Artist Review: Acer Switch Alpha 12 (2016)

The Acer Alpha Switch 12 was released in mid 2016 into a market that's already crowded with tablets and 2-in-1s. I was interested in this tablet for two reasons. First, it's comes with a pressure sensitive stylus. Second, it is significantly cheaper and comes with almost the same specifications as the Surface Pro 4.

My review will be from an artist perspective, someone who wants to draw and use a tablet like a digital sketchbook.


To give you the bottom line upfront, hardware is fine, all the issues come down, again, to the Windows tablet platform.

Specifications

Let's look at the specifications.

  • Processor: Intel i3-6100U (dual 2.3Ghz), i5-6200U (dual 2.3 - 2.8Ghz), i7-6500U (dual 2.5 - 3.1Ghz)
  • RAM: 4 - 8GB
  • Storage: 128GB - 512GB
  • Screen: 12" QHD (2160 x 1440) 3:2 IPS
  • Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520
  • Weight: 910g, or 1.25kg with keyboard
  • Ports: Full size USB 3 and USB Type C
  • Extra storage: microSD card slot
  • Price: USD $599 - $1049

The unit I bought is the mid-range model with Intel i5-6200U with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. Official retail price is USD $749. Mine's a secondhand unit so it's cheaper. Equivalent SP4 currently cost USD $1050 without the $100 Type Cover). The price advantage is significantly in Acer's favor.


The included microSD slot is great.

There are two things going for the Acer Alpha Switch that's not available on the SP4.

Alpha Switch uses liquid cooling instead of fans. This guarantees silent operation however I do find the back to be warmer than the SP4. It's not a big issue unless you're one who touches the back often. However, the screen feels warm too, so it can be felt when drawing. I'm not sure about your threshold for heat but it's not like super hot. May or may not be a deal breaker.


Keyboard is included. The keyboard has a stylus holder that comes in the form of a sleeve pasted onto the back of the keyboard. Unfortunately, the stylus holder looks and feels weak. I've already torn off the sleeve by accident. If you take out your Alpha Switch from the bag and the pen gets hooked onto something, it's easy to tear off the sleeve. It's a nice feature but the implementation is bad.


The keyboard is well built, mainly because they copied the SP4 Type cover down to the matte material used. It attaches to the bottom of the tablet using strong magnets that snap into place. Typing is comfortable for a detachable keyboard. There's backlight too. Downside is the trackpad is small.


Depending on which model you buy, the Acer Active Stylus Pen may or may not be included. If not, that's an extra $40.

Screen

The screen resolution is 2160 by 1440, 3:2 ratio. That's lower than SP4's 2736 x 1824 resolution, and that's a good thing. SP4 suffers the problem of having tiny user interface from older graphics software, such as those from Adobe CS5 & CS6. I'm happy to say that 2160 by 1440 resolution is satisfactory for use with all the graphics software I've tested. User interface of the OS, Adobe software is small but not frustratingly small. In short, 2160 x 1440 is extremely usable.

As for the sRGB gamut range. That's a bit tricky to determine. I've read reviews online and websites are claiming different results. There are 81%, 89%, 96% and even 101%. Who are you going to believe? To make things worse, Acer themselves do not release the sRGB gamut information.

Anyway, for the price I paid, I'm not expecting a high end IPS screen. From my naked eye, the screen looks bright and colours are vibrant. That's good enough for me. I'll not be checking physical colour proofs against this tablet screen. If you're looking for a tablet with precise colour accuracy, then you need to spend more money on other options. If you just want a budget digital sketchpad, the screen quality is more than satisfactory.

One downside of the screen is, I can't seem to turn off the auto-brightness feature. I mean I've already turned that off in Windows settings, but whenever I open a graphic software and a white canvas is being presented to me, I can see the screen slowly brightening up. I'm not sure if that's a feature or a bug. Anyway, it does not become super bright, it just becomes slightly brighter as if the tablet thinks that you would work better on a brighter screen. Weird.


If you want to use an external monitor, you can do so via the USB Type C port with a USB Type C to HDMI adapter. The tablet is powerful enough to drive a 2560x1440 external screen and itself. It's best to plug into a power source as this drains the battery. I don't have a 4K screen to test it with.

Stand


The stand behind the screen is U-shape. At the bottom is a rubber grip that prevents it from slipping and it works great. You can use the stand in any position but you only get the advantage of the rubber grip with the tablet in 45 degrees to vertical position.

The only downside is, to deploy the stand, you have to fiddle with the small recessed slot to pull the stand out. Not a big issue.

