Best lap­tops for stu­dents

There’s aren’t many specif­i­cally stu­dent lap­tops, but many fit the bill.

Tech Advisor - - Buying Guide - HENRY BUR­RELL re­veals our favourite of­fer­ings

Al­though some of us are old enough to re­mem­ber when you had to hand­write your un­der­grad­u­ate dis­ser­ta­tion, those times are be­hind us now. Even sec­ondary school pupils can work on tablets and com­put­ers for ex­ams th­ese days, so most stu­dents have a keen eye on a new lap­top (par­ent bank ac­count per­mit­ting in some in­stances).

But there are a lot of lap­tops, and a lot of bud­gets. While ex­pen­sive Mac­Books and Sur­face Pros are more

than ad­e­quate for rel­a­tively ba­sic stu­dent needs, you can spend much less and still do most things, such as stream Net­flix un­til four in the morn­ing.

There are a few things to con­sider when buy­ing a stu­dent lap­top be­sides price though, and we have a range of prices here to suit all bud­gets.

Ports and drives

Do you need a CD drive? Prob­a­bly not, but if you want to play DVDs rather than stream or if you want to copy files to a disc, then go for it – just re­mem­ber they are now fairly hard to come by and also add a lot of bulk and weight. The more mov­ing parts in a lap­top the more can go wrong, too.

Dis­play

How large a screen do you need? You may not want to type 10,000 word es­says on an 11in dis­play, but 15in may be too big. We think that any­where be­tween the 12- and 14 inches is the sweet spot, but it’s worth care­fully con­sid­er­ing.

Key­board and track­pad

Not all key­board and track­pads are made equal. MacBook track­pads, for ex­am­ple, are best in class, but you pay for the priv­i­lege, while what type of key­board you pre­fer is quite a per­sonal thing.

Do you want a lot of travel on your keys, or some­thing flat­ter and slim? Do you need a full-size key­board with a num­ber pad? Sac­ri­fic­ing that will al­low you to get a more com­pact de­sign handy for tot­ing round cam­pus.

Bat­tery life

It de­pends what you do on your lap­top, but look out for what the ex­pected bat­tery life is. Word pro­cess­ing with­out Wi-Fi is likely to let it last for ages, but if you’re go­ing to be away from a plug on Wi-Fi and stream­ing video lots, then a lap­top conk­ing out af­ter three hours isn’t much fun. Man­u­fac­tur­ers will tell you in the small print un­der what con­di­tions they tested the lap­top to get the pro­jected bat­tery life, so take a look. It’s best to get one that quotes at least 10 hours to be safe.

Bud­get

Ah yes, bud­get. Do you need a £1,000 lap­top? Will it get bro­ken or worse, stolen? While more ex­pen­sive lap­tops will give you bet­ter gam­ing per­for­mance,

should you re­ally be play­ing Fort­nite for that many hours with those dead­lines? Then again, it’s not our place to pa­tro­n­ise. But, you can get a solid per­form­ing lap­top for less than half a grand th­ese days, so you might want to save the cash for all those books you still need to buy. A lot to con­sider then.

1. Acer Swift 1 £329 inc VAT from fave.co/2kGNt4V

Acer’s Swift 1 is one of the cheap­est lap­top you can buy that looks a lit­tle like an Ap­ple MacBook. It’s slim, and has a me­tal frame with plenty of bright alu­minium on show. Whereas Mac­Books start at £949 for the ar­guably out-of-date Air, the Swift 1 costs £349 in the vari­ant we’re us­ing. Let that sink in: just over a third the price of Ap­ple’s cheap­est al­ter­na­tive. Low CPU power and min­i­mal stor­age make the Acer Swift 1 suit­able for only light jobs like writ­ing doc­u­ments, surf­ing the web and stream­ing video. How­ever, given the price, its im­per­son­ation of a £700- to £1,000 slim and light lap­top is al­most con­vinc­ing.

De­sign

If a lap­top costs £350 or less, we nor­mally ex­pect to see a some­what thick plas­tic shell. The aim should be a solid, prac­ti­cal lap­top, not a flashy one, right?

The Acer Swift 1 is noth­ing like that. It’s af­ford­able, but still has a full alu­minium shell. Its lid, the key­board sur­round and the un­der­side all use plates of real alu­minium. This is the sort of look that makes you ex­pect a £650-plus price tag, not a £350 one.

Acer has a his­tory of pro­vid­ing that ex­pen­sive alu­minium look and feel at a low price, hav­ing used the same tac­tic (and a sim­i­lar shell) in its 13in Chrome­book.

For the price, the Swift 1 looks and feels lovely, and there’s no ob­vi­ous sign Acer has done the job on the cheap. The pan­els don’t flex like card­board at the first sign of pres­sure and the alu­minium has an an­odized fin­ish just like sev­eral of the pop­u­lar ex­pen­sive al­ter­na­tives. It’s a brighter, shinier fin­ish than some, but still looks great.

Let’s not just gush, though. There are a few signs the Swift 1 isn’t re­ally an ex­pen­sive lap­top. The dis­play has a black bor­der around it, which isn’t the pret­ti­est look. And the screen sur­round is that of a clas­sic lap­top. Many new mod­els (in­clud­ing some cheaper ones) only have a few mil­lime­tres of re­dun­dant bor­der around

them. This one has – shock, hor­ror – about an inch to the left and right. Its thick­ness and weight let it eas­ily slide into the ‘thin and light’ cat­e­gory, though. The Swift 1 weighs 1.3kg and is just un­der 15mm thick.

Con­nec­tiv­ity

The Swift 1 also has all the main con­nec­tions we like to see in a lap­top, in­clud­ing some you’ll miss by choos­ing a much more ex­pen­sive model. There are two USB 3.0 ports – great for the price – and one USB 2.0 socket. A USB-C port com­ple­ments th­ese, al­though it’s pre­dictably only spec­i­fied to the 3.1 stan­dard, not the much faster Thun­der­bolt 3.0. A full-size HDMI and full-size SD card slot fin­ish off what is a con­nec­tions ar­ray fit for a more pow­er­ful lap­top than the Swift 1.

Key­board and track­pad

There are no nasty sur­prises in the key­board and track­pad ei­ther. Some su­per-af­ford­able lap­tops

have keys that feel cheap, of­ten with hol­low-feel­ing feed­back or too much wob­ble. There’s none of this in the Swift 1. This is a rock-solid semi-shal­low chi­clet de­sign. Buy­ing this en­try-level model, you ben­e­fit from the fact there are sig­nif­i­cantly pricier mod­els with the same shell and key­board.

We used the Swift 1 as our main work com­puter for a while, and came across no is­sues. There is, and this came as no sur­prise, no key­board back­light. While some sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able lap­tops have back­lit key­boards, we don’t ex­pect one in a £350 lap­top that al­ready has bud­get si­phoned off to ac­com­mo­date an alu­minium shell.

The track­pad is sim­i­lar: not high-end ,but great for the price. Its sur­face is plas­tic rather than tex­tured glass, but then some lap­tops at twice the price still use plas­tic. Swipes are rel­a­tively smooth and the click ac­tion is solid. It’s not too stiff, not too deep, not too loud and not bro­ken. As in so many other as­pects, the Swift 1 track­pad doesn’t seem like a melted Madame Tus­sauds mock-up even when stacked up against ‘real deal’ £1,000 lap­tops.

Acer has – al­though we’re not en­tirely sure why – also crammed in a fin­ger­print scan­ner to the right of the track­pad. This is a lit­tle mad in a £350 lap­top. It’s a lit­tle fid­dly com­pared to that of high-end lap­tops, but does let you log in with your fin­ger as promised. It just may take a cou­ple of at­tempts.

Dis­play

If the scan­ner is a case of Acer show­ing off un­nec­es­sar­ily, the screen is the sort of grand­stand­ing

we’re a sucker for. The Swift 1 may be cheap, but it still packs in a per­fectly re­spectable 1080p IPS LCD dis­play, one 13.3in across.

At first it might seem the ‘1080p’ part is most im­por­tant, but ‘IPS’ is. Plenty of cheap lap­tops still use ‘TN’ screens that look bad from even a slight an­gle, while even an en­try-level IPS panel like this looks good from al­most any an­gle.

