The Ultimate 3D Laptop Review Showdown

New 3D laptops and have begun arriving en masse. Are they ready to slay their 2D counterparts?

A cadre of new 3D laptops make it possible for you to enjoy stereoscopic content on the go. The vast majority of these offerings rely on Nvidia's 3D Vision kit - a set of powered shutter glasses, a USB-connected IR emitter and the appropriate drivers - which, when paired with the right GPU (a GeForce 8 series or newer) and a 120Hz screen, provide an "active" 3D experience. In other words, as a rapid succession of alternating screens presents slightly different views to each eye, the shutter glasses ensure that the correct view is seen by the correct eye by shuttering the opposite lens accordingly.

Passive solutions for the PC also exist. These rely on polarised screens and glasses, which help resolve a double set of images shot from slightly different angles by filtering out one image for each eye and thus creating the illusion of depth.

Besides these major distinctions, there are several other points to consider before investing in a 3D experience for your PC. Our reviews of several new 3D laptops will help educate you on what's out there and what kind of features to look for to meet your 3D needs.

Origin EON15-3D

For folks who have no interest in 3D movies

Newcomer Origin made an impressive debut with its Genesis desktop system in our August issue, so we were anxious to see what it could do with a 3D gaming laptop.

We received the company's very first 3D model-the unit it demoed at this year's E3 gaming expo. In that context, the choice of hardware makes a lot of sense. This 15.6-inch EON15-3D sports a GeForce GTX 285M-arguably the burliest mobile graphics card available. Certainly better than the GTX 260M in our zero-point rig and quite capable of hitting a playable frame rate on a 1680x1050 external display (up from the unit's native 1366x768) with lots of visual effects enabled-in non-3D conditions, that is.

To achieve 3D, the EON15-3D uses Nvidia's 3D Vision kit. The laptop comes with the requisite emitter, shutter glasses, and 120Hz screen. Enabling 3D is simply a matter of entering the Nvidia Control Panel, selecting Enable Stereoscopic 3D, and completing a straightforward setup wizard.

While Nvidia's list of 3D Vision–worthy games is vast, some games are more worthy than others. Both of our gaming benchmarks, for example, are noted as having "Excellent" 3D Vision support. But while the 3D effects in Call of Duty 4 and Far Cry 2 are certainly noticeable, we weren't particularly captivated by the experience. Newer games developed with 3D Vision in mind-Just Cause 2 and Mafia II being two prime examples-make for a more compelling experience.

You'll want the experience to be special, because 3D carries a performance hit. After all, stereoscopy requires that twice as many screens are generated, one for each eye. With 3D enabled, we saw our Call of Duty frame rate drop from 68.87 at a res of 1680x1050 to 39.1 at 1366x768. We wanted to test the laptop with one of the large 3D panels we're also reviewing in this story-the EON15-3D is the only laptop that has the necessary dual-link DVI-out (which could also come in handy for a 30-inch display). Unfortunately, the port would only output at single-link throughput-a snafu Origin attributes to the earliness of our build. We did, however, verify that the laptop could display 3D content using a 120Hz 3D projector via HDMI.

That would be a great way to display Blu-ray 3D movies, if only the EON15-3D supported them. While the GTX 285M provided some of the strongest gaming numbers in this roundup, the card is not compatible with Blu-ray 3D playback (Origin also offers a Blu-ray 3D–compatible GTS 360M option). You can still play regular Blu-ray movies on the laptop's BD-ROM/DVD combo drive.

The EON15-3D's other attributes include a quad-core Core i7 proc, a 500GB Seagate Momentus XT hybrid drive, and 4GB of DDR3/1333 RAM. Physically, the machine is surprisingly unadorned for a gaming rig, but the matte-black body is solid with a big keyboard, full number pad, and a lots of connectivity options.

Is it worth a whopping $US2,600? Not when there are less-expensive options that make fewer compromises.

