It’s not news that Surface 3 can run desktop applications, unlike its Windows RT-based predecessors. But the tablet’s Atom processor raises some obvious and understandable questions. Sure, Surface 3 will run desktop applications. But how well will it run desktop applications?
While it’s hard to point to one thing that puts Surface 3 over the top when compared to Surface RT and Surface 2, it’s really not all that hard to find the front-runner: the ability to run desktop applications—courtesy of Surface 3’s Intel architecture—is clearly the single biggest deal here.
This capability is important because the most important Windows applications—Adobe Photoshop, Apple iTunes, Google Chrome, and so on, but also Microsoft applications like Photo Gallery/Windows Essentials and Visual Studio—run in the desktop environment. And because the Modern platform on which Windows RT relied has been an abject failure.
And it’s not just applications. It’s the web apps that Chrome supports. It’s browser plug-ins, technologies like Java that you may not “like” but may in fact need. It is in fact the entire Win32 stack, which also includes both drivers—yes, somewhat replicated in Windows RT—but also the utility applications and resulting advanced features that come with those drivers. So you might be able to use a Microsoft mouse with Windows RT, sure. But when you use that Mouse with Windows 8.1 you get the full Microsoft Mouse and Keyboard Center functionality, which lets you finely tune how everything on that mouse actually works. This is night and day stuff, folks. It’s actually pretty profound.
Which is a long-winded way of saying this: If Surface 3 just provided the ability to run desktop applications, including all of the other advantages that come along with Win32 compatibility, but provided the same basic performance of Surface 2, it would still be a huge win. But it doesn’t. With one slightly surprising exception, Surface 3 delivers much better performance than does Surface 2.
So let’s cover that exception first. Clear the air a bit.
With Surface 3, I’m doing something I’ve never done before, and I’m not quite sure yet whether this will become a “thing” for me, or whether this is a one-off deal. We’ll see. And that’s that I’m running benchmarks. I’ll continue to rely on my own real-world experience, of course, but with this device and its desktop compatibility, there is a very real need to understand just where Surface 3 falls on the performance spectrum. And that’s because I hear from many, many readers who love the idea of a lower-cost Surface Pro 3. But they’re nervous about performance, because of the terrible reputation of the Atom processor line.
So I’ve run benchmarks. I’ve run them on Surface 3 and on Surface Pro 3, and in one case I’ve even run them on Surface 2. And that’s where the exception comes in. Surface 2, an ARM-based device that runs Windows RT, cannot run the desktop-based PCMark8 set of benchmarks. But it can run the 3DMark benchmark test, which is available in Modern app form. And that means it’s possible to measure the graphics performance of Surface 3, and compare it to both Surface 2 and Surface Pro 3. Which I’ve done.
The results are disappointing if you intend to play games. Surface 3 scored an average of 25,500 on the Ice Storm Unlimited test, about double Surface 2’s score of 12,500 but well behind the 46,000 that Surface Pro 3 posted. (I’m not hugely familiar with benchmarking, though 3DMark is about as simple as they come. That said, Surface 3’s scores were all over the map: My initial runs were in the 12,000 to 13,000 range. Obviously you get the best results after a clean boot, but I can’t explain why they went up so much at a later date.)
With graphics performance that sits almost exactly between my Surface 2 and Core i5-based Surface Pro 3, Surface 3 is not a portable gaming rig. But then that should be obvious to anyone given its Atom-based architecture. You’re not going to play sophisticated Windows desktop games—Far Cry 4, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, whatever—at any resolution.
Instead, from a gaming perspective, Surface 3 can handle anything the Windows Store can throw at it: Asphalt 8: Airborne, Halo: Spartan Assault, whatever. These are basically mobile games, the types of games you can find on other tablets and on smart phones. But there are actually some pretty decent choices in there. (Something that can’t be said for the app collection in the Windows Store.)
Looking at desktop applications, of course they all install and run. So far I’ve installed Adobe Reader and Photoshop Elements 13, Apple iTunes, Google Chrome, VLC Player, Microsoft Office 2013 (including OneDrive for Business), Windows Essentials, and Visual Studio 2013 Community. Everything works, and I’ve pinned web apps to the taskbar using both IE and Chrome as usual.
And most of these desktop applications even work well. Under normal workloads—some web browsing, an Office application or two, Photoshop—Surface 3 hums along at what I’d call socially acceptable speeds. But then I have the 4 GB/128 GB version of the device. My admittedly non-scientific advice is that you will want this more expensive version if you intend to multitask at all: 2 GB is OK for tablets and low-end laptops, but you’ll want 4 GB of RAM for real work.
That said, not everything works well.
Visual Studio 2013 Community installed and runs but of course complained that it couldn’t configure Hyper-V because the “Core” version of Windows 8.1 that is supplied in my review unit doesn’t support Hyper-V. So I would need to upgrade to Windows 8.1 Pro at a cost of $50 to $100, depending on when I did it.
Apple’s iTunes remains one of the most embarrassingly terrible Windows applications ever written and it seems particularly ill-suited to the Atom confines of Surface 3. It does everything slowly, but when I downloaded and then played the movie “Interstellar” I swear I could hear someone in Cupertino laughing in the background. My first attempts to just get beyond the movie’s iTunes Extras splash screen were unsuccessful: it literally wouldn’t even play. But after a reboot, I did get it to work. And it played in 1080p without any hitches, and looked stunning doing, though of course I was ready to murder the thing by that point.
With both iTunes and Chrome, you are right to wonder about battery life. I don’t have any answers there yet, but I will—again, non-scientifically—conjecture that both will impact battery life in a hugely negative fashion. If I feel like there is some need for this, I will gladly compare the battery life of video playback using both Xbox Video and iTunes (and will even use the same movies), but I think it’s fair to say that Xbox Video will come out big in this one crucial area.
I don’t know yet how much better the Atom x7 processor in Surface 3 performs compared to other Atom processors, and I’ll run some benchmarks on the other machines here in the, um, lab to see how that goes. For now, I’d say that while Intel’s Core processors have nothing to fear from Atom x7, Surface 3 is up to the task in the markets it targets. Remember: Surface 3 isn’t a smaller Surface Pro 3, it’s a cost-reduced Surface Pro 3, and part of that cost-reduction means a lower-end processor architecture. But this device—and by this device I mean the one I’m reviewing, with 4 GB of RAM—works ably as a desktop-focused laptop. It’s not a workstation, and it’s not a gaming machine. But it is a nifty little laptop.
Tagged with Surface 3