Not ev­ery as­pect of the Swift 1 is amaz­ing, of course. Colour is vis­i­bly a lit­tle un­der­sat­u­rated, cov­er­ing just 61.2 per­cent of the sRGB colour gamut. Tones don’t pop off the screen as they might in a £350 tablet, but this is un­doubt­edly among the best lap­top dis­plays at the price. Solid con­trast of 985:1 also helps makes the most of this colour ca­pa­bil­ity. For a £350 lap­top, the dis­play looks very good to us.

It’s a matte screen too, which is bet­ter if you’re go­ing to use the Swift 1 out in day­light, or on a train with light stream­ing right through a win­dow onto your Ex­cel spread­sheet. How­ever, bright­ness is only just good enough to reach an ac­cept­able level for any

sort of out­door use. The Swift 1’s max­i­mum bright­ness is 266cd/m2. You’ll re­ally want to see 350cd/m2 or above for best re­sults on a sunny day. But just by say­ing that we’re (once again) com­par­ing the Swift 1 to lap­tops twice the price.

This isn’t a touch­screen, but the dis­play folds back al­most 180 de­grees, rather than the usual 130. It’s not use­ful in that many sit­u­a­tions, but does make shar­ing what’s on screen eas­ier. Per­for­mance If you’re wait­ing for the rea­son why the Swift 1 is so cheap when we keep com­par­ing it to mod­els twice the price, the best an­swer is the CPU. Our ver­sion of the lap­top has an In­tel Pen­tium N4200 pro­ces­sor. This is a quad-core CPU with a clock speed of 1.1GHz and a ‘burst’ of 2.5GHz. How­ever, com­pared to Core se­ries pro­ces­sors, even the Core i3, this is a bit of a weak­ling.

Us­ing the Swift 1 as we would any other lap­top, we found in­stalling and load­ing apps took sig­nif­i­cantly longer than with a Core-pow­ered sys­tem. And any in­tense ap­pli­ca­tions such as video edit­ing or high­level 3D gam­ing are off the cards. How­ever, with this gen­er­a­tion of Pen­tium CPU, we’re fi­nally past what has put off rec­om­mend­ing most bud­get Win­dows lap­tops in re­cent years. Un­til this gen­er­a­tion, Atom and Pen­tium-pow­ered lap­tops could be border­line painful to use at times even with light du­ties.

The Swift 1 and its Pen­tium N4200 feel just fine, with min­i­mal lag when you’re just coast­ing across the sur­face of Win­dows 10 and, say, us­ing the browser or WordPad. This is the level at which the lap­top is

com­fort­able. But it’s im­por­tant as it wres­tles away some of the ap­peal of ‘premium’ Chrome­books, which we’ve of­ten rec­om­mended over rock-bot­tom lap­tops.

You’ll need a lit­tle pa­tience, but not any­thing like some older en­try-level lap­tops re­quire.

The Swift 1’s bench­mark re­sults are, of course, pretty poor, though. It scores 1,134 points in PC Mark 10, where a Core i5 will push 2,700.

There’s a more telling com­par­i­son, though. The In­tel Pen­tium 4450U Len­ovo used in its Idea­Pad 320S (see

page 91) scores 2,295, mak­ing it much more like a lower-power al­ter­na­tive to a Core-se­ries com­puter. Of course, the 320S is more ex­pen­sive, made of plas­tic and has a much, much worse screen. Com­par­ing the two on per­for­mance is just one side of the story.

Gam­ing per­for­mance is poor, again worse than the Idea­Pad 320S, but no worse than we ex­pect from a Pen­tium CPU, which has a low-end In­tel HD 505 GPU. Alien: Iso­la­tion runs at an aver­age 9.8fps at 720p, min­i­mum graph­ics. At 1080p with the set­tings maxed you’re look­ing at 3.3fps. We’re miles away from playable speeds.

We couldn’t even try our usual Deus Ex: Mankind Di­vided as there’s no enough room on the Swift 1’s pal­try 64GB solid state stor­age. But we’d be look­ing at sin­gle fig­ure frame rates no mat­ter the set­ting.

Gam­ing is not a to­tal bust, though. The Swift 1 can play Skyrim at 720p res­o­lu­tion, Low set­tings well.

One ben­e­fit of us­ing such a low-end CPU is the Swift 1 doesn’t need fans. It uses pas­sive cool­ing, like a tablet. It’ll be silent (or near silent) no mat­ter what you do. Putting an ear up to the ports, we can hear a

slight al­most HDD-like noise from the Swift’s insides. It’s likely to be noise from the power sup­ply or an­other com­po­nent. Your Swift 1 may not suf­fer from it, and in ours it’s only audi­ble if you go lis­ten­ing for it.

Bat­tery life

A CPU that barely uses any power makes you ex­pect a bat­tery that lasts for­ever. Acer says the 42Wh bat­tery lasts 10 hours, but in our ex­pe­ri­ence it’s not quite as long-last­ing.

Play­ing a 90-minute video on loop at 120cd/m2 bright­ness, the Swift 1 lasts seven hours, 49 min­utes. While not a mind-blow­ing re­sult, it’s very close to what we tend to look for: a full day of work.

The speak­ers too are suf­fi­cient, but not spe­cial. While clear and largely undis­torted at higher out­put, they don’t have the vol­ume, mid-range bulk or bass of the best lap­top speak­ers.

Ver­dict

The Acer Swift 1 is per­haps the most ex­pen­sive-look­ing and feel­ing lap­top Win­dows 10 lap­top you can get for £350. A me­tal shell, solid key­board and track­pad, and a dis­play that sim­ply flat­tens more at the price in terms of per­cep­tual im­age qual­ity are all to be cel­e­brated.

There’s only one worry: per­for­mance. While the Pen­tium pro­ces­sor used here is sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than that of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, it’s a low-end chipset that will make more de­mand­ing tasks seem a real chore.

How­ever, for light use – emails, brows­ing, some ca­sual gam­ing – the Swift 1 per­forms fine. It’s also a great choice for hu­man­i­ties stu­dents, as the sort of es­say-mak­ing ma­chine you can com­fort­ably carry around all day, ev­ery day. An­drew Wil­liams

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

• 13.3in (1920x1080) 1080p IPS LCD matt anti-glare dis­play • 1.1GHz In­tel Pen­tium N4200 (2.5GHz boost) four cores, four threads • Win­dows 10 Home (64-bit) • In­tel HD 505 GPU • 4GB DDR3 RAM • 64GB solid state mem­ory • 802.11b/g/n/ac sin­gle-band 2x2 MIMO • Blue­tooth 4.1 • 1x USB-C 3.1 • 2x USB 3.0 • 1x USB 2.0 • HDMI • SDXC card slot

• Stereo speak­ers • HD we­b­cam • Sin­gle mic • 3.5mm head­set jack • UK tiled key­board with num­ber­pad • Two-but­ton track­pad • 57Wh lithium-ion bat­tery, re­mov­able • 319x225x14.9mm • 1.3kg • 1-year carry-in war­ranty

2. HP 250 GS £339 inc VAT from fave.co/2o7xdMm

Com­pared to some of the colour­ful and stylish bud­get lap­tops around, the HP 250 G5 is a plain-look­ing ma­chine, with no fancy de­sign fea­tures, and a style that pos­i­tively wants to be ig­nored.

It’s one of the cheap­est lap­tops you’ll find to use an In­tel Core-se­ries pro­ces­sor, in­stantly solv­ing many of the most se­ri­ous day-to-day prob­lems you’ll run into us­ing a cheap com­puter. If your lap­top fund is lim­ited, you can’t ar­gue with this bar­gain ma­chine.

De­sign

If you’re think­ing this lap­top looks quite fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause it has been around for a long time. HP has re­tained the same de­sign for a cou­ple of years: it isn’t out to thrill, it’s a tool, a work­horse. None of this mat­ters one jot though, if you’re sim­ply af­ter a ba­sic lap­top with good per­for­mance for lit­tle money.

Decked out in black and very dark grey, many will think it’s bor­ing. But there are some lit­tle aes­thetic gems. There’s an em­bossed pat­tern on the lid and a tex­ture on the key­board sur­round. Both look great when they catch the light, but their big­gest ben­e­fit is in putting a sen­sory layer be­tween your fin­gers and the ba­sic plas­tic that makes up the HP 250 G5’s shell.

