Aspire Ethos is Acer’s premium entertainment line of notebooks, and the 5951G is the latest member of the family. Built around the combination of a Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5 processor and NVIDIA graphics, with Dolby Sound, this aims to be a multimedia powerhouse for the wired living room.
If a laptop is going to be a home media hub it needs to look the part. There are a lot of subtle design cues to the Ethos that simply say ‘quality’ Things like the metal grille over the speakers, or the steel grey covering over the subwoofer on the base. The metal lid wraps neatly around a thin and light screen with glass that covers the whole face; no cheap-looking plastic bezel here. Other touches include dropped hinges on the screen, and a metal tray for the keyboard and media buttons. The rest of the Ethos is a tough black plastic that should cope with fingerprints and general wear and tear. It's certainly not a lightweight machine though, weighing in at a hefty 3.3kg.
Keyboard and unusual trackpad
The Ethos has the same isolated keyboard as the Aspire 5755, but with a white backlight. There's a switch for the backlighting just by the left screen hinge; tap the button to turn on the lights. Oddly there's also a function key option too, which seems like overkill. The keyboard itself is comfortable to use with the metal keyboard tray dropping down to form the wrist rest and trackpad, though we still had problems with the split Shift-/ and Enter-# keys. Again there’s a numeric keypad, something that seems unnecessary on a media laptop that’s good for casual gaming and giving more space to the keyboard might have been more useful. If you’re worried about security, a fingerprint scanner adds biometric password management and log-ins.
Along with the keyboard backlight control, the buttons near the left screen hinge include a programmable key. As a nice touch, the default setting is to start the launch manager, the tool for programming the key. There’s another button that launches Windows Media Center too, if that’s your poison. You get the usual arrangement of control and media keys as options on the function and editing keys, including one that lets you turn off the touch pad - handy when using the keyboard for gaming.
The touch pad is one of the most unusual we’ve seen. While you're admiring its glossy glass finish and smooth surface, slide the switch on the front of the laptop and watch the pad lift up and hover, gently vibrating in place as an invitation to pick it up. Strangely, it's also a removable media remote that allows you to pop it out, and take it away to control movies and music. Click the button in the top left of the pad and it cycles through different modes, lighting up different functions as icons in each. There are limitations with the pad - for one thing there's no multitouch, and no gesture support, and in fact, no tap support at all. So if you want to do more than click to select, you really do need to have the pad plugged into the Ethos, which rather gets in the way of using it as it was meant to be used. The glossy surface is also a little awkward, as it's very prone to fingerprints. But being able to control your laptop from across the room while you sit comfortably on the sofa is a really good idea.
Screen and AV quality
The 15.6-inch LED backlit screen is clear and responsive, with even brightness. Although its 1366 x 768 resolution is a little low for a screen this big. Picture quality is good, and contrast is good too, something that's important if you're going to be watching movies. Whites are clear and don't bleed, and blacks, well, they're really black. The NVIDIA GT540M provides good GPU acceleration, and you can use the Optimus tools to work manage which applications use the discrete GPU and which use the integrated Intel HD Graphics to save power. Streamed internet video played well, downloading and rescaling 1080p content and retaining the detail in the images. Performance with local 720p content was similar, with plenty of detail in the video at a good frame rate.
Another place the Ethos excels is with audio. A thin metal strip above the keyboard conceals a pair of what Acer calls ‘Virtual Surround Sound’ speakers, with a large Tuba branded sub-woofer under the case. The sub-woofer is a distinctive feature visually, with a metallic grille that contrasts with the black plastic underside. Out test machine’s default install didn’t have the RealTek drivers needed to get the most out of the Ethos’ sound system, so make sure that you’ve downloaded the latest from the Acer support site. These include Dolby’s sound processing tools with presets for video, music and games, and you’ll appreciate the sound quality
Ports and specifications
There’s a comprehensive set of ports. On the left of the case are USB 2.0 and 3.0, with another USB 2.0 port on the right, plus an HDMI connector, eSATA and a Firewire port. Other connectors include VGA and gigabit Ethernet, along with a set of headphone, microphone ,and audio-in sockets. The headphone socket doubles as an SP/DIF optical port to connect the Ethos to 5.1 surround sound systems too. There's an SD card slot on the front for your photos and videos, and a built-in DVD writer on the side.
The specifications make the Ethos a good all-rounder. There’s plenty of performance, as you'd expect from a Sandy Bridge Core i5 machine with 8GB of RAM and running Windows 7 Home Premium. To get the most out of the combination of integrated Intel HD graphics and a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT540M you may need to tune the Optimus drivers, to ensure applications that need more power get access to the NVIDIA GPU - even when running on battery. Dedicated GPU acceleration can make a lot of difference to performance (especially if you're using IE9) though you will see a reduction in battery life as a result. Using the Aspire on Wi-Fi for basic browsing, online document editing and media streaming, we were able to get 4 hours 30 minutes of power from the standard 8-cell Li-ion battery, which isn’t bad for a machine this size.
There's a lot of bundled software on the Aspire, much of which is probably best uninstalled as soon as you start up for the first time. Acer includes the always familiar McAfee security suite, as well as Microsoft Office 2010 Starter and Windows Live Essentials 2011. Other software includes the NewsEspresso news feed reader, NTI’s Media Maker for DVD authoring, and the underappreciated Clear.fi DLNA media sharing software. Acer also includes its own backup and webcam tools (for the Skype-certified HD camera), as well as the GameZone console with a selection of casual games.
Acer has delivered a delightful home media hub with the Aspire Ethos 5951G. It looks good, and performs well. Video was crisp and clear and the sound quality, once we’d installed the correct drivers, was excellent.
While we initially thought it rather gimmicky, the removable touchpad/remote control turned out to be a surprisingly useful feature. If you’re after a multimedia PC for the lounge that’s ready to be part of an existing entertainment system, Aspire Ethos fits the bill nicely.