Budget gaming laptop sometimes feels like an oxymoron – has Acer got it right with the Nitro 5?
I’m not ashamed of being a games writer. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. That being said, I do feel like a massive tool when I’m using a traditional ‘gaming’ laptop in a public setting.
Nothing makes you feel quite so juvenile, sitting on a train amongst the hyper-professional MacBook Pros and Dell XPS 13s, as when you pull out a laptop that lights up like the New Jersey boardwalk. Someone, somewhere, decided that the default ‘gaming’ look – complete with angry lines, flared arches, and neon lighting – is the illegitimate lovechild of The Fast and the Furious and Robot Wars. And I hate it.
But there’s a peculiar thing that happens with gaming laptops. If you go to the extreme high end of the scale (like the Razer Blade and Blade Pro) then you get a beautiful, unibody, precision-milled aluminium chassis that – until its logo and keyboard light up green – you’d think was a MacBook Pro. And if you get right down to the budget end of the scale? Then all of the ‘gamer’ frippery falls away, culled by budgetary concerns, and you end up with a device that looks far nicer for its absence
Case in point: the Acer Nitro 5.
It might not have all of the bells, whistles, and RGB lights of Acer’s high-end Predator range, but there are still subtle clues that the Nitro 5 is a gaming laptop.
The Acer logo on the – very slightly angular – lid of the Nitro 5, for example, doesn’t glow with the fires of Hades. Instead there’s a deep crimson aluminium-effect accent on the hinge, with the word ‘NITRO’ machined into it, which sits above what are unusually large air vents for a laptop. If you know what you’re looking for those are a dead giveaway for the type of CPU and GPU that are installed in the chassis, but at least they don’t light up like the side-skirts of a 1994 Toyota Supra.
The backlighting for the island-style chiclet keys – including a proper numpad, gods be praised – is a warm red, rather than the subtle white of most consumer or business laptops. It’s a little more ‘gaming’ in style than standard white backlights, but not as extreme as the Joseph’s amazing technicolour RGB lighting you find on some gaming machines.
Oh, and the WSAD keys are outlined in red, just in case you forget where to put your fingers.
On the whole, then, the design of the Acer Nitro 5 is a winner. It’s a little bigger and bulkier than some of the higher-end machines, and the budget will have stripped out some of the ‘gaming’ features that some may prefer, but at least I’m not embarrassed to be seen out with it.
2. Build quality
The corollary of the “cheaper laptops don’t look as ugly” argument is that many of those non-gaming components are built to a price point.
The lid might look like brushed aluminium, for example, but I’m fairly certain it’s just a plastic lid with an aluminium effect baked into the surface. Ditto for that rather nice aluminium-effect hinge. The palm-rest of the laptop is smooth, shiny plastic – no pretence of metallurgy here – but like the lid it seems somewhat resistant to picking up finger marks. With no illusions of higher-end materials required, the underside of the chassis and the (somewhat chunky) screen bezel are made of a rough, industrial plastic.
Because of the proliferation of polymer in the chassis, there is quite a lot of flex to it in places. The lid and screen are particularly vulnerable to this tendency for torsion, and you can’t lift the lid one-handed as a result. That’s not a big deal in the real world, of course, but the ability to open a laptop one-handed without tipping it backwards is seen as a good indicator of material and build quality.
There are varying levels of flex in the palm rest and keyboard too, depending on whereabouts you apply the pressure and how densely-packed the components are underneath. The keyboard itself is nicely spaced and satisfying to use, though, in spite of a little flex and bounce. The layout is well-designed too, and while there are a couple of buttons I keep getting wrong (hitting the very small ‘home’ key instead of the equally small, adjacent ‘delete’ key, for example) it’s comfortable to use and quite accurate.
The same, sadly, isn’t true of the trackpad.
First, as a little bit of a disclaimer: I know I’m not the first person to use this review unit. I can tell because the box has clearly been opened (and not all that carefully) several times before. I can tell because someone has somehow disabled (or broken) the on-board speakers. And I can tell because the buttons on the trackpad are flabby and difficult to use accurately.
I’m sure they’re not this bad when the laptop is brand new. I’ve used Acer’s devices before and they’re usually fairly responsive, but someone who used or reviewed this laptop before me has evidently given this one an absolute kicking. The gesture controls work well enough and the tracking itself is accurate, but the buttons – particularly the left one – are spongey, at times to the point of irritation.
It’s hard to mark the Nitro 5 down because some ham-fisted oaf killed the speakers and abused the trackpad, but perhaps for a laptop that’s only been available since July 2017, it shouldn’t feel quite so well-worn, quite so quickly.
Here’s the hardware that’s included in the unassuming Nitro 5 laptop I’m currently reviewing.
Acer Nitro 5 specs:
- Operating System: Windows 10 Home
- Processor: Intel Core i7-7700HQ 2.8GHz; Quad-core
- Chipset: Intel HM175
- Memory: 8GB DDR4 (up to 32GB maximum)
- Storage: 1TB hard drive, 128GB SSD
- Screen: 15.6″ Full HD (1920×1080) IPS panel (with ComfyView technology)
- Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 4GB (GTX 1050 Ti variant also available)
- Connectivity: 802.11ac wireless LAN, Bluetooth
- Audio & Video: 1280×720 webcam, Two speakers
- Ports & Connectors: 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, Network (RJ-45), HDMI Output, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C
- Battery: 4-cell 3220 mAh Li-Polymer
- Battery Life: (up to) 7 hours
- Adaptor: 135 W external
- Dimensions (W x D x H): 390 mm x 266 mm x 26.75 mm
- Weight: 2.7 kg (approx.)
