Asus and Acer 3D laptops cool, but lack of content is a problem

Are you ready for a 3D laptop?

I had a go at James Cameron‘s Avatar: The Game in 3D on the new Asus G51J-3D, one of two 3D laptops I’ve been testing. The other is the Acer Aspire 5738DG 3D. Both attempt to duplicate the illusion of depth familiar to people who watch 3D movies. You’ll have to put on the kind of special glasses you wear to watch 3D flicks at the local cinema.

On the computers, you can watch videos, admire pictures and, yes, play games in 3D. But the technologies that make 3D possible on the respective machines differ and don’t exactly match the prowess of Avatar director Cameron.

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The Asus is targeted at gamers. It is a far more robust notebook and a step up in class 3D-wise compared with the Acer, though there are a couple of immediate tradeoffs. At $1,699, the Asus commands more than double the $780 price of the Acer. And the Asus machine was more complicated to set up.

What’s more, so-called TriDef software on the Acer lets you convert 2D movies and pictures to 3D in real time, so you can look at content you already own in 3D. It’s kind of fun at first, though the effect is quite modest.

Escaping the hype surrounding 3D is a bigger challenge than combating one of the mammoth creatures in Avatar. But it’s an open question whether the immense popularity of 3D in the theater can be duplicated at home.

It isn’t for lack of trying. Freshly minted 3D televisions at premium prices are slated to hit stores in coming weeks. The first 3D Blu-ray movies and players are also coming, followed later in 2010 by brand-new 3D TV channels from ESPN and Discovery. And there are a bunch of 3D computer games.

I’m not convinced there’s any mainstream appeal for laptops with 3D, at least not yet. There’s simply not enough content. The technology is intriguing if imperfect, and it should appeal to well-heeled early adopters. While the family might someday congregate to watch 3D fare on a living room TV, watching 3D on a laptop is a more solitary affair. The 3D effects were decent (especially on the Asus), but nowhere close to what you’ll see at the neighborhood multiplex. Watching 3D can cause eye fatigue. You’ll likely have to mess around with software settings in games to get it just right.

Having access to 3D movies and other content is critical, especially to non-gamers. You can download some of this 3D fare now, but not a lot is available. While 3D Blu-ray movies are on the way, you’ll need new software to play them, and neither laptop has a Blu-ray player. Meanwhile, there are industry efforts to stream 3D videos. And Fujifilm is selling a 3D-capable digital camera for consumers.

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Here’s a closer look.

The technology. These are standard laptops with 15.6-inch screens, 4 gigabytes of RAM and 320-GB hard drives — the 3D is what sets them apart. The 3D on the Asus is based on technology from Nvidia. You don what are called active battery-powered “shutter” glasses that communicate with a small infrared box that you connect to the computer through USB. Basically, 120 times a second, the laptop screen sequentially delivers a different “right” and “left” image. The box emits a signal to the glasses that alternately closes and opens the right and left lens. The brain is tricked into viewing 3D. You can wear the sunglass-style spectacles over your regular prescription eyewear. They recharge via USB; Nvidia says they’ll last for 40 hours on a single charge. The glasses automatically shut off after 10 minutes of inactivity or if you lose line of sight from the emitter, which I found at times disconcerting.

Asus bundles the 3D glasses with the machine (along with a gaming mouse). But be prepared to pay if you lose or break the glasses or want to share an extra pair with family members: They cost $149 at Nvidia’s site.

Acer chose a less-expensive route. It supplies a pair of non-electronic polarizer glasses (plus clip-ons to wear over your regular glasses). In simplified terms, the laptop screen is polarized, or coated, so that one set of “even” lines delivers one image, while another set of “odd” lines delivers a slightly different image. As you wear the glasses, each eye is able to see only one of the corresponding images; the brain fuses them together so you experience stereoscopic 3D. Replacement glasses from Acer cost just $15.

•Performance. You have to tilt the computer to get a proper viewing angle on the Acer — the image jumped around as I moved my head. I had no trouble finding and keeping a sweet spot on the Asus. Another advantage for the Asus: Working with Nvidia means more games are compatible with its 3D system. I sampled Batman: Arkham Asylum in addition to the Avatar game. But I did run into a snag on the Avatar game in which the screen flickered until I relaunched the program.

On the Acer machine, I liked being able to convert some 2D family photos (in the JPEG format) to 3D, a feature not currently available on the Asus. I similarly converted a couple of older DVDs: Spider-Man and Moulin Rouge. Controls within the software let you change the depth of a scene or adjust how much of the 3D effect is shown in the front of an image. But keep your expectations in check.

Perhaps 3D on laptops will move beyond a niche audience. For now it’s an intriguing curiosity that promises to become more appealing as the technology improves and there’s more stuff to watch.

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