The Microsoft Surface 3, not to be confused with the Surface Pro 3, is caught between a cheap place and a chic place. That's a rough spot to be; Intel Atom tablets with their reduced processing power tend to be the heart of Windows low cost tablets. Yet the Microsoft Surface line is all about premium materials and a cutting edge design with a price tag to match. The Surface 3 isn't nearly as fast as the Pro 3 model, but as a consolation it costs $300 less. Certainly for many of us $300 is significant savings, but we're still talking about a $500 to $600 tablet plus mandatory (for most of us) $130 Surface 3 Type Cover keyboard plus (for some of us) the $50 pen. That's $630 to $780, which isn't that expensive compared to an iPad Air 2 with LTE or a storage upgrade thrown in, but it is pricey when Dell, Asus and Lenovo have 10" Windows tablets at near half the price. That's not to say that Surface 3 is a bad product or isn't worth the money, it's simply going to be a harder sell to price conscious consumers. It's clearly a better deal than previous non-Pro Surface models running the less capable Windows RT operating system. The Surface 3 runs full Windows 8.1 64 bit and will get the free upgrade to Windows 10 as will other Windows 8 laptops and tablets currently on the market.
For those of you who've been crushing on the old Surface models but knew Windows RT wouldn't cut it, or on the Surface Pro line but found it beyond your budget, the 1.37 lb. Surface 3 is certainly worth a look. It's the quickest Intel Atom tablet or netbook to date, and it's perfectly adequate for modest to moderate tasks like MS Office, email, streaming YouTube and Netflix full HD video and even occasional bouts with Photoshop and Windows Movie Maker (full HD video export will require some patience if you're movie is longer than a few minutes). The build quality, unique design and display are what you'd expect from Surface: excellent. That doesn't mean there aren't any concessions. The display is smaller than Surface Pro 3 (10.8" vs. 12") and the resolution is a little lower which is fair since the display is smaller. The kickstand doesn't have infinite positions and instead has 4 angles that it can lock to (2 fairly upright for laptop style use, a reclined angle for writing and closed for tablet use).
The vapor Magnesium casing is rigid, seamless and solid. The light silver finish is nice enough looking, and as with previous Surfaces, there's one full size USB port, a mini DisplayPort and 3.5mm audio. Unlike other Surface models it doesn't use the magnetic charging connector, instead it uses the same micro USB charging port as most Windows and Android tablets (this is a charging-only port; it doesn't handle USB data transfer). There's a microSD card slot under the kickstand, just like other Surface models. The Intel Atom doesn't require a cooling fan, so the Surface 3 is always silent, unlike the Pro models. The back gets warm but not burning hot, so it's not uncomfortable to hold. The stereo speakers with Dolby are reasonably loud and full for a 10.8" slate and are a definite improvement over the first gen Surface models.
Type Cover and Pen
The optional $130 Surface 3 Type Cover is available in a variety of colors and it has the same suede-like back that acts as a cover when carrying the device. You can fold it backward behind the tablet if you don't need it, or simply detach it. It uses the usual Surface strong magnets and has a little ridge that allows you to angle the keyboard for a better typing angle, just like the bigger Surface Pro Type Cover. The keys are backlit with several brightness levels controllable from the Fn row, and they are moving keys rather than the capacitive keys used on the Touch Covers. At 10.8", you can't expect a wide and capacious keyboard, but it's certainly tactile and usable. I prefer the Pro Cover for its larger size and slightly deeper feel for key travel, but it's obviously too big to mate cleanly with the smaller Surface 3.
The Surface 3 uses the same N-Trig active digitizer technology and pen as Surface Pro 3 (Microsoft recently bought N-Trig). Unlike the Pro 3, the Surface 3 doesn't come with the pen in the box; you'll have to buy it separately for $50. It's available in several different colors to match the Type Cover offerings and it's interchangeable with Pro 3 pens (but not Pro or Pro 2 that used Wacom digitizers and pens). The pen is every bit as good on Surface 3 as it is on Pro 3, and it offers the same palm rejection so you can rest your hand on the screen while you write and it has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity for more natural drawing. We noticed a bit more pen latency on the Surface 3 when drawing very quickly, likely because the slower CPU can't keep up quite as well as the Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs in the Pro model. It's not bad by any means, but artists will notice while note takers won't.
Microsoft matches the Surface Pro 3's excellent qualities in the less expensive Surface 3, with only the resolution dropping a little--and that's fair since the screen is 1.2" smaller. The 1920 x 1280 ClearType HD Plus panel has the same 3:2 aspect ratio to make the tablet less ungainly to use in portrait mode. The display is very bright at 430 nits max and you can completely disable auto-brightness if you wish (we found it did a good job though). Color saturation is very good on the IPS panel and color gamut matches Surface Pro 3 and other high-end tablets and Ultrabooks with 98% of sRGB coverage and 74% of Adobe RGB. Color calibration is reasonably good out of the box, so you'll see the proper colors without fiddling with calibration. Contrast is good and text looks sharp. Microsoft ships the tablet with 150% scaling as default, and that makes for reasonably sized desktop icons and readable text that's not too fuzzy.
