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CHEAP GAMING LAPTOPS NOW HAVE HIGH-END PERFORMANCE

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PC gaming is the hardest gaming ecosystem to join since a decent gaming PC, be it a desktop or laptop, can easily run for $2,000 or more. But the Acer Predator Helios 300 laptop disrupts that trend: this $1,199 laptop is fully capable of high-end gaming and VR. If you’re in the market for a gaming laptop but you have a limited budget, you should be excited because, until now, your options have been far more limited.

The Helios 300 is a true-to-form gaming laptop with a 15.6-inch 144Hz screen, GTX 1060 graphics, and an Intel Core i7 chip. Specs like these are usually reserved for laptops in the $2,000 range, yet the Helios 300 offers all of them for a fraction of the usual cost.

While it seems like the Helios 300 is a too-good-to-be-true laptop, it does come with some caveats, namely in design and keyboard quality. But even with those compromises, the Helios 300 is a precursor of a trend in cheaper but still-capable gaming laptops.

At the very least, I can say Acer designed a gaming laptop that looks the part: bright red accents, chunky corners, and thick bezels with plastic and metal that equal six pounds in weight. The Helios 300’s 1.05-inch chassis isn’t the thinnest, and it doesn’t have the highest quality build I’ve seen in a laptop for this price, but it does well to mask most of my fingerprints, despite its dark metal palm rest.

he Helios 300 reminds me of gaming laptops from two years ago when tasteful styling was unheard of and a gaming laptop that could double as a productivity machine was equally unheard of. I cannot say this design language has aged well — it hasn’t — but the real worth of the Helios 300 is in how well it can play games.

A “gaming” laptop, no matter its price, should be able to deliver high-end performance through a decent GPU and CPU and have the bare essentials to take advantage of that performance, such as a high refresh rate screen and reliable cooling. To this point, the Acer Helios 300 delivers a little bit of everything and then some.

The first spec an affordable gaming laptop should focus on is a good screen. Acer used a 144Hz IPS screen on the Helios 300. High refresh rate screens are important in PC gaming because the higher the rate, the smoother your gameplay experience will be. 144Hz is the current standard for high-end desktops and laptops, and it’s a welcome addition to a $1,200 laptop, which are usually equipped with slower, 60Hz screens.

There’s a lot I can say about the Helios 300’s gaming and productivity performance. Prior to the Helios 300, I haven’t tested a sub-$2,000 laptop that can play Rainbow Six: Siege and League of Legends, at a consistent 144 frames per second. Overwatch also runs at ultra settings, but it dips to the 80 fps mark in intense firefights. Destiny 2 also runs comfortably at around 100 fps with settings on ultra.

The gist of it is that you’ll be able to play most current-generation PC games on high (or the highest) settings, well past the 60 fps mark needed for smooth gameplay, and sometimes you’ll even reach the native 144 fps target.

Compared to pricier gaming laptops, the Helios 300 actually fares pretty well. The $2,399 Razer Blade 15 that I reviewed in June got similar frame rates playing the same games. Most other high-end gaming laptops, like the MSI GS65, operate in the same ballpark, with the only major differences between them and the Helios 300 being the thinner and lighter frames.

Because of its chunky profile, cooling is something the Helios 300 excels at — as any gaming laptop should — despite only having one open vent at the back. If thinness in gaming laptops is correlated with an increase in price (due to unique cooling solutions, Max Q GPUs, etc.), then I’d welcome a wave of cheaper, chunkier, but still svelte laptops, like the Helios 300. Under strain, the hottest areas of the Helios 300 include right above the function keys and the fan vents. The rest of the Helios 300 remains cool, which isn’t always the case with more expensive gaming laptops. (I’m looking at you, Razer.)

Here’s another surprise feature you wouldn’t expect on a budget gaming laptop: the ability to overclock the GTX 1060 to boost its performance. Within the PredatorSense app, you can control the Helios 300’s fan modes (auto, max, or a custom speed) as well as overclocking the GPU’s clock speed (when plugged in). Pushing the GPU to max overclock got me anywhere between 10-15 fps boost in the games that I tested.