You’d guess this was a cheaper lap­top, but it doesn’t feel so. No part of the lap­top flexes much un­der fin­ger pres­sure and the hinge feels very solid. Treat it rough though, and the me­chan­i­cal hard drive would prob­a­bly fail be­fore the shell be­comes too dam­aged.

You won’t want to take it out too of­ten any­way. This is not a hugely por­ta­ble lap­top. It weighs 2.14kg and the 15.6in frame just isn’t go­ing to fit eas­ily into a lot of bags. If you’re af­ter some­thing to use on-the-go, check out a 13.3in dis­play com­puter or smaller first.

This is the sort of lap­top you can use as your main ma­chine, not least be­cause it has a good spread of

con­nec­tions for a cheaper model. There are three USB ports (1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0), an SD card slot, and an Eth­er­net port and both VGA and HDMI video out­puts.

HP has clearly de­signed this ma­chine know­ing that some of you will want to plug in a mon­i­tor and key­board/mouse.

Key­board and track­pad

Typ­i­cal of the prac­ti­cal style, the key­board and track­pad are de­cent. The key­board is a stan­dard de­sign, also fit­ting a num­ber pad to the right side of the nor­mal keys. Key travel is a lit­tle shal­low and feed­back on the soft side, but it’s still clearly-de­fined and non-spongy. None of the G5’s keys have been rad­i­cally shaved down or moved too silly po­si­tions ei­ther.

Like the build, the key­board is not fancy, but solid. Like other lap­tops at this price there’s no back­light. At first glance, the track­pad ap­pears far more un­usual. The pad isn’t sep­a­rated from the key­board sur­round.

It’s part of it. This is not the nicest sur­face for a track­pad, and is one of the few dis­ap­point­ments of this lap­top. Some­thing a bit smoother would give the ma­chine a much less bud­get feel. From a pure prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, the track­pad is fine, though. Its but­tons are sep­a­rated out, sit­ting be­low the pad in a plas­tic bar. A nice lit­tle touch is that the right but­ton re­quires a much lighter press than the left one – a con­scious nod to the fact you’re more likely to be press­ing it with a digit other than your in­dex fin­ger.

Dis­play

Typ­i­cal of an en­try-level lap­top, G5 has a ba­sic screen. It’s 15.6 inches across and 1,366x768 res­o­lu­tion. This is the sort of screen that has been used in lap­tops for well over a decade. It’s not very sharp.

Its colour is clearly un­der­sat­u­rated, mak­ing the dis­play look a lit­tle anaemic. Our col­orime­ter tells us it hits just 55.2 per­cent of the sRGB gamut, which is poor but pre­dictable given we’re look­ing at a pocket-money PC. Hor­i­zon­tal view­ing an­gles are pass­able, suf­fer­ing from some loss of bright­ness, but it’s only the ver­ti­cal an­gle that causes the con­trast shift we as­so­ciate with the TN LCD panel used here.

If you need more proof that this isn’t a lap­top to get if you want to avoid hav­ing to buy a TV, its na­tive con­trast is just 200:1, which is pretty dis­mal. How­ever, when used in a lit room, all you will no­tice is that the colours are a bit weak. The screen looks its best when there’s a de­cent amount of am­bi­ent light, let­ting the re­flec­tion-bust­ing matt fin­ish show off what it can do. Max­i­mum bright­ness is pretty good, and the fact that

the screen has a matte fin­ish means you can use the lap­top nearby a bright win­dow or out­doors.

Per­for­mance

A bad screen is some­thing you are just go­ing to have to ac­cept if you want to spend well un­der £500. But the 250 G5 does have great in­ter­nals for the money, re­gard­less of which pre­cise model you choose.

With an In­tel Core i3-5005U (dual-core, 2GHz) pro­ces­sor and 8GB of RAM, there are al­most no creaky pauses as Win­dows 10 goes about its daily busi­ness. It’s re­fresh­ing to see such an af­ford­able lap­top whose gen­eral per­for­mance does not feel com­pro­mised, a le­git­i­mate bud­get ma­chine that can han­dle gen­uine mul­ti­task­ing with­out be­com­ing a chore to use. And as we men­tioned at the top, you can pay a lit­tle ex­tra and get a Core i5 ver­sion or even i7 that should see per­for­mance in­crease by a good chunk.

For the Core i3 ver­sion we tested, its PCMark 8 score of 2,171 is much closer to that of a high-end lap­top than the circa-1,000 score you might see from some of the Celeron-based lap­tops that sit around the £200 to £250 mark.

As long as you’re not ex­pect­ing a pow­er­house PC, you should be very happy. We can’t over­state the dif­fer­ence be­tween the per­for­mance of an In­tel Core i3 with 8GB RAM and a Celeron with 2/4GB RAM.

The Core i3 here is a 5th-gen pro­ces­sor rather than a newer 6th- or 7th-gen one. But there are mod­els of the 250 G5 that do have 6th-gen Sky­lake chips, and we rec­om­mend hunt­ing down those mod­els if you can han­dle the ex­tra price. Also, a Sky­lake CPU would get you slightly bet­ter gam­ing per­for­mance.

At low­est set­tings, 720p res­o­lu­tion, Alien: Iso­la­tion is al­most playable, reach­ing an aver­age 18.6fps. Re­ally cut the set­tings down to their bare bones and you can reach 24.5fps (aver­age). Some might con­sider that ac­cept­able, but this isn’t meant to be a gam­ing lap­top. Our other stan­dard gam­ing test, Thief, is a bust, too. At Low set­tings you’ll get 12.8fps, which is re­ally too low to be any fun. If you only have a few hun­dred pounds and want to do some gam­ing, buy a PS4 or Xbox One.

Al­though it may be tempt­ing to save money and go for a model with a 1TB hard drive, this is much slower at jug­gling bits and pieces of data, and makes Win­dows 10 no­tice­ably less re­spon­sive.

Bat­tery life

This lap­top isn’t de­signed for amaz­ing bat­tery life. The bat­tery unit can be re­moved though, held in place

with a clip at the back of the un­der­side. This is a very tra­di­tional de­sign. Bat­tery life is on the higher-end of what you might ex­pect for from a very con­ven­tional 15.6in lap­tops. It lasts for five hours when play­ing a 720p MP4 video, which is sim­i­lar stamina to what you would get while writ­ing doc­u­ments and do­ing the odd bit of brows­ing. It’s not all-day stamina, but is re­spectable for a full-size ma­chine.

Au­dio and other con­sid­er­a­tions

Fi­nally, we come to sound qual­ity. The HP 250 G4 has two speak­ers that sit on the un­der­side of the lap­top, and their out­put varies hugely on whether you use the Dolby DSP soft­ware or not. With­out it, the out­put is weak and quiet. With it, the sound has a lot more mid-range power, and seems fuller.

How­ever, it also in­volves a lot of com­pres­sion, mean­ing the vol­ume of parts of a mu­sic track seems to go up and down as the ar­range­ment be­comes busier or more sparse. It also sounds boxy, but the ex­tra weight to the sound is wel­come.

There are no such pos­i­tive notes for the we­b­cam, though, which is VGA and pro­duces a very soft-look­ing im­age. It seems HP has bunged a cam­era in here ex­pect­ing very few peo­ple to use it.

Ver­dict

Those af­ter some­thing flashy may not find a lot of ap­peal in the HP 250 G5. How­ever, it’s one of the best­value, low-cost lap­tops you can get. An­drew Wil­liams

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

• 15.6in (1,366x768, 100dpi) TN LCD matt • Win­dows 10 Home 64-bit • 2GHz In­tel Core i3-5005U dual core • In­tel HD Graph­ics • 8GB RAM • 256GB SSD • 802.11ac 1x1 • Blue­tooth 4.2 • 2x USB 2.0 port • 1x USB 3.0 port • Eth­er­net port • HDMI + VGA video out­puts • SDXC card slot • Stereo speak­ers • VGA we­b­cam, sin­gle mic • 3.5mm head­set jack

• UK tiled key­board • 31Wh lithium-ion bat­tery • 384x254x24mm • 2.14kg 3. Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S £349 inc VAT from fave.co/2o5XL0z The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S is an en­try-level lap­top that looks, from arm’s length at least, sim­i­lar to ones cost­ing £600 to £1,000. Sub-£400 mod­els don’t have to be dumpy or ugly any­more. Nor­mally we strug­gle to rec­om­mend a lap­top as low-power as the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S. How­ever, we’ve fi­nally reached the point where Win­dows 10 and a low-end Pen­tium pro­ces­sor can get along. It’s time to cel­e­brate.

