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Budget laptops continue to improve, and the Acer Spin 3 is a good example. For an affordable price it offers adequate components and battery life, with enough flexibility to accommodate a range of peripherals. Though the 14-inch, 360-degree convertible laptop delivers middling performance, a modern Thunderbolt port and a nifty integrated stylus stand out. In all, it’s a solid laptop, but in a market whose competition is growing stronger, quickly.
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 Spin 3 basic features
The Acer Spin 3 (SP314-54N-58Q7) we tested is sold at Costco for $650, although the company lists a few alternatives on its Acer online store. Of the four listed, only one, the SP314-54N-50W3, contains an up-to-date Core i5-1035G4 processor as well as a larger 512GB SSD, for about $150 more. (Intel’s 10th-gen “Ice Lake” processors use the number attached to its “G” suffix to indicate the relative graphics performance, with a higher number being better.) We still consider our review unit’s loadout—8GB RAM, 256GB SSD—adequate for most needs.
Here are the basic features of our review unit, which is backed by a one-year “International Travelers’ Warranty.” Acer says that warranty runs concurrently with its standard one-year U.S. warranty, allowing the laptop to be serviced in up to 30 other countries where Acer has authorized facilities.
Display: 14-inch IPS (1920×1080)
Processor: 1GHz Core i5-1035G1
Graphics: UHD Graphics
Memory: 8GB LPDDR4
Storage: 256GB NVMe SSD
Ports: USB-C (Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 Gen 2). 2 USB-A (USB 3.2 Gen 1), HDMI 2.0 (HDCP), microSD, 3.5mm headphone/mic
Camera: User-facing: 720p, super HDR
Battery: 47.8Wh (rated), 45.9Wh (actual)
Wireless: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) 2×2 MIMO; Bluetooth 5.0
A budget 14-inch laptop like the Acer Spin 3 doesn’t ask you to pay for its looks. At about 17mm thick, the Spin 3 is a tad chunky, but in a good way: sturdily built, with a pair of thick 360-degree hinges. When you flip around the display, Windows automatically configures the Spin 3 into tablet mode. Another benefit: The broader chassis offers a hearty mixture of ports that you won’t find on thinner laptops.
Acer did cut a few corners in the display. Though the IPS panel was pleasingly vibrant, our light meter registered just 274 nits—barely enough for day-to-day use. Although the side screen bezels measure just 7.82mm, the bezel at the bottom of the screen is a about an inch deep and definitely noticeable.
The Spin 3 seems to have adequate cooling, with venting beneath the laptop and a larger grille near the hinge. My home office environment is quite quiet, allowing me to hear a faint hiss from the fans as they spun up, as well as a faint bit of coil whine. When my home’s central air kicked on, however, the noise disappeared. Even when running CPU-intensive tasks, the Swift 3’s fan remained quiet—that seems to be fairly typical of the Intel 10th-gen Ice Lake laptops I’ve tested.
Personally, I consider the port selection to be close to ideal. There’s a pair of SuperSpeed USB (5Gbps) Type A connections—perfect for a keyboard or mouse, and they can also be used to connect to an external drive, if you don’t mind a slower transfer rate. A traditional HDMI port will connect a single 4K display at 60Hz.
The Thunderbolt port on the Spin 3 is a rare and treasured find on budget laptops. Thunderbolt’s particularly versatile I/O capabilities can connect to a dedicated Thunderbolt dock, a USB-C hub, or an external display.
Thunderbolt is most noteworthy for its ability to connect a pair of 4K displays at an eye-pleasing 60Hz, while a non-Thunderbolt USB-C port can connect to just one 4K display at 30Hz via a hub. Thunderbolt docks, however, range in price from $100 to $250 or so.
There’s another, hidden advantage to the Thunderbolt port. The Spin 3 ships with Acer’s narrow-tipped proprietary charger. The Thunderbolt port accepts a third-party 65W USB-C charger, giving you a secondary power option in a pinch.
Because this is an Intel 10th-gen device, wireless connectivity is supplied by Intel’s WiFi 6 radio and Bluetooth 5.0. (If you don’t understand what WiFi 6 can do for you, Michael Simon’s love letter to the technology should convince you. You’ll need a compatible laptop like the Spin 3 and a WiFi 6E router, to take advantage, though.)
Our review unit shipped with Windows 10 version 1909, which we used for testing. Midway through, it was offered the May 2020 Update, also known as version 2004.
