The Surface 3 is an upgrade from its predecessor, but it’s price will sneak up on you.
Surface creator Panos Panay recently discussed the billion-dollar financial hit Microsoft took after the introduction of the original. “Having a product that people love is the most important thing,” he told CNN. Microsoft clearly believes that: Rather than abandoning the lineup that has cost it a billion to date, the company has tweaked and refined the Surface, introducing multiple new models — including the affordable new Surface 3.
Starting at $499, the Surface 3 is a successor to the Surface RT and Surface 2, which used the limited Windows RT operating system. Unlike those tablets, this new model runs Windows 8.1 on an Intel x86 processor, the Atom x7-Z8700. This quad-core chip is clocked at 1.6GHz with a maximum burst speed of 2.4GHz. It’s also based on Cherry Trail, Intel’s latest version of the Atom platform. That should mean greater performance and efficiency than any previous Atom device.
Compared side-by-side with the Surface 2, it can be hard to tell the new model apart.
New hardware is always a boon, but it’s not the processor that held Surface back in the past. The problem with the base-line Surface has always been limited functionality. Leaping from Windows RT to 8.1 addresses that issue, but it’s not the only limitation Surface 3 must conquer. The device has a small 10-inch display and, in its standard configuration, comes with just two gigabytes of RAM alongside a 64GB solid state drive. Our review model was upgraded to four gigabytes of memory and a 128GB SSD, inflating the price from $499 to $599. These aren’t all-star specifications, and the Surface 3 is certainly less capable (on paper, at least) than larger competitors.
But Microsoft has always contended that the Surface line’s dual functionality is its key strength, specifications be damned. The Surface 3 puts that idea to the test. Unlike the Surface Pro 3, which is clearly built with a specific set of business travelers in mind, the Surface 3 is a device that could be an alternative to an iPad, a notebook, or both, and is priced to fit almost anyone’s budget. So is Panay right, and the Surface 3 is a device people can love? Or is the company’s faith in Surface misguided?
Surface 3 at a glance
- 10.8″ Full HD touchscreen display
- Includes 1 year Office 365 Personal
- Windows 8.1 (Free Windows 10 upgrade when available)
- Up to 10 hours battery life
No one can claim Microsoft has ripped off another company’s design for the Surface line. From the start, the themes of Surface design have been polish and quality, fit and finish, but the company didn’t just copy Apple. Instead it went with a more industrial, slate-like aesthetic with beveled sides and hard lines rather than rounded sides or a curved back. With past models, the sharp edges of this design caused ergonomic problems, as pointy corners could dig into a user’s palms; the Surface 3 is so light that this has become a non-issue. At 1.37 pounds, this latest model weighs a bit less than a 4th-generation iPad.
It’s noticeably heavier than our favorite dedicated tablets, such as the iPad Air 2 and Dell Venue 8 7000, however. And it’s not much of an improvement compared to the Surface 2. Thickness has dropped by just two-tenths of a millimeter, and weight has dropped only a few grams.
Compared side-by-side with the previous budget Surface, it can be hard to tell the new model from the old. The main difference is the location of the power and volume buttons. They used to be located far apart, on perpendicular edges, which meant the buttons were too often in the way. Now they’re on the same edge, at the top of the Surface 3 when it’s used as a PC, which makes avoiding unintentional bumps less likely. Microsoft’s engineers have also reduced the size of the plastic strip that houses the wireless antenna.
A minor change can be found in the kickstand, too, if you look for it: The new model supports three positions, rather than two. The first is nearly upright, the second offers a significant incline, and the final lays the tablet back almost 45 degrees. In fact, there’s kind of four positions, as the stand will also support an almost 90-degree angle if you’re using the Surface 3 on a desk (trying this on your lap will cause the hinge to either snap shut or into the first of its “real” positions).
That the new model isn’t substantially slimmer or lighter than its predecessor is a disappointment, but it’s the price paid for the move to an Intel x86 processor, even if it’s an efficient Atom. Sticking with ARM would’ve allowed a much thinner design, but it also would’ve placed the Surface 3 in direct competition with Android and iOS, a battle it’d never win. This new model, despite its bulk, takes a more unique direction. And it’s not as if the tablet is heavy. It only lacks the astounding feather-weight feel of its lightest peers.
The Type Cover is as enjoyable to use as the keyboards on many larger notebooks.
Accessories – costly but nice
We received several accessories with our review unit, the most important of which is undoubtedly the Type Cover. Priced at $130, the magnetically attached keyboard offers a surprisingly robust experience yet adds only a few tenths of a pound. Key travel is a bit limited, of course, but hardly worse than an average ultrabook and aided by a firm bottoming action with excellent tactile feedback. I wrote most of this review on the Surface 3, and while I could nit-pick about the lack of space between keys or the undersized Backspace key, in truth I had no more trouble than I’ve had with many 15-inch notebooks. The keyboard is even backlit and can prop itself up at an ergonomic incline.
