Looking for a better priced Surface Pro 4? The $600 Acer Switch Alpha 12 offers 90% of a Surface Pro, at almost half the cost. While Acer’s brand doesn’t portend quality, their latest 2-in-1 hybrid offers every bit the refinement of a Surface.
So should you buy the Acer Switch Alpha 12? If you’re looking for a 2-in-1 convertible tablet and can’t afford a Surface, the Alpha offers a reliable alternative. Those seeking perfection should look elsewhere.
Aesthetics, Design, and Hardware
Look and Feel
The Acer Switch Alpha 12 looks and feels like a premium tablet, with a somewhat dated brushed aluminum back and rounded corners. In terms of how it feels, Acer went a great deal out of its way to shave down every sharp edge. The streamlined result – while somewhat cumbersome – comes off as pleasant to hold, for brief periods of time. Most users won’t notice the difference between the heft of an Alpha compared to the Surface. In truth, there are few 12-inch tablets out there that you could comfortably hold for any period of time.
Of particular note is the Switch Alpha’s kickstand, which allows users to reposition the tablet in several different configurations. Compared to the borderline defective kickstand on the Surface, the Switch Alpha’s design is robust, stiff, and comes with a rubber grip. The grip doubles as a handle, allowing users to hold the tablet in either hand with the keyboard detached. Users can also wield the Alpha with its keyboard folded back, although in this configuration the tablet weighs 2.8kg — which isn’t much less than a 12-inch laptop.
While not aesthetically superior to the Surface, in terms of functionality, the Alpha possesses three distinct advantages: First, the kickstand maintains a much stronger, stiffer hinge than the angled flap on the Surface. Second, it’s completely fanless, which means the Alpha runs silently even with its processor running full blast. Third – a backlit keyboard comes included – and it doesn’t feel like a shabby, rattling piece of garbage. The keyboard feels and looks almost as good as the Surface’s, with one shortcoming: its backlighting offers only a single brightness level. A fair compromise, considering the Alpha costs $300 less than the base-model Surface Pro. The price gap increases with higher end models.
Acer ships the Alpha in a dozen different variations. Of these, the three most common versions are the low-end, mid-range, and high-end models. The lowest end of the spectrum comes with a Core i3 (the difference between Core processors), 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid state drive (what’s an SSD?) for $600. The mid-tier platform includes a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD for $800. Finally, the high-end model uses a Core i7, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD — and it runs for $1,000.
I’m unsure as to why Acer doesn’t offer any model with 16GB of RAM. Even though most modern computing tasks don’t require large amounts of RAM, enough users use virtual machines or do heavy-duty video editing, which might lead to sales for their ultra high-end models. Even so, 4GB should be sufficient for the majority of users as the current design of Windows 10, which uses RAM compression, makes 4GB of RAM an adequate amount.
The rest of the Alpha’s specifications are standard across all models. Although rumored to offer a 1080p variant, all models include a 2K screen, with a resolution of 2160 x 1440 pixels. It also uses a 2×2 MIMO 802.11ac dual-band (what’s dual band?) wireless adapter.
It’s also the heaviest out of all the Surface clones, weighing in at around 2.8 pounds, with the keyboard attached. That’s about 15% heavier than the Surface Pro 4. In truth though, it’s hard to differentiate between a 2.8-pound device and a 2.4-pound one.
Ports, Cameras, and Buttons
The Switch Alpha includes a generous serving of ports – more than any other 2-in-1 on the planet. The right-side of the tablet houses a 3.5″ audio jack, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 3.1 Type-C port (what’s USB-C?), a proprietary charging port, and a microSD card slot. It’s worth mentioning that the Alpha can receive a charge from its USB-C port at the same rate of speed as the barrel jack connector. That’s fantastic design. It charges at around 19v/2.37a, which means it can receive 45-watts of power — with the right charger. Unfortunately, many USB-C chargers simply won’t function as advertised. I tested the Alpha’s USB-C charging capabilities using a Lumsing 48-watt USB-C charger. The Lumsing charger manages to output around 20-watts, which indicates power delivery somewhere around 12.5v/2a. Lumsing scores an F on FakeSpot, though. But it is confirmed to work with the Switch Alpha.
On the left-side of the tablet rests three aluminum buttons: A home-screen button, volume rocker, and power button.
It also sports two cameras: a front-facing web camera and a rear-facing 5MP camera. Neither camera works with Windows Hello, so unlocking the device with your face won’t ever happen. Apparently, Windows Hello requires infrared capabilities, which most of today’s web-cameras lack. Even so, the Surface Pro 4 does offer Windows Hello, and that’s a fairly significant advantage.
While writing this review, a question gnawed at me – where did Acer cut corners to hit a $600 entry-level price point? The second cheapest alternative to the Alpha is the HP Spectre x2, which costs $200 more and comes with a Core M processor. And HP cut a lot off its display – the Spectre includes only a 1080p resolution screen. But Acer’s 2-in-1 comes with a 2160 x 1440 screen.
One of the places Acer cut corners: battery life. The LCD panel used in the Alpha doesn’t appear to offer the latest standard in power stretching technology – Panel Self Refresh (PSR). PSR allows devices to switch off the device’s graphics processor for as long as the image displayed does not change. PSR on average extends battery life by about an hour. But when a device shows a still image most of the time (such as reading), the battery life can skyrocket by as much as 26%, according to the consortium governing the Embedded DisplayPort standard. Unfortunately, the LCD panel used in the Alpha doesn’t appear to offer PSR technology. This is an unfortunate omission for a 2-in-1 device that might often function as an e-reader. Even so, the tradeoff between quality and price might not deter someone looking to save hundreds over a Surface.
