Acer Swift 3 (SF314-57-57BN) review: Thin, light, affordable, and Ice Lake, with Thunderbolt 3 to boot

Highlights includes a 10th-gen Intel Ice Lake CPU and a sub-three-pound weight.

Credit: Ben Patterson/IDG

With its slim profile and featherweight form factor, the Acer Swift 3 deftly balances size, power, functionality and price. Retailing for $700 and weighing in at about two and a half pounds, the Swift 3 is an enticingly affordable quad-core laptop. While its Ice Lake performance is decidedly middle of the road, it stands toe-to-toe with its competitors without the usual roar of cooling fans. The inclusion of a Thunderbolt 3 port is a nice bonus given the Swift 3’s price range, although the IPS display is on the dim side.

Configuration

Acer offers a wide variety of Swift 3 laptops in 15.6-inch, 14-inch, and 13.3-inch configurations, along with Core i3, i5, and i7 models ranging from 8th-gen Kaby Lake all the way to 10th-gen Ice Lake (not to mention a single AMD Ryzen 5 version). At the lower end of the Swift 3 spectrum you’ll find a 14-inch Core i3 Kaby Lake configuration with a stingy 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage for $480. On the upper end sits a 14-inch Core i7 Whiskey Lake system with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and dedicated Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics for $1,000.

The $700 (or $650 at your local MicroCenter) Ice Lake model we’re reviewing sits in the upper third of the Swift 3 range:

  • CPU: Quad-core Intel Core i5-1035G1U Ice Lake processor
  • RAM: 8GB LPDDR4 RAM
  • GPU: Intel UHD Graphics G1
  • Display: 14-inch 1920x1080 full-HP IPS non-touch
  • Storage: 512GB PCIe NVMe SSD
  • Networking: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) with 2x2 MU-MIMO
  • Dimensions: 12.58 x 8.54 x 0.63 inches
  • Weight: 2.51 pounds (without power brick), 3.46 pounds (with power brick)

This looks like a solid configuration at first glance, with that bright and shiny 10th-gen Ice Lake CPU certainly getting our attention. We’re also enticed by the roomy solid-state drive, while the Wi-Fi 6 radio means that this Swift 3 will be ready the moment you upgrade to a speedier, cutting-edge wireless router. The 8GB of low-power DDR4 RAM is fairly standard for a laptop in this price range (although 16GB would have been a nice bonus). The integrated UHD Graphics G1 core represents (as we’ll soon see) a substantial step up from Whiskey Lake’s integrated UHD 620 graphics, while still falling short of full-on discrete graphics performance.

As far as the Swift 3’s Ice Lake processor goes, you’ll have to temper your expectations. In our initial Ice Lake tests, we saw the CPU scoring high marks when it came to video encoding and other CPU-intensive tasks, but that’ll only happen if the manufacturer gives the chip free rein. A relatively thin, light, and inexpensive laptop like the Swift 3 won’t have the same cooling prowess as, say, a $1,500 or $2,000 laptop, so we’d expect Acer to dial down the performance of the Swift’s Ice Lake chip somewhat as a heat-management measure.

Design

As far as looks go, our steel-gray Swift 3 review unit is, well, a bit on the dull side, with a perfectly flat and featureless aluminum lid (save for the Acer logo in the middle), a sturdy hinge with the “Swift” brand engraved in the middle (subtle but stylish), and a pair of rear vents that are only exposed when the lid is open. In other words, nothing about the Swift 3 would particularly stand out on the shelf of your favorite big-box store.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn shell Ben Patterson/IDG

The Acer Swift 3’s design might be on the pedestrian side, but there’s no arguing with its pleasingly slim and light design.

That said, you’ll probably forgive the Swift 3’s pedestrian design once you pick it up and feel how light it is. Weighing just a hair over two and a half pounds (or nearly three and a half pounds if you count the power brick) and measuring a svelte 0.63 inches thick, the Swift 3 felt great in my hands. Toting it around in my pack for the day didn’t throw my back out of joint.

Beyond that, the only other design element of the Swift 3 worth mentioning (besides its display bezels, which we’ll cover momentarily) is the wide notch on the front edge of the laptop, which makes the lid a little easier to pry open.

