At the moment, 3D is the hottest thing in Hollywood, with most action and animated flicks coming out in both 3D and 2D versions. Game-makers have been a little slower in embracing the technology, but there are dozens of games that have been written for 3D viewing, including Activision’s Call of Duty, Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed, Prince of Persia from Ubisoft and Valve Corp.’s Portal 2.
So it’s natural that 3D-capable notebooks should now be hitting the market, with the kind of specs and graphics capabilities necessary to handle fast-moving 3D animations and videos. Two of the most recent are the Asus G74SX and Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV78, which I’ve run through their paces for this article.
These aren’t systems meant for those who are looking to watch the occasional YouTube video. They are high-end systems with price tags that run close to US$2,000. Still, if you’re a 3D gaming or video enthusiast — or if you plan to wow your clients with 3D presentations — they could be worth it.
The Asus G74SX and Toshiba Qosmio X775-3D78 are like monster twins from the laboratory of an evil genius: They are big, powerful and fast. And they are stretching the definition of what a notebook can do.
One thing is for certain — no one will confuse either of these with a MacBook Air . At 0.9 x16.5 x12.7 in., the Asus system is wider and longer than the Toshiba, which measures 1.2 x 16.1 x 10.8 in. The Asus is a bit thinner in the front, but at the back, the system widens to 2.5 in. thick; the back of the Toshiba measures slightly less at 2.3 in.
While the Asus tips the scales at a hefty 10.2 lb., the Toshiba keeps its weight somewhat under control at 8.0 lb. That’s still roughly twice the weight of the typical notebook. With their large AC adapters, the Asus and the Toshiba have travel weights of 12.1 lb. and 10.0 lb., respectively.
As you can imagine, getting to your next gaming party with either of these systems can be a chore. Neither will fit onto an airline table tray nor into the typical notebook case. Asus provides a black backpack with its system, while Toshiba sells several cases big enough to handle the X775 for between US$60 and US$90.
When I lugged each out for a day trip, I found that the bulk and extra weight was an annoyance (but on the other hand, these gamer-oriented systems were natural ice breakers at Starbucks).
I like the Toshiba’s aggressive silver and red color scheme, rounded corners and striated skin, although its shiny surface was a bit too slippery for me (I actually dropped it once and put a nice dent into a brand new desk.) The bold speaker grilles look like they might be worn as jewelry by somebody with questionable taste.
By contrast, the Asus’ case is flat black, has a more angular design and the company’s Republic of Gamers logo prominently displayed. The surface has the feel of a rubber wet suit, which provides a more secure grip.
Driving with 3D
In both systems, you can turn the 3D effect on and off using Nvidia’s software; in the Toshiba, there is also a physical a switch and light above the keyboard labeled “3D.”
Both laptops come with a pair of Nvidia’s active shutter glasses. For viewing 3D content, Toshiba uses its own Video Player 3D while the Asus comes with Roxio’s CinePlayer BD. To level the playing field, I installed and used Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 10 player application on both systems, and watched several 3D movies, including Tron: Legacy, Gnomeo & Juliet and Alice in Wonderland.
They both worked — to a degree. In both cases (with the help of the glasses), I could see the 3D effect from as far as about 10 feet from the computer’s screen. Beyond that, the infrared synchronization system lost contact with the glasses and the LCD lenses flickered furiously.
If you’re looking for the theater experience, keep looking. Rather than having items pop out of the screen, all the action on 3D rendered for computer viewing appeared to take place behind the plane of the display. It was just as real-looking, exhilarating and thought-provoking, but a little subdued.
As far as 3D gaming goes, both machines did quite well with Portal2, which is in its element when you’re maneuvering in a tight alleyway, scaling walls or viewing large scenes. The extra depth really helped make it a more immersive experience.
Overall, it was more engaging than 2D versions of the games. At times I felt like I could reach through the screen and touch the items in front of me.
Using Instant Effects’ FXD Interactive Media Player, I watched a 3D business presentation and edited it by relocating and rotating a variety of 3D elements, such company logos, a fanciful dragon and a fighter jet. I can see 3D increasing the impact of introducing a new product or part to potential customers by showing it at all conceivable angles. On the downside, each participant will need a pair of 3D glasses.