De­sign

From a dis­tance you could eas­ily be­lieve it costs a lot more. It doesn’t have the thick frame or un­so­phis­ti­cated lines of the aver­age bud­get lap­top. In­stead, the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S has an ul­tra­book-like shell, but one made mostly of plas­tic rather than alu­minium.

The lid is alu­minium, but Len­ovo has sen­si­bly cho­sen to favour a classy look in­stead of

show­ing this off, us­ing the same block colour for the en­tire shell. It feels sturdy, too. There’s min­i­mal flex to the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S screen and only a small part of the key­board flexes un­der pres­sure, and even then you have to be look­ing for faults to no­tice it.

Look closer and you’ll no­tice the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S isn’t quite as slim or as light as a premium slim lap­top, though. At 19.2mm thick, it’s por­ta­ble but thick enough to be a no­tice­able pres­ence in your ruck­sack.

That said, we’d be happy to use it as a lap­top car­ried around daily. Len­ovo also says the 320S weighs 1.7kg, but that must re­late to the higher-spec ver­sion as this one is just 1.435kg ac­cord­ing to our scales.

Un­til now we’ve been rec­om­mend­ing the HP 250 G5 as one of our top bud­get lap­top buys. While more pow­er­ful than the Idea­Pad 320S, this Len­ovo is cer­tainly far bet­ter-look­ing and more por­ta­ble.

It even of­fers the lat­est lap­top de­sign trend: very slim screen sur­rounds. While not as slim as those of, say, the Dell XPS 13, the slimmed-down borders do give the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S a very sharp and modern look. For a bud­get lap­top that is.

Con­nec­tiv­ity

The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S has what is fast be­com­ing the crowd-pleas­ing stan­dard of con­nec­tiv­ity. There’s one USB-C port, the new style of con­nec­tor, and two older full-size USBs.

As you might guess given the price, th­ese are not all top-spec con­nec­tors. One of the USB ports is a 2.0 socket rather than 3.0, and the USB-C does not sup­port the ul­tra-high band­width Thun­der­bolt 3 stan­dard.

None of this mat­ter too much in a £350 lap­top like the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320, though.

The full-size HDMI and SD card slot are far more im­por­tant. For the aver­age buyer the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S has much more use­ful con­nec­tiv­ity than a £1,500 MacBook, even with­out truly high-end ports.

There’s no fin­ger­print scan­ner, an in­creas­ingly com­mon fea­ture in lap­tops. How­ever, we don’t ex­pect to see one in a ma­chine this cheap.

Key­board and touch­pad

The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S key­board and track­pad don’t feel rad­i­cally worse than those of the much more ex­pen­sive Idea­Pad 720S. There are bud­get-re­lated com­pro­mises, but none are too glar­ing in this area.

Like other slim lap­tops, the keys are a lit­tle shal­low and their re­sis­tance a lit­tle lower than the Idea­Pad 720S’s, but typ­ing is com­fort­able. This is one of the ben­e­fits of get­ting a 14in lap­top like this rather than a much smaller model: the keys feel well-spaced. There is no back­light, though, mean­ing you need to touch

type at night. The track­pad be­low is a fairly stan­dard plas­tic pad, with but­tons built into the sur­face. Its click sound is a bit loud, and the sur­face not as smooth as a glass pad. How­ever, like the rest of the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S, it’s a con­vinc­ing im­per­son­ation of a much more ex­pen­sive ma­chine’s touch­pad.

Dis­play

The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S’s 14in screen is the one part that in­stantly marks this out as cheap lap­top. It uses a TN-style screen rather than the IPS LCD kind seen in al­most all more ex­pen­sive lap­tops at this point. When tilted back too far, the colours invert and the screen ap­pears cast in shadow. Tilt it to­wards you and the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S looks washed-out. Ver­ti­cal view­ing an­gles are poor, mak­ing the screen look bad un­less viewed dead-on. Res­o­lu­tion is lim­ited too at 1,366x768 pix­els. How­ever, this is cur­rently the most com­mon res­o­lu­tion at the price. And it doesn’t ap­pear ag­gres­sively pixel­lated. Colour per­for­mance is rel­a­tively poor, cov­er­ing just 56 per­cent of sRGB, 39 per­cent of Adobe RGB and 40 per­cent of DCI P3. This is low enough to make un­der­sat­u­ra­tion

im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent. Play­ing a movie on the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S right next to the Idea­Pad 720S, the lat­ter ap­pears far richer.

Con­trast is very poor too, an­other char­ac­ter­is­tic typ­i­cal of a stan­dard TN panel, at 205:1. Black lev­els are clearly im­per­fect even in a well-lit room.

And fi­nally, bright­ness isn’t very good ei­ther, with max­i­mum in­ten­sity of 263cd/m2. We like to see lev­els over 300cd/m2.

The dis­play is the 320S’s big­gest dis­ap­point­ment, and per­haps the best rea­son to con­sider spend­ing a lit­tle more on a lap­top with an IPS screen. More ex­pen­sive mod­els in this range use IPS pan­els too. How­ever, if your bud­get is lim­ited to £350 you’ll likely have to put up with a lower-qual­ity dis­play like this un­less you switch to a Chrome­book or An­droid hy­brid in­stead of a Win­dows 10 com­puter.

Its matte fin­ish is the dis­play’s lone sav­ing grace. This makes the screen eas­ier to see out­side, or when near re­flec­tion-caus­ing win­dows.

Per­for­mance

The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S is a low-end lap­top. It uses the In­tel Pen­tium 4415U CPU a dual-core with four threads and a base clock speed of 2.3GHz.

We nor­mally ad­vise against buy­ing a Win­dows 10 lap­top with a Pen­tium or In­tel Atom pro­ces­sor, as they are of­ten a chore to use. Even sys­tem nav­i­ga­tion can be slow to the point of an­noy­ance.

How­ever, the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S proves we’re back at a point where an In­tel Pen­tium lap­top can be a good buy. Win­dows 10 feels fast, there’s no wait­ing

for ba­sic el­e­ments of the OS to ap­pear and gen­eral re­spon­sive­ness is re­mark­ably close to that of a Core i3 lap­top. This is, in part, thanks to the use of a 128GB SSD rather than a slower hard drive.

Con­scious that there’s still a ques­tion of how much an In­tel Pen­tium CPU with 4GB of RAM can take, we tried open­ing a dozen browser win­dows, a few doc­u­ments and run­ning Minecraft in the back­ground. The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S still didn’t fall over, al­though look­ing at Win­dows 10 Task Man­ager’s CPU us­age stats it’s clear the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S is made for light tasks. Pro­ces­sor us­age was fairly high with this kind of low-level multi-task­ing.

If you want to do video edit­ing, use Pho­to­shop or mu­sic pro­duc­tion soft­ware, we’d highly rec­om­mend a Core i-se­ries lap­top in­stead. That said, for the kind of work we tend to do: brows­ing, writ­ing doc­u­ments and rel­a­tively sim­ply edit­ing of pho­tos, the Len­ovo fares sur­pris­ingly well.

Com­pared to our ear­lier re­views of older Pen­tium lap­tops, the Idea­Pad 320S per­forms rea­son­ably well in bench­marks. It scores 4,995 points in Geek­bench 4, com­pared to the 3211 of the older-gen­er­a­tion Pen­tium CPU Asus Vivo­Book Max X541SA and the 6,000-plus of a Core i5 sys­tem.

We’re rather im­pressed with the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S, and could hap­pily use it as our main work ma­chine. Un­til we needed to edit video or do some se­ri­ous im­age edit­ing, at any rate.

