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Acer manages to roll premium construction and smart design, better-than-average performance, decent battery life and an excellent keyboard into a reasonably priced 2-in-1 tablet. The battery life could be a little better and the easily hit power button made me nuts every now and then, but overall the company's Surface wannabe, the Aspire Switch Alpha 12, makes a compelling compromise for folks who need enough power for working and gaming but don't need top-level stylus performance, a stellar display or a great camera.
The configuration I tested packs way-above-average specs for its $750 (AU$1,730) price; the equivalent Surpace Pro 4 setup costs almost $500 more (though it also has a much better display). Our particular test configuration doesn't seem to be offered in the UK: the closest is a £750 version that differs by a smaller 128GB drive or a £599.99 model with 4GB RAM, and i3-6100U processor and a 128GB SSD. Oddly, the Acer Active Stylus is a $50 (£20) option in the US and Australia (I can't find the stylus for Australia), but comes bundled in the UK. Other US configurations range from a $700 model with a 128GB SSD to a $1,000 model with a Core i7-6500U processor. In Australia there are options as low as AU$1,390 4GB memory and Core i3-6100U to AU$2,159 for an i7-6500U with a 512GB SSD.
Of all the models attempting to emulate or improve on the Microsoft Surface's design, I think this one succeeds best. The system feels high quality and durable: it even passed an impromptu pushed-off-the-table-at-Starbucks test. (It fell face down on the display, so I don't know if it would have cracked if it had fallen on an edge.) One of the big attractions is its novel fanless, liquid-cooled architecture (Acer's LiquidLoop Cooling System). It's not only silent, like a tablet, but it can stream Netflix all night and not get warm. It gets a little more heated against my legs, but remains tolerable.
|Price as reviewed||$750/£750/AU$1,730|
|Display size/resolution||12-inch, 2,160 x 1,440 touch display|
|PC CPU||2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U|
|PC memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz|
|Graphics||128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
Like many 2-in-1s, the Switch Alpha 12 is comprised of a 12-inch touchscreen tablet section running Windows 10 with a bundled, magnetically attachable keyboard; the keyboard cover has a loop to hold the stylus. The magnet is surprisingly strong -- it latched onto my badge holder at one point when I held the tablet up to take a picture -- but it serves as a place to attach the stylus when using it as a slate.
The kickstand design works very well. You can tilt it to any angle between almost perfectly flat to almost vertical, and it has a rubberized section on the bottom to keep it from sliding and to keep it stable on, say, a bed. It's not quite as comfortable to use as a notebook on your lap, but it's not a bad compromise.
I really like the keyboard as well. It has full size, backlit keys that have great tactile feedback; I'm a keyboard pounder and picky about feel. The touchpad is in a good spot and appropriately responsive. You will probably need to configure it to make it behave the way you expect, though.
The Switch Alpha 12's a good size (roughly letter/A4), but weighs a bit more than competitors: about 2.9 pounds/1.3 kg with keyboard and stylus or 2 pounds/906g for the slate portion. Though Acer fails to say so anywhere, you can charge it via USB-C -- though you'll have to spring for a 45W charger, the type used to charge Chromebooks and MacBooks. Otherwise, you may have to schlep the AC adapter if you need more than 5.5 hours of battery life. That'll add another 11 ounces to your burden.
On the top, when holding the tablet vertically (or on the left in landscape), sit a power button, volume switch and dedicated Windows button. I do find it hard to juggle the tablet without accidentally pressing the somewhat twitchy power button. On the bottom (right side in landscape) are the headphone jack, a USB 3 and a USB-C connector and the power connector. On the same side below the kickstand hinge is a microSD slot for storage expansion.
The trade-off from more expensive competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S is the display: the Switch Alpha 12 uses IPS technology rather than OLED. Nevertheless, it's sufficiently bright and high contrast, with reasonably accurate color, so it should probably be fine for most needs. The resolution is lower than a 4K-capable Surface Pro 4, but it's good enough for noncritical photo editing, and streaming Netflix on the cheap standard-definition plan looks sharp enough.
Its performance is up to some fairly graphics- and CPU-intensive tasks, and I have no complaints about the computer's speed -- even for GPU-intensive applications like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. (Sorry, I'm not a gamer, so I can't weigh in on that.)
The middle-of-the-road active stylus and underwhelming low-resolution 5-megapixel camera may deter creatives from considering this as a real Surface alternative, however. The optional Active Stylus is well balanced and has a nice heft -- thanks to the AAAA battery inside -- but the system/pen combination only has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and you may experience some lag in sketching. On the other hand, if you like pressing hard to change the stroke width you may like the feel.
For note-taking it has a nice frictiony feel without much lag. But the programmable switch on the barrel lies exactly where I grip it for writing so my hand quickly tires trying to find a comfortable spot, and it doesn't seem to track well enough for fast writing. The switch can be programmed to bring up Acer's Hover utility, a quick launcher for user-specified pen-savvy apps, and erasing.
Its TrueHarmony audio sounded fine to my undiscerning ears -- loud enough to hear over the air conditioner and not tinny or excessively bass-heavy.
Within the line, I think our test configuration strikes the best balance between power and price, and the Switch Alpha 12 is one of the best 2-in-1's available for the money. But if you need something more powerful, you might as well step up to model with a better display and first-class pen support like the Surface Pro 4 rather than just bumping up the processor with the Acer.
Editors' note, October 3, 2016: This review was edited to clarify that the Switch Alpha 12 can charge via USB-C.
|Acer Aspire Switch Alpha 12||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Huawei MateBook||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 256GB SSD|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel Core m5-6Y57; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 128GB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 4||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Samsung Galaxy TabPro S||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel m3-6Y30; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 128GB SSD|