Being unique isn’t easy in a crowded gaming laptop market, but the Predator Helios 700 ($2,199.99 as tested) pulls it off. Acer’s 17.3-incher has a sliding keyboard that transforms the user experience, not to mention allows for freer component cooling. Larger than most notebooks at this screen size, the Predator makes the most of it, packing in an expansive, well laid-out keyboard, dedicated gaming macro keys, quiet cooling fans, and a punchy sound system. It’s all backed by an Intel Core i7 CPU (a Core i9 in the top models) and an Nvidia GeForce RTX-class GPU for super-smooth gaming on its 144Hz G-Sync display. The Helios 700 is a real speedster and, provided its bulk and brief battery life don’t offend, delivers an ownership experience unlike any other. It seizes our top recommendation for a high-end, big-screen gaming laptop.
Bigger Than You Know
The “entry-level” model of the Predator Helios 700 I’m reviewing (Acer model number PH717-71-7091) is anything but, coming well-equipped with a Core i7-9750H hexa-core CPU, an 8GB GeForce RTX 2070 GPU, and 16GB of RAM. It has just a single storage drive, a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD) onto which Windows 10 is installed, but an empty 2.5-inch bay allows for aftermarket expansion. The most powerful configuration of the Helios 700 that Acer sells, at $3,999.99, has an overclockable Core i9-9980HK octa-core CPU and an 8GB GeForce RTX 2080 GPU.
The Predator Helios 700 isn’t alone in offering this caliber of hardware. Competition from the MSI GE75 Raider, the HP Omen 17t and the Asus ROG Strix Hero line is fierce. The MSI and the Asus command about $200 less for similar specifications as our Predator review unit, but they lack Nvidia G-Sync. The HP has G-Sync and is less expensive, but the Acer has a more comprehensive feature set, such as a keyboard with per-key-programmable RGB backlighting, instead of a four-zone arrangement. All in all, the Acer is a fair value.
Notebooks with 17.3-inch screens are large simply by nature, but few can hold an extra-large Yankee Candle to the footprint of the Predator Helios 700. Meaty-looking display bezels help inflate this monster to 1.6 by 16.9 by 11.8 inches (HWD), or bigger than two Razer Blade Pro 17 (2019) notebooks stacked on top of each other. It’s at least an inch wider than a “normal” 17.3-incher with minimal display bezels. It’ll be a good deal heavier, too, coming in at a staggering 10.8 pounds. Don’t forget to factor in several extra pounds for its power brick. A roller bag is the way to go with this one.
The Predator Helios 700 has the solid feel you’d expect from a machine this heavy, showing no chassis flex and just a slight amount in its cafeteria-tray-size lid. The chassis doesn’t feel hollow, as it can on some notebooks this thick. One knock is the all-plastic exterior, where notebooks priced at this level usually incorporate some metal.
Design for the Predator Helios 700 means a sharply angled chassis and an all-black color scheme, for which Acer’s Predator brand is well-known. The DNA goes all the way down to its aggressive keyboard typeface and its futuristic-looking power button. It’s a look you specifically have to like to buy a notebook such as this one. I think it works, and I give Acer a nod for its willingness to step closer to “love it or loathe it” than many other brands.
But let’s get back to the size of this beast. Challenging today’s infatuation with thinness requires purpose, and the Predator Helios 700 has plenty of reasons for going big. First and foremost is its sliding (or in Acer’s terminology, “HyperDrift”) keyboard. On your first try, it’ll seem highly unnatural to grip the ledge at the top right of the keyboard and pull the whole thing toward you, but you just have to go for it…
The transformation is guaranteed to garner some wide-eyed looks. The keyboard slides on rails that keep it firmly anchored to the notebook the entire time. It’s thick and strong enough that it doesn’t flex, maintaining its solid feel whether it’s docked or slid forward. The wrist-rest portion, which contains the touch pad, tilts down to meet your desk.
The forward position reveals the Predator’s twin cooling fans. Also, the RGB lighting of a Gorilla Glass panel between the fans does a nice job of showcasing the copper heatpipes in a supercar-like fashion…
I’m a fan of what the sliding keyboard does for the user experience. The effect isn’t exactly like putting an external desktop keyboard in front of the notebook, but it’s close. It gives a more commanding view of the screen since you’ll be sitting further back. I also found the angled palm rest made for more comfortable typing.
