Acer Predator Helios 500 Mods

Acer Predator Helios 500 Mods

Finally a guide to learn you how to get the most out of your Acer Predator Helios 500 Laptop! I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out all the tweaks described below.

This post describes:

  • why I chose the Acer Predator Helios 500,
  • How to install and run Ubuntu 18.04LTS (generally speaking Linux) smoothly,
  • Undervolting the CPU: A whopping Free 30% CPU Performance Gain while running at cooler temperatures,
  • How to disassemble the Helios 500: access CPU, motherboard, RAM sticks, bios chip, nvme drives and more hardware,
  • Disconnecting the HDD and battery: I don’t use them but would like to preserve them,
  • And Modding the BIOS: unlock hidden settings to tweak your system even further (like RAM overclocking or increasing Turbo Boost Time).

And the good news is: all those tweaks are suitable for other laptops too!

Why The Helios 500

Acer Predator Helios 500 Installing Ubuntu 18.04LTS using an USB Key

Because it’s staying cool! I use mainly my computer to:

I wanted a laptop with the following specs:

  • 17.3 inches screen: I don’t move much, so it’s perfectly fine to have a big screen laptop with a nice cooling system,
  • No overheating: given most builders focus on making laptops thinner and thinner, it’s increasingly difficult (especially with 6-cores mobile CPUs like the 8750h) to find laptops that don’t overheating. This is concerning since overheating induces throttling which drastically reduces CPU performances (and life).

Having an Acer V3-772G which is quite loud (fan always running with a pretty weird noise), I wanted a laptop capable of running my daily tasks while emitting as little noise as possible. I’ve considered:

That’s when I found about the Acer Predator Helios 500. The review on notebookcheck was pretty solid:

  • Exceptional cooling: even at high load, the CPU remains cool and fans are really quiet too,
  • Excellent performance: the new Intel 8750h 6 cores / 12 threads CPU is more than capable of running everything I need (although i’m used to a 16 cores Dual Xeon 2670 / 128GB RAM for two years now),
  • Great expandability: supports up to 2x M2 Nvme SSDs along with up to 64GB RAM,
  • And 17 inches screen.

That being said, this machine has some drawbacks:

  • Heavy: it’s a 17.3 inches laptop, isn’t it?
  • Thick: you can’t have both exceptional cooling and a thin bezel at the same time,
  • And Expensive: around 1800€ for a 8750h / 16GB RAM / GTX 1070 combo as of now.

Let’s dive now into details you won’t find in other regular reviews about the Helio 500: how to get the last bit of performance out of it!

8750H or 8950HK

Given the 8950HK is about 15% faster but the Helios 500 with this CPU is much more expensive (2600€ vs 1999€ in France), it’s not really interesting to buy the latest one.

The Intel 8750h delivers more than enough power for most workloads. See 8750H vs 8950HK for more information.

Given the 8950HK has a higher TDP (Thermal Design Power), it’s more subject to overheating and thermal throttling. Real-world performance are more than likely to be on par with the 8750H (except in rare cases).

I’d rather invest into ading 32GB RAM rather than having a slightly faster CPU. But that’s just a personal choice.

Hardware Components

Here are the Hardware components I found in my Helios 500:

  • CPU: Intel 8750H Coffee Lake, (soldered, can’t be replaced)
  • RAM: 2x 8GB SK Hynix Sodimm DDR4 2400Mhz 17-17-16-39, (takes 2x slots underneath the motherboard)
  • HDD: 1To 2.5 inches Western Digital Blue,
  • SSD: 256GB Hynix PC400 Nvme in slot 2,
  • Graphics Card: Onboard (soldered) Mobile Nvidia GTX 1070.

Only RAM, HDD and SSD can be replaced. All other components are directly soldered on the motherboard.

Setup Ubuntu

Out of the box, you won’t be able to install Ubuntu 18.04LTS because by default:

  • The Hynix PC400 Nvme drive is in RAID with Optane configuration,
  • Secure Boot, which is required by Windows 10, is also enabled by default.

Bios Settings

We’ll need to switch the Nvme disk to AHCI mode and disable secure boot before proceeding further.

