Acer Swift 3 review: Great features outweigh disappointing performance

Acer's Intel-powered Swift 3 is a pleasure to use, as long as you don't expect too much from it.

Credit: Mark Hachman / IDG

Acer’s Swift 3 poses one of the more difficult questions for a tech reviewer: How do you rate a 13.5-inch laptop that you really enjoyed using, yet whose performance is otherwise disappointingly weak? 

This Swift 3 ticks all the other boxes that make for a great laptop: a beautiful screen, outstanding keyboard, and superb battery life.That's why we’re slightly puzzled at how both Acer and Intel (which provided engineering input to Acer as part of its “Project Athena” program, now called Evo), apparently let the Swift 3 go out the door with such poor performance. Keep reading to discover how we balanced the better and the worse.

This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best laptops. Go there for information on competing products and how we tested them. 

Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52) rear Mark Hachman / IDG

Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) basic features

The Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) we reviewed is the Intel-based version of the superb $655 Acer Swift 3 (SF314-42-R9YN), built around the AMD Ryzen Mobile 4000 chip. As our feature list below reveals, the -R9YN is substantially cheaper; you can skip ahead to our performance section to see how it fares there. Besides the processor, there’s one key difference between the two: The Intel-based version adds a Thunderbolt 3 port.

If you’d like a cheaper alternative that tones down the graphics performance a bit, the Swift 3 (SF313-52-52VA) is available at Amazon for $799.99 at press time.

  • Display: 13.5-inch (2256x1504, IPS), maximum brightness of 400 nits
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-1065G7
  • Graphics: Iris Plus
  • Memory: 16GB dual-channel LPDDR4X
  • Storage: 512GB PCIe NVMe SSD
  • Ports: 1 USB-C (Thunderbolt 3, 10Gbit/s); 2 USB-A (1 USB 3.1 Gen1, 1 USB 2.0), HDMI port, 3.5mm jack
  • Security: Fingerprint reader (Windows Hello), Kensington lock
  • Camera: 720p (user-facing, with SHDR)
  • Battery: 56Wh (reported), 45.6Wh (actual)
  • Wireless: WiFi 6 (Intel AX201 802.11ax Gig+, 2x2 MIMO) and Bluetooth 5.0
  • Operating system: Windows 10 Home
  • Dimensions (inches): 11.91 x 9.21 x 0.63
  • Weight: 2.62 pounds
  • Color: Silver
  • Price:  $1,099 at Costco

Build quality, ports, and security

As noted above, the Acer Swift 3 is based upon Intel’s 10th-gen Ice Lake processor. It’s also part of Intel’s first-generation “Project Athena” coterie of laptops, which were co-engineered by both Acer and Intel engineers. While Intel has expanded upon the Athena vision over time, the original Athena blueprint calls for a laptop to be instantly responsive and connected, with great battery life. We’d agree that Acer has met those goals, even though its 3:2 display doesn’t offer touch capabilities.

The Athena capabilities are highlighted by the ‘Engineered for Mobile Performance’ sticker adorning the chassis, and if you’re a...stickler...for a clean look, you’ll be busy peeling off the various badges that adorn its silver keyboard deck. We wouldn’t quite put the Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52-78W6) in the “thin-and-light” category, though at less than three pounds, the aluminum and magnesium-aluminum chassis is easier to tote around than its bulk would suggest.

Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52) left side Mark Hachman / IDG

Acer’s Swift 3 offers a nice port selection, with both USB-C, USB-A, and HDMI connections. Even better, the USB-C port is Thunderbolt-capable.

The Acer Swift 3 isn’t a 360-degree convertible, though it folds back flat. The squarish 3:2 2256x1504 IPS screen may seem strangely tall ti those who are used to a more traditional 16:9 ratio, but that extra height comes in handy if you work in large documents or spreadsheets. Acer rates the screen brightness at 450 nits, well above what you might expect in a typical laptop, even one that sells for a bit more than $1,000. The color fidelity appears to be very good. The screen bezels are approximately a quarter-inch on the side (6mm), three-eighths of an inch (4.5mm) on the top, and three-quarters of an inch (19mm) on the bottom—nice and compact.

Biometric login via Hello is left to a fingerprint strip sensor just below the keyboard, to the far right. Fingerprint sensors vary, but strip sensors aren’t as accommodating as those built into the power button. If you’ve accidentally left part of your finger off of the sensor to either side, the sensor won’t allow you to log in. That was true of the Acer Swift 3 as well: During the few times in which it failed to acknowledge my finger, I found that I hadn’t positioned it correctly.

Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52) fingerprint reader Mark Hachman / IDG

The Swift 3’s fingerprint sensor worked effectively and quickly.

The Swift 3 pulls in air from a grille on the bottom of the laptop, and exhausts it through a series of slits built into the hinge. In my experience, that design tends to ventilate effectively. While the fan on this laptop will rev up if needed, it usually runs quietly in the background, if at all.

