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Review: Microsoft Surface 3

By Leigh D. Stark | 6:00 pm 28/04/2015

Microsoft’s latest Surface could finally make the Windows 8 tablet more compelling to more people, now that Windows RT has been put to rest. Is this enough to take on the iPad?

Features

The sixth Microsoft tablet to take the name “Surface”, the Surface 3 is Microsoft’s latest attempt to take on the tablet market, with a machine that isn’t quite up to the “professional” level that the Surface Pro 3 aims for, but is still more featured than its Surface and Surface 2 siblings, and that’s not just because another year has passed with new technology, but because Microsoft has had a change in heart.

And that’s something we mean quite literally, with the heart of the Surface tablet being totally changed, replacing the ARM processors used by the previous models with something more familiar that can run proper Windows, not that RT edition that we’ve seen on Surface and Surface 2.

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Inside here, you’ll find a quad-core Intel Atom x7 (X8700) processor, clocked at 1.6GHz, and partnered with either 2GB or 4GB RAM. A choice of either 64GB or 128GB storage is offered, and if you get the 64GB model, you’ll find 2GB RAM, whereas if you opt for the 128GB Surface 3, you’ll find you have 4GB RAM.

Both variants offer the same wired connection options, with USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, a microSD card reader, a 3.5mm headset jack, and a microUSB charging port, while wireless is taken care of by 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.

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Cameras are included, too, with an 8 megapixel rear camera with autofocus, while the front-facing camera relies on a 3.5 megapixel camera module, sitting just above the screen.

The screen is a little different from previous Surface models, too, relying on a 10.8 inch Full HD display, running 1920×1280 thanks to the 3:2 aspect ratio.

Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 arrives on the Surface 3 out of the box, and is compatible with the Surface Pen and TypeCover keyboards, though neither are included with the Surface 3.

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Performance

Microsoft’s competitor to the iPad has always been an interesting little machine, offering a premium look and feel, but not quite something to finish off the package.

Perhaps it was Windows, or more specifically, Windows RT, the version of Microsoft’s computer-friendly operating system that was made specifically for ARM processors, the sort of chips the tablets received. Indeed, it was in the Surface and Surface 2 that you would find a tablet that ran a special edition of Windows, and while it walked and talked like regular computer Windows, it sure didn’t quack like one, and you could only run apps made for the Windows 8 environment, and there weren’t many of those.

That was the curse of Windows RT, and it was a frustrating curse, at that.

While the Surface Pro, Surface Pro 2, and Surface Pro 3 all arrived with the proper edition of Windows 8 — the one that you received on a regular laptop or desktop — the regular Surface was painted with a different brush, and branded with an operating system that couldn’t run much at all. Evernote, Fruit Ninja, and a few apps here and there were fine, but the ecosystem was never truly developed or fleshed out, and if you relied on Google Chrome, Adobe’s Photoshop, or Valve’s Steam, you were out of luck.

And that killed the Surface and Surface 2, which is a shame, because they were great content consumption and web reading devices, with excellent builds, a nice design, and a kickstand thrown in for good measure turning them into makeshift TVs and picture frames.

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Fortunately, Microsoft appears to have listened to the endless criticism people had for Windows RT, practically calling for its death, and with the Surface 3, we’re looking at a machine that runs Windows 8 properly, none of that RT crap.

So let us say this proudly, because we’ve been looking forward to it ever since we laid eyes on a Surface device:

Windows RT is dead. Long live Windows!

And what we mean to say is Microsoft has put its RT experiment to rest, and let us never speak of it again. Instead, let’s talk about the things Microsoft has done with Surface 3, the first light variant of Surface that comes with standard Windows, and works the way you want a computer to work.

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The latest take on the Surface formula is the Surface 3, a variation on a theme we’ve seen plenty of times before, but that was most successful last year with the Surface Pro 3, a 12 inch take on that idea that changed the display aspect ratio to make the machine more like a large notepad with a pen, a soft keyboard cover, and enough processing power that it could take on the likes of a MacBook Air and then some, making it a notebook force to be reckoned with.

We’re still fans of that device, and while we’re churning through the keyboards, the Surface Pro 3 is one of the better tablet-laptop hybrids we saw last year, providing a solid middle ground for people unsure of what they want in a new purchase.

From the first glance, though, Microsoft’s Surface 3 appears to be doing much the same, providing a similar take on that awkward middle ground for an even more compelling price.

