• notebookcomputer
  • 10/11/2022

Acer Predator Helios 500 (2021) review: A gaming laptop behemoth

The Helios 500 is the pinnacle of Acer’s lineup of gaming laptops. It’s the biggest, heaviest and most powerful laptop that the Taiwanese hardware company makes and is best thought of as a desktop squeezed into a laptop package. To hell with such wishy-washy concepts as portability or battery life – absolute performance is the name of the game here.

Buy now from Currys

This 3.9kg slab of a machine costs a princely £3,799, but the specifications are designed to ease your credit card’s pain. Front and centre there’s a 17.3in Mini LED 4K HDR display with 120Hz refresh rate, and under the hood there’s a mighty alliance between a 5GHz Intel Core i9-11980HK processor, 32GB of DDR4 RAM, Nvidia RTX3080 GPU and twin PCI-E 4 SSDs lashed together in a RAID array.

Image 3 of 22

This calibre of hardware is enough to breeze through most games straight out of the box – and right up to 4K resolutions too – but Acer is also pitching its new notebook beast at the overclocking crowd. This is no idle claim: the Helios 500 comes with a pair of power supplies to provide the wattage required for pushing the CPU and GPU beyond stock speeds. If you’re the kind of person who would normally eschew gaming laptops because overclocking is off the table, then this one might just turn your head.

The new 17.3in Helios 500 is available in one model only and will set you back the princely sum of £3,799, which includes a £200 discount all UK retailers are currently offering. Not unsurprisingly, all the competition is either a bit or a lot cheaper.

See related Best laptop 2022: The finest Windows, Apple and Chrome OS laptops to buyBest laptop stand 2022: Our pick of the top laptop stands for improving postureBest budget gaming laptop 2021: The cheapest gaming notebooks from £700

The Asus ROG Strix Scar 17 G733 is another massive 17.3in gaming beast and comes with a superb mechanical keyboard, a Full HD display with a maximum 360Hz refresh rate and an overclocked AMD Ryzen 9 processor. At £3,500 it’s not much cheaper than the new Helios but at 2.7kg it’s a good bit lighter.

The previous holder of the Most Powerful Laptop trophy here at Expert Reviews Alienware’s x15 R1 is almost as powerful as the Helios 500 but is half the weight, half the height and £1,500 cheaper, though that’s for the Core i7, 15.6in version we tested. The 17.3in machine with a Core i9 CPU, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD will set you back £3,149 (currently on offer from Dell down from £3,749).

A little bulkier than the x15 but still a minnow compared to the Helios 500 is Lenovo’s Legion 7. For just under £2,000 you get an excellent display and sound system and a RTX 3080 GPU. The model we tested came with 1TB of storage and 16GB of system RAM but you can easily whip the bottom off and upgrade both to match the Helios.

If you fancy something a little less Windows, then Apple’s new MacBook Pro 16 is worth considering. We called it “simply phenomenal” when we reviewed it and not without justification. The Mini LED display is a joy to behold and the battery life is epic for a machine this powerful. For all-around capability, nothing else comes close.

READ NEXT: The very best gaming laptops around

The Helios 500 is the USS Iowa of laptops; massive, solid and very heavy. At 3.9kg I’d describe it as portable rather than mobile, and the 400 x 319 x 35mm dimensions place it firmly in large laptop territory. If you plan on carrying it about, you’ll need a backpack big enough to house both it and the two large 750g PSU bricks.

With the exception of the lid, which is aluminium, the Helios is made entirely from plastic, but it still feels seriously tough. It’s a wholly solid affair and even the lid is impressively rigid for something that has to house a 17.3in display but is only 5mm thick.

Image 11 of 22

The design is more restrained than I expected, akin to Lenovo’s new Legion machines. Turn off the spectacular Close Encounters light show – there are RGB LED strips on all four edges as well as surrounding the trackpad and each key can be assigned its own RGB colour – and it looks a lot less like a stereotypical gaming notebook than any of Acer’s cheaper Nitro machines. The black livery is refreshingly understated, with only the big blue LED power button above the keyboard and the similarly backlit Predator logo on the lid giving the game away.

