Battle of the $800 Gaming Notebooks

Editor-in-Chief

Share:

Author: SKYMTL
Date: May 15, 2017
Product Name: Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming / VX15
Warranty: 1 Year

Back when Dmitry, Eber and I were at CES we had a bit of a revelation. Sitting almost forlornly among the high end gaming systems, extreme monitors and other porn-worthy tech at the Dell booth and Acer suite was a pair of notebooks that could undoubtedly become resounding success stories. By all outwards appearances the VX15 and Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming look like nothing more than your typical monolithic black laptops with a few touches of red. But underneath those unassuming exteriors and sub-$850 price points lies a specification list that actually makes them respectable gaming machines as well.

At this point you are likely thinking to yourself: “yeah right buddy, I’ve heard this song and dance before!”. Every generation seems to have its pretenders which over promise and under-deliver but this time is different. For example, the previous Inspiron Gaming and numerous other budget gaming laptops fell short due to the underlying processing architectures being used. Combining efficiency alongside adequate performance proved to be a bridge too far. Unlike so many other low cost products that promised gaming potential, the Inspiron 7000 and VX15 actually have the chops to back their gaming monikers. Those accomplishments can be laid firmly at the feet of Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs and NVIDIA’s Kepler GPU cores.

While Kaby Lake may have been met with upturned noses by DIYers in the desktop market, its influence upon the notebook segment has been quite dramatic. Not only does this new family of CPUs provide significantly better performance per watt characteristics than its predecessor but they also include numerous features that help with battery load balancing.

NVIDIA’s Pascal architecture had a significant impact upon the desktop market but it too has made a splash within the notebook market. Due to its inherent efficiency, full-spec Pascal-based desktop GPUs have been brought over largely untouched unlike in previous generations when truncated cores were used for gaming laptops. Hence why the GTX 1050-series cards you’ll be seeing a lot of within this review sport the exact same throughput as their desktop brethren and make no mistake about it, those performance numbers are pretty damn impressive in their own right.

But enough about that. This review is really about the two notebooks and by just looking at the raw specifications, one thing pops our right away: they look lake literal clones of one another. It’s almost like the design teams at both Acer and Dell had a conference call to hash out what these laptops would house. All joking aside, from a more practical perspective manufacturers looking to build a low cost gaming notebook are somewhat limited in what they can specify before pricing starts spiraling out of control.

With that in mind, the VX15 and Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming both sport quad core i5-7300HQ processors, 1080P screens, 8GB of DDR4 2400MHz memory, very similar external dimensions and 256GB SSDs. The storage part of this equation is quite concerning since both companies decided to offer their models with either an 256/ 512GB SSD or a 1TB hard drive.

Anyone who has looked at the installation requirements for recent games will know neither SSD capacity is sufficient. There’s no option to combine the quick boot times of an SSD with the capacity of a spindle-based drive unless you are willing to go prying around the internals yourself…but more on that later.

Past the obvious similarities there are also some areas where one of these products is ahead of the other. The VX15 has an edge with its IPS screen (although Dell now offers an IPS screen of their own for a $50 upcharge), advanced 2×2 MU-MIMO wireless module, I/O port selection and price. Meanwhile, the Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming in this particular setup has a faster graphics card with a GTX 1050 Ti and a larger battery. Both notebooks are available in different configurations with more memory or faster processors but the costs associated with those upgrades mean affordability is thrown out the window.

With the Acer VX15 and Dell Inspiron 15 so closely matched in all things including price, one has to wonder which of these affordable notebooks is worthy of your consideration. Unlike their predecessors, can they even be considered gaming worthy? What kind of sacrifices –if any- were made for those impressively low price points? Is the $50 premium spent for Dell’s more powerful GPU and larger battery money well spent? Well let’s find out!

A Closer Look at the Acer VX15

Despite these two notebooks coming with very similar specifications, the chassis of Acer’s VX15 makes it feel like a higher quality solution. There’s still an abundance of plastic but the top lid is sturdy and there’s only a minimal amount of flex when it’s opened. We’re not talking about magnesium levels of toughness here but the VX15’s rigidity belies its $799 price point.

I have to say that I’m also a fan of the tasteful blend of black, red and silver accents as well. There’s nothing overly loud or brash here and that will certainly help folks who want a lower key notebook that doesn’t scream “I’m a gamer!” from the rooftops.

