Looking at a Surface for Your Student? Consider Acer’s Switch Alpha 12 Instead

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Switch Alpha 12
Acer Switch Alpha 12 is a 2-in-1 that competes with Microsoft Surface (Photo by Brad Moon)

Parents are gearing up for back to school and for many of us, that means having to invest in a computer as well as new clothes, shoes, and backpacks. One of the hot categories right now is 2-in-1 laptops (which give you both a Windows laptop and a tablet in one package), and Microsoft’s Surface line is a leader here. If you’re shopping the Surface line, have a look at Acer’s Switch Alpha 12 and you could save yourself a sizeable chunk of cash. That’s more in the budget for all that other back to school gear…

Acer Swicth Alpha 12 is thin and light weight
Switch Alpha 12 is thin and light, ideal for students to carry with them (photo by Brad Moon)

Why Choose 2-in-1?

2-in-1 devices (sometimes referred to as hybrid or convertible laptops) offer some sort of combination of tablet and laptop capability. As a laptop, they have the usual Windows productivity capabilities, and when used as a tablet, they support the touch-based interface many people prefer for casual web browsing, streaming video, reading, or for stylus input. They also tend to be very thin and light weight, especially in comparison to a standard laptop.

These 2-in-1s are especially appealing for students because they tend to be easy to carry, they cover all their laptop needs and also give them a tablet for casual use. Mind you, this is a Windows tablet, so you don’t have anywhere near the app selection you would with an iPad, but for many users the 2-in-1 lets them get away with a single device instead of two.

Why Consider the Acer Switch Alpha 12?

When it comes to 2-in-1 devices, Microsoft popularized the category and still leads it with the Surface line. However, the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 are both pretty costly, especially as student laptops. The Surface 3 is aimed at the consumer market, but Microsoft is winding down production—that may result in sale pricing as inventory is cleared out, but for a year-old device.

Acer Switch Alpha 12 expandability
Acer Switch Alpha 12 includes ports for peripherals (photo by Brad Moon)

If you want the Surface experience at a more affordable price, Acer’s Switch Alpha 12 is worth considering. I spent a few weeks playing around with one and it compared very well against the Surface Pro 4 that was here on loan from Microsoft.

The Switch Alpha 12 has a familiar form factor. It’s a large tablet with a built-in kickstand. Unlike the Surface 3 or Surface Pro 4, Acer actually includes the magnetically attached keyboard cover instead of forcing you to buy it separately, so it’s ready to be used as a laptop right out of the box.

While the base Surface Pro 4 uses a Core m3 processor, even the least expensive Switch Alpha 12 has a 6th generation Core i3. The display is a 12-inch QHD IPS panel—slightly smaller and less pixel dense than the Surface Pro 4’s, but still very nice. It definitely puts the low-resolution display in my MacBook Air to shame. Even the base model review unit I had was equipped with 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a full-sized USB 3.0 port, and a new USB-C port.

Performance was snappy for basic operations like running Word, while the 2160 x 1440 display and 802.11ac combo was great for streaming video. It’s worth mentioning that Acer uses a liquid cooling system so there is no fan, making operation silent. The kickstand was solid and had 165-degrees of adjustability, so it was easy to find the right viewing angle. The keyboard attached securely using magnets and is passable for casual use. I wouldn’t want to write a book using any keyboard cover—they tend to be bouncy and lacking in key travel compared to a real keyboard—but for writing an essay, no problem. At just over half an inch thick and weighing less than three funds, the Switch Alpha 12 is pretty easy to carry as well.

Acer Switch Alpha 12 can be a laptop
Switch Alpha 12 in full laptop mode (photo by Brad Moon)

Of course, it runs Windows 10 (the 64-bit Home edition is pre-installed).

The kicker, especially if you’re comparing it to the Surface Pro 4, is the price. Where the Surface Pro 4 starts at $899, plus another $130 for the Type Cover (a must-have if it’s going to be used as more than just a tablet), the Acer Switch Alpha 12 starts at $599. That includes the keyboard cover. That’s a net savings of $430, and the base Switch Alpha 12 comes with a more powerful CPU…

If you move up to a more mid-range option, a Surface Pro 4 with an Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD goes for $1299 (plus the Type Cover), while a similar configuration for the Switch Alpha 12 is priced at $799.

Downsides?

The Switch Alpha 12 does have a few quirks. There’s a loop to hold a stylus built into the cover, but the stylus is sold separately (you can still draw with your finger for free). Battery life is okay (I averaged six to eight hours depending on what it was used for) but not excellent. And while you can spec it pretty heavily (including a Core i7), you can’t load one up the way you can a Surface Pro 4—RAM maxes out at 8GB and the largest capacity SSD offered is 512GB. Then there’s the fact that most 2-in-1s don’t exactly work that well if you want to actually use them on your lap—the kickstand/keyboard cover combo works much better on a flat surface.

However, given the otherwise excellent performance and the price, the Acer Switch Alpha 12 would make a great choice for any student who’s hoping for a 2-in-1 laptop for school.

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