A look at Acer’s ambitious and wonderfully messy plans for 2021

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I’ve used more Acer laptops than most people on the planet. I have tested Swifts, Aspires, Travelmates, Spins, ConceptDs and Predators. More often than not, my guess is “not bad, but there’s better”. Most of my time covering this business I’ve associated it with excellent value – and not too much else.

Acer seems to share this view to some extent. Verge chief editor Nilay Patel and I spoke with Jason Chen, Acer CEO and Gregg Prendergast, President of Acer Pan-America ahead of the company’s global press conference on May 27, and Patel asked the two to describe the ‘Acer customer’ – that ie, the type of person who is looking for Acer laptops to buy. Chen’s answer implied that the company is still looking for it. “We are building new business engines,” he says. “We’re making Acer a lifestyle brand, to target a specific audience, to offer more products that we’ve never done before.”

Those kinds of ambitions are evident in the company’s recent reports, as well as the long list of announcements from the press conference. The slate includes new gaming laptops, creator workstations, monitors, desktops, Chromebooks, Swifts, Travelmates and more. But broadly speaking, it looks like Acer is throwing a lot of stuff up against the wall to see what sticks. And that may be the defining characteristic it needs.

Jason Chen, Acer CEO.
Image: Acer

One of Acer’s perspectives: sustainability. The company announced that it has joined the RE100 initiative and pledged to use 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2035 – the same deadline President Biden has set for the US to eliminate carbon pollution from the energy sector. In addition, the company announced the Aspire Vero – its first ‘sustainability-focused product’ – with keycaps made from 50 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, and other surfaces (including the top and bottom covers, bezels, and control surface) which consist of 30 percent PCR plastic.

Acer is not the first company to market a product like this; HP’s Elite Dragonfly line, for example, also includes some PCR plastic in the speaker box and bezels. But the Vero is the first laptop we’ve seen that is modeled specifically around durability. Acer also touts other features, including a box made from recycled paper pulp, a laptop bag made from recycled plastic, images printed in soy ink, and reverse text on the R and E keys to emphasize “reduce, reuse, and (I asked if Acer has done anything to increase the Vero’s durability – given that e-waste is a cardinal sin of electronics manufacturing from a sustainability standpoint – and Chen said it will use Acer’s usual warranty. and that he expects it to have the same lifespan as any “normal” PC.)

But Chen sees the Vero not only as a step towards its sustainability promise, but also as a milestone for the market to which Acer’s name is linked. “This is the industry’s first product,” he says. “Someone had to be first.” And while Chen is open to the option of packing these materials into laptops across Acer’s lines, that’s a longer-term project. The Vero will likely start as a regional online launch. “Hopefully this type of material use will be expanded,” said Chen. But “this is the first product, the first trial.”

Gregg Prendergast in front of a green background.

Gregg Prendergast, President of Acer pan-America.
Image: Acer

That expectant feeling permeated much of our conversation. I asked if Chen considers Acer’s Swift 3X, released earlier this year as one of the few laptops with Intel’s puzzling entry-level GPU, as a success. “To be seen,” he replied. “We are excited to see more graphics options for the industry, and we want to try to include them in our product lines and offer our customers to see how it fares.” Chen added, “We’ll see.”

The company is releasing another unique gaming product this time: the Predator Triton 500 SE, the first gaming laptop with a 16:10 screen. 16:10 gaming laptops have become more popular with premium models this year, but they are still highly uncommon. All modern games support 16: 9 aspect ratio, but not all support 16:10, and quality varies between games that do. So a 16:10 Triton 500 isn’t just a bigger product; it nods to a shift in the philosophy of the Triton line. It’s a Triton meant to be as useful for work as it is for play.

But is the Predator family really moving in that direction? Will we see more 16:10 in the future? Again, Chen wasn’t sure. “We don’t know yet,” he admitted. “We want to try out the market and see how it goes.”

