Acer has put just enough features and perks into the Aspire 8930, its high-end performance laptop. Thanks to a couple of reasonably primo parts, this high-octane portable is a solid choice for mobility-minded gamers. And with a price tag under two grand (our reviewed configuration was $1700 as of 2/22/09), this desktop replacement laptop won't blow your budget.
Running the show are a 2.5GHz Intel T9400 Core 2 Duo processor, an nVidia 9700M GT 512MB graphics card, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and the 64-bit version of Windows Vista. That combo delivered a reasonable WorldBench 6 score of 94. In game tests, it struggled a little with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament 3; running at 1680 by 1050, it notched 30 and 35 frames per second, respectively. So, technically, you can still play games on it, but you might notice the occasional slowdown.
As for more-recent games, it couldn't play Valve's zombie-apocalypse shooter Left 4 Dead at the display's native resolution, but it ran comfortably at 1280 by 720 with most settings maxed out. Even the hardware-crushing Crysis ran at playable frame rates with antialiasing off and settings at medium at 1280 by 720--a respectable showing. (Whether the later, more graphically-intense parts of the game would remain playable is questionable, however.) The difference in performance here might be due to the 64-bit OS and which games are utilizing it, something that you may wish to keep in mind when you set your gaming expectations for this laptop.
What about the battery life? Well, nobody buys a desktop replacement to lug around that often, but it lasted a reasonably long 2 hours, 54 minutes.
What matters is that the Aspire 8930 looks good. The 18.4-inch display, offering a native resolution of 1920 by 1080, dazzles with terrific brightness and good color reproduction. Though the screen has a glossy finish, it manages to remain usable under reasonable levels of sunlight, whether outside or indoors with the curtains open. The bezel is a little thick, but in my tests the lower edge was elevated enough to give me a good, full view of the screen even with my meaty paws typing away at the keyboard. My only complaint is that the rubber "feet" on the left and right sides of the display are placed slightly haphazardly. While I understand the need to keep the pretty screen scuff-free, the feet don't match the overall aesthetic of the laptop's otherwise slick styling.
The Aspire 8930 cuts a striking profile. Complementing the smooth, high-gloss finish are blue-lit LEDs along the hinges that look great. When you open the laptop, its aesthetic changes with a textured metallic surface that looks different without seeming gaudy. The texture continues over the touchpad--I hated this initially, but it grew on me when I noticed that it gave the touchpad a nice tactile feel. The Aspire 8930 also offers a lot in the way of ports, with three USB 2.0 inputs, two eSATA ports, VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort video outputs, and line-in and microphone audio inputs. Acer was also nice enough to throw in an excellent Webcam, positioning it at the top of the screen bezel.
Laptop keyboards with dedicated ten-key inputs are often a recipe for frustration and missed key presses. However, thanks to its size, the Aspire 8930 manages to pull the design off with nary a missed Ctrl key during Web browsing, typing, or game playing. Moreover, no keys have shrunk noticeably to make room for the numeric pad. Using the keyboard wasn't all roses, though, as I felt a bit of clicking on the right side of the board after extended use (it never affected the functionality, but it was cause for concern).
The Cinedash Media Console, a touch-inductive media interface located to the left of the keyboard, is another eye-grabber, and for the most part it works well. The media controls are intuitive and reasonably responsive, and the volume slider is, well, fun. It makes the machine feel like a laptop from the future. Unfortunately, that future doesn't include a more finely tuned volume control--accidentally touching it while playing some games minimized them. The Media Console does have a hold button, so hitting the volume control by mistake can be avoided, but having to figure that out the hard way was annoying.
All of the laptop's internal expansion areas are available behind one panel on the system's underside. Removing the panel is painless enough, but check your timidity at the door, as a fair amount of force is required to pry the plate up. Once you manage to detach it, though, you're ready to go. The hard drive is easily replaceable, and the motherboard supports a pair of DDR3 SO-DIMMs (and with a 64-bit version of Vista and the shrinking cost of 4GB SO-DIMMS, expansion is a viable option down the road).
As with many laptops, sound is the Aspire 8930's sole stumbling point. The machine is billed as a home-theater substitute, and it comes with a full 5.1 setup. In stereo mode, it performs reasonably well; music is loud, and movies are clear. Unfortunately, in surround mode, the laptop disappoints. While the front and side channels produce acceptable audio, the center channel is tinny and quiet--since movies drive dialogue through the center channel in 5.1 mixes, this is troublesome. With the surround mode active, DVD dialogue was barely audible a few feet away, and undetectable across the room. Most users will likely want to find a decent pair of external speakers if they plan to watch a lot of movies on this laptop. The included S/PDIF output and HDMI audio output capability are nice bonuses that mitigate that disappointment somewhat, however.
The Acer Aspire 8930 offers a great combination of price and purpose. My only reservations relate to our review model's lack of a Blu-ray drive (since the machine has a Full HD display but its video card won't run games at that resolution, you'll want something to show the screen off), as well as to the likelihood that you'll need to buy a new laptop bag to transport this 18.4-inch monster. That said, we can't declare a final judgment on the Aspire 8930 just yet. Once we have all the results in from the PC World Test Center, we'll update this review's scores.