How to switch to AHCI

  • Enter bios on startup by hitting F2,
  • Go to Main menu,
  • Locate SATA Mode option and set it to AHCI,
  • Save bios changes and reboot.

Switching off secure boot is a little more tricky since it must be done in 2 steps.

How to disable Secure Boot

  • Enter bios on startup by hitting F2,
  • Go to Security menu,
  • Set a Supervisor Password (and remember it),
  • Reboot,
  • Enter bios on startup by hitting F2,
  • Go to Boot menu,
  • Set Secure Boot to Disabled,
  • Save bios changes and reboot.

Once both options changed, you can boot on a USB stick prepared with an Ubuntu image and proceed to the installation.

Disk Partitions

As the bios is configured in UEFI mode by default, it’s best to configure Ubuntu using an EFI Boot partition.

I would strongly suggest to remove any swap partition and this may cause the SSD to wear-out prematurely, without providing any performance advantage.

Things That Don’t Work

Once you have installed Ubuntu 18.04LTS on the Helios 500, you will quickly notice:

  • Wi-fi card is not detected: the Killer Double-Shot Pro Wi-fi card (which is an Intel AC 9260) is simply not supported without additional drivers,
  • Backlight adjustment through function key is not working,
  • No sound comes from speakers because a headphone is always detected.

Let’s see how to solve all those issues.

Intel AC 9260 Wi-Fi Driver

I found the answer after several hours of research.

You must install iwlwifi backports:

sudo apt get install git build-essential
git clone https://git.kernel.org/pub/scm/linux/kernel/git/iwlwifi/backport-iwlwifi.git
make defconfig-iwlwifi-public
sed -i 's/CPTCFG_IWLMVM_VENDOR_CMDS=y/# CPTCFG_IWLMVM_VENDOR_CMDS is not set/' .config
make -j4
sudo make install

Also, after each Kernel upgrade, you must install them again (pretty annoying):

sudo make install

And reboot once finished. That’s it! Your wifi card should now be detected properly by Ubuntu.

Nvidia Drivers

Via Software and Updates, choose the Additional Drivers tab and select Nvidia Corporation drivers (proprietary ones). The GTX 1070 works perfectly fine with those.

Backlight

Install xbaclight:

sudo apt install xbacklight

You can then adjust backlight with commands like xbacklight -10 (minus 10 percent). Sadly, I don’t really know why the backlight adjustment doesn’t work out of the box.

Anyway, that’s not really a problem since i’m not using the 17.3 inches monitor most of the time, but my external Acer B326HUL 32 inches monitor.

Fix Headphone detection

the built-in audio driver doesn’t detect the headphone jack connection properly. Yo umust use hda-jack-retask to indicate to Ubuntu your jack is disconnected.

Once done, Ubuntu will use the laptop speakers instead. I finally opted for an external sound card based on the cheap CM108 Audio Controller. You can find one on AliExpress for about 3$ shiping included.

Monitoring CPU Temperature

In order to keep an eye on CPU temperature, you can install both lm-sensors and psensors:

sudo apt install lm-sensors psensor

With those, you can have the CPU temperature right within the Gnome toolbar.

My CPU is mostly running between 42-45°C on idle and 70-75°C on full load (with undervolting, we’ll see that later).

Let’s see now how we can maximize the performance of this beast!

CPU Undervolting

8750H Undervolting Undervolting my 8750H with -200mV voltage offset

The question you may ask is: Why undervolt the CPU?

By lowering the CPU voltage, you lower the CPU power consumption. The CPU power consumption can be defined as following:

Heat Dissipation (Watts) = Frequency * (Voltage)^2

How does this affect CPU performance? To understand this, we must understand how Intel Turbo Boost works. By default, the Intel 8750h has 2 power limits on the Helios 500:

  • PL1 (Power Limit 1): 45W max Thermal Dissipation on full load,
  • PL2 (Power Limit 2): 56.25W max Thermal dissipation on full Turbo Boost frequency for a max duration of 28sec.

By lowering the voltage, you can increase the frequency of the CPU to reach the same Power Limit. The difference is: the CPU runs faster! By undervolting the CPU, we are in fact allowing the Intel Turbo Boost system to run the CPU at a higher frequency for the same heat dissipated.

