Microsoft Surface 3 Review

Posted on April 24, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 0 Comments

Microsoft Surface 3 Review

Folks, this is the Windows tablet you’ve been looking for. With Surface 3, Microsoft has hit the right combination of performance, capability and durability, with a device that provides the best of the successful Surface Pro 3 at a more affordable price. Surface 3 is a fine choice for students of all ages, mobile professionals, or anyone else looking for the ideal balance of mobility and functionality.

Yes, Surface 3 is a cost-reduced Surface Pro 3, so Microsoft had to cut some corners to make the device more affordable. But like a Volkswagen Jetta compared to a more expensive Audi, the Surface 3 serves a much broader audience thanks to this cost cutting. And for the most part, I find the compromises that Microsoft made in doing so to be perfectly acceptable. This is no down-market tablet.

It’s also no wannabe, like its predecessors, Surface RT (which was miserable) and Surface 2 (which was only slightly better). And that comparison is actually kind of interesting because Surface 3 retains the stellar battery life and entry-level pricing of those previous tablets but fixes virtually everything that was wrong with them. It’s a “real” Windows PC, with full compatibility with the desktop applications that people really use.

This is important.

It’s important today—the Metro/Modern/whatever mobile platform simply hasn’t taken off yet with developers or users—and it’s important tomorrow, as we move forward to Windows 10. It’s important to the parts of Microsoft’s strategy that aren’t changing, including the belief that the future of Windows PCs is all about hybrid devices that can seamlessly move between usage models like the desktop, full-blown touch, and pen-based note taking and drawing. Surface 3 is, in many ways, the Windows value proposition expressed as hardware, a multi-function system that can do it all.

And assuming you don’t have extreme needs—PC gaming, Visual Studio software development, CAD/CAM, HD video editing or whatever other high-end activities one might think of—Surface 3 really can do it all. It hits a sweet spot for that mass market of users.

From a design perspective, Surface 3 is small, light and thin, and you’ll never notice it in a laptop bag or backpack. It’s built of high-quality and durable magnesium, just like Surface Pro 3, and retains the same general shape of its higher-cost sibling, but size-reduced by 15 or 20 percent. This is a premium device, and no corners were cut in the build quality. You can tell just by holding it.

Surface 3 (back)

Surface 3 (back)

But some corners were cut of course. The first you may notice is the kickstand. Surface Pro 3’s vaunted kickstand, which uses a variable tilt design that lets you adjust the angle of the display in very fine increments, is missing on Surface 3. Instead, you get a more pedestrian three position design, which works fine but doesn’t offer that neat ability to always be able to perfectly remove any in-room reflection. The kickstand hinge on Surface Pro 3 is more complex and more expensive, but it also adds some thickness, so it had to go.

Surface 3 kickstand in third position

Surface 3 kickstand in third position

(Another downside to the kickstand design—and, actually, this is an issue for Surface Pro 3 as well—is that the front-facing camera is always pointing up towards the ceiling, making Skype video calls a bit harder to do.)

From a ports and expandability perspective, Surface 3 holds up well, though some things were moved around to accommodate the smaller device’s new (and less capable) docking station accessory. So there’s a full-sized USB 3.0 port and miniDisplayPort on the right side of the device, just like Surface Pro 3, along with a micro-USB port that is used for power. The volume buttons have been moved to the top of the device (as viewed in the default landscape orientation). And a microSD slot is hidden neatly under the kickstand. Nothing dramatic.

Surface 3 ports

Surface 3 ports

The Surface 3’s use of micro-USB for power is an improvement over the Surface Pro 3’s proprietary port, I think, at least for the target market. That’s because micro-USB is so common—it’s the same plug used by every non-Apple smart phone and tablet on earth—and you can charge the device with any cable and power plug you may already own. (Though it may charge less quickly than with the bundled plug, which is angled and a bit hard to insert.) Surface Pro 3’s port is more capable—it enables a more powerful docking station than is possible with Surface 3—though that will only benefit some users.

