Acer Predator Helios 300 Gaming Laptop PC, 15.6″ Full HD 144Hz 3ms IPS Display, Intel i7-9750H, GTX 1660 Ti 6GB, 16GB DDR4, 256GB PCIe NVMe SSD, Backlit Keyboard, PH315-52-78VL

Overview:
This machine does a pretty good job living up to its advertised capabilities. This review is based on my impressions after a couple of days with the unit – I may update it later if anything relevant occurs long-term.

Testing Methodology:
I don’t have a lot of sophistocated instruments for measuring the actual brightness, color gamut etc… In general I stuck to sofware based tests and my somewhat subjective eyeballs.

Construction:
The top (back of the screen) is metal, as is keyboard and palm-rest area, the screen bezel and bottom are plastic. This was a pretty good design decision as it keeps the bottom from turning into a hotplate in your lap. The hinge feels solid and moves very smoothly.

Screen:
The screen is rated about 300 nits. Just based on comparisions with others with similar ratings this screen seems like it might actually be a little brighter than it’s rated. It’s perfectly visible outside in daylight as long as there isn’t direct sunlight on the screen. The 144hz refresh rate is a really nice feature and allows for some rock-solid motion. The contrast and color gamut are very effective and pleasing to the eye. I don’t have a tool for measuring the colors so this could just be clever engineering, but nothing here feels like a compromise. The screen does suffer from uneven backlight blooming so on a completely dark image, there are bright splotches around the margin, but this is pretty typical for an IPS LCD.

GPU:
The GPU seems to be able to take just about everything I’ve thrown at it on the most insane settings and I haven’t noticed any performance problems. The Witcher 3 and Darksiders Warmastered Edition look amazing in motion, with the latter running at a V-sync’d 144hz with no problems at all. It pulled a very respectable score of 14,000+ on the Final Fantasy XIV Stormbringer Benchmark with everything turned up to maximum and every optimization turned off. The laptop comes pre-configured with an overclock setting called “Turbo” mode which is activated by a button to the upper-left of the keyboard. You can, of course, create your own overclocking profiles.

In order to more efficiently use power, conserve battery, and cut down on fan noise, as with most contemporary gaming laptops, the Predator Helios 300 uses Intel Optimus. In a nutshell, Intel Optimus switches dynammically between the considerably less powerful and less power-hungry integrated Intel GPU and the GTX-1660ti. The system will attempt to guess which GPU should be used for a given process, but you can deliberately control this in a couple of different ways. From the Nvidia Control Panel, you can set the GPU to use for a given application so that whenever that program (i.e. your games) are launched it automatically does so under the Nvidia card. Alternatively you can tell the system to favor the Nvidia card for everything (not a great idea unless you want to listen to the fan all the time and watch your battery level drop before your eyes). And Lastly, there’s a context menu item called “run with graphics processor” that lets you select which to use by right-clicking on an application before you launch it. So Optimus is pretty useful for balancing performance, but it somes with a couple of unfortunate tradeoffs. There is no “Display” option in the Nvidia control panel because Optimus dynamically manages those settings, and G-Sync and Fast Sync options are not possible though technically the GPU is capable of using them.

Keyboard:
The keyboard is, for the most part, great. The keys are spaced reasonably, slightly convex, quiet and just have a nice feel. I’m used to pressing harder so my fingers have a tendency to bounce and I wind up typing double letters occasionally, but it’s nothing I can’t adjust to. (I tried using the Windows “Filter Keys” setting to help with this but it’s more of an accessiblity option and is too restrictive) The width of the keyboard allows for the incorporation of a 10-key keypad on the right, however the keys are much narrower than the rest of the keyboard, and the 0 key has been shifted to the center column to accomodate the arrow keys, so it’s a bit of compromise. It’s only really annoying when trying to type in a large string of numbers such as when entering a license key.

Trackpad:
The trackpad is generously large and very sensitive. There are no mouse buttons, but the bottom of the pad is clickable with the right and left corners representing the right and left mouse buttons.

Sound:
The laptop comes with a pair of down-firing stereo speakers that are okay for what they are. They’re tinny and can’t really get loud enough to overpower the fan noise when playing games. Noise cancelling or noise isolating headphones are pretty much mandatory for gaming or anything that drives the GPU. That said, the virtual surround effect is surprisingly convincing.

Backlighting:
They changed last-year’s red backlight to blue, which I think is somewhat more pleasing to the eye, but it’s kind of a deal breaker in the use-it-in-bed scenario because the blue light spectrum interferes with your ability to achieve REM sleep. It’s a thing, look it up.