12 inch Microsoft Surface Pro 3 on the left , 10 inch Microsoft Surface 3 on the right

12 inch Microsoft Surface Pro 3 on the left , 10 inch Microsoft Surface 3 on the right

For starters, there’s the size, which brings the Surface back to its beginnings, downgrading to the 10 inch size but keeping the screen at Full HD, just high enough so that your eyes don’t complain, offering 213 pixels per inch, not quite the level that the iPad offers, but not far off the level of Apple’s Retina-grade laptop displays.

The screen is probably one of the better parts, and it’s not just because it’s bright — appearing even brighter than the Surface Pro 3 from what we can tell — but also offers a Full HD resolution (slightly better than Full HD, actually), and provides excellent viewing angles.

Interestingly, the aspect ratio that makes a difference, simply because it’s not the same widescreen computer we’re used to seeing.

That’s one of those fiddly areas people don’t often think about when they’re looking at a phone or tablet, or even a computer, and that’s partly because we’re used to the same aspect ratios on devices.

For instance, when you buy a phone, it’s likely you’re looking at a 16:9 device, because it’s tall and rectangular, and if you consider a computer or a tablet, it’s 16:10, with this one giving you room to watch a movie but also get some work done with a little more height. Apple’s iPad and iPad Mini shake the formula up a little with the 4:3 traditional monitor aspect ratio, which isn’t great for movies, but is ideal for offering more work or gaming space.

And then there’s the Surface 3, which actually borrows the aspect ratio from its Surface Pro 3 brother, taking the 3:2 aspect ratio, which is a little taller in portrait or longer in landscape than its 4:3 cousin.

Why does this matter?

The modern notepads: Surface Pro 3 on the left, Surface 3 on the right. This review is about the one on the right.

The modern notepads: Surface Pro 3 on the left, Surface 3 on the right. This review is about the one on the right.

The answer comes from what the recent Surface machines have been modelled off, and that is a traditional pen and paper notepad. That old school bit of technology isn’t long and slender, and offers a fair amount of room to get your scribbles done, which is sort of what Microsoft seems to be going for here, and given that the Surface 3 is compatible with the Surface Pen, makes sense.

But while the Surface 3 has the same aspect ratio as its Pro 3 brother, it’s a different screen size, moving from the 12 inches of its sibling back to 10 on this new 3, roughly the same size as the previous Surface models, and reminiscent of a smaller device.

And that makes it something else compared to the Surface Pro 3: easier to carry.

The fact of the matter is that a smaller tablet is going to be less hassle to cart around with you than a larger one, even if the sizes aren’t dramatically different. It’s also easier on the hand because there’s less weight.

Essentially, the sizes of the Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3 can now be compared to the paper pads they’ve been inspired by, with the Surface 3 your regular A4 pad, and the Surface Pro 3 that yellow legal pad people who love to take notes on are always desperately searching for, bigger pages and all.

They’re not the same, obviously, but it’s an interesting comparison, and given they’re both meant to replace paper, we can see roughly what Microsoft is eyeing.

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There’s also a new processor, and this helps to make the Surface 3 a winner, especially in comparison to the previous Surface models. We’ve already mentioned that Windows RT is gone, and that’s partly in thanks to the Intel Atom running underneath, and what’s more, it’s a new chip that we haven’t seen before.

Quite a few Atom-based machines have passed by our review desk already this year, but Microsoft’s Surface 3 is the first to include the x-based Atoms, and it’s this new system-on-a-chip (SoC) with its more computer-friendly chip that means Windows 8 can run here natively.

That might sound like a bunch of tech jargon, but what it means is you don’t need a specific version of Windows for a tablet, and you can just run Windows 8 the way we’ve seen it for so long, with all your old apps, provided they were compatible with Vista, 7, and 8.

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For students, this means your school necessities will be good, as will a few games, even if the Intel Atom found in the Surface 3 isn’t really meant for heavy graphics or gaming.

Despite this, we found the Surface 3 could play a few titles, though it will struggle for things that aren’t made for office work, web surfing, or whatever constitutes as general use.

For what it’s worth, we found slowdowns popped up mostly when we were trying to split between the modern Window 8 interface and that of the old desktop, with viewing a few webpages on Chrome on the desktop and writing an email inside the native app in splitscreen showing up some severe slowdowns and causing our words to trickle out like a blocked tap even though we were typing much more efficiently.

