You don’t need a desktop to enjoy smooth Gaming, but neither do you need to spend more than $2,000 on a high-end gaming laptop with a discrete GPU that’s so bulky and power-hungry that it likely will never leave your desk. There is a sweet spot of budget gaming machines that are easy on the wallet, light enough to carry around, and can deliver more than adequate frame rates even at their maximum screen resolutions. The Acer Nitro 5 (starts at $799, $899 as tested) is one of these no-frills laptops. Acer makes some compromises to achieve this price, but the Nitro 5 delivers enough power to play immersive games on a full HD screen. Casual gamers and those on a budget should take a close look.
A Subdued Gamer Aesthetic
The Nitro 5 measures 1 by 15.4 by 10.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.95 pounds, par for the course for 15-inch gaming laptops. The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming weighs 5.84 pounds, and the Lenovo Legion Y520 is 5.56 pounds. But 6 pounds is by no means a ceiling. The Acer Predator 15 tips the scales at 8.26 pounds, and 17-inch gaming laptops push the 10-pound mark. Since you aren’t going to find a top-of-the-line Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card at the Nitro 5’s price point, you might as well enjoy the weight savings made possible by the less-demanding cooling and power requirements of a budget-friendly GPU—in the Nitro 5’s case, it’s a GTX 1050 Ti.
Acer bestows the Nitro 5 with a clean design, although it won’t be mistaken for a business laptop, and it’s far from sleek or elegant. The lid’s exterior is ever-so-slightly sculpted, and includes an understated gray Acer logo embossed in the middle. The rear edge, however, comprises a red strip and a massive cooling grille, only the left half of which is a functional fan exhaust outlet (the right half is simply decorative). It’s flashy, but nowhere near the in-your-face gaming aesthetic that you’ll find on behemoths like the Origin EON17-SLX.
The edges are mildly sculpted, too, and they feature a modest selection of ports. On the left, you’ll find a Kensington lock slot next to a compact Ethernet port that expands to accept the plastic locking tab on an Ethernet cord. There’s also a USB-C port (but it doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3), an HDMI port, a USB 3.0 port, and an SD card reader. Meanwhile, two USB 2.0 ports, an audio-out jack, and a power connector live on the right edge. If you have a massive game collection stored on a few external hard drives, you might lament the lack of a second USB-C or USB 3.0 port, but you’ll be fine if you’re just plugging in an external mouse and keyboard. The Nitro 5 also includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
Speaking of storage, our review unit comes with a 256GB SSD, but Acer offers a variety of other storage configurations for nominal additional charges. An extra $50, for example, will get you a 1TB conventional drive in addition to the 256GB SSD. The extra storage is worth it if you have a large collection of games, and you can always move the title you’re currently playing from the spinning drive to the SSD to take advantage of the extra speed.
Beware of the Flex
Upon cracking open the lid, you’ll find a 720p webcam that does not support Windows Hello, so you can’t set up face recognition to log in to Windows, but it does offer non-grainy video and surprisingly vivid colors. The vividness is also helped immensely by the 15.6-inch full HD display, which features in-plane-switching (IPS) technology to widen viewing angles and comes with a matte finish that does an excellent job of reducing glare. Although some buyers might lust after a 4K display, the GTX 1050 Ti in the Nitro 5 isn’t powerful enough to render immersive games at high enough frame rates to make them playable at a 4K resolution. If you’re looking for a 4K display and a GPU that can power it, you’ll have to spend significantly more. You’ll also have to look elsehwhere for a touch screen.
The keyboard is backlit, but it doesn’t have any customizable lighting options that gamers have grown accustomed to on external keyboards and many higher-end gaming laptops. The red backlight is either turned on (accomplished by pressing the F9 key), or off. There’s no brightness adjustments, and when the lights are off, the very thin font Acer uses for the lettering makes the keys hard to identify in anything other than a brightly lit room. The one exception is the WASD keys, which have a thicker font and a red border, so you can more easily identify them when you need to maneuver quickly in a game. Perhaps the best part of the keyboard is that Acer manages to include both a number pad and full-sized directional arrow keys, no easy feat on a 15-inch laptop. The designers accomplished this by removing the right Windows key and slightly squishing the number pad so that its keys are rectangular instead of square.
