Lots of laptop companies claim that their systems are great deals, but Acer is actually putting its money where its mouth is -- and with a gaming laptop, no less. The Acer Predator Helios 300 ($1,099.99 to start) offers a powerful, VR-ready Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU for a lower price than competitors and runs circles around the GTX 1050 Ti cards that competing laptops use at that price. It's upgradable, should you want to spend more to improve it later, but the display is dimmer than I'd like. But if you don't mind that, you'll get a powerful gaming notebook for a steal.
The Predator's aluminum-and-plastic design doesn't stray far from the look of Acer's other budget gaming notebooks; its black, metal lid has two red stripes flanking the Predator logo. There's a small plastic bumper on the top of the lid that feels far cheaper than the aluminum that surrounds it.
When you lift the lid, you'll find the 15.6-inch, 1080p display, surrounded by a bezel that has the Predator logo on the bottom and the Acer logo on the top-left corner. That second logo is distracting, and I wish Acer had the confidence to let the Predator brand stand on its own, the way Dell does with Alienware and Asus does with its Republic of Gamers line. There's also a full keyboard with a number pad utilizing red backlighting and red WASD keys, as well as a black, metal deck.
At 5.5 pounds and 15.4 x 10.5 x 1.5 inches, the Predator Helios 300 is a little larger than other mainstream gaming notebooks but also just a tad lighter. The Asus ROG Strix GL553VD (15.1 x 10 x 1.2 inches, 5.6 pounds) and the Lenovo Legion Y520 (15 x 10.4 x 1 inches, 5.6 pounds) are slightly smaller. The 17-inch MSI GP72VR 7RFX Leopard Pro is, unsurprisingly, bigger and heavier (16.5 x 10.6 x 1.5 inches, 6.4 pounds).
As any good gaming notebook should, the Predator has plenty of ports. On the left side are an Ethernet jack, a USB Type-C port, HDMI output, a USB 3.0 port and an SD card slot. A headphone jack and a pair of USB 2.0 ports are located on the right side of the laptop.
The 15.6-inch, 1080p display on the Predator is sharp but otherwise lackluster. When I watched the trailer for Marvel's Inhumans, Medusa's red hair didn't pop against her lavender dress, and bright lights overpowered both Black Bolt and Medusa in a scene together. It wasn't as bright as I would have liked, but it was perfectly usable.
I had a similar experience in Mass Effect: Andromeda. In dark areas, I wished I could bump up the brightness, but in lighter parts of the game, I could see fine. Some fires during a space battle looked more orange than red, but it otherwise looked accurate.
The Predator's display covers 81 percent of the sRGB color gamut, surpassing the Legion (68 percent) but falling below the 15-inch laptop average (94 percent), the Strix (122 percent) and the Leopard Pro (165 percent).
The colors aren't the most accurate, either. The Predator's Delta-E score of 4.7 (0 is ideal) is worse than the average (2.2), as well as the scores for the Strix (1.6), the Leopard Pro (0.3) and the Legion (0.2)
The screen measured 226 nits of average brightness on our light meter, which is dimmer than the average (274 nits), the Strix (269 nits) and the Leopard Pro (245 nits), but brighter than the Legion (220 nits).
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Predator's keyboard is comfortable, but I wish it felt more responsive. The keys have 1.6 millimeters of vertical travel, so I never felt as if I were bottoming out. But the keys require 79 grams of pressure to actuate, which kept them from feeling light and clicky. It didn't take long to get used to the extra pressure, though, and I typed at 109 words per minute (within my usual 107-115-wpm range) with my standard 2 percent error rate).
There are a few oddities on the keyboard. The Shift key and the top arrow key are very close together -- far closer than any other two keys on the keyboard -- and the right arrow key takes up some space in the number pad. Unlike the keyboard on the similarly priced Strix, the Predator's keyboard is backlit only in red; it doesn't have full RGB lighting.
The 4.1 x 3-inch touchpad is spacious, accurate and responsive to Windows 10 gestures; I had no problem pinching to zoom or swiping my Windows away. I had to click a bit harder than I usually expect to, though for games, most players use a dedicated gaming mouse anyway.
Acer's TrueHarmony speakers are nice and loud, just how I like them. When I listened to Zedd and Alessia Cara's "Stay," the computer pumped the song from wall to wall of our midsize meeting room, producing clear vocals, synths and drums. The bass wasn't as strong as I would have liked, though.
When I played Mass Effect: Andromeda, I could clearly hear the lasers in the middle of a space battle, and chatter with teammates was loud and clear.
The preinstalled Dolby Audio app offers a series of profiles, including Music, Movie and Game modes. Movie mode made it slightly louder, and Game mode focused on the drums. I found that the default Music setting was a fine balance.
