Acer Switch Alpha 12 review: Not the affordable Surface Pro 4 alternative you’re looking for

When Microsoft first announced its Surface lineup of 2-in-1 detachables back in 2012, most people were not sure how to greet the company’s new device.

On the one hand, it seemed like the Redmond-based company wanted to displace its manufacturing partners, the same companies that had helped Microsoft dominate the PC market through the nineties and into the early aughts. On the other hand, the original Surface models, particularly the RT variants, weren’t great.

Despite those early missteps, the Surface lineup itself has flourished in recent years, creating a viable new revenue generator for Microsoft. Moreover, with traditional tablet sales at their worst since 2012, companies like Samsung and Huawei, as well as Microsoft’s more traditional hardware partners like Dell, have managed to salvage something from the declining market with their own 2-in-1 efforts.

While not for everyone, there’s been clear demand for devices like the Surface Pro. The issue is, for all its many strengths, the Surface Pro 4 is an expensive device, especially in Canada where our weak dollar doesn’t help its price tag.

Enter Acer with its latest take on the 2-in-1 detachable form factor, the Switch Alpha 12. No stranger to the Windows ecosystem, Acer is also known for producing affordable products. And in many ways, the Switch Alpha 12 delivers on the company’s promise of an affordable but compelling 2-in-1, but it also misses the mark in several important areas.

It’s a device that makes compromises, and it’s up to interested consumers to ask themselves whether they can live by the sacrifices the Switch Alpha 12 asks them to make in the pursuit of affordability.

Starting Configuration

  • Windows 10 Home
  • Intel Core i3 processor clocked at 2.30 GHz
  • 4GB RAM
  • 128GB SSD
  • 12-inch 2160 x 1440 touchscreen IPS display
  • Wi-Fi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity
  • 4860 mAh battery
  • 15.9mm x 292.1mm x 201.4mm dimensions
  • 1.25 kg
  • $899.99 CAD MSRP

Design

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From a design perspective, the Switch Alpha 12 is not a remarkable device. Its visual inspirations are clear from the moment you take it out of the box. First, there is the more obvious of its two antecedents, Microsoft’s Surface Pro lineup. Less obvious, though more relevant in the context of this device, is HP’s recent Elite X2 1012 2-in-1.

Like that device, the Switch Alpha 12 takes advantage of a u-shaped kickstand mechanism to allow for more than one standing configuration. In the case of the Switch Alpha, it’s a functional and sturdy design feature that gives users a significant amount of wiggle room to adjust screen orientation to their liking.

Uninspired design aside, the Switch Alpha still cuts a decent figure. Viewing it from a distance, its brushed aluminum finish gives it a sophisticated look. That impression is somewhat diminished when examining the device close up. That said, with one exception, which I’ll touch upon later, overall build quality is solid, especially for a device at this price point.

At 1250 grams, however, the Switch Alpha 12 is heavier than most devices in the category, including the 1088 gram Surface Pro 4. Even without its keyboard attached, the Switch Alpha 12 is a hefty device. As a result, while it definitely feels sturdy, I found the Switch Alpha’s weight made it impractical to use in its tablet form. In this respect, compared to dedicated tablets like the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and even Microsoft’s own Surface Pro, the Switch Alpha 12 feels far from an ultraportable.

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In terms of ports, the Switch Alpha 12 offers a useful mix of I/O options. It includes one USB 3.0 port, one USB-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s also a microSD slot hidden behind the kickstand that allows users to add more storage to the device.

Keyboard and trackpad

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The more important question relating to a device like this is how good are its keyboard and trackpad? After all, all 2-in-1s — and in fact laptops — are only as good as their keyboard and trackpad. When it comes to its own keyboard and trackpad, the Switch Alpha 12 is serviceable but not great.

I wrote the majority of this review on the Switch Alpha 12, completing parts of it on a Filco mechanical keyboard I have at home and the Macbook I take with me every day to work. Writing some 2000 words in a short amount of time, the conclusion I came to is that the typing experience on offer here is at least on par with what was available with the Type Cover 3. Key travel and response are both at a level that’s to be expected with a keyboard of this type and cost, but the keys themselves feel mushy. Overall, I was able to write emails, news stories and other content at a fast clip while making few errors, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience.

