Acer doesn't hide its aspiration to dominate the notebook market using the same formula that got Dell to first place in the past with its Inspiron line, top specs for the dollar. The "Gemstone" is their latest line and the Aspire 5920 is the top model. But does it deliver?
My chosen notebook was the Acer Aspire 5920-6313 equipped with the following specs:
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Reason For Buying
After looking for a desktop replacement notebook with gaming capabilities I found the Acer 5920-6313 offered unparalleled specs for the money. At the time of purchase it beat even the Inspiron 1520 when compared in a spec-to-spec analysis. Acer: 1, Dell: 0.
Best Buy had the Acer 5920-6313 for $1,049 but I missed that deal so I had to find mine on ebay. I bought one from "HD Gamer store," one of the many aliases of a company called Dealtree which specialize in Best Buy returns. But instead of getting the advertised "Like new in its original box" I got a non-working, physically broken notebook with no box or accessories what so ever. This company wouldn't take responsibility and fix the problem so I had to send the notebook to an Acer certified lab, pay extra cash for the repair and wait for another five weeks. The tech determined the notebook screen to be faulty with no relation to the physical damage which wouldn't have happened anyway had the notebook been in its original box and not so poorly packed, but still Dealtree refused to acknowledge their fault and take full responsibility.
In short, this was the worst ebay experience to date but there is another reason why I'm telling you all this. While waiting for the notebook to come back from the lab I bought another 5920-6313 from a different seller. That allowed me to pit two 5920's in this review as well as comparing the original screen with the replacement screen on the repaired unit.
Build and Design
Acer marketing named their new Aspire line style "Gemstone" but we'll call it the pebble. A rounded, dark outer form combined with the yellowish gray stone-like inside reminds me of natural river pebbles. However, nature stops when it comes to the keyboard area. The somewhat eccentric keyboard has a high tech look combing lots of blue LEDs, grooved geometric lines and angles including a slanted space bar.
You can love it or hate it but you have to applaud Acer for the innovative style, especially in contrast with Dell's 1520/1720 styling statement which mainly consists of different colors for the lid. Another point for Acer.
Too bad the pebble doesn't come without design flaws. The glossy lid looks quite nice with the "floating" Acer logo but is a finger print magnet. The lid prevents any rippling to the screen and is opened with a car boot like handle, but it isn't as easy to use as the traditional slider. In addition, I don't feel comfortable applying more upward pressure to the handle when lifting the lid all the way up so I only use it to free the latch and then raise the lid by holding the non-moving screen bezel instead.
drop shadow logo (view large image)
lid handle (view large image)
The lid hinges, while solid, pose another problem. They tilt the screen backwards and down so it's blocking part of the rear side, resulting in no ports aside from the DC jack. When the lid is open it's harder to plug in the power plug (properly built with a 90 degree angle to reduce possible stress on the DC jack). The lowered screen also eliminates a proper vent that could have been located there. Acer: 2 Dell: 1.
lid hinge (view large image)
I feel the need to address some claims concerning the right side USB port proximity to the optical drive tray. Using a USB mouse the tray is free to open and close without touching the USB plug. However, it is sometimes hindered by the mouse cord ... but that's not that big of a deal. The notebook in general feels pretty much solid as it should be for its size and 6.6 pounds weight.
Acer boasts its Crystalbrite screen with 220 nits brightness and 8ms response time and the screen is very bright indeed. Unfortunately, that is all I can say in favor of this screen. There is very little contrast to the point the blacks are only dark grays at best. Even though it can not display proper blacks the screen manages to be annoyingly reflective. The problem is compounded by the poor viewing angles at all directions, did I say angles? I meant an angle.
You would think it's just a bad screen but luckily (or unluckily if you ask me) we can compare two Acer 5920 screens side by side. In the image below the notebook on the right features the original AU Optronics panel and the notebook on the left is the replacement Chi Mei Optoelectronics panel which shows no real improvement.
To be fair, most consumer laptops today exhibit glossy screens that sometimes sacrifice black and contrast for vivid colors in an attempt to lure in buyers. Still, I'd rather have a choice of a matte screen with deeper blacks and high contrast. No points awarded.
