It's been a couple of years now since Acer overhauled its big-screen Helios 500 desktop replacement rig. But the laptop is back in a 17-inch shell that's a bit of a departure from the 2018 model. As expected, it brings current top-end 11th Gen Intel/Nvidia components, plus perhaps more RGB than I've ever seen on a portable PC. Aside from the per-key RGB keyboard, there are light bars that run along all four edges of the laptop (yes, even the back). And the light show can be set to dynamically react to sound playing from the system's speakers, or even what's on the screen.
Acer sent us a pre-production sample in the days before its announcement to get some hands-on time with the new gaming flagship. Sadly, one of the most intriguing options of the new laptop wasn't included in the sample they shipped. There will be an optional Mini LED 4K panel with a 120 Hz refresh rate and full-array local dimming, which Acer says is "comparable to VESA Display HDR 1000." If you're a top-end competitive gamer, the crazy-fast 360 Hz 1080p screen that came with our unit is undoubtedly the better option. But my slow reflexes and HDR-happy eyeballs would love to see what a bright, pixel-dense display with 512 backlight zones looks like on a laptop.
Design of the Acer Predator Helios 500 (2021)
First off, Acer would probably like me to reiterate that what it sent us was a pre-production unit, and some things will change. For instance, the Predator logo on the lid will be RGB-lit, rather than the basic blue seen here. And while the light bar at the back will remain, there are lights in the rear exhaust that will go away (which is good because they're very bright). Also, as this was a pre-production unit, we were not allowed to test performance or battery life. The laptop is expected to arrive in August, with a starting price of $2,499.
Also note that, as this is a configuration with both a Core i9-11980HK and an Nvidia RTX 3080, the laptop does ship with two large power bricks. You'll want to keep both plugged in for long gaming sessions, but with the system asleep or while doing basic productivity, one brick was more than enough to keep the laptop charged.
If you're expecting something approaching a thin-and-light gaming experience, you should look elsewhere (and expect less performance). At 8.59 pounds and approximately 12.6 x 15.75 x 1.75 inches, the Helios 500 is unapologetically a high-end desktop replacement.
And the black metal shell with silver and blue accents back up the 'gaming' looks--accented nicely by the blue-metal heatsinks that can be seen from the rear sides and back of the laptop.
As noted earlier, the stand-out visual element here is the sheer abundance of RGB, in the form of diffused light bars that run along most of the front, about two-thirds of both sides, and nearly the entire back edge. The Helios 500 is a light show in a box, if ever there was one.
And if you're into light shows, the laptop makes good use of all the RGB here. Aside from being able to choose from the usual number of presets or individually select the color of each key, the company's PredatorSense software's Pulsar Lighting tab has an Interactive section, which lets you set the keyboard and bars to react to audio being piped through the laptop. You can choose between four presets for this, and there's also a Screen Sync feature that tends to mimic what's on the lower portion of the screen.
The Screen Sync option is a bit crude. For instance, when I went to YouTube and an ad for YouTube Premium popped up in the bottom-left corner, the keys below it turned red and a purplish-white, mirroring the ad. But when watching trailers (and ads) for action movies, the flashing keys echoing gunshots did add something to the effect--I'm just not sure it's something I like.
Having the lights and keyboard echoing what's on the screen is distracting when you're trying to watch a TV show or movie, but it could add to the level of immersion when gaming in the dark. And for music, the light show that the Helios 500 kicks out is almost like a party in and of itself. That said, I was not impressed with the sound output of the laptop, at least for music.
Acer bills the Helios 500 as having "True 5.1 channel surround sound" with a subwoofer, and licensed DTS X software is included for audio tweaking. But out of the box, highs and mids sounded harsh, while lows were minimized and there was little in the way of bass, especially for a laptop that literally says Subwoofer on the bottom. To be fair, this audio may be pre-tweaked for gaming, bringing key strategic elements up in the mix, but it certainly doesn't make music sound good.
It's possible that audio will improve with final units, but a few minutes playing with the various DTS presets, first choosing the music preset and then fiddling with the manual EQ, didn't yield the kind of pleasing sound output I'd like from a laptop this big and expensive.
Unlike the version of the Helios 500 we looked at back in 2018, there are no ports on the back, save for the power connections. The left edge has a pair of tightly packed Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, as well as a USB 3 Type-A, a full-size HDMI port, and an anachronistic Mini Displayport.
