Three questions to ask before buying a Surface 3

Microsoft's latest member of the Surface family is a solid value for anyone on a budget. But its three unique features are either tremendous advantages or dealbreakers, depending on your point of view.

Microsoft's Surface 3, which went on sale this week, is a delightful device, with the build quality and attention to detail that has been the hallmark of every member of the Surface family so far. It is remarkably mobile and comfortable to carry. After using a review unit for the past month, any misgivings I had over the Atom processor have been dispelled: It's been a snappy performer at basic work tasks (running Office 2013, primarily) and a stellar entertainment device as well.

I already covered the specs in my first look last month, so I won't repeat those here. Unlike its Windows RT-based forebears, this is a real PC, running real Windows, which means I can take it anywhere and get work done without fear that I'll hit a compatibility roadblock.

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But one question has nagged at me for the past month.

The Surface 3 is a curious addition to the Microsoft hardware family, arriving in the market at an awkward time. Windows 10 is due to launch in just a few months, with features tailor-made for a tablet-PC hybrid like the Surface 3. So why release this device now, with Windows 8.1 installed?

The obvious reason is right there in the name. Or, to be more precise, it's in the word that's missing from the name: Pro.

Taking away the Pro label makes it clear that the Surface 3 is intended for a different, much more value-conscious market than the Surface Pro 3.

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When Microsoft launches Windows 10 this summer, it's a very good bet that it will also unveil a new member of the Surface Pro family, with biometric hardware, the latest Intel processors, a killer graphics subsystem, and a premium price tag.

The Surface 3 doesn't have any of those things. It will work fine with Windows 10, when that new OS is ready this summer, but it's not designed with cutting-edge Pro features. And the difference in price is especially obvious.

The most expensive Surface 3 configuration, with Type Cover and Surface Pen, costs $780 (Costco has that bundle on sale for $700 right now). That maxed-out price is less than the starting price of the least expensive Surface Pro 3, equipped with an i3 processor and 64 GB of storage. A midrange configuration of the Surface Pro 3 costs well over $1000, and you can spend more than $2000 for the top-of-the-line model, with an i7 and 512 GB of solid-state storage.

But aside from the price and some significant spec differences, the Surface 3 has a great deal in common with its larger, more expensive Pro sibling. Those features are either tremendous advantages or dealbreakers, depending on your point of view.

The best way--really, the only way--to evaluate the Surface 3 is to start with three basic questions:

Am I comfortable with the Type Cover?

The click-to-connect Type Cover is the signature feature of the Surface family (the weird Touch Cover, with its flat pseudo-keys, was retired long ago). The Surface 3 Type Cover is slightly smaller than the Pro equivalent, reflecting the smaller size of the tablet it connects to, but otherwise it's the same. Over the past three years the design of this essential peripheral has improved dramatically. It's now backlit, the keys have a solid feel and good travel, and it's more rigid than its predecessors.

But it's not rigid enough for everyone. My colleague Mary-Jo Foley says this "lack of lapability" was a big drawback for her. On the other hand, I had no problems using the smaller Type Cover at home and on the road. My wife, who has used a Surface Pro 3 regularly for the past six months, also has no complaints about the Type Cover and prefers it to the clamshell laptop she used previously.

For entertainment while traveling, I like the option to fold the Type Cover under the kickstand and watch a movie on an airplane tray table. With a clamshell laptop, that's not an option.

In short, it's a matter of intensely personal preference. If you can't get comfortable with the Type Cover, and you anticipate you'll spend a lot of time typing, it's not for you. If you appreciate its unique design and you normally use it on a flat surface, it's a big plus for mobility.

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Will I use the touchscreen?

The Surface 3 is a tablet that can act as a laptop, and vice-versa. If you're looking at it, exclusively as a laptop replacement and you don't plan to use it with a touchscreen, the Surface 3 is probably not for you.

In my month with the Surface 3, I used it extensively in portrait mode for reading magazines and books. The lighter weight and more compact package, compared to the Surface Pro 3, made it a real winner in this configuration. In fact, it's completely taken over the role that my Kindle Fire HDX used to play.

Do I need a pen?

The other signature feature of the Surface line is the pen, which is an extra-cost option with the Surface 3. The killer pen-enabled app, of course, is Microsoft's OneNote, which is now free.

For sketching and note-taking, the Surface 3 is a superb choice. I regularly use it in this mode and find it to be one of the biggest strengths of the platform. Here, too, the smaller size of the Surface 3 compared to the Pro model makes it easier to use as a virtual legal pad for extended periods of time.

The active digitizer and palm rejection features of the Surface 3 make using a pen extremely comfortable and frustration-free. Although you can buy styluses for use with other tablets, the precision of the Surface Pen sets it apart. If you regularly use a pad and pen, this is a huge plus.

If you answer no to all of those questions, then look for a laptop. The Surface 3 isn't right for you. But its strengths genuinely set it apart from a field of mostly cookie-cutter options in the $500-800 price range.

I didn't do formal battery life tests, but I found the Surface 3's battery life more than acceptable. In normal use, I never ran out of battery before the end of the day, and the convenience of the micro-USB charger means you can carry an external battery pack to extend its life by hours, something that's literally impossible with a conventional laptop.

I haven't tried installing the Windows 10 preview on the Surface 3, and I wouldn't recommend that option for anyone buying it today. The Windows 10 tablet experience still needs a bit more refinement, and Windows 8.1 is good enough for now.

Could the Surface 3 be my everyday PC? Absolutely not. I'm squarely in the Pro camp. I spend most of my working day sitting at a desk, so a powerful desktop PC with multiple monitors and a full-sized keyboard is what I need. But as a mobile device, for productivity and entertainment when I'm away from the desk, the Surface 3 is unbeatable, especially at the price.

For students, small business owners, and mobile professionals whose computing needs are modest, the Surface 3 is an excellent option. Just make sure you ask the right questions first.

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