Affordable laptops no longer suck. Once derided for thick design, terrible displays, and batteries that lasted only a couple hours, the modern budget laptop has transformed into a sleek, beautiful device. It’s hard to go wrong with an Apple MacBook Pro 13, Dell XPS 13, Microsoft Surface Book 2, and many others. But, as our of the 14-inch Acer Swift 3 will demonstrate, it’s not just expensive flagships that have improved.
We first saw the Swift 3 at the IFA, Europe’s biggest electronics show, in 2016. It took its time getting to widespread North American release, but it’s now easy to find – and easy to afford. In fact, it’s been updated with Intel’s latest 8th-generation CPUs, promising extra performance and efficiency. Entry level models start as low as $480, and our review unit with a Core i5-8250U processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), has an MSRP of $680. Shop around, and you can probably snag it for $600. The newly announced 2018 update includes thinner bezels and new Whiskey Lake Intel processors.
All of that looks like a good deal at a glance, but does it hold up to closer scrutiny? Let’s find out.
Generic, but suave
The Acer Swift 3 looks like a $1,500 laptop built in 2013. That may sound like an insult but, at this price, it’s really more of a compliment. At .7 inches thick, and 3.3 pounds, this Acer looks and feels substantially heavier than the Dell XPS 13, but it’s not far off a MacBook Pro 13. Brushed aluminum covers the display lid, and the lower half of the laptop is also metal, which gives the system a robust, premium feel.
It’s also generic, and our review unit’s inoffensive silver color does nothing spice up the Swift 3’s appeal. Gold is also available, but it’s difficult to find anywhere besides Acer’s own website. If not for the Acer logo, the Swift 3 could be mistaken for a laptop from Lenovo or Asus. The interior, also clad in silver metal, is no more distinct.
Expecting a $680 laptop to push the limits of design would be unfair, of course, and the Swift 3’s workmanlike look is not a problem. A full metal chassis is not guaranteed at this price, and even laptops that opt for it don’t always feel sturdy. You’ll find flex in the Swift 3’s metal if you go looking for it – a strong press to the center of the laptop is all that’s required – but it isn’t noticeable in normal use.
The Acer Swift 3 looks like a $1,500 laptop built in 2013.
Though the Swift 3 looks and feels great for a budget laptop, it has at least one serious aesthetic competitor in the Asus Zenbook UX330UA. That laptop weighs just 2.6 pounds and is just a half-inch thick, albeit with a smaller 13.3-inch display. The Asus is also slightly more expensive at around $700, but that’s not much of a gap. While the Swift 3 looks like a premium laptop that’s a few years old, the ZenBook is on par with premium laptops being sold right now.
Dell’s Inspiron 13 5000 is another common competitor. Available as a 2-in-1, it’s more versatile, but it’s also even thicker and heavier than the Swift 3. The same is true of HP’s Pavilion x360 13-inch. Also only available as a 2-in-1, it too is thicker and heavier than Acer’s Swift 3.
There’s one are where the Acer Swift 3 puts its somewhat bulky frame to good use — connectivity. Its flanks boast three USB-A ports (two USB 3.0, and one USB 2.0). That’s joined by a USB-C Gen. 1 port, full-sized HDMI, a combo microphone/headphone jack, and an SD card reader. A separate, proprietary charger is also included to charge the battery, as the USB-C port can’t juice the battery. Unfortunately, there’s no Thunderbolt 3 support, which is par for the budget course.
We can’t complain about the selection. It offers one more USB port than the Asus ZenBook UX330UA, and a full-sized HDMI rather than mini-HDMI video connection. Many competitors lack USB 3.1 entirely, so we have to commend Acer for that.
Big keyboard, big touchpad, and a half-decent fingerprint reader
Acer opted for its standard island-style keyboard on the Swift 3. The layout, marked by rounded keycaps, substantial space between each key, and small function keys, is found on numerous Acer laptops across multiple price points. Though it’s often a drag on the company’s expensive laptops, it feels right at home on a mid-range device.
Touch typists will be happy to hear the keys offer excellent tactile feedback and long travel.
Touch typists will be happy to hear the keys offer excellent tactile feedback and long travel. It’s not the best keyboard by any stretch, but it’s well suited for longer typing sessions. The laptop’s large palm rest is helpful for comfort, as well. Most of the Acer Swift 3’s competitors, including the Asus ZenBook UX330UA and Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1, also offer a solid typing experience. None we’ve recently tested have proven much better or worse than the others but, surprisingly, they’re better than some more expensive laptops, like Apple’s MacBook Pro 13.