Again, it’s an Atom-based machine, and should probably treated as one, as this isn’t the Intel Core processor that the Surface Pro 3 is painted with.

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Still, if you’re into writing, web surfing, emails, and watching movies, the Surface 3 should handle itself better on the Atom than previous models, if only because now it can actually run the apps you want.

That being said, it’s not a vast improvement on some of the budget machines we’ve seen this year, if any at all, but where the Surface 3 wins points is that middle hybrid ground.

You see, it’s technically not a laptop, and thanks to its 622 gram weight — almost 200 grams lighter than the Surface Pro 3 — it manages to offer a premium tablet experience, which you can quickly upgrade with a TypeCover, a soft microsuede-covered keyboard with actual physical keys and a button-based touchpad.

Like the previous Surface models, this magnetic clicks into place at the bottom of the Surface, turning the Surface 3 into something like a book, and together with the kick stand built into the Surface 3, essentially makes the Surface 3 into a laptop. Ish.

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For most work — indeed, for this review — the optional $149 TypeCover is an excellent addition, and it might even have improved, with Microsoft telling us it now has improved striking distance and a sound dampener on the keys.

Essentially, it’s a similar keyboard to the larger one our Surface Pro 3 relies on, and while it’s technically compatible, it looks a little silly connected to each device (the Pro 3 keyboard looks oversized on the Surface 3, while the Surface 3 keyboard looks undersized on the Pro 3).

Surface Pro 3 keyboard up top, Surface 3 keyboard below

Surface Pro 3 keyboard up top, Surface 3 keyboard below

Our experience with the keyboard, however, feels the same, or close to the same with the Surface 3, with a close-to-identical keyboard size on the Surface 3, even if some of the key sizes have changed.

They’re not bad changes though, not like when companies decide to change the size of a shift key or move keys altogether, and if you’re used to a good keyboard, you’ll get used to the Surface 3 TypeCover very, very quickly.

We only hope it lasts longer than what we found on the Surface Pro 3, but time will tell for that one, so we’ll just have to keep using it.

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As for the kick stand, it’s not the same excellent “this will work in any configuration” kick stand we saw on the Surface Pro 3, which is a bit of a shame.

Instead, this is a three-point kick stand, offering a stand up, a more relaxed stand up, and a position close to lying down that isn’t so you can play games our do other things without the tablet totally being flat.

It’s not as great an inclusion as the one on the Surface Pro 3, but we suspect they have to leave something aside for higher-end processing, and we’re told leaving this in would affect size and weight, which the consumer crowd thinking of a $600 machine are probably factoring in.

Three positions on the kickstand. This is the lowest of them all.

Three positions on the kickstand. This is the lowest of them all.

They’re also probably thinking about battery life, and we are too.

We loved the Surface Pro 3, but battery life was definitely not its forte, and over six months in, we can tell you not much has changed, with the Pro model offering around 4 to 5 hours of use, though it usually edges closer to that 4 hour mark.

On the Surface 3, however, the Intel Atom has helped a great deal. In fact, our testing of using the computer revealed closer to 6 to 7 hours of use for general work, before the battery screamed it was time to plug it in.

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And that’s where another positive point is found for the Surface 3: no more proprietary charge port.

Yes, Microsoft may have at least tried to do something good when it introduced a proprietary magnetic charge port with the first few Surface models, changing it again with a more reliable flat connector, but in the Surface 3, it has done something even better.

It has gotten rid of the proprietary connection. All of them.

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Instead, charging the Surface 3 is handled via a microUSB port, which is probably the most widely found charge port in the world today, due to how many phones, tablets, computers, headphones, and other random gadgets are around that sport the port.

Microsoft’s Surface 3 is no different, and while it comes with its own little charging block, it can be charged by even a lowly microUSB phone charger, confirmed from a test where we plugged in a fairly old Samsung microUSB charge block that we think might have been from a Galaxy S3.

Yes, we still have old charging blocks.

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And for the most part, the Surface 3 is a solid entry, with more of that “VaporMg” magnesium chassis we’ve always loved about Surface, a microSD slot to expand the storage, front-facing speakers, decent WiFi, and a lovely display.

About the only thing it misses from the other Surface models is a magnet in the charging area, meaning the Surface Pen can no longer magnetically cling to the edge where the power port is like it could before.