And the Type Cover is more than just a keyboard. It also adds a small touchpad. Though it measures an inch and a half deep by three inches wide, it works reasonably well, even at default sensitivity. Multi-touch gestures are its main weakness, as there’s not enough space to easily use them. Even scrolling can prove a bit of a hassle. Of course, the Surface 3 has a touchscreen, which helps mitigate that problem.
I found less use for the other major input accessory, the Surface Pen. There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly. It does its job well — better than most, even. When using the Surface normally, though, or even for productivity, it feels like more effort than its worth. Picking up and using the pen is more time consuming than using the touchpad or tapping the touchscreen, and while technically more accurate, the added accuracy is rarely needed. And as in previous Surface models, Microsoft has again failed to provide a secure mount for the Pen on the tablet itself, which makes the $50 add-on too easy to lose.
An accessory new to the entry-level Surface line is the docking station, something only Pros have enjoyed until now. The station charges and holds the device and provides additional connectivity: one extra USB 3.0, two extra USB 2.0, and Gigabit Ethernet. DisplayPort and a 3.5mm combo audio jack are also included, but these are found on the Surface itself as well. Pen storage is part of the bundle, too, in the form of a magnetic holder. The dock does its job, but it’s also $200 for just a few extra USB ports and a pen holder, which seems rather steep. A $10 USB hub could work as well.
A pretty darn good PC
Whip out the Type Cover and use the system like a netbook, and the Surface 3 makes sense. While it’s not small compared to other dedicated tablets, it’s easier to tote than any other small PC on the market, and easier to use, too. The Asus T300 Chi, for example, is a few inches broader yet has a keyboard that’s actually no more enjoyable to use.
Then there’s the touchscreen. Window 8.1’s interface isn’t well designed for dedicated touch use, but it is great for occasional touch use. Often, it’s easier to briefly reach up and tap an icon rather than use the mouse. The screen is never more than a couple inches away from your fingertips. Over time, I found myself touching the screen as often as using the touchpad, and doing so only sped up my work.
When it comes to work, the Surface 3 is more capable than you might think, as long as you keep your expectations in check. Editing a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, or a few photos? That’s no problem. You’ll notice an occasional hitch or stutter, but nothing show-stopping. Want to edit several photos while you have 10 open browser tabs and play Spotify in the background? That’ll be a problem.
This isn’t the Surface Pro, and it’s not meant to handle hardcore productivity. The base model’s meager two gigabytes of RAM makes that obvious. But the Surface really shines when you use it for things aside from work.
The bold, bright 1,920 × 1,280 display looks incredible. The display’s density of 213 pixels per inch isn’t quite pixel-perfect when Surface 3 is held for tablet use, but it’s very close at the distance a laptop is normally viewed. A MacBook with Retina, by contrast, comes in at 220 PPI.
The backlight’s maximum of 425 lux helps overcome glare, the maximum contrast ratio of 640:1 is strong, and color accuracy is better than the majority of laptops that come through the office. What these numbers mean in practice is a bright, accurate screen that lets content look its best. There are a lot of laptops with better displays, but most are over $1,000. The Surface 3’s screen is incredible given its $500 base price.
Even the speakers are strong, providing robust, loud audio at maximum volume without excessive distortion. Like all tablets there’s a lack of bass, so quality is tinny and hollow compared to a real sound system, but the system is completely usable without external speakers. Had a rough flight? Just cozy up with the Surface 3 and stream your favorite film. It’ll look and sound better than the bargain basement HDTV in your room.
Not a great tablet, however
While the accessories available for the Surface 3 work well, labeling them accessories feels a bit misleading. The Type Cover, in particular, is absolutely essential. I’m not sure why anyone would buy a Surface without it.
That’s not just because the Type Cover is great, but also because the base-line Surface is still a mediocre tablet. Design is not the problem. While thicker and heavier than its Android and iOS competitors, it’s elegant, and looks great. The real problem is Windows itself.
Windows 8, though supposedly built for touch, carries a lot of legacy baggage. Even today, almost three years after its release, the operating system remains difficult to use with a touchscreen alone. Inevitably, a program or website will force users to leave the comfort of the touch experience and dive into the old-fashioned desktop world of 12-point font and tiny icons, and when that happens, the experience rapidly degrades into a series of mistaken taps.
Sometimes it’s not even clear what mistake was made. A window closes, or opens, or minimizes, or maximizes, for no apparent reason. This issue is exacerbated by the fact the Windows Store is still lacking in apps compared to the Android and iOS platforms, so the selection of software designed for touch remains slim.
Even when all is well, the processor can be an issue. The Atom x7-Z8700 quad-core’s base clock of 1.6GHz sounds good, but it’s still an Atom, and this is still Windows. Geekbench, which we use to test processor performance of all systems we review, made it clear this quad is more about efficiency than speed.
Atom has never felt particularly quick powering Microsoft’s operating system, and as you can see, this new model is unlikely to change that. While it manages to post an acceptable multi-core score, the x7-Z8700 didn’t even clear 1,000 in the single-core test. Intel’s $150 Compute Stick is the only recently reviewed system to score lower.
