Are AMD-powered laptops viable alternatives? We put them to the test

Acer Nitro 5 Spin review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

“Intel Inside” is a badge of honor few laptops go without.

If you’ve been searching for a new notebook, and in particular one that can let you game on the go, then chances are you haven’t even considered buying a machine with AMD inside. Intel dominates mobile processors, as does Nvidia for discrete mobile GPUs. You’ll need to search long and hard to even find an alternative.

But what if you want to support the underdog? Well, it is possible to find a laptop using AMD’s latest Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs. We found one that looked quite promising, the Acer’s Nitro 5 gaming laptop. Is buying an AMD-powered laptop in 2018 more than just a charity purchase?

Good enough productivity performance

Our Nitro 5 review unit was equipped with a Ryzen 5 2500U. That’s AMD’s midrange mobile chip that offers four cores, eight threads, a base clock speed of 2GHz, and a max boost clock of 3.6GHz. It’s a 15-watt processor that includes integrated Radeon Vega 8 graphics for the budget conscious.

The Ryzen 5 2500U competes directly with Intel’s 8th-gen Core i5-8250U (1.6GHz base and 3.4GHz max turbo) and Whiskey Lake Core i5-8265U (1.6GHz base and 3.9GHz max turbo). Those are also four-core CPUs with eight threads and they also run at 15 watts to provide an attractive mix of performance and efficiency. How do these CPUs, so closely matched on paper, perform relative to each other?

When subjected to our usual benchmarks, their relative performance is mixed. In Geekbench 4, which tests the CPUs using several common processor-oriented tasks, the Ryzen 5-based Nitro 5 fell well behind Intel-based notebooks. For example, the Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UN running the Core i5-8250U was over 18 percent faster in the single-core test and almost 58 percent faster in the multi-core test. We haven’t yet tested a Whiskey Lake Core i5, but we expect its performance to be better.

The Ryzen 5 2500U provides decent enough productivity compared with Intel’s Core i5.

The bottom line is that the Ryzen 5 2500U is likely to provide decent enough productivity performance that’s competitive with the Core i5. Whether you’re working with multiple web browser tabs, editing Microsoft Office documents, and even doing light video encoding and the like, you’ll be happy with the Ryzen 5’s performance. Of course, that CPU won’t keep up with the faster notebooks based on Intel’s Core CPUs, especially when you jump up to the Core i7, but the same can be said for Intel’s Core i5.

Another factor here is price. There aren’t that many systems that come in both Intel and AMD options, but looking just at the Nitro 5 shows that the AMD Ryzen 5 configuration is less expense. Our Nitro 5 review unit comes in at $700 with the Ryzen 5 2500U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD), and the Radeon RX560X. That’s $150 less than the same notebook with a Core i5-8300H, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 that costs $850.

Keep in mind that in terms of productivity performance, the Core i5-8300H will provide much better performance for things like encoding large videos and working with huge images and complex Photoshop filters. If you won’t be doing that kind of work, then the $150 savings from AMD might be well worth it.

Solid entry-level gaming performance — at a discount

If you’re looking for a gaming notebook, things get even murkier. That’s true not only regarding the CPU, where Intel’s more common 45-watt CPUs are going to be much faster, but also when comparing against Nvidia’s discrete GPUs.

Once again, we ran the Nitro 5 against a variety of notebooks, in this case focusing on the Nvidia GPUs that are closest to the Radeon RX560X with 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM that was running inside our Acer review unit. That meant comparing against the GeForce GTX 1050, 1050 Ti, and 1060 Max-Q.

Simply put, the Radeon RX560X most closely resembles the GTX 1050 across all our benchmarks. First up, the Nitro 5 scored a tie with the Asus VivoBook Pro N580 (not a gaming notebook, mind you) in the 3DMark Fire Strike test at 5,461. That’s well behind the scores achieved by the G3 Gaming Laptop, the Lenovo Legion Y730 (GTX 1050 Ti), and the Razer Blade 15 Base (GTX 1060 Max-Q).

Looking at a less demanding esports title first, Rocket League, we see the Radeon RX560X competing favorably against the GTX 1050. It hit 134 frames per second (FPS) at 1080p and performance settings and 87 FPS when bumped up to high quality. That compares to the Nitro 5 Spin with its GTX 1050 at 119 FPS and 73 FPS, respectively.

