Laptop & Tablet Reviews

Microsoft Surface 3: Australian Review

It used to be that the baby Surface was a compromise. It used to run crappy software, slower hardware and produce a less than spectacular experience. With the Surface 3, Microsoft has performed a radical about-face.

What Is It?

  • Processor: 1.6GHz quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700
  • RAM: 2GB-4GB
  • Screen: 10.8-inch, 1920×1280
  • Memory: 64GB-128GB
  • Camera: 8-megapixel rear-facing w/auto-focus, 5-megapixel front-facing
  • Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0

Whereas the Surface Pro 3 was pitched as the tablet that can replace your laptop, the Surface 3 is designed to be the tablet that can do the things other tablets can’t. Microsoft wants you to use it primarily as a tablet, but also wants to give you the specs and software you need to use it as a laptop so you don’t have to switch when it comes time to work.

Personally, I think that’s underselling it a bit. The Surface 3 is a proper crack at the thin-and-light, 2-in-1 tablet market.

It’s powered by a 1.6GHz quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor and packs in either 64GB or 128GB of solid state storage. The Surface 3 also has a slightly smaller display than the Pro 3, measuring in at 10.8-inch. It has a resolution of 1920×1280 and a 3:2 aspect ratio. Other goodies include an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with auto-focus and Wi-Fi 802.11ac.

The battery is one of the more curious aspects. Microsoft listened to the fact that the Surface Pro 3’s battery was disappointing at best, and replaced it with a cell that can reportedly handle up to 10 hours of video playback.

Curiouser still is how it charges: Microsoft hasn’t switched up the charger again for its new Surface, instead it’s practically done away with it. You’ll be able to charge the Surface 3 on MicroUSB. Obviously if you don’t have Microsoft’s 13W brick it’ll be slow going, but it’s as universal a charger as it gets.

The legendary infinite kickstand we loved on the Surface Pro 3 has been replaced on the Surface 3. Instead of infinite bend-back you’ll get three default kick positions. The OG Surface kick position, the Surface 2 kick position and one that’s as near as makes no difference as far back as the Surface Pro 3 goes. I’d argue that you’ll hardly notice.

You also get a one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 bundled in with your purchase of the Surface 3, which is something the Pro 3 was sorely missing. It ships with Windows 8.1 and comes with a free upgrade to Windows 10 when it comes out in a few months.

It’s also astoundingly cheap.

The differences in the units come in the form of installed RAM and on-board storage. The 64GB SSD/2GB RAM model comes in at $699, while the 128GB SSD/4GB RAM model comes in at $839.

There’s an LTE model coming later on in the year that Microsoft will sell through resellers and its online store rather than carriers. The 64GB SSD/2GB RAM/LTE model comes in at $839, while the 128GB SSD/4GB RAM/LTE model comes in at $979.

There’s a new range of Type Covers in a variety of colours, and for the first time the Surface Pen will also be coloured. Unfortunately you won’t get a Pen in the box: that one sells separately.

What’s Good?

Let’s be honest. The Surface RT and the Surface 2 were crap. They had decent hardware that was hamstrung by crappy software and a relatively high price tag.

So how do you fix a problem child? Make it more like its well-behaved big brother.

What’s awesome about the Surface is how Microsoft continues to listen to the gripes of its users when designing new models. Ever since the original Surface Pro and Surface RT (ugh) were minted, Microsoft kept its collective ear to the ground and turned user complaints into a wishlist for the new model. That history of answering customer concerns means that the new baby Surface is better than any of its predecessors. It may even be better than its bigger brother, the Surface Pro 3, in some respects.

Rather than stuff a power-hungry Intel Core i5 or i7 processor into the new Surface, Microsoft has opted for a small yet mighty Atom processor, which can do almost everything its big brother can do without needing to be cooled. That’s right: the Atom processor means the new Surface is fanless, and thinner than ever. It’s also a quieter experience thanks to the removal of the fan, and the power-conscious Atom manages to keep a lid on its own heat generation, meaning you won’t be scalded if you keep the new gadget on your lap while you use it.

The Surface 3 is meant to be a tablet first and a laptop second, but as soon as I unboxed the Surface 3 I began using it as a laptop replacement. The remarkable thing is that I didn’t find any noticeable lull in performance from the new Atom processor compared to the Surface’s bigger brother. Under the weight of 30+ tabs in Google Chrome, Adobe Lightroom, Spotify and a whole mess of peripherals, the Surface 3 held up admirably.

The Type Cover is back for another go around which makes typing a breeze (despite the fact it looks a little yellowed under the keys), and the (optional) Surface Pen still has just as many points of touch and sophisticated palm rejection for all your sketching needs.