Display

The Acer Swift 3’s full-HD 14-inch display gets off on the right foot thanks to its pleasingly thin 0.17-mm side bezels, with a bottom bezel that’s somewhat thicker (about three-quarters of an inch). The screen itself boasts solid viewing angles thanks to its IPS (in-plane switching) display technology, which means the screen brightness doesn’t seem to fade until you’re looking from the side at an angle greater than 45 degrees.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn display bezels Ben Patterson/IDG

The Swift 3’s slim top and side display bezels make the most of its 14-inch display.

As with many budget laptops, however, the screen on the Acer Swift 3 is a bit on the dim side, measuring just 235 nits (or candelas) according to our readings. That’s a little less than our usual low-water mark of 250 nits, but it’s still pretty much in the standard brightness range that we’ve seen from laptops in the Swift 3’s sub-$1,000 price range. During my testing, I found the Swift 3’s display reasonably easy on my eyes while indoors, although you might find yourself squinting at the screen if it’s in direct sunlight.

Keyboard, trackpad, speakers, and extras

The Acer Swift 3’s backlit keyboard felt pretty solid as far as bargain laptops go. Travel (or the distance that a given key moves when it’s struck) was a bit on the shallow side, but I liked the solid, tactile bump in the middle of the keystrokes as well as the refreshingly springy rebound. The keyboard is also relatively quiet given the Swift 3’s price range. (I’ve typed on quieter keyboards, but they generally come in laptops costing hundreds more than this one.)

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn keyboard Ben Patterson/IDG

The Acer Swift 3’s keyboard makes for comfortable typing, and note the fingerprint reader that’s sitting near the bottom-right corner.

I didn’t have any issues with the Acer Swift 3’s trackpad, which is centered more or less directly beneath the space bar. Generally speaking, my palms didn’t brush against the trackpad as I typed, but even when I dragged my palms on the trackpad deliberately, I had a hard time getting the cursor to jitter around.

The Acer Swift 3’s built-in stereo speakers actually aren’t horrible, and that’s saying something when it comes to the generally dull, tinny world of laptop speakers. Paired with Acer’s TrueHarmony sound processing, the two down-firing drivers deliver reasonably detailed sound, though occasionally thin and with hardly any bass response. (Hey, I didn’t say these speakers sounded great.) Needless to say, you’ll get much better sound if you plug in a pair of headphones or external speakers, but the Swift 3’s integrated speakers will do in a pinch.

Sitting just below the keyboard in the right corner is a Windows Hello-enabled fingerprint reader, handy for unlocking Windows and logging into compatible apps with a swipe of your finger. I used the fingerprint reader to log into my Windows account during most of my testing. The reader almost always recognized my fingerprint on the first try, then proceeded to unlock Windows in a few fractions of a second.

Ports

Let’s cut to the chase here: Thunderbolt 3, baby. It’s not often we see a Thunderbolt 3 port—perfect for power delivery, connecting a 4K or 5K display, or transferring data at up to 40Gbps—on a laptop in this price range, so we’re definitely jazzed about that.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn left side Ben Patterson/IDG

Yes, that’s a Thunderbolt 3 port, along with a USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A port and a full HDMI port.

Next to the Thunderbolt 3 port, which sits on the left edge of the Acer Swift 3, is a USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A port, as well as a full-size HDMI port and a barrel-shaped charging port.

On the right side, you get a USB 2.0 Type-A port, a combo audio jack, and a laptop security slot.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn right side Ben Patterson/IDG

The right side of the Acer Swift 3 features a USB 2.0 port and a combo audio jack; no media card reader, however.

Missing from the port party: a media card reader. We're seeing that less and less often on laptops, and you may not care if you've ditched your digital camera. On the other hand, we still use SD and microSD cards for phone and dash cam storage. It may be time to get a USB hub to fill out your connectivity needs. 

General performance

Looks can be deceiving, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the Acer Swift 3’s benchmark results. True, the Swift 3’s scores tend to sit in the middle of the pack or lower, but the Swift is achieving these numbers without running up the high temperatures that many of its similarly priced competitors do. And yes, you’ll find better performing laptops with the Swift 3’s form factor, but not in its $700-ish price range.

