Acer ConceptD 9 review: Drawing easel, meet workstation

acer conceptd 9 review 04

Acer ConceptD 9

“The Acer ConceptD 9 is fast and innovative with its easel hinge, but it can't match other portable workstations in either power or portability.”
  • Gorgeous 4K screen
  • Wacom pen support
  • Innovative easel hinge design
  • Fantastic performance
  • Massive, heavy chassis
  • Not as powerful as a true workstation
  • Awkward keyboard and touchpad
MSRP $5,000.00

If anyone appreciates sleek, thin laptops, it’s artists and designers. They know a svelte product when they see one. The problem? Those options often don’t have the power some creative professionals truly need.

Enter the ConceptD 9, a beast of a workstation by Acer. Not only is powerful with its thick chassis and eight-core Core i9 processor, it also features an innovative easel hinge that converts into a digital drawing table. It doesn’t even pretend to be portable, weighing nearly ten pounds. At $5,000, it doesn’t pretend to be cheap, either.

It’s a niche product, no doubt, but is the ConceptD 9 anything more than an interesting concept?

For artists, by engineers

My first reaction when I grabbed the box at the FedEx store was, “Man, this thing is heavy!” I’ve been reviewing so many ultrabooks that come in at less than three pounds, with only a few 15-inch laptops that exceed four pounds, that the ConceptD 9 felt like a ton of bricks. That just can’t be a laptop, I thought.

But it was. I opened up the packaging, unboxed the machine, and yep: It was almost 10 pounds of metal, glass, and plastic (precisely, 9.48 pounds). Much of that weight is the 17.3-inch display (with massive bezels), and I’m sure much of it is also the hinge assembly that lets the screen flip out into a very flexible easel mode that allows for any angle from 90 degrees down to about 20 degrees — perfect for artists to draw on.

You won’t use this beast on your lap, nor will you pop it in a backpack and take it to a coffee shop.

The ConceptD 9 is a lot like the Microsoft Surface Studio in this regard, only smaller. And arguably, it’s a better machine because it’s far more powerful than Microsoft’s offering. In short, the ConceptD 9 doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. It’s a portable creative workstation meant for people who will be editing high-resolution photos and videos, doing 3D work in applications like AutoCAD, and, most specifically, painting on the screen using the Wacom active pen.

The easel motion is certainly neat. It’s not quite as intuitive as on the Surface Studio, but it’s plenty smooth. Just flip up the bottom of the display and pull it to your desired angle. It can pull down to almost flat (with just the right final angle for effortless drawing). This does, however, cover the keyboard and touchpad.

Artists who want to draw directly onto the screen should love this. They’ll also love the included Wacom pen. It comes with 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and like the Surface Studio the pen is magnetic and attaches to the display — in this case, up top. The display also holds firm in whatever angle you place it, meaning that you can draw on it with confidence whether it’s at 90 degrees or all the way extended.

Will artists prefer this to a PC and Wacom tablet? Perhaps. Like the Surface Studio, you’re drawing directly on the canvas. Having all that in one place is an attraction as well. Though, the flexibility of having a pure drawing space and a screen for toolbars and menus will require some adjustment.

Connectivity is a strength, with Acer making use of the available space to fit in a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3, a USB-C 3.1 port, two USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 ports, a USB-A 2.0 port, an HDMI 2.0 port supporting HDCP, a DisplayPort 1.4, and a gigabit Ethernet port. A Killer 1650 802.11ax Wi-Fi radio provides for Wi-Fi 6 support, and Bluetooth 5.0 is on board.

A powerhouse, but not a true workstation

Of course, the promise of the ConceptD 9 was never just an interesting form factor. It was raw performance, too. The ConceptD 9 lives up to that promise, including up to a Core i9-9880HK processor, up to 32GB of RAM, and an RTX 2080 graphics card. That’s an insane amount of power, regardless of the size of the laptop.