A backlit keyboard arrived standard on our review unit. That’s not uncommon for a laptop in the Swift 3’s arena, but also not guaranteed. The backlight itself is mundane, with just two levels of brightness and uneven lighting through many keys. Still, it gets the job done.
The touchpad is generally nothing special, but it’s large, with a pleasantly smooth texture. It supports all Windows Precision Touchpad features and, thanks to its large surface, offers plenty of space to swipe and touch.
With its touchpad, the Swift 3 has a small advantage over the Asus ZenBook UX330UA, Dell Inspiron 13 5000, and most other competitors. Its peers usually have a smaller touchpad surface or one that’s less enjoyable to touch.
A fingerprint reader with Windows Hello support is included. Unlike the Asus ZenBook UX330UA, which unfortunately put the fingerprint reader on the touchpad itself, the Swift 3 places it on the far right of the interior, where it’s out of the way until needed. It works well, though like some Windows fingerprint readers, it sometimes needs a few swipes to work. The Dell Inspiron 13 5000 and HP Pavilion x360 13-inch don’t offer a fingerprint reader.
An accurate, but dull, 1080p display
A 14-inch 1080p, non-touch display came standard on our review unit. That resolution has, thankfully, become normal even for mid-range laptops. That’s a thing good, too, because 1,366 x 768 resolution – which was more common just a couple years ago – is a big step down.
While the resolution is acceptable, the display came up short in other areas. We measured a maximum brightness of 242 nits, with a maximum contrast ratio of 530:1. That’s not bad, but the Asus ZenBook UX330UA hits 315 nits with a maximum ratio of 940:1. That’s a big improvement over the Acer Swift 3, and certainly gives the Asus an edge.
Color gamut was a weak point, too, as the Swift 3’s display can show only 67 percent of sRGB, and 50 percent of AdobeRGB. That’s average for budget notebooks, with the Acer Aspire E 15 and Lenovo IdeaPad 530s offering similar results. Some notebooks in this class do have much wider gamuts, though, such as ZenBook that scored 74 percent.
There’s some good news, however. Despite its poor color gamut, the Acer Swift 3 turned in a respectable average color error of 2.34. A lower score is better in this test. The ZenBook UX330UA had an error of 2.56, while the last Dell XPS 13 we tested with a 1080p display hit 1.51. You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference these scores represent in real life, but the Swift 3 is the least expensive of these laptops.
We also recorded a gamma value of 2.2, which is exactly where we’d like to see it. A gamma value that is off can result in a screen that looks too bright, or too dim, depending on which way the score goes. Most games and movies are mastered for a gamma value of 2.2, so this score is spot-on.
Sitting down in front of the Acer Swift 3 shows a display that adds up as the numbers suggest. It looks fine, but it’s not the best. Scenes look true to life, without dull or unrealistic color, but the low contrast ratio and poor brightness make it difficult for images to pop. Glare can be a real problem, too, because the screen has a glossy coat, and the display’s maximum brightness isn’t high enough to combat the glare.
A pair of downward-facing speakers give the Acer Swift 3 its voice. They were good within their limited range of volume, and only distorted when pushed, such as by music that combines vocals with heavy bass. In this respect, they’re on par with the Asus Zenbook UX330UA, Dell XPS 13, and most similarly-sized laptops. The maximum volume was rather low, however, so the laptop has trouble in noisy environments.
An injection of 8th-gen goodness
While the Acer Swift 3 is available with several different processors, our review came with Intel’s latest generation, the quad-core Core i5-8250U, an increasingly common chip that can be found in laptops priced from $500 to $2,000. It’s a strong and efficient performer and a meaningful update from the 7th-generation CPUs, and the Acer Swift 3 maximizes its performance potential.
Acer’s laptop did well in Geekbench 4, where it competed strongly with the Asus Zenbook UX330UA and Dell XPS 13 (running a faster Core i7-8550U) in both single-core and multi-core test. Other budget notebooks with the Core i5 scored similarly, although the Swift 3 led that particular pack.
The Swift 3 also held up well in Handbrake, a video encoding test, where it came in second place in our comparison group. The Handbrake result is important because it shows how the laptop handles heavy loads over time. The Acer had no problems maintaining performance throughout the entire test (and was 37 percent faster than the previous model), just like the Zenbook UX330UA and the Lenovo Yoga 920, showing that the 8th-generation Intel processors are both powerful and apparently handle thermal loads well.
These results show Acer’s affordable laptop can easily keep up with laptops that are more expensive while performing well for a system in its price range. In truth, most people don’t need anything more than what the Swift 3 offers.
