My Acer Aspire Switch 10: A Review

AcerA month or so ago, I bought an Acer Aspire Switch 10 to supplement my then-in-egregiously-long-winded-repair Sony Vaio Duo 13. I’m mostly a fan of the Acer, which is what you could safely call the next step forward for netbooks—not to be unexpected given that Acer was one of the companies that helped pioneer Netbooks as a product category (the first PC that I ever bought with my own money was, in fact, an Acer Aspire One ZG5 netbook). Acer has clearly learned from the missteps made by netbooks in general back in the day, and has learned a lot about what makes a good tablet too. The road leading to the Acer Aspire Switch 10 has been a surprisingly long one, so how does it stack up in real world use?

I’d like to start with the obvious review things: This thing comes with an Intel Atom Bay Trail Z3745 processor clocked at 1.33 GHz and 2 GB of RAM, rounded out by 32-64 GB of storage (figure actual storage will be a little under 10GB less after the operating system and updates are factored in). A Micro SD card slot (compatible with SDXC large storage cards) is provided should you need more storage. For you non-techies out there, this means that it is built with general web-based computing in mind. It can run some heavier stuff in a pinch, but it will be slower than you’re probably used to. In case that wasn’t clear, this is not what you want to be playing heavy games on. Anything more than the games you’ll find in the Windows Store is probably too much for this.

Next thing: PRICE! You’ll find this around $330 for the 32 GB to about $380 for the 64 GB version, which is the one I have. Try to catch this on a sale, and you’ll pay even less.

Third, we have looks. This is a plastic tablet and keyboard dock (they have to keep costs down somehow), but Acer does a good job of mimicking brushed aluminum on the back of the tablet, and as a bonus, if the tablet has been in a cool environment for a period of time, you might even be momentarily fooled into thinking it actually is aluminum when the back is cold! The tablet by itself carries a certain “Star Trek: The Next Generation” feel to it with an edged and framed silver design with pleasantly curved corners, and this sci-fi feel is only further accentuated with the Windows 8.1 Start Screen and its multi-colored tiles that (nerd alert!) sort of resembles the LCARS panels from Star Trek TNG. Dock it with the keyboard though, and most of that original design flourish goes out the window, and it instead begins to resemble a poor-man’s MacBook Air—which you could argue it sort of is, but that is entirely not the point.

Next come some of the perks. This is the good news section, in other words.

First up, there is a keyboard included; and this is the big reason you’re probably looking at the Switch to begin with. The quality and comfort of the keyboard is amazing for the money, even beating out the keyboard on my top-notch Sony Vaio Duo 13 which cost 3 times as much. Keys have excellent travel, and great resistance. This may be a 10.1 inch tablet, and those tend to make for a pretty cramped keyboard experience, but Acer’s got the best use of space I’ve seen in a keyboard this small. It’s still not perfect, but it’s as good as you are likely to get in this size range—this thing is seriously well thought out. There’s a lot of negative stuff I’ve seen thrown at the trackpad on the keyboard dock, but I really don’t know what is in the Kool-Aid those other reviewers are drinking; it’s a good trackpad, decently sized with good accuracy (although lengthy click-and-drag operations tend to get a bit dodgy) and appropriate pointer speeds that can of course be tweaked further in Windows settings.

The forward firing speakers are loud and clear, and deliver superb quality sound for tablet speakers. And they face you at all times, unlike the Lenovo Yoga 2 11, HP Pavilion x360, or the Asus Transformer T100, which are probably the closest competitors to this machine that run Windows, and unlike most Chromebooks, for that matter. As the speakers are always facing towards you, they will always sound a bit louder than even the loudest rear-firing speakers on a budget machine.

The hinge is a unique take on the Yoga-like concept. Rather than fold back all the way into a tablet mode that exposes the keyboard, the Switch lets you simply yank off the tablet and put it back on backwards via two very strong magnets, allowing for the much-vaunted but niche-use stand/kiosk and “table tent” modes. Or just a really, REALLY thick and heavy tablet. Y’know, if you’re into that. The switchable connection is well designed, and the magnetic grips are firm and solid; no gripes there. I can grab it by the keyboard and hold it upside down and even shake it a little and the tablet will not shake loose.

The screen is not as high quality as some other Windows machines, but at typical angles still produces clear and crisp images and text, and the colors don’t wash out as horrifically at an angle as most competing Chromebooks or the HP Pavilion x360 (what was HP thinking with that display?!). It’s a fairly bright display for what it is, and runs at a 1366×768 resolution—not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it cuts all the same. Acer has included their “Lumiflex” technology to make it a little easier to read in sunlight, and that works… okay. Just okay. There’s not a whole lot to write home about with that feature, and it can also be toggled off at your pleasure.

The tablet is just a hair heavier than the iPad 2 (still a pretty good tablet weight benchmark, and not bad considering the Switch is also a smidge bigger), and as a laptop it is a hair smaller than an 11 inch MacBook Air while weighing about the same, making it very convenient to carry around.

