The Acer Switch Alpha 12 is a Windows tablet with a high-resolution display, support for up to an Intel Core i7 Skylake processor, and a fanless design. But Acer doesn’t position the Switch Alpha 12 as a tablet. It’s listed in the laptop category on Acer’s website, and for good reason.
Not only does the tablet come with a keyboard cover, but it offers the kind of performance you’d expect from a good notebook computer. It’s one of the first tablets I’ve tested that really does feel like it could serve as a laptop replacement… for some people.
There’s an adjustable kickstand that makes it easy to adjust the tablet’s position when typing, the keyboard is comfortable to use, and the computer has enough horsepower for everything from web browsing to gaming (as long as you’re happy with older, or less demanding games).
But there are a few factors to consider before spending your money on Switch Alpha 12: it’s a bit heavy for a tablet. It has mediocre battery life. And the keyboard isn’t all that easy to use on your lap. But the computer has an excellent display, speedy performance, and features an effective passive cooling system that keeps the Switch Alpha 12 from getting too hot.
Best of all, it’s an affordable alternative to other Windows 2-in-1 tablets: prices start at $600 for a model with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage.
Overview and design
Acer loaned me a Switch Alpha 12 for this review. The model I tested will be available exclusively from Costco for $800 and features a Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. It comes with both a keyboard cover and a digital pen.
All versions of the Switch Alpha 12 come with the keyboard, but the pen is usually sold separately for $50. Acer also offers models with up to a Core i7 processor and up to 512GB of solid state storage.
The Acer Switch Alpha 12 seems to be cut from the same cloth as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, which is also a 2-in-1 tablet designed to support a keyboard cover and digital pen. But Microsoft’s tablet is much more expensive: prices start at $899 for a model with an Intel Core M processor. That price includes a pen, but you’ll need to pay $130 extra if you want a keyboard.
Like Acer’s tablet, the entry-level Surface Pro 4 is also fanless… but that model has a 4.5 watt Intel Core M processor. If you opt for a more expensive Surface tablet with a more powerful processor, you’ll get a model that does have a fan, whereas even a top-tier Switch Alpha 12 with a Core i7-6500U processor is fanless.
Acer’s tablet uses a liquid cooling system that the company calls “LiquidLoop” to help prevent the tablet from overheating without the need for a fan, and it seems to work pretty well.
During my testing, the back of the laptop would sometimes get a warm, but it never got so hot that the tablet was uncomfortable to hold.
The fanless design means there are no vents in the case, which helps protect the internal components from dust. It also means that there are no moving parts under the hood to make noise while the Switch Alpha 12 is in operation.
The tablet measures 11.6″ x 7.9″ x 0.4 and weighs just over 2 pounds. It’s a bit awkward to hold in one hand, but reasonably comfortable to prop on your lap while surfing the web from your couch.
It has a 2160 x 1440 pixel glossy IPS display which looks pretty good from any angle, and there are front-facing stereo speakers above the screen and a 2MP camera (with support for 1080p video recording) in the center of the top bezel.
On the left side of the tablet you’ll find volume, power, and Windows buttons.
All the ports are on the right side: a full-sized USB 3.0 ports, a USB 3.1 Type-C port, a microSDXC card reader, and a headset jack, and a power jack (the USB-C port is for data, not charging).
The tablet’s case is made of anodized aluminum, and the rear has a brushed aluminum design with the Acer logo in the center, and a 5MP camera in the upper left corner.
Add the keyboard cover and the tablet becomes a 2.8 pound laptop that measures 0.6 inches thick. The keyboard connects to the tablet via a series of pogo pins and it’s held firmly in place by strong magnets. Attaching the keyboard is incredibly easy: just bring the tablet near the keyboard and it’ll snap into place without you having to worry about lining up the pins.
The magnets also have a habit of picking up paperclips or other small items left nearby, so you’ll want to keep your work area relatively clean if you don’t want thumbtacks ending up squeezed between the keyboard and tablet.
There’s no battery in the keyboard, because it draws power from the tablet’s 4,870 mAh battery.
The keyboard has a full-sized QWERTY keyboard with 1.4mm travel and Precision touchpad which works quite well with Windows 10 touch gestures. There are two keyboard options: backlit and normal. The unit I tested has backlit keys, although you can toggle the lights on or off.