That is, unless you compare it to an actual 17-inch workstation like the HP ZBook 17, the Dell Precision 7740 Mobile Workstation, and the Lenovo ThinkPad P73 Mobile Workstation. These laptops don’t have the unique easel design of the ConceptD 9, but they do offer slightly more powerful Intel Xeon CPUs as an option. Some of these workstations, such as the ZBook, offer up to 128GB of RAM. The ConceptD 9 tops out at 32GB, which is a significant drawback.

Not that the ConceptD 9 is slow, by any means. Compared to fast 15-inch laptops like Dell’s XPS 15 and Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2, the ConceptD 9 is quite competitive.

It churned through our Handbrake test that encodes a 420 megabyte (MB) video in just 1 minute and 52 seconds. The XPS 15 with the same CPU took 1 minute and 42 seconds while the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 took 1 minute and 58 seconds. The Apple MacBook 16, also with the Core i9-9980HK sits right in between the two.

Only the ZenBook Pro Duo was significantly faster at 1 minute and 19 seconds. Outside of the ZenBook, which was a remarkable 32% faster, there was only a 12% difference between the fastest laptop (the XPS 15) and the ConceptD 9. We haven’t tested the most powerful Xeon-equipped laptops, but we expect that they would be at least slightly quicker than all but the ZenBook.

It’s fast, but you’re buying the ConceptD 9 for its unusual design, not for its performance alone.

To measure real-life performance, I also ran a video editing test using Adobe Premiere that rendered a two-minute 4K video to ProRes 422. The ConceptD 9 banged through it just over two and a half minutes, compared to the almost five minutes that the XPS 15 took.

The ZenBook Pro Duo was the previous speed king at three minutes and four seconds, but it fell behind the Acer most likely because of it’s slower RTX 2060 graphics cards. Unlike with the Handbrake test, there was a very significant difference between the ConceptD 9 (which was the fastest in this case) and the XPS 15 (the slowest): the ConceptD 9 was a full 47% faster.

Next up is the GPU, and here my review unit departs from the typical workstation design. It uses an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Studio Edition with 8GB of GDDR6 RAM, which is a high-speed GPU at the top of the typical laptop heap. The Studio Edition moniker refers to the drivers being ISV-certified, meaning they’re guaranteed to be stable with applications like Adobe’s suite, AutoCAD, and other professional applications. You can upgrade to a ConceptD 9 with a Quadro RTX 5000 for $800 more, bringing it more in line with other workstations.

That’s all to the good, and like all drivers, they should be kept up-to-date. I got a nice speed bump once I updated the drivers on the ConceptD 9.

The RTX 2080 isn’t as fast in these applications as the higher-end Nvidia Quadro GPU. That means that while my review ConceptD 9 was fast and stable in its target applications, it’s not necessarily as fast as you’ll find if you go with a more traditional workstation option. In this case, you’re buying the ConceptD 9 for its unusual design and not necessarily for its performance alone.

You also shouldn’t purchase the ConceptD 9 has a dedicated gaming laptop. Looking at the specs, you might be tempted to, though. It performed admirably in everything we tested, from Fortnite to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. The problem is the screen is locked at 60Hz, meaning those high frame rates won’t do you much good here. Some gaming on the side, though? Absolutely.

The display lives up to its billing

The ConceptD 9 needs a fabulous display to be a worthy choice for its target market. It needs a wide color gamut and accurate colors to please photo and video editors, and it should be high-resolution, too. Fortunately, that’s precisely the 4K (3,840 x 2,160) IPS display that Acer sourced and calibrated for the machine.

According to my colorimeter, the display is reasonably bright at 353 nits and has an excellent contrast ratio at 1000:1. That’s behind the XPS 15 and MacBook Pro 16, and likely struggles to compete with other portable workstations that can tout 400 nits or brightness and higher contrast. But, they’re still good results that make for a pleasant screen for all-around use.

Colors are more of a strength, though. Acer’s IPS display hits 94% of AdobeRGB and 98% of sRGB. It also boasts a fantastic color accuracy of 0.61. Anything less than 1.0 is considered excellent, and this is among the best results we’ve seen. The XPS 15 with its OLED display offers a slightly wider color gamut, but it can’t match the Acer’s color accuracy, while the MacBook Pro 16 only beats out the ConceptD 9 by hitting 100 percent of sRGB.