The Bay Trail processor boots fast, is swift and powerful enough for my general computing needs (read: everything that is not heavy gaming [I have a PlayStation for that] or heavy image/video editing [I have my Vaio for that]). If you think of this as a really good mid-range Android Tablet that runs Windows apps, you’ll have a good idea of who and what this is for.

It runs moderately heavy graphics programs like IMVU quite well, and the mobile first-person-shooter game Blitz Brigade (kind of a tiny mobile version of the ever venerable and Hatter-friendly Team Fortress 2) plays at an excellent frame rate with almost no lag.

That said, here be some caveats. You mean… a sub-$400 PC isn’t all wine and roses? Say whaaaaaa—?

The plastic on the back of the tablet is just a bit creaky. Nothing major, but you can feel it pop back by a third of a millimeter or so when you apply pressure to the back after readjusting the screen angle in laptop mode. It’s not a huge negative point, but something you should probably know before buying.

For whatever reason, Windows 8.x is prone to glitches on this machine. Brightness sticks often after waking the machine from sleep mode, and the capacitive Windows key on the tablet often freezes after separating the tablet from the keyboard (even if if’s just for a fraction of a moment to switch modes), rendering the sleep button useless (as it goes to a control+alt+delete menu instead), and the volume rocker is likewise completely useless (trying to raise the volume turns on the Assistive Use Narrator, which gets annoying to the point of sociopathy within seconds, and attempting to lower the volume takes a screenshot; you’re going to have a lot of screenshots, just as a general FYI).

That’s probably the most egregious error I’ve found, and while the Switch 10 is particularly prone to this error (I eventually just moved the .exe for the narrator to a different folder, which solved THAT piece of the problem and made the issue much more tolerable), this appears to be a Windows 8 issue at heart, so I can’t fault Acer (or the machine) entirely for this.

The battery life is decidedly NOT 7-8 hours as advertised, but usually anywhere from 4 to 6 hours in my general use, which is web browsing, social media apps, and composing a novel and poetry in Microsoft Word (the primary purpose of this machine, actually). I’ve tried a bunch of tricks to help bump up my battery life, but to no avail– the tricks that help my Haswell powered Sony Vaio Duo save battery and routinely grab 9-10 hours of charge (my record on the Vaio is a mind-blowing 13 hours on a single charge) don’t work to any degree on Bay Trail, it seems.

That really is a shame too. 4-6 hours isn’t horrible, and I actually can get a lot done in that time, but for a tablet, even a sub-$400 one, I was expecting much more, and hoping I wouldn’t have to bring the charger with me all the time. In short, the battery life is serviceable, but hardly best in class.

However, the far more detestable sin this thing commits is that it charges VERY SLOWLY.  If you only have a half hour to charge, don’t expect a huge chunk of your battery restored, but rather, just barely enough. If I’m forced to deal with a sub-standard battery life, would it kill Acer to give me a battery that charges quickly? I don’t think that’s a whole lot to ask, even at this price, seeing as the Asus T100 shoves an extra battery in its keyboard dock (also included in the box at a not-too-dissimilar price point) allowing some truly killer battery life (around 10-11 hours, which is, like the Vaio Duo 13, pretty closely approaching Macbook Air territory). Here, the keyboard is just a keyboard, and lacks an extra battery or hard drive, which I believe would have been an excellent decision given the poor battery performance of the tablet. Acer has promised a new keyboard dock will be released with a 500 GB hard drive, which would almost necessitate a second battery in the keyboard as well, as it’s a safe bet that the HDD will be a spinning platter drive, and those simply suck battery life like there’s no mañana. Forcing one of those to run off that tablet’s battery would ruin any chance at real portability this thing has, so… keeping fingers crossed there.

They keyboard dock DOES include a single USB port, but that’s it. It would have been nice to see a full-size SD card slot or similar as well, but it is as it is.

So, the final verdict? Discounting a slightly glitchier (than usual) build of Windows 8.1 and the middling battery life, this thing is pretty good. It has the size, weight, and comfort to travel with you, and just enough oomf to be your daily driver if you’re willing to forego heavy graphics and obsessive multitasking (no opening 30 tabs in Firefox guys, sorry). Averaging the numbers I assigned the categories of Acer’s review site, I give it a solid 8 out of 10. It’s a great buy, especially give what you’ll probably pay for it, and it holds its own with more expensive (but still budget) 2-in-1’s with slightly more powerful processors and still manages to outperform most Chromebooks (by virtue of running Windows apps natively, as opposed to emulation or virtual machines) in practical use.

If you’re looking for a travel machine, or just a good supplement to an existing pc, it’s hard not to give this one a good look, but the Asus Transformer T100, with the battery in the keyboard dock and the optional hard drive, is equally worthy of a look and may be better suited to your needs.

As with most things, your mileage may vary.

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