Review: Three 17-in. laptops provide big screens for low prices

Notebook too cramped? Try one of these (surprisingly affordable) big boys from Acer, Dell and Toshiba.

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Acer Aspire 7738

A leader in bringing innovative netbook designs to market, Acer is also spreading its wings with inexpensive larger notebooks as well. Priced at $750, the Aspire 7738 has advanced graphics, excellent audio and the best assortment of ports in this roundup -- but it's a lot to lug around.

I really like the shiny, dark-blue plastic case and elegantly dark design of the Aspire 7738. At 1.8 by 16.1 by 11 in., it is fractions of an inch longer and wider than the others. It is also the heaviest of this big notebook group, weighing a stout 7.5 lbs., more than half a pound heavier than either the Inspiron or the Satellite.

The Aspire's AC adapter is also the biggest and heaviest of the bunch and pushes its travel weight to a ponderous 8.8 lbs. It fit into my Brenthaven notebook bag only after a bit of encouragement and pushing.

Acer Aspire 7738
Acer Aspire 7738

Inside its big case is a well-equipped notebook with a 2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a double-layer Super-Multi DVD drive and 3GB of RAM. That's a gigabyte short of the Inspiron, and its 250GB hard drive comes up short compared with the 320GB drives in the Satellite and Inspiron.

The good news is that its hard drive shortcoming is more than made up for by its graphics. The center of attention is the Aspire's 17.3-in. screen, which can show 1600-by-900-pixel resolution and is the brightest and richest display of the three. While the others use Intel's integrated video accelerator with a minimum of dedicated video memory, the Aspire 7738 uses Nvidia's GeForce GT 130M graphics accelerator with a whopping 1GB of its own video memory that it can augment with as much as 1.3GB from system memory.

It's also the only system of the group with a fingerprint reader. On the downside, the Aspire's 18.9mm keys are smaller than those of the others, and the keyboard has wider spacing between adjacent keys, which takes a little getting used to. The touchpad is nicely recessed, but it has the same texture as the surrounding case, so it can be hard to find without looking.

While I like the convenience of the Satellite's thumbwheel volume control, the Aspire's touch-sensitive multimedia panel is a top-shelf addition that can control media, adjust volume and even mute the audio. The Aspire's speakers and surround sound are the best of the bunch.

The system outdoes the others with a great assortment of ports: four USB 2.0, VGA for an external monitor, Ethernet, modem, microphone, headphone and a high-end fiber-optic SPDIF audio connection. While it lacks the ExpressCard slot of the Inspiron and the eSATA hard drive connection of the Satellite, it has an HDMI plug for driving a large-screen monitor or TV. Up front is a flash card reader that can be used with xD cards as well as the SD and MS modules that the other two can handle.

The system was in the middle of the pack on most performance tests. It scored 725.1 on the PassMark PerformanceTest benchmark, and its 8-cell, 4,800 milliamp-hour battery pack was able to run for a midrange 2 hours and 26 minutes -- although the difference among the three on battery life isn't all that much.

It was, however, the fastest to start up, and its 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi had an excellent range of 125 feet. On top of having the brightest of the three screens, the Aspire showed more detail than the others while running Trainz.

In addition to Microsoft's Windows Vista Home Basic and Works 9.0, the Aspire includes the company's Carbonite online backup system and McAfee's Internet Security Suite with 30 days of updates, as well as a surprisingly good assortment of games and utilities.

In the final analysis, Acer's engineers and designers went a little too far. Sure, they built a system that has the amenities and the graphics of a much more expensive system, but it's also bulky and overweight by about half a pound.

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