Acer aspires to a greater ethos

The Acer Aspire Ethos wears its role of desktop replacement like an good, off-the-rack suit. It fits fairly well, but needs some alterations before approaching perfection. 

I found many things to like about the Ethos. The bright, 18.4-inch 1080p display makes working with documents easy on the eyes. Color fidelity and saturation were good, both on photo images and video material. Typing on the keyboard is a positive experience for the most part, and the built-in Blu-ray/DVD combo player’s movie playback is among the best we’ve seen in a laptop.

Those are the high points.

The Ethos employs an intriguing gimmick: a detachable touchpad with a built-in battery (which recharges when it’s docked.) Make no mistake, it is a gimmick. As a trackpad, it’s terrible. The default sensitivity setting forces you to swipe multiple times just to move the cursor across the screen. I tried repeatedly to use multitouch gestures on the touchpad, but I couldn’t get them to work. At times, the touchpad refused to respond at all, even when docked.

The touchpad has a small, soft button that changes modes so that it can act as a remote media controller when detached, but I rarely lean back from an 18.4-inch display enough to need a remote. If you connect the Ethos to your HDTV, you might find this gizmo worthwhile, but it’s almost useless in its primary role as a pointing device, so you’d best get a mouse. 

The keyboard is much better, with a fairly clean layout, though the arrow keys are tiny. The keyboard’s tactile feedback and response are pretty good, too.

Audio playback quality is above average, though you won’t get high volume for music playback. My chief complaint is that reverb seemed excessive. You’ll want to use the minimalist Dolby control panel to switch modes from music to movies when you pop in a Blu-ray disc. Movie audio quality was exceptionally good for a laptop, with clear voice imaging and a soundstage that seemed wider than the display without sounding smeared.

Video quality is top-notch, as long as you sit in the sweet spot. But viewing the screen from even a little distance off-axis yields noticeable shifts in video contrast and color. Upscaled, standard-definition content looked clean, without much noise or excessive edge enhancement, but it did appear a bit soft. High-definition content was impressive, however.

Performance is another weakness. The Ethos ships with 8GB of DDR3-1333 memory and a quad-core, Intel Core i7 2630QM CPU. However, the laptop’s WorldBench 6 score of 127 was a little below average for a desktop replacement. The Acer system comes with an Nvidia GT 555M GPU that offers better gaming performance than the integrated Intel HD Graphics do, but it’s hardly a gaming powerhouse. You’ll want to dial down graphics detail and possibly the resolution before playing current-generation of DirectX 10 and 11 game titles.

The GT 555M takes advantage of Nvidia’s Optimus technology to switch automatically from the discrete GPU (when needed for high performance graphics) to the Intel integrated GPU for normal desktop use and video playback. This arrangement can substantially improve battery life, though the Ethos will likely spend most of its time plugged into wall power. 

The Ethos comes with plenty of ports built in, including five USB ports (three USB 2.0, one USB 2.0/eSATA combo, and one USB 3.0 port). HDMI and VGA video output connectors are located on the right side, as are three audio jacks and a four-pin Firewire connector.

Acer provides gigabit ethernet and 802.11n Wi-Fi. It also supposedly offers Bluetooth–and even includes the Atheros Bluetooth suite–but we didn’t find any evidence of Bluetooth hardware, and the Bluetooth software refused to run.

You get plenty of capacity at 750GB, but the 5400-rpm hard drive is a bit on the slow side. The Ethos supports SD cards (all formats), plus Sony Memory Stick and xD cards. The Blu-ray drive works well and isn’t too noisy during playback. Acer includes media playback and sharing software. It works well, but permits only limited adjustments.

Although this desktop replacement is bulky–you’ll want to be sure you have a bag large enough to hold it if you plan on lugging it around–it’s surprisingly light. Without the 120W PSU, the Ethos weighs 8 pounds, 13 ounces. The power brick raises the weight to more than 10 pounds.

Overall, the Acer Aspire Ethos has a functional though imperfect design. The detachable trackpad doesn’t work particularly well and performance is fairly average. But the laptop looks and sounds good, and movie playback is superb. And $1499 isn’t a bad price for a system with an 18.4-inch display–especially if what it does well is a good match for your needs.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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