The recent update to the 3D engine is impressive, but more high-quality games are needed
- 3D Ultra can look stunning
- Glorious 4K display
- Excellent keyboard
- Low 60Hz refresh rate
- Limited number of supported games
Has there ever been a technology more determined to answer a question that nobody has ever really asked than glasses-free 3D on a laptop? For more than 100 years, 3D has come and gone as the “next big thing” and even James Cameron hasn’t managed to make it stick. Acer, though, in partnership with SpatialLabs, thinks it has the answer with its latest stereoscopic 3D system.
Aimed primarily at professional creatives and modellers who actually need 3D, which is why the system first appeared on the creator-class Acer ConceptD 7 laptop, it was only a matter of time before the gaming possibilities got their moment in the sun.
The Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition was launched in late 2022, but a major software update that was announced at CES 2023 in January has now dropped and promises to turn it from a curiosity into a product genuinely worth considering.
Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition review: What you need to know
The first thing to make clear is that stereoscopic 3D of the type used in the Helios 300 doesn’t require any kind of glasses. The system presents a pair of 2D images to the viewer, one to the left eye and the other to the right. When viewed, your brain perceives the images as a single scene, giving the perception of 3D depth.
The benefits of the technology for consumers in the realms of games and films are obvious, but its success has been patchy, largely due to the proliferation of different formats and standards.
Acer’s approach, developed in conjunction with SpatialLabs, is an effort to fix this by freeing the viewer from the need to acquire proprietary 3D content. That’s the theory, anyway.
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Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition review: Price and competition
Configuration tested: Intel Core i9-12900H CPU, Nvidia RTX 3080 GPU, 32GB RAM, 2TB SSD, 15.6in 3,840 x 2,160 IPS non-touchscreen; Price: £3,699
It appears this technology is not yet for the masses, though. The Helios 300 SL Edition is the only 3D gaming laptop on the market, it’s expensive at a hefty £3,700 and that money will only get you a laptop with 2022-era CPU and GPU hardware.
Is this good value? If you’re not bothered with 3D, the answer to that question, objectively, is no. Spending this sort of money in 2023 will get you one of the latest Raptor Lake and RTX 40-series laptops such as the Razer Blade 16 or the similarly specified Asus ROG Strix SCAR 16.
Alternatively, non-3D laptops with similar hardware will cost a lot less. The Alienware x17 R2, for example, costs £2,650 – if you raise the specification to match the Helios 300 SpatialLabs – for a saving of nearly £1,000.
Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition review: Design and build quality
Externally, the SpatialLabs Edition looks much like the standard edition of the Helios 300, right down to the solid, black aluminium body, the Predator logo on the lid and the LED light strip under the front deck. It’s hardly a small laptop, but the 3kg weight and 360 x 275 x 28mm size are perfectly acceptable for a gaming laptop with a 15.6in screen, a serious cooling system and a 90Wh capacity battery.
There’s a decent selection of ports, with a Gigabit Ethernet socket, USB-A 3.2 Gen 1 and 3.5mm audio port on the left edge, a pair of USB-A 3.2 Gen 2 ports on the right and Mini DisplayPort 1.4, HDMI 2.1 and Thunderbolt 4 ports around the back, along with the DC power jack.
It’s quite easy to get inside and, once the base has been removed, you can access the two SODIMM RAM slots and two SSD mounts. However, with 32GB of DDR5 RAM and two 1TB SSDs arranged in a RAID0 configuration as standard, most users will probably think that what’s already installed is enough.
The one design change you do notice over the standard Helios is the much thicker 12mm bezel above the display. This houses the two cameras that allow the 3D software to track your eye and head movements in order to optimise the 3D experience.
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Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition: Keyboard, touchpad and webcam
The chiclet keyboard is very impressive. It’s entirely solid across the keyboard deck, so you can hammer away at it with complete abandon while gaming. The 1.5mm key travel and flat keycaps can’t match the best mechanical laptop keyboards but I found it worked well enough, even for prolonged gaming sessions. The per-key LED RGB backlight system is bright and colourful, too.