On the other hand, I absolutely did not like the Switch Alpha 12’s trackpad. It has several issues. The first, and most important to my mind, is that it sinks too far into the frame of the keyboard when pressed. It’s also too small and narrow, not providing nearly enough surface area, and I’m not a fan of how it is slightly offset to the left side.

acer-switch-alpha-12-4

Another issue is the fabric loop designed to hold the Switch Alpha 12’s stylus. I managed to break it on my second day with the device. I’m willing to admit I probably was over zealous when I tried to thread the stylus through that day, but at the same time, it’s easy to see how other people who purchase this device will experience similar issues. The stylus itself serves its purpose well enough. It’s far less sensitive than Microsoft’s offering, and looks a bit too much like a traditional pen in my opinion.

Of course, all of these criticisms need to be weighed against the fact that the Switch Alpha 12’s keyboard cover comes included in the box. The Type Cover 4 is an excellent keyboard, yes, but it also costs $170, adding a significant amount to the price an already expensive device.

Software

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After leaving the Windows ecosystem around the time of Windows Vista, I recently returned to Microsoft’s desktop operating system to find a great user experience. This will be old news to those who have been on Windows 10 since launch, but, if you’re like me, and haven’t used Windows in a long time, it’s definitely time to give Microsoft’s historic operating system another look. Between new features like Windows Hello, a cohesive and pleasant UI across the entire OS, a much-improved notification tray and a fast browser in Microsoft Edge, there’s a lot to like with Windows 10.

Microsoft also needs to be commended for the work it has put into updating its own software. I haven’t had too much time with Windows 10’s anniversary update, but what I have seen so far is promising. With the addition of extension support to Microsoft Edge, I can finally say goodbye to Google Chrome, which has become close to unusable in recent years. Elsewhere, the addition of Windows Ink, Windows 10’s new hub for all things stylus-related, helped show me why some people swear by their computer’s pen input.

acer-switch-alpha-12-11

In terms of included software, the Switch Alpha 12 comes with its fair share of bloatware. Besides the company’s own utilities, the unit the Acer provided to MobileSyrup came with a number of third-party apps pre-installed, including Twitter, Flipboard, Netflix and Candy Crush Saga, as well as Amazon’s store and Kindle apps.

With its constant notifications, however, McAfee LiveSafe was the worst offender.

Performance

acer-switch-alpha-12-12

In terms of configuration, the unit MobileSyrup was provided came with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB solid state drive. During general computing tasks, the Switch Alpha 12 was fast and responsive, handling multiple apps at once without any issue. Those looking to game with their laptop best look elsewhere; with an integrated graphics card from Intel inside, the Switch Alpha 12 can’t run modern games like Overwatch and The Witcher 3 at a playable level, though it can handle less intensive games like Hearthstone with ease.

Each and every configuration of the Switch Alpha 12 comes with a 12-inch 2160 x 1440 pixel IPS touchscreen display. It uses the same 3:2 aspect ratio as Microsoft’s own detachable, though doesn’t pack in as many pixels. Besides the thick bezel, the screen is excellent. It’s a bit on the warm side, as you can see in the two above images, but it’s sharp and touch response is excellent.

The Switch Alpha 12 is the first 2-in-1 device to feature a liquid cooling solution. In practice, the benefit of this setup is that Acer’s new 2-in-1 is completely silent, even when running demanding applications. Moreover, because it doesn’t make use of a radiator of any fans to dissipate excess heat, the Switch Alpha 12 is sealed from the outside world, saving it from dust and other particles that could in the future get into its internals. However, I’m unsure whether the Switch Alpha 12 makes a compelling case for this type cooling solution within the context of an ultraportable.

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Without having the time to use this computer for a number of months, it’s hard to tell how this setup will work two and three years into the future. Even in just normal use, the right side of the Switch Alpha 12 becomes warm to the touch. It’s a good thing its internals are located behind the screen, because if they were beneath the keyboard, like in a traditional laptop, it would not be comfortable a device to place on one’s lap.

Battery life is also unimpressive. During a normal work day — using Microsoft Edge with multiple tabs open, Slack and Spotify — I found the Switch Alpha’s 4870 mAh battery lasted between four and five hours. The worst thing I can say about this device is that it probably wouldn’t get through a large press event on a single charge, which makes it a non-starter in my case. For everyone else, it’s best to think of this device as a powerful desktop that can go portable for a few hours when needed.

Conclusion

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On its own, the Switch Alpha 12 is, save for its less than stellar keyboard and poor battery life, a good device.