And as good as 3D can be, the glasses are a real pain. They are uncomfortable — particularly if you already wear glasses — cost about US$120 a pair and can make even a super model look nerdy. Plus, they need to be recharged with a USB cable after about four hours of use.
Interestingly, while the two systems were equivalent in maneuvering in 3D, when I was running Trainz 2009, a plain old 2D game, I noticed that the Asus was able to render more backgrounds and details than the Toshiba could. At times, the Asus showed cars and bushes that didn’t appear when the Toshiba created the same scenes; the Toshiba had noticeably more flickering as well.
Components and features
These systems are definitely high performers. They both come with second-generation Intel 2630QM Core i7 processors. With four processing cores and 6MB of on-chip cache, the CPU normally runs at 2.0GHz, but it can sprint to as much as 2.9GHz when needed — for example, when aliens are ganging up on you.
Games are typically resource hogs that need a lot of system memory. The Asus test system came with 12GB RAM (it can handle up to 16GB); the Toshiba came equipped with its maximum of 8GB RAM.
Both are equipped with a pair of hard drives: The Asus includes two 750GB 7,200rpm drives while the Toshiba has a 500GB 5,400rpm drive and a 750GB 7,200rpm drive.
Each of these 3D overachievers has a 17.3-in. screen powered by Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 560M graphics accelerator, which uses Nvidia’s 3D Vision technology to do the pixel heavy lifting required for displaying 3D images. The difference is that the Asus is equipped with 3GB of dedicated video memory while the Toshiba offers 1.5GB.
To my eye, when I looked at the two side by side, the Asus display was noticeably brighter, although the color palette on the Toshiba was richer. For instance, the Toshiba offered deeper blues for its sky scenes and richer greens for grass.
Each of these gaming systems is topped off with a rewritable BluRay drive. The Toshiba adds LabelFlash technology that lets you engrave a label onto the disc if you use the special media.
Because these gaming machines are so big, it’s a shame they don’t have a better assortment of ports. They both have three USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 port as well as VGA, HDMI and audio jacks. Neither has a DisplayPort nor an e-SATA connector.
Along with Gigabit Ethernet jacks, both systems have 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth. The Toshiba takes the lead on audio with Harmon/Kardon speakers and Dolby Advanced Audio to produce sharper, richer and much louder sound. The Asus gaming monster comes with a Realtek audio chip as well as Creative Labs’ EAX Advanced HD 5.0 as well as THX TruStudio Pro, but just didn’t get loud enough to impress .
A nice touch for late night gamers is that both of these systems have backlit keyboards that are also comfortable to type on; the Toshiba adds a light for the touchpad. The Asus, on the other hand, comes with a USB gaming mouse.
Thanks to its extra memory, the Asus achieved a 2,043.3 on PassMark’s PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, well ahead of the Toshiba’s 1,727.7 score. These are systems that have roughly twice the performance potential of the typical notebook, which tend to score between 800 and 900 on the same test.
On the CineBench 11.5 processor tests, it was a virtual tie. The Asus’ processor and graphics scores of 39.9 and 4.9 were slightly ahead of the Toshiba’s 39.8 and 4.8; these differences are unlikely to be seen in actual use.
Despite having a pair of fans each, when the gaming got intense, the Toshiba system ran very hot, hitting 146 degrees F at its exhaust outlet on the left side. The Asus system kept its cool, never rising above 100 degrees F.
Incidentally, the Asus offers four system settings that let you choose the best compromise between performance and battery life; I did all my testing with the Asus set to the highest performance level.
The Asus’ 5,400 milliamp-hour (mAh) battery ran for 1 hour and 46 minutes, 22 minutes longer than the Toshiba’s 3,300 mAh power pack. In other words, make sure you do your gaming or video watching near an outlet.
Overall, there are three things that give me pause as far as these 3D notebooks go.
First, so far, 3D is a Windows-only show, with Linux  and Macs stuck in a 2D flat world.
Second, watching too much 3D action can make you feel queasy and cause headaches — I found that an hour and a half was my limit with either of these 3D powerhouses.
Finally, there’s price. At US$1,900 for the Toshiba and US$1,950 for the Asus, these are two of the most expensive portable systems available at the moment. Either of them costs the equivalent of four basic notebooks — but there are few systems that can match the configurations and abilities of these gamers.
If none of these factors bother you, then both of these 3D notebooks can kick the butts of lesser notebooks when it comes to 2D and 3D gaming. They will appeal to slightly different audiences, however.