Gam­ing per­for­mance is much worse than a Core i5 al­ter­na­tive, though. Where a Core i5 lap­top like the Acer Swift 3 can play Alien: Iso­la­tion at 720p and

man­age an ac­cept­able 30fps aver­age, the Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S av­er­ages an un­playable 16.7fps.

At 1366p this slows to 11.6fps. We’d nor­mally test at 1080p, but the Idea­Pad 320’s screen isn’t that high res­o­lu­tion. Deus Ex: Hu­man Revo­lu­tion is un­playable no mat­ter the set­ting. At 720p Low, it shuf­fles along at 7.7fps, drop­ping to a painful 2.7fps at na­tive res­o­lu­tion, Ul­tra set­tings. The Len­ovo can play Minecraft hap­pily. We tried it. But don’t ex­pect too much more than that.

One ben­e­fit of us­ing such a low-end CPU is that while there is a fan, it’s never re­motely loud. Even af­ter a se­ries of gam­ing tests, the 320S was very quiet.

Bat­tery life

This lap­top doesn’t get into the teens of hours of bat­tery life like some low-power lap­tops. How­ever, it does nudge its way to­wards all-day

stamina when sim­ply play­ing lo­cally stored video, at 120cd/m2 bright­ness.

It lasts just over eight hours of 720p movie play­back, which is a fairly light task even for an In­tel Pen­tium CPU. You should see sim­i­lar re­sults when sim­ply catch­ing up on emails or writ­ing docs, with seven to eight hours per­fectly fea­si­ble at the sort of screen bright­ness level you might use in­doors. Len­ovo prom­ises seven hours of use, and de­liv­ers.

Ver­dict

The Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S proves cheap lap­tops don’t have to be un­de­sir­able. A por­ta­ble frame and modern de­sign make this a lap­top you could be proud to take out at the lo­cal cof­fee shop.

We’re also glad to see a Pen­tium-based sys­tem run Win­dows 10 so well, with per­for­mance in ba­sic tasks sim­i­lar to that of an In­tel Core ma­chine,

The screen is very poor though, thanks to its use of a ba­sic TN panel. If you’re look­ing for some­thing that’ll dou­ble as a por­ta­ble Net­flix/iPlayer, you might want to save up for some­thing with an IPS screen. You’re un­likely to find many Win­dows 10 lap­tops as at­trac­tive and slick at £350, though. An­drew Wil­liams

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

• 14in (1,366x768) anti-glare TN dis­play • Win­dows 10 Home • 7th gen In­tel Core i7 pro­ces­sor • In­tel HD Graph­ics • 4GB RAM • 128GB SSD

• 802.11ac • Blue­tooth 4.1 • 1x USB Type-C • 1x USB 2.0 • 1x USB 3.0 • 4-in-1 card reader • HDMI • 327x236x19mm • 1.435kg 4. Mi­crosoft Sur­face Lap­top £999 inc VAT from fave.co/2BTZ1O1 Our Sur­face Lap­top re­view looks at Mi­crosoft’s note­book in two ways: as a stylish ul­tra­book, de­signed and priced to com­pete with Ap­ple’s MacBook Air for uni­ver­sity stu­dents’ favour. But it’s also a ma­chine

pur­pose-built for Win­dows 10 S, which re­stricts users to Win­dows Store apps but al­lows an up­grade to Win­dows 10 Pro. We’ve there­fore re­viewed the Sur­face Lap­top us­ing its na­tive Win­dows 10 S.

Af­ter us­ing the Sur­face Lap­top for sev­eral days as a Win­dows 10 S ma­chine, though, we can al­ready say it does a great job of ad­dress­ing ex­actly what stu­dents need. For other users in­trigued by it, though, we rec­om­mend look­ing a bit fur­ther afield, or at least bail out of Win­dows 10 S early on.

An ul­tra­book with style

The Sur­face Lap­top fol­lows in the for­mi­da­ble foot­steps of the Sur­face Pro, Sur­face Book, and Sur­face Stu­dio – all cat­e­gory-defin­ing prod­ucts with prices to match. It’s a strik­ing ul­tra­book with prices that are at­tain­able, if not ex­actly af­ford­able. For now, it in four con­fig­u­ra­tions: £949: 128GB SSD, In­tel Core i5, 4GB RAM £1,249: 256GB SSD, In­tel Core i5, 8GB RAM £1,549: 256GB SSD, In­tel Core i7, 8GB RAM £2,149: 512GB SSD, In­tel Core i7, 16GB RAM

Mi­crosoft also sep­a­rately ships a Sur­face Arc Mouse (priced £79 from fave.co/2MHiMxt), which is colour-co­or­di­nated to match the Sur­face Lap­top. The Sur­face Pen (priced £99 from fave.co/2rkBIqM) and Sur­face Dial (priced £89 from fave.co/2rTQHVx) will work with the Lap­top, but they’re not re­quired.

We re­viewed the £1,249 model, which we’d con­sider to be the price/per­for­mance sweet spot, as­sum­ing a col­lege stu­dent with gen­er­ous par­ents.

Though gamers want 16GB of RAM, 8GB is suf­fi­cient for web brows­ing and some ba­sic apps, and 256GB of stor­age is fi­nally be­com­ing more of the norm.

Just as im­por­tant as what’s in­side is the Sur­face Lap­top’s out­side, which is dressed to kill MacBook Airs. Lift­ing the tinted alu­minium ve­neer of the lid to re­veal the softer Al­can­tara fab­ric of the key­board tray be­neath evokes the el­e­gance of a jew­ellery box. Mi­crosoft also stream­lined the ex­te­rior by elim­i­nat­ing the vol­ume con­trol rocker switch and power but­ton, mov­ing them to the key­board.

The Sur­face Lap­top is very thin, just 14.47mm at most, com­pared to the MacBook Air’s 17mm pro­file. At 308x223.2mm, it’s also a lit­tle smaller than the MacBook Air. Grab the Sur­face Lap­top by its key­board, and its 1.25kg weight will feel im­pres­sively light. There’s one catch: the base £949 Core i5 model ships only in

the sil­very ‘plat­inum’ colour. The only con­fig­u­ra­tion to of­fer the three other colour op­tions (graphite gold, bur­gundy, cobalt blue) is the model we tested. While Mi­crosoft should even­tu­ally of­fer the ex­tra colours across the en­tire prod­uct line, it hasn’t yet – a sit­u­a­tion that’s sure to frus­trate some con­sumers.

A sur­pris­ing lack of ports

Thin ul­tra­books have to give up some­thing, and the Sur­face Lap­top’s con­fig­u­ra­tion is no dif­fer­ent. Most of it is good: our unit houses a 2.5GHz Core i5-7200U, part of the 7th-gen­er­a­tion Kaby Lake fam­ily. Each of the Core i5 op­tions in­cludes an In­tel HD 620 graph­ics core, while the Core i7 ver­sion in­cludes the pow­er­ful (for in­te­grated graph­ics, that is) Iris Plus 640 core which we tested on the new Sur­face Pro. For es­says and web brows­ing, an HD 620 core will be just fine.

One of the hall­marks of the Sur­face line-up is the dis­play, and we en­joy Mi­crosoft’s bright Pix­elSense 10-point touch­screens. The 13.5in (2256x1504, 201ppi) ver­sion, aligned in Mi­crosoft’s stan­dard 3:2 ra­tio, lives up to the name. The IPS panel pumps out 365 lu­mens, enough even for out­door use.

Some com­pet­ing de­vices of­fer 4K dis­plays. Keep in mind, though, that push­ing more pix­els re­quires more power, and one of the strengths of the Sur­face Lap­top is its ex­cel­lent bat­tery life.

On the right side of the Lap­top is Mi­crosoft’s Sur­face con­nec­tor, main­tain­ing com­pat­i­bil­ity with older charg­ers as well as op­tional pe­riph­er­als such as the Sur­face Dock. The other ports – USB 3.0 Type A, Mini Dis­play­Port, head­phone – ap­pear on the left side of

the chas­sis. There is no miniSD or other re­mov­able stor­age slot, recog­ni­tion that pho­tos and other files are more of­ten stored on­line or on USB sticks. We can agree with that ra­tio­nale, though the sin­gle USB-A port looks aw­fully lonely, and the lack of USB-C is the op­po­site of fu­ture-proof­ing.