Regardless of whether you are typing an essay or gaming, this notebook provides an adequately stable work surface. Like with the lid the inner chassis exhibits very little deflection, which is quite surprising for a notebook in this price range. There are usually some sacrifices in build quality somewhere and with the VX15 I found myself struggling to find where Acer may have misstepped. Some areas do pick up fingerprints a little too easily but that’s an issue quite a few notebooks have these days.

Given the fact this is a 15” notebook, Acer had plenty of space to work so the keyboard area is quite expansive with a full numpad and properly sized spacebar. As with the other areas of this unit, there’s a robust feeling to the whole typing experience since the keyboard’s backplate doesn’t give way whenever you press a key.

There are a few small touches for the gamers here as well. Not only is there an adjustable intensity red backlight (for full RGB illumination, you’ll need to step up to Acer’s Predator notebooks) but the WASD keys have an halo effect for added intensity.

The actually keyboard itself is a joy to type on even though the notebook’s leading edges are a bit too sharp for my liking. They tended to dig into my wrists after prolonged gaming or typing sessions. With that being said, the keys have near-perfect spacing, they’re legible and their feedback and throw distance was surprisingly refined. While I wouldn’t liken the experience to the superlative ones granted by the likes of the Steelseries / MSI partnership or Lenovo’s latest endeavors but for an $800 gaming notebook? I’ll take it any day of the week!

The backlight on this keyboard is very well implemented with a good distinction on the WASD keys via a subtle yet noticeable glow. I kept finding myself wishing for a few more intensity options but for a budget gaming notebook, the VX15’s typing experience is remarkably well-rounded.

The trackpad is large, boasts very good palm detection and responds well to all of the typical gestures within Windows but gaming on it is a bridge too far. Simply put, you should be using a mouse or any serious inputs but even in a pinch I wouldn’t use what Acer has here. It isn’t particularly bad in any way but there needs to be physical buttons since the integrated left / right clock surfaces require a bit too much force to actuate.

Moving around back shows us a pair of vents or what looks like a postmodern cubism form of the Rolling Stones’ 40 Licks album cover. Regardless of your opinions about this design, both of the ventilation areas are completely functional and I happen to like the angular look they give to the VX15’s outwards appearance.

As you could probably tell from this article’s introduction, Acer wins hands down when it comes to connectivity. mostly due to that lone USB-C port which has become so important for device charging. Just remember that this USB Type-C connector uses the newer USB 3.1 Gen2 spec which caps out at the same 5Gbps as standard USB 3.0 ports. There are another two USB 3.0 connectors and a lone USB 2.0 port as well.

Past the one USB-C connector, things are pretty standard with an SD card reader, a Kensington lock, a HDMI 2.0 output and a combination headphone / microphone port.

One area wherein Acer lags behind Dell is in the end user upgradability department. Wherein Dell’s Inspiron requires a single captured screw to be loosened, the VX15 requires a full frontal lobotomy including the removal of some 12 small screws and then prying open the chassis with a small flat-head screwdriver. Then once you actually do have access there’s realization that Acer hasn’t provided the necessary mounts, cables or caddy for a secondary hard drive. There’s just a gaping hole where one can be installed but it’s useless. Luckily Acer has seen the error of their ways and offers a free HDD mount “kit” on their website.

Other than the lack of native support for the one item that can overcome the VX15’s greatest limitation (that being storage capacity), the memory and M.2 slot are easily accessible.

A Closer Look at the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming

The color choice for the Inspiron 15 which Dell sent me is anything but subtle and yet I happen to like the way it looks. This isn’t a fire engine red but rather a more muted tone that is further refined with a matte finish that seemed to laugh at my mysteriously oily digits and never showed a single fingerprint. However, if you don’t like this look-at-me color scheme, there’s also a matte black model which has a red Dell logo emblazoned on it.

While the exterior’s finish is top-notch I feel the build quality could be a bit better, particularly when it comes the amount of flex exhibited by the screen’s protective shell. Press down a bit on that Dell logo and there’s enough deflection that’s I’d worry about screen damage if the Inspiron was carried in anything but a purpose-built backpack.

While the Inspiron’s exterior has some character, the interior confines are all business with large bezels around the 15.6” screen and a predominantly black color scheme. Whereas that red finish didn’t exhibit any problems with fingerprints, the same can’t be said of the black plastic here; it isn’t quite as bad as some other gaming notebooks but it will still require a good amount of maintenance.

