Surface 3: My best purchase of 2015 (hands on)

The newest Surface tablet from Microsoft is the best 2-in-1 I've used.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
Sarah Tew
The Surface Pro 3 is a fine 2-in-1 device when paired with the Type Cover, but it's expensive and may be overkill for some. That's where the Surface 3 steps in, with a decent size for both a tablet and laptop. It is an outstanding device for those wanting the best of both worlds (tablet and laptop).

The Surface 3 is reasonably priced starting at $499. The primary option to add is to double the memory and storage for $100, which is recommended.

The Type Cover keyboard isn't included with the Surface 3 which is a shame as it's not really an option if you want to take full advantage of the device. The Surface Pen is not included either which some will want to use the Surface 3 as a tablet with handwritten input. Getting both accessories will send the price up $180 so the pen along with doubling the memory sees the price quickly rise. There is an option for integrated 4G/LTE which adds another $100.

I configured my Surface 3 with double memory, keyboard, and pen and the total price was a significant $780.

Specs as reviewed:

  • CPU: Intel Atom x7-Z8700
  • Memory / storage: 4GB / 128GB
  • Display: 10.8-inch, 1920 x 1280
  • Cameras: Front -- 3.5MP; Rear -- 8MP
  • Ports: Full USB 3.0, miniDisplayport, audio, microUSB charging port, cover port, microSD slot
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 4.0
  • Dimensions: 10.52" x 7.36" x 0.34" (267mm x 187mm x 8.7mm)
  • Weight: 1.37lbs
  • Battery: 10 hours

Sterling hardware

When you first take the Surface 3 out of the box the hardware makes a great impression. The clean lines of the device are understated yet send the message the Surface 3 is a premium design.

See related: Windows 10 on Surface 3: Three reasons to disable tablet mode | Surface 3 in the sound booth: Silence is truly golden

The kickstand on the back of the tablet props it up in three different viewing angles, and testing shows these are all you need. Underneath the kickstand is the microSD slot to install additional storage.

Looking at the Surface 3 in landscape mode like a laptop (Windows touch button to the right) finds the power and volume controls on the top. There are no controls on the left leaving a smooth clean edge.

Moving to the right we see the miniDisplayport, USB 3.0, and the microUSB charging port. On the bottom is the proprietary keyboard cover jack,

Ordinarily I'm not a fan of touch Windows buttons on tablets as they are easy to inadvertently trigger an action when handling the tablet. I don't find that an issue with the Surface 3 since the Windows button is not where I handle the device when using it as a tablet.

The 10.8-inch display is the perfect size for both laptop and tablet use. It shows enough information to be useful, while keeping the overall size of the device manageable. The bezel is just large enough to make handling the Surface 3 possible without triggering things on the touch display.

Windows 10 is a big step forward

Surface tablets are already shipping with Windows 10, and even though I ordered mine the day after the new OS launched it was installed.

The longer I use Windows 10 the more impressed I am with what Microsoft has accomplished. I'm not fond of the tablet mode, but turning that off makes both the tablet and laptop user experience quite enjoyable.

The Microsoft apps in Windows 10 (especially Mail and Calendar) are working well for me. Mail plays nicely with Gmail in particular. I'm still trying to get my head around the Edge browser. It's not bad but very different from other browsers and will take some time to get used to it.

Windows 10 handles split screen wonderfully, and this in conjunction with virtual desktops makes doing work a treat. It's easy to create desktops such that each focuses on a task, while keeping others just a tap away.

Performance in the real world

A Surface Pro 3 is better suited for power users, but in testing the Atom x7 processor in the Surface 3 has been peppy. With multiple apps and desktops in play performance has never lagged, and actions happen almost instantaneously.

This is likely aided by the extra 2GB of optional memory, and it's recommended that buyers pay the $100 for it if at all possible.

Keyboard and pen

To take full advantage of the Surface 3 and Windows 10 you need the Type Cover keyboard. This is available in several different colors, and is an additional $129.95.

The unit attaches to the Surface 3 by bringing the Type Cover hinge into close proximity to the bottom of the tablet in landscape orientation. The keyboard snaps into place and is instantly ready to use. The Type Cover hinge folds in front of the Surface 3 and slightly raises it for a comfortable typing angle. The physical connection means there is no Bluetooth to fuss with. It also means the keyboard cannot be used when detached from the Surface.

The 10.8-inch display makes the Surface 3 wider than 10.1-inch tablets, so the keyboard is bigger than most. This allows Microsoft to use large keys on the Type Cover. Those keys are wonderful and it's possible to type as fast as on any laptop keyboard. The keys have just the right amount of travel and the tactile feedback is first rate.

The top row of keys have tablet control keys along with some standard Windows keys -- Home, End, PrtScn, and others. They also serve as Fn-1 - Fn-12.

There is a small trackpad on the Type Cover that works well, but due to the small size I usually just tap the touch display. Still it's nice to have the trackpad available.

The Surface Pen is a $50 option that is designed to use with the tablet. It has an unusual design in that it connects to the tablet via Bluetooth. The stylus works like those with other Windows tablets as a pointer and as a pen for writing on the screen. It doesn't need Bluetooth for that, it uses it for the three buttons on the pen.

The top button where a pencil eraser would be has special functionality with OneNote. Tap it when the Surface 3 is sleeping and the tablet wakes up with a new note page ready. Tap it when the Surface is running and it opens OneNote. A double tap when the tablet is running will snap the screen and put the image in OneNote.

The two buttons on the barrel are the right-click button (upper) and the eraser button (lower).

Bottom line

The Surface 3 with the Type Cover is a world class laptop and stellar tablet. It can easily replace a laptop with few, if any, compromises. It is a tremendous value for the relatively low base price. This is the best purchase I've made this year.

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