Bargain price. Svelte design. Handsome IPS 1080p screen. Great battery life. USB-C port. Full-sized HDMI port and SD card slot. Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint reader.
64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. Small, cramped cursor control and arrow keys. Keyboard isn't backlit.
- Bottom Line
How much laptop can you get for $329? Acer's Switch 1 is a surprisingly strong answer, a little short on storage but with a slim build and a 1080p IPS display.
With the Swift 1 ($329), Acer offers the executive look of the Dell XPS 13 or the LG Gram 13 for a fraction of the price, delivering status-symbol features led by a genuine 13.3-inch in-plane switching (IPS) display with full HD resolution. If you've ever squinted and sighed over a dinky 11.6-inch screen or one with lowly 1,366-by-768 resolution or crummy colors or viewing angles, its screen alone makes the Swift 1 worth a look. It's our new Editors' Choice for budget ultraportables.
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What's the catch? Well, while its Pentium N4200 processor gives the Acer superior performance to our previous top pick, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (3162), it's no match for higher-ranking Intel CPUs like the Core i3, let alone the Core i5 or i7. And its memory (4GB) and storage (64GB of flash) are so modest as to be Chromebook-class. You'll want to be choosy about installing new apps, and store your data files on an SD card—or rely on the bundled one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal, which includes 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage. But as a toss-it-into-your-bag traveling partner for productivity work, or handy note-taker for a conference room or lecture hall, the Swift 1 is in its element. As long as you don't ask it to tackle workstation apps or demanding games, it's a spectacular value.
Sleek Metal, Not Chunky Plastic
Available in several 13.3- and 14-inch flavors (our test unit is the 13.3-inch model SF113-31-P5CK), the Swift 1 resembles Apple's venerable MacBook Air—a rounded, silver wedge, approximately a hundred times more businesslike than the colorful plastic of machines like the Dell 3162 or the HP Stream 11-y010nr. Measuring 0.6 by 12.6 by 8.9 inches (HWD), it more or less matches the MacBook Air, with a larger footprint than the XPS 13 (0.6 by 12 by 7.9 inches). At 2.87 pounds, it's half a pound heavier than the very lightest ultrabooks, such as its Acer Swift 7 stablemate, but limbos under the three-pound line that marks mere go-anywhere models such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X270.
Lift the lid, and you'll see a medium-thick bezel around the matte screen (no XPS 13-style borderless design here) and black keys in a slightly recessed silver keyboard deck with a large touchpad and a Windows Hello fingerprint reader in the palm rest. Though small, the latter is of the more convenient press-your-finger rather than the older swipe-your-finger type.
Build quality feels solid, with virtually no flex when you grasp the screen corners and none in the keyboard, and connectivity is first-class: On the system's left side are a key lock, a USB 2.0 port, and an SD (not microSD) card slot, while on the right are an HDMI port, two USB 3.0 ports, an audio jack, and a USB-C port—not Thunderbolt 3, but again, this is a $329 laptop. The AC adapter is a small plug with a proprietary (not USB-C) connector. Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi are standard.
Sound from the bottom-mounted speakers is slightly muted, not particularly loud even when cranked to 100 percent volume and prone to flatten lead vocal tracks on our MP3s. Perhaps the Swift 1 favors talk over music; a sticker on the palm rest boasts that it's certified for Skype for Business audioconferences (and indeed, the webcam delivers above-averagely bright and well-focused images). The Start menu is crowded with commerce links for eBay, Priceline, Netflix, Amazon, WildTangent, and others.
A Screen to Be Seen
The 1080p display doesn't actually give you super-duper-wide viewing angles because of reflections, but you can definitely move off dead center (or invite a couple of colleagues to check out a presentation) and still enjoy the view from angles that would leave a twisted nematic (TN) panel pale and ghostly. Its IPS technology makes the screen sunny and sharp, with colors that pop and ample brightness as long as you stick to the top two or three backlight settings. Contrast is excellent, even for something as mundane as long sessions of black-on-white word processing. YouTube and Netflix videos look lively.