And if all you care about is performance, then it’s an easy computer to recommend. Going with the Switch Alpha 12, consumers can get a modern, well-specced device for less money than the competition. The Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256 ROM variant, for example, costs $1000 in Canada; a similarly specced Surface Pro costs $1,679 — without even factoring in the additional cost of a Type Cover 4 keyboard.

Where things become more complicated is in the difference between input devices. We spend so much of our time on these devices interacting with the included keyboard and trackpad. So much so that I don’t think it’s unreasonable, depending on a person’s budget, to purchase a lower specced machine if it means coming away with a computer that has a better keyboard and trackpad. While it would be hard for me to get a new computer with less than 8GB of RAM, depending on your computing needs, a Surface Pro model with 4GB of RAM and a Core M3 processor may be enough, especially if all do with your computer is surf the web, send emails and watch YouTube.

What’s perhaps most frustrating about the Switch Alpha 12 is that it’s so close to be an ideal device. Had it shipped with a better keyboard and trackpad, as well as a more capable battery, it would be the go-to affordable 2-in-1.

Pros

  • Excellent screen
  • Superlative performance
  • Great operating system in Windows 10

Cons

  • Poor battery life
  • Average keyboard and trackpad at best
  • Heavy

Before anyone asks, here’s the wallpaper you see on my desktop.

Comments

  • SuperDSpamalot

    It’s telling when the pros are all things that Acer weren’t responsible for (Screen, power and software) and the cons are EVERYTHING Acer is responsible for getting right. I don’t care how cheap it is, this is not an alternative to the Surface.

    I can’t believe anyone still buys anything Acer at all.

  • gwydionjhr

    Why is the pen far less sensitive than the MS Surface pen? Does it use a different technology?

    Also, you wrote this in Google Docs, didn’t you. How can tell? You used the word “specced” twice in the last paragraph. I copied and pasted it into both Docs and Word. Docs completely missed that as a spelling mistake.

    • Igor Bonifacic

      Surface Pen has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. In contrast, the Switch Alpha 12’s has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity.

      I wrote the review completely in WordPress. I’ve seen both specced and spec’d used in other publications and websites. It’s one of those weird words like doxing, which can also be spelled doxxing. It looks weird either way.

    • gwydionjhr

      Thanks for the answer to both questions!

    • Igor Bonifacic

      My pleasure!

    • Eric M.

      The reason it is less sensitive is partly because it uses a different technology, depending on what you are looking to do with it, writing or sketching, it might not be the right device for you. The pen does have some lag when it comes to quickly sketch or doodle but for regular note taking it is working fine.
      I’d say that pro user that uses the device for drawing professionally definitely ought to get the SP4 as the pen is much much adequate for this.

  • Anton Bruckner

    No surprise here. Acer is easily one of the biggest piece of shjt brands in the PC market today. Seriously if you’re looking for a Surface experience you’ll buy one of those first before you’ll think of buying junk from Asser.

  • Eric M.

    Hi Igor!
    I’m quite surprised you feel this way about the Acer, firstly your comparison with the Surface Pro 4 is flawed in some way, the weight of 766 Grams does not include the actual keyboard which weights about 266 gram additional. So the difference in weight is not that much.
    In regards of the tracking pad click travel, not sure if you tried both device side by side but there’s merely any difference and it certainly does not display a difference in performance.
    I actually bought this device instead of a Surface Pro 4 because the cost difference alone was compelling over $600 difference for a similar spec SP4.
    As for those of you that are bashing on this computer just because it is from Acer, I can tell that it is very well made device and quite a compelling machine
    Now of course it ain’t perfect and of course cheaper device means you have to cut the cost somewhere, the faux leather gathers dust like there’s no tomorrow, the screen is not symmetrical aligned positioned slightly more on the left.
    As for the liquid cooling in a mobile device, it’s been in existence for while in cellphones, I’m fairly confident it is safe to use.
    If you guys have any questions about the device feel free to as me and you can also seek the two reviews on mobiletechreview on youtube that does a pretty good job a comparing the SP4 to the Acer Switch Alpha pro.
    I must admit that having searched for reviews on this 2 in 1, this one is by far the most negative I’ve come to read.

    • Igor Bonifacic

      1) Fair, I’ve updated the review to reflect the correct weights. That said, the Switch Alpha 12 is about 20 percent heavier when compared to the SP4. That’s a significant amount, especially for two devices that occupy roughly the same volume.