The layout is hard to fault. There’s a numeric keypad and it’s good to see full-size cursor keys as well. Acer’s Predator Sense system control panel can be launched by hitting a dedicated button, while the switch to engage Turbo mode is safely out of the way above the F2 key.
At 110 x 80mm the touchpad isn’t the largest around, but it works well and is wholly smooth to the touch. Acer doesn’t state that it’s a glass touchpad but that would certainly be my guess.
The webcam is a basic 720p affair but does a surprisingly good job capturing bright and colourful images with impressively little noise. It’s one of the best 720p laptop webcams I’ve come across. It’s a shame there’s no support for Windows Hello IR facial recognition security, though, nor is there a fingerprint scanner.
Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition review: How good is the 3D?
Before I get into the technical merits of the screen, let’s talk about 3D. Since its release in late 2022, you’ve been able to play games on the Helios 300 SpatialLabs in something called “3D Plus”. This is, essentially, a basic stereoscopic system that uses cameras above the display to track your eyes and generate an image for each one, in effect delivering two 1,920 x 1,080 images rather than a single 4K 3,840 x 2,160 image.
The latest software update enables a system called “3D Ultra”, which further enhances the 3D effect. SpatialLabs describes this as adding a second virtual camera POV to proceedings, allowing for the emulation of true geometric 3D objects. That’s hard to visualise without seeing it in action, so I would suggest you think of it as the difference between watching a film shot in 3D and one finagled into ersatz 3D in post-production. With 3D Plus, the depth is into the screen, in Ultra it seems as if it extends outwards.
However you choose to describe it, the end result is very impressive and it generates a startling sense of depth. Playing God of War in 3D Ultra, the effect was so immersive I found myself moving my hand to brush away leaves falling onto the keyboard before my brain worked out there were none there. If all games looked like this in 3D, the argument in its favour would be overwhelming.
The benefit of 3D Ultra is more obvious in some games than others. For example, Psychonauts 2 already works well in 3D Plus and, while 3D Ultra adds more space in front of the screen, the change isn’t all that dramatic. Shadow of the Tomb Raider and God of War, on the other hand, look much better in 3D Ultra than in 3D Plus because of the greater number of effects that appear to leap out of the display.
Some games also perform better than others when rendered in 3D. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was blighted by obvious tearing and shimmering during gameplay, while Serious Sam: Siberian Mayhem and Wolfenstein: New Colossus seemed immune to this problem. The chain link fences in one level of Serious Sam caused problems, however, with scene detail behind the fences rendered as little more than a blur.
And no matter what game you play, looking at onscreen menus is hard work as the display struggles to reconcile images being shown on two different parallaxes. You also need to keep your head very still for the best 3D effect.
The biggest issue with gaming in 3D, however, is that the list of titles – especially ones that run in 3D Ultra – is not a long one and is lacking top-rank FPS titles. Serious Sam and New Colossus are decent enough games, which I like more than most, and they render well in 3D Plus, but they’re hardly going to satisfy players hoping to play the likes of Halo Infinite, Doom Eternal and Metro Exodus.
Of course, gaming isn’t the only thing you can do in 3D on the Helios 300. The SpatialLabs model-rendering software is also incredibly impressive and has obvious uses for anyone who needs to render models or graphics in 3D.
Less useful is the ability to render 2D media in 3D, which can be achieved simply by pressing Ctrl+G, no matter what application is displaying said media. This means you can watch videos in 3D in VLC or YouTube and photographs will render in 3D using your preferred image viewer. The end results are generally a bit flat and fuzzy, though.
If you’re wondering why I just didn’t press Ctrl+G while playing a game that isn’t officially supported, I’m afraid that doesn’t work. Games must be launched from the SpatialLabs TrueGame app to run in 3D and it only recognises titles with the SpatialLabs stamp of approval.