Acer Spin 3’s keyboard and audio
I’d characterize Acer’s keyboards as middling. That’s not necessarily a criticism. Acer’s keyboards tend to be shallow and a bit mushy, bottoming out rather than cushioning your fingers. While the Swift 3 provides a full-size keyboard, the keys themselves tend to be a bit smaller on average, and Acer left itself with close to an inch of additional space on either side. Still, as I typically do, I wrote this review on the Swift 3’s keyboard itself, and it was reasonably comfortable.
Acer’s Precision trackpad fills most of the available depth below the keyboard, with an integrated fingerprint strip in the upper lefthand corner. As a consequence, a good chunk of the trackpad isn’t clickable. I’d prefer the trackpad to be wholly devoted to navigation, as there’s plenty of room elsewhere for Acer to mount the reader. Also, “strip” fingerprint readers typically aren’t as accurate as a larger sensor or a user-facing depth camera, which Acer presumably skipped over for cost reasons. The Spin 3’s reader worked fine, though (and Windows asks you to set up a PIN and password as backups, anyway).
Acer’s audio straddles the broad divide between disappointing and excellent, and that’s due to the default configuration. The Spin 3’s dual speakers are “forward” (upward) facing, and sounded a bit flat and tinny when I started playing music. But Acer also bundles the Spin 3 with the DTS audio enhancement algorithm, which dramatically improves the sound quality with a bit of fiddling. Acer also claims the “TrueHarmony” paper-cone design of its speakers improves the overall audio.
Never, ever turn DTS off, as the sound then dissolves into an aural pile of garbage. Even with DTS turned on, the speakers sounded a bit faint. Using the custom audio settings, however, I was quickly able to tune the speakers directionally (“front” versus “traditional” versus “wide”) to come up something that was both appreciably loud and pleasing to my ears.
Acer’s Spin 3 also includes “Purified Voice,” the name Acer gave its far-field mic technology when it added it to the Spin 5 in 2018. While that device included four mics, this one has two. I was still able to calmly ask Cortana for the local forecast with the laptop across the room, while my home’s central A/C ran in the background. That technology also suppresses keyboard noise, handy in video meetings where you might be typing as you talk.
Noooo! Find out what we didn’t want to see on this laptop, on the next page.
Oh, no: bloatware
Some budget laptops come overburdened with bloatware, and the Spin 3 is no exception. Some are welcome: The Spin 3’s taskbar includes the Firefox browser as well as Dropbox, which offers 25GB of cloud storage as part of an Acer promotion. Acer preinstalled Norton Security Ultra from Norton LifeLock, and customers will receive a 30-day subscription. (While we believe that the built-in Windows Defender offers satisfactory antimalware protection, the service comes bundled with a password vault, backup, and other services.) Acer (and Microsoft) preloaded the various Office apps, though you’ll have to provide your own subscription.
Acer also provides a collection of its own apps, which really deserve to be integrated into a single overarching utility. The only ones worth your time are the Acer Care Center, which allows you to request hardware updates manually, tune the system via defragmentation and other services, and so on. Quick Access provides a couple more features: the ability to manage charging via the USB ports, and a superior blue-light management control, with four gradations that go far beyond Windows’ own settings.
Otherwise, the bloatware approaches horrifying levels: separate applications for registering the unit; another, Acer Collection S, that collects curated apps (like Facebook and Netflix, which is already installed elsewhere); plus a second Apps Explorer with even more. There’s a PhotoDirector for Acer trial. PowerDirector for Acer. A user experience app. Shortcuts to Amazon, Booking.com, Evernote, ExpressVPN, a GoTrust ID app that uses your mobile phone to help authenticate, portals to buy audio and video editors from Magix Software, Hearts Deluxe, Candy Crush Friends. There are also apps to manage Intel’s Optane drive (the Spin 3 doesn’t have one) and a Thunderbolt manager, which seemed to do nothing even with a hub connected. Stop already!
The one question I’m left wondering is why, of all the software Acer bundles, there isn’t a single good drawing app. That’s one of the Spin 3’s selling points, after all.
A fun pen, a subpar webcam
Tucked inside the Spin 3 is an integrated Wacom AES Active Pen, which rather cleverly fits inside an unobtrusive slot on one side of the chassis. I’ve wrestled with integrated pens before, but this pen is designed such that it can be inserted in only one way. The pen’s apostrophe-shaped top contains a small metal contact for charging the pen, which Acer says can last for 90 minutes on just 15 seconds of charge, or over 100 minutes with a 300-second charge.
