IFA 2016: Mechanical animal: why Acer created its outrageous Predator 21 X curved laptop
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It’s hard to recall a gaming laptop as extreme as the Predator 21 X. Acer has thrown everything it has at its latest creation — including twin GTX 1080 GPUs configured in SLI, a curved ‘cinematic’ display (a first on a laptop),and even Tobil eye-tracking tech that lets you control camera angles with your eyeballs. Simply put, it’s the nuttier kind of nuts.
According to Steven J. Funcke, Global Marketing Manager at Acer, the Predator 21 X’s design has evolved multiple times over the past year. He says that the laptop has been created to handle the most intense immersive gaming experiences, whether played on the Predator’s 21:9 aspect ratio display or in VR.
TechRadar sat down with Funcke, alongside Acer’s Global Product Marketing and Brand Manager Eric Ackerson, at IFA 2016 to find out more about the most curious gaming laptop in just about, well, ever.
TechRadar: The Predator 21 X is insane. Why did you make it?
Steven J Funcke: With the Predator 21 X we took the latest and greatest tech and put it into a notebook. We want our Predator brand to cater to top enthusiasts – people who probably custom build their computers in giant desks and have three monitors on the go. On the other hand we want to showcase our brand a whole, so you’ll notice the curved screen from our successful monitor range, and there’s eye-tracking capabilities that we recently launched.
Were you ever concerned that not enough games would support the laptop’s 21:9 aspect ratio?
We had the same thing when our X34 and Z35 monitors, which both use the 21:9 aspect ratio, came out. Many games that focus on immersion – such as space simulators, MOBAs and racing games – support 21:9, and we designed the 21 X for those kinds of experiences. Other devices may be better for competitive gaming, where a 1080p monitor with a high refresh rate is more suitable, but we think immersion is key here. The market is moving in that direction – especially with VR.
What type of gamer will buy the Predator 21 X?
It uses an SLI graphics setup, which is useful for specific cases. Most high-end triple-A games use it, as do massive open world titles. The immersive screen is great for those types of games – like the next-generation versions of GTA and Skyrim. People who won’t want to upgrade for a while will like it too.
To what extent has Nvidia’s Pascal architecture made engineering the Predator 21 X possible?
Erik Ackerson: We could have found a way to do it before Pascal came out, but then we’d be at the end of an ageing graphics solution. We may have had to use a more extreme cooling solution, such as another external box that could fail. The efficiency of the new graphics and the Predator 21 X’s well-designed thermal solution makes now the perfect time for both the user and from a business standpoint.
What scope is there for overclocking the Predator 21 X?
Because it’s a laptop we have to be a little conservative in this regard, as we don’t want it to catch fire. Our Predator Sense software offers two levels of overclocking – normal and extreme. At the higher setting we tune the laptop to push it to its limits without blowing it up.
EA: These settings are tested thresholds so we know it’s going to work after being overclocked. Sometimes users want to see how far they can go until an overclock isn’t stable, so there are tested overclock tiers. The Sense software is something that we update over time, and we can (and will) add additional features to provide more flexibility.
The transparent triangular window is something you get on desktops, but not in laptops. Where did that idea come from?
In addition to allowing our thermal team and performance tuning guys go crazy, we sent the Predator 21 X to our internal design studios. We asked them to make our jaws drop, so they came back with this beautiful design. We have a lot of aesthetic elements, and this glass panel showcases our AeroBlade fan which works while the device is on. That mimics the gaming DIY medium where you have a giant glass case panel.
We haven’t seen this in notebooks before so we wanted to try it out and see how people react. We’ve also added light customization – our other products are red whereas the color on the 21 X is user-customizable. You can change each keyboard key any way you like, and the keypad lighting can be adjusted. We’re also planning on letting users customize its maintenance panel. That also unscrews and you can upgrade various components.
Will people be able to upgrade the graphics over time?
I’ve been looking at the market, and upgradeable graphics in laptops has been planned for a while but there’s nothing like that now.
What components can you pop in and out?
The RAM and the storage. In terms of GPU or CPU, that’s not something that’s possible as they’re always soldered on.
How does its cooling system work?
There’s five fans and eight heatsinks. Three of those fans are patented AeroBlade fans, which are thin and super-efficient. We decided to use air rather than a solution like a water-cooling dock because, if you want use water-cooling with this kind of product, you have to have a giant water pump. That’s especially the case if you have an SLI setup as the water has to travel quite far. You can’t rely on a closed-loop system that relies on gaseous pressure – you need to have a giant pump with radiators and fans.
If you already need fans and a giant water pump and radiators, you could use a couple of more fans to save a ton of space – and then you don’t need a dock. We think it’s a cleaner and more elegant solution than using an external dock, which requires you to unplug connections to move it and can throttle performance.
Why does it use two power supplies?
The team responsible for that pointed to a few technical reasons. Essentially, it amounts to the same reason that we chose to use fans rather than an external water-cooling solution. You could have a giant power supply that you’d see on a gaming desktop, but it’s not something that you want sitting out with an open fan. We think that an internal solution is much more efficient.
The other benefit of doing this is that you can run the device with only one power supply plugged in. It’ll just use one of the GPUs, but you can still play games and do everything normally. If you want to game in 4K or VR or whatever it is you’re doing, you just plug in that second power supply to get the power of SLI.
What type of Cherry MX switch does the keyboard use?
MX Browns. People have very strong personal preferences in this area, and we don’t want to anger anyone by using overly clicky keys.
How many design phases did the machine go through?
I saw around two or three prototypes before the design was finalized. We went through a lot of user testing to create it. There was a lot of co-ordination between different teams and it took a lot of prototyping and R&D to happen.
EA: A year ago we had focus groups where users would be shown various versions of the design to gather feedback on what they did or didn’t like about it, so it’s taken a while to happen.
The reversible numberpad that has a touchpad on the other side is interesting – why did you include that?
The reason is really simple – I didn’t want to ship this machine with no mouse. For this kind of product I assume the user will be using their own mouse, but I’d feel really bad if somebody’s mouse broke. We couldn’t ship a laptop without some kind of control.
How does somebody transport this thing?
We’re planning to ship the Predator 21 X with its own suitcase for transportation.
What’s the battery life like?
I can’t say the spec as we haven’t finished performance tuning, which determines battery life. But we can say that we don’t care about battery life in this kind of top-end gaming product.
How many of these are you hoping to sell?
I won’t tell you our targets, but we think there’s a growing market at this tech enthusiast level. We’ve seen amazing sales for our Predator X34 monitor, even though it’s been more expensive than a lot of PCs. We think that consumers are willing to pay for something if it’s the best of the best – like a Ferrari or Mercedez-Benz. We also think there’s a growing market in the luxury PC category, and that the Predator 21 X will be a legitimate product that will actually sell. We also expect it to help elevate the rest of our brand. It’s not a marketing product – we’re going to start pre-orders later this year.