I’m a huge fan of the Acer VX15 keyboard but I’d charitably call the Inspiron’s typing experience a mixed bag. On one hand the actual comfort level is actually quite good when compared to Acer since Dell’s palm rests are slightly deeper and the chassis edges not quite as sharp. However, the keyboard itself is poorly executed.

The problems here aren’t with the layout or spacing since the keys themselves are a good size and small things like an adequately-sized spacebar are done right. The issues lie in two areas: the color scheme and feedback when typing.

I know whining about a keyboard’s color could be likened to shouting into a hurricane but there’s a reason behind my madness. In any well-lit environment the red characters on their black keycap background become nearly invisible. Unless you are a proficient touch typist, trying to locate the keys quickly becomes a frustrating experience. I’m not sure why they did this since the LEDs behind the keyboard are actually red.

The actual typing experience leaves a lot to be desired as well and I’d liken it to typing on a piece of cardboard. The keys exhibit an excessively short throw distance, a virtual lack of any user feedback and a numb activation point that seems to vary from one key to the next. All of these are mission critical items on a so-called “gaming” notebook and missteps here are quite disappointing. There seems to be more than enough chassis height to achieve a reasonable amount of key depth but instead Dell simply carried over this design from their mainstread Inspiron lineup.

I can’t complain about the backlight though since it is even and well implemented. Unfortunately even at night Dell fell short in comparison to Acer’s competitor since the WASD keys lack the VX15’s distinctive halo effect around each letter. Granted, there’s a bit of a difference here since each character has a narrow perimeter highlighted in red but it simply isn’t large enough to be distinctive.

Dell falls a bit short on the connectivity side as well, but not by all that much. One side of the Inspiron holds two USB 3.0 ports, a combo headphone / mic jack, a HDMI 2.0 output and the typical LAN connector.

The other side has a USB 3.0 port with PowerShare which charges compatible devices while the notebook is asleep or turned off. There’s also a mini SD Card reader and a Kensington lock. Conspicuous by its absence is a Type-C USB port or any native USB 3.1 Gen2 connectors.

Now I know it may not seem like much but in my eyes at least the Inspiron 15 Gaming does have a slightly more holistic design than the VX15. There are less jarring angles, the cooling intake and exhaust areas are well integrated into the chassis and there are a few less obvious material seams. Does this make it a better option? That depends upon how much value you place upon such things.

One thing I have to give some serious credit to Dell over is their approach to end user upgrades. Unlike the engineering degree you’ll need to pop open the VX15’s cover, accessing the Inspiron 15’s chassis is done by loosening a single captured screw. You’ll then need to gently pull upwards on that same screw and the entire bottom portion will pop off.

What you’ll be greeted with is an excessively clean setup with the memory and 2.5” drive area easily accessible. Not only that but Dell has all the necessary SATA data and power connectors primed and ready to go, meaning you can easily add a secondary storage drive without much fuss. Honestly, I can’t speak highly enough about these decisions.

Display Panel Quality

As you may or may not have already guessed, I have extremely contradictory opinions when it comes to the screens on these notebooks. Simply put, the TN panel on Dell’s Inspiron 15 Gaming simply can’t compare to the IPS-equipped Acer. Luckily both have the same anti-glare matte coating which seems to finally be making a comeback in the laptop world as a whole, so there’s no worry about distracting reflections getting in your way.


Acer VX15

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming

I’ve seen my fair share of TN panels in my time and while the pictures may not display this properly, the one on Dell’s Inspiron is one of the worst I have come across. You have to be sitting at exactly the right angle and if not contrast gets blown out, colors become washed out and everything onscreen looks like someone smeared Vaseline all over the place. Speaking of colors, even when sitting in exactly the right position with the screen angled perfectly it is nearly impossible to tell two similar hues apart from one another. At times I even found certain tones of orange and reds looked identical. Dell does offer that $50 stand-alone IPS upgrade and I suggest you take it.

Acer’s IPS on the other hand something of a revelation in comparison. It certainly isn’t the best IPS panel around but one can’t expect a 10-bit panel on a $800 gaming notebook; the fact that one’s included at all for this price is commendable. Its blacks are deep and rich, off-angle viewing isn’t met with eye-numbing images and color reproduction very good indeed.