This Acer Swift 3 review unit ships with a Thunderbolt 3 port, which will accept input power if you don’t want to use Acer’s accompanying 65W thin barrel charger. Provided that you have a Thunderbolt hub, the port provides enough bandwidth to power a pair of external 4K displays at a comfortable, eye-friendly 60Hz, as well as access external hard drives and other functions. However, the Thunderbolt port can also be used as a generic USB-C port for a cheaper, less capable USB-C hub. If you have an older 1080p display, no problem! The Swift 3’s integrated HDMI port has you covered there, too.

Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52) right side Mark Hachman / IDG

The right side of the Swift 3 makes another USB Type A port available, plus the headphone jack and a Kensington lock slot.

Remember, though, that while the Swift 3 ships with Intel’s lightning-fast 802.11ax Wi-Fi technology, theoretically capable of over 14 Gbit/s across a wireless connection, that’s both hypothetical and dependent upon a supported 802.11ax router, too. 

A lovely typing experience

Our review of Acer’s Ryzen-powered Swift 3 already sums up the typing experience very well: like a pair of old, comfortable blue jeans. The Acer Swift 3’s keyboard does feel a little loosey-goosey, but my fingers flew across the keys. To my ruler, the individual key size is just a hair smaller than that on my preferred laptop keyboard, the Surface Book 3's, whose keys are slightly less than 16mm wide. Two levels of backlighting are included, though there was a cluster around the ‘T’ key where the backlighting was much fainter than in the rest of the keyboard.

Acer Swift 3 (SF313-52) keyboard Mark Hachman / IDG

Acer’s Swift 3 boasts an excellent keyboard, even if it’s a bit more loose than others in its class.

You won’t find any real quirks to the key layout. Acer includes a Precision touchpad, which registered my gestures as well as my clicks, all the way to the top. All in all, the Acer Swift 3 (SF313-F2) offers an excellent typing experience, and I was reluctant to give it up and move to another review unit.

Audio, camera, and apps

The Swift 3’s audio capabilities are nothing to write home about, with a pair of downwards-facing TrueHarmony speakers providing low to moderate volume and adequate sound at the midrange and high end. Some Acer Swift laptops that I’ve reviewed are bolstered somewhat by audio enhancement technologies, such as a utility written for the Realtek audio codec. No such codec was available with our review unit, however, and one didn’t seem to be accessible via the Microsoft Store app. Acer provides a SmartAudio 3 utility, provided by Synaptics, that’s almost worse than useless: Many of the bare-bones options aren’t accessible, and the app can’t even be maximized like any other app.

Acer includes a technology called Purified.Voice that drives a pair of mics designed to pick your voice out of the aural congestion of a conference room or a house full of kids. With music playing, and then a podcast, I was able to make myself understood reliably while seated at the laptop. Unfortunately, a glitch with Cortana—probably Microsoft’s fault, not Acer—wouldn’t allow the ‘Hey Cortana’ wake word to work, so I wasn’t able to test how the technology works across the room.

Acer Swift 3 vents Mark Hachman / IDG

The underside of the Acer Swift 3 reveals how the laptop vents heat, pulling air from the generous vents underneath, and out through the hinge.

Acer’s user-facing camera is mounted at the top of the screen. It doesn’t support Windows Hello facial recognition. It does allow 0.9MP (1280x720) still images and 720p 16:9 video for Zoom calls and the like, which is par for the course for most laptops. Acer and the Windows Camera app provide an option to scale down the video and still image quality further, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. While video captured from the camera is a bit soft and fuzzy, as expected, the image isn’t bad—just a bit dark. I did notice that background shadows had a distinctly bluish cast.  

Privacy wonks, be warned: There’s neither a key nor a switch to disable the mic. There’s no physical shutter over the camera, either.

If there’s any part of the Acer experience that could use some work, however, it’s Acer’s collection of software utilities. Imagine some designer taking a unified, cohesive utility management app, then shredding it. Down flutters Acer Product Registration, then Acer Care Center —which is one of the only useful apps Acer provides. Acer Jumpstart is actually Acer’s webpage. Inside the ‘Acer documents’ link in the Start menu is the user manual, which...tells me only how to connect to the Internet and use the touchpad. Oh yes, and there’s the Acer Collection S and App Explorer, both providing me suggested apps. Quick Access supposedly offers shortcuts to useful features, like blue light reduction—which didn’t seem to do anything. (Use the Windows “night light” setting instead.)

Acer Swift 3 camera shot Mark Hachman / IDG

Video or still images captured with the Swift 3’s camera appear soft.

Half of these apps don’t even share the Acer name, meaning that they’re scattered all over your Start menu like scraps of paper across a parking lot. Even the “User Experience Improve [sic] Program” doesn’t allow for any feedback, just an invitation to let Acer look over your shoulder. It all needs to be fixed.

Keep reading for performance benchmarks.

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Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
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