Because you more than likely won’t use the Switch Alpha with manufacturer bloatware included, I’m performing benchmarks on a clean configuration. Windows 10 makes the de-bloat process simple: Just run the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool.
Unlike the majority of Surface clones, the Switch Alpha doesn’t use the slower Core M processor, which is a fanless, reduced-power variant of Intel’s “mainstream” mobile Core i processors. The Core M processors typically offer better performance than Intel’s Atom processors, such as those used in regular Surface 3, but with worse performance than even a Core i3-6100U. So, comparing the low-end Switch Alpha to the entry-level Surface 4 Pro, you get better performance for around $400 less. The one area in which it compares poorly to the Surface Pro: battery life.
The worst, perhaps deal-breaking, feature of the Switch Alpha: poor battery life. Users won’t get more than 5 hours of uptime on a single charge. In truth, no 2-in-1 device with a mainstream Intel processor offers more than 6 hours of standard use. The reason stems from the thinness of the tablet form-factor; the thinner a device, the smaller its battery size. In theory, Acer’s fanless cooling system should help offset its diminutive battery. In practice, it loses at least an hour of uptime compared to its competition.
Tinkerers can increase the length of their device’s battery life by optimizing their wireless connection (at the expense of connection reliability), optimizing their graphics processor for maximum battery life, de-bloating their system of apps, and entering battery life mode. With these modifications, battery life increases substantially, but I found that the length of up-time relates more closely to the kind of activities being performed, rather than the implementation of any specific or combination of user-configurable battery life optimizations. In short, here’s what I found out:
- Battery life for standard use: ~5 hours.
- Reading: ~8-10 hours.
- Gaming: 3-4 hours.
By any standard, these are mediocre at best battery life numbers. While you could easily find budget laptops with worse battery lives, in the $600 price range, some devices can outlast the Alpha by a factor of two or even three. Of course, none of those devices would be 2-in-1 hybrids with mainstream Intel processors.
In the Windows Anniversary Update (AU), Microsoft added a unique feature for Windows convertible 2-in-1 tablets: Windows Ink. It’s little more than a note-taking application, but it makes drawing notes using a stylus much easier. Users only need to click on the Ink icon in the taskbar to begin sketching. However, Acer did not include a stylus with its Alpha starter package, and so I was unable to test this feature. The pressure-sensitive stylus offers 256 degrees of pressure, which makes it on par with the Surface Pro 3.
Traditionally, laptops use mobile processors that require a fan. Fans come with four problems: First, they can suck up a fair amount of wattage, thus they incur additional drain on the battery. Second, fans can produce a lot of noise. Third, fans take up a lot of space, which results in a thicker tablet. Lastly, fans break down over time through a combination of wear and tear, and dust accumulation.
Acer’s LiquidLoop cooling system dispenses with a fan. It uses a heat pipe design, which transmits thermal waste energy from the processor into the aluminum shell of the tablet. The loop style design helps distribute heat throughout the entirety of the metal shell, which aids thermal dissipation. After stress testing (using Prime95) the Acer for an hour, the temperature rose as high as 75 degrees Celsius, which approaches the thermal shutdown limit of the processor (which is probably somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees Celsius).
I don’t have a thermal temperature reader, but I estimate the metal body of the Acer to reach somewhere around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Not exactly burn-inducing, but definitely on the threshold of discomfort. Fanless cooling systems rely extensively on the ambient temperature. The hotter the weather, the less efficient the cooling system. Therefore, someone living along the equator might prefer an active cooling system.
Fortunately, no one in their right mind runs software similar to Prime95 for an hour on a 2-in-1 device. Overall, I would judge Acer’s cooling system as excellent. Hopefully, other manufacturers adopt it. Otherwise, we’re stuck with the lackluster Core M processor in the short term.
Warranty and Reliability
Acer bumped up the Alpha’s warranty to a whopping two years! That’s double the warranty offered by the Surface Pro 4 and beats all competitors within the 2-in-1 hybrid tablet market — which is amazing on a $600 device. Acer might feel confident about the long-term durability because of its fanless cooling system and lack of moving parts. It’s not a standard warranty, either. It’s a “traveler’s warranty” which covers multiple regions and includes both ship-in and ship-out costs. Here’s a discussion I had with Acer’s customer service:
I’m still waiting on an iFixit teardown (this review will receive an update once that becomes available). From what I can tell, the Switch Alpha employs standard Phillips screws, which anchor its rear panel in place. It seems that with a little bit of heat gun action, the rear panel detaches from the Alpha, revealings its guts.
Should You Buy the Acer Switch Alpha 12?
- By far the least expensive Surface Pro 4 clone around
- High-quality construction
- Fanless Mainstream Intel Processor
- Charges over both USB-C and its barrel connector
- 2 years of international warranty with covered shipping costs!
What’s Not So Good?
- Not compatible with Windows Hello
- Loaded with bloatware
- Stylus loop seems flimsy
- 3-4 Hours of battery life for gaming
The price difference is so enormous; I can’t see myself recommending the Surface over a Switch Alpha. The 2 years of warranty really put the Switch Alpha over the top.
Those looking for a cheaper version of the Surface should check out the Switch Alpha. It performs on the same level, offers superior build quality, but loses about an hour (or more) of battery life in comparison. For those looking for a perfect 2-in-1, you’re better off with a Surface.
Buy if you want, but can’t afford, a Surface Pro 4.