On the 8750H, on full load:

  • On default Vcore, CPU mostly tops at 2.9Ghz,
  • With a -200mV core and cache undervolt (both are tied), the CPU tops at 3.5Ghz mostly.

That’s about 600Mhz per CPU core gained!

On laptops which overheat, this may reduce the CPU temperature. On the Helios 500, I found it didn’t improve temperatures (which are already great), but significantly increased the CPU speed.

Cinebench scores increases by almost 30% from 900~950 on stock voltage to 1200~1300 when undervolted.

Undervolting under Windows

I would suggest to use ThrottleStop. Most users report that it’s more stable than Intel XTU. And you can save your settings and apply them on startup too.

Undervolting under Ubuntu

I used Undervolt:

undervolt is a program for undervolting Intel CPUs under Linux. It works in a similar manner to the Windows program ThrottleStop (i.e, MSR 0x150). You can apply a fixed voltage offset to one of 5 voltage planes, and override your systems temperature target (CPU will throttle when this temperature is reached).

It works great with both the Intel 8750H and the Intel 8950HK.

How Much Undervolting?

I could reach -200mV on both core and cache tested stable with Prime95. (which runs on Linux too)

That’s a pretty good results. Most 8750h can reach -120mV to -150mV without affecting system stability. How low you can go is a lottery: it depends on your CPU.

Undervolting Methodology

  • Set an undervolt setting (like -150mV),
  • Run Prime95 for at least 12h and check for any computation error, (Torture Test + Blend Test)
  • Decrease voltage further by 10mV decrements.

Once you’ve found your CPU is not stable (prime95 is crashing or throwing an error), step back the undervolt by a safe 10% margin. In my case, I was able to go down to -220mV until crashed appeared. I stepped back to -200mV.

On my old Intel 4702MQ I could only reach -100mV undervolt. Keep in mind this highly depends on the quality of your CPU.

Thermal Paste

As the CPU runs around 45°C on idle and 70°C on full load, I don’t see any good reason to repaste it.

I’ve previously repasted an Acer V3-772G which was reaching 90°C on full load. Once repasted with a good thermal paste, it was hovering the same temperatures as the Helios 500 (but with a much worse CPU cooling system).

It should only provide a marginal improvement (and maybe no improvement at all) on the Helios 500.

Helios 500 Disassembly

There is an excellent Youtube Tutorial explaining how to disassemble the Helios 500.

Disassembly Explained

Disassembly is pretty easy and give you full access to: - HDD and nvme disks, - Motherboard including Bios Chips, - CPU and GPU heatsinks including fans.

How to Disassemble Acer Helios 500

  • Turn the laptop with the bottom up,
  • Unscrew the 2 screws holding the panel providing access to RAM and disks,
  • Remove the panel with a plastic pryer,
  • Disconnect the battery from the motherboard and remove it by gently pulling it from the outside,
  • Unscrew the Nvme disk heatsink, unscrews nvme disk and remove them both,
  • Unscrew 2 screws holding the SATA HDD drive and disconnect the SATA cable from the motherboard,
  • Unscrew all the outside screws (about 20),
  • Remove the bottom plastic cover gently with a plastic pryer.

I found the process really easy. Once used to it, you can disassemble the bottom panel in 10 minutes.

Disassembly is very useful to:

  • Clean fans and heatsink: when dust builds up, it can dramatically lower the heatsink performance and increase temps (and thus fan noise),
  • Disconnect unused components: I have disconnected both the 1To HDD and the battery from the motherboard,
  • Mod the Bios: that’s one of the most interesting part!

Let’s see what’s bios modding and the benefits you can achieve.

Helios 500 Bios Mod

Helios 500 Bios Mod Kind of scary to do those things on a brand new 2K€ laptop!

Most laptop bioses are restrained by default. That’s completely understandable: most users won’t mess with the bios either. But, for power users like me, it’s a bit frustrating.