“See it go” will involve a patchwork of statistics and stakeholders. Some design choices are influenced by retailers, and in particular Best Buy, with which Acer has developed a number of products in the past. “They take a lot of influence on the aspect ratio of the screen,” says Prendergast. “It’s worth it because they are half the gaming market in the US.”

That’s a strong statement about Acer’s priorities – it’s hard to imagine Apple bending the MacBook Air to Best Buy’s whims. But Acer isn’t targeting the MacBook audience – especially when it comes to games. “The best-selling products at Best Buy are not the premium range,” says Prendergast. “It’s products like Nitro that cost $ 699, $ 799. That’s where the real speed is. And those jointly developed products, Prendergast added, usually sell out through Acer and Microsoft’s online stores once Best Buy releases its exclusive version after about six months. they have.”

The company also looks at web searches, reads reviews, listens to hotline calls for function keywords using AI, and passes information down the chain. And it pays a lot of thought, adding Prendergast, “how customers vote with their wallets.”

Two users operate a ConceptD 5 notebook in a studio room with the touchscreen.  Both the ConceptD 5 and the connected external monitor display a figure in a yellow suit.

Here are SpatialLabs on a ConceptD 5 notebook.
Image: Acer

Of today’s hottest new releases, there is one that Chen seems to fully support: SpatialLabs. SpatialLabs is a patented system that allows Acer’s ConceptD laptops to present content in stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses, using a combination of eye tracking, real-time rendering technology and a lenticular display. I’ve tried SpatialLabs myself, and things really have depth and stand out.

The target audience for SpatialLabs is limited. Only one person can use it at a time, you cannot wear a mask and you cannot be in strong light. You also need access to a powerful system – my demo unit included an eight-core Core i7-10875H and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000, and Acer’s engineer told me he wouldn’t advise running SpatialLabs on anything weaker. Most importantly, no matter how cool SpatialLabs looks, the pragmatic use case is quite specific; many artists and designers who work with 3D are still creating for viewers who don’t have SpatialLabs and will be looking at a 2D image, so the technology would mainly help people developing for VR or 3D TV.

Chen agrees that the initial user base will be small. But here he is really confident that the audience will grow. “We think the technology is maturing to the level that it is now good for developers,” he says. “Gradually next year or the following year will come alongside the general public. We are looking forward to. While the SpatialLabs debuts on ConceptD laptops, Prendergast predicts we’ll see it on future Acer all-in-ones too.

Would the company license the technology for wider adoption? “We keep every possibility open,” said Chen.

The Acer Predator 21X seen from above.  The screen shows a game.

The overwhelmed, overpriced Acer Predator 21X.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Even short-lived innovations can help put companies on the map. Chen still considers Acer’s Predator 21X – a £ 19, $ 9,000 gaming rig with two GPUs, five fans, and a curved 21-inch screen – a success story, despite only making and selling about 300 units. “Are we making a lot of money with our 21X? The answer is no, ”says Chen. “What do we get? We get a ‘wow’ impact.” (Chen confirmed that Acer has no plans to update the 21X.)

“They’re innovation, they’re fun,” added Prendergast. “We’re not trying to sell thousands of units, but it’s good for the brand.”

I haven’t gotten a clear picture from Chen of what Acer’s transformation into a ‘lifestyle brand’ will look like, aside from a comment on the company’s line of energy drinks. What I do feel is that the Acer of the future doesn’t look much like Apple, perhaps the quintessential lifestyle brand of the American tech space. It will not be a company with a strong, unique vision in any one field, or a company with a passionate and deep-rooted fan base who live for its products. Acer’s vision is looser and broader.

It is possible that in 10 years’ time Acer will be the company that is a pioneer in the field of 3D laptop screens. It is possible that this will become the company for versatile and stylish gaming laptops, as Razer once was. It’s possible that it’s the company at the forefront of green manufacturing – a position certainly coveted by laptop manufacturers around the world.

It could also just be known as the company that wants to try everything. And Chen seems to agree that this isn’t a bad kind of business.