Acer Swift 3X review: This lightweight laptop shows Intel's Xe Max magic

If you can use Intel's Deep Link advantages for its Xe Max discrete graphics card, this is a great laptop.

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Why Intel’s Iris Xe Max matters

You’ll only want the Acer Swift 3X if you can take advantage of the unique capabilities of Intel’s just-arrived Iris Xe Max discrete GPU. That included the accompanying Deep Link software, which forges a deep tie between Iris Xe Max and the integrated Xe graphics found on Intel’s Core i7 processor.

One immediate benefit is Intel’s Dynamic Power Share feature. Most laptops with discrete graphics allocate a certain portion of the notebook’s power to the GPU, even if it’s not being used. That means the CPU’s maximum performance is never truly unleashed.

Because Intel created both the CPU and the GPU(s) in the Swift 3X, it can shift resources as needed, just like AMD’s rival Smart Shift technology. Dynamic Power Share diverts full power to the CPU when your GPU is twiddling its thumbs. Intel claims a Xe Max system can deliver up to 1.2X the CPU performance of a laptop that uses Nvidia or AMD graphics, thanks to Dynamic Power Share. That advantage is driven home in the CPU benchmarks we’ll cover later. More power means more performance. Tiger Lake roars in the Swift 3X.

But you buy an Iris Xe Max laptop for its graphical capabilities. Intel doesn’t pitch the GPU as a gaming chip; instead, it positions Xe Max as an Nvidia MX350 rival that provides more oomph during content creation tasks. The Xe graphics integrated in the Core i7 chip comes with the same basic hardware configuration as the discrete Xe Max GPU—each has 96 execution units. Deep Link lets the chips work in concert to speed up AI and video encoding tasks.

Usually, if a laptop has a discrete GPU, it uses only that discrete GPU or an integrated GPU for a given task—not both at the same time. Deep Link changes things, and it rocks when you can use it.

acer swift 3x pro Acer

The Acer Swift 3X can play, but it’s built for content creation work.

Intel provided Deep Link testing scenarios that showcase what an Iris Xe Max system can do. It’s impressive, even when compared against a pricier HP Envy 15 with a much more powerful GeForce RTX 2060. We tested both scenarios below using Intel-supplied workloads, but we tweaked some encoding settings on the HP Envy 15’s benchmarks to optimize for best performance on Nvidia’s GPU (using NVENC instead of Intel’s Quick Sync, for instance).

Intel is proud of the “DL Boost” DP4A deep learning capabilities unlocked in its graphics chips, and Topaz’s Gigapixel AI photo upscaling software leverages it very well. Better yet, Deep Link lets the program tap into the encoding capabilities of both Xe GPUs at the same time. The test below measures how long it took to convert a batch of 20 low-resolution images to 4K resolution.

topaz gigapixel deep link Brad Chacos/IDG

This is very much a scenario that puts Intel’s technology in the best light, but that’s what we’re looking for in our initial Xe Max evaluation, and photo upscaling is a very relatable real-world workload for AI. The Swift 3X absolutely crushes the RTX 2060 inside the HP Envy 15, taking well under half the time to upscale the entire batch of images.

The popular media encoder HandBrake also supports Deep Link’s Hyper Encode feature in alpha form via its nightly builds. We downloaded the nightly build on February 15 to test it. Intel’s test here converts a batch of ten 4K videos to 1080p HEVC videos. Because the Swift 3X includes two Quick Sync-capable Intel GPUs (discrete and integrated), we set the “Number of simultaneous encodes” option in HandBrake’s advanced settings to two, up from the default one. As you can see below, that supercharges the conversion time versus encoding just a single video in the queue. (The HP Envy 15’s RTX 2060 performed identically with either option selected, because it relies only on the single GPU.)

Another quick programming note: Intel’s Quick Sync defaults to converting videos at the same frame rate as their source videos. Nvidia’s NVENC defaults to a 60-frames-per-second rate. We’ve included results for the HP Envy 15 encoding the videos with both settings in the results below. Either way, the Swift 3X is the far and away winner, even before you activate Deep Link. Like with Gigapixel AI, this test measures total conversion time in minutes, so lower numbers are better.

handbrake nightly Brad Chacos/IDG

Holy moly. If your workflow revolves around converting large batches of videos, the Xe Max-packing Swift 3X rocks.

But you need to think hard about whether you can actually put Intel’s Iris Xe Max to work. Deep Link is a new technology that works in only a handful of applications at the moment, and even then, not always in official release form yet (witness the HandBrake nightly). The list currently includes HandBrake, Topaz Gigapixel AI, Adobe Lightroom Classic, OBS, and XSplit, along with some Asian-focused software. Intel also touts Deep Link’s performance in ML Perf deep learning workloads, and Deep Link now works with Blender’s Cycles, albeit only in prerelease form. In the future, Intel says Deep Link will also work with CyberLink and Magix, two more popular video creation tools.