Battery:
It runs on a 3720mAh battery which is about 25% more capacity than last year’s model. Trying to give a “it lasts this many hours” number is kind of pointless in my opinion because it’s affected by background processes, screen brightness, what you’re doing with it, the age of the battery, etc. Let’s be honest though, no one is buying this laptop for its battery life. Nvidia has several settings which seek to improve battery life while gaming, but they all involve framerate throttling. If you want to game while not connected to mains power, then you’re probably playing games that would work just fine on a laptop with a fraction of the power of this thing.

Webcam/Mic
The webcam maxes out at 720p30. That resolution also holds for still images so it seems like that’s the geometry of the sensor itself. It works okay in relatively low light – with the brightness gain cranked all the way up, the glow of the screen is enough to allow it to capture a usable amount of detail in a dark room. In a normally lit room the image is a bit darker than what you would see with your eyes, and as with most webcams, colors are little washed out. And like most pinhole cameras, the brighter the lighting the clearer the picture and the more faithful the colors. This would be perfectly serviceable in a well-lit office, or outdoors. The stereo microphone picks up voices clean and clear.

Network:
The “Killer” WiFi chip in this machine is amazingly fast. My Internet service tops off at around 25MB/s, and this Wi-Fi card easily hit 23MB/s (that’s bytes, not bits) when downloading games from GOG Galaxy. I was pleased to see that the laptop also maintains an RJ-45 for wired ethernet connnectivity – it uses a clever hinged port to maximize space while there’s nothing plugged in.

Hardware Accessibility/Upgrade difficulty:
Unlike last year’s model, there are no quick access ports – if you want to get at the Wi-Fi, M.2, Memory or SSD area, you have to remove the entire bottom of the shell. Fortunately everything important is within reach after you take out the 10 philips screws and pull the bottom cover off.

Cooling:
This is by far the best vented laptop I’ve ever seen. The heatsink fins and fans are clearly visible through the myriad slits on the bottom, sides and back. The fans are as noisy as any laptop I’ve ever used, but not worse, though when you hit that Turbo button to kick in the overclocking profile and those fans crank up, it sounds like a jet preparing to take off, so if you’re doing any moderate to heavy gaming, noise isolating or noise cancelling headphones are not optional.

Storage:
A 256GB PCIe M.2 drive is installed. It tops off around 1.5Gbps which is a pretty respectable speed and pretty performmant. It’s not a lot of space though so it’s fortunate that there’s another M.2 slot to install another card later on. There’s also a bay for a 2.5″ drive, but the bracket and SATA connector kit comes with a warning that Acer no longer considers this a user serviceable operation and implies that your warranty may be voided by attempting to install it yourself.

Instructions/Documentation:
The documentation for the hardware was honestly a little disappointing. It gives you a tour of the ports and the keyboard, but doesn’t include anything about how to install M.2 devices, upgrade memory or install a 2.5″ drive – these aren’t exactly rocket surgery, but it still feels like an oversite that Acer doesn’t want to show you what goes where. The SATA adapter for the 2.5″ drive requires connnection to a proprietary ribbon socket which they altogether fail to tell you how to locate on the motherboard.

Other Stuff:
I had to chuckle when I saw the “Turbo” button. I’m old enough to remember when that was a thing on the Intel 386 CPUs, and unironically it does pretty much the same sort of thing here.

The BIOS is about the most bare-bones affair I’ve seen recently, with no options for controlling and/or disabling the integrated GPU.

The system came with Norton Ultimate installed. Thankfully that’s about the only piece of garbageware installed by Acer. Microsoft’s default “Windows Defender” is far superior to Norton and unlike Norton it won’t waste a ton of CPU cycles for no good reason. Windows Defender is already part of Windows 10 – just uninstall Norton and reboot to activate it. It’s better protection and doesn’t expire and beg for more money in a year.

I’ve attached an image of the installed applications to this review so you can see what it comes with.

Summary:

Pros:
– Looks and feels sleek and solid
– That 144hz screen is fantastic
– 300 nits is not MacBook bright, but it’s usable in daylight
– Comes with fast PCIe M.2 Storage
– Wi-Fi is incredibly fast
– Powerful GPU
– Very effective cooling – I never saw it break 46C

Cons:
– Blue backlighting is bad for bedtime use
– Fans get loud when the system is under a load
– No option to disable Optimus and enable GSync (so no GSync)
– Norton Ultimate – seriously?

Updates:
(As I encounter new things that I think are relevant, I’ll update the review here)
– The USB-C socket is not wired to the video card so it’s not possible to output video. The laptop provides HDMI and a mini-DPort so it’s not lacking in output options, but still.

 

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