The Helios 300 has a decent port selection, but it strangely omits a DisplayPort entirely. Obviously, you have to sacrifice some features for an affordable price, and being able to connect the Helios 300 to multiple monitors via DisplayPort is one of those axed features. Otherwise, you get one USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, an HDMI, Ethernet, and a USB 3.1 Gen 1 (but not Thunderbolt 3) Type-C port.

At this point, it’s clear Acer accomplished a lot of the things that would make more affordable gaming laptops great. Where Acer hasn’t done such a good job is with the keyboard. I’m much happier typing on my desktop mechanical keyboard, or even the oddly configured Razer Blade 15, than the Helios’ mushy keyboard. Acer went with an all-red backlight for the keys, which are shallow, soft, and don’t feel very tactile.

The layout is fine for a 15.6-inch chassis, but typing out long documents and emails is my least favorite thing about using the Helios 300. Hopefully, competing (affordable) gaming laptops will do a better job with the keyboard.

The touchpad isn’t something to get excited about, either. The best part about it is that it’s a Precision touchpad, so tracking is reliable and smooth and all of Windows 10’s multifinger gestures are supported. However, the touchpad feels very one-dimensional when clicked, it flexes at every corner, and it shares the same slick texture as the metal palm rest.

By now, you might be wondering how the battery life of a chunky, six-pound laptop fares with a discrete GPU and a six-core processor. Not well, I’m afraid: Acer advertises around seven hours of usage on the Helios 300, but using it conservatively with the brightness turned down and keyboard backlit on, I could only squeeze out around five hours of usage of standard, non-gaming productivity work.

Honestly, I didn’t expect the Helios 300 to do well with battery life anyway. However, most high-end gaming laptops rarely reach more than six hours away from an outlet, so the Helios isn’t too far off from them.

The Acer Predator Helios 300 is an exercise in frugality without too much compromise. It doesn’t have the longest-lasting battery, the most appealing design, or the best keyboard. While these shortcomings might be deal-breakers for the kind of enthusiast who wants a do-it-all laptop, it’s perfectly fine for the beginning PC gamer.

The Helios 300 excels at gaming performance for hundreds less than the laptops MSi, Asus, or Razer have on the market. After all, $1,200 isn’t exactly cheap — that’s about what you’ll pay for a premium productivity laptop — but prior to this, you had to pay a lot more to get this kind of performance. You’ll be able to play all the games you want, with high settings, and your eyes will be able to keep up with all that action on the 144Hz screen. Acer won’t be the only player in this space for long. It’s entirely likely that Asus, MSi, Alienware, and others will have similarly priced and specced laptops out before long.

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Mobile Phones

APPLE EXPANDING HAPTIC TOUCH FEATURE IN IPHONE XR WITH IOS 12.1.1 UPDATE: REPORT

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Apple’s new iPhone XR comes with Haptic Touch as a replacement for the 3D Touch sensor. This allows consumers to launch the camera app or turn on the flashlight by using a long-press gesture, though it is not as functional or as quick in terms of response as 3D Touch, which has been part of the iPhones since the iPhone 6s.

Right now Haptic Touch capabilities are limited on the iPhone XR, but Apple could be expanding this with future iOS 12 updates. A report by 9to5Mac says they have spotted new features in the iOS 12.1.1 beta 2, which will increase the capabilities of Haptic Touch on iPhone XR and allow users to expand notifications by long pressing them.

On the iPhone XS, thanks to the 3D Touch display, long pressing on a notification opens up a pop-up menu and action buttons. With the iPhone XR, the rich content will soon be visible thanks to a long press and users will be able to reply, market an email as done, etc depending on the type of notification. Currently users have to swipe left to view the message to take any action, which is tedious on the iPhone XR.

However, the Peek and Pop feature on 3D Touch displays which is used by many apps will not be possible on the iPhone XR. This shows a rich menu when a user long-presses on the icon of particular app. Once again the reason for this is that Apple iPhone XR does not have pressure sensitive display like the other two new iPhones.