      2) I had the Type Cover 4 for comparison throughout the whole review process. The trackpad is much better. All my colleagues agreed, as well.

      3) As I said in the review, if all you care about is performance and cost, then the Switch Alpha 12 is a great computer.

      4) The only smartphones to make use of something close to a liquid cooling setup are the Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL.Those are all smartphones released within the last year, so, no, liquid cooled smartphones have not been existence for a while. Moreover, they all have the advantage of using ARM processors, which produce far less heat than even the 6th generation of Core i model processors. Even with its heat pipe, the S7 still gets hot. We’ll see how the Switch Alpha 12’s passive cooling system works. I don’t think it was unreasonable to tell readers there’s not a lot of data on how a 6th generation Core i processor functions after three years without an active cooling system dissipating the heat it produces.

      5) Why do all reviewers need to agree on something? Ideally if you’re interested in this device, you will read more than one review and make your own decision on whether a product makes sense for you.

      Most of all, I’m happy you’re enjoying the device, and you think it was a good purchase.

    • Eric M.

      After calculation the difference in weight is a mere 0.39 lbs which while maybe noticeable not all that important.
      As for liquid cooling it is true in regards of mobile device.
      And again very true not all reviewers should agree on products. Although you depicted the device in a very Grimm light.
      This is of course my personal opinion and while I agree that the Acer is far from perfect it holds its ground pretty well against then sp4 which is over 600$ more expensive considering you’ve got to buy the keyboard separately
      Thank you for the answers glad to get some interaction with you.

    • Donovan

      What kind of battery life are you experiencing? This seems to be the main caveat of going with this device versus a Surface Pro.

    • Eric M.

      It really depends on the kind of task you do but I’d say in the 4-5 hours ish…
      I don’t mind much since I use it mainly at home.

    • Eric M.

      It’s okay but far from stellar.

    • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      I personally think it’s stellar, however that’s coming from my past experience with an ASUS laptop that only lasts an hour and 20 min.

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  • tatzuk

    This rewiew is far too harsh. Almost every rewiever I’ve seen has at least liked the trackpad and keyboard. Some say it’s one of the best things about this device. I think Acer has done a terrific job making a more affordable 2 in 1 that still looks cool which something Microsoft couldn’t do.

    • Eric M.

      I completely agree with you, I own it and it’s a very very good device, but of course not as good as SP4 but someone getting this Acer certainly does not expect the same quality for the price you pay this computer for.

    • Amit Golwala

      I could not resist buying this device (i5 one with 256 GB storage and no pen included) for $531 including tax. As far as keyboard is concerned, if the bundled one does not meet the purpose for specific high demanding situations, I don’t see any harm in pairing with Bluetooth Logitech keyboards. Can someone comment, if I can use other active pens like Dell 750-AAGN? Though, I don’t need to use the pen for any art work, I plan to use it as an alternate to white boards for my software requirement workshops. Specs are unbeatable for the price. In fact, you can buy two such devices at the price of one SP4, with keyboard included! I am ready to pay premium but not 100%.

  • KiwiBri

    if anyone is interested, Lisa from Mobile tech review does a great video review on this and talks more on the pen.

  • Richard Kirchknopf

    My son has the i5 version with 128GB SSD. Based on his experience I also got the same. I thought it was very good bang for the buck relative to the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. Agreed that the tablet part is heavy. But it is quite solid, and with the liquid cooling it is absolutely noiseless. My only complaint about the keyboard is that mine is international rather than a US keyboard. But it is backlit, and it came with the system, not an extra. It attaches easily and comes off easily. I found the keyboard and touchpad more than adequate. So I would not call the keyboard a con. Likewise the so-so battery life. Agreed that it could be better, but at the same time calling 4-5 hours “poor” is unduly harsh. I think it really depends on what the user needs. Spending $1000 for something competitive with a system $600 more expensive makes this worth looking at if one is looking for good performance at a more affordable price. If one needs the extra battery life then perhaps that makes it a moot point. I also bought the pen. I seldom use it though. But then again I don’t need it for art and the pressure sensitivity is not important to me. I just use it for more precise selection of check-boxes and such.

  • Christoph

    Thanks for the review. I noticed that your model has a large enter key, like European keyboards. I suppose it’s a Canadian model? Could you specify the exact model ID or some other way how I can know which keyboard I am getting when ordering online?

