I’m a fan of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, a no-compromise tablet-laptop hybrid. It’s the right size, and has the battery life, power and portability for me to get all of my work (and some play) done. I can’t say I feel similarly about the new Surface 3.
The Surface 3 shares many of its larger cousin’s attributes. They both have a touchscreen, work with a Bluetooth stylus, have detachable Type Cover keyboards, run Windows 8.1 and have Intel x86 processors inside. The two tablet hybrids have a microSD slot for storage upgrades (the base Surface 3 model starts with 64GB of storage) and adjustable kickstands. But that’s where the similarities end.
Some of the differences are pluses. I like, for instance, the size and weight of the Surface 3. The Type Cover shrank with the system, but Microsoft managed to mostly maintain the full-size of the keyboard and even brighten the backlit keys, making it a pleasure to use. During my tests, I regularly carried it around the office and even through the city with one hand. I thought the Surface Pro 3 was portable, but the Surface 3, at just 1.37 pounds, is a joy to hold and carry.
Microsoft also upgraded the rear facing camera to 8-megapixels and it’s a huge improvement, not that I take many pictures with my tablet. The front-facing camera is just 3.5-megapixels.
The company also switched out the proprietary power/data port for a Micro USB charger, which is great news if you accidentally leave the charger behind and want to use a different USB-based charger. Oddly, when you plug the cable into the side of the Surface 3, it doesn’t sit flush against the chamfered edge. This makes the system seem unfinished.
Like all Surface devices before, the Surface 3 has a kickstand, but where the Surface Pro 3’s can move continuously to any position, the Surface 3 kickstand has three pre-set positions. The impact on comfort and overall utility is nominal.
It was also easy to get started with the system thanks to Microsoft’s account-driven system profiles. When I signed in with my Microsoft account, it gave me the option of setting up the system based on the setup on my other Surface. This pre-installed all my Windows apps (from the Windows Store) and, more importantly, hooked my OneDrive account into the system, which meant I instantly had access to all my cloud-based files.
Microsoft provided a docking station ($199). Because Microsoft changed the ports on the new Surface 3, the docking station is considerably taller than the one for the Surface Pro 3. It does, however, provide the same benefits: four additional USB ports — you only get one USB 3.0 port on the Surface 3. The dock includes a video-out port, so I recreated the setup I have for the Surface Pro 3 and connected the system to my 21-inch Asus display and then extended the desktop.
Get to work
Before I could fully use the Surface 3, I had to run a Windows update; this almost undid the system. The first update failed and the system reported that it was rolling it back. The second time, it took hours to update. Finally it worked and the Surface 3 seemed no worse for the wear.
I also tried to pair my Surface Bluetooth mouse with the system, but it couldn’t see it, so I switched to a USB radio-connected Arc mouse. That worked.
With my setup in place and my system up-to-date, I did my best to work as I always do on the smaller, lighter Surface 3. It was, at best, a mixed experience.
The Surface 3 is one of the first systems to run Intel’s new Atom x7 mobile processor (the base model comes with 2GB of RAM, but my test system had 4GB). Its low-power design is what allows for the Surface 3’s fanless and thin design. Like Intel’s Core i-series that runs on the Surface Pro 3, it can handle all your standard x86 desktop tasks. Think word processing (it comes with one year of free Office 365), and web browsing. In my workday, I often open a dozen or more Chrome web browser tabs and a few tabs with videos streaming through.
Invariably, the Surface 3 would stutter and slow down to the point where I couldn’t work. I was simply over-matching the system.
When I ran Geekbench benchmarks on the system and compared them to Apple’s new MacBook, I could see the problem. Apple’s Intel Core M single-core score of 2,367 is more than double that of the Atom x7, which got 997. The multi-core scores are a little closer; the Atom x7 got a Geekbench score of 3,123 and the Core M chip got 4,489.
The Surface 3 can handle light video editing, drawing in FreshPaint, which comes with the system, and even an arcade-type game like Halo: Spartan Assault, so it’s not without horsepower. But for multitasking desktop work, it will hit its limit faster than a laptop equipped with a traditional desktop processor.
The Surface 3 is rated for 10 hours of video playback, but on an average workday, even with the screen brightness set to less than 50%, I was getting closer to 8 hours of productivity. I guess I’d do better if I just sat around watching video all day.
Beautiful, but underpowered
Don’t get me wrong, I really love the idea of an ultra-portable laptop that converts into a tablet. Surface 3 is right sized for students and office workers on-the-go — it will be the first Surface to offer an LTE option out of the gate — but the choice of Intel’s Atom x7 to run it, in my mind, is a mistake. If you work hard on your mobile device, there will be frustration.
On the other hand, if all you’re looking for is an affordable touchscreen laptop for a student or office-worker who will do lots of work in Office, not go crazy with multitasking and will only open a few browser windows at a time, this might be a good choice. They’ll even get light gaming, HD video streaming (on Netflix and other services) and the ability to draw right on the screen using the $49 Surface Pen. At roughly $600, that’s still a bargain.
Microsoft Surface 3
Thin and lightweight design • Brilliant screen • Runs all Windows apps
Intel Atom x7 not up for all tasks • Kickstand only has two positions • Updating experience was horrific
The Bottom Line
The Surface 3 is a decent low-cost option for a touchscreen convertible, just don’t over-tax it.
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