Toshiba Satellite A665-3DV

Covers almost all the bases

Toshiba's Satellite A665-3DV presents an interesting juxtaposition to Origin's machine-for one thing, it costs $US1000 less. Like Origin's EON15-3D, the A665-3DV features a 15.6-inch, 1366x768, 120Hz glossy screen, and uses Nvidia's 3D Vision kit.

This machine, like Origin's, also comes with a 1.73GHz Intel Core i7-740QM quad-core processor, which makes for strong performance in all of our content-creation benchmarks. The A665-3DV has a bigger hard drive than the Origin rig (640GB vs 500GB), but it's slower (5400rpm vs 7200rpm), which could account for the latter's lead in productivity apps. A more significant difference between the two machines, however, is the A665-3DV's use of a GeForce GTS 350M for graphics chores. While this is considered an enthusiast GPU, its scores in Far Cry 2 and Call of Duty 4 were 33 per cent and 42 per cent lower, respectively, than those of the Origin's GTX 258M. Indeed, at our standard gaming benchmark settings, using 4x AA and anisotropic filtering and running at 1680x1050 on an external display, the GTS 350M reached just barely playable frame rates.

Obviously, this didn't bode well for 3D game performance. We saw CoD 4 drop to 24.5fps at the notebook's 1366x768 native res. Yes, you can improve matters by lowering settings-in FC2, for example, we could reach 31.2fps at 1366x768 by turning all the quality settings to low. Lowering the resolution could also provide a boost. But we found ourselves questioning whether the enhanced realism and immersiveness that 3D promises isn't offset by diminishing all graphical details.

One thing the GTS 350M has going for it is the ability to play Blu-ray 3D movies. And a nice perk of Toshiba's A665-3DV is that it comes bundled with Corel WinDVD for Blu-ray 3D-none of the other notebooks here include a Blu-ray 3D player, meaning you have to shell out another hundy for the privilege. If watching 3D movies on a small laptop screen doesn't float your boat, an HDMI port lets you connect to a 120Hz 3D projector.

The A665-3DV is notable in a couple other respects. It's the only rig in this roundup that offers BD burning as well as reading through its optical drive. And its 12-cell battery actually makes it viable to use away from a power outlet. Quad-core and discrete GPU notwithstanding, the laptop played a DVD in power-saving mode for more than two hours before losing juice. And still, the laptop had the second-lightest weight of the bunch.

Aesthetically, the A665-3DV is only slightly more ornate than the Origin EON15-3D-it's all-black finish is spruced up some with texture on the laptop's lid and around the keyboard, which itself is underlit by blue LEDs.

Were it not for the compromises inherent to playing 3D games on mobile-graphics power, we'd say the A665-3DV is a pretty good deal.

Asus G51Jx 3DE

Revisions to first attempt pay off

The G51Jx 3DE is Asus's second iteration of a 3D Vision–based laptop, following last year's G51J 3D. In that time, the company has taken the noteworthy step of building the necessary IR emitter for the shutter glasses into the laptop itself. This means you have one less thing hanging off of your machine or needing to be packed up for transport. It also mitigates any worries about the position of the external emitter, which, when turned at the wrong angle, can cause the glasses to shut off or act wonky. It's a big improvement to the overall experience and we commend Asus for the move.

The 15.6-inch notebook is primarily black, but a two-toned blue cover with a "claw-mark" motif reveals a gamer bias. The inside is understated but attractive, with a backlit keyboard that can be turned on or off, a comfy soft-touch palm rest, and a full-size island keyboard and number pad.

Like the other laptops here, the G51Jx 3DE features a quad-core CPU-a 1.60GHz Intel Core i7-720QM, in this case. That makes it slightly slower than the 1.73GHz Origin and Toshiba rigs, but the G51Jx 3DE still posted respectable numbers in the productivity benchmarks. And while Asus wisely chose a GPU that can play Blu-ray 3D movies, it went with the highest-end mobile part in that category, the GTS 360M. This part improves upon the GTS 350M in Toshiba's machine with faster GPU, memory and shader clocks, resulting in a marked improvement in gaming. In fact, the GTS 360M bested even the GTX 285M in Far Cry 2 by 20 percent, although it lagged behind Origin's card in Call of Duty 4, with a score of 51.6fps. Still, the 360M provides at least a little more wiggle room when it comes to balancing performance and visual effects when 3D is enabled-while also supporting BD 3D.