The Sur­face Lap­top re­clines about as far as the Sur­face Book, about 50 de­grees or so off the hor­i­zon­tal. Un­like the Sur­face Book, how­ever, there’s no ac­cor­dion hinge. In­stead, an barely-vis­i­ble hinge smoothly moves the dis­play back and forth. The screen tends to wob­ble a bit when ink­ing or when the key­board moves sharply.

The key­board

You can sum up the Sur­face Lap­top’s key­board sim­ply: aside from one small mod­i­fi­ca­tion, Mi­crosoft bun­dled the Sur­face Pro’s back­lit key­board with the Sur­face Book’s touch­pad. The space al­lo­cated to the key­board

on both de­vices is lit­er­ally the same – 4x 10.75in – and the touch­pad di­men­sions on both the Book and the Lap­top are iden­ti­cal. That said, the Sur­face Lap­top’s typ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence falls slightly short of the Sur­face Book’s. We pre­fer the flu­id­ity of the Sur­face Book’s keys. There’s also a bit of struc­tural give in the Lap­top’s key­board that isn’t present on the Book. To test it, we placed a small screw be­tween the R, T, F, and G keys. On the Lap­top, we no­ticed a bit of bow­ing that wasn’t present on the Sur­face Book, which ex­presses it­self as a slightly mushy feel that’s in­de­pen­dent of the keys.

The Sur­face Lap­top’s touch­pad feels great, slightly oilier than the Book’s alu­minium sur­face. Click­ing and ges­tures worked as ex­pected.

A pair of ‘om­nisonic’ speak­ers are buried be­neath the key­board. The vol­ume reaches sat­is­fac­tory lev­els, slightly vi­brat­ing the keys as you type upon them. Nat­u­rally, there’s not a lot of bass, and we’d rec­om­mend head­phones.

Win­dows 10 S

In a bid to make the Sur­face Lap­top as man­age­able as Chrome­books pow­ered by Google’s Chrome OS, Mi­crosoft de­signed the Sur­face Lap­top and other ed­u­ca­tion-minded PCs around Win­dows 10 S, an op­ti­mized ver­sion of Win­dows 10. Win­dows 10 S re­stricts Sur­face Lap­top users to apps found within the Win­dows Store, and adds a few man­age­abil­ity fea­tures found in Win­dows 10 Pro to help ad­min­is­tra­tors keep tabs on the de­vices.

Win­dows 10 S pro­vides an ex­tra layer of se­cu­rity, Mi­crosoft says, as well as quicker boot times than

Win­dows 10 Pro. Holes have al­ready been poked through th­ese claims: the op­er­at­ing sys­tem was breached by a re­searcher us­ing Word macros, which are only blocked if you have an Of­fice 365 sub­scrip­tion. And in our tests, the Sur­face Lap­top took 19 sec­onds to cold-boot to the desk­top, com­pared to 14 sec­onds for a Sur­face Book run­ning Win­dows 10 Pro. Our Sur­face Lap­top did, how­ever, come with de­vice en­cryp­tion en­abled, help­ing pro­tect files from unau­tho­rized ac­cess. That’s a fea­ture nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with Win­dows 10 Pro.

Re­strict­ing Win­dows 10 S users to the Win­dows Store un­der­stand­ably con­cerns some users. For

one, you’re sub­ject to the whims of Mi­crosoft: as long­time users know, Mi­crosoft’s Store has ranged from abysmal to where it is now, an ad­e­quate to de­cent ex­pe­ri­ence.

Un­for­tu­nately, not ev­ery app within the Store can be used by Win­dows 10 S, in­clud­ing some Win32 ap­pli­ca­tions that Mi­crosoft has be­gun pub­lish­ing. If you do try to use a pro­hib­ited app, you’ll know it: a pop-up win­dow will ap­pear, with a link to the Win­dows 10 Pro up­grade at the bot­tom.

Mi­crosoft re­cently made its Of­fice apps ac­ces­si­ble through the Store in pre­view, and they worked

smoothly, with­out any bugs that we could find. The Sur­face Lap­top ships with a year’s sub­scrip­tion to Of­fice 365 Per­sonal, good for a sin­gle de­vice like the Lap­top.

The big­gest app hur­dle that Win­dows 10 S users will likely en­counter, though, is some­thing rather pro­saic: their choice of browser. Be­cause browsers such as Chrome, Fire­fox and Opera aren’t found within the Store, you’ll be forced to use Edge. Ex­port­ing book­marks from an­other browser and im­port­ing them into Edge is sim­ply a pain – and for­get about saved pass­words. Worse, Edge Favourites we’d saved in a Win­dows 10 Pro ma­chine re­fused to carry over to Win­dows 10 S. Win­dows 10 S also re­turns search re­sults from Bing alone, though noth­ing pre­vents you from book­mark­ing Google.co.uk.

That web-based ap­proach works well for some apps that haven’t made it into the Store. We’ve never been a fan of us­ing a ded­i­cated Win­dows app for Twit­ter, for ex­am­ple, though we use Slack’s app. With Edge, we could put both ser­vices into a tab and snap them to a cor­ner of our screen.

We were a lit­tle shocked to dis­cover that apps we didn’t con­sider to be apps were also blocked, namely the Com­mand Line. It doesn’t ap­pear within Win­dows 10 S, and com­mands that would nor­mally launch Com­mand Line or Pow­erShell sim­ply don’t work – or, if they do, a Com­mand Line win­dow will blink into ex­is­tence and then ‘pop’, or crash.

For those users who want a lit­tle more, Win­dows 10 S does pro­vide an es­cape hatch: a built-in up­grade path to Win­dows 10 Pro.

Per­for­mance

Be­cause we couldn’t run many of our con­ven­tional bench­marks on Win­dows 10 S, we se­lected browser­based tests that could stress the Sur­face Lap­top.

We com­pared it to ma­chines in­clud­ing the Sur­face Book and the re­cent Sur­face Pro. Re­call that Mi­crosoft also claims the Core i5 Sur­face Lap­top is 50 per­cent faster than the Core i7 MacBook Air. We didn’t have a re­cent MacBook Air to test, so we com­pared it to the 15in MacBook Pro, as well as a Core m3-based MacBook. The Sur­face Lap­top was slower than all of them, at least where th­ese browser-based bench­marks were con­cerned.

Both Speedome­ter and JetStream mea­sure the re­spon­sive­ness of web ap­pli­ca­tions, which is tied to the CPU’s pro­cess­ing power. We­bXPRT asks the pro­ces­sor to per­form more in­ten­sive tasks, such as photo en­hance­ment and al­bum or­ga­ni­za­tion. Oc­tane 2.0, a Google bench­mark, per­forms a suite of tests mea­sur­ing how well a sys­tem per­forms JavaScript.

Just for fun, we also ran a built-in bench­mark from Rise of the Tomb Raider, an game that’s avail­able via the Win­dows Store. Thirty frames per sec­ond is con­sid­ered to be the min­i­mum for game­play; the Sur­face Lap­top’s 4fps is not re­motely playable.

One of the ar­eas in which the Sur­face Lap­top ab­so­lutely shines, how­ever, is bat­tery life. We were a lit­tle scep­ti­cal at Mi­crosoft’s claims of 13.5 hours for the Sur­face Pro proved to be only eight hours. We’re be­gin­ning to think that this may have been the fault of the Iris Plus chip, for the bat­tery in­side the Sur­face Lap­top with In­tel’s HD 620 lasted a whop­ping 12 hours

and 45 min­utes, con­tin­u­ally stressed as we looped a 4K video. That stamina is what a stu­dent needs as they go from class to class and then to the li­brary.

