Invasion of the large-screen notebooks: Bigger really can be better

Entertainment and business multimedia go hand in hand with these three big notebooks, but which one is a true blockbuster?

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Acer Aspire 8920-6671

It may not have the largest screen or a TV tuner, but Acer's Aspire 8920-6671 is a powerful notebook that nicely balances business multimedia, entertainment and economy with size and weight. At $2,599, it's the least expensive of the three notebooks in this roundup, yet can deliver top-quality entertainment and business graphics.

At 1.7 by 17.4 by 11.5 inches, the Acer Aspire 8920 looks positively tiny compared to the HDX or M590KE. In addition, its 8.9-pound heft puts it at the low end of the heavyweight class, and even when you include its AC adapter, the 8920 has a reasonable -- at least for these behemoths -- travel weight of 9.7 pounds.

Large notebooks
Acer Aspire 8920-6671

Inside, the emphasis is on power. The 8920's 2.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor matches that of the HDX. The review unit came with 4GB of RAM and can hold a pair of hard drives; our test system came with a single 320GB hard drive, which limits the number of TV shows, presentations and videos that can be stored on board.

While its 18.4-in. screen is smaller than either the HDX or M590KE, it's the brightest of the bunch, although the display can look washed out at times. The display's 1,920-by-1,080 resolution is midway between that of the HDX and the M590KE; there's a VGA webcam above the display. The system's nVidia GeForce 9650 graphics engine has 512MB of dedicated video memory.

In contrast to the 8920's spare and unfussy appearance, its CineDash multimedia control panel, located to the left of the keyboard, looks like it was lifted from the Starship Enterprise. Like HP's panel, it is touch sensitive, but rather than being straightforward and linear, it's circular with odd shapes and takes a while to get used to.

The system's 19.3mm keys have 2.1mm of travel for reasonably relaxed typing. Its touch pad has a handy quick-scrolling zone on the side and a fingerprint scanner for the security-conscious.

On the downside, the 8920 can't compete on ports. It has four USB ports, plus one each for external monitor, microphone, headphone and HDMI. It does without the extra USB slot that the M590 has, as well as the FireWire, S-Video and external SATA hard drive connection that can be found on the HDX.

Communications are covered by the system's wired LAN and built-in Bluetooth, augmented by an Intel Wireless Wi-Fi Link 4965AGN. The embedded 802.11a/b/g/n network adapter card was able to move 13.9Mbit/sec. data and had a range of 100 feet, about midway between the best and the worst.

Like the HDX, the 8920 puts audio front and center with five speakers, including a subwoofer. The Realtek audio chip is bolstered with Dolby processing that makes sound crisp and clear for movies but can be a little hollow. Annoyingly, the system increases and decreases the volume three increments at a time. You can always connect to an external speaker set via the system's SPDIF digital connector.

While the system comes with a large remote control and Microsoft's Media Center software, it lacks a TV tuner. I set up an AverMedia USB Hybrid tuner, transforming the notebook into an entertainment powerhouse on a par with the M590 system. It took me 12.7 seconds to start up and get to a station and 1 second to change the channel.

Even with the machine doing several things at once, its fan wasn't loud and its case stayed cool. Its PassMark Performance score of 732.3 was just a little behind the class-leading HDX. The 4,800 milli-amp hour battery -- the smallest of the bunch -- ran for 1 hour 50 minutes on a charge, twice as along as the M590 with its larger battery. Its power use was frugal in comparison as well, with an estimated $49.50 a year in electricity bills.

The 8920 comes with Windows Vista Ultimate and a lot of extra applications, including games, videoconferencing software and Microsoft Works. At $2,599, it's covered by that rarity of rarities, a three-year warranty, which none of the other big machines includes. The warranty extension is worth as much as $270, making its price look even better.

Being the smallest in a class of huge notebooks has its advantages. The 8920 is lighter, easier to maneuver and still performs with the big boys. If it only had a built-in TV tuner, it would be a superstar.

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