as a crowd-pleasing extra in movie theaters, as a ploy to justify the purchase of Blu-ray discs, and now as a new reason to buy a high-end graphics card. But in a $780 all-purpose laptop?
After kicking the tires on the 5738DG-6165 for a few days, I’ve seen some mixed, finicky–but also at times surprisingly good–results. Since the rest of the laptop (even the discrete GPU driving the visual experience) is so average, I have to make the 3D panel the focal point of this review.
But before we dive into the specifics of the panel, you need to understand the three different 3D technologies currently available. The first approach is the old standby, in which you use red-blue cardboard glasses. The effect tints your world a little (mutes colors), but it’s fairly effective in everything from comic books to movies. The second approach is more advanced. A while back, nVidia proudly trotted out its 3D Vision goggles–powered, shuttered glasses that blink in time with a screen’s refresh rate. Similar takes on the technology have been used for some time, and it yields pretty solid results. With nVidia’s version, you plug the goggles into a powerful PC, make sure that your screen has at least a 120Hz refresh rate (or, if it’s a CRT, at least 100Hz), and you’re in business. The third approach, employed in the Acer laptop, uses polarized lenses. In this case the entire thing works thanks to a combination of Oakley-shades look-alikes, the polarized panel, and TriDef software.
That software is the main reason why I was digging the 5738DG-6165. Fire up the program’s main interface, and you can open specific 3D video files that truly leap off the screen. The software will also add depth (a slider lets you adjust the 3D functions) to any movies that you pop into the internal DVD drive; our DVDs of Top Gun and There Will Be Blood looked reasonably good. On top of that, the 3D effect works with video files on your computer. In my trials, WMV and AVI clips ran well, but I hit some roadblocks with QuickTime videos and TV shows recorded on Windows Media Center–you’d figure those would be no-brainers to work out of the box.
You know what else would be handy? 3D effects added to video from Netflix Instant Access and Hulu streaming. A TriDef spokesperson noted that in order for the software to offer 3D functions, developers need to create drivers and plug-ins that work inside programs. So here’s a request for the developers: Hulu has desktop software and Netflix is now integrated into Media Center. Make it happen. Please.
On the 5738DG-6165, the next icon on the software’s menu launches a 3D photo viewer. The sample images are no doubt tweaked to pop off the screen, but the feature worked equally well with images I took on a trip to New Zealand–trees grew out of the panel in nature shots, and geysers erupted.
And then there’s the reason everyone else will use the 3D: getting the most out of games. I fired up the zombietastic Left 4 Dead, and shambling ghouls jumped out of the screen. I found that games based on Valve’s Source engine (Portal, Half-Life 2) yielded the best results. Real-time strategy titles like Command & Conquer 3 made me feel as if I were operating in a war room, with the heads-up display floating above the fray while the odd explosion or vehicle rose up from the terrain. (I should say, though, that trying to read text in this setup can be a little disorienting at times.)
You can find drivers out there that promise to breathe a little more 3D life into some games, but the results are largely hit-and-miss. You might wind up hitting TriDef’s support forums to locate the latest hack drivers created by other users. But I found that trying to test a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum, for instance, was an exercise in frustration, due to an underpowered machine and beta drivers. Personally, I’d like to see nVidia’s 3D Vision shutter-glasses technology find its way to laptops, because, though it is a little more kludgy, it works with just about everything you throw at it.
The 3D functions aside, in general the 15.6-inch panel is reasonably bright and crisp. The average experience, with regular 2D content, offers pretty good color reproduction. In our tests, still images had appropriately deep, rich blues and bright, fiery oranges and reds. Test video clips sped along at the 1366-by-768-pixel native resolution. Whether we used HD video installed on the hard drive or clips streamed off Hulu, we saw no major causes for concern. It’s all gravy–so long as you’re looking at the 5738DG-6165 dead-on. The screen is actually pretty unforgiving for 3D; two people sitting side by side may be able to enjoy the effects if they have the screen positioned at the precise 120-or-so-degree angle. And when you aren’t wearing your polarized specs and you’re using the screen in 2D mode, you can’t help but notice the lines in the panel–it gets distracting, a little too quickly.
As for the rest of the laptop, in our tests it had just enough gumption (courtesy of a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB 5400-rpm hard drive, and an ATI Radeon Mobility HD 4750 GPU) to notch a score of 88 in WorldBench 6. The 5738DG-6165 was good enough to run through just about any basic task we tried on it.
In modern games, however, it was bound to bog down a little. What do you expect for $780? At 1024 by 768 resolution with high settings, the Acer laptop generated only 28 frames per second in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and 37 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III. (By the way, the 3D effects seemed to work decently well in the latter game.) This machine is not really a gaming rig, but if you keep the settings–and your expectations–fairly low, it will do fine.
While the 5738DG-6165 isn’t a powerhouse on the performance front, it is a power-hungry battery drainer. Posting a meager battery-life score of 2 hours, 28 minutes in our tests, it ran well short of the 4-hour, 14-minute average that we usually see from all-purpose portables. If you buy this laptop, keep your AC adapter handy!
The keyboard is great. It has wide, flat keys, and Acer fit in a full number pad for good measure. My hat’s off to the company for taking full advantage of the space and making a keyboard this big, as well as adding a few shortcut buttons along the top. The multitouch touchpad is equally roomy. Unfortunately, the single-bar mouse button is not as appealing; though it certainly is big and wide enough, it feels a little on the cheap, plasticky side.
In other respects, the 5738DG-6165 sports what I expect these days out of a basic, all-purpose laptop: four USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and VGA video outputs, a five-in-one flash-card reader, a Webcam, two headphone jacks–even decent audio. (Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still want to plug in headphones, but at least the on-board speakers don’t produce completely shrill results.) Connectivity-wise, the laptop gives you Bluetooth, 802.11n, ethernet, and even an old-tyme modem port.
The Acer Aspire 5738DG-6165, geared toward the everyman, has just enough features to attract people who need a capable portable computer for daily use. And the price is within the realm of reason. As you may have gathered, though, the big selling point is the 3D panel. It’s a gutsy attempt on Acer’s part, for sure, and the company deserves some credit for that. But if Acer–or someone else–tries to step up with more graphics horsepower, 3D could be a cool gimmick that actually catches on.