Connectivity is generous. You get two USB Type-C and three USB Type-A 3.2 Gen 2 ports, HDMI 2.1 and Mini DisplayPort 1.4 video feeds, a Gigabit RJ45 socket and separate 3.5mm mic and headphone jacks. The cherry on the cake is that both the Type-C ports support Thunderbolt 4. The two DC-in jacks are sensibly placed dead centre at the rear, and with both plugged in the Helios 500 has access to 600W of power. To keep your desk tidy, Acer has bundled a rubber stand for the two PSU’s. It may sound like a frivolous extra but trust me, you will come to value it.

Image 5 of 22

Wireless communications are handled by an AX1650i Wi-Fi 6 module which like the Gigabit Ethernet switch is made by the Intel-owned gaming network specialist Killer. I recorded network speeds averaging 1.5Gbit/sec which is more than fast enough for any gaming requirement. The pre-installed Killer Control Centre app gives you the type of granular control of your network kit that regular Windows users can only dream about. Naturally, there’s also a Bluetooth 5.1 radio.

Three things that the Helios 500 is missing are a memory card slot, any sort of biometric log-in and a touch screen. The middle one is the most surprising because the 1080p webcam is very good and a massive improvement on the 720p dross you usually find above the screens of gaming laptops.

Acer Predator Helios 500 (2021) review: A gaming laptop behemoth

When you unbox the Helios you’ll find a mounting frame for a 2.5in HDD. Removing the front part of the base is very easy and gives good access to the two SSD slots, the Wi-Fi module, two RAM cards and the aforementioned HDD bay. The back half of the base covers the cooling system and is clearly not designed to be removed by the casual home tinkerer or inquisitive hack.

For storage, the Helios 500 uses two 1TB PCI-E 4 SSDs in a RAID0 setup and it’s seriously fast: sequential read and write speeds reach 6,939MB/sec and 6,864MB/sec respectively.

Buy now from Currys

The Helios 500’s keyboard may not boast the mechanical switches of rivals such as the 17.3in Alienware machines or the Asus ROG Strix Scar 17, but it’s still very good indeed. It’s both quiet and solid in use, the keys have plenty of travel, and there’s a full numeric keypad. The large power and Turbo buttons sit out of the way above the keyboard and there’s a dedicated key to launch the Predator Sense app just above the numeric keys.

Image 21 of 22

The keyboard’s party piece is the option to swap the WASD and arrow keys for aluminium MagForce and Racing keys respectively. I got the most use out of the former, which bump key travel to 3.1mm and let you move faster or slower depending on how hard you press the key. Acer bundles the replacement keys and the plastic removal tool in a couple of hard zip cases so you don’t lose them, which is a nice touch.

Image 13 of 22

At 105 x 65mm the trackpad isn’t the biggest around and it’s covered in plastic rather than glass, but it’s perfectly responsive and the separate click bars below are faultless.

The Helios 500 boasts a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) Mini LED IPS panel with a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz. Mini LED technology employs thousands of backlight LEDs to light the screen, and the Acer’s screen has 4,608 LEDs grouped into 512 zones, each of which can be dimmed or brightened independently of one another. It’s the same technology that Apple uses in its iPad Pro and MacBook Pro screens, and the advantages are much improved high dynamic range (HDR) performance and a brighter display. It also makes an IPS display look more like an AMOLED panel with blacker blacks and a higher contrast ratio.

The Helios 500’s panel most certainly is bright. We recorded a peak brightness of 656cd/m² in standard mode and 853cd/m² in HDR. The contrast ratio measured 3,753:1 in SDR but jumped to 10,908:1 in HDR. Unsurprisingly, the panel covers the sRGB gamut of colours effortlessly – 99.8% coverage is as good as it gets – and it also manages to do a great job in the DCI-P3 colour space, where it covered a respectable 92.3%. With an average Delta E colour variance of 5.02, the screen isn’t as colour-accurate as it could be, but recalibration shouldn’t be a problem if you want to do some professional image or video work.

Image 2 of 22

The potential downside of the Mini LED technology is that it can cause a halo effect around bright objects when they appear against a dark background, but I can’t say I noticed this even when watching videos designed to highlight the effect. What I did notice is that with a pixel density of 255dpi, the Helios 500 is one of the sharpest large notebook screens around. On paper, it even narrowly pips the Apple MacBook Pro 16 at the post with its 254dpi 16.2in display.

