Should Three Dimensions Cost Twice As Much As Two?

No, it doesn’t come with cardboard glasses. When Sharp Systems of America calls the Actius RD3D the world’s first autostereo notebook, it’s referring not to its sound system but to stereoscopic vision — push the big, backlit 3D button above the keyboard, and the laptop’s 15.0-inch LCD screen can show images in three dimensions with no need for special eyewear.

If you look straight at the screen — positioning your head more than a few degrees off center spoils the effect; letting your eyes unfocus a little or trying to look “through” instead of “at” the screen helps — a special “parallax barrier” sandwiched between two LCD panels changes the 1,024 by 768-pixel display into separate, half-resolution foreground and background images which your brain interprets as a 3D scene. Pushing the button again switches off the second panel, leaving you a conventional, crisp, and bright XGA screen for regular Windows applications.

Obviously, it’s something we can’t show you on this Web page, but we can tell you the 3D effect works — better than you might expect, though not as well as you might hope. The samples Sharp supplies are a mixed bag, ranging from “Wow, that’s cool!” to “Eh, that’s lame,” with still images and animations leaning toward the former and videos leaning toward the latter (as well as stuttering and stumbling if you try showing them while the system’s on battery power, 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor notwithstanding). Narrow viewing angle aside, the 3D images were more vivid and easier to see than Magic Eye stereoscopes, if no match for IMAX or other 3D systems with computerized-shutter glasses.

Some indoor still-life or outdoor people-in-foreground, scenery-in-background images really conveyed a 3D, or at least 2½D, effect, as did the trailers for big-screen-movie and DVD vendor nWave Pictures’ computer-animation-with-blue-screened-actors Haunted Castle (3D Mania: Encounter in the Third Dimension was less impressive, though normally we’ll applaud anything with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark). So did a copy of Quake II installed on our test system, which lacked the three Electronic Arts games Sharp bundles with retail models.

That said, two questions hang over the Actius RD3D. The first is whether buyers can look forward to a sufficient supply of 3D content; Sharp bundles one ultra-specialized software title, a chemical-molecule modeling program called Personal CAChe; DDD Group’s TriDef slide-show and movie viewers (though not the TriDef PowerPoint plug-in); and a not-for-beginners image editor that lets Photoshop mask- or layer-savvy users who own stereo cameras — or at least tripods with sliding camera mounts — splice together their own 3D scenes. But on the whole, it looks like a niche proposition — or, until more 3D laptops and monitors reach the market, a chicken-and-egg question.

The second question is how much of a premium you’re willing to pay for 3D-without-glasses technology: The RD3D is a solid general-purpose performer, but it’s painfully bulky and heavy — 10.2 pounds — and at $2,999 it’s a painful thousand bucks above comparable desktop replacements like Dell’s Inspiron 9100 or Toshiba’s Satellite P15 — or $1,300 above Sharp’s own Actius RD20, which is the same notebook with a 2D display and faster 3.06GHz processor. Unless you’ve got to have a gimmick, we vote no.

Not Traveling Light

To be sure, the Sharp isn’t quite the briefcase-buster that some 17-inch-screened multimedia laptops are (though it doesn’t offer their wide-aspect-ratio resolution); the system measures 11.8 by 14 by 2.1 inches, with an exceptionally big and heavy AC adapter adding to your carry-on baggage. One point is that if you still use 1.44MB floppy disks, the RD3D is one of the few remaining notebooks that makes room for a floppy drive as well as its optical and hard drives.

The system combines Intel’s Pentium 4/2.8 — 533MHz front-side bus, no Hyper-Threading (define) — CPU with SiS’ 645DX chipset; 512MB of DDR memory (define) is standard, with an upgrade to 1GB on sale for $299 on the Sharp site. The hard disk is a 60GB, 4,200-rpm Fujitsu model; the Matsushita UJ-811 on the system’s right side is a 2X DVD-R and 1X DVD-RW burner as well as an 8X DVD-ROM player and 16/8/24X CD-RW drive

Sharp Actius 3D NotebookPretty Good Performance

The Actius RD3D is the first notebook we’ve tested in years that actually surpassed its advertised battery life: Sharp says its lithium-ion pack is good for roughly 1.3 hours, but our longest work session — an admittedly modest stint, mostly word processing rather than 3D viewing or multimedia listening — lasted an hour and 50 minutes, and even more disk-intensive jobs still gave us an hour and a half between recharges.

In addition to the floppy drive and one PC Card slot at the left, the Sharp offers Memory Stick, Secure Digital/SmartMedia, and CompactFlash slots along the front edge. The left side also offers an IEEE 1394 port (define) and microphone and headphone/line-out jacks, as well as a couple of USB 2.0 (define) ports; two more USB ports join 10/100Mbps Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, VGA (define) and S-Video (define) ports at the rear. While other members of Sharp’s full-size Actius RD family come with wireless network capability, the RD3D does not.

The 15.0-inch XGA display is backed by Nvidia’s GeForce4 440 Go graphics controller with 64MB of DDR display memory. It’s not up for the latest and greatest 3D shooters, completing only one of four game simulations enroute to a FutureMark 3DMark03 score of 243, but it managed a perfectly adequate 41 frames per second in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and 65 fps in an Unreal Tournament 2003 flyby.

The Actius’s overall PCMark04 score was 3,176 (CPU 3,608; memory 2,602; hard disk 2,396; graphics 1,284), with a BAPco SysMark 2002 Office Productivity rating of 156. That’s competitive with other 2.8GHz and even 3.0GHz Pentium 4-based desktop-replacement portables we’ve tried.

Should Three Dimensions Cost Twice As Much As Two?

As mentioned, the Sharp’s screen in regular 2D mode is also thoroughly competitive with other laptops in its class, albeit settling for good old 1,024 by 768 rather than wide-screen resolution.

Perhaps because of the 3D hardware behind the curtain, its viewing angle isn’t the best — other notebooks and flat-panel desktop monitors have spoiled us for looking sideways at LCDs, but the RD3D is more prone to airplane-movie-screen photo-negative effects from acute angles. But in routine desk and lap settings, all but the bottom two or three of the eight brightness settings proved, well, sharp and easy to read, with no bad pixels to be seen.

The function, Insert, and Delete keys along the top row are relatively tiny, but otherwise the keyboard has a first-class typing feel. The Synaptics touchpad works smoothly, though it has just the usual two buttons, without the scroll wheel found on desktop mice and an increasing number of notebooks.

In addition to the 3D demos and games, Sharp bundles Drag ‘n’ Drop CD (a Japanese OEM disc-burning package that we’d rate well behind its Nero and Roxio rivals), InterVideo’s WinDVD and MyDVD, and Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus 2003.

Overall, the Actius RD3D easily claims attention as one of the most innovative laptops of the year; chemistry students aside, the 3D screen is still mostly in a sort of demo-mode status, but we could see it rapidly becoming a real boon for presentations and perhaps for mainstream games. Still, until it adds maybe $300 or $400 instead of over $1,000 to a portable’s price, we’d rather wear cardboard glasses.

Adapted from

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