It’s easy to spend big bucks on an ultraportable, so when we find one under four figures, we’re keen to check it out. Acer’s 13.3-inch Swift 3 ticks many of the right boxes for $899.99: an aluminum instead of plastic body, a 1080p IPS display, a roomy 512GB solid-state drive, a peppy Core i7 processor, an adequate 8GB of memory (though 16GB would have been nice). It doesn’t dislodge our Editors’ Choice Dell XPS 13, but it’s $300 cheaper with a fractionally slower CPU and twice the storage. It could be the best 2.9 pounds ever added to a budget buyer’s briefcase.
To the Swift Go the Spoils?
The Swift 3 name has been applied to an armada of affordable 14- and 15.6-inch Acer laptops over the years. (We tested a 14-inch Swift 3 unit in 2017, for one.) The system seen here, model SF313-51-86QH, is one of the first 13.3-inch machines to bear the moniker.
Aside from fashionably thin screen bezels, the Swift 3 is a conservatively styled silver slab with a chrome Acer logo centered in its lid. A black rubber line surrounds the display. At 0.63 by 12.2 by 8.4 inches, the laptop is larger than the Dell XPS 13 (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches) and Asus ZenBook 13 (0.67 by 11.9 by 7.4 inches), but it’s no burden to carry.
This Swift 3 is easy to open with one hand. The system doesn’t exactly feel flimsy, but I noticed more play or flex than I’d like when grasping the screen corners or mashing the keyboard.
On the laptop’s left side, you’ll find the connector for the compact AC adapter, a USB 2.0 port, an audio jack, and a microSD card slot. The last is covered, like a SIM slot—you must insert a pin into a tiny hole to pry out the tray that holds your microSD card. This is inconvenient for users who want to swap a card in and out with any frequency, though fine if you’re just using microSD for added, fixed storage.
A USB 3.0 port, a USB 3.1 Type-C port, an HDMI video output, and a security-cable lockdown notch are on the right. There is no Thunderbolt 3 port, but that’s permissible, if not ideal, in an under-$1,000 laptop.
The 720p webcam captures fairly well-lit, if slightly grainy and soft-focus, images. It’s not a face-recognition camera, but Windows Hello fans can use a fingerprint reader in the palm rest for friction-free logins. Sound from the bottom-firing speakers is quite soft, even at peak volume, and a bit hollow; it’s difficult to distinguish overlapping tracks.
The backlit keyboard has a couple of layout quirks. The cursor-arrow keys are in an inverted T instead of a row, something I always like to see, but they’re small and crowded together with the Page Up and Page Down keys. The latter serve double duty with the Fn key as your Home and End keys, so navigating them takes extra care or precision. The Escape and Delete keys are small, as well.
The typing feel isn’t bad—somewhat shallow or flat and rattly, but with decent tactile feedback. The buttonless touchpad glides smoothly, though it takes a slightly harder tap than I’m used to to register a click.
The 1,920-by-1,080-pixel non-touch screen offers wide viewing angles and plenty of brightness, even dialed down to save battery life. Backgrounds are acceptably white instead of off-white, and fine details render reasonably sharp, but contrast is only fair, and colors look flat and bland rather than rich and vivid. Overall, the dull display is the main thing that makes the Swift 3 come across as an economy model.
Acer backs the Swift 3 with a one-year limited warranty and preloads it with Windows 10 Home and a lot of commercial links (Amazon.com, eBay, Booking.com, WildTangent games). Microsoft does its part by shoveling in Candy Crush Friends, Gardenscapes, Asphalt Street Storm, and more. A scrubbing session may in order shortly after you buy.
Lightweights Take to the Test Bench
For our benchmark roundup, I matched the Swift 3 against three other Core i7 ultraportables: the Dell XPS 13, the Razer Blade Stealth, and the Huawei MateBook 13. That left one slot open, so I put in the Core i5-based Asus ZenBook 13 for comparison’s sake. Here are the contenders’ basic specifications…
Competing against machines that cost more across the board, the Swift 3 proves to be a solid productivity partner, though like all slimlines with integrated graphics, it’s useless for serious gaming. Its slightly slower CPU hurt it in a few tests, but generally it acquitted itself well.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the laptop’s boot drive. The result is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
We consider a score of 4,000 points to be excellent in PCMark 10, so the Swift 3 should easily keep up with your Microsoft Office or Google Docs work. All five ultraportables’ solid-state drives breezed through the PCMark 8 Storage test with on-par numbers for machines equipped with PCI Express boot drives.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Apparently swallowing a handful of digital steroids, the Core i5 Asus managed an outlying result ahead of the Core i7 systems. The Acer places at the back of the pack, but it should be fine for everyday spreadsheet and database jobs, if not for workstation-style 3D rendering or video editing.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The Swift is two or three seconds off the pace with each filter or effect. Only the most impatient photo collector would complain.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
For the millionth time, Intel’s integrated graphics get schooled by even the most lowly GPU in Nvidia’s discrete graphics lineup. The two GeForce MX150 machines can barely play modern games at low resolution and detail settings, but the Acer, Asus, and Dell are strictly limited to casual and browser-based games.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s done in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess.
Rinse and repeat. Integrated graphics and gaming just don’t mix.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
All five systems show good stamina, with the Dell getting credit for doing so despite flaunting a power-hungry 4K display. The Swift 3 should easily get you through a tough workday or a long flight.
“It’s a Good Value,” Said Tom Swiftly
We couldn’t resist the Tom Swiftie. With that aside, a serious question: Is the Acer Swift 3 a standout among 13.3-inch ultraportables?
Not if you’re looking at its screen, its keyboard, the graphics performance, or the overall build. It’s simply an agreeable choice in a crowded field, perhaps with bonus points for having a 512GB PCI Express solid-state drive instead of a 256GB drive or a Serial ATA one.
But if you’re looking at its price, it’s a tempting choice indeed. The Swift 3 costs hundreds less than most of its competition, without leaving out any essential features. I might not pick it for image or video editing or content creation, but for daily productivity work, it’s hard to complain.