 

Given the iOS 12.1.1 beta has the feature, Apple should add the capability to the iPhone XR when the next iOS update is formally rolled out.  The iOS 12.1.1 update will likely start rolling out to the public by the end of this year, though Apple has not confirmed when it will be officially released. The company just released iOS 12.1 which added the Group FaceTime feature, new Emojis, as well as the dual-SIM feature to the iPhone XS and iPhone XR

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Hardwares

LENOVO YOGA BOOK C930 REVIEW: TWO SCREENS AND LOTS OF COMPROMISES

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If you traveled back in time five years and asked what a futuristic 2018 computer would look like, there’s a pretty good chance that somebody would describe something very much like the Lenovo Yoga Book C930. It’s a svelte, small, and decently powerful computer that has so many different modes that it’s difficult to call it just one thing, and there’s not much else out there that resembles it in any way.

It’s not a laptop or a tablet or a note-taking device. Rather, it’s attempting to be all of those things at once, depending on your needs. It’s smaller than any Windows computer you’ve likely tried (save maybe the Surface Go), and it has two screens. One is a traditional LCD touch panel and the other is an E Ink screen that can change its function based on the task. Sometimes it’s a touch keyboard, and other times, it’s a sketchpad or an e-reader.

Almost everything about the new Yoga Book makes you want to love it. It’s the sort of device that makes you feel like you’re living in a future that would be more commonplace if only computer companies were just a little more daring. But it is also the sort of device that, once you use it, it makes you realize why everybody else has been so risk-averse. It’s much easier to love the idea of the Yoga Book C930 than to live with its reality — especially when that reality costs at least $999.99.

LENOVO YOGA BOOK C930

GOOD STUFF

  • Thin and light
  • Fast enough processor
  • Full Windows 10
  • USB-C

BAD STUFF

  • E Ink screen software is slow and buggy
  • Not comfortable for long typing sessions
  • No headphone jack
  • Too expensive

This is the second time that Lenovo has taken a shot at releasing a futuristic computer without a traditional keyboard. The basics of the new Yoga Book’s overall design are nearly unchanged. It’s incredibly thin and light for a full Windows PC, measuring just under 10mm thick when closed and weighing just 1.71 pounds. It has a 10.8-inch, 2560 x 1600 display that, sure, can feel a little bit cramped, but you can do a surprising amount of work on it.

Outside of one mystifying design choice, the build quality of the C930 is top notch. Everything feels solid, from the “watchband” hinge that rotates 360 degrees to the matte finish on the E Ink display to the textured power button. It’s a device that will virtually force people to ask you about it because it’s so tiny and unique.

That mystifying design choice is just opening the damn thing up. You have three choices: wedge a fingernail in between the two halves, literally “knock knock” on the top when it’s closed, or long-press the volume down button. The first is super awkward and weird, the second only works intermittently, and so by process of elimination, you’ll be pressing the volume button to open it. Why Lenovo didn’t just make a little cutout for your finger to grab will be a question for the ages.

The first Yoga Book was littered with compromises: a dinky processor, the wrong ports, and even the wrong operating system. It also didn’t have a second screen, opting for a weird touch-sensitive panel that you had to slap a pad of paper on top of to record your notes.

Lenovo looked at all of the problems on the original Yoga Book and tried to address them with the Yoga Book C930. In some cases, it was successful: this machine is a much more focused, intentional device. It only runs Windows; it has a relatively modern, 7th Gen Y-Series Intel Core i5 processor; and, most importantly, it swaps out that weird touch panel for a proper E Ink display. That’s where you type, draw, and take notes using the included pen. There are now two USB-C ports for connectivity and charging (but no headphone jack, sadly). Lenovo also added a fingerprint sensor for logging in. It works, though, personally, I’d have preferred a facial recognition camera.

Battery life is nothing to crow about. Lenovo rates it at over eight hours of use, but I didn’t quite get there using just Windows. Six to seven seems like a safer bet, depending on what apps you’re running. However, if you use it as more of a mixed-use device — a little Windows here, a little ebook reading there — you’re likely to hit that number or better.

Just as a Windows computer, it does its job and performs well enough (about in line with a low-end device with 4GB of RAM). Which is to say: it will run Office and let you do basic kinds of stuff, but don’t push it too much. The small screen sort of helps set expectations here. You wouldn’t ever try to tackle a huge Photoshop project on this thing, and you shouldn’t.

Any new kind of computer needs to justify its existence. Why would you get this instead of something simpler, like a Surface Go tablet or a traditional laptop (with a traditional keyboard)? And that bar is even higher for something that starts at a thousand bucks.