But it feels like the price could be a little better, and while the 64GB model starts at $699 and the 128GB $839 variant competes quite aggressively with the 128GB iPad Air 2 for $859, you still kind of want the machine to cut off a hundred or so more, just because of what it doesn’t come with.

We think you'll need the pen and the keyboard cover, but neither are included with the Surface 3, and are optional extras.

We think you’ll need the pen and the keyboard cover, but neither are included with the Surface 3, and are optional extras.

For instance, it doesn’t come with the Surface Pen, an included extra with the Pro 3, but missing in action as a bonus on the regular Surface 3. Instead, this will now cost you around $60, and if the touchscreen starts to have problems — which we’ve yet to see on the Surface 3, but have seen on the Pro 3 — the Pen will become a necessary thing.

Case in point, as we wrote this review and tried to use our Surface Pro 3, the touchscreen stopped responding to our fingers and forced us to use the pen. We don’t want to say that the Surface 3 will succumb to the same bug, but we’re cynics, and say this is probably likely down the track, making this more of a “must have” than an “optional extra”.

Likewise, Microsoft’s TypeCover is still another of those optional extras, a $150 optional extra at that, even though this is one of those extras we’d say should be included in the box just because it makes the Surface 3 more like a usable computer than just a great tablet.

And when you factor that in, the Surface 3 starts to look like it’s costing real money, not just entry level computing money, which is where it feels like it should sit, but doesn’t.

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In fairness to the Surface 3, it is technically a slightly stronger machine spec-wise to computers like the Asus X205TA which come paired with an Atom and 32GB storage, with the Surface 3 including a better display with touch included, faster WiFi, a newer chip, and more storage, just no keyboard.

We get it, by the way: the Surface 3 is being classed more as touchscreen tablet than another laptop, even though it runs Windows, and feels more like the latter than the former.

That being said, the Surface 3 feels like it should be in the same budget-y class of computers as the Asus, and as other below $500 machines, and while we’re pleased there’s no 32GB model — because Windows 8.1 would leave practically nothing left — a $699 minimum price seems a little too steep, even if this is a tablet that competes with the likes of the iPad.

Surface Pro 3 (left) and Surface 3 (right) are very close in thickness. Some would say practically the same. That would probably be us, too.

Surface Pro 3 (left) and Surface 3 (right) are very close in thickness. Some would say practically the same. That would probably be us, too.

Conclusion

For too long, we’ve wanted a not-so-Pro edition of the Surface that made sense. The Pro edition was excellent, don’t get us wrong, but you shouldn’t have to pay over a grand for that level of hybrid hubris, especially if you didn’t want to.

And finally, you don’t.

Surface 3 is exactly what Surface 1 and 2 should have been, and we no longer have to deal with an operating system that doesn’t run much of anything. A cynical person could make that argument with Windows 8 in general, but Windows 8 at least runs regular Windows apps, representing apps from 7 and Vista, with even a hint of XP thrown in for good measure.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 on the left, Microsoft's Surface 3 on the right. Now you don't need to spend over a grand to get a Surface running the proper version of Windows 8. Woot.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 on the left, Microsoft’s Surface 3 on the right. Now you don’t need to spend over a grand to get a Surface running the proper version of Windows 8. Woot.

That means you probably own apps that work on the Surface 3, compared to the practically nothing that could be found on the Surface 1 and 2, and that’s a big deal, not just for computer people, but students and kids. Think of a school and its requirements, because any apps a kid might need can now run here, on a tablet that can also be charged quite easily at a school without needing to bring a charging brick.

These are all important qualities, and Microsoft’s Surface 3 is now representing, offering a solid middle ground for a price that could be improved just a bit.

That said, if the Surface Pro 3 was tempting you but you don’t need the Core, Microsoft’s Atom-powered Surface looks like it could do the job nicely. Recommended.

 

Price (RRP)

$699 for a 64GB and 2GB RAM; $839 for 128GB and 4GB RAM;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Windows RT is gone (woohoo!); What the Surface and Surface 2 should have been: lightweight Windows 8 powered machines; Lovely screen; Well built; Includes USB 3.0; Charges over microUSB; Decent battery life; Includes WiFi 802.11ac;

Product Cons

Not a lot of ports, just like the Surface Pro 3; Feels like it should be better priced; Doesn’t come with the Surface Pen; Keyboard is optional, and brings the price up by a good $150; No more magnets on the side;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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