Its 1,920-by-1,080 resolution is its other big advantage over cheap screens. Fine details look crisp; Windows icons and other screen elements proved legible even after we dialed the operating system's default zoom from its out-of-the-box 150 to 125 percent. Image editing is a pleasure. Even our bifocal'd eyes could spot needed solitaire cards and mah-jongg tiles.
The keyboard permits reasonably fast typing; travel is, not surprisingly, shallow but the feel is light and snappy. Our only complaint comes in the lower right corner, where half-sized cursor arrows are crowded together with half-sized Page Up and Page Down keys (the latter two pair with the Fn key for Home and End). The six are so small and close that hitting them accurately requires fingertip precision; we found moving the cursor back a word with Ctrl+Left Arrow, a full-sized key immediately next to a half-sized key, more trouble than it was worth. The buttonless touchpad glides smoothly and takes just the right amount of pressure to produce a gentle click.
An Office Assistant, Not a Barn-Burner
The Pentium N4200 is an economy CPU with an impressive number of cores (four) and an unimpressive clock speed (1.1GHz, though it can accelerate to 2.5GHz for brief spurts). It incorporates Intel HD 505 integrated graphics and is teamed here with 4GB of DDR3L memory and 64GB of SanDisk eMMC Flash—with less than 40GB free after Windows and Office are installed, you won't want to add any disk hogs. Acer offers an otherwise identical Swift 1 model with 128GB of flash, but its $70 higher price strikes us as reason to buy an SD card instead.
The Acer fell barely short of the 2,000-point mark (1,934 points) in our PCMark 8 productivity test. Since we regularly describe machines like the HP Stream and the Lenovo Miix 320 detachable, which hover around the 1,500-point level, as adequate for Microsoft Office 365 or Google Office, it's clear the Swift 1 is just fine for the likes of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Perhaps more impressive was its performance in our multimedia benchmarks such as Adobe Photoshop, where the Acer's time of 7 minutes and 45 seconds thrashed the Miix (17:49) and the Stream (14:35). While you'll still need some patience, this makes powerful apps much more viable (although, despite its sub-five-minute time in our Handbrake test, we wouldn't recommend the Swift 1 for video editing).
Not viable, in our opinion, are 3D games—our 3DMark, Heaven, and Valley benchmarks showed just how poorly low-end processors with integrated graphics do when put to a visual test. The only system in our charts to manage double-digit frame rates at modest quality settings was our Editors' Choice low-cost full-sized laptop, the Acer Aspire E 15, which gives you a more potent Core i3 CPU (and plenty of storage) for just $20 more than the Swift 1—but if you've read this far, you probably know whether you want an ultrabook or a desktop replacement.
The Swift 1 may be named like a sprinter, but it lasted like a marathoner in our battery life test, its time of 12 hours and 48 minutes easily topping the Inspiron 3162 (10:05) and the Stream 11 (8:36).
A Good-Looking, Well-Built Bargain
If you haven't noticed, the Acer Swift 1 is something of a landmark—an ultrathin and light mix of productivity and style that costs less than one-third what Apple's still charging for the MacBook Air. (OK, the Air has twice the memory and storage, but it also has that outdated 1,440-by-900 display.) Unless your budget tops out at $200, you owe it to yourself to check out our new favorite entry-level ultraportable.
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By Eric Grevstad Contributing Editor
Formerly editor-in-chief of Home Office Computing, Eric Grevstad is a contributing editor for PCMag and Computer Shopper, where he earlier served as lead laptop analyst and executive editor, respectively. A tech journalist since the TRS-80 and Apple II days, Grevstad specializes in lightweight laptops, all-in-one desktops, and productivity software, all of which he uses when commuting and telecommuting between PC Labs and a cat-filled home office in Old Greenwich, CT. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EricGrevstad…. More »
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