Acer VX15

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming

From a gaming perspective the TN panel does have a slight edge in real world testing. While Dell wasn’t able to offer us its response times, gaming on the Inspiron 7000 Gaming did feel more fluid but that could have also been due to the more powerful graphics card beating at its heart. Neither of these showed any perceptible ghosting, judder or latency issues but then again, I’m not a professional gamer so those types of things typically pass me by unless they are extremely evident.

About that Sound…..

This isn’t an area I typically focus upon but budget gaming notebooks like these have to pull double and even triple duty in many cases. They’ll be tasked with gaming, basic entertainment duties and even providing ambient music during a long homework session. With that in mind, both their speakers and headphone were put under the microscope? The winner of this round largely depends upon what your listening tendencies are.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Dell’s speaker setup is superior to Acer’s. Acer uses a pair of speakers positioned at a 45° angle towards your tabletop which leads to a highly variable sound signature when moving from one surface to another. For example on a glass tabletop the output sounds overly sharp, placed on wood you will head excess reverberations and on your lap sounds will become muddy and at times indistinguishable from one another. The Dolby Audio Premium sound enhancement can only go so far and it doesn’t do much to rectify this situation.

Dell on the other hand has somehow managed to fit a miniaturized 2.1 setup into their design budget. The two primary speakers point outwards from a lattice-line grille at the notebook’s front while the mini subwoofer points downwards for maximum impact. While this isn’t going to provide you with orchestral-like sound the effect is much warmer that Acer’s setup while also offering more clarity and distinction between different tones.

Switch from speakers to headphones or earphones and the situation turns on its head with Acer delivering a much cleaner output than Dell. I’m not sure whether this is due to the superiority of a Dolby Audio Premium backbone over the Waves MaxxAudio Pro installed on the Inspiron but the differences between the two was like night and day.

On my well-used WestOne W20’s and a Kingston HyperX Revolver headset, the VX15 boasted a wider soundstage without any distortion, suitable bass response and excellent mid to high tones. Meanwhile regardless of how much I tuned Dell’s onboard settings, I couldn’t get the same experience with the Inspiron 15 Gaming. While a layman listening to only one system probably wouldn’t be able to point out the Dell as featuring a sub-par listening experience, listening to both systems side by side on identical devices proved to be an eye-opening experience.

CineBench R15 64-bit

The latest benchmark from MAXON, Cinebench R15 makes use of all your system’s processing power to render a photorealistic 3D scene using various different algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The test scene contains approximately 2,000 objects containing more than 300,000 total polygons and uses sharp and blurred reflections, area lights and shadows, procedural shaders, antialiasing, and much more. This particular benchmarking can measure systems with up to 64 processor threads. The result is given in points (pts). The higher the number, the faster your processor.



PCMark 8

PCMark 8 is the latest iteration of Futuremark’s system benchmark franchise. It generates an overall score based upon system performance with all components being stressed in one way or another. The result is posted as a generalized score. In this case, we didn’t use the Accelerated benchmark but rather just used the standard Computational results which cut out OpenCL from the equation.


WPrime

wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton’s method for estimating functions, with f(x)=x2-k, where k is the number we’re squaring, until Sgn(f(x)/f'(x)) does not equal that of the previous iteration, starting with an estimation of k/2. It then uses an iterative calling of the estimation method a set amount of times to increase the accuracy of the results. It then confirms that n(k)2=k to ensure the calculation was correct. It repeats this for all numbers from 1 to the requested maximum. This is a highly multi-threaded workload but we have also included single thread results. Below are the scores for the 1024M benchmark for multi thread and 32M for single thread.


Considering the very minimal differences between these two notebooks, the results you see above shouldn’t come as any surprise. Those i5-7300HQ processors aren’t massively powerful but they do get the job done. The only variances between the two systems (other than the usual margin of error) come from their respective GPUs. With its GTX 1050 Ti, the Dell wins by a good margin in PCMark and Cinebench’s OpenGL renderer test.

Memory Performance

AIDA64 Memory Read / Write

Memory bandwidth benchmarks (Memory Read, Memory Write) measure the maximum achiveable memory data transfer bandwidth. The code behind these benchmark methods are written in Assembly and they are extremely optimized for every processor variant by utilizing the appropriate x86/x64, x87, MMX, MMX+, 3DNow!, SSE, SSE2, SSE4.1, AVX, and AVX2 instruction set extension.