The G51Jx 3DE comes bundled with CyberLink PowerDVD 9 for Blu-ray playback, but no software to support Blu-ray 3D. We tried using the latest release of CyberLink PowerDVD 10 Mark II to play a 3D movie, but we would barely get past the menu before a blank, flickering screen took over. CyberLink said this was due to a conflict with the latest graphics drivers which would be fixed with an upcoming patch. To us, it was just another reminder of the hassles that sadly accompany new technology. Fortunately, a prerelease build of WinDVD 3D did the job, treating us to the 3D version of Monsters vs Aliens on the laptop's screen as well as through our 120Hz projector using the laptop's HDMI.

There's room for improvement here, but the G51Jx 3DE streamlines the 3D Vision experience and offers the best combination of 3D gaming and movie playback of all the notebooks here.

Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d

A passive alternative to 3D Vision

Lenovo breaks from the pack with its IdeaPad Y560d, eschewing Nvidia's 3D Vision kit in favour of a passive 3D solution. Thus, the IdeaPad Y560d's 15.6-inch, 1366x768 screen is polarized and capable of displaying two different perspectives of an image, which become a single 3D image when viewed through a pair of polarised glasses. The laptop comes with a fairly robust pair as well as a set of clip-on lenses to wear over prescription specs.

The hardware works in conjunction with TriDef 3D software. A single setup screen presents you with a stereoscopic image. With the glasses on, you follow the prompts for adjusting the angle of the screen and your orientation to it­-when done right, the image appears 3D. The effect is every bit as vivid as the one you get from a 3D Vision–based system, and the polarised glasses are more comfortable than the bulky powered shutter glasses and never need to be charged. The trouble is, there are serious trade-offs.

For one thing, you have to remain fairly fixed in that 3D-viewing sweet spot. If you move your head or the angle of the screen just so, the image loses focus. Another drawback is that neither the hardware nor software supports Blu-ray 3D playback. In fact, the IdeaPad Y560d doesn't even come with a BD-ROM drive. You can watch 3D movies using TriDef, but you're limited to videos in an open format, such as .avi, .mpg, and .mov. Lenovo includes some sample clips and trailers, and they certainly look impressive-but that's hardly a substitute for Blu-ray 3D blockbusters. As a consolation, TriDef will convert your standard-def DVDs to a 3D format, but that's a pretty weak substitute itself.

Game options are more plentiful. The TriDef app will automatically identify any games on your system that are 3D-capable-most modern games apply. By launching the game from within the TriDef app, the content is rendered in stereoscopy for 3D enjoyment with your polarised glasses. The same caveats about performance stand. While the Y560d's method for 3D is passive, it still requires twice the number of screens as 2D content and therefore presents a performance drag. Call of Duty 4 dropped from 37.1fps on a 1680x1050 external screen to 21.3fps on the Y560d's 1366x768 screen when 3D was enabled.

Aside from its 3D implementation, the Y560d is similarly configured to the other laptops here, sporting a quad-core processor, a 500GB, 7,200rpm hard drive, and 4GB of DDR3/1333 RAM. Its Radeon HD 5730 videocard is a mixed bag, doing slightly better than our zero-point in FC2 (without 3D, natch), but significantly worse in Call of Duty 4.

This isn't the laptop to buy if you're looking for a full-fledged 3D experience, which to us means 3D Blu-ray movies and the ability to watch them on a large external screen, not to mention an experience that doesn't limit you to a narrow viewing angle. But the Y560d is priced right if you want a well-rounded 15.6-inch laptop that offers a (relatively) inexpensive way to tinker with the occasional 3D game.