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Acer’s Swift 3 poses one of the more difficult questions for a tech reviewer: How do you rate a 13.5-inch laptop that you really enjoyed using, yet whose performance is otherwise disappointingly weak?
This Swift 3 ticks all the other boxes that make for a great laptop: a beautiful screen, outstanding keyboard, and superb battery life.That’s why we’re slightly puzzled at how both Acer and Intel (which provided engineering input to Acer as part of its “Project Athena” program, now called Evo), apparently let the Swift 3 go out the door with such poor performance. Keep reading to discover how we balanced the better and the worse.
This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best laptops. Go there for information on competing products and how we tested them.
Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) basic features
The Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) we reviewed is the Intel-based version of the superb $655 Acer Swift 3 (SF314-42-R9YN), built around the AMD Ryzen Mobile 4000 chip. As our feature list below reveals, the -R9YN is substantially cheaper; you can skip ahead to our performance section to see how it fares there. Besides the processor, there’s one key difference between the two: The Intel-based version adds a Thunderbolt 3 port.
As noted above, the Acer Swift 3 is based upon Intel’s 10th-gen Ice Lake processor. It’s also part of Intel’s first-generation “Project Athena” coterie of laptops, which were co-engineered by both Acer and Intel engineers. While Intel has expanded upon the Athena vision over time, the original Athena blueprint calls for a laptop to be instantly responsive and connected, with great battery life. We’d agree that Acer has met those goals, even though its 3:2 display doesn’t offer touch capabilities.
The Athena capabilities are highlighted by the ‘Engineered for Mobile Performance’ sticker adorning the chassis, and if you’re a…stickler…for a clean look, you’ll be busy peeling off the various badges that adorn its silver keyboard deck. We wouldn’t quite put the Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) in the “thin-and-light” category, though at less than three pounds, the aluminum and magnesium-aluminum chassis is easier to tote around than its bulk would suggest.
The Acer Swift 3 isn’t a 360-degree convertible, though it folds back flat. The squarish 3:2 2256×1504 IPS screen may seem strangely tall ti those who are used to a more traditional 16:9 ratio, but that extra height comes in handy if you work in large documents or spreadsheets. Acer rates the screen brightness at 450 nits, well above what you might expect in a typical laptop, even one that sells for a bit more than $1,000. The color fidelity appears to be very good. The screen bezels are approximately a quarter-inch on the side (6mm), three-eighths of an inch (4.5mm) on the top, and three-quarters of an inch (19mm) on the bottom—nice and compact.
Biometric login via Hello is left to a fingerprint strip sensor just below the keyboard, to the far right. Fingerprint sensors vary, but strip sensors aren’t as accommodating as those built into the power button. If you’ve accidentally left part of your finger off of the sensor to either side, the sensor won’t allow you to log in. That was true of the Acer Swift 3 as well: During the few times in which it failed to acknowledge my finger, I found that I hadn’t positioned it correctly.
The Swift 3 pulls in air from a grille on the bottom of the laptop, and exhausts it through a series of slits built into the hinge. In my experience, that design tends to ventilate effectively. While the fan on this laptop will rev up if needed, it usually runs quietly in the background, if at all.
This Acer Swift 3 review unit ships with a Thunderbolt 3 port, which will accept input power if you don’t want to use Acer’s accompanying 65W thin barrel charger. Provided that you have a Thunderbolt hub, the port provides enough bandwidth to power a pair of external 4K displays at a comfortable, eye-friendly 60Hz, as well as access external hard drives and other functions. However, the Thunderbolt port can also be used as a generic USB-C port for a cheaper, less capable USB-C hub. If you have an older 1080p display, no problem! The Swift 3’s integrated HDMI port has you covered there, too.
Remember, though, that while the Swift 3 ships with Intel’s lightning-fast 802.11ax Wi-Fi technology, theoretically capable of over 14 Gbit/s across a wireless connection, that’s both hypothetical and dependent upon a supported 802.11ax router, too.
