The Surface 3 is Microsoft’s third stab at making a lower-cost tablet-laptop hybrid, but is this vision of the future of computing good enough to tempt laptop users?
The cheaper, smaller brother of the solid Surface Pro 3, the Surface 3 is aimed at less power-demanding users, but this time it runs full Windows 8.1 and is ready for Windows 10.
Familiar on the outside
Anyone familiar with Microsoft’s other Surface tablets will instantly recognise the Surface 3. It looks just like the Surface RT and Surface 2 before it, with a gray metal body, three-position kickstand and a capacitive Windows button.
The Surface 3 is also 2mm thinner and 54g lighter than its predecessor, at 8.7mm thick and 622g in weight. Compared to most tablets it is both thick and heavy – the iPad Air 2 is 6.1mm thick and weighs 437g – but it is slim and light for a full PC. The Surface Pro 3, for instance is 9.1mm thick and weighs 800g, while even Apple’s thinnest and lightest MacBook is 13.1mm thick and 920g.
The Surface 3 has a smaller screen than the Surface Pro 3, but has the same 3:2 ratio as its bigger brother. Most Windows laptops and tablets use the wider 16:9 or 16:10 ratio, which is better for video consumption but worse for browsing sites and reading text.
The 10.8in full HD screen has wide viewing angles and is relatively crisp for a PC, but isn’t in the same league as many tablets or high-end computer screens that have twice the resolution and higher pixel densities such as the iPad Air 2, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S, Apple’s MacBook, Dell’s XPS 13 or the Surface Pro 3.
Microsoft hasn’t fixed the fundamental problem with Windows and high resolution (HiDPI) displays yet – I’m told Windows 10 will do that – which means how applications look on the screen is a bit hit and miss.
Windows apps downloaded from the Microsoft store look crisp as do some standard applications such as Google’s Chrome. But many do not take advantage of high resolution icons and text. As a result programs such as Evernote look awful with blurry icons, menu buttons and text.
The Surface 3 comes with a copy of Microsoft Office 365 personal, which is a nice added extra and works very well on the tablet.
The Surface 3 is powered by Intel’s Atom X7 1.6GHz quad-core processor, which is the chip maker’s latest low-power processor for mobile devices. It is a very different animal to the poorly performing Atom chips used in netbooks circa 2007.
General computing performance is solid. The Surface 3 feels snappy and handled most things without issue. Light Photoshop duty was fine, as were standard office duties. It can also support a second screen through the mini DisplayPort – connecting a standard 22in monitor worked well enough, but made the Surface 3 a bit sluggish, as did opening over 15 tabs in Chrome.
The Surface 3 is completely fanless, however, which is impressive given the performance. It is silent and even when installing apps while attempting to write this review it barely got warm.
Also notable is the inclusion of a full size USB 3.0 port, which makes connecting accessories, mice or just about anything very easy – a big bonus for a full PC. A docking station is promised for later in the year, which will add further ports and utility as a desktop computer replacement.
Microsoft’s proprietary magnetic charging connector has been replaced in the Surface 3 with a microUSB port. The tablet ships with a high-powered microUSB charger, but it can be charged with any USB charger.
It charges quite slowly with the charger in the box when in use – adding only 5% in about an hour. It will charge even slower with a less powerful USB adapter. A full charge takes three to four hours when in standby.
The battery lasts for around seven hours of general computing in my testing, which is far from the 11-plus hours of battery offered by ARM-based tablets but is good enough for a day’s work.
Keyboard and stylus
The Surface 3 does not ship with a keyboard – it is a £110 extra. I would call it optional, but it’s not really. Without the keyboard the Surface 3 is a mediocre tablet. With the keyboard it’s an excellent hybrid.
The keyboard acts as a cover for the screen, magnetically attaching to the side of the Surface 3. It has full-sized backlit keys that, while slim, have a decent amount of travel. It is very clicky though, and is noticeably louder than most other laptop keyboards.
The trackpad is solid, if a bit small, but supports two-finger scrolling and other standard gestures.
The Surface 3 also has an optional pressure-sensitive stylus costing £45. It is accurate, feels like a pen and rivals a dedicated Wacom tablet making drawing on the screen or hand writing a pleasure, but is very much optional.
The Surface 3 has an eight-megapixel camera on the back, which works well enough for a tablet, but isn’t worth writing home about. The front-facing 3.5-megapixel camera is solid for video calling.
The Microsoft Surface 3 costs £419 with 64GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, or £499 with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, available on 7 May.
The Surface 3 is Microsoft’s best compromise between price, size and power yet. As a tablet it performs admirably – not as good as dedicated tablets with longer batteries, crisper screens and slimmer profiles, but good enough.
The situation is similar when it comes to using the Surface 3 as a laptop replacement. It’s not as easy to use on a lap, and isn’t as powerful as similarly priced laptops, but it does the job well enough.
The biggest issue is that at £419 without the £110 detachable keyboard it’s really not all that cheap. The Surface Pro 3 with a better screen, faster processor and similar battery life comes with a keyboard for £639.
Despite that the Surface 3 is the best jack of all trades yet and is arguably a better work machine than an iPad with a keyboard case.
Pros: compact full Windows 8.1 PC, decent screen, seven hours battery life, full USB 3.0 port, solid build, Windows 10 upgrade when released
Cons: jack of all trades, master of none, not capable of heavy computing duties, not cheap, problems with Windows and HiDPI displays remain