Storage speeds matter as well, and our review unit’s 256GB SSD is great to see in a $680 laptop, but Acer didn’t stop there. The drive in our unit is an Intel 600p connected over PCI Express. Most laptops that offer solid state drives in this price bracket user the slower, older SATA connection, which limits performance.
The benefit of Acer’s decision can be seen in how it competes with the Asus Zenbook UX330UA. While both have the same size of drive, and sell within $50 or so of each other, the Swift 3 more than doubles the Zenbook’s write speed performance. It also beats the Zenbook by about 50 megabytes per second (MB/s) in read speed performance.
There are faster drives, of course – much faster. The Lenovo Yoga 720 13 is an example. The MSRP of that review unit was $880, however, making it significantly more expensive. Acer’s Swift 3 keeps up admirably for an affordable laptop.
It’s not built for gamers (of course)
Want to game? Then you shouldn’t buy a laptop like the Acer Swift 3, which uses Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics. This graphics solution, bundled with most Intel Core processors, can play many modern games, but can’t play them at a reasonable framerate.
Acer’s laptop is not alone here. Every laptop with Intel UHD 620 graphics suffers from the same shortfall in gaming performance. The Swift 3 is relatively fast and slightly improved over the previous generation, but that’s not saying all that much.
We fired up Civilization VI at 1080p and medium detail to see how the laptop performed in the real world. The game spat out an average of 12 frames per second (FPS) in its graphics benchmark. That’s barely playable, and it’s also consistent across our comparison group (except for the ZenBook UX330UA that came in somewhat lower at 9 FPS).
A mediocre battery leads to mediocre battery life
The Acer Swift 3 is a 14-inch laptop, which means it’s easy to carry around all day. However, at seventh-tenths of an inch thick and over three pounds, it’s heavier than the lightest laptops in its class. The ZenBook UX330UA, as mentioned, is 2.6 pounds and a half-inch thick, though that’s a 13-inch laptop.
A 49 watt-hour battery is crammed inside the chassis, which we find a little disappointing. It’s not small, but it’s also not that large. The size of the Swift 3 makes us feel that a larger battery could’ve been crammed inside.
Our battery life results show the consequence of the mid-sized battery. The Acer’s endurance is less than average, even for recent budget machines, lasting just over six hours in our web browsing loop. The leaders of the class, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA and Aspire E 15, both tack on a couple hours of life in the same test. The latest Dell’s XPS 13 equipped with a Core i5 and a Full HD display was a standout performer, but of course it’s much more expensive.
In our more demanding Basemark test, which repeats a web-specific benchmark until the battery dies, the Swift 3 lasted for just over three hours, a relatively week score. In our comparison group, only the Lenovo IdeaPad 530s lasted for less time and the ZenBook UX330UA was particularly strong.
The Acer Swift 3 also came up short in our video loop test, which repeats a 1080p video until the laptop turns off. Though its score of 10 hours and 29 minutes isn’t bad, it does fall one to two hours short of most competitors. The Acer Aspire E 15 endured more than 12 hours, giving it a clear lead among the budget competitors, and the IdeaPad 530s fell behind once again.
Acer’s Swift 3 doesn’t look amazing, but it nails the fundamentals at a surprisingly low price. We’re most surprised by its performance, which matches far more expensive laptops. This laptop deserves your attention if you need an affordable yet capable machine.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes, the Asus ZenBook UX330UA. That laptop is thinner, lighter, more attractive, and lasts longer on a charge. It remains our go-to pick among affordable laptops. It now has an updated UX331UA with slimmer bezels and longer battery life. However, the Acer Swift 3 does beat it in performance, connectivity, and price.
The Dell Inspiron 15 5000, and potentially 7000, are also strong competitors. Those systems offer many of the same features, and the 7000 series offers 2-in-1 versatility. However, the Inspiron laptops suffer below-average battery life and, in some cases, lesser display quality.
If you’re willing to step up to a larger and bulkier notebook, then the Acer Aspire E 15 is a great choice. It’s just as fast, offers a better display, lasts significantly longer on a charge, and costs less at around $600. In fact, that’s are favorite 15-inch budget notebook by a country mile.
How long will it last?
Surprisingly, this affordable laptop is extremely well equipped for the future. It has a fast processor, plenty of RAM, and a quick, reasonably large solid-state drive. Absent accidents or defects, this laptop should last five years or more, although the warranty will only hold out for a year.
Should you buy it?
Yes, if you don’t want the ZenBook. Acer’s laptop is not as portable as the Asus, and doesn’t feel as modern, yet it’s hard to argue with the Swift 3’s performance, connectivity, and bargain pricing. While not our first pick among affordable laptops, the Swift is a good alternative to Dell’s Inspiron and HP’s Pavilion lines.