CMO 1526 left AUO 2774 right (view large image)
Speakers and Microphones
The sound system on the pebble 5920 is composed of two speakers hidden under a stylish grill located above the keyboard and a subwoofer built in the underside. The combination produces acceptable results that are well above average for notebook sound. However, having a Dell notebook with a subwoofer in the past I expected a more impressive leap out of a newer notebook. The attached Realtek sound driver has an abundance of options and settings though.
Speaker grill (view large image)
Subwoofer (view large image)
Having a volume dial is a good thing, but the dial has no feedback nor resistance which makes it move at the slightest touch and hard to set to the right volume. It also lacks a "stop point" so you can't know when you reached the top/lowest point unless you are using the on-screen volume display. Its location in the front under the lower "lip" means it isn't easy to reach when the notebook is resting on your lap. Likewise with the headphone ports location at the front which always strike me as prone to stress damage.
For video conferencing Acer included a built-in VGA web cam into the lid handle with built-in microphones on each side. Nothing spectacular but all in all not bad for a 15" notebook. Acer: 4, Dell: 1.
webcam with 2 mics (view large image)
Keyboard, Touchpad and Media Controls
The weird looking keyboard is on par with today's average, however, it has a noticeable amount of flex in the right shift area which should not appear in a modern notebook of that size and weight.
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The even surface touch pad is responsive and easy to use thanks to the texture and wide aspect ratio, it's so wide I sometimes found myself inadvertently moving the cursor. Fortunately, you can switch it off and on with the designated FN+F7 combination. Acer managed to squeeze in a third middle button that is supposed to act as a four-way joystick for quick scrolling and navigating.
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As expected from a media notebook there are plenty of shortcut buttons on the keyboard sides for turning the wireless communication on/off, launching a web browser, email client and the Acer arcade. The right side has a blue backlit media player touch panel.
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On Acer's behalf, it looks like the entire palm rest area, keyboard, touchpad and buttons are made of solid non-painted plastic which hopefully means it will not wear off after a while. You may think this gray hue isn't attractive but on the bright side it will look gray even years from now. Add (or subtract) a point for that.
Ports and Features
The 5920 spec list continues with a rich selection of ports: quite an achievement with the back profile blocked. Again I wish some of the ports (like LAN and video ports) were in the back.
As fitting a proper entertainment notebook Acer combined a HD DVD drive with a HDMI port as standard. Now surely that's worth a point.
Front profile view: CIR port, memory card reader, dual headphone out, microphone in, and volume dial. (view large image)
Left side: VGA out, LAN, modem, 2x USB 2.0, HDMI, S-Video, USB 2.0, firewire, express card slot. (view large image)
Right side: Kensington lock, RF-in (on select models), USB 2.0, HD DVD drive. (view large image)
Back profile view: DC jack. (view large image)
The amount of bloatware preinstalled with the notebook was quite bearable, but let's take a closer look at Acer's "empowering technology." Contrary to what you might think, pressing the "empowering" button does not turn you into a strong black woman, instead it opens a nice looking control panel with an assortment of Acer utilities designed to help beginners take control of their laptop:
Along with there "empowering" tools Acer includes Arcade deluxe, a media control center. All in all it's not a bad package for the novice user, even if there is no real technology here and the name is plain silly. No points awarded because we are not about competition when it comes to bloatware.
empowering button -- you go girl. (view large image)
This is a new review category I made up. Nevertheless, in a world of Vista-only notebooks it is useful to know whether you'd be able to run your favorite proven OS on your new 5920. Well, you can and quite easily as the supplied Vista drivers are compatible with XP. Thanks to some tips from NBR forums members the install process was even easier, updating the bios to the latest version allowed switching the SATA interface to IDE. Then it was a simple XP install using an old XP SP2 disc. Surprisingly the laptop worked quite well (webcam included) even before I installed the Acer drivers. I have yet to find a way to get XP working in SATA ACHI mode which might be the cause of the HD Tune test results.