There are also a few modifications to the now iconic Surface kickstand with the new model. In order to make the Surface 3 cheaper, Microsoft opted to install a three-angle kickstand rather than the infinitely adjustable kickstand installed on the Surface Pro 3. The infinite kickstand was a fantastic bit of kit, so there was a bit of a worry when Microsoft opted to reintroduce the fixed model. Our worries evaporated as soon as we started to use it, however. It has the two angles of kick introduced on the Surface and Surface 2, as well as the third angle which makes the whole thing more “lapable” than ever, especially with the Type Cover attached.

The infinite kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 also allowed you to use the device while lying down on a bed or other flat surface as well as on your lap. With the third angle of kick on the Surface 3, that’s still possible, but you may have to adjust your legs a little bit to get the perfect spot.

To help you get all your work done, Microsoft has opted to include a free year of Office 365 Personal with the new Surface, righting the wrong of not including it with the last model. Another example of Redmond listening to the complaints of users. It would be nice if Microsoft went back and retroactively gave Surface Pro 3 owners free Office 365 subscriptions for their purchases, but such is life.

By far the best thing — the absolute best thing — about the Surface 3 is its operating system. Windows 8.1 is a godsend compared to the useless Windows RT OS that the smaller Surfaces have shipped with in the past. We said Windows RT was dead a few months ago, and now we know it to be true.

Microsoft have managed to squeeze a little more juice out of the battery on the smaller Surface 3. The tiny tablet managed seven hours of life under normal use, meaning it’s on par with its big brother, the Surface Pro 3, despite its diminutive size. It’s an impressive feat, but still not the battery life we were expecting from the new Windows tablet.

What’s Not So Good?

One thing we hated about the Surface Pro 3 was that it didn’t even come close to its quoted battery life time, instead lasting just seven hours with normal use. Microsoft claims that with the new low-power processor on the Surface 3 that it has solved the conundrum of poor battery life, but we’re yet to see that come to fruition. The life is certainly better than it was, averaging around six to seven hours of life with normal use, but that’s still nowhere near the rich claims of 10 hour battery life.

Another thing that’s rich about the Surface 3 is its price.

As frustrating as it is to see, there’s a bit of a premium on buying the Microsoft Surface 3 over buying another convertible tablet from a third-party manufacturer. A cursory glance at Aussie retailers and you find that you’re being bilked out more than a few extra bucks for the Microsoft hardware.

The slightly better specced Dell Venue 10 Pro costs just $498 and comes with a bundled detachable keyboard; the identically specced Asus T100 also comes in at $498, while the much better-featured Dell Inspiron 3000 Series X510792AU with its Core i3 processor and 500GB hard disk costs just $798 compared to the Surface 3’s $839 price tag. Getting the picture? You’re paying a premium for pretty with the Surface 3.

At the end of the day, that’s ok: profit isn’t a dirty word and Microsoft is charging what it thinks the market can bear. It would just be nice if Microsoft matched the prices of its competitors for similar hardware.

Speaking of the hardware inside the Surface 3, we should point out that you’ll never get a decent gaming experience on this new Microsoft tablet. Admittedly, the experience was shaky on the Surface Pro 3 with its Core i5 processor, but it’s almost out of the question with the Surface 3’s Atom-based chipset. I tried everything from Cities: Skylines through to Tomb Raider, all on the lowest settings and found the Surface 3 chugging through its duties in single-digit frame rates. The only way you’re going to game on this is if you get something light from the Windows Store to run on the tablet.

I’m willing to forgive the Surface 3 for poor gaming performance. It may look like a Windows PC, but not all devices were created equally. As it turns out, the Surface 3 is less equal than the rest when it comes to getting your game on.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that while MicroUSB charging is a godsend compared to the USB Type-C adapter on the new 2015 MacBook, the Surface won’t charge in a timely manner without the power brick that comes bundled with the device. It can charge with any MicroUSB input, but if you want it to work quickly you’re still stuck clinging to Microsoft’s bundled hardware.

Should You Buy It?

Microsoft Surface 3

Price: from $699

  • Beautifully designed.
  • Surprisingly powerful.
  • No Windows RT.
Don’t Like
  • Expensive compared to its competition.
  • MicroUSB charging is slow without the provided brick.
  • Poor gaming performance.

The Surface 3 does more than it says on the tin.

It never set out to be a productivity-focussed Windows convertible tablet. It was meant to be a consumption tablet first and a laptop if it needed to be. It’s a reluctant hero, and like most reluctant heroes, it’s plucky, capable and stronger than it looks.

The difference between the Surface 2 and the Surface 3 is like night and day, and that comes from having the right tools for the job.

Windows RT is dead and buried as far as the Surface range is concerned, and ARM chips have been replaced with power-sipping Intel Atom processors that can more than hold their own. The accessories are on point, it’s smaller and lighter than its bigger brother and lasts just as long as a day-to-day productivity machine.

The baby Surface is finally ready for prime-time (provided you can justify the cost), and that’s awesome.

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