PCMark 8

Our first benchmark, PCMark 8, measures how a laptop’s CPU handles such day-to-day tasks as web browsing, spreadsheet crunching, online shopping, and video chat. Given that most of the chores simulated by PCMark 8 work just fine on a single processor core, laptops with four CPU cores or more won’t necessarily get a leg up compared to cheaper, dual-core systems. Even the latest Ice Lake laptops may find themselves neck-and-neck with a dual-core Whiskey-Lake-powered system.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn pcmark8 Ben Patterson/IDG

The Acer Swift 3 should deliver smooth Office performance, as its PCMark 8 score suggests.

A PCMark 8 result of greater than 2,000 generally points to buttery-smooth Office performance, and the quad-core Acer Swift 3 easily crushes that score, along with all of the other laptops in our comparison chart. It’s worth noting that the cheaper, dual-core Acer Aspire 5, while coming in second-to-last in our PCMark 8 chart, pretty much sits with its pricier competitors in the 3,000-plus club.

HandBrake

Our processor-intensive HandBrake benchmark involves encoding a 30GB MKV video into a file format suitable for Android tablets. It’s a test that pushes laptop CPUs to the limit, as well as one in which the system with the most processor cores generally wins.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn handbrake Ben Patterson/IDG

The Acer Swift 3’s HandBrake score essentially comes in second in a four-way tie.

Looking at our results, the quad-core Acer Swift 3 turned in a satisfactory, if not exactly set-your-hair-on-fire performance. Its place near the bottom of the list is a bit deceiving, given how close it came to the four quad-core i5 laptops that finished the test (slightly) sooner. Indeed, instead of saying that the Swift 3 landed in fifth place, I’d call it more of a four-way tie for second. Up top is a Lenovo IdeaPad that’s thicker and heavier, and thus easier to cool, while lagging way behind is the dual-core Acer Aspire 5.

It’s worth noting that as opposed to what we usually see—and hear—during our HandBrake benchmark, the Swift’s cooling fans never roared to life during the test, namely because they didn’t have to. Indeed, the Swift’s processor clock speed never rose above 2.87GHz, which is well below the Core i5-1035G1’s maximum 3.6GHz boost clock. For the majority of the test (which can take up to an hour or more), the Swift’s CPU downshifted to about 2.0 GHz.

Of course, there’s a glass-half-full way of looking at the Swift 3’s OK-but-not-amazing HandBrake score, which is that the Swift managed to match the performance of several other quad-core laptops in our chart closely without breaking a sweat—and trust me, the cooling fans on the those competing laptops sounded like jet engines while they were running HandBrake. In other words, the Ice Lake-powered Swift 3 may not have been faster than its quad-core Whiskey Lake counterparts, but it’s probably way more efficient in terms of handling thermals.

Cinebench

Another CPU-intensive test, our Cinebench benchmark measures a laptop’s performance as it renders a 3D image in real time. Given that it only takes a few minutes to complete, versus an hour or so for HandBrake, Cinebench does a nice job of showing us how a laptop handles short bursts of activity under a heavy load.

acer swift 3 sf314 57 57bn cinebench Ben Patterson/IDG

The Acer Swift 3 holds its own in our Cinebench test without having the break a sweat.

Again, the Acer Swift 3 turns in a so-so performance, essentially tied with other quad-core Core i5 laptops (although that quad-core Whiskey Lake Lenovo Ideapad is looking pretty sharp up there in second place), while the quad-core Core i7 HP Envy 13 sits at the top of the chart. Coming in dead last is (unsurprisingly) the dual-core Acer Aspire 5.

As with the HandBrake benchmark, the Acer Swift 3 kept its cool with Cinebench, with its processor clock hovering around 2.3GHz and its cooling fans keeping quiet. Checking out its single-thread Cinebench performance, the Swift 3 actually steps up to third place, which speaks to the laptop’s single-core efficiency. So again, not the fastest, but quite possibly the coolest.

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Ben Patterson

PC World (US online)
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