Performance and Benchmarks
A distinctive advantage of the 5920 is the Nvidia 8600m GT video card, while not the DDR3 version it's still one of the fastest 8xxx GPU available at the time of the review and certainly the top in the 15.4" form factor segment. In addition, it comes in a MXM II slot with easy access, another high point in the specification. Playing games proved once again that even the low T5250 was not the limiting factor in this setup, meaning you don't have to spend money on a higher CPU for that purpose alone.
Having two identical 5920's I was able to pit them against each other it those benchmarks, one running XP Home SP2, the other keeping the original Vista Home premium install.
|Notebook / CPU||XP/Vista wPrime 32M time|
|Acer Aspire 5920 (1.5GHz Intel T5250, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB ) ||63.218s/57.564s |
|Dell XPS M1530 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) ||37.485s|
|Portable One SXS37 (Core 2 Duo T7250 @ 2.0GHz) ||41.908s |
|Sony VAIO NR (Core 2 Duo T5250 @ 1.5GHz)||58.233s|
|Toshiba Tecra A9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)||38.343s|
|Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)||37.299s|
|HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz)||40.965s|
|Sony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz)||76.240s|
|Zepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz)||42.385s|
|Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)||37.705s|
|Alienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz)||38.327s|
|Hewlett Packard DV6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz)||38.720s|
|Samsung Q70 (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz)||42.218s|
|Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi (Core Duo T2500 @ 2.0GHz)||42.947s|
|Samsung X60plus (Core 2 Duo T7200 @ 2.0GHz)||44.922s|
|Zepto Znote 6224W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz)||45.788s|
|Samsung Q35 (Core 2 Duo T5600 @ 1.83GHz)||46.274s|
|Samsung R20 (Core Duo T2250 @ 1.73GHz)||47.563s|
PCMark05 measures overall notebook performance:
|Notebook||XP/Vista PCMark05 Score|
|Acer Aspire 5920 (1.5GHz Intel T5250, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB )||3,880/3,821 PCMarks |
|Dell XPS M1530 (2.20GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB)||5,412 PCMarks|
|Dell Inspiron 1520 (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA 8600M GT)||4,616 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS)||4,591 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)||4,153 PCMarks|
|Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)||3,987 PCMarks|
|Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB)||4,189 PCMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||4,234 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)||3,487 PCMarks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX)||5,597 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400)||3,646 PCMarks|
HDTune results ( XP/Vista ) :
Same HDD, different interface (view large image)
Heat and Noise
Having so many ports limits the air vent to the lower left side, and the lid design comes back to haunt us as it limits the space allocated for the back vent profile. The result is somewhat warmer than appreciated inner idling temperatures with the CPU hovering at 50+ °C and the GPU in the 60°C area.
Under load the left side gets noticeably hotter with the GPU peaking to 90 °C and once freezing on me. The notebook might be designed to handle that amount of heat but I'm still uncomfortable with that. Both machines exhibited erratic fan behavior which would come on at full power for a short burst every few seconds. I'd much rather have it work constantly at a low rpm, keeping the notebook cool and quiet as the fan is silent by itself.
I couldn't find a way to enable speedstepping in the bios. NHC doesn't show the CPU to throttle down while CPU-Z shows only 33% slowing to 1000Mhz and SpeedFan wouldn't control the fans. The 8600m GT driver will not allow throttling down on DC power either, nor to downclock the GPU speeds.
This is where a proper ePower management should have let me control the fan operation and speed as well as enable an aggressive CPU and GPU throttling. It has some sort of CPU power options but I have not seen any big difference. All points melted down.
Its packing heat -- literally. (view large image)
Interestingly the XP unit reported an estimate of 3:04 hours on a full battery and maximum screen brightness loosing about one percent battery power every two minutes idling, while the Vista unit reported an extra hour with a 4:10 hours estimate. Yet another unfulfilled promise by Windows Vista.
Despite its many flaws the Acer Aspire 5920 is one of the best buys today thanks to its rich specification, wealth of features and relative low price. I believe a proper new bios would solve the fan issue and CPU management, and a new Nvidia driver should let us use powermizer to reduce GPU heat. That leaves us waiting for a decent LCD panel from Acer or getting one of those LCD films to enhance the blacks. Like its name suggests, the Acer 5920 gemstone is truly a diamond in the rough and with a bit of polishing would shine.
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