Ver­dict

Oddly, the Sur­face Lap­top feels like progress for­ward and back, all at once. Mi­crosoft orig­i­nally de­signed the Sur­face lineup to hus­tle its hard­ware part­ners faster into the fu­ture, im­plic­itly strip­ping Ap­ple of its de­sign ca­chet and en­cour­ag­ing con­sumers to buy new PCs. Now, the Sur­face Lap­top has stepped down a rung, chal­leng­ing some of the cheaper, more main­stream prod­uct lines of its hard­ware part­ners to keep up. Lap­tops such as HP’s lat­est Spec­tre x360 al­ready do, but other ven­dors could use a push. Mark Hach­man

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

13.5in (2256x1504, 201ppi) Pix­elSense Dis­play, Win­dows 10 S with op­tion to switch to Win­dows 10 Pro for free un­til 31 De­cem­ber, 2017 In­cludes 1 year of Of­fice 365 Per­sonal 7th Gen In­tel Core i5 or i7 4-, 8- or 16GB RAM 128-, 256- or 512GB SSD In­tel HD 620 (i5)/In­tel Iris Plus Graph­ics 640 (i7) 720p HD cam­era (front-fac­ing) Stereo mi­cro­phones 3.5mm head­phone jack USB 3.0 Mini Dis­play­Port Sur­face Con­nect 802.11ac Wi-Fi wire­less net­work­ing Blue­tooth 4.0 LE 308x223.2x14.47mm i5, 1.25kg; i7, 1.28kg 5. Acer Swift 3 £529 inc VAT from fave.co/2BQkMOR The Acer Swift 3 is a 14in lap­top for nor­mal peo­ple, not those with the spare cash for some­thing ex­trav­a­gant like a MacBook Pro or HP Spec­tre. And, com­pared to those 13in lap­tops, the Acer’s screen is an inch larger. Thanks to the fall­ing cost of mak­ing a lap­top thin and light, the Swift 3 is no brick. No, it’s fairly slim, fairly light and quite at­trac­tive. Aside from a few is­sues that show why it is only half the price of its at­ten­tion­grab­bing ri­vals, this is a lap­top that re­ally has it all.

De­sign

The Swift 3 is one of the cheap­est ‘all-me­tal’ lap­tops around. In this sense it is even a step up from the great Acer S 13, which has a plas­tic lid.

To clar­ify: the un­der­side, the key­board sur­round, the lid and even the sil­very parts of the area around the screen are all alu­minium. One of the only non-me­tal parts on show apart from the key­board keys is the black part of the hinge you see when us­ing the lap­top. It’s plas­tic. It’s a very clean-look­ing, stripped-back lap­top. There are no flashy tex­tures or em­bel­lish­ments to make it in­stantly rec­og­niz­able, and the black hinge de­tracts from the all-me­tal look a lit­tle, but it’s fairly at­trac­tive re­gard­less. Per­haps more so than the Acer S13, whose less plain style is more of an au­di­ence-di­vider.

Acer also makes a gold ver­sion of the Swift 3, and judg­ing by im­ages on­line, the two-tone black/gold look may ac­tu­ally work bet­ter in that fin­ish.

Now it is time to see whether there are any ob­vi­ous cut cor­ners in the build made to get the price as low as it is. Ob­vi­ous things you don’t want in­clude a key­board that flexes un­der the pres­sure of your fin­gers, wide seams and a cas­ing so flex­i­ble that the track­pad clicker stops work­ing when the lap­top isn’t on a flat sur­face. We’ve see all th­ese is­sues in lap­tops more ex­pen­sive than the Swift 3.

Acer has nailed it, though. The lap­top re­mains rigid even when held just by one edge and the key­board is re­mark­ably stiff. While the un­der­side seam isn’t Ap­ple-grade per­fect, there are no wor­ry­ing gaps. We’re im­pressed.

There are just a few ob­vi­ous signs this is a midrange lap­top de­sign rather than a high-end one. The Swift 3 is only moder­ately thin and light. It weighs 1.5kg, which is light enough to carry around in a bag all day, but not no­table when some 13in lap­tops now weigh un­der a kilo­gram. Sim­i­larly, 18mm thick­ness is slim but not ul­tra-slim by cur­rent stan­dards, de­spite Acer call­ing it an Ul­tra­book.

We’d ad­vise not get­ting too wrapped-up in th­ese fig­ures if you’re on a bud­get. The Swift 3 still gets you the key ben­e­fits of an ul­tra­portable: mov­ing it from room

to room doesn’t take much ef­fort and you can carry it around ev­ery day with­out earn­ing shoul­der ache. The other sign this is a cheaper model is the alu­minium fin­ish. It’s shinier and coarser than a MacBook, which looks less pretty when it catches the light.

All of th­ese nig­gles seem tri­fling when you con­sider the price, though.

Con­nec­tiv­ity

One side ben­e­fit of be­ing thicker than some is that Acer is able to fit in full-size slots and con­nec­tors rather than tiny ones that re­quire adapters for most pe­riph­er­als. On the right side are a USB 2.0, head­phone jack, Kens­ing­ton lock and full-size SD slot.

On the left are the cylin­dri­cal power socket and USB 3.0, USB-C 3.1 and full-size HDMI ports. This is a per­fect ‘cover all bases’ ar­ray for most peo­ple. There’s no Eth­er­net port, but th­ese are ex­tremely rare in thin­ner mod­els, and the USB-C 3.1 can take on this role with the right adap­tor any­way.

There’s also an ex­tra ‘sur­prise’ fea­ture. A fin­ger­print scan­ner sits next to the key­board. This can be used with Win­dows 10 Hello to let you log in with your fin­ger in­stead of a pin or pass­word.

It is, un­for­tu­nately, an older style of fin­ger scan­ner that makes you swipe your digit across a slim sen­sor rather than the kind seen on mo­bile phones. Th­ese sim­ply make you place a fin­ger on the pad. How­ever, in our test­ing it ac­tu­ally ap­pears to work bet­ter with Win­dows Hello in its cur­rent state than most. It works re­li­ably most of the time, where oth­ers we’ve used re­cently of­ten re­quire mul­ti­ple at­tempts.

This may be be­cause the swipe scan­ner forces you to be a bit more con­sid­ered, though.

Key­board and track­pad

The key­board is also re­mark­ably good for the money, pri­mar­ily be­cause it is back­lit. This makes typ­ing in dark rooms much eas­ier, with sub-key LEDs that shine through the lit­tle char­ac­ters on each key. You can’t al­ter the in­ten­sity of the light, it’s ei­ther on or off, but is a great fea­ture of­ten left out of cheaper lap­tops.

Key feel is good, too. There’s solid travel for a slim lap­top, and key re­sis­tance is well-de­fined. It’s not too loud ei­ther, and has a soft char­ac­ter that’s much nicer to type on for long pe­ri­ods than the ul­tra-shal­low, more clicky keys used in an in­creas­ing num­ber of ul­tra-premium mod­els. As seen in the Acer S 13, it’s one of the nicer key­boards you’ll find in a mid-price por­ta­ble lap­top.

The track­pad has one of the tell-tale signs of a cheaper lap­top, in that its sur­face is plas­tic rather than tex­tured glass. How­ever, we were ac­tu­ally hard-pressed to tell the dif­fer­ence in terms of pure feel.

Most plas­tic track­pads are a lot less smooth than glass, cre­at­ing a sort of squeaky creak when your fin­ger’s glide changes di­rec­tion, but here the feel is very sim­i­lar to glass. We’d pre­fer glass, of course, but you can’t have ev­ery­thing on a bud­get. It’s fairly large too, and has a solid click feel. We would sug­gest chang­ing how the pad op­er­ates in Win­dows 10, though. While it is ef­fec­tively a copy of a MacBook pad, around a sixth of the pad is used for the right but­ton, mak­ing it easy to ac­ci­den­tally fire off a right-click.

Dis­play

Just like the track­pad, the screen is great in some re­spects but also re­veals the Swift 3’s lower-price sta­tus. We’ll start with the good and fin­ish with the bad.

This dis­play is much bet­ter than that of a MacBook Air be­cause it uses a Full HD IPS panel. It’s fairly sharp, and doesn’t have is­sues with con­trast shift from any an­gle. Al­most all Core i-se­ries lap­tops cheaper than this still use TN screens, which sim­ply do not look any­where near as nice be­cause the dis­play char­ac­ter changes af­ter shift­ing your view­ing an­gle by just a few de­grees.

Con­trast is also ex­cel­lent. At 1051:1, it’s bet­ter than a lot of £1,000+ lap­tops. This makes the Acer Swift 3 look punchy, with deep blacks.