I have modded my Helios 500 bios. The goal is to unlock hidden bios settings like:

  • CPU Voltage: apply undervolting right from the bios (no software required anymore!),
  • CPU Turbo Boost Settings: increase CPU Turbo Boost duration to improve performance,
  • RAM Frequency and Timings: take advantage of high speed RAM (although performance gain are marginal),
  • And more!

So, is it really useful? Not as nearly as undervolting. But it still provides a lot of new options like shown on an Helios 300 unlocked bios.

I have modded my bios using:

  • another laptop running Ubuntu with flashrom 1.0 (open-source) installed (supports CH341A programmer),
  • CH341A USB Programmer: read / write bios chips using this USB stick,
  • SOIC 8 clip: connect the CH341A to your bios chip (without desoldering it from the motherboard).

And believe me or not, i’ve overwritten my bios a dozen of times already! That what happens when you play with bios settings you don’t understand.

Where is the Bios Chip

InsydeH2O v5 bios installed on the Helios 500 is write protected: it means you need an external hardware programmer to dump and overwrite the bios.

But firts, let’s locate the Bios Chip on the Helios 500.

Helios 500 Bios Chip Bios Chip is located in red marked section

The bios firmware is unique to your computer. You can’t use a modded bios from another Helios 500 on your own.

The greatest thing is yet to come: you can reprogram your bios chip even when it’s soldered on your mainboard! No need to desolder or replace the chip.

CH341 Programmer

The bios chip is a CMedia GD25Q128D. I’ve only found specs for GD25Q128C so I assumed this chip would be almost the same.

Then, we need a CH341A USB programmer.

CH341A

And a SOIC 8 clip.

SOIC 8 Clip

Great, now we have the material to first dump the existing bios.

Dumping Existing Bios

  • Connect CH341A USB programmer to another computer,
  • Connect Soic 8 clip to the bios chip on your Helios 500,
  • Dumping the bios using flashrom:
sudo flashrom -p ch341a_spi -c "GD25Q128C" -r bios.original.bin

Now that we have a dump of the existing bios, let’s head to Bios Mods forum and ask for a bios mod. You will have to provide a downloadable binary of your existing bios.

Always keep the original bios backup in case something goes wrong.

Someone should mod your bios within a few hours and send it to you by private message. It’s not time to overwrite the bios

Overwrite Bios

  • Connect CH341A USB programmer to another computer,
  • Connect Soic 8 clip to the bios chip on your Helios 500,
  • Overwrite the bios using flashrom:
sudo flashrom -p ch341a_spi -c "GD25Q128C" -w bios.modded.bin

That should overwrite your existing bios with the binary bios you provided (the modded one). That’s it!

Carefully Reassemble the laptop and boot it. Hit F2 to enter the bios.

Some weird things you may experience:

  • The laptop reboots several times before booting properly: this is fine. Don’t panic, I guess it’s something like a self-check test done by the machine before booting for the first time,
  • The laptop is horribly slow / No wifi / No Nvidia card detected: make sure Secure Boot is disabled within the bios. I’ve spent hours figuring out this one!

Clear CMOS

Usually, when you enter wrong bios settings and the computer won’t boot, you just make a clear cmos to restore bios default settings. That doesn’t seem to work on the Helios 500.

Everytime I have entered wrong bios settings (like trying to enable the Intel GPU), I had to overwrite the bios with the modded one again. It’s pretty annoying and time consuming, so don’t touch bios settings unless you know what you do.

Useful Unlocked Bios Settings

The settings I mostly use are the following:

  • Overclocking Performance Menu: By enabling Overclocking Feature, you are able to undervolt the CPU directly from the bios. The huge advantage is you don’t need ThrottleStop or Intel XTU anymore. Considering how annoying it is to run them on OS startup, that’s a huge gain,
  • Memory Configuration: by setting the memory profile to Custom Profile, you can tweak RAM frequency and timings. I managed to run the factory Hynix sticks rated for 2400Mhz at 2933Mhz 21-21-21-43. That’s not bad!
  • Power & Performance: You can adjust Turbo Boost Duration from there. By default, the CPU is configured to stay in max turbo boost (3.9Ghz on all cores) for 28sec. You can increase that to a maximum of 128sec.
By - CTO.
Tags: Acer Helios 500 8750h Nvidia

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