Microsoft's new Atom-based Surface 3, starting at $499, to hit in May

Microsoft's coming Surface 3, an Intel Atom x7-based Surface, is the new little sister to the Surface Pro 3.

Microsoft is adding a new Surface tablet to its line-up -- one aimed at students, families and anyone who finds the current Surface Pro 3's $799 starting price a bit too steep.

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The new Surface 3 is a 64-bit Intel Atom x7 (Cherry Trail)-based tablet that's the new little sister to Microsoft's flagship Surface Pro 3.

A Surface 3 tablet with 2 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage, minus the add-on keyboard, starts at $499. It ships with Windows 8.1, but will freely upgradable by consumers to Windows 10 for one year following Windows 10's general availability (a period which will start some time this summer). The Surface 3 will begin shipping on May 5 through a variety of retailers and resellers in 26 markets worldwide.

The Surface 3 has a 10.8-inch 1920 X 1280 ClearType HD display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. There will be both a WiFi-only and a 4G LTE-ready version that initially will be available through T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless in the U.S. some time "later this year."

CNET Hands On: Surface 3 cuts the price, keeps the killer keyboard

I had a chance to see and hold a Surface 3 device recently, but Microsoft isn't providing review units of the device until early April, so I don't have any real hands-on experience with the device at this point.

On the good news front, the Surface 3 is quite light and thin, weighing in at 1.37 pounds and .34 inches thick. It has better (Dolby-Audio-enhanced) speakers, and two cameras, an 8 megapixel rear-facing one and a 3.5 megapixel front-facing one. The device is fanless. It includes a full-size USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort, microSD card reader and Micro USB charging port, which works with both dedicated Surface chargers or any generic USB phone charger.

Because it is Intel-, rather than ARM-based -- like the Surface RT and Surface 2 were -- the Surface 3 can run Win32 apps. It also ships with a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal (usually priced at $70 per year) for free.

Microsoft seems to have fixed some of its Surface pipeline/distribution channel issues. Pre-orders for Surface 3 start today, March 31 through microsoftstore.com, Microsoft brick-and-mortar stores and select partner retailers in the following markets: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

On the not-so-good news front, the Surface 3 is just as lappable (or, in my case, non-lappable) as previous Surfaces. Though not everyone wants or needs to type on their laps for extended periods of time, I do, and the Surface 3 is not stable enough for me to do so.

Because the new 10.8 inch screen size is different from previous Surface screens (the Surface RT was 10.6, and the Surface Pro 3 is 12), the existing keyboard covers and docking stations don't work well, or in the case of the dock, at all, with the new Surface 3. (Existing keyboard covers can connect, but don't fully cover the tablet screen when closed.)

Those who want to use a pen with the Surface 3 can use the existing Surface Pro 3 pen. Or they can purchase new pens, available starting May 5, in four colors: silver, blue, black and red, that cost $50 each. The new Surface 3 Type covers will cost an additional $130, and be available in the usual Bright Blue/Cyan, Blue/Navy, Purple, Black, Red, a new "Bright Red" (a k a orange).

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The recently announced Microsoft Designer Bluetooth Desktop (a keyboard/mouse bundle) for $100, due to be available in May, also will work with the Surface 3.

On the TBD (to be determined) front, I'm curious about real-world battery life. According to the spec sheet, the Surface 3 will get up to 10 hours of constant video playback. I'm also curious about the performance of the Atom x7, in terms of how laggy it will feel when browsing and performing other tasks, especially when compared to Intel-Core-based devices, like the Surface Pro 3.

The kickstand on the device supports three discrete settings, rather than a wide range of options, like the Surface Pro 3, but for many users, three different viewing angles should work fine.

I don't think many people ever understood Microsoft's Surface naming taxonomy -- with "Pro" models being the Intel-based ones and the models without Pro in the name being ARM-based. As a result, I'm betting the choice of Surface 3 as a name won't confuse too many. Microsoft execs still aren't saying officially that the company won't build any more ARM-based Surfaces, but with the new Surface 3 being Intel-based, my bet is Microsoft has closed that door and is leaving any future ARM-based Windows tablet building to its OEMs.

Bottom line: I think many will welcome a cheaper Surface, especially one that can run Win32 apps. But as long as the keyboard needed to turn Surface tablet into a laptop replacement continues to cost an additional $130 (and the pen another $50), that starting price of $499 is more likely to be $630 to $680.

That said, I do want to try one of these out and see how it compares to some of the other mid-range Intel-based Windows tablets, plus the ARM-based Surface RT that I still own and use.

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