Docked or forward, the keyboard on this notebook gets a thumbs-up from me for its 2.8mm of key travel and desktop-like layout, including a full-size numeric keypad and arrow keys.
The touchpad also earns good marks for its smooth surface and dedicated buttons, which are tactile and quiet. The backlighting color of the pad’s border is customizable in the preinstalled PredatorSense app, as is the glass panel showing off the heatpipes.
As if the sliding feature didn’t make the keyboard enough of a standout, the W, A, S, and D keys on the keyboard can be swapped out for the included MagForce keys (as Acer calls them). Unlike membrane keys, the MagForce keys use a linear spring to offer variable levels of pressure, in game-controller-like fashion, so you’re not limited to just pressing or not pressing the key. In other words, there’s a range of in-between states that are not there with a normal key. You’ll need to use Acer’s PredatorSense app to switch between Gaming and Typing modes with the MagForce keys installed. The Gaming mode allows you to control the analog curve, like so…
I was too busy relearning how to press the keys to play around with that setting. The fact that the MagForce keys have no actuation pressure means you can’t rest your fingers on their keytops without activating them to some degree, as I found was my habit. Once I acclimated myself, though, I found that the MagForce keys offer an instantaneous response to input and a finer level of control. The appeal is there especially for racing games and others where you may want a gas-pedal-like level of gradual control.
For general typing, the MagForce keys let you set the actuation point. Its 2.8mm maximum is the closest approximation to a normal key, meaning it will register only when fully pressed.
While they’re usable for typing, I find the MagForce keys feel a little too different from the rest of the keyboard to bury in my subconscious. Swapping them out after a gaming session takes just a minute using an included plastic tool, which fits, along with the extra keycaps, in a convenient carry case that comes in the box.
The Predator Helios 700 offers three dedicated macro buttons above the left side of its keyboard. Pressing the “P” button to their left switches among three sets of assignments, giving you nine possible macros per profile. The PredatorSense app lets you create, export and import as many profiles as you want. I like that the buttons change color depending on the assignment set, and they illuminate only if they have an assignment. While their primary use is no doubt for gaming, they can be used for just about anything. I like having dedicated media controls, so I used one of the sets to create volume up, down, and mute buttons…
I wish more notebooks had dedicated macro keys for simple conveniences like that.
G-Sync Me Up
In terms of its display options, the Predator Helios 700 keeps things practical with its full HD/1080p screen resolution. It may not show fine detail as well as a 1440p or UHD/4K panel, but it’s much easier for the GPU to drive, resulting in higher (and therefore smoother) frame rates in games. The GeForce RTX 2070 in our tester has no trouble approaching or exceeding the triple-digit range in our tested titles at this resolution. The display’s high 144Hz refresh rate and Nvidia G-Sync support translate all that performance into one of the smoothest gaming experiences around. Because of the high-refresh nature of the screen, you can fully leverage frame rates up to 144 frames per second (fps), especially handy for esports aficions.
The picture looks good without standing out in any particular respect. For instance, its brightness is ample but not eye-searing, and colors, while satisfactory, don’t jump off the screen. The panel’s main strength for gaming is its contrast, which offers good black level separation. For gaming, that means seeing details in the deepest shadows is possible; they won’t just be one dark blur.
Also, the anti-glare screen coating is another entry on the long list of likes for this display. Contrary to the mirror-like surfaces of glass or glossy panels, it tempers reflections from ambient lighting.
Five’s a Crowd
Count ’em: The Predator Helios 700 has five speakers, two of which reside in the lid below the display, the other three projecting from under the palm rest. There’s also a subwoofer module under the chassis. It’s a clear, full-sounding setup, although surprisingly not that loud at maximum volume. The cooling fans in this notebook are relatively quiet, though, so it’s more than usable for gaming and general listening.
