Acer's Switch Alpha 12 surfaces as an excellent laptop/tablet
By Jim Bray
Consumers having trouble deciding between a real laptop computer and a real tablet have an abundant number of choices, and with its Switch Alpha 12 convertible PC, Acer is ensuring that the decision waters are even muddier than before.
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It's a Microsoft Surface-like full Windows 10 PC (64 bit) that not only comes with a magnetically attachable/detachable full size keyboard, it has a nifty little stand that folds out from the tablet section so you can perch it on a desk or your lap (or wherever) easily, at pretty well whatever angle you want. And that stand is rubberized along the bottom, which makes it more stable on a slippery surface.
At first glance, the Switch Alpha 12 looks pretty much like other computers in this class and of course this is the nature of the beast. I think the Acer might be a bit thicker than the last such unit I reviewed (Microsoft Surfaces) but it's quieter and it's also less expensive: the Surface Pro 4 i5 sells on Amazon.ca as I write this for $1179 CAD with 128 GB hard drive and four gig of RAM, whereas Acer's sample came with eight gig of RAM and a 256 GB hard disk (both have Windows 10) for $999.
It's also the quietest tablet/PC convertible I've heard (not that I've heard them all, by any means). This is thanks to its not needing a conventional cooling fan. Acer says it's the first such two-in-one notebook that uses a sixth generation Intel Core i processor to not require a fan. Instead, Acer uses a liquid cooling system called "LiquidLoop." I guess that's "fan-tastic."
Since there's no fan, I figured it might have better battery life than a system with a fan, but I didn't notice any extra juice in my tests. Oh, the battery life is fine - Acer claims eight hours - and I had no issues with running out of power, but I had hoped for more. Then again, who doesn't? Heck, I'm looking forward to seeing 8K TV!
The Switch Alpha features a 12 inch display running at 2160x1440, which would be 4K compatible if it were a 16x9 widescreen unit, which it isn't (it's 3:2). Still, it's a wonderful display, bright and colourful and very sharp. The only downside to that is that you might find some of your software looks really small - I loaded on a copy of an old game I like and the icons and buttons (in fact, everything on the screen) were so small I had to lean in close to make them out, let alone exploit them.
I usually use an iPad Air for my portable computing and I love it and have no intention of changing. But the iPad is more of an "appliance" than an actual, fully functional computer. It's great for surfing, email, games, and in a pinch (especially if you add a keyboard to it) you can use it for productivity - but it doesn't even have a USB port you can use to get files into/out of it and if you want to stream (or just plain output) media to a TV or audio system you either need propriety Apple stuff or things like Bluetooth (for audio) or a Chromecast or Roku-like device.
The Switch Alpha 12 doesn't have a dedicated video out port, which was disappointing, but it does feature one conventional USB port. I used it most of the time to connect a mouse (trackpad Luddite that I am) but it's also ideal for getting files into/out of the Acer. There is also a USB Type C port, which uses a reversible mini-connector similar in concept to Apple's Lightning connector and there's a microSD slot hidden away behind the fold-out stand.
Naturally, there's no optical drive, but you could hook in an external one via the USB port if you need it.
I did love the way Acer's backlit keyboard works. Not only does it fold over the screen to protect it from harm, forming a bit of a "half cover" for the unit, it attaches/detaches magnetically so you can leave it at home when you don't need it (though I'm not a fan of the Windows onscreen keyboard, which pales in comparison to Apple's) and when you want to bring it along with you there's very little impact on weight and/or footprint.
Still, the keyboard's easy to type on and features a nice, big "Enter" key, another feature that's great for those of us whose fingers resemble thumbs.
As a writer, I do a lot of typing and I'm a picky about my keyboards. Heck, I once bought a full typewriter-type to hook into an old IBM desktop I had. I hate most laptop keyboards because they're either too small, laid out too weirdly, make it feel as if you're typing in rice pudding, or whatever - but the Acer's feels good under the fingers and I can type on it at my usual breakneck speed.
The stylus Acer includes works fine, but I like styli only slightly more than trackpads. Naturally, your mileage may vary. Acer offers a little fabric holder for the stylus on the side of the keyboard section - which isn't as elegant a solution as Microsoft's magnetic method, but it works fine as long as you aren't leaving the keyboard at home.
One thing that rubs me the wrong way about a stylus is that, depending on what you're doing with it, it adds an extra step to the process. For example, you have to pick up the stylus and then touch the on screen icon or whatever, rather than just touching it directly with your finger. Not a big deal, perhaps, but something to consider.
For connectivity, the unit comes with IEEE 802.11ac for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. It has a built in microphone and both rear-and-front facing cameras.
Despite the cool folding out stand, or perhaps because of it, I found the Acer worked better on a flat surface - desk, table, whatever - than on my lap, though people with less of a paunch may not find this an issue.
The speakers are hidden above the display and as might be expected they aren't the stuff of audiophile lust. Fortunately, you can up the audio ante via Bluetooth and a portable speaker (not included).
The Acer Switch Alpha 12 isn't meant to be a powerhouse for power users, but it's a very nice tablet/PC combo that works well and offers most of the features people want. It weighs only 1.25 kilos, is priced well and appears to be built well, too.
In all, a very nice unit.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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