That’s a killer starting lineup for creators, but future promises are doing a lot of heavy lifting. That said, future updates could also make the Deep Link Hyper Encode feature much more useful. Currently, the Xe tag-team inside the Acer Swift 3X can utilize its Quick Sync speedup only for batch encodes, with the integrated and discrete GPUs each taking on their own tasks, albeit at the same time. Intel hopes to roll out the ability to dedicate both Xe GPUs on a single video conversion sometime in the first half of 2021, breaking the stream into separate “Groups of Pictures” for each encoder to handle before recombining them into a single output video. That could be a truly killer feature for Xe Max laptops—if it rolls out as quickly as intended, if applications get rapid updates to support it, and if the feature works as intended out of the gate.

Intel maintains a massive army of software developers and invested a lot of resources into creating its first discrete GPUs in decades, so we expect all those things to happen in due time. That said, we generally advise against buying pricey hardware based on what it can do today, as future promises don’t always materialize. Make sure you can put Deep Link to good work now before you invest in the Acer Swift 3X.

Fortunately, the Intel Iris Xe Max delivers a good showing in driving today’s graphics workloads, as long as you keep in mind that it’s an affordable solution. 3DMark’s Time Spy and Sky Diver benchmarks compare the visual prowess of a GPU, with Time Spy targeting gaming-grade hardware and Sky Diver evaluating more modest gear.

sky diver Brad Chacos/IDG
time spy Brad Chacos/IDG

As you can see above, the Swift 3X’s discrete Xe Max GPU can’t come close to hanging with proper GeForce chips in larger laptops when it comes to Time Spy, but it wallops on the integrated graphics you find in most ultraportable laptops, as well as Nvidia’s rival entry-level MX350.

The Iris Xe Max also performs modestly in our gaming tests, which run Rise of the Tomb Raider and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (two older games) at Ultra settings at 1080p resolution. The games run faster on Xe Max than the 30fps targeted on last-gen consoles, but proper GeForce gaming GPUs again leave Intel’s chip  lagging far behind. The vastly cheaper (and vastly larger) Gateway laptop with a full-blown RTX 2060 inside easily tops all comers here, but it’s a completely different class of notebook. We included it just to illustrate the performance differences between these types of devices. Note that we did not test Shadow of Mordor on the Asus ROG Flow X13, so that result is listed as a zero below.

gaming 1080p ultra Brad Chacos/IDG

Remember that the Iris Xe Max isn’t built for Ultra-quality gaming though! It’s an affordable, low-power GPU primarily focused on speeding up media encoding. That said, Xe Max still delivers plenty of play-time oomph if you don’t mind dialing back the graphics settings.

We benchmarked the Swift 3X across a few games at their Medium and Lowest graphics presets at 1080p. Each one cleared the 30-fps to 45-fps mark we consider playable with everything dialed down. F1 2020 and Rise of the Tomb Raider come close to that standard even with Medium settings, but they suffer from frame time dips that can sometimes pull the average down around the 20-fps range, which yanks you out of being immersed. Stick to lower settings in intense games, or drop the resolution to 720p, and most should play just fine.

gaming 1080 low Brad Chacos/IDG

Not all of them, though. While I managed to get most games I tried working on the Swift 3X, including an array of esports and retro-styled games that ran even better than results you see above, both Horizon Zero Dawn and Wolfenstein Youngblood refused to run. Wolfenstein wouldn’t load at all, while the screen went dark in Horizon Zero Dawn whenever I tried to run the benchmark. Some games also think the laptop’s full resolution is 720p during the initial setup, though they quickly realize it’s a 1080p panel once you change the setting in-game. Chalk these weird quirks up to Xe Max’s young drivers, perhaps.

It’s also worth noting that the Swift 3X’s fans definitely kick up when you’re stressing both the CPU and GPU with games. They’re somewhat loud, but the tone isn’t unpleasant, so it’s not an annoyance when you’re gaming with no headset on. There’s no whiny, high-pitched noise like you find with some notebooks.

Next page: More benchmarks, bottom line

At a Glance
  • The Acer Swift 3X is an ultraportable, affordable, and competently designed laptop for creators—a combination you don't see often. Intel's Xe Max GPU unlocks strikingly good performance but only in specific creation workloads. If your work apps support Intel's Deep Link software, you'll love this.

    Pros

    • Intel Xe Max has great performance in Deep Link creative apps
    • Very thin, lightweight, and affordable for a creation-focused laptop
    • Thunderbolt 4 port offers advanced display and storage options

    Cons

    • A surprising amount of bloatware, and some spawn pop-up ads
    • An SD card reader and a more color-accurate display would be nice
    • Intel Deep Link technology is still in infancy, with hit-or-miss app and feature support
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