From the perspective of manufacturers making notebooks and marketing them to gamers, the benefits of associating themselves with a hobby that sees growth every year are clear. Providing the best chassis and hardware selection possible, and adding the term “gaming notebook” to it means people barely bat an eyelid over the price. After all, it’s “for playing games”, and that’s a perfectly acceptable explanation for a notebook that costs more than the deposit on some cars.
It’s a quick-to-market product, the benefits of new, possibly cheaper silicon and software are immediately realised, and it helps generate publicity for the brand’s other products. So it is with the Acer Predator G9-791, a gaming notebook that’s slim-ish and packed with the latest that Intel and NVIDIA have to offer. Of course it’s ridiculously expensive, but it more than earns its keep through its impressive performance.
The Predator G9 could never be considered “light”. At 3.95kg, lugging it around in a backpack tends to weigh you down a bit. Though it doesn’t have any sort of durability rating, it feels capable of surviving a few falls off a desk, a result of the impressive industrial design.
A good amount of the bulk is for cooling purposes, and here Acer has used two fans on either side of the laptop to cool the hardware, with two vents at the rear. Acer includes an optional fan that fits into the DVD drive tray for extra cooling, but make sure that you update your BIOS before doing this – I ran into an early bug in the software that prevented me from entering the BIOS again with the fan installed.
There’s no flex in the chassis, which features a rubberised, matte finish. Every button and key is recessed so that it never touches the display, and the keys themselves have a good travel depth. The actuation force is low and typing on it feels good, if a bit awkward because of the sharp edges of the front of the notebook where your wrists lie.
The keys are full-sized as well, though the spacing takes some getting used to. The keyboard rests on a steel plate, and this means that the response is the same across the entire keyboard, something that I wish more notebook designers would take note of. However, this means that it isn’t easily replaceable. Running along the side of the notebook is a set of buttons that activate macros, which can alter fan speeds, launch applications or do anything else you want them to.
The backlighting is well done, though the brightness can’t be adjusted. There is a way around this through disabling the left and right red zones on the keyboard, leaving only the middle zone to light up everything, and you can set up a profile in the Predator Sense app to manage this. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t have to do this, but at least the workaround is there. The only colour options are blue on the numpad and red for the rest of the keyboard.
The display is brilliant. It’s a 1080p IPS panel, lit on the bottom by an LED backlight. There’s very little eye strain after using it for a few hours. Backlight bleed is minimal and the traditional IPS glow isn’t a problem. Colour reproduction is good, the backlight is bright enough to use it outdoors or in a sunny room, and the matte finish is very light, with no crosshatching visible on the surface. Acer knocked it out the park with this display.
It’s not an NVIDIA G-SYNC-capable display, something that I expected Acer to include in a halo product like this. G-SYNC capability is instead offered through the DisplayPort 1.2a connector, which is presumably where Acer’s G-SYNC monitors step in to fill the gap. Other top-tier notebooks with GTX 980M graphics have G-SYNC displays built into them, and as more demanding games push the GPU and CPU harder, having a display that supports variable refresh rates will help in the rare cases where this notebook isn’t enough with all options maxed out.
The sound on this notebook is incredible. The dual speaker and mini subwoofer setup allows it to punch way above most other notebooks, and it isn’t tinny at maximum volume. Using Skype or Mumble is a pleasure because the microphones (plural, because I haven’t found the other one yet) pick up my voice clearly and reduce background noise really well. I’ve never needed to alter any of my settings for calls. The webcam, however, is so-so. Captured images have a sharpness akin to an oil painting, and it isn’t Windows Hello-capable, so it will go mostly unused for anyone who wants a better quality image for video conferencing or game streaming.
Upgrade options are limited, but removing the service panel allows access to the storage and memory. There’s already 8GB of DDR4 memory pre-installed, with another two slots for up to 24GB of RAM. Interestingly, there’s also an open M.2 SF22110 B-keyed slot to install a second SSD into. This slot is for NVME drives only, as the pre-installed SSD uses mSATA.
Performance is, as expected, quite good for the money. In most of our benchmarks the average frame rate was close to 60fps most of the time. Where it dropped low enough to cause concern was in Dragon Age: Inquisition and Metro: Last Light Redux. I expect that’s because both games are taxing on GPU memory bandwidth and the GTX 980M only boasts about 160GB/s of bandwidth. That’s enough for most of the benchmarks, but it doesn’t cut it for these two titles.
The canned benchmarks pitted the Predator G9 against an Evetech review rig, and as you can see, performance is right up there with a desktop setup. The Predator’s superior Skylake Core i7 processor actually allowed it to chew through workloads quicker. When the load was enough to start thermally throttling the processor, the Evetech PC would draw ahead, which was particularly noticeable in the 3DMark results. Power consumption at load measured 174 watts from the wall in the Metro benchmark. That’s really good.
When it came to the SteamVR performance results, I think this system would find itself in the green if the GPU wasn’t being picked up as the Intel HD530, but it’s nevertheless ready for use with an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. This is a great result for Acer – ignoring the issues I had with NVIDIA Optimus on this unit, for around R32,000 you’re getting a seriously capable portable gaming system that’s VR-ready straight out the box.
Where do you iterate on something that’s almost perfect? Firstly, Acer should ship a USB recovery key for Windows 10 with the machine – with the option to replace both the SSD and hard drive exposed to the user, some might be savvy enough to replace the drives, but not clued up enough to know where to download the correct Windows 10 ISO for their system.
Secondly, the sharp front edge where your wrists lie needs to go. With a keyboard as good as this, I think the system could benefit from being more comfortable to game and type on. I don’t expect to buy a gaming laptop only to attach an external keyboard to it for comfort reasons, and that almost defeats the point of buying it in the first place.
Finally, G-SYNC on the built-in display needs to be a thing. It might require dropping Optimus support and the Intel integrated graphics to do it, but I wouldn’t be unhappy with such a move. Considering I managed two hours of battery life playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel at maximum settings, I think there’s enough juice on tap to cover most people in the event of a power failure if they absolutely need their gaming fix.