The Acer Aspire 4920G is a fascinating beast -- a 14.1-inch notebook with surprisingly powerful guts (complete with ATI Mobility Radeon X2500 and 2GB RAM), a polished up exterior and overhauled sound, with a questionable design ethic and a few interesting omissions.
The exterior is detailed in the currently all-too-popular piano black, that seemingly coaxes fingerprints out of the ether which are intensely difficult to remove. In the middle of the lid is an inlaid section of a slightly sparkly material reminiscent of graphite. It's a nice touch that makes the notebook feel a little more sophisticated.
This is spoiled when you open it up and are greeted with the single most boring grey possibly conceived of by the human mind, kindly called "ceramic" by Acer. The design is not entirely unattractive, but the choice in colour screams "beige is back!" in capital, neon, flashing letters. It's so utilitarian in its function that it wouldn't look out of place in a navy sub.
Fortunately then the bit you actually have to look at, the 1,280x800 resolution screen, is quite nice indeed, even if the high reflectivity makes it difficult to use in high light situations. No option exists for a matte screen.
The top right hosts a set of quick access media buttons, lit by blue LEDs. These don't seem to be customisable, so while the play button will launch your default music player, the other buttons are quite useless in anything except Windows Media Player. Fortunately the buttons on the left are a different kitchen appliance filled with aquatic vertebrates, the quick e-mail/Web browser buttons and even the vaunted "gemstone", a clear plastic button that brings up widget style access to Acer's software suite all able to launch pre-selected programs or Web addresses.
The touchpad follows the increasingly common practice of not marking where the scroll pad is, although this is perfectly acceptable considering the width of the zone is customisable. Not so common is the inclusion of a middle mouse button. This sadly doesn't function as a middle button, but a four way directional pad that can help with scrolling. Given that this can already be achieved with great precision through the touchpad, the inclusion is puzzling at best.
A decent whack of real estate is taken up by the Dolby Virtual Surround Sound speaker. While the words sound exciting, and Acer's advertisements seem to promise complete immersion, the reality is that they're slightly louder than speakers from other notebooks, afford a little more detail in the midrange, and comes with a bunch of presets that barely skim the surface of satisfactory. Volume also seems to be hard limited at a set level -- if you try to push the gain higher in something like Winamp and play back a song, crescendos are artificially limited, creating a sort of sucking noise as the dynamics are forced back onto a flat line. No doubt this is to physically protect the speakers, and we were pushing them beyond their limits, however the effect is, simply put, awful. In short, while better than most, the speakers aren't worth the price hike compared to competing notebooks.
Acer's "Empowering" software suite is, like many brands, window dressing for common functions already included in Windows, accessible via the "gemstone" button at the top left. Unlike other software suites it's presented in a widget fashion, and is actually well designed, non-obtrusive and easy to use. Full marks to Acer on this one. There's also a program called "GridVista", allowing you to restrict maximised windows to certain zones. This lets you use, say, half the screen instead of full for an application, allowing you to easily use and view two applications at once. Crapware was thankfully left to a minimum, the only vexing entry being the annoying Yahoo toolbar.
"Acer Arcade Deluxe", Acer's media program is also included, but it's hard to fight the case for this in the face of the fully functional and included Windows Media Center in Windows Vista Home Premium.
A volume wheel is featured on the front side, something that we find a lot easier to use than the usual function key + button combination. Headphones, speaker and microphone jacks are also featured on the front.
As far as wireless is concerned, there's almost a full deck here -- infrared, gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a, b and g -- yet there's no 802.11n, nor is there any option to add the capability. Bizarrely a button is supplied to turn Bluetooth on or off, but no Bluetooth device is included in the laptop.
The Express Card slot is directly above the MMC/SD/XD/Memory Stick, but the placeholder that stays in the slot until you plug in an Express card is highly difficult to remove, and even harder with anything in the memory card slot. The notebook also makes an annoying beeping noise every time you connect or disconnect mains power, with seemingly no way to turn it off.
It might sound as if we have a bunch of negative things to say, but in reality the Acer was a pleasure to use. It was snappy and responsive thanks to its ATI Mobility Radeon X2500, Intel Core 2 Duo T5450 and 2GB of RAM. The sound wasn't anywhere near as stellar or immersive as Acer makes it out to be, but it still is better than most notebooks. In fact despite our gripes over the dull design we've almost gotten used to it; in a way it's less distracting to use than if you had, say, one of the current Apple MacBooks in front of you. The battery life was a bit short -- setting all the power saving features off and the screen to maximum brightness while playing a DVD it managed 80 minutes before shutting down, yet considering the powerful internals this isn't too bad and is in line with what was expected. Weight could be an issue for those who are consistently on the move.
If you can snaffle a good bargain on the 4920G and don't mind the blandness of its design, it's an excellent mid-sized performance system that we'd be more than happy to use on a day to day basis.