Using the Surface 3 as a tablet only makes the Atom’s limitations obvious. Occasional hitching is tolerable, perhaps even unnoticeable, on the desktop. When you scroll through a webpage with a swipe of a finger, though, every janky pause is excruciating. Applications don’t load quickly, whether they’re designed for the desktop or touch, and most 3D games on the Store are unplayable due to the Atom’s limited incarnation of Intel HD graphics, which has a lower clock speed and fewer execution units than the versions shipped on Core processors.
It can last all day – sometimes
You may have guessed that toting the Surface 3 is a cinch, and you’d be right. It’s so light that I often forgot I had it in my backpack. I’m used to hauling 13-inch or even 15-inch laptops, which can weigh over five pounds. This tablet, with or without the Type Cover, is so slim it can fit anywhere you’d stash a magazine or book.
But that’s just part of the picture. The other half is battery life. Microsoft has packed a 28 watt-hour battery, which is respectable, but not huge. In the Peacekeeper web browsing benchmark we recorded six hours, 32 minutes of endurance. That’s about equal to an Asus Zenbook UX305 and better than a Samsung ATIV Book 9, Lenovo Yoga 3, or Asus T300 Chi. On the other hand, it’s much less than an iPad and most Android tablets.
The Surface 3 can last all day if you baby the battery a bit by turning down the display and keeping away from heavy load. On the other hand, it can drain itself even more quickly with the display turned to maximum and demanding applications in the foreground. And the extremely glossy touchscreen and limited variety of stand positions works against the device, because I often find it necessary to turn the backlight way up to overpower a bright window or a nearby lamp.
An eight megapixel camera provides the Surface 3 with its photography chops. Its quality is adequate as long as there’s ample light nearby, but as you can see in the photos below, noise becomes a major issue when light is limited. That’s not uncommon among smartphones and tablets, but there are many devices that perform better, and Microsoft decided not to include LED flash.
It’s unlikely you’d ever use this device for anything aside from the occasional snapshot when a real camera isn’t handy, so mediocre image quality is acceptable. What I found annoying was not the photos themselves, but the speed at which they were taken. Trying to snap several shots in succession often causes the tablet to choke, making it hard to know if the image was taken at precisely the moment desired. The autofocus was sometimes finicky, too, requiring several seconds to adjust, an issue that was most noticeable in video.
The front-facing camera offers three and half megapixels. Like its front-facing peers, it’s not the best, but it is better than what you’d typically find in a notebook or tablet. Clearly, Microsoft wants you to look your best on Skype.
Thanks to its beautiful display, the Surface 3 really shines when you use it for things aside from work.
Like every previous Surface, the new Surface 3 is a device that pits its capabilities against its contradictions. Microsoft is absolutely correct when it claims the Surface line’s functionality exceeds that of either a tablet or laptop alone. That holds true even with this more affordable, yet less capable, model. With this one device you can watch 1080p video, edit spreadsheets, browse the web anywhere Wi-Fi is available, take photos, fix ‘em in Photoshop, post to your WordPress blog, manage files on an FTP server, code an application, play 2D games, and much more. There isn’t a computer on the planet with a wider range of potential uses than a Surface.
The benefit of functionality is balanced by the compromises required to achieve it, however. Compared to an Android tablet or iPad the Surface 3 is heavier, thicker and doesn’t last as long on a charge. Placed next to a conventional notebook it’s less powerful and offers less screen real estate. So the question is, does the benefit of greater function outweigh the drag of limited capability?
Surprisingly, the answer is often yes. The Atom processor is slow, and the display is small, and the battery could last longer. Yet this device is still a perfectly usable – dare I say, enjoyable – notebook. It’s less enjoyable as a tablet, but still perfectly serviceable, especially for users most interested in browsing the web, viewing videos, checking social media, and not much else.
But there’s another problem. The price.
A base Surface 3 is only $500, which seems great. That’s the entry-level price of an iPad with only 16GB of storage instead of 64GB. What you’ll really want, though, is our review system, with four gigabytes of RAM and 128GB of storage. That’s $600. And since the device’s highlight is its ability to work as both tablet and notebook, you’ll want the $130 Type Cover, too. Suddenly a $500 system is $730, which means it’s more expensive than an Asus Zenbook UX305 – and many other capable notebooks. You could even buy a notebook and an inexpensive Android tablet for as much.
That’s an issue. Microsoft believes the Surface makes sense because it eliminates the inconvenience of having a tablet and PC, but I’m not sure that’s a problem most people face. If you travel a lot, sure: hauling both could be a pain. But most people don’t travel most of the time. Most people stay at home, and in that case, owning a separate tablet and notebook isn’t a problem at all.
The Surface 3 fulfills its mission of providing one small, portable device that can replace two other devices entirely. Yet it costs too much, and as a result misses half the point of condensing a tablet and a laptop into one. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the need to carry both, Microsoft’s 2-in-1 could be perfect — but most people will find the price of convenience is just a bit too steep.
- Sturdy, inviting design
- Light for a 2-in-1 PC
- Attractive, high-resolution display
- Feels heavy when used as a tablet
- Disappointing performance
- Expensive accessories