A lovely typing experience
Our review of Acer’s Ryzen-powered Swift 3 already sums up the typing experience very well: like a pair of old, comfortable blue jeans. The Acer Swift 3’s keyboard does feel a little loosey-goosey, but my fingers flew across the keys. To my ruler, the individual key size is just a hair smaller than that on my preferred laptop keyboard, the Surface Book 3’s, whose keys are slightly less than 16mm wide. Two levels of backlighting are included, though there was a cluster around the ‘T’ key where the backlighting was much fainter than in the rest of the keyboard.
You won’t find any real quirks to the key layout. Acer includes a Precision touchpad, which registered my gestures as well as my clicks, all the way to the top. All in all, the Acer Swift 3 (SF313-F2) offers an excellent typing experience, and I was reluctant to give it up and move to another review unit.
Audio, camera, and apps
The Swift 3’s audio capabilities are nothing to write home about, with a pair of downwards-facing TrueHarmony speakers providing low to moderate volume and adequate sound at the midrange and high end. Some Acer Swift laptops that I’ve reviewed are bolstered somewhat by audio enhancement technologies, such as a utility written for the Realtek audio codec. No such codec was available with our review unit, however, and one didn’t seem to be accessible via the Microsoft Store app. Acer provides a SmartAudio 3 utility, provided by Synaptics, that’s almost worse than useless: Many of the bare-bones options aren’t accessible, and the app can’t even be maximized like any other app.
Acer includes a technology called Purified.Voice that drives a pair of mics designed to pick your voice out of the aural congestion of a conference room or a house full of kids. With music playing, and then a podcast, I was able to make myself understood reliably while seated at the laptop. Unfortunately, a glitch with Cortana—probably Microsoft’s fault, not Acer—wouldn’t allow the ‘Hey Cortana’ wake word to work, so I wasn’t able to test how the technology works across the room.
Acer’s user-facing camera is mounted at the top of the screen. It doesn’t support Windows Hello facial recognition. It does allow 0.9MP (1280×720) still images and 720p 16:9 video for Zoom calls and the like, which is par for the course for most laptops. Acer and the Windows Camera app provide an option to scale down the video and still image quality further, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. While video captured from the camera is a bit soft and fuzzy, as expected, the image isn’t bad—just a bit dark. I did notice that background shadows had a distinctly bluish cast.
Privacy wonks, be warned: There’s neither a key nor a switch to disable the mic. There’s no physical shutter over the camera, either.
If there’s any part of the Acer experience that could use some work, however, it’s Acer’s collection of software utilities. Imagine some designer taking a unified, cohesive utility management app, then shredding it. Down flutters Acer Product Registration, then Acer Care Center —which is one of the only useful apps Acer provides. Acer Jumpstart is actually Acer’s webpage. Inside the ‘Acer documents’ link in the Start menu is the user manual, which…tells me only how to connect to the Internet and use the touchpad. Oh yes, and there’s the Acer Collection S and App Explorer, both providing me suggested apps. Quick Access supposedly offers shortcuts to useful features, like blue light reduction—which didn’t seem to do anything. (Use the Windows “night light” setting instead.)
Half of these apps don’t even share the Acer name, meaning that they’re scattered all over your Start menu like scraps of paper across a parking lot. Even the “User Experience Improve [sic] Program” doesn’t allow for any feedback, just an invitation to let Acer look over your shoulder. It all needs to be fixed.
Keep reading for performance benchmarks.
Performance: Surprisingly disappointing
We thought that Acer’s Swift 3, and what we assumed to be a powerful Core i7-1065G7 chip inside, would open the door to performance that’s among the best the category has to offer—if you exclude the Ryzen-powered Acer Swift 3, that is. Yet the Swift 3 is a bit of a puzzle. It held up pretty well in real-world performance, both in office work and in streaming video. My son didn’t want to give it up while “testing” it as a Fortnite PC—though, as it turns out, he had to turn the graphics settings down to Low while running at 1080p or lower.