So let’s talk about that E Ink screen.

The first and most important thing to know is that it’s nicer to type on than you might expect, though I suspect your expectations aren’t very high. Lenovo has a special mode that maximizes the keyboard size and minimizes the touchpad, which cleverly expands only when you tap on the bottom when you want to use it. That little bit of extra space makes the keyboard much more usable, and Lenovo is also doing the standard trick of correcting for your mistypes with its software.

But typing on glass is still typing on glass, and no amount of haptic vibration can change that. You can’t really rest your hands on the keyboard, long fingernails will be a problem, and it gets tiring after awhile.

Honestly, that is probably going to be the end of the story for most people: an incredible device with a not-so-great typing experience. The idea here is that there are other things that you can do with the E Ink screen that offset the compromise on the keyboard. But I’m just going to tell you right now that they mostly consist of more compromises.

You can also use it as an e-reader, and since the device is so small and light, it’s comfortable to hold and read with it. Unfortunately, at launch it only supports PDFs; Lenovo says that ePub, .mobi, and plain text support will come next year. It’s nice enough for simple reading, but you can’t mark up or even highlight text. You can only use a fiddly, resizable box to screengrab portions of what you’re reading. And don’t ever expect to be able to read your Kindle library on it. The whole thing is just a huge missed opportunity.

My favorite mode is note-taking, which lets you sketch out your notes on the E Ink screen. It’s really neat to just fold the Windows screen back and have a small notepad thing to jot your notes down on. You can grab the OCR text from them automatically and get them into OneNote, too. You can also grab a screenshot from Windows and mark it up, but the experience of actually doing so is hellaciously fiddly. Trying to re-crop the image to what you want to actually comment on is a huge hassle on the E Ink display.

Though the E Ink screen has a decent refresh rate relative to other similar screens, the overall experience of using it is maddeningly slow. You switch modes by tapping small little buttons in the upper-right corner, and it takes a very long time to change. You can turn off the Windows display and just use the E Ink side, but you have to double tap the screen to do so, and sometimes it just doesn’t register. The device tries to automatically present different options to you, depending on how far back you’ve tilted the hinge or what orientation the device is in. But in practice, it often gets it wrong, and you’re left sort of flipping and folding the Yoga Book around to get it working.

I admit it: I really want to like the Yoga Book C930. I like that Lenovo is not only willing to take a chance on a weird design, but also to iterate on it and make it better. Just considering the device as a physical object and even as a concept, I love it.

But even if you can get over the awkward experience of typing on glass, the software that runs the E Ink screen makes the Yoga Book hard to love. There are probably niches where this device will be interesting, like for people who need a clipboard-style computer with the full power of Windows and a quick way to jot down notes.

For a thousand bucks, though, there are much better and more versatile options. They won’t wow strangers at a coffee shop, but they will let you get your work done without getting in your way.

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Mobile Phones

SAMSUNG SAYS IT’S WORKING ON FOLDABLE LAPTOP DISPLAYS

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Samsung is expected to unveil its foldable smartphone concept next month, but the company is also working towards bigger devices with foldable displays. “Like foldable smartphones, Samsung is collaborating with display makers to develop laptops with foldable displays that will not just simply fold in and out but create new value and user experience, amid the changing market trends for laptops,” said Lee Min-cheol, vice president at marketing for PCs at Samsung, during a laptop event in South Korea earlier this week.

Foldable displays in laptops could transform the market for 2-in-1 devices. Existing convertible laptops attempt to flip and twist into tablet and media modes, but a foldable display would certainly help create new designs. Samsung hasn’t revealed which companies it’s working with, or any expected date for a prototype or retail device. Still, laptops like HP’s new Spectre Folio would be an ideal candidate for a flexible and foldable display, or even potential devices like Microsoft’s “pocketable” Surface.

The Korea Herald reports that Lee also revealed that Samsung sells around 3.2 million PCs each year, and that they “play a centric role among IT products in increasing connectivity with other mobile devices.” Samsung also recently revealed an ARM-powered Surface-like 2-in-1 recently, complete with LTE connectivity and the promise of up to 20 hours battery life.

 

 

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