Acer’s bread-and-butter Nitro 5 gaming laptop starts at just $699, which was the price of the base model we reviewed last year. This time, though, the company sent us a decidedly not entry-level $1,699 version to show off 2021’s best tech, including an eight-core AMD Ryzen 7 processor, Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 Series graphics, and a sharp 15.6-inch WQHD screen. Though not a bad buy, its plastic build is more palatable in base versions at a grand less, and its gaming performance doesn’t stand up to that of our current top picks, the Alienware m15 Ryzen Edition R5 and Lenovo Legion 5 Pro. That said, despite the price of our specific test model, don’t write off the Nitro 5; as a family, it remains one of our top budget gaming laptops because of the value it offers in its more affordable configurations. And in our tester, that powerful AMD CPU makes it a good alternative to Acer’s own Predator Helios 300.
Entry-Level Outside, Top Tech Inside
Our Nitro 5 review unit (model AN515-45-R7S0) combines an eight-core, 3.2GHz (4.4GHz turbo) Ryzen 7 5800H processor, an 8GB GeForce RTX 3070 GPU, 16GB of memory, a 1TB solid-state drive, Windows 10 Home, and a one-year warranty. Lenovo’s Legion 5 Pro costs about the same but with half the storage (512GB). On the Intel side, Amazon offers the MSI GL66 Pulse for $1,499 with an eight-core Core i7-11800H chip and a 144Hz 1080p display.
Acer’s online store stocks more affordable Nitro 5 models such as the $949 AN515-45-R0FN, which packs a six-core Ryzen 5 5600H, a 4GB GeForce RTX 3050, and a 144Hz 1080p screen, but just 8GB of RAM. (Fortunately, this laptop’s memory is upgradable.) The $1,299 model AN515-45-R92M is the sweet spot, combining a Ryzen 7 5800H like my unit’s, a 6GB GeForce RTX 3060, and 16GB of memory.
As I noted, the catch with the Nitro 5 is that you get the same plastic chassis whether you buy the bargain model or the $2,299 AN515-45-R9QH flagship with its blistering Ryzen 9 5900HX. It’s not a drawback for the $1,299 and cheaper models—the unit is smooth and sturdy, and the red accent on the back gives it a little flair. It distinctively says “gamer” without being polarizing.
But the design doesn’t impress north of that price, especially once it reaches my test unit’s $1,699. At 0.94 by 14.3 by 10 inches (HWD) and weighing 5.07 pounds, it’s flabby next to premium models like the Gigabyte Aero 15 XC (0.78 by 14 by 9.8 inches, 4.4 pounds) and Razer Blade 15 (0.78 by 9.25 by 13.98 inches, 4.6 pounds). Those two also mix in plenty of metal, which the Nitro 5 lacks. The Acer does offer a superior screen and more storage, however, so it boils down to buyer preference.
A Dazzling Display
My Nitro 5’s bright and vivid WQHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) screen is its ace in the hole. It has 50% more pixels than full HD (1080p) for a sharper picture, less scrolling, and more room to dock apps side by side, yet it’s not so high-resolution that the GeForce RTX 3070 can’t produce fluid frame rates (as it would be at 4K or UHD).
The screen also offers a practical anti-glare surface and, thanks to its IPS panel, wide viewing angles. All I can complain about is a lack of variable-refresh-rate technology (such as Nvidia G-Sync), though its 165Hz refresh rate doesn’t need help to produce a smooth gaming experience.
Lesser Nitro 5 models have 1080p resolution in 60Hz or 144Hz flavors, of which esports players should target the latter for a smoother picture. The 165Hz WQHD display is still suitable for esports, though its higher resolution means that even with a GeForce RTX 3070 it’s unlikely to achieve higher frame rates than a 1080p model with an RTX 3060.
The Nitro 5’s keyboard has four RGB backlighting zones, which you can configure in the Nitro Sense app. Some lesser-priced models stick with a single red zone.
The keys have a short, linear feel and work well. The numeric pad keys are two-thirds-size, but the rest of the layout is on point, including dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys. Below, the buttonless touchpad is amply sized but clicks require more effort than you might expect.
No-Frills Input and Output
The Nitro 5’s concise port selection includes two USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A ports, one USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C port, a Killer E2600 Ethernet jack, an HDMI 2.1 video output, and a headset jack. As this is an AMD laptop, the USB-C port doesn’t support Thunderbolt 4 (or 3).
The power adapter connects around back. It must click in to work, something I didn’t figure out until I almost ran out of battery power. Inside, this Acer uses a MediaTek MT7921 network card for Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5. Like most gaming laptops, the Nitro 5 lacks built-in biometrics; I’d at least like to see an infrared webcam for Windows Hello face recognition. The 720p webcam centered over the display delivers the soft-focus video that’s usual for like-priced laptops.