The right edge houses separate headphone and mic jacks, two more USB 3 Type-A ports, and a Killer Ethernet E3100G jack. Wi-Fi 6 is also included. Note that Acer has yet to provide us with full specs, so we are unsure of the exact port speeds/specs.
Display on the Acer Predator Helios 500 (2021)
We weren't able to test the 1080p 360 Hz display (or any other aspect) of our pre-production sample. But elite gamers will no-doubt appreciate the speed. And in casual use and gaming, we didn't find it to be particularly dull or dim. Acer says it will also offer a 2560 x 1440 display option with a 165 Hz refresh rate.
But the most interesting screen option will be the 3840 x 2160 (4K) IPS screen that supports 120 Hz refresh and has a Mini LED matrix, giving it 512 backlight zones, plus what should be high-brightness HDR support. In short, that should be one dynamic display, with bright lights and dark blacks, which should be great for both AAA gaming and movies. But we'll have to await a final review unit to say for sure. And we're very curious to hear how much that panel adds to the laptop's cost.
Keyboard and Touchpad of the Acer Predator Helios 500 (2021)
The input devices on the Acer Predator Helios 500 are nothing if not colorful and roomy. With nearly 16 inches of width to play with, the keys are reasonably large, with lots of separation between them. And aside from the per-key backlighting, there's also an RGB ring that runs around the touchpad, which is about 4.8 inches on the diagonal.
There's also plenty of travel, in both the keys and touchpad buttons, likely thanks in part to the fact that Acer clearly wasn't aiming for slimness here. And the WASD keys, apart from being visually offset in translucent blue, also have a stiffer feel than the surrounding keys, helping your fingers find them in the event that you were grabbing a snack and suddenly find yourself in the heat of battle.
All that said, personally I've never been a huge fan of these kind of flat keycaps on a gaming keyboard, and the white edges of the keys, while they help the RGB lighting shine through, look a bit garish in the daylight, against the darkness of the rest of the laptop's design. I really hope more laptop makers shift back to offering mechanical switch options, like Alienware has recently.
Gaming on the Acer Predator Helios 500 (2021)
With the limited time I had with the new Acer Predator Helios 500, I didn't have the luxury of long nights lost in raids and quests. But I did take the laptop through a few rounds of Doom Eternal and the decidedly less-demanding strategy title, Becastled. At the high frame rates that come with an RTX 3080 and an Intel Core i9 on a 1080p display, the 360 Hz screen was buttery smooth, and I found the roomy keyboard a bit more enjoyable for executing the games sometimes complicated jumps that I did for typing.
And while the cartoonish graphics of Becastled weren't quite as colorful on the Helios' display as they are on the Sony HDR TV that I use as my primary monitor, things didn't exactly look dull eiter. Again, I'd love to see what these games (and frankly everything else) would look like on the 4K, 120 Hz HDR display option with localized dimming. And I'm curious to hear how much that screen will add to the price of the laptop.
As far as cooling goes, the Acer Predator Helios 500 was far from silent under load, but we wouldn't expect that given its pairing of top-end components. But it also didn't get overtly loud either. And the fans didn't often fluctuate up and down, which can be more noticeable than a higher-decibel, but more constant whir. We'd need more time with the laptop (and the ability to test temps) to pass final judgement on the cooling system here, but nothing stood out as problematic or bad on that front, not that the laptop was quieter than we'd expect, either.
Given that every gaming laptop maker is using the same current core high-end components (though there is more more variety these days, with AMD's CPUs more in the mix), and those parts have the same thermal requirements, there are only so many ways for a high-end gaming laptop to stand out.
Acer makes an attempt here by tossing in extra RGBs so that the Predator Helios 500 is as much a light show as it is a gaming powerhouse. It also doesn't look or feel cheap or flimsy, as we've seem from some gaming portables in the past, when the aim was to keep costs as low as possible, or keep the chassis as slim as can be.
But really this Predator's most striking trick might just be its Mini LED 4K display with full-array local dimming and 120 Hz refresh. Sadly, we'll have to wait for a final version to get our eyes on that impressive-sounding display. The 360 Hz 1080p panel in our sample is certainly impressive in its own right, but its wow factor isn't apparent unless you spend your time with highly competitive esports titles.