    Also, I am trying to find out whether it is possible to buy the keyboard cover separately to get a different keyboard layout? I suppose it is not possible to swap the keys (and stickers are really a last resort…)

    Finally, has anyone tried if the surface pro 3/4 type covers work with the Switch Alpha? I know it’s kinda unlikely, but physically, the docking interfaces look extremely similar…

  • Bill Rozenwaser

    I’ve had the Acer Switch 12 for about 6 wks now. The computer itself is pretty good. The downside is Acer support and everything about the pen/stylus. The pen/stylus is pretty bad compared to the WACOM based digital pens out there. I’ve been spoiled using Samsung’s NOTE 8 where the stylus is quite good and responsive for note taking.

    I also broke the stylus holder on the Acer after a month. Called Acer and they wanted $300 to fix it. Acer’s position is that the pen holder is a physical issue and not covered under their warranty. So poor and cheap design: just live with it. The phone support is also terrible, asking you for SNID twice, not being able to view your registered device profile.

  • Torrentula81

    You keep writing reviews like this one and people will just skip over mobilesyrup whenever it shows up in the search results. I know I will. This tablet is THE surface pro 4 alternative out there at the moment. Nothing comes close. The price point point should shame microsoft. I mean 100 dollars for a keyboard is insane.

  • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

    LOL this review is pure baloney, FYI I’m a Canadian as well and I got the base model for a bargain of CAD $599 at BestBuy. How in God’s world did you get CAD $899 as the retail price? At most, the base model sells for a maximum price of $799 when its not on sale; the good news is that it’s always on sale, at least at BestBuy.

    Of course you’re not buying this tablet for performance, this product was targeted to the average college student like me. This tablet is more than good enough (it has an i3 processor for God’s sake!) and it actually costs half the price of the Surface Pro 4!!!!!!!!

  • M S

    Benchmark wise the performance is better than the Surface Pro 3 while close to the Surface Pro 4. It also doesn’t have a loud jet engine fan which is a great feat for a 2 in one device without an Intel M processor (which is far far weaker).

    It also has a price point which is great in comparison to the Surface Pro line. Overall it’s a far better value/price for the device with a brighter screen and the magnetic charge cord.

    That said, the Surface does have better build quality, slightly better processor, better memory/storage (type not size) and of course the amazing Surface line computer screens.

    If price is no point then the Surface Pro is a great computer but at this price point it’s a great consideration for a 2 in one laptop/tablet hybrid but I’d love to know if the pen functionality is good enough for OneNote or EverNote on the system which is what I use it for. I don’t expect to do art on this thing like a professional but it is a good consideration.

    If anything this and other competitors actually shows how the lower end and cheaper competitors can come up with concepts to help make a product better. If Microsoft is to bring in a similar/newer system which also includes a heatsink that doesn’t have to run off of the jet engine fan (but keep the fan which is more or less for “rare cases”); then the device could really have a great product line down the road. Even the Vaio Z Flip has an interesting take on a more powerful processor in a 2 in 1 form factor.

    It has literally taken forever for updates though but I can’t help but wonder if the overheating issues that plague the Kaby Lake processors as well as the lack of real improvements is why Microsoft is stalling the updates…? That and it will be interesting to see how things evolve over time even if the competition isn’t “better” it just has to give enough bang for your buck while having a good balance for overall performance.

    For me personally I really am considering this laptop; it sits mostly plugged in but has the portability like the Surface Pro line. It has a bright screen so technically it can be used outside while I have breakfast or other stuff. Overall it is more powerful than the Surface Pro 3 so it should be capable of handling what I need.

    Of course it would need work to just “reinstall the OS” but it’s a minor quirk to fix the bloatware on the computer. I’d overall consider it as it includes a keyboard and is good enough for my needs. It will however be interesting what other options will come out long term later

  • The Stealth

    I read your review with interest but feel you are far too biased.
    There is no way that you will you get the same Ms SP4 experience from an alternative 2in1 which cost up to £300 less.
    The keyboard is no better or worse than others, many manufacturers now have the trackpad offset (this is the standard).
    Other reviewers have commended the keyboard as being better than the Ms SP4.
    You criticised the stylus looking too much like a traditional pen, what were you expecting ?. (keep it simple, why make it so different/complex and expensive like Ms SP4 or Apple Pro)

    You also missed “No fan noise” and USB-C from your Pros (Ms SP4 does not have USB-C)
    You don’t buy a Ford Fiesta and expect Rolls Royce quality / experience.