Surface 3 power connector attached

Surface 3 power connector attached

Surface 3 doesn’t come with a Surface Pen, like Surface Pro 3, so you will need to spend an additional $50 to purchase this accessory separately if you want one. That can be seen as good news, however. For one, there are now multiple color choices, instead of the stock silver color that originally shipped. And if you don’t need or want a Pen, you won’t have to pay for it. Pen storage is handled as before by Surface Pen Loop instead of some internal docking hole because Surface 3 is simply too thin to accommodate such a thing.

Surface Pen

Surface Pen

One of the best decisions Microsoft made with this device was to stick with a 3:2 screen. This version is 10.8 inches, and smaller than the 12 inch unit found in Surface Pro 3. It’s also a lower resolution, though it retains a very high pixel count: Surface 3 hits at an unusual 1920 x 1280, compared to 2160 x 1440 for Surface Pro 3. Microsoft says the screen is mounted with the same high quality optical bonding as Surface Pro 3, and it features the same excellent color accuracy. But it is also clearly brighter than the Surface Pro 3 version and is thus better overall. Not bad for a cost-reduced tablet.

Finishing up my lovefest with the exterior, Surface 3 features what appears to be the same front-facing speakers found in Surface Pro 3. They are mostly loud and clear and, when combined with the kickstand, perfect for my in-hotel room audio needs.

Thanks to its fanless design, Surface 3 is thinner than Surface Pro 3, and it lacks the heat vent that runs around the exterior edge of the latter device. More important it is also quieter than Surface Pro 3, and is in fact completely silent, like an iPad or smart phone. By comparison, Surface Pro 3 is a huffing blowhard which constantly interrupts with fan noise, whether you’re pushing it or not.

But that quietness comes with a performance penalty. Where Surface Pro 3 ships with high-powered mainstream Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, Surface 3 instead features a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom x7 processor. This is a new design, part of the “Cherry Trail” generation of chipsets, and is, in Microsoft’s words, “very performant.” And they’re right about that … for productivity apps.

Microsoft hit the right compromise here. According to performance benchmarks, Surface 3 performs close to a Core M processor—a hybrid design of sorts that is based on the Core chips—but it does so at a far lower price tag and with less heat. So while fanless Core M systems are possible, they’re rare, and they tend to get pretty hot when pushed. Surface 3 did get warm during some benchmarking, but never overly so. And yes, silence is truly golden.

To really see where Surface 3 lands, I did something I don’t normally bother with and ran some benchmarks (PCMark8 and 3DMark). Long story short, Surface 3 (with 4 GB of RAM) offers about 70 percent of the desktop performance of my Surface Pro 3, which coupled with my own real world tests means it’s perfectly capable of running standard desktop applications quite well. But it stumbles badly in graphics and gaming, and barely outscores its RT-based predecessors. This means that Surface 3 is fine for the types of lightweight mobile games you’ll find in the Windows Store—”Halo: Spartan Assault,” “Asphalt 8: Airborne” and the like—but can’t be used to play modern 3D games like recent versions of “Call of Duty”.

Of course, PC performance is about more than just CPU. Surface 3’s Atom chipset includes integrated graphics that won’t win any awards, and the built-in storage is eMMC based rather than the faster SSD found in Surface Pro 3. Surface 3 also ships with less RAM—2 GB in the base version, or 4 GB in the review unit—than Surface Pro 3, which can be had with up to 8 GB of RAM. My advice here is to always choose 4 GB over 2 GB: yes, it raises the price of the device, but 4 GB will be more viable for a longer period of time.

Battery life also falls into the performance category, and here I saw great durability, with Surface 3 consistently hitting about 8 and a half hours of life in my HD playback video tests (and over 7 hours for streaming HD video). This suggests that Surface 3 should get 9-10 hours of battery life in normal use.