This variant of the Acer Nitro 5 currently retails for £899.99 on the Acer UK store. A lower-end model with an i5 7300HQ processor and without the 128GB SSD retails for £849.99, while the – otherwise identical except for a – GTX 1050 Ti upgrade model sells for £999.99.
4. Power, cooling and noise
Right now, as I type this review on the Nitro 5 itself, it’s as quiet and polite as its design is (relatively) understated. In many respects, it’s like a hybrid car: peaceful and serene while we’re pootling around the city centre, doing mundane things, but you know the noise will kick up if you ask it to hit 70 on the motorway.
And when you do ask it to do something more demanding, like intense gaming or heavyweight rendering? It really makes quite the racket. That’s not to say it’s unbearably loud, however; compared to laptops that try to cram bigger GPUs into thinner chassis, the Nitro 5 is positively serene… if you’re sitting in front of the screen. If you’re behind it, however, it’s like being downwind of a hairdryer – keep that in mind if you’re sitting opposite someone in a coffee shop or on a train.
That’s thanks to the clever design of the Nitro 5’s cooling, where fresh air is always sucked in from under the laptop and exhausted horizontally out the rear through those big old vents. This smart design also means that while the components get toasty – 60°C on the GPU, 80°C on the CPU – the surfaces of the laptop get warm, but they never get too hot.
I keep a cushioned lapdesk with an integrated USB-powered fan handy for heavy gaming sessions on laptops, lest I scorch my thighs, but I’ve not had to use it once with the Nitro 5. Even after six hours of solid PUBG, which is really saying something.
Not that you’ll be disturbing folks opposite you on the train for too long with portable gaming sessions; as is always the case, the “7 hours” battery life claim is a guide, and your mileage will vary depending on the tasks you’re performing. I’ve found it to be somewhere between three and five hours based on general productivity use – once I turned down the unreasonably short default sleep timers – and between one and two hours under intensive loads (like gaming).
It’s not groundbreaking battery life, but in a device of this type and at that price point? It’s perfectly serviceable.
5. Performance, usability
First up, some figures on what the Acer Nitro 5 was able to achieve in some benchmarking tests. Synthetic benchmarks are fine and all, but real gaming benchmarks – against a mix of older and newer titles, as this is a budget laptop with a budget graphics card – are more useful.
- Gears of War 4 (high settings, 1080p) – average 56.82 fps
- Bioshock Infinite (ultra settings, 1080p) – average 77.31 fps
- Batman: Arkham City (very high settings, 1080p) – average 57.8 fps
- PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (medium settings, ultra draw distance, 1080p) – average 45 fps in quiet zones / 25 fps in busy zones
For the games with built-in benchmarking tools, we ran the tests five times and calculated the mean average. For PUBG, which is so variable it’s damn-near impossible to benchmark accurately, we played about 30 hours (seriously) and worked out rough averages based on what we’ve seen during different play conditions in that time.
The key thing here is that, in spite of its GTX 1050 graphics card, the Nitro 5 can achieve around 60 frames per second (or better) in a variety of titles at its native 1080p resolution. The Gears of War 4 figures, for example, were achieved by letting the game pick the best graphics setting for the card; this was a mix of mostly high settings, with a couple of advanced features turned down to medium (or off completely).
You’re never going to be pushing 4K with all the details turned up on this laptop – we tried – but that’s not what it’s for. The Nitro 5 is for people to be able to play pretty much anything you can throw at it, as long as you’re prepared to be sensible with your expectations for detail levels (or sacrifice frame rates, if you’re not).
In side-by-side testing with our in-house ‘lower spec’ gaming PC, however – which features a quad core AMD Athlon 860k CPU, 8GB of DDR3 memory, and a GTX 1050 Ti – the Nitro 5 was more than able to keep up with the better GPU in that desktop. In some cases it was even able to push higher frame rates, in spite of having fewer cores and a lower clock speed in that GTX 1050 GPU.
This was particularly noticeable during busier segments in PUBG, where the desktop-grade Core i7 7700HQ processor (and the faster DDR4 RAM that goes with it) in the laptop were able to outstrip that ageing AMD CPU and slower memory. That processor SKU may seem like overkill in a budget machine, but there’s no danger of the GPU being bound by a low-voltage CPU in the Nitro 5, that’s for sure.
It’s worth pointing out that the Nitro 5’s spec also makes it an ideal machine for budget-conscious creative types, too. We’ve spent time playing around with video creation (which it handled just fine) and have thrown some incredibly poorly-optimised and GPU-intensive scenes at it via Unity (so… much… grass…) and it’s gobbled them up with aplomb. If you’re an indie developer looking for a lower-priced machine for working on the move – and you don’t mind not having a Razer Blade or MacBook Pro like the trendy kids – then this is a good starter option.
The Nitro 5 might not be the most powerful gaming laptop on the planet, but by not scrimping on that high-end processor and (in this model at least) an SSD for the boot drive, Acer have managed to eke out as much performance as they can from that budget price tag.
It’s not going to blow your mind, but if your expectations are sensible, it’s certainly not going to disappoint, either.