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Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition review: Display and audio
Away from 3D voodoo, the Helios’ IPS display is a good one. With a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 and a 15.6in diagonal, the screen has a pin-sharp pixel density of 282ppi. It’s bright, too, with a maximum luminance of 391cd/m², and there’s plenty of colour on show thanks to a 99.9% sRGB gamut coverage, 98.5% DCI-P3 and 86.8% Adobe RGB. There’s no option to swap between colour profiles, but I recorded a Delta E variation against the sRGB profile of 2.1, which is a reasonable result.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the 60Hz refresh rate, a byproduct of the 4K panel having to do, in effect, two jobs at once. This means if you want to use the Helios for serious e-sports you’ll need a separate gaming monitor.
The built-in DTS speaker system doesn’t let the side down, though, with a decent volume output of 75dB(A) from a pink noise source at a 1m distance and plenty of bass and treble. The DTS control panel comes with various sound profile settings, including one for FPS titles, and this adds a convincing sense of directionality to proceedings so you can tell from which direction you are being shot.
Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition: Performance and battery life
With a 12th gen Intel Core i9 processor and a 150W TGP Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 GPU at the helm, the Helios was never going to be slow, and the Expert Reviews’ 4K multimedia benchmark score of 480 points proves the point.
Only a handful of laptops we’ve tested have done better, although do keep in mind that 2023’s 13th gen Raptor Lake and Nvidia GeForce RTX 40-series laptops will be even faster.
Graphics performance is strong, too, and can be boosted a notch or two thanks to a multiplexer switch that takes the integrated Iris XE iGPU out of the picture and a Turbo setting that turns the cooling system up to 11. Be warned, though: the fans make a serious amount of noise at full speed and produce a draught that can blow paperwork off your desk. With all those performance enhancers turned up, the Helios ran the Metro Exodus benchmark on the highest Extreme detail setting at an average of 71fps at 1,920 x 1,080 and 40fps at 3,840 x 2,160. The Wolfenstein: Youngblood Riverside benchmark returned an average of 164fps at 1,920 x 1,080 and 57fps at native 4K without DLSS enabled. The Hitman 2 Mumbai benchmark, with everything turned up, returned an average of 77.8fps at 1080p.
Other performance tests tell a similar story. The SPECviewperf 3ds Max 3D modelling benchmark delivered an overall score of 105fps at Full HD and 72fps at native 4K, while the GeekBench 5 CPU benchmark scored 1,707 in single-core and 13,436 in multicore, which puts the Helios comfortably in the top 10% of laptops on the market at the time of writing. The two 1TB Micron 3400 SSDs deserve a mention in dispatches due to their extremely impressive turn of speed. Indeed, with sequential read and write rates of 6,758MB/sec and 5,833MB/sec, the Helios 300 is beaten by only one other laptop we’ve tested: the Helios 300’s big brother, the 2021 Predator Helios 500.
Battery life, as you have probably suspected, is pretty bad. Our usual video rundown test drained the battery in a mere 4hrs 11mins, although that is by no means the worst I’ve seen from a high-end gaming laptop.
Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition: Verdict
The SpatialLabs 3D technology showcased by the Acer Predator Helios 300 is undoubtedly very impressive and it’s clearly heading in the right direction. The effect is incredibly immersive given the right game, and even with the inherent drawbacks such as having to keep your head still, it’s great fun to game with.
Right now, though, I’m not convinced there are enough compelling 3D Ultra-compatible games to justify the cost. Perhaps if the Helios 300 didn’t cost so much more than an equivalent non-SpatialLabs gaming machine I could make a solid case for considering it.
However, when all is said and done, I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this is a technology demonstrator and that it would be wiser to wait for the next-generation model with an RTX40-series GPU and maybe even a higher native refresh rate.