In this particular benchmark, Dell has a bit of an advantage since they are running their memory at slightly tighter timings and they have less secondary processes running behind the scenes. Will this make a large impact upon real world performance? Absolutely not but with Acer’s memory being slightly more allocated, there’s a chance the VX15 could reach its memory saturation point earlier.

Storage Performance

Crystal Diskmark

Crystal Diskmark is a simple storage subsystem benchmark which measures sequential bandwidth across a large number of file sizes. For the purposes of this test, we are using a 1GB file size and measuring both read and write performance.

Both the Dell and Acer notebooks have very similar SSD setups but the one in the VX15 is ever so slightly faster. Once again it is highly doubtful that you will actually notice a difference in real world scenarios.

7-Zip

At face value, 7-Zip is a simple compression/decompresion tool like popular applications like WinZip and WinRAR but it also has numerous additional functions that can allow encryption, decryption and other options. For this test, we use the standard built-in benchmark which focuses on raw multi-threaded throughput.

3ds MAX Corona Renderer

Autodesk’s 3ds MAX is currently one of the most-used 3D modeling, animation and rendering programs on the market, providing a creative platform for architects to industrial designers alike. Unfortunately its rendering algorithms leave much to be desired and third party rendering add-ons are quite popular. One of the newest ones is called Corona.

In this test we take a custom 3D scene of a room with global illumination enabled and render it out in 720P using Corona’s built-in renderer.

Both of these tests show respectable results but let’s be honest with ourselves here: neither of these systems is going to be used for high level rendering tasks all that often. With that being said, the native quad core nature of the i5-7300HQ along with fast storage subsystems does result in excellent 7-Zip file decompression times.

GIMP

While it may be open source, GIMP is actually one of the most popular free photo editors available right now. It uses both SYSTEM and GPU acceleration for certain tasks. In this test we use an 8K image and use a script to run eight different filters in succession. This is considered a lightly threaded workload since the memory, SYSTEM and storage drive can all play a role in performance.

Handbrake

Video conversion from one format to another is a stressful task for any processor and speed is paramount. Handbrake is one of the more popular transcoders on the market since it is free, has a long feature list, supports GPU acceleration and has an easy-to-understand interface. In this test we take a 6GB 4K MP4 and convert it to a 1080P MKV file with a H.264 container format. GPU acceleration has been both disabled and enabled. The results posted indicate how long it took for the conversion to complete.

Regardless of whether it is with the standard transcode or accelerated since both of these CPUs align perfectly with one another. Remember, the Handbrake transcode engine uses Intel’s QuickSync when in accelerated mode rather than and NVIDIA CUDA-accelerated path. Meanwhile, GIMP literally shows the exact same performance from system to system since both of these notebooks have the same CPU and memory specs.

POV Ray 3.7

POV Ray is a complex yet simple to use freeware ray tracing program which has the ability to efficiently use multiple SYSTEM cores in order to speed up rendering output. For this test, we use its built-in benchmark feature which renders a high definition scene. The rendering time to completion is logged and then listed below.

WinRAR

WinRAR is one of those free tools that everyone seems to use. Its compression and decompression algorithms are fully multi-core aware which allows for a significant speedup when processing files. In this test we compress a 3GB folder of various files and add a 256-bit encryption key. Once again the number listed is the time to completion.

I am going to wrap up the real world benchmarks right here and now since there really isn’t much to see due to these notebook’s similar specs. With that being said, the performance on tap here is actually quite respectable.

3DMark

Synthetic testing is never an accurate way to depict potential in-game results but Futuremark’s 3DMark has the capability to run some straightforward tests and spit out a reasonably good representation of where a given system will land once we get into the actual games. In this test we run the Fire Strike and Fire Strike Extreme benchmarks, the latter of which puts additional stress on the CPU while the former typically causes a GPU-centric bottleneck.


Here we get our first glance of the additional power Dell’s Inspiron 15 Gaming brings to the table and why it costs more than Acer’s VX15. In synthetic testing at least, the GTX 1050 Ti vastly outstrips its slightly lower end sibling but those who have been eyeing the Acer notebook shouldn’t shy away from what it offers; remember that a score of 11,000 in the Sky Diver benchmark is a result that’s close to what we achieved with an i5-2500K and GTX 770 a few years ago. Now that’s impressive, considering these scores are coming from a notebook that weighs less than 5lbs.