Deals and Shopping:
Microsoft Surface 3 Video Review
Horsepower and Performance
The Surface 3 runs on the latest generation 1.6 GHz Intel Atom X7 Z8700 Cherry Trail processor with 4 cores and 4 threads. It has Turbo Boost to 2.4 GHz and is coupled with gen 8 Intel HD integrated graphics. Atom, like the Intel Core line of CPUs, evolves slowly these days in terms of performance boost, but the X7 feels faster than the outgoing Bay Trail Atom line. That said, we have the $599 model with 4 gigs of RAM and 128 gigs of solid-state storage. 4 gigs is the base configuration for current laptops and it allows for smoother multitasking compared to the $499 model's 2 gigs of RAM. With 2 gigs of RAM, you'll want to stick to two programs running at a time or you'll be hitting virtual memory, which is slower than RAM. Though the machine has solid-state storage, it's the slower eMMC kind that Atom's stuck with, and it's akin to an internal MMC or SD card. Ultrabooks and laptops use a faster SATA or PCIe interface, and those are several times faster than eMMC.
What does that mean? For most folks the 10.8" Surface 3 is a second machine that can handle productivity tasks, photo viewing and video playback. If you spend many hours per week editing video, compiling code or working in CAD applications, you'll want a faster machine than Surface 3. Likewise, if you're a heavy multitasker who keeps 10 tabs open in a web browser and runs 4-5 programs concurrently, this isn't the tablet-laptop hybrid for you. It will slow down at that level of multitasking, compiling fairly large programs will take some time as will full HD video transition edits and encoding for export. CAD will be slow. MS Office 365 runs great, and you get a 1 year subscription with the tablet. Photoshop CC runs decently even when editing RAW files from a dSLR, and 1080p video playback on-screen or output via mini DisplayPort works flawlessly. Windows Live Tile Metro games play fine since they're optimized for lower power devices like Atom tablets, but this isn't for Battlefield 4 or Far Cry 4... even Civ V is slow since it's heavy on the CPU for turn calculations.
You'd think the Surface 3 would have appreciably longer battery life than its Pro counterpart given the lower power CPU and fanless design. However, we found that both the Surface 3 and our Surface Pro 3 with a Core i5 managed the same 7 hours with brightness at 40% and WiFi on. Every time Microsoft released a Pro model, battery life wasn't quite all there and firmware updates improved battery life. Perhaps the same thing will happen with Surface 3, but we have no insider info to that effect.
The tablet ships with a compact 13 watt micro USB charger that's 5.2v and 2.5 amps (a little higher than the usual 2 watt tablet charger). The Surface 3 takes an eternity to charge while you're using it. If the tablet is turned off, then it will charge in 3 to 4 hours, which isn't that bad. But if you're using the tablet while it's charging, it takes 7 hours. Ouch.
The Surface 3 has dual band Intel WiFi 802.11ac, and once again Microsoft went with a Marvell Avastar wireless card. WiFi worked well in our tests on an 802.11ac network with Linksys and Netgear Nighthawk access points. The tablet also has Bluetooth 4.0 that you can use for headphones, keyboards and anything else you'd use with a Windows machine (remember, this is full Windows, so you can install any program or driver that you'd install on a laptop). Microsoft says an LTE 4G model is forthcoming, though we don't have pricing or a date yet.
The Surface 3 is undeniably the best non-Pro Surface model yet--it handily wins that title simply because it runs full Windows 8.1 rather than RT. Beyond that, the display is brighter with better color fidelity and it's 0.2" bigger. It works with a pen-- that's a first for a non-Pro Surface and it's still a relatively rare feature on Windows tablets. The machine feels faster than you'd expect from an Intel Atom, even if it's just half the speed of a Core i5 Surface Pro 3 or Ultrabook in benchmarks. We strongly recommend spending the extra $100 for the 4 gigs of RAM and 128 gigs of storage model--doubling those for $100 is a good deal and the added RAM will speed things up noticeably. Since Microsoft makes both the tablet and the OS, you'll get driver and firmware updates often, and the machine is well optimized for Windows. Is all that worth spending the big bucks when you can get a decent Lenovo Yoga with Windows tablet or Dell Venue 10 Pro Windows tablet for half the price? That's up to you, but I can certainly understand those who are willing to pay more for the design and build quality.
Price: $499 - $599 for tablet, $130 for Surface 3 Type Cover and $50 for pen
Display:10.8", 1920 x 1280 ClearType HD Plus display with touch and pen support (N-Trig). Intel HD integrated graphics. Mini DisplayPort and wireless display. Has ambient light sensor, accelerometer for screen rotation and a proximity sensor.
Ion rechargeable, sealed inside.
Performance:1.6 GHz Intel Atom X7-Z8700 (Cherry Trail) processor, 4 cores and 4 threads, Turbo Boost to 2.4 GHz. 2 or 4 gigs DDR3L RAM and 64 or 128 gigs solid-state storage.
Size:10.52 x 7.36 x 0.34 inches. Weight: 1.37 pounds.
Camera:3.5MP front camera and 8MP rear camera.
Audio:Built-in stereo speakers with Dolby audio, mic and 3.5mm combo mic/stereo headphone
Networking:Integrated Marvell Avastar dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0.
Software:Windows 8.1 64 bit.
Expansion and Ports:One USB 3.0 port, mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm audio and micro
SD card slot.