You can fold the keyboard over the display to protect the screen when the tablet’s not in use. And when you just want to use the computer as a tablet you can either remove the keyboard and set it aside or flip it back so that it’s hanging out behind the back of the tablet.
While the keys are plastic, Acer used a sort of velvety fabric-style material for the rest of the keyboard cover. It feels pretty nice when you rest your palms on it, but the black keyboard also has a habit of collecting specs of dust which can be kind of tough to brush away.
You can either position the keyboard to lie flat on a table or desk or tilt it up at a slight angle by magnetically attaching the top edge of the keyboard to the bottom bezel of the tablet. It will actually cover almost all of that bottom bezel, which has an odd side effect: it’s a little awkward (but not impossible) to reach up from the keyboard and icons in the Windows taskbar, since your finger is basically resting on the edge of the keyboard when you do this.
Still, I generally prefer using the keyboard at an angle… but I was a bit surprised at how much the keyboard would bounce when I first started typing on it. Over time I got used to it and don’t find it to be particularly distracting: I can type just as quickly on the Switch Alpha 12 as on any other laptop keyboard when it’s on a flat surface like a desk or table.
While you can use the computer on your lap, it feels a bit more precarious than a normal laptop. That’s because the tablet is held up by a kickstand, not a hinge. That means instead of resting the solid bottom of a notebook on your lap, you need to balance three parts: the kickstand, the front of the tablet, and the keyboard. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to type with the Switch Alpha 12 on your lap, but it certainly isn’t easy.
The adjustable hinge works great on flat surfaces though, giving you far more control over the position of the screen than you’d get on a device like the Huawei Matebook which is held in place by the keyboard cover and which can only be propped up in one or two positions.
The Switch Alpha 12’s kickstand supports angles up to 165 degrees and offers just enough resistance to hold firmly in place without being too difficult to adjust.
Lifting the kickstand away from the tablet can be a two-hand job, but once the kickstand is open, it’s pretty easy to adjust the angle using one hand or two.
While the Acer Active Pen doesn’t come with all models of the tablet, you can tell that the Switch Alpha 12 was designed with the pen in mind. Each version of the tablet has an active digitizer with pen support, and there’s a loop on the left side of the keyboard for storing the pen when you’re not using it.
The pen supports 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and palm rejection. It also has two buttons which can be used to change pen functions in some apps. For example, in Fresh Paint, you can hold down one button to use the pen as an eraser, and another to move a selection.
You can also use the Acer Hover Access utility to determine what those buttons do when you’re not using an app with pen support (although your choices are pretty much limited to launching the Hover Access program with one button and a different program with the other).
Artists or folks with better handwriting than mine might appreciate the $50 accessory for the way you can use it to write or draw. Even though my handwriting is awful, Windows usually does a pretty good job of deciphering my chicken scratch. It’s just that I find typing to be a much faster and more pleasant way to enter text.
Even though I don’t write or draw much, there are a few things I really like about using a pen with tablets like the Switch Alpha 12. First up, the pen tip is way more precise than a fingertip: it can be easy to tap the wrong thing when you’re using your fingers to interact with a Windows tablet, especially one with a pixel-dense screen. Using a fine-tipped pen feels more like using a mouse.
Maybe the best thing about using a pen and active digitizer is that you can “hover” the pen over the screen without touching it to view an on-screen cursor.
Then you can move that cursor around the same way you would with a mouse, and if you’re running apps designed for keyboard and mouse input, this lets you “hover” the stylus over links, buttons, or other items to view context menus or other content that would usually be inaccessible if you were just using your fingers.
Is it worth spending an extra $50 to get the Acer Active Pen? That depends on how you plan to use the Switch Alpha 12. It can certainly come in handy if you want to run desktop Windows software while holding the tablet in your hands, or if you want to make use of the “inking” features of Windows 10 such as handwriting recognition. But if you primarily plan to run tablet-style Universal Windows Platform apps when using the Switch Alpha as a tablet, and primarily expect to use a keyboard and touchpad (or mouse) in laptop mode, then the Active Pen isn’t an absolute necessity.
In terms of raw horsepower, the Acer Switch Alpha 12 really does offer the kind of performance I’d expect from a laptop. In fact, the model Acer sent me to review has similar specs to the Asus Zenbook UX305UA laptop I reviewed recently, and unsurprisingly benchmark scores for the two computers are pretty similar.