1080P Gaming Benchmarks

In order to properly test how notebooks perform in gaming scenarios and to even the playing field given the fact that there are multiple screen resolution options available, we have standardized our methodology. In all scenarios we have decided to output the video signal to an external monitor instead of utilizing the notebooks’ integrated display so an idea can be given of how the systems can perform across a wide variety of situations. To prepare for an influx of DX12 titles we have also moved away from FRAPS and we are now using the handy PresentMon tool that’s available for free from GitHub. At the time of writing, this is the only tool available that can consistently log DX12 frametimes.

All results shown below are based upon the averages of three consecutive benchmark runs. Under no circumstance to we use any rolling demos or in game benchmarking tools. Rather, actual gameplay run-throughs are used for every game.

Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1 will likely become known as one of the most popular multiplayer games around but it also happens to be one of the best looking titles around. It also happens to be extremely well optimized with even the lowest end cards having the ability to run at high detail levels.

In this benchmark we use a runthough of The Runner level after the dreadnought barrage is complete and you need to storm the beach. This area includes all of the game’s hallmarks in one condensed area with fire, explosions, debris and numerous other elements layered over one another for some spectacular visual effects.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

The latest iteration in the COD series may not drag out niceties like DX12 or particularly unique playing styles but it nonetheless is a great looking game that is quite popular.

This benchmark takes place during the campaign’s Operation Port Armor wherein we run through a sequence combining various indoor and outdoor elements along with some combat.

Deus Ex – Mankind Divided

Deus Ex titles have historically combined excellent storytelling elements with action-forward gameplay and Mankind Divided is no difference. This run-through uses the streets and a few sewers of the main hub city Prague along with a short action sequence involving gunplay and grenades.

When the rubber meets the road in actual gameplay testing, there’s no denying the GTX 1050 Ti-equipped Dell is the leader here but not by the massive margin 3DMark would have us believe. Whereas that synthetic test showed a lead of about 45%, here we are seeing a delta of around 25%.

Make no mistake about it, this is still an awesome result and one that will make the $50 premium (or $100 with that recommended IPS screen) seem worthwhile. However, what I did notice is the GTX 1050 Ti GPU didn’t operate at its fullest capacity in every situation. Rather than the 100% utilization the GTX 1050 showed, I was seeing between 90% and 95% in several games. This leads me to believe the i5-7300HQ processor may have been causing a bottleneck on Dell’s machine. Meanwhile the combo of that same CPU and a vanilla GTX 1050 seems to be a sweet spot when playing at 1080P.

In order to properly test how notebooks perform in gaming scenarios and to even the playing field given the fact that there are multiple screen resolution options available, we have standardized our methodology. In all scenarios we have decided to output the video signal to an external monitor instead of utilizing the notebooks’ integrated display so an idea can be given of how the systems can perform across a wide variety of situations. To prepare for an influx of DX12 titles we have also moved away from FRAPS and we are now using the handy PresentMon tool that’s available for free from GitHub. At the time of writing, this is the only tool available that can consistently log DX12 frametimes.

All results shown below are based upon the averages of three consecutive benchmark runs. Under no circumstance to we use any rolling demos or in game benchmarking tools. Rather, actual gameplay run-throughs are used for every game.

Doom (Vulkan)

Not many people saw a new Doom as a possible Game of the Year contender but that’s exactly what it has become. Not only is it one of the most intense games currently around but it looks great and is highly optimized. In this run-through we use Mission 6: Into the Fire since it features relatively predictable enemy spawn points and a combination of open air and interior gameplay.

Overwatch

Overwatch happens to be one of the most popular games around right now and while it isn’t particularly stressful upon a system’s resources, its Epic setting can provide a decent workout for all but the highest end GPUs. In order to eliminate as much variability as possible, for this benchmark we use a simple “offline” Bot Match so performance isn’t affected by outside factors like ping times and network latency.

Warhammer: Total War

Unlike some of the latest Total War games, the hotly anticipated Warhammer title has been relatively bug free, performs well on all systems and still incorporates the level detail and graphics fidelity this series is known for. In this sequence, we use the in-game benchmarking tool to play back one of our own 40 second gameplay sessions which includes two maxed-out armies and includes all of the elements normally seen in standard gameplay. That means zooms and pans are used to pivot the camera and get a better view of the battlefield.