Acer chose a great display that lives up to the needs of its creative target market. That’s a real strength.

It’s not much of a laptop

At the same time, the design is not very well-suited for the typical laptop user. Take the keyboard, for example. It’s an excellent mechanical keyboard that offers unusually snappy keystrokes that provide some of the best feedback you’ll find in a laptop.

But there’s also no palm rest, thanks to so much space taken up above the keyboard by the system’s thermal design. Acer went to great pains to make this a quiet machine even when it’s under full load, and they largely succeeded. But doing so means leaving no space for a palm rest — and that makes typing on the keyboard uncomfortable.

ConceptD 9 users will likely use external keyboards and mice. It really is that uncomfortable.

The touchpad is also unusually placed, to the right of the keyboard. Again, there’s no room beneath. The touchpad is oddly shaped as well, being vertically oriented rather than horizontal. But it works well enough once you get used to it, and it offers a very Asus ZenBook-like LCD numeric keypad that’s accessible via a tap on an icon to the upper-left of the touchpad. It’s a design that’s become acceptable in gaming laptops, but here, it’s hardly ideal.

ConceptD 9 users will likely end up using external keyboards and mice. It really is that uncomfortable to type on. I wouldn’t find the experience satisfactory over the long term.

Whatever you’re doing, you won’t use this beast on your lap, nor will you pop it in a backpack and take it to the local coffee shop. Anything beyond repositioning to a different part of your house or from office to office is probably too much for this ten-pound chunker.

But you also won’t be running it away from a plug. Acer equipped the ConceptD 9 with only 72 watt-hours of battery capacity. By comparison, the HP ZBook 17 equips 95 watt-hours. Given the massive 4K display and powerful components, we weren’t expecting much in the way of battery life. And unsurprisingly, we didn’t see it.

In our demanding Basemark test that abuses the CPU, we saw an hour and 48 minutes, which is actually competitive with other high-powered laptops. However, the two hours and 43 minutes we saw in our web browsing test and five hours in our video looping test are pretty weak. They’re competitive with dedicating gaming laptops, and maybe that makes sense — like those machines, the ConceptD 9 just isn’t meant to be used on battery power.

Our take

The ConceptD 9 is designed for a very specific person. Creative professionals who need a relatively powerful portable workstation and would benefit from a display that can slide into easel mode and leverage an excellent Wacom active pen.

Beyond that, the size and design of this machine make it fairly unusable as a laptop. That’s a very small niche. And even if that’s you, most creative professionals will likely prefer the versatility of using a separate Wacom tablet in conjunction with a traditional workstation or high-end 15-inch laptop.

Are there better alternatives?

There really isn’t another laptop or portable workstation quite like the ConceptD 9. However, as I’ve mentioned, the closest competitors are real workstations like the HP ZBook 17, Dell Precision 7740, and Lenovo ThinkPad P73. Each of these can be equipped with faster Xeon CPUs and four times as much RAM. They’re also smaller and offer better battery life.

Similarly configured (but with Xeon and Quadro), they tend to run about $1,000 more than the ConceptD 9, but that’s not a ton of money once you’re investing this kind of cash.

At the same time, creative professionals with less demanding workflows could do well with a Dell XPS 15, a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2, or an Apple MacBook 16. You won’t get the RTX 2080 or Quadro RTX 5000 with any of them, but for anyone whose performance needs aren’t quite so profound, all three of these laptops will provide more than enough oomph. And the Dell and Lenovo will likely end up costing around half of what you’ll spend on the ConceptD 9.

How long will it last?

The ConceptD 9 is built like a tank and feels like it. Thanks to up-to-date components, it’ll last you for years, although the industry-standard one-year warranty will run out long before.

Should you buy it?

No. The unique combination of performance and drawing capabilities is neat, but there are better solutions out there for creative professionals.

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