Surface 3 ships with Windows 8.1, though you can apparently add Windows 8.1 Pro for $50 from resellers. In either case you can run any Windows desktop application—iTunes, Chrome, Photoshop, whatever—plus the small library of Windows Store apps. It all works as well expected. (Click here to read more about Surface 3 and desktop applications.)

Like Surface Pro 3, Surface 3 doesn’t stand alone. Well, yes, you could use it as a tablet, I suppose, but virtually all users will also want to purchase a Surface 3 Type Cover too. This works well, though the typing experience is a bit cramped for my large hands and the trackpad is small and lackluster overall. Worse, Surface 3 Type Cover is expensive at $130, the same price as the Surface Pro 3 unit. So you need to factor that cost into your purchase.

Surface 3 Type Cover

Surface 3 Type Cover

Debates continue to rage about whether Surface 3 is “lappable”—meaning you can use it on your lap as with any normal laptop—but your results will indeed vary accordingly with your upper leg length. Arguably, Surface 3 is less lappable than a Pro 3 because of the less configurable kickstand. It doesn’t work for me, but I find the device to be multi-faceted enough that I just don’t care.

There are some things about Type Cover I really like. It’s thin and light and contributes to the epic portability of Surface 3. It connects to the tablet in two ways, using magnets, so you can find the typing angle you prefer. It is available in multiple colors, so you can buy according to your tastes. And the Windows 8-specific keys have been exorcised, returning PRTSCN and screen brightness controls to their rightful places.

Since Surface 3 uses the same Surface Pen as does Surface Pro 3, there’s less to say there beyond noting that pen performance—the ability of the system to keep up with you as you write or draw, and its sensitivity to the various pressure levels—is excellent and on par with what I see on Surface Pro 3. At $50, Surface Pen is a reasonable expense as well.

Unlike Surface RT/2, Surface 3 supports an optional $200 Docking Station that further expands this device’s versatility to the desktop. I haven’t yet tested the Docking Station extensively, but it works as advertised.

Surface 3 docked, from the side

Surface 3 docked, from the side

Speaking of a reasonable expense, I’ve been mulling over this device’s place, price-wise, in the PC pecking order and feel that Microsoft has struck a reasonable price point.

A base Surface 3 with 2 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage is $500 in the US, or $630 with Type Cover, and should be an excellent choice for kids or others with non-demanding needs. Step up to the $600/$730 price point and you can get the mobile professional’s or college student’s choice, with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. (Educational customers qualify for discounts, too.) Comparatively, a base Surface Pro 3 with Type Cover (Core i3/4 GB/64 GB) is $930. And the Surface Pro 3 I’m using—Core i5, 8 GB/256 GB—is fully $1280.

I mention that because, truth is, I could get by just fine with Surface 3 were it not for the fact that I am a) humongous and b) have trouble seeing text, especially, on such a small screen. This won’t be the case with the younger set that Surface 3 targets, however. If anything, the smaller size of this device will be seen as an advantage.

At $630 to $730, Surface 3 hits an interesting pricing mid-point between inexpensive basic laptops like Stream 13 (and most Chromebooks) and my Surface Pro 3 and various Ultrabooks. But it’s worth pointing out, again, that Surface 3 offers a ton of useful Surface Pro 3-like functionality at this lower price point. The premium, durable magnesium build quality. The hybrid PC versatility of switching between tablet and laptop modes. The interchangeable Type Covers. A high DPI multi-touch screen. Optional Surface Pen and docking station. And the performance to run real PC apps well, and do so for long periods of time with real day-long battery life.

Surface 3 is a delightful, versatile, and highly mobile Windows device that can effortlessly move between tablet and laptop form factors. IT pros, game players and content creators may want to step up to the more expensive Surface Pro 3. But for the rest of us, Surface 3 is an unparalleled value and a very welcome addition to the Surface family. Highly recommended.

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