The next few games show the same results those on previous pages. Once again the Dell Inspiron leads by a pretty significant margin, pointing towards it being an extremely well balanced product that successfully combines price and gaming performance. Acer’s notebook can’t really hope to catch up but there wasn’t a single game that it couldn’t output playable settings even with in-game settings turned all the way up.

Battery Life

Battery life is a key component of notebook testing since without adequate unplugged time, one of these systems could hardly be called “mobile”. In order to accurately measure how long a notebook can last away from the mains, we devised a quartet of tests. First is a light usage Browsing scenario which simply refreshes a webpage every 30 seconds while the second test runs an infinite loop of PCMark’s Work preset which simulates some light photo manipulation, word processing and Excel document creation.

The last two tests are more extreme in nature since they consume the majority of a notebook’s onboard resources. The first of these loops PCMark’s Creative benchmark, a testing suite that combines multi-threaded photo editing, GPU-accelerated video transcoding and web conference streaming. Finally the Gaming test uses Rise of the Tomb Raider output at 1080P to the notebook’s screen.

All of these tests are done in the notebook’s default power profile, with screen brightness set at 75% and set the notebook to go into Sleep mode with 5% battery remaining. To log results we use PassMark’s handy BatterMon tool which polls the battery levels every minute and logs them to a text file.

One of the reasons to buy a notebook like these is for it to pull double duty as a workflow and gaming platform. For the work part of that equation –be it word processing or simply taking notes in class- a relatively small capacity battery will be more than enough for a good half day of time away from the mains. Meanwhile, gaming is a vampire which will suck down even the largest of batteries in no time flat.

With these things in mind, the difference between Dell’s 6-cell layout and Acer’s meager 3-cell setup is like night and day. Even with constant web browsing on flash-heavy sites the Inspiron lasted an incredible 15 hours. Normally Acer’s result of about 8 hours would be more than welcome but not in this situation.

Even when moving on to more intensive tasks Dell reigned supreme but by increasingly narrower margins until the full-on gaming test where a mere 13 minutes separated the two notebooks. The reason for this situation should be quite evident: while the Inspiron Gaming does have a larger capacity battery, its higher end graphics processor requires more power. Nonetheless, I’d call this a clear win for Dell.

Temperature Testing

In order to log thermal results we used AIDA64’s logging modules and loaded up the program’s CPU Burn test for any CPU-centric results while the GPU results are taken from an actual 15 minute gameplay sequence. Both are done while the notebook is plugged in and displaying images through its screen. The recorded temperatures below are absolute maximums.

In every piece of marketing material Dell makes a big deal about the Inspiron Gaming’s cooling setup and judging from these results it isn’t hard to see why. While neither notebook reaches throttle temperatures for the CPU or GPU, it looks like Dell’s engineering has indeed paid off. But wait….there’s one more important test here and that’s acoustics.

Acoustic Results

What you see below are the baseline idle dB(A) results attained within a completely quiet sound-isolated environment in both in idle and load scenarios. The meter we use has been calibrated and is placed at seated ear-level exactly 12” away from the notebook. For the load scenarios, Tom Raider is used in order to generate a constant load over the course of 30 minutes.

As you can see, in order to achieve those low temperatures Dell needed to ramp up their fan speeds, making their notebook quite a bit louder than the VX15 when under load. Unfortunately, neither of these laptops have the ability to manually control fan RPMs so the noise aspect is definitely something you’ll want to take into account before taking the plunge.

Thermal Imaging

The last thing anyone wants with a notebook is to have it burn their laps after extensive use. Some systems can get extremely hot if their heat isn’t properly dissipated away from the user’s body and that can lead to no small amount of discomfort.

In order to see how notebooks fared with heat dissipation, we ran a continual gaming load and analyzed their thermal signatures with a FLIR E5 thermal camera. This will show any hot spots and whether or not any areas go beyond acceptable levels.


Acer VX15
Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming

Balancing out the internal temperatures and noise are external heat signatures since the last thing anyone wants is their laptop burning their….lap. While I’ve personally experienced notebook heat which ranged from a cool summer breeze to untouchably hot, neither of these notebooks falls into either of those extremes. They’re actually quite mild mannered in this respect but the temperatures directed to your nether regions will nonetheless be noticeable. One thing I do have to note is the relatively high temperature on Acer’s lower image is due to the thermal camera detecting an internal component through one of the vents.

Conclusion; Who Reigns Supreme?

