You know, sometimes I feel old. I remember writing about the Ultrabook Initiative, Intel’s campaign to get us a new breed of laptops, like it was just yesterday, and it’s spurred just over half a decade of innovation and grand designs from every vendor on the planet. Acer has had its fair share of the spotlight in that time, with the Aspire S family taking centre stage at times, or their take on the Letexo prototype with the Revo family. Now it’s going all-in with the Swift family, and it’s an interesting compromise between a form factor that’s familiar, and design decisions that pull it into a niche of super-expensive ultrabooks that compete against each other in a cutthroat market.
The Swift 7 is a gorgeous notebook. Acer decked it out in black and gold trim, a fantastic combination ever since Subaru tried it first on their black 2004 WRX sedans with gold rally wheels. It is thin, even dramatically so at just one centimetre at its thickest point. It’s light too, weighing just 1.16kg according to my scale. With it being this light, it’s not possible to open it with one hand, and it does have a tendency to bounce around on your lap when you’re in a car.
The lid is a piece of smooth black aluminium, with the Acer logo in gold prominently displayed in the center and a single black strip with a matte finish at the top used for grip when opening the display. The hinges sit to either side of the display, and they don’t have any odd feel to them that might suggest they’ll break on you. There’s almost no flex in the chassis when closed, which is comforting if you’re just going to throw this in a messenger bag without a sleeve.
I should also mention at this point that there are only three ports available: two USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type C ports and one combo audio jack. Only one Type-C port can be used for charging, whilst the other is USB only, but does support charging other devices while the notebook is in sleep mode. Neither port is Thunderbolt-capable.
Opening it up, you’re greeted with a 13.3-inch IPS display hidden behind a single pane of Gorilla Glass. There’s a bezel underneath the glass, but it’s designed to be so thin that there is almost no glare when using the notebook in sunny areas. No dust can get into its cracks, no scratches can sully its surface. Which, to be honest, made me wonder if the display was touch-capable. It isn’t.
The palm rest and keyboard tray are made of gold-coloured anodised aluminium, and have a slightly rough finish that feels as if it’s been finely sandpapered. I found myself subconsciously rubbing its surface every now and then, because the sensation is a bit like having your fingers tickled. It’s an odd thing to describe to someone without adding in some sexual innuendo to fill in the gaps where your vocabulary is lacking.
The trackpad is enormous, and uses a high-quality plastic surface surrounded by a chamfered edge that digs into the aluminium to show you its silvery core. It uses Microsoft’s Precision touchpad drivers, and works really well. It might be a tad too sensitive, to the point where gestures were performed when my other fingers dragged across the surface. That’s thankfully configurable in the settings menu.
The fact that the chamfering shows off the inner layers of the aluminium chassis, though, means that the gold paintjob can be scratched off.
The keyboard is a chicklet design with black keycaps, supported on a metal backplate to avoid the typical springy feel that comes with thin laptops of this size. The keycap surface is flat, so there’s no groove to insert your fingers when trying to touch type, which might throw off some first-time users. Key travel is light and isn’t mushy, and there’s not a lot of feedback, but it’s there. My only gripes with it are that the power button is located right where I expect the DEL key to be, and that there’s no backlighting. For a laptop that squares up against Apple Macbooks, Dell XPS Thirteens and the like, omitting a backlit keyboard seems like an oversight.
The speakers Acer slapped into the Swift 7 are pretty good for their size, and deliver audio with no distortions even at 90% volume. There’s no bass, which was expected, but it’s enough to not need external speakers most of the time. The included camera is a 720p shooter, but I discovered that it wasn’t Windows Hello capable. This is interesting, considering that Hello capability is one of Acer’s selling points for the Swift 7. I suspect that some regions get the better camera, while others do not.
Whilst I’ve been boastful about the Swift 7’s looks and build quality, I admit that it wasn’t all sunshine and roses out of the box. My review unit shipped with Windows 10 version 1511, and some things were missing or not functional. Like the ability to press WIN key + Print to take a screenshot, for example, or having any way to search for something in Windows after pressing the Start key and waiting two seconds before typing anything.
The display scaling was also set to 150% by default, which was an awful decision. 125% scaling reduces the effective resolution to something approaching 1600 x 900 pixels, while it looks its best at 100% scaling at 1080p.
Despite upgrading to Windows 10 Creators Update, there were still niggles in the system. The microphone, for whatever reason, isn’t picked up by Cortana as a capable device to receive voice commands. The webcam quality also appeared to have suffered a little bit with texture smearing in low light. Battery life, however, improved by around half an hour compared to the out of the box performance of around five and a half hours watching Youtube videos, which was a welcome boost.
The Wi-Fi default roaming behaviour is also set to very high in the drivers, which meant that the Swift 7 was switching between my 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz networks pretty quickly trying to find a better signal, inducing crashes on my router. It’s a failing of the router and not the notebook, but I had to tone down this behaviour to fix the issue. Many of these things are fixable in software, but it’s up to Acer to decide if fixing them should take a higher priority than avoiding these issues in the next generation of Swifts powered by Intel’s Coffee Lake family.