The built-in webcam has a full HD/1080p resolution for a sharper picture than the average 720p cam we see on most gaming notebooks in this price range. Like most small-sensor cameras, though, it struggles with suboptimal lighting and tends to blow out highlights. It’s not an IR camera and thus doesn’t allow facial sign-ins with Windows Hello. In fact, there are no built-in biometric features on this notebook.
The Predator Helios 700 includes Killer’s AX1650x wireless card with support for 802.11ax, better known as Wi-Fi 6. I didn’t test that aspect of it, but it connected just fine to my 802.11ac router. The card also supports Bluetooth 5. Meanwhile, the Predator’s wired connectivity spans three sides. The left and right edges hold four USB 3.1 ports (three Type-A and one Type-C), Thunderbolt 3, Ethernet, and independent headphone and microphone jacks.
A Kensington-style cable lock slot is on the right rear corner. I looked and looked, but there’s no flash-card reader to be found. Full-size DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 video connectors are backstage, along with the AC jack for the big 330-watt power adapter.
Given how far the cables for these latter three connections usually protrude, it’s a smart design choice that they’re on the back of the chassis.
To the Bench!
The Predator Helios 700 brings the heat in its base configuration, but so does its competition. Arrayed below is a number of competing models with similar amounts of power…
All feature six-core, 12-thread Intel CPUs, at least 16GB of memory, and SSD-based storage that will make short work of any normal task. The GPU differences will come out in our 3D testing, where it’ll be interesting to observe how the full-power GeForce RTX 2070 in our Acer matches up against the Max-Q-flavored GeForce RTX 2080 in the Lenovo Legion Y740 and the full-power variant in the MSI GE75 Raider.
Note that I tested the Predator Helios 700 for our charts below with its keyboard closed, which is to say, without any GPU overclocking. I also disabled G-Sync so its performance wouldn’t be capped. Also note: I specifically left out of the comparison set two recent 17.3-inchers we tested, the Alienware Area-51m and the MSI GT76 Titan DT. These monsters, both in excess of a thousand bucks more expensive than this Helios 700 tester, use twin power adapters and a full-fat Intel Core i9 desktop CPU, and thus are not really in the same class as this machine, despite similarities in size.
Productivity, Storage & Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. PCMark 8, meanwhile has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s storage subsystem. This score is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
Scores north of 5,000 points in PCMark 10 translate to these PCs being seriously overpowered for everyday tasks. The Predator Helios 700 nonetheless took the top honors in that test. I’ve noticed higher scores than usual in that test as of late; it’s always possible for Windows and driver updates to squeeze more performance from existing hardware. For instance, the Digital Storm Avon I tested some months back has the same general hardware but is several hundred points behind the Acer.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here. The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The Predator Helios 700 scores in the expected Cinebench range for its Core i7-9750H CPU, with the only surprises coming from the underperforming MSI and Razer units. The Photoshop scores are a tight group, though, as they should be. All these machines would make powerful photo-editing platforms.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess.
The Predator Helios 700 puts up strong performance in both sets of synthetic tests. It vies with the Digital Storm Avon for the leading score in 3DMark Fire Strike, both no doubt helped by their strong CPU performance. The CPU doesn’t come into play as much in Superposition, where the full-power RTX 2080 GPU in the MSI propels it far ahead. The numbers from the others are intriguingly close. There’s little differentiation between the full-power RTX 2070s (used by the Predator Helios 700 and the Avon) and the Max-Q-limited GPUs used in the Razer (RTX 2070) and the Lenovo (RTX 2080).
Real-World Gaming Tests
The synthetic tests above are helpful for measuring general 3D aptitude, but it’s hard to beat full retail video games for judging gaming performance. Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider are both modern, high-fidelity titles with built-in benchmarks that illustrate how a system handles real-world video games at various settings. These are run on both the moderate and maximum graphics-quality presets (Normal and Ultra for Far Cry 5, Medium and Very High for Rise of the Tomb Raider) at native resolution to judge performance for a given system. The results are also provided in frames per second. Far Cry 5 is DirectX 11-based, while Rise of the Tomb Raider can be flipped to DX12, which we do for the benchmark.