So I went into this review thinking that I already knew which notebook would stand out as the winner. I talked to Dmitry and Eber about the Dell Inspiron 7000 Gaming and Acer’s VX15 long before the samples arrived and they agreed as well. Remember Dmitry, Eber and I had the pleasure of checking out both notebooks back at CES. Back then we all thought Acer had the clear advantage but after going through the motions of in-depth testing, the competition was much closer than anyone had first thought.

Let’s start with the most impressive thing about both of these budget-friendly gaming notebooks: their price to performance ratio. In years past cramming any form of gaming hardware into something resembling a portable form factor required some major sacrifices, be they on the performance, pricing or form factor fronts. But while there are still some things you will have to give up in order to reach a sub-$1000 price point, they’re now insignificant at best.

Think about it like this: actually building a desktop system with similar specs yourself would likely cost you more than the $750 to $800 USD demanded by the VX15 and Inspiron Gaming respectively. Throw in an i5 processor, a motherboard, a GTX 1050 Ti, 8GB of memory, a moderately powerful 256GB SSD and a Windows 10 license and you’re already over $600 before a case, power supplies, monitor or peripherals are factored into the equation. Meanwhile either of these notebooks can easily pull double duty as a portable workstation for students and a very decent 1080P gaming platform when hooked up to a monitor or TV.

As for the individual competitors here, let’s first talk about Dell’s Inspiron 7000 Gaming since it is a study in contrasts. It seems to have taken forever but Alienware’s influence has begun to trickle down to other, more affordable price points in Dell’s lineup and we’re seeing evidence of that here. Equipped with a GTX 1050 Ti, the Gaming’s price to performance ratio is through the stratosphere and its larger battery granted some impressive longevity results. Meanwhile the various nods to DIY upgrades like single screw access to internals and a fully prepared layout for native 2.5” drive support or memory upgrades was certainly welcome.

Unfortunately Dell ended up stumbling in some areas. Its default screen is simply atrocious, one of the worst I have ever seen and that makes the $50 upgrade to an IPS panel an absolute necessity. I’m also not a fan of the keyboard; the keys fell like they’re from another generation where notebook manufacturers didn’t understand that it was possible to equip portable devices with decent short-throw keyboards. The red on black color scheme didn’t win me over either since it is next to impossible to see in any lighting condition.

With Dell lagging behind in two important areas, this battle was Acer’s to lose and for the most part their VX15 didn’t disappoint. It boasts better build quality, an excellent IPS screen, superior keyboard feedback and very good performance from its GTX 1050. Acer has also equipped the VX15 with –in my eyes at least- a superior, whisper quiet cooling solution and a trackpad that actually responds the way it should rather than having a mind of its own. There’s so much to like here, it’s almost possible to overlook the small things…almost.

Where Acer goes slightly astray is in two key areas: upgradability and battery life. Dell has a dead simple system for gaining access to the notebook’s internals whereas opening the VX15 feels like performing a frontal lobotomy. Even once you get into this thing, Acer doesn’t have the connections necessary for adding a 2.5” drive. Luckily they’ve seen the error of this and are now offering an adapter caddy free of charge. As for the battery life, it was a bit disappointing to see and experience who that tiny 3-cell battery limits usefulness considering Dell was able to cram a much more capable 6-cell unit into their similarly-sized chassis.

Now it might have sounded like I am harping a bit too much about the upgrade options available on budget notebooks but there’s a method behind my madness. Simply put, with a few turns of a screwdriver you should be able to rectify these notebooks’ most significant limitations.

In order to cut costs, both Dell and Acer had to equip their machines with wholly insufficient storage capacity and an amount of memory that’s barely sufficient for today’s application requirements. It is great to see M.2 SSDs being used but their 256GB of space will be filled in no time with the Windows 10 OS and a few games. You’ll always be fighting to find space that doesn’t exist. An additional hard drive will go a long way towards improving that issue, hence why I think Acer’s limited storage upgrade options are so egregious.

So is there really a winner here? I would say no since both notebooks have their strengths and weaknesses. It will all come down to what you are looking for. For general all-round performance and quality the Acer VX15 has this one in the bag. On the other hand Dell’s openness to upgrades and awesome battery life is certainly attractive as well. Regardless of which direction you choose, know that there are now some very real options out there for lower cost portable gaming machines.

Posted in

Latest Reviews