That’s particularly impressive when you consider the fact that the Switch Alpha 12 is fanless, and the Zenbook UX305UA is not… and that the Switch Alpha 12 has a smaller body. It also has higher-resolution, 2160 x 1440 pixel display (compared with the Zenbook’s 1920 x 1080 pixel screen).
Both the Switch Alpha 12 and the Zenbook UX305UA finished my audio transcoding test in 12 seconds, and my folder zip test in 27. The laptop was a little faster in video transcoding tests, but both machines were pretty fast… especially when compared with computers featuring the kinds of chips you’d normally expect to find in fanless tablets: Core M or Pentium processors.
Results will probably vary depending on the exact model of Switch Alpha 12: while the unit featured in this review has a Core i5-6200U processor and 8GB of RAM, other models may have Core i3 or Core i7 chips and as little as 4GB of RAM. All models should feature Intel HD 520 graphics.
Intel’s integrated graphics have come a long way in recent years, and while I wouldn’t recommend this as a computer for hardcore gamers, it notched a respectable score in the Street Fighter IV benchmark and I had no problems playing Batman: Arkham Asylum on the computer.
The system has a reasonably fast solid state drive. According to CrystalDiskMark, it had sequential read speeds up to 539 MB/s and sequential write speeds up to 333 MB/s.
I did notice that some CPU-heavy tasks such as audio and video transcoding were slower when the tablet was running on battery power than when it was plugged in. But I was using the computer’s default power saving settings. You could probably boost performance while on battery power a bit, but that’ll probably take a toll on battery life.
Speaking of battery life, Acer says you should be able to get “up to” 8 hours of battery life, but acknowledges that a more realistic run time is around 5-6 hours when surfing the web over WiFi or up to about 6:30 hours when watching videos (with WiFi disabled).
I’d say real-world performance is probably closer to 4-6 hours, depending on what you’re using the computer for.
Just for fun, I decided to see if I could squeeze some extra battery life from the tablet by using the Microsoft Edge web browser instead of Chrome. Microsoft says it puts less strain on system resources, helping you get longer run time.
Since I wanted to be able to use the LastPass extension with Edge, though, I had to switch to switch to an Insider Preview build of Windows… and I wound up abandoning the experiment after a few days, because the preview version of Edge was pretty crash-prone. So most of my battery life observations were made while using the Chrome web browser.
While 5 hours of battery life isn’t exactly stellar by 2016 standards, it’s not all that bad for a 2 pound tablet with a Core i5 processor. Since the battery isn’t user-replaceable though, I do worry about what kind of run time you’ll be able to get from this tablet in two or three years when the battery starts to wear down.
Acer positions the Switch Alpha 12 as a laptop, but it also function as a tablet. Remove the keyboard (or flip it around so that it’s behind the screen), and you can hold the tablet in your hands.
Windows 10’s Continuum software allows the tablet to automatically switch between desktop and tablet user interfaces depending on whether the keyboard is set up for use or not. In tablet mode the start menu becomes a full-page start screen, a simplified version of the taskbar is displayed, and apps run either in full-screen or split screen views rather than in floating windows.
You don’t need to use tablet mode, but it can make some apps a little easier to interact with if you’re using the Switch Alpha 12 as a tablet rather than a laptop. I installed the Amazon Kindle app and did a little reading this way. But ultimately I found a 2 pound tablet to be a bit heavy to hold in my hands for an extended period. Or maybe the problem was the tablet’s 16:10 aspect ratio display, which makes it more awkward to hold than a heavy hardcover book.
The 2160 x 1440 pixel display generally does a great job of displaying graphics and text. Colors look good and the screen brightness can be adjusted from awfully bright to awfully dim. But even though high-resolution displays are becoming increasingly common, some Windows programs can still look funny on screens with high pixel densities.
For example, image editing application GIMP runs quite well on the Switch Alpha 12… but the menus and tool icons look tiny. In fact, they’re so small that if you tried to reach up and touch the “rectangle select tool” with your fingertip, you’d be pretty likely to accidentally hit the adjacent “ellipse select tool” or “fuzzy elect tool” instead.
