Microsoft Surface 3 review: The Pro 3's Atom-hearted brother

surface-3-thumb.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $284.49

Pros

  • Thin and light, yet solidly constructed
  • High-quality 10.8-inch, 3:2 aspect-ratio touchscreen
  • Low-power quad-core Atom x7 processor
  • 8.5-megapixel rear camera
  • Silent, fan-free operation
  • Free one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal
  • LTE mobile broadband + GPS option

Cons

  • Type Cover keyboard and Surface Pen are optional extras
  • Only supports one external monitor
  • No GPS as standard

Despite the similar nomenclature, Microsoft's new Surface 3 is not the successor to 2013's Surface 2: the latter was a 10.6-inch ARM-based (Nvidia Tegra 4) tablet running Windows RT, while the former is a 10.8-inch x86-based (Intel Atom x7) device running full-on Windows 8.1. Starting at £419 (inc. VAT), the Surface 3 is a more affordable (if still not exactly cheap) alternative to last year's Surface Pro 3, which starts at £639 (inc. VAT) and offers a bigger (12-inch) screen, faster (Core i3/i5/i7) processors plus more memory (up to 8GB) and storage (up to 512GB) if required.

Microsoft markets the Surface 3 -- which is aimed at students, parents, and mobile professionals (at whom a forthcoming LTE mobile broadband option is targeted) -- as a tablet that 'works like a laptop when you need it', whereas the Surface Pro 3 is 'the tablet that can replace your laptop'. As ever with Surface tablets, the headline entry-level price of £419 (inc. VAT) does not match the marketing message: to 'work like a laptop', you'll need to spend another £109.99 (inc. VAT) on an optional Type Cover keyboard. Here are the key pricing details for the Surface 3 and its Pro 3 big brother:

Surface pricing (inc. VAT) Surface 3 Surface Pro 3
Entry level tablet £419
(x7/2GB/64GB)
£639
(i3/4GB/64GB)
Top-end tablet £499
(x7/4GB/128GB)
£1,549
(i7/8GB/512GB)
Options

Type Cover £109.99

£109.99

Surface Pen

£44.99

included

Surface Docking Station £164.99

£164.99

USB Ethernet Adapter £34.99

£34.99




Top-end tablet+Type Cover+Pen+Docking Station £818.97 £1,823.98
(ex. VAT) £682.48 £1,519.98

Design

surface-3-main.jpg
The 10.8-inch Surface 3, with optional Surface Pen and Type Cover. Image: Microsoft

The Surface range's angular look-and-feel and solid magnesium-cased construction continues with the Surface 3, which consequently looks very familiar. There a few new elements though. It's Microsoft's thinnest and lightest Surface, for instance, measuring 267mm wide by 187mm deep by 87mm thick and weighing 622g (or 10.52in. by 7.36in. by 0.34in. and 1.37lbs if you prefer). By contrast, the Surface Pro 3 checks in at 292.1mm by 201.4mm by 9.1mm and 800g (or 11.5in. by 7.93in. by 0.36in. and 1.76lbs). It may not be iPad Air 2-light (437g), but it's really no bother to carry in a travel bag.

Speaking of travel, mobile professionals will be pleased to note that charging is now via a Micro-USB port rather than the proprietary, and rather fiddly, magnetic connector of old (although, to be fair, the Surface Pro 3's implementation was an improvement). The supplied cable's Micro-USB connector incorporates an LED to show that it's plugged in, which is fine, although it would be better if it dimmed or turned off when the tablet is 100 percent charged as the light can be somewhat distracting, especially in low light. The 13W AC adapter has a single USB port.

surface-3-stand.jpg
The Surface 3 has a three-position kickstand. Images: Microsoft
Each iteration of the Surface has seen Microsoft tinker with the design of the kickstand, culminating in the very effective multi-position version in the Surface Pro 3. Presumably to save costs, the Surface 3 doesn't go that far, settling on a three-position unit designed for movie-watching, typing with the add-on keyboard and drawing or typing on-screen. This is a good compromise.

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We noted that the Surface 3 is the thinnest Microsoft tablet to date, and that's largely down to its use of Intel's latest low-power Atom x7-Z8700 processor. This quad-core CPU not only delivers decent performance (see below), but also has an SDP (Scenario Design Power) of just 2W. That allows Microsoft to dispense with a fan, and the fan intake/vent, that featured on the Core i3/5/7-powered Surface Pro 3. According to Microsoft, the device could have been made even thinner than 87mm, but another design requirement -- the need to retain a full-size USB 3.0 port -- ruled that out.