Upgradability is one of the Nitro 5’s strengths. Behind the bottom panel are two M.2 slots (one occupied by the 1TB solid-state drive) plus a 2.5-inch drive bay; screws for the latter are in the box. As I noted, the memory is also upgradable; both SO-DIMM slots are occupied in my unit by DDR4-3200 modules.
Numerous perforations on the bottom of the chassis supply air to the two cooling fans, which channel their exhaust out the back and sides. This is one of the quieter gaming notebooks I’ve tested—even the laptop’s average-sounding speakers are audible over the fans while gaming.
Performance Not on a Budget: Testing the Nitro 5
I pitted the Acer Nitro 5’s benchmark results against those of four mainstream 15.6-inch gaming laptops; their basic specifications are listed below. The Predator Helios 300 is the only one without an eight-core CPU, sticking with an older “Comet Lake” Intel Core i7. The rest of the specs line up, so this should be a close race. (See more about how we test laptops.)
Storage, Media, and CPU Tests
The Nitro 5 finished in the middle of the pack in PCMark 10, which we use to assess overall productivity performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing—none of which is a challenge for these laptops. The Lenovo did exceptionally well, for reasons that will appear in the following tests. Meanwhile, the laptops’ zippy SSDs kept them on an even keel in PCMark 8’s storage test.
Next up is a pair of CPU-crunching tests: Cinebench R15 stresses all available processor cores and threads while rendering a complex image, while in our Handbrake test, we time systems while they transcode a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution.
The Lenovo took top marks again here, by a significant margin over the Nitro 5 and the Alienware. Given that all three systems use the same Ryzen CPU, it appears the Legion 5 Pro maintains its clocks a bit better for power-delivery or thermal reasons (or both).
The final test in this section is photo editing. We use an early 2018 release of Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud to apply 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG image, timing each operation and adding up the total. This test is not as CPU-focused as Cinebench or Handbrake, bringing the performance of the storage subsystem, memory, and GPU into play.
Excluding the Predator, this is a tight grouping, with the Nitro 5 appropriately within a few seconds of the lead.
Graphics and Gaming Tests
We use two gaming simulations to measure the 3D performance potential of a PC. In UL’s 3DMark, we run two tests: Sky Diver (lightweight, capable of running on integrated graphics) and Fire Strike (more demanding, for high-end gaming PCs), both of them DirectX 11-based. Unigine Corp.’s Superposition is the other; it uses a different rendering engine to produce a complex 3D scene.
The Lenovo crushed the Nitro 5, as did the Predator to a lesser but still notable degree. Those two laptops have higher maximum power ratings for their GeForce RTX 3070 CPUs; the Nitro 5’s is capped at just 85 watts, a minimal rating for the card. This allowed even the RTX 3060-based Alienware to nip at its heels. Our primer on GeForce RTX 30 Series GPU wattages in laptops is a must-read if you’re buying a GeForce RTX 30 Series laptop.
Our final performance tests involve real games. We use the built-in 1080p benchmarks in Far Cry 5 (at its Normal and Ultra image-quality presets) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (at its Medium and Very High presets). Far Cry 5 uses DirectX 11, while we flip the Lara Croft adventure to DirectX 12.
These games have become largely CPU-limited even at the more demanding presets, so the differences among this group are minimal. That said, the numbers suggest that the Nitro 5 will have performance to spare for running games at its native 1440p resolution.
Battery Rundown Test
Finally, we measure laptops’ unplugged runtime by playing a locally stored video with screen brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100%. We use Windows’ energy-saving rather than balanced or other power profile where available, disable Wi-Fi, and even turn off keyboard backlighting to squeeze as much life as possible out of the system.
Just over seven hours is a good number for a powerful 15.6-inch gaming laptop these days, providing enough freedom for a day trip sans power adapter. (That said, take the adapter if you plan on actually gaming; like nearly all its competitors, the Nitro 5 can’t deliver peak performance on battery.)
Stick to the Lower-Priced Models
Though the Acer Nitro 5 can be had in an admirably wide range of configurations, our $1,699 review unit didn’t perform as well as it should have against the Alienware m15 Ryzen Edition R5 and the Lenovo Legion 5 Pro, our top picks for mid- to high-end 15.6-inch gaming rigs. Thus our kick-down from four stars in 2020’s tested model to our 3.5-star rating on this one.
In its $1,299-and-under guises, however, the Nitro 5 should deliver the expected features and good battery life to remain one of our top budget gaming laptops, and it can even challenge Acer’s Predator Helios 300 in overall performance thanks to its strong AMD CPU. Few laptops offer as much value for the money.