There’s some minor flex not just in the keyboard, but around the entire top of the chassis. It’s especially noticeable in the lower center of the keyboard between the touchpad and the spacebar. The flex won’t be a problem unless you’re mashing keys during a game, though, or perhaps attempting to click near the top of the touchpad. Yes, the entire touchpad surface is clickable, though it’s an uneven physical click process, rather than the superior haptic feedback that you’ll find on the MacBook Pro‘s giant touchpad. The Nitro 5’s touchpad doesn’t come with dedicated left and right buttons—a forgivable omission since you’ll be using an external mouse for serious gaming sessions anyway.
The speakers are downward-facing on this system, and while they’ll do in a pinch if you forget your gaming headset, they’re rather anemic and certainly won’t fill a room with sound.
The Nitro 5 has a significant amount of bloatware pre-installed, more than we’ve seen from many other entry-level laptops that we’ve tested recently. Our review unit comes with Firefox, Priceline, and Netflix shortcuts already occupying the Windows Taskbar, along with a free trial version of Norton Security and several other Windows apps like Amazon and eBay. While it would be great if those weren’t pre-installed, the revenue from them helps Acer keep the Nitro 5’s price below $900, and uninstalling them doesn’t take more than a few minutes.
Acer offers a standard one-year warranty for the Nitro 5, although buyers of the company’s more expensive Predator gaming laptops get two years standard.
Decent Performance on a Budget
Professional gamers might scoff at an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, and their disdain would be somewhat warranted. Modern games place immense demands upon the GPU. There’s also a growing collection of titles for virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, which require elevated frame rates not only for more enjoyment, but also to make sure you don’t get motion sickness. So if you spend a lot of time gaming or own a VR headset, you should consider spending more money on a laptop powered by a GTX 1070 or GTX 1080. On the other hand, if you don’t mind frame rates that occasionally dip below the 30fps (frames per second) threshold commonly regarded as the lower limit for smooth gaming, or are fine with playing games with dialed-down graphics quality settings, the Nitro 5 is a fine choice. It delivered a comfortable cushion of at least 10fps above the 30fps mark on our Heaven (40fps) and Valley (49 fps) benchmark tests with the quality dialed up to maximum settings. That said, the frame rate occasionally dropped below 25fps on a few scenes in both tests, so you shouldn’t expect consistent quality on all games.
There isn’t much variation among test results for systems with the GTX 1050 Ti, but it’s worth noting that the Lenovo Legion Y520 delivers marginally better frame rates than all the rest, and has better scores on the proprietary 3DMark gaming benchmarks, too. The one exception is the Dell Inspiron 15 700 Gaming, which does better on the Heaven medium quality test. Still, we’re talking about differences of a few frames, so if you narrow your search to a GTX 1050 Ti-powered system, you should really use price and ancillary features to make your final decision.
See How We Test Laptops
In a machine built for gaming, one of those ancillary features is everyday computing performance, and that’s unfortunately an area where the Nitro 5 fails to excel because of its Intel Core i5-7300HQ processor. It achieved a score of 3,220 on the proprietary PCMark 8 test, which measures videoconferencing, web browsing, and other everyday tasks. That’s comparable with the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming, which runs on the same processor, but a few hundred points lower than the Asus ROG Strix GL753V, the Lenovo Legion Y520, and the MSI GP62X Leopard Pro, each of which is powered by an Intel Core i7. Scores are much closer on the Handbrake and Photoshop tests, although the Nitro 5 is on the low end of both ranges, with a Handbrake score of 1 minute and 31 seconds and a Photoshop result of 3:26.
The one area of performance in which the Nitro 5 unquestionably excels is battery life. The system lasted for 10 hours and 7 minutes on our rundown test, which is approximatley twice the battery life that the Asus, Lenovo, and MSI offer. Only the Inspiron 15 7000 fared better, but with a time of 11:01, it wasn’t far ahead. You won’t achieve these times if you’re playing demanding games, but it’s nice to know that the Nitro 5 will be able to play a few movies on a long flight without a power outlet.
Good, but You Can Do Better for the Price
Acer Nitro 5 buyers will generally fall into two camps: those wooed by its low price, and those who don’t care about missing a few frames while playing games with intense graphics demands. If you’re in either of these groups, the Nitro 5 will likely satisfy your needs, but there are two better options to consider. One is the Editor’s Choice Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming, which offers an identical processor and GPU for $100 less, and the other is the Lenovo Legion Y520, which is a bit more expensive but boasts a Core i7 and manages to eke out a few more frames from its GPU.