The Surface 3's 10.8-inch ClearType touchscreen has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,280 pixels, giving a pixel density of 207ppi, which is comparable to the 12-inch Surface Pro 3's 216ppi (from 2,160 by 1,440 pixels). Like its bigger brother, the Surface 3 has a 3:2 aspect ratio and delivers excellent image quality and viewing angles, the only drawback (for some) being a glossy surface that can make for distracting reflections in brightly-lit offices or outdoors.

Many people like to use an external monitor for an enhanced work or entertainment experience, and you can do this either via the Surface 3's Mini-DisplayPort or by taking advantage of its Miracast support and linking wirelessly to a similarly compliant monitor (you may need a dongle such as Microsoft's Wireless Display Adapter for this). Be aware, though, that the Surface 3 only supports one external monitor in addition to the internal screen, with resolutions up to 3,840 by 2,160 at a 30Hz refresh rate or 2,560 by 1,600 at 60Hz. If you need more than one external monitor, you should be looking at the Surface Pro 3 (see Microsoft's support website for more details).

surface-3-type-cover.jpg
The Surface 3 Type Cover costs an extra £109.99 (inc. VAT). As well as red, it comes in bright blue, black, blue and purple. Image: Microsoft

As noted earlier, if you want to use the Surface 3 in laptop mode, you'll have to fork out another £109.99 (inc. VAT) for the snap-on Type Cover keyboard. This has the same double hinge mechanism as seen in the Surface Pro 3, allowing the keyboard to lie flat or sit up at a more convenient typing angle while also occupying a slightly smaller footprint. We found the Surface 3 Type Cover, which is backlit, to be a good typing platform, with a decent action on the well-sized contiguous keys. The trackpad, with integrated left and right buttons, also performs well.

One irritating Windows 8.1 behaviour when the Surface 3 is in laptop mode is the way, by default, the on-screen keyboard keeps popping up, obscuring half the screen, every time you touch the screen to scroll through a document or reposition the cursor, for example. We got rid of this by running 'services.msc' and disabling the Touch Keyboard and Handwriting Panel Service, but it shouldn't be beyond the wit of Windows to detect when the Type Cover is attached and ask whether you'd like to temporarily disable the on-screen keyboard.

surface-3-dock.jpg
The Surface 3 Docking Station is another optional extra, at £164.99 (inc. VAT). Images: Microsoft
If you've used the Surface Pro 3, you'll know the quality of the N-trig-based stylus (at least for general-purpose pen-input tasks, as some artists have reported a jitter issue when drawing slow diagonal lines). Unfortunately the Surface Pen is a £44.99 (inc. VAT) option for the Surface 3, whereas it was included when you bought the Surface Pro 3. Otherwise, the functionality is the same, including a natural-feeling tip, 256 pressure levels, palm-rejection, single-click the top button to wake the tablet and fire up OneNote, double-click to capture a screenshot, plus right-click and eraser buttons.

If you're planning to do more serious work on the Surface 3, at home or at work, you'll need to consider another option -- the Surface 3 Docking Station. For £164.99 (inc. VAT) you'll get a 311mm by 140mm by 95mm, 880g unit with two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45) port, Mini-DisplayPort video-out, an audio in/out combo jack, a power input and a place to stow the optional Surface Pen (absent from the tablet itself).

Features

The Surface 3 is the first tablet to be powered by Intel's new 14nm quad-core Atom x7-Z8700 processor, which runs at 1.6GHz (and up to 2.4GHz with Turbo Boost) and includes integrated Intel HD Graphics. The two currently available models come with either 2GB of RAM and 64GB of Samsung eMMC storage or 4GB and 128GB; our review unit had the higher configuration. Additional storage is available via a Micro-SD card slot located under the kickstand, on the right-hand side (in landscape orientation) or via OneDrive cloud storage.

The OS is Windows 8.1 (with a free upgrade to Windows 10 later this year) and the software bundle includes a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal (worth £59.99 a year, or £5.99 a month). This gives you access to full locally installed versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access. The Office 365 Personal subscription also boosts your OneDrive storage complement from the default 15GB to 1TB.

Out of the box, your network connection will be wireless, courtesy of a Marvell 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi module, which also supports Bluetooth 4.0 LE. If you need a wired Ethernet connection, you'll either have to buy a USB-to-Ethernet adapter (Microsoft's Surface Ethernet Adapter costs £31.49 inc. VAT) or go for the full £164.99 (inc. VAT) Surface 3 Docking Station. Mobile professionals will be interested to note that LTE mobile broadband will be available as an option in due course, although no firm release date has been announced yet. The mobile broadband module will also add GPS (plus A-GPS and GLONASS) support.