Battery life

The battery probably last 5-6 hours when doing normal stuff like web surfing or checking emails. Reduce another hour or two when you're using graphics software such as Photoshop. There's no quick charge for the battery but charging time is not that bad.

The battery life is not too different from the competing Windows tablets, SP4 included.

Stylus


The stylus feels well built with a nice weight. It uses one AAAA battery. The pen is not always powered on so you need to click one of the two side buttons which will turn it on instantly.

The tip feels a bit like a felt tip so there's additional friction provided when drawing on glass. It's not a hard tip on glass that will give you the sound of the solid tapping sound. There's no information on whether the nib can be replaced with it gets worn out.

Accuracy is spot on with the cursor always underneath the tip. Latency is good. Hover distance is a bit short though, 0.5cm, but it's not too different from competition.

The stylus supports 256 levels of pressure sensitivity with technology from Synaptics.

Drawing performance

The stylus still suffers from that slow diagonal line jitter problem. It's not new. Most Windows tablets and iPad non-Pros suffer from this problem. It's the most annoying problem for digital artists working on tablets. If you draw moderately fast to fast, you won't see this problem.

It affects all the drawing software I've tested (see below) with the exception of ArtRage Touch. For some reason ArtRage Touch actually corrects for that jitter and produces smooth lines!

Below's the list of applications that I've tried. 'Fine' means it works but there's jitter problem. 'Excellent' means it works without any issues.

To get pressure sensitivity to work in Photoshop, you need to install Microsoft Wintab drivers. Photoshop also suffers from the jitter problem but you can use a plugin called Lazy Nezumi Pro to counter that problem. With Lazy Nezumi Pro enabled, you can get smooth strokes. However, I do find that the software would sometimes behave weirdly, the most common problem being the inability to switch to other tools after pressing their tool button.


Strokes in Photoshop with Wintab installed.


Strokes in Photoshop with Lazy Nezumi Pro plugin in action.

Then there's the problem with Wintab as well. With Wintab on, when I use Mischief, I would get stray strokes. Then I have to use a hack to turn of Wintab whenever I use Mischief, and turn it on again before I use Photoshop.


Anyway, all these problems that sound like software problems are common problems faced by Windows tablets. It's not a hardware thing or Acer's fault. It's just that Windows isn't built that well as a tablet platform. Each time I see these issue come up, again and again, I can only sigh.

Another issue is it's quite difficult to achieve the thinnest of strokes. The 256 levels of pressure sensitivity may be responsible for this. Compared to the SP4, the SP4 pen requires slight pressure on screen to draw a thin line. With the same amount of pressure applied on the Acer screen, the line is much thicker. And there's no way to adjust the pressure sensitivity curve. So the only way to get the thinnest line is to adjust the brush size, of course.

The screen supports multi-touch so for software that supports the feature, you can zoom, rotate or pan.

Conclusion

General performance of Acer Switch Alpha is snappy. I've not experienced any slowdowns. Startup is quick and apps all launch quickly. If you're buying it as a general purpose tablet, I think it's quite worth the money.

As a tablet for drawing, it's not as good as the Surface Pro 4 mainly because the 256 levels of pressure sensitivity on the Acer do feel limited. Both still suffers from the pen jitter problem with selected graphics software so there's no advantage to either side.

Also be careful when you install other tablet drivers, e.g. Wacom or Huion. They may conflict with Window's already wonky stylus support.

Pros
+ Sturdy build quality but does not look as good compared to competition
+ Has fullsize USB 3 and USB Type C ports
+ USB Type C can be used with an adaptor to connect to an external screen
+ Has microSD slot for additional storage expansion (128GB limit)
+ Nice weight for its size but too heavy for handheld drawing
+ Built in stand with many positions
+ Rubber grip with built in stand
+ Surface Pen feels good to draw on the screen
+ 2160 by 1440 resolution is optimal for 12 inch screen
+ Screen has good viewing angles and colours
+ A larger screen feels better to draw on, e.g. more canvas space
+ Able to install desktop and tablet apps
+ Snappy performance
+ Silent operation from liquid cooled system
+ Lots of different configurations available, but no 1TB storage option
+ Good stereo speakers

Cons
- Pressure sensitivity of 256 not as good as competition
- It's difficult to achieve light strokes
- Battery life could be better
- Stylus may or may not be included
- Stylus buttons have limited customization
- Tablet gets warm easily. Liquid cooled not as effective compared to fans.
- Installation of Wintab drivers required for use with Photoshop and Paint Tool Sai
- Windows support for stylus is wonky

Availability

You can find the Acer Switch Alpha 12 and more reviews on the Amazon product links below:
Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.fr | Amazon.it | Amazon.es | Amazon.co.jp

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