The Radeon RX560X provides slightly less performance than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050.

Next up is Civilization VI, which taxes both the CPU and GPU in working its magic. The Nitro 5 was essentially equal to the VivoBook Pro and its GTX 1050, at 56 FPS at 1080p and medium settings versus 51 FPS, and it again fell well behind the G3 Gaming Laptop and Legion Y730, both equipped with the GTX 1050 Ti. The Razer Blade 15 Base and its GTX 1060 Max-Q blew away the entire field.

Stepping up to a more GPU-intensive game, specifically Battlefield 1, the Nitro 5’s Radeon RX560X started to fall slightly behind the GTX 1050 and the rest of its field. It couldn’t quite hit the optimal 60 frames per second (FPS) at 1080p and medium graphics, and it dropped down to 44 FPS. The VivoBook Pro’s GTX 1050 managed 63 FPS and 48 FPS respectively, and the rest of the field went up from there.

Finally, we ran our most demanding test, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and the Nitro 5’s Radeon RX560X struggled. It couldn’t keep up with any of our comparison systems, including those equipped with the GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti, and the Nitro 5 was essentially unplayable at less than 30 FPS at 1080p and high settings. Every other comparison notebook stayed above 30 FPS at the same level of detail.

Asus VivoBook Pro N580 review
The Asus VivoBook Pro Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Essentially, if you opt for the Nitro 5 with the Radeon RX560X, it’ll provide slightly less performance than you’ll get with a GTX 1050. That’s considered the entry-level Nvidia GPU for a serious gamer, and so you’ll need to step up to something faster if you want to give AMD a try.

As we noted above, the AMD version of the Nitro 5 is $150 less expensive than the Core i5 version with a GTX 1050. And if gaming is your main objective, then the price savings are more meaningful than with pure productivity workloads. The Radeon RX560X will provide very close to GTX 1050 performance, particularly in older gaming titles and when running with lower graphical details.

Battery life remains mostly a mystery

It’s a challenge to evaluate the Nitro 5’s battery life, because we don’t have an equivalent Intel-based configuration to test compare. We’ll say this, though: The notebook does the Ryzen 5 2500U processor no favors. In a nutshell, the notebook’s battery life was rather poor – even by gaming notebook standards.

In our web browsing test, the Nitro 5 and its 49 watt-hours of battery capacity lasted just over three and a half hours, much less than its gaming competition. And then in our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test, which is the most CPU-intensive (note that part), it couldn’t make it to an hour. The G3 Gaming Laptop lasted more than three times as long.

The Nitro 5 did better against our comparison gaming notebook group when looping our local 1080p video file, at just under five and a half hours. The Dell G3 Gaming Laptop lasted for twenty minutes longer, but the two gaming systems with Core i7-8750H CPUs fell short.

Acer Nitro 5 Spin review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Many factors determine battery life, including display technology, battery sizes, RAM, and a host of other variables. And so again, it’s difficult to compare the Ryzen 5’s battery life without an equivalent Intel machine to reference. However, we can draw a loose inference from these tests. The fact that the Nitro 5’s relative battery performance was worse as the CPU was more involved provides at least a hint. The Ryzen 5 2500U may not be as efficient as its Intel competition.

Competitive performance at a discount

The Nitro 5 demonstrates that you really can get more for your money by going with AMD, at least in this product line. And therein lies the rub. There just aren’t that many AMD-based systems to provide for a solid analysis. With more presence in the market, perhaps we would see a more viable price-performance ratio come into play.

As it stands, the Nitro 5 with its Ryzen 5 2500U and Radeon RX560X provides competitive performance for less money. If you’re on a tight budget, then you might very well find that $150 or so savings a good enough reason to go AMD. But if you’re all-in on performance and price isn’t as much of an issue, then stick with Intel and Nvidia.

AMD isn’t standing still, though. It’s introducing a new generation CPUs, the Ryzen 3000 series, that promises better performance. And we’ll surely see better mobile GPUs coming from Nvidia’s main competitor. Six months from now, AMD might be better-positioned as a compelling mobile solution in laptops.

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