We've already noted the various ports and slots, all of which are on the right-hand side. Starting at the top, there's a Mini-DisplayPort, a full-size USB 3.0 port, a Micro-USB charging port, a Micro-SD card slot (tucked beneath the kickstand) and a headset jack. The top edge houses a volume rocker and the power button, while the bottom edge carries the magnetic connector for the Type Cover.

There are changes to the cameras, with the Surface 3 sporting an 8.5-megapixel rear camera and a 3.5-megapixel front camera (the Surface Pro 3 has 5-megapixel cameras front and rear). Both of the Surface 3's cameras support 1080p video. Here's an image taken with the rear camera:

surface-3-8mp.jpg
Image taken with the Surface 3's rear 8.5-megapixel camera. Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Performance & battery life

Intel's Atom range of low-power processors has generally been seen as good for battery life but somewhat lacking in performance. The new 14nm quad-core x5/x7 range (codenamed Cherry Trail) is expected to redress that balance, and the Surface 3 is the first product to showcase it in the shape of the x7-Z8700.

The Atom x7's performance is certainly improved, but, as the GeekBench 3 test shows, it cannot compare to the Core i5 and Core i7 processors in the Surface Pro 3:

surface-3-geekbench.jpg

Microsoft's Windows Experience Index (WEI) assesses performance across the range of subsystems, from which it can be seen that the biggest Surface 3/Surface Pro 3 discrepancies are in disk and graphics performance:

surface-3-wei.jpg

In use, so long as you're doing mainstream tasks like web browsing, email, video watching, and light document creation/editing, the Surface 3's performance is fine. Just don't expect it to shine at power-user workloads that require serious disk and graphics horsepower.

The good news with the Surface 3 is that battery life is an improvement on the Surface Pro 3. Even though the Surface 3 has a 28Wh battery compared to the 42Wh unit in the Pro 3, we estimated a 10.6 percent improvement in battery life for the former, thanks to its low-power Atom CPU and smaller 10.8-inch screen. For both tablets, battery life estimates were generated by measuring average power consumption under a variety of screen brightness and workload conditions, dividing the resulting wattages into the battery capacity (Wh/W=h). Using this method, we got battery life estimates ranging between 12 hours (idling/low screen brightness) and 3 hours (demanding load/max screen brightness). What you get in practice will fall somewhere between these points, depending on your usage pattern. Microsoft claims 'up to' 10 hours of video playback.

Conclusions

If you liked the cut of the Surface Pro 3's jib but balked at the price (which starts at £639 inc. VAT and can reach a dizzy £1,824 with a top-end tablet plus Type Cover and Docking Station), then the Surface 3 (£419 to £819 with top-end tablet, Type Cover, Surface Pen and Docking Station) will be a tempting alternative. You'll compromise on performance, but this shouldn't be a problem unless your expectations are unrealistic, and the reward is better battery life.

It goes without saying that you'll need to be comfortable in the Windows/Office ecosystem, happy with the typing experience on the Type Cover and get along with touchscreens. You don't get the stylus as standard, but if you do shell out the extra £44.99, you'll find it extremely capable -- especially if you're a OneNote user.

Overall, the Surface 3 can indeed 'work like a laptop when you need it' -- so long as you stick to mainstream workloads and remember that a keyboard is an extra-cost option.

Specifications

Display
Touchscreen Yes (10-point multi-touch)
Diagonal Size 10.8 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 27.4 cm
Native Resolution 1920 x 1280
Image Aspect Ratio 3:2
Miscellaneous
Features 3-position Kickstand, Accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer
Color Category black, silver
Processor
Clock Speed 1.6 GHz
Number of Cores Quad-Core
64-bit Computing Yes
Type Atom x7
Processor Number Z8700
Manufacturer Intel
Memory
Max Supported Size 2 GB
Communications
Wireless Protocol 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Camera
Features second camera
Networking
Data Link Protocol Bluetooth 4.0, IEEE 802.11a, IEEE 802.11ac, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n
Power
Run Time (Up To) 10 sec
Header
Brand Microsoft
Product Line Microsoft Surface
Model 3
Country Kits Canada, United States
Packaged Quantity 1
Compatibility PC
Software
Type Microsoft Office 365 Personal (1 year subscription)
System
Platform Windows
RAM
Technology LPDDR3 SDRAM
Installed Size 2 GB
Digital Camera
Features second camera
Audio Input
Type microphone
OS Provided
Type Windows 8.1 64-bit Edition
Dimensions & Weight
Width 10.5 in
Depth 7.4 in
Height 0.3 in
Weight 21.94 oz
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty
Full Contract Period 1 year

Topics: Tablets, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Reviews

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Microsoft Surface 3

Part Number: 314885500

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