Let’s switch things up and talk performance for a bit. The Core i5-7Y54 processor is part of the Kaby Lake family, but is a SoC design, embedding all the chip logic internally. Its two cores and four threads will boost from 1.2GHz all the way to 3.2GHz depending on the workload, while the Intel HD 615 graphics holds its own for lightweight work and the occasional QuickSync video encode. My unit came equipped with 8GB of DDR3L-1600 RAM, alongside a 256GB SATA SSD from LiteOn. The SSD is not the fastest of its peers, nor does it match up with NVMe drives shipping in other ultrabooks at the same price point.
Since I had a couple of generations of Intel hardware available to me at home, I decided to pit them against the Swift 7 to see how they fared. In gaming tests, it was an interesting result. 3DMark’s scores show that the Intel HD 615 GPU will outpace the other GPUs when it isn’t being overly taxed with heavy shader work or lots of texturing, while it fell behind the Broadwell-powered ASUS A555LF in FireStrike. That placing repeats in Trackmania Nations Forever, where the Swift 7 falls in between the Core i3-5005U’s performance and the Core i7-4720HQ.
I think it’s safe to say that if you’re playing older DirectX 9 games using Source or similarly light engines, it’ll run those just fine at medium to high settings and 720p resolution. 1080p might only be an option for slower-paced games like real-time strategy and management games.
The PCMark 8 results showed that it will fall behind the Core i7-4720HQ in the Home Conventional test, but bests it convincingly in the Office tests. Note that the A555LF’s low scores in the Office test are due to having only 4GB of system RAM. In Cinebench, both the single and multi-core scores are ahead of what the Acer Aspire 5733 manages, along with just over a third the power consumption of the Core i5-560M. In the browser benchmarks, the Swift 7 puts in a good performance for the power consumption, and is only bested by the Core i7-4720HQ. Overall, it pulls in a strong performance in productivity workloads, but the lack of physical cores does hurt its ability to keep ahead in multi-core workloads.
The entire system measured from the wall only draws 17.6 watts while running Cinebench’s multi-core benchmark. While this is close to what the ASUS A555LF achieves, it does so whilst being completely silent. It’s a neat hardware feature that the other laptops in this comparison can’t hope to match. But that efficiency and silence comes at a cost to performance.
I’ve taken a slice out of the Trackmania benchmark representing about a third of the run, and this graph is showing FPS over time. Frametimes aren’t necessary here because the effect is noticeable without them. As the benchmark runs at 720p, you can see it bump up against the power limits of the chipset. The framerate is allowed to run unconstrained momentarily, before it is reined in – again momentarily – and vacillates between the two extremes, producing a noticeable stutter effect. It’s less pronounced at 1080p, but it’s still there in the graph. You can see in the full benchmark run how much stuttering is present across the entire test.
In its bid to extract maximum performance from these chips, Intel’s power management routines allow it to briefly burst to give you that extra shot of speed while loading a webpage, and then ramp back down quickly to save on power. SpeedShift, as Intel calls this burstable mode today, is what gives the graph that extreme see-sawing effect, because the processor can switch from the base clock on the CPU or GPU to the maximum boost clock in less than a millisecond.
For most workloads, this isn’t a problem, and the performance of the Swift 7 should be just as blazing fast as other desktop chips in the same scenarios. But if you’re going to be playing the odd game, take note that the use of a frame limiter will probably give you a better and more consistent experience at 30fps.
Wrapping this review up, I think that the Swift 7’s target audience is limited to people who were looking at the prices of ultrabooks like the Apple Macbook and Air lineups and balked at the high cost. For the R21,000 asking price, there are ultrabooks even within Acer’s own stable, like the Swift 5, which would appeal to a much wider audience. But nothing looks anything remotely as stylish as this ultrabook. If it’s a statement you want to make, this is the notebook you’d want, and keeping it clean is super easy. As a competitor to the Macbooks and Macbook Airs of the world, it’s a cheaper and better option than both. And it runs Linux very well (more on that in another story).
The tradeoffs the Swift 7 makes for its looks and sleek design need to be ones you’re comfortable with. If you don’t plug many accessories in, the constant need for a USB-C to USB-B, or USB-C to HDMI adapter won’t annoy you. But the fact that you only get two USB-C ports is an inconvenience still when you have the laptop on charge, with an external monitor on the second port, only to have to unplug something to add in another peripheral or storage device. For this reason, I recommend prospective Swift 7 owners pick up a USB-C dock to extend your port options.
And for the price, not having a backlit keyboard may be a deal breaker to some. Acer has spent a lot of time on this keyboard, and it works extremely well – I just wish I could type on it in the dark and be able to look for a specific key when I’ve forgotten its location.
85Acer’s Swift 7 is a functional, stylish, and very affordable ultrabook competing in the ultra-class of ultrabooks along with Apple and ASUS. Its a phenomal device that grows on you the more you use it, and its intended use as a workhorse for light content creation and general productivity is let down only by the lack of connectivity.