But even after re-running our benchmarks several times, its 10th-gen Core i7 chip still finished dead last in our Cinebench CPU test. We checked our results with Acer, who confirmed our results. After reading our performance scores below, you’ll see why we were torn on how we rated the Swift 3.
We test each laptop using a mix of real-world and synthesized benchmarks, comparing the Swift 3 to a variety of competitors with similar specifications and about the same price point. We’ve highlighted the Swift 3’s results in red in the following graphs.
PCMark 8’s Work and Creative tests offer a mix of real-world tasks, beginning with the Office test’s emphasis on spreadsheets, word processing, web browsing, and videoconferencing. A score of 2,000 or higher means the laptop can handle mainstream tasks competently, All of the laptops we test do well here, and the comparative placement (midrange for this Swift 3) is satisfactory.
The Creative workloads tests the laptop in multimedia-oriented tasks, such as light gaming, and photo and video editing. Here, the Swift 3 scored solidly above average.
We use Maxon’s Cinebench test to push the CPU’s workload to the max to render a scene. If you plan to use your laptop for CPU-intensive workloads like rendering, this test can point you toward appropriate choices.
The Swift 3’s dead-last finish is a real puzzler. All the other laptops we compared with the same CPU are clustered toward the middle or above, while the Swift 3 is stuck behind a bunch of 8th-gen ‘U’ series mobile chips.
HandBrake is a different story. This real-world CPU test uses the free utility to convert a real-world, feature-length movie to a format suitable for playback on an Android tablet. Becuase it’s a prolonged task, it tends to separate the thermally well-managed laptops from the ones that struggle to stay cool and have to throttle performance as a result. Shorter times are better, and here again, the Swift 3 falls far behind laptops with the same CPU, falling in with older chips instead.
We don’t test gaming as intensively as we would for a dedicated gaming laptop, but you’ll still want to know if you can relax after hours with, say, Fortnite or Rocket League. (The answer is a qualified yes: Fortnite is quite accommodating at various resolutions and graphics levels, but the Swift 3’s performance on other games, such as the older Rise of the the Tomb Raider, was quite disappointing: just 11 frames per second at 1080p resolution, on High graphics levels.) We use 3DMark’s Sky Diver test to evaluate laptops with integrated graphics, and the high-powered Ice Lake chip inside the Swift 3 does compare well to other laptops using Intel’s low-end UHD graphics.
Finally, we come to battery life. We loop a 4K movie over and over until the battery runs out. There are other ways of testing battery life—office work with Wi-Fi on, for example—but our method is repeatable, and matches up nicely to how you’d use the laptop for a transoceanic flight, for example. Of course, if you use the Swift 3 at its maximum 400-nit brightness, rather than the 250 nits we set for testing, battery life will suffer.
Here, the Swift 3 redeems itself somewhat with just over thirteen hours of battery life. This suggests you could work from the couch all day with no problem, and is a result worth applauding.
Conclusion: The experience, not the performance
It’s rare to find a laptop that I really enjoyed using, but whose performance is so disappointing. Let’s tally up the positives: a top-notch keyboard, premium Thunderbolt I/O, a crisp, lovely 2K screen, excellent battery life. On the opposing side of the ledger, the Swift 3’s performance is middling to poor, its audio so-so, and the software experience is lacking as well.
We probably agonized over our choice more than we should: 3.5 stars? Or a full four? We had to go with our gut. For its everyday combination of a great keyboard, beautiful display, and excellent battery life, Acer’s Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) earns four stars. If you’re more concerned with performance, there’s an easy answer to all this: buy our Editor’s Choice, the Acer Swift 3 (SF314-42-R9YN) instead, and for less. You’ll lose the Thunderbolt ports and the lovely 2K screen. Either way, however, we think you’ll win.
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