Before uploading images for this website, I usually resize them so that they’re no more than 680 pixels wide. When I do that with either GIMP or Irfanview, the images look really small on this screen with 2160 horizontal pixels. But when I upload the same image to WordPress using a web browser, it looks much larger, since the browser correctly scales up the graphics.
The inconsistent ways that Windows programs deal with high-DPI displays isn’t as big an issue as it used to be. But it’s still something to consider before buying a 12 inch tablet or laptop with a high resolution screen.
A few other obversations
Audio and video notes
The front-facing stereo speakers are loud enough and clear enough for basic usage. But like most laptop or tablet speakers, they’re not really meant for dance parties. Fortunately you can use the 3.5mm audio jack or Bluetooth to connect headphones or external speakers.
While the Switch 12 Alpha doesn’t have a dedicated HDMI or VGA port, you should be able to hook up an external display using the USB 3.1 Type-C port. But you may need a special adapter cable to do that.
Not a fan of Windows 10? No problem. It’s easy to load alternate operating systems. I tested Linux Mint 18 with the Switch Alpha 12 and almost everything worked perfectly out of the box.
The tablet’s WiFi hardware wasn’t detected, so I plugged in a USB WiFi dongle. But the pen, keyboard, display, audio, and graphics all seem to work without any modifications. It’s possible that someone with more Linux knowledge might be able to get WiFi working without any additional hardware.
I had no problems typing text on the full-sized keyboard, but I’ve never been a fan of the way Acer crams six tiny arrow/Fn keys into the bottom right corner of its keyboards.
While testing this laptop I frequently wound up adjusting the screen brightness when I was trying to adjust the volume, or hit the Page Up or Page Down keys when I had meant to press the left or right arrow keys.
Located in the top left corner of the tablet, it’s easy to find the power button with your fingers even if you’re not looking at it. But turning the tablet on can be a little trickier.
I’ve found that when the Switch Alpha 12 is sleeping or turned off, you typically have to press and hold the power button for several seconds before anything happens. When you’ve been away from the tablet for a few minutes and the screen goes dark, you can give the power button a quick tap to bring the display back on.
Acer’s tablet runs Windows 10 Home 64-bit software, but like most modern computers, it comes with some additional software pre-loaded.
In this case, that includes a Microsoft Office trial, McAfee LiveSafe security software, and a few Acer utilities including photo and video apps, the Acer Hover Access utility for use with the Active Pen, a Recovery Management utility, and an Acer Quick Access tool that allows you to toggle an adaptive screen brightness setting or enable a “Bluelight Shield” setting that minimizes the amount of blue light coming from the screen, which may help prevent you from having problems falling asleep after using the tablet at night.
You can uninstall any of those apps if you don’t want to use them.
Acer promised us a tablet with laptop-class performance and a fanless design… and the company delivered on that promise.
I’ve spent the last two weeks testing the Acer Switch Alpha 12, and I really did find myself using it as a notebook replacement for most of that time. Occasionally I picked it up to read an article or eBook or to test the pen input. Sometime I reached up from the keyboard to touch the screen. But for the most part I used it for work. For me that means keeping multiple browser windows and tabs open all day while editing images, updating spreadsheets, listening to music, and watching videos, among other things).
Even though I didn’t use the tablet mode very often, it’s nice to know that I could pick up the tablet at any time and hold it in my hands while reading, watching videos, or playing casual games. It’s not a feature I’d typically pay much extra money for, but in this case you don’t really have to: the Switch Alpha 12 is priced pretty competitively with non-convertible notebooks.
Is the Switch Alpha 12 perfect? Not quite. Battery life is nothing to write home about. There are only two USB ports, including one USB Type-C connector. And the decision to use a keyboard cover and kickstand means that it’s tough to use this “laptop” on your lap.
But Acer is the first company to offer a 2 pound, fanless tablet with support for up to a Core i7 processor, and the PC maker still charges significantly less for its 2-in-1 tablet than Microsoft charges for a Surface Pro 4.
The model I tested sells for $799. You’d have to pay about $1430 to get a Surface Pro 4 and Type Cover with the same processor, memory, and storage options.
Looking to save even more money? An entry-level Acer Switch Alpha 12 offers a Core i3 Skylake processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for $599. That’s the same price you’d pay for a Microsoft Surface 3 tablet with a much less powerful Intel Atom x7 Cherry Trail processor.