The frame rates from the Predator Helios 700 dip into the triple-digit range in most of these scenarios, an excellent result for its RTX 2070 GPU. Its 145fps showing in Rise of the Tomb Raider at the Normal preset (which is actually 1fps higher than its 144Hz display can show at any given second) indicates it will have no issue maintaining triple-digit frame rates, pushing the limits of the screen refresh, in less-demanding esports titles. Its numbers at the higher detail presets in either benchmark, however, along with those of the Digital Storm Avon, weren’t much higher than those of the Max-Q Razer. That’s not a complaint; rather, it shows that Max-Q doesn’t seem to negatively affect the RTX 2070’s performance too much. Naturally, the effect varies by the notebook and the efficiency of its thermal outfitting.
I reran several tests with the Predator’s keyboard slid forward to enable the automatic GPU overclocking. Its 3DMark Fire Strike overall score increased by a shade more than 3 percent (to 18,104 points, from 17,540), while it went from 124fps to 126fps in Rise of the Tomb Raider at the Very High preset. Those differences would be unnoticeable in real-world gaming, but it’s effectively something for nothing.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in Airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
The Predator Helios 700 may not even get you through a two-episode binge of your favorite show. Only the MSI keeps it out of last place, but that’s not saying much. The Predator’s support for Nvidia G-Sync, which forces the dedicated GPU to be active the entire time, is a leading reason for its ephemeral time. Also, its 4,670mAh battery isn’t particularly powerful. I’d like to see at least four hours from a gaming notebook on this test.
A selling point that the Predator Helios 700 doesn’t share with too many gaming notebooks is its relatively quiet fans. Even while gaming, I had no issues using the notebook’s built-in speakers to hear softer in-game sounds. Here’s a look at the chassis under our FLIR One Pro thermal camera near the end of a 30-minute playthrough in Shadow of the Tomb Raider…
Just 85 degrees F at its hottest point is downright chilly for a gaming notebook, and not far above the 72-degree F ambient temperature in the room in which I was testing. The bottom of the notebook felt cool enough that I didn’t bother to measure.
Internally, the Core i7-9750H CPU was well within its rated temperatures, topping out in the mid-70-degree C range, while the GeForce RTX 2070 performed as follows…
Rated for a boost clock of 1,440MHz, the card averaged 1,653MHz during this session, in part due to its relatively low average temperature of 68 degrees C.
The thermal performance improved even further when I slid the Predator’s keyboard forward, which exposes the cooling fans for extra airflow…
With the keyboard in this position, the CPU dropped into the mid-to-low-60-degree C range, while the average temperature of the GPU dropped to just 60 degrees C. These lower temperatures were in spite of the fact the GeForce RTX 2070 is automatically overclocked with the keyboard in this position. The overclock amounts to a 1,520MHz boost clock, or 5.5 percent higher than stock.
This auto-overclock doesn’t do a ton for performance, as I illustrated before, but the PredatorSense software provides manual overclocking controls if you want to take things further. The card averaged 1,673MHz during my testing with the overclocking, or not much higher than stock. I suspect it may have been running into a GPU power limit.
It’s Good to Be King-Size
“Thick” and “heavy” don’t exactly make anyone’s list of pluses when notebook shopping, but the Predator Helios 700 affords plenty of reasons to justify them. Big even by 17.3-inch-laptop standards, it uses its size to do things that smaller, thinner notebooks struggle with or simply can’t do. Its excellent gaming performance tops that list, which it achieves without a side serving of loud fan noise or a hot-running chassis. It even fits dedicated macro buttons, five speakers, and a subwoofer.
But the real reason for this notebook’s formidable footprint is its sliding keyboard. It transforms the user experience like no other notebook can by providing a more commanding view of the screen and a desktop-like typing position. It also allows for increased airflow to the cooling fans and automatic GPU overclocking. Smaller features like a backlit glass panel to show off its innards and the handful of swappable keyboard keys further add to this notebook’s uniqueness.
Naturally, the big-hearted nature of the Predator Helios 700 challenges what it means to be a notebook in the first place. It’s large and heavy to the point that you’ll probably need a roller bag, and its unplugged life is unseasonably short. But if portability isn’t a first (or second, or third) priority, the Predator Helios 700 is a smash hit for a larger-than-life gaming notebook. It won’t be mistaken for any other.