The Asus G74sx has the better configuration, with more RAM, storage  space and video memory, and did better on our performance tests. It also comes with a two-year warranty versus one year of coverage for the Toshiba Qosmio X775.
However, the system is much bigger and heavier — so large that, unless you’re into weight training, the notebook’s only travel will be from the family room to the kitchen or a bedroom. In fact, unless you need to move your gaming computer around the house, at that point you might be better off with a desktop.
On the other hand, the Toshiba Qosmio X775 is a less radical departure from mainstream mobile computing, with a case that’s smaller and lighter as well as great audio. It still performed like a champ.
So in the final analysis, I’d consider the Qosmio X775 to be the winner by a hair. Although it is still gargantuan compared to most notebooks, it is the smaller of the two and still has the processing and graphics power to blast aliens, race down highways and soar to new gaming heights.
How we tested
3D computer technology is still new, so I adapted and enlarged my typical testing routine. On top of using each system for several weeks, watching 3D movies, playing 3D games and looking at 3D images, I used each for more mundane tasks like sending and receiving emails, writing memos, updating a Web site and editing video.
I started by measuring, weighing and examining each system and trying out each major feature. I also tried (unsuccessfully) to fit each onto a mockup of a typical airplane seat-back table tray and into a standard Brookhaven notebook bag, and carried each on a day trip out of my office.
I connected each wirelessly to my office network as well as public hotspots and a mobile hotspot.
While each system was running full blast, I found its hotspot and measured the temperature with an Extech Pocket IR non-contact thermometer.
I tested the performance of each system with an array of standard benchmarks. First, I looked at overall performance with PassMark’s PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark test. This suite of tests exercises every major system component, from the processor, memory and hard drive to the graphics. It then compiles the results into a single score that represents the system’s performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
I also ran CineBench version 11.5, a suite of benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance; I averaged the results of three runs.
To gauge the 3D abilities of each system, I put the glasses on and watched portions of three different 3D movies, played Portal2 and viewed a dozen 3D still images. Then I loaded Instant Effect’s FXD 3D media player and interacted with 3D models by moving and rotating them. I finished by watching a 3D business presentation supplied by Instant Effects.
I also ran Auran’s Trainz Simulator, a 2D railroad simulation package that is particularly resource intensive. I looked for jerkiness, shimmering, differing shadowing, levels of detail and items that were left out. Each system ran the simulation of the Canadian National Railway (CNR) Transcontinential route for a full day without a train wreck.
Finally, with a USB drive containing six HD videos connected to the system, I set Windows Media player to shuffle through all the videos while PassMark’s BatteryMon charted the battery’s capacity. I reported the average of three runs.
The basics of 3D
3D is based on the slightly differing views of the world that we get from our left and right eyes. Because we see the world from two slightly different angles, the brain’s visual cortex creates perspective by integrating these images. The result is the 3D landscape we live and interact in.
The two notebooks reviewed here use a technology called frame sequential stereoscopic 3D that mimics the way we see 3D by sending individual images to each eye. Their Nvidia graphics systems create and display a stream of images that alternate between right and left frames that are intended for viewing by the right and left eyes.
This is where the funky black plastic glasses come in. Frame sequential 3D uses what are called active shutter glasses, which have a pair of lenses made out of small LCD panels. As the images switch from one meant for the right eye to one meant for the left eye, the lenses alternate between being opaque and transparent so that only one eye sees the scene — 120 times a second. An infrared emitter on the system sends out a synchronization signal to the glasses to make sure it all works properly.
(Incidentally, these are not the same as the glasses you’re given in movie theaters, which use lenses that work with images that are polarized by 90 degrees; each eye only gets the image that is correctly polarized for that eye.)
The result is that the brain is tricked into constructing a 3D world around this two-fold visual input. How well it works depends on the 3D movie or game as much as on the system it is played on. Without the glasses to get the correct frames to the correct eyes frame sequential 3D images onscreen look like a confusing double image.
If the glasses are a deal-breaker for you, by the end of the year, there may be a new generation of 3D systems that don’t require the glasses. Some initial tries can be found in HTC’s EVO 3D smartphone and Nintendo’s 3DS game machine. Toshiba is also working on a glasses-free 3D laptop.