The screen has a matt fin­ish, which makes it much bet­ter at cop­ing with re­flec­tions than a glossy one. It’s not a touch­screen, but the hinge folds a full 180 de­grees, so has an­other kind of flex­i­bil­ity. The hinge even opens with­out caus­ing the base to lift, a touch of

class rare in sub-£1,000 lap­tops. A glossy dis­play fin­ish would have been a ma­jor mis­take be­cause max­i­mum bright­ness is pretty poor at 195cd/m2. Bright lap­tops man­age 350cd/m2, so the Swift 3 is dim

From our ex­pe­ri­ence it’s bright enough to get by, the other dis­play char­ac­ter­is­tics mit­i­gat­ing. We weren’t left wish­ing for more bright­ness in­doors, with 50- to 60 per­cent do­ing the trick, but it’s worth think­ing about if you’ll be work­ing out­doors in the sum­mer a lot.

The other weak point is colour. Cov­er­ing just 55.6 per­cent off the sRGB stan­dard and 38.6 of Adobe RGB, it’s not strong enough for photo re­touch­ing or dig­i­tal art at a pro or semi-pro level.

We were slightly sur­prised the re­sults were quite this bad be­cause the Acer Swift 3 looks per­fectly pleas­ant to our eyes, no doubt thanks to the solid res­o­lu­tion, great con­trast and IPS panel tech. How­ever, analysing it more closely it does fail to de­liver the deeper red tones quite no­tice­ably.

Per­for­mance

All ver­sions of the Acer Swift 3 have In­tel Core i-se­ries pro­ces­sors. They are just start­ing to move to the lat­est Kaby Lake gen­er­a­tion chipsets, but the model we were sent had the pre­vi­ous Sky­lake gen­er­a­tion in­stead: a Core i5-6200U in­stead of the i5-7200U, which is avail­able through Acer’s web­site.

The Core i5-6200U is a dual core chipset clocked at 2.3GHz. It’s the sort of chip used by plenty of more ex­pen­sive ma­chines, pro­vid­ing very good por­ta­ble pro­duc­tiv­ity power and ex­cel­lent gen­eral re­spon­sive­ness. The i5-7200U is a 2.5GHz chip which boosts to 3.1GHz and should be around 15- to 20 per­cent faster.

The use of an SSD rather than a hard drive is es­sen­tial for gen­eral Win­dows 10 speed, mean­ing the Swift 3 feels al­most ex­actly like a slim lap­top cost­ing twice the price day-to-day. You’ll ac­tu­ally get this with the cheaper Core i3 ver­sion of the Swift 3 too, the pri­mary dif­fer­ence be­tween the pro­ces­sors be­ing their Turbo fre­quency,.

Our test model scored 2594 in PC Mark 8, which is around the per­for­mance we ex­pect. Amus­ingly, its per­for­mance is ac­tu­ally sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than that of the much pricier Acer Swift 7, be­cause that ma­chine uses a Y-se­ries pro­ces­sor de­signed to min­i­mize en­ergy use and heat.

Like any lap­top with in­te­grated graph­ics, this is not a great gam­ing ma­chine. It’ll play ti­tles a few years old if you set the vi­su­als to min­i­mum lev­els and, per­haps, re­duce the res­o­lu­tion a lit­tle. But if you are go­ing to be gam­ing ev­ery day you may be bet­ter off with a chunkier

lap­top that has a ded­i­cated chipset.

At min­i­mum set­tings and 720p res­o­lu­tion, for ex­am­ple, Thief (2013) runs at 21.3fps. That’s far lower than ideal, and the frame rate drops to 5.2fps with the vi­su­als maxed at the na­tive 1080p res­o­lu­tion. Alien Iso­la­tion runs bet­ter, with an aver­age 29.98fps at 720p, mak­ing the game playable. At 1080p with the vi­su­als turned up it only runs at an aver­age 13fps: def­i­nitely not fun.

We were pleas­antly sur­prised by how quiet the Acer Swift 3 stays un­der pres­sure, though, seem­ing to ramp-up fan speed less quickly than some with­out it be­com­ing too hot. How­ever, it does use fans, and a pair of fairly small di­am­e­ter ones too, which cre­ate a rel­a­tively high-pitch noise when spin­ning quickly. Most of the time it’s vir­tu­ally silent, though.

Au­dio

If the main draw­back is dis­play qual­ity in a few ar­eas, sound qual­ity is a mi­nor side is­sue. Lots of smaller lap­tops have started sound­ing rea­son­ably good – for a lap­top – in the past 12 months, but this one doesn’t.

Sound is thin, with vir­tu­ally no bass and weak mids. Max vol­ume is lim­ited and at high vol­ume the tone takes on a slightly grat­ing edge, which seems to be down to some off res­o­nances.

How­ever, the speak­ers do de­liver sound that seems wider than the lap­top it­self as the driv­ers are placed on each edge of the un­der­side, and there’s no full-on sound-ru­in­ing dis­tor­tion at when the level is cranked.

Bat­tery life

But let’s not end on a downer. Acer prom­ises up to 10 hours of use be­tween charges with the Swift 3, and that’s con­sis­tent with what we’ve seen.

Play­ing a 720p video on loop at 120cd/m2, which is a rel­a­tively high 61 per cent back­light in­ten­sity in this lap­top, the Swift 3 lasts nine hours 50 min­utes. This is a great re­sult, par­tic­u­larly as our model uses a Core i5 rather than a pro­ces­sor whose sole aim is to keep en­ergy use to a min­i­mum.

With mixed use you can ex­pect a lit­tle less longevity, but it should be enough to see you sail through a day’s work un­less you start gam­ing or do­ing more in­ten­sive tasks like pro­ces­sor-heavy im­age edit­ing.

Ver­dict

The Acer Swift 3 is a near-per­fect lap­top for those who want an ul­tra­portable, but don’t want to fork out

£1000+. Build qual­ity is great, bat­tery life very good, and per­for­mance a match for much more ex­pen­sive lap­tops. There are just two ar­eas where the low price shows. First, it’s a lit­tle thicker and heav­ier than some ul­tra­books. It looks good enough, but lim­ited max­i­mum bright­ness and fairly poor colour re­pro­duc­tion lim­its its use­ful­ness in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. An­drew Wil­liams

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

14in (1,920x1,080, 157dpi) IPS LCD matt anti-glare 2.3 GHz, up to 2.8 GHz Turbo In­tel Core i5-6200U, two cores four threads Win­dows 10 Home In­tel HD 620 GPU 8GB RAM DDR4 128GB SSD 802.11b/g/n/ac 2x2 Blue­tooth 4.0 2x USB-C 3.1 port Stereo speak­ers HD we­b­cam Dig­i­tal ar­ray mic 3.5mm head­set jack UK tiled key­board 3,220mAh 4-cell lithium-ion bat­tery non-re­mov­able 340x236x18mm 1.5kg 1-year RTB war­ranty

If you’re go­ing to be spend­ing time away from mains power, you’ll need a lap­top with de­cent bat­tery life

The Acer has a stylish de­sign

The 250 G5 has a solid key­board

It’s re­fresh­ing to see such an af­ford­able lap­top whose per­for­mance doesn’t feel com­pro­mised

No part of the lap­top flexes much un­der fin­ger pres­sure and the hinge feels very solid

Len­ovo Idea­Pad 320S

Typ­ing is com­fort­able on the Len­ovo’s key­board

The dis­play’s matte fin­ish makes it eas­ier to see out­side

The 320S is a very quiet lap­top

Mi­crosoft Sur­face Lap­top

The Sur­face Lap­top is a stylish ma­chine

The Sur­face Lap­top’s touch­pad is a plea­sure to use

You can move apps around like any other file, but you sim­ply can’t run them un­less they’re Mi­crosoft-ap­proved

Many com­mon apps aren’t in the Mi­crosoft Store. For­tu­nately, Mi­crosoft Of­fice is one of the ex­cep­tions – but you’ll need to use the built-in ‘Get Of­fice’ app to find it

Acer Swift 3

The back­lit key­board makes typ­ing in dark rooms eas­ier

The Swift 3 has a Full HD IPS dis­play

The Acer’s build qual­ity is great, bat­tery life very good, and per­for­mance a match for much more ex­pen­sive lap­tops

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