Gaming, Graphics and VR
The Predator's Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU with 6GB of VRAM is a great value, and it showed its might in our performance testing. When I played Mass Effect: Andromeda on ultra settings at 1080p with FXAA anti-aliasing, the game ran between 70 and 80 frames per second during battle and occasionally dropped down to 64 fps during interactive cutscenes.
On the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmark (1080p, very high settings), the Predator ran the game at 67 fps, surpassing the mainstream notebook average (36 fps), the Strix (18 fps, GTX 1050), the Leopard Pro (33 fps, GTX 1060) and the Legion (46 fps, GTX 1050 Ti).
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The Hitman benchmark (1080p, very high settings) rendered at 67 fps on the Helios 300, falling behind the Leopard Pro (78 fps) but ahead of the average (44 fps), the Strix (30 fps) and the Legion (60 fps).
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p, ultra settings) played at 49 fps, which is slightly better than the average (47 fps) and the Leopard Pro (48 fps) and much smoother than the Strix (23 fps). We consider anything over 30 fps to be playable.
The Predator achieved a score of 7.1 on the SteamVR Performance Test, surpassing the average of 5.6 and tying the Leopard Pro.
The Predator is armed with a 2.8-GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, which is more than enough for some serious multitasking. I had 30 tabs open in Chrome while I watched a 1080p stream on Twitch, and didn't see any lag.
On the Geekbench 4 overall performance test, the Predator notched a score of 13,587, overcoming the mainstream average (10,675) and the rest of the pack. The Legion earned a score of 13,037, the Strix reached 12,253 and the Leopard Pro achieved 12,147.
It took the Predator 27 seconds to copy 4.97GB of mixed media files, resulting in a rate of 188.5 megabytes per second. The average is 207.6 MBps, while the Legion (363.5 MBps) and the Leopard Pro (565.5 MBps) were both quicker. The Strix (94.2 MBps) came in a distant last place.
The Predator took 3 minutes and 22 seconds to pair 20,000 names and addresses in our OpenOffice Spreadsheet Macro, handily beating the average of 4:12. The Legion (3:19) was quicker, and the Strix (3:31) and the Leopard Pro (3:24) were a little slower.
This is a gaming laptop that lasted far longer than we expected. It ran for 6 hours and 48 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which browses the web continuously over Wi-Fi. That's lower than the mainstream average (7:00), but gaming notebooks tend to not even come close to that.
The Leopard Pro, for instance, endured for only 2:32, while the Legion (3:39) and the Strix (3:41) also died out much sooner than the Predator.
When it's not gaming, the Predator stays nice and cool under simple workloads. After we streamed HD video from YouTube for 15 minutes, the bottom of the notebook reached just 88 degrees Fahrenheit; the keyboard between the G and H keys measured 84.5 degrees; and the touchpad was 79.5 degrees. All of these temperatures are below our 95-degree comfort threshold.
But things heat up when you start to play: The bottom climbed to 113.5 degrees, and the keyboard reached 104.5 degrees. However, the touchpad stayed cool, at 83.5 degrees.
The 720p webcam on the Predator is nice and sharp, but its colors aren't accurate. While I could make out individual hairs and see the creases in a colleague's jacket behind me, my navy-blue shirt appeared black.
Software and Warranty
Acer's biggest addition to the Predator is its PredatorSense app, which lets you monitor CPU and GPU speeds and fine-tune fan control for optimal performance.
You'll also find all the bloat usually packed into Windows 10, including Sling, Facebook, Twitter, Candy Crush Soda Saga and Royal Revolt 2.
Configurations and Value
The Predator Helios 300 we reviewed was the $1,099.99 base model, which has a 2.8-GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU with 6GB of VRAM, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
It's remarkably easy to upgrade. On the bottom are two doors -- each secured by a single screw -- to access the memory and the drive bay.
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If you prefer to buy it with more storage, you can get an identical model that throws in a 1TB HDD alongside a 128GB SSD, for $1,399.99. Models coming later this year will include a metal fan and an overclockable GPU. Acer also sells a series of 17-inch Predator Helios 300 configurations with otherwise identical specs (except a bump up to a 512GB SSD) starting at $1,399.99.
Any laptop with a GTX 1060 GPU at that starting price is a great value. Many laptops in this price range use lesser cards. At $1,249, the Legion has a GTX 1050 Ti, and the Leopard Pro costs at least $200 more with the same GPU.
The Acer Predator Helios 300 is a powerful, VR-ready gaming machine that costs several hundred dollars less than you might expect. Acer cut some corners with the display to get there, but its easy upgradability makes it a laptop you can keep gaming on for the long term. The battery life also impressed us.
If you want a better display and faster storage, the MSI GP72VR 7RFX Leopard Pro is the way to go, but you'll have to pay at least another $200, and it gets only 2 hours and 32 minutes of battery life. Lots of companies tout laptops that are strong values. Acer's Predator Helios 300 is the real deal.
Credit: Shaun Lucas/Laptop Mag