Along with the Alienware x15 R1, the Helio 500 is one of only a handful of gaming laptops to feature Nvidia’s Advanced Optimus technology. Standard Optimus systems have to either forsake Nvidia's G-Sync support or require a Multiplexer (or MUX) switch, which necessitates a system reboot. Advanced Optimus makes it possible to toggle Optimus on and off at will, allowing users to choose between G-Sync support and improved performance or the improved battery life provided with Optimus enabled.

The panel’s 120Hz refresh rate might not sound that impressive next to the Asus ROG Strix Scar 17’s 360Hz panel, but then of course that’s a Full HD display. The list of 17.3in 4K 120Hz laptops is not a long one, and the only 17.3in 4K notebook that can do better is the 144Hz (and £4,700) Razer Blade 17. More important is the fact that the Helios’ display has a speedy pixel response time of 3ms.

Acer hasn’t completely forgotten the sound system, either. I measured the speakers’ maximum volume at 78db from a metre away. That’s pretty loud, and means that the speakers won’t get drowned out by the fans going at full tilt. There’s not much in the way of bass, though, and the sound is rather brittle. For the money I’d expect better, frankly. That said, anyone who can afford the Helios will probably be in possession of a good 2.1 speaker system and a quality pair of headphones.

READ NEXT: The best PC gaming headsets to buy

Inside the Helios 500, you’ll find a 5GHz Intel Core i9-11980HK processor, an Nvidia RTX3080 GPU with a TGP of 110W, 32GB of DDR4 system memory that can easily be bumped to 64GB and 16GB of GDDR6 vRAM. Given that specification, it came as no surprise that the Helios recorded the highest-ever score for a laptop in our in-house productivity test with 358 points.

Our gaming benchmarks told the same story. The demanding Hitman 2 Mumbai test scored 89.9fps at 1080p and 62.7fps at native 4K. The Shadow of the Tomb Raider test scored 74fps at 1080p and 42fps at 4K, both tests being run with all details settings at their highest and with ray tracing on and DLSS off. Finally the Wolfenstein: Youngblood test scored 151fps at 1080p and 59fps at 4K, again with ray tracing on and DLSS off.

Turning to some productivity tests, the Helios 500 scored 1,664 in the Geekbench 5 single-core CPU test and 9,964 in the multicore test. Only Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Pro has done better. The SPECviewperf2020 3dsmax-07 rendering test scored 116fps, not quite a match for the ROG Strix Scar’s 134fps but better than the Acer ConceptD 700’s 89fps, which is a bona fide desktop workstation.

All these tests were run in Turbo mode, which requires both PSUs to be connected. In Turbo, the system fans – which are impressively efficient if just a little loud – run hard and continuously to keep everything cool, and the GPU is run at its maximum boost clock speed.

If you can’t quite see why two 300W PSUs are required, keep in mind that Acer expects Helios 500 owners to indulge in the dark arts of overclocking. The highest continual power demand from the stock RTX3080 in the Helios 500 is 165W. But if you push the maximum boost clock beyond 1,710MHz that power draw will increase. Add to that the 65W maximum TDP of the i9 chip, factor in the power needed to keep the fans spinning and the screen lit and suddenly 600W doesn’t seem like such an excessive amount of headroom.

As you probably would have guessed by now, battery performance is frankly appalling. Our standard video rundown test drained the 99.8Wh battery in 2hrs 47mins. Even the Alienware x15 managed to get within touching distance of the six-hour mark from its 87Wh battery. Fire up a game on battery power and the news gets worse: 50 minutes of Doom played at 1080p (the performance throttle was so severe that 4K play was out of the question) was all it took to drain the battery dry.

So, is the Helios 500 the best gaming laptop on the market? Yes. Clearly, the size and weight of the thing must be taken into consideration, as well as the shockingly bad battery life, but in the search for ultimate gaming performance some things have to give. For a not inconsiderable pile of cash, you are getting a superb display, an excellent keyboard and the potential to overclock the hardware to the point where you’ll be able to give a few gaming desktops a run for their money. It’s the irony of cutting-edge engineering that machines built without compromise often demand compromise of their users and the Helios 500 is just one such machine. But if you can put up with the weight, size and double-barrelled power supply, this is a gaming laptop like no other.

Buy now from Currys