Acer Switch Alpha 12 Review: A New Surface Competitor Emerges

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Acer Switch Alpha 12 Review: A New Surface Competitor Emerges

Until recently, I haven’t been paying much attention to Acer, but maybe that was a mistake. Take, for instance, the Switch Alpha 12. Call it a hybrid, a 2-in-1, a convertible, or some other term entirely. It doesn’t matter. It’s a 12 inch Windows 10 tablet with an attachable keyboard that can easily take the role of your main laptop or a mobile workstation.

Strictly speaking, Acer is marketing it as a 2-in-1 notebook, which is an apt description. There have been several attempts to make a multipurpose device that fulfills the purpose of portable tablet and fully-functioning laptop, but Microsoft’s own Surface is probably the best known. In direct comparison to the Surface, the Switch Alpha 12 makes a very favorable showing.

Acer’s 2-in-1 comes, essentially, in three distinct flavors—the low end model running an Intel Core i3 with 4GB RAM/128 GB SSD drive, the mid-grade Core i5 with 8GB RAM/256GB storage, and the powerhouse i7 version. We tested the i5 version (Model# SA5-271-52FG) running Windows 10 Home (Win10 Pro versions cost $100 more for some reason). The prices range from $599.99 for the low-end all the way up to $1099.99 for the i7 Windows 10 Pro model. Ours, a Costco-specific package, lists at $799.99 and included a special fine-tipped stylus and a 16GB Micro SD card.

All models include the magnetically-attached keyboard. To put that nearly $800 price point in perspective, a Microsoft Surface Pro running pretty equivalent specs (Intel i5 processor, 8GB Ram, 256 GB storage) is $1299 and it has a smaller screen. The price also doesn’t include the keyboard (an additional $159.99 purchase) or a stylus.

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Hybrids like this skirt the middle-ground between power-users who need all the functionality of a full-on PC and low-end needs that can be met with a Chromebook (or a standard Android tablet or iPad). The Switch isn’t particularly more expensive than a similarly equipped traditional laptop, but the lighter weight and overall smaller footprint give it a distinct leg up in comparison. Plus, you can remove the keyboard entirely and use it as a tablet, which is a great option despite some noteworthy problems that have nothing to do with the Switch and everything to do with how touchscreen unfriendly Windows 10 is.

Acer has tread similar ground with their Aspire flip books, but the Switch is a more elegant solution, since the keyboard is removable and doesn’t get in the way when tableting. The Switch Alpha 12, as the name implies, sports an impressive QHD IPS 12 inch screen with a default resolution of 2160×1440. Even going from my usual 10 in Samsung Tab, the Acer’s screen seems huge for such a portable device. The image is crisp and sharp, with good contrast and colors, all of which are very necessary for a crowded Windows desktop or Netflix binge. Also interesting is the inclusion of a “Blue Light” toggle (in the Acer-specific options, not Windows options), which essentially cuts out most of the screen’s color, but (supposedly anyway) negates the negative “blue light” effects of almost every screen on the market today.

The stereo speakers don’t produce jaw-dropping sound, but certainly get the job done. We still recommend good headphones, but the built-in front-facing speakers are tolerable at least. Speaking of noise, the Switch actually doesn’t make any on its own—it’s completely silent, despite its beefy power thanks to its fanless, liquid cooling design. It still gets a bit hot (especially with graphics-heavy loads, like gaming), but this is a clever solution for annoying fan noises.

The brushed steel body of the Switch has a pull out stand that keeps it up, which is a great design feature. On the negative side, it uses a proprietary power port, which means losing the AC adaptor would be a big problem. Thankfully, it does include a full-size USB and USB-C port for plugging other things into it, but standard USB charging would have been welcome.

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The 8GB of RAM and i5 CPU give the Switch plenty of power to spare when it comes to getting down to real work. Microsoft’s Office Suite runs like a champ, which makes this unit a truly portable laptop replacement. Or, more to the point, just a great laptop for working on the go. The full-size keyboard feels remarkably good for having such a low profile and being able to run the full Windows versions of Word and Powerpoint makes life a lot easier for a guy like me who spends most of his time as a technical writer.

The Active Stylus is also excellent. This ball-point pen-sized stylus is sensitive and especially terrific for digital artists. Oddly, however, it uses an AAAA battery, which I honestly didn’t even know was a thing. I would have preferred a non-removable rechargeable solution here.

When work time’s over, the Switch is a great streaming machine and a surprisingly good gaming machine. Though certainly not a “gaming” laptop, I found I could tweak a lot of popular games to run tolerably on the Switch. So, Minecraft, Diablo 3, and Skyrim worked commendably. It’s especially great for retro gaming.

Unfortunately, all that versatility and power comes at a significant price: low battery life. The Switch Alpha 12 runs down after about five hours, which is markedly below both standard laptops and other major tablet competitors. A second battery built into the keyboard (similar to, say, Asus’ Android Transformer tablets) would have been an ideal design decision. The complete reliance on a proprietary AC port can also make matters worse on the go, since you can’t just plug it into a standard USB adapter.

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The other problem isn’t Acer’s fault at all, but Microsoft’s. Windows 10, even in its so-called “tablet” mode, simply doesn’t compete with iOS or Android in terms of touchscreen usability. There’s no doubt that having a touchscreen for Windows is beneficial, but that tile-based tablet interface is a mess and far from intuitive and using the standard desktop purely by touch is iffy as well. Windows simply doesn’t have enough built-in ways to truly customize the dual interfaces to feel natural for a touchscreen.

Finally, while the Switch supports common wifi standards, it’s a bit disappointing there’s no option for built-in cellular data. A SIM chip slot would have given it a real boost in terms of travel functionality. It’s not a huge complaint, but something I hope they’ll add the next time around.

These complaints aside, the Acer Switch Alpha 12 is one of the few laptop solutions I’d call ideal for a truly portable workstation solution. It can work and play impressively well. At a bit over two pounds (with the keyboard attached) and half an inch high, it might be heavy for a tablet, but it’s a joy to travel with after years of those bulky laptops with keyboards that don’t come off.