Acer tells us that the pen uses EDLC (electric double-layer capacitors), which negates the need for a battery. It also means that Windows won’t report the pen’s battery level via the Bluetooth settings menu within Windows, because the AES pen communicates directly with the Wacom digitizer built into the Spin 3. We noticed a little ink lag. Tilt appears to be supported.
Though the pen’s a bit on the skinny side (which can leave fingers feeling cramped after a while), I was able to enjoy a relaxing session of the Fresh Paint app. The battery held up just fine.
There’s no reason to expect a budget laptop like the Spin 3 to have anything better than a 720p webcam—the same sort you’ll find in the vast majority of laptops currently available. The webcam’s color accuracy seems to be on point, but the image quality is flat and mushy. The integrated HDR controls within the Windows Camera app seem to have no effect, whether off or on.
Acer Spin 3 Performance
The Acer Spin 3’s moderate performance reflects its budget roots, and there’s no shame there. For web surfing, movie watching, Excel and other office work, as well as some light gaming, it will do the job. I was also surprised to discover that the Spin 3 played back my 4K/60 YouTube test video without dropping a single frame—other, more powerful laptops I’ve tested recently couldn’t do that!
Below, you’ll see a series of benchmarks where we compare the Spin 3 to other, mostly budget-level 14-inch laptops. Keep an eye on the Walmart Motile M142, a surprisingly decent $500 14-inch laptop, the insanely good $675 Acer Swift 3 SF314-42-R9YN and the Lenovo Yoga C740-14IML, a $790 14-inch convertible. We’ve compared it to last holiday’s Acer Aspire 5 (now out of stock), and a couple of Microsoft devices. By and large, though, Acer owns a lot of the budget laptop category.
PCMark 8 is an older suite. We use the Work benchmark to evaluate the laptop on its ability to open and manipulate spreadsheets, hold video calls, and edit test documents, plus indulge in some light gaming. Creative’s suite stresses the CPU and GPU a bit more with photo editing, video editing, and more intensive gaming tests. The Spin 3 did well here, posting one of the higher scores on both tests.
We use Cinebench to test the CPU capability, pushing all of its cores to the limit. We’d expect the Spin 3’s 10th-gen “Ice Lake” Core chip to post midrange performance, and it does.
The HandBrake open-source transcoding tool takes a conventional Hollywood movie and transcodes it into a lower-resolution format appropriate for a tablet. It’s a good test of a real-world task, and evaluates how well the laptop can work under stress for a prolonged period of time. The Spin 3 finished the task faster than most of its rivals.
Next up is the 3DMark Sky Diver benchmark, an older test that’s still applicable for laptops with integrated GPUs. The 10th-gen Core i5-1035G1 used in the Spin 3 includes a “G1” suffix, indicating the weakest graphics performance within Intel’s 10th-gen lineup. As a result, some of the other Ice Lake CPUs outperform the Spin 3 in graphics performance.
It’s worth noting that the Spin 5 technically failed a 3DMark stress test, which loops a single benchmark over and over. “Failing” the test means that one or more results are inconsistent with the others, usually indicating that the laptop’s performance has degraded due to power or thermal limits. In this case, this probably just signifies that you shouldn’t expect consistent performance while playing games.
Finally, we take a look at battery life, where we set the display brightness to 250 nits, connect earbuds at medium volume, and loop a 4K video over and over until the battery expires. Though a slightly hefty laptop like the Spin 3 has room for a larger battery, the 47.9Wh capacity is average (and it stopped a bit short of full design capacity, charging to just 45.9W). Its battery life of just under nine hours will get you through a full day’s work. However, other modern laptops are doing far better.
Should you buy the Acer Spin 3?
For a budget laptop that’s largely middle-of-the-road, the Acer Spin 3 still manages to stand out because of several forward-looking features. The Thunderbolt port, the integrated stylus, and the Wi-Fi 6 antenna are things you won’t find on many other models in its price range.
You do have options. You could pay $30 more to buy the Acer Swift 3 SF314-42-R9YN, which is both lighter and faster. (My gut says that AMD Ryzen 4000-powered laptops will be the budget laptop story of 2020.) Or if battery life is your priority, Lenovo’s Yoga C740-14IML excels—and it’s also more expensive. If you shop around and still end up with the Acer Spin 3, though, you shouldn’t be disappointed.