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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars 8 user reviews

The Good The new Surface 3 costs less than the Pro version, but trickles down much of the design and materials of its more expensive sibling. This budget model finally runs the full version of Windows. The keyboard cover remains the best way to transform a slate into a laptop.

The Bad Trading down to a low-power processor means this isn't a full-time PC. The clever keyboard case is still sold separately, and costs a lot compared to the base hardware. The kickstand has only three preset angles.

The Bottom Line The budget-priced Surface 3 is a solid tablet that finally runs the real version of Windows, but it would be a much better value if the must-have keyboard cover was included.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Battery 7.0

While using the new Microsoft Surface 3, attractively priced at $499, I could safely say I was getting $500 worth of computing experience. The only problem is that I was actually using $630 worth of computer. That's because the Surface line's biggest folly continues well into the series' third generation. Its all-important snap-on keyboard, really the most impressive thing about the Surface, is still sold separately, and at a premium price.

And there lies the biggest tragedy of the otherwise-excellent Surface line. When you're adding a $129 keyboard cover to a thousand-dollar tablet, it's an added expense, but doesn't dramatically change the value proposition of the system. Adding the same $129 to a $499 product, however, raises the price by more than 20 percent, and you should consider the combined cost before getting too excited about this low-cost Surface tablet.

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(Note that all these prices are in US dollars, but the Surface 3 starts at £419 in the UK and AU$699 in Australia, with similar pricing -- £110 or AU$180 -- on the keyboard, and adding $100, £80 or AU$140 to the base price doubles the RAM and SSD from 2GB with 64GB to 4GB and 128GB.)

That said, the new Surface 3 has corrected the biggest flaw of Microsoft's entry-level Surface tablet series to date: it finally runs the full version of Windows, not the stripped-down Windows RT operating system (unofficially named after the Windows Runtime architecture that enabled it). That means it can run all of the same legacy Windows programs as its big brother, the Surface Pro 3 -- a huge step up from the the Surface and Surface 2 , which only ran programs found in the Microsoft Windows app store.

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With full Windows 8 on board, the new non-Pro Surface makes it feel and work much more like a standard laptop or hybrid -- albeit one that's more modestly powered. Rather than utilizing Intel's Core i-series CPUs, or even by the Core M chip found in some new ultra-slim laptops and hybrids. Instead it uses the latest version of Intel's Atom CPU, a chip that dates back the days of low-end netbook laptops that sacrificed power for portability and price. The new Atom x7 (previously known by the code name Cherry Trail) is said to be the most powerful Atom CPU to date, and is even capable of playing back 4K video.

In practice, for casual websurfing, email, and streaming HD video from Netflix and other sources, the Surface 3 runs smoothly, especially if you keep to Windows-optimized programs such as Internet Explorer 11 or other pre-loaded apps in the Windows 8 tile interface. But, like most Atom-powered PCs, it also had occasional moments where it inexplicably seized up, sometimes when running multiple tabs in another Web browser, such as Google's Chrome.

For around the same price or a little more, you can find many Windows 8 laptops and tablets, most running similar hardware, but occasionally with a more powerful Core i3 or Core i5 processor, such as the $599 Lenovo Flex 3 . Add in the cost of the keyboard dock and there are better values out there, at least in terms of raw specs.

But, the Surface 3, like the previous Surface Pro systems, represents one of the best overall user experiences for a Windows 8 tablet. The hardware feels good, is solidly built, and includes enough ports to get by. The kickstand hinge and keyboard cover are miles beyond what other tablet-makers offer.

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One roadblock comes from the Windows 8 experience itself. For a tablet that pushes its portrait mode at you (look at how the Windows logo is situated), apps are slow to re-orient when you switch between portrait and landscape views, and many Windows 8 native apps don't work equally well in both views.

Working in its favor, Microsoft says the Surface 3 is ready for Windows 10 when the free upgrade to that operating system hits this summer. That should erase the uneasy split between the two views -- tile and desktop -- that Windows 8 users are often forced to jump between. (To be clear, nearly every current Windows PC is eligible for that same free upgrade.)

If the Surface 3 packed in its unique keyboard cover for the same price, it would represent a great value that didn't feel like a budget PC. As it is, if you love the Surface look and feel, another $200 will get you the entry level Intel Core i3 version of the Surface 3 Pro, which is much more of an all-day, every day computer.

Microsoft Surface 3

Price as reviewed $499
Display size/resolution 10-inch, 1,920x1,280 touchscreen
PC CPU 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z8700
PC Memory 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics
Storage 64GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit)

Design and features

In the hand, the Surface 3 feels like a premium product, and very close in quality and construction to the Pro models, with the same magnesium outer case. It's only 1.37 pounds (without the keyboard; about 0.62kg), which makes it lighter than even Apple's new 12-inch MacBook . One welcome change is the new Micro-USB charging port, which is easier to deal with than Microsoft's previous proprietary magnetic charging cable. The Surface 3 is not, however, moving to the new USB-C connection, as seen in the 12-inch MacBook and Google's new Chromebook Pixel.

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But while it presents itself as very similar to the Surface Pro 3, it's worth noting the handful of budget-minded tweaks. Most notably, it still has an adjustable kickstand, although rather than the fully adjustable version in the Pro 3 or the two-angle one in the older Surface 2 , the Surface 3 kickstand snaps between three different angles. Like every previous Surface, it's not entirely natural-feeling on the lap, but the three angles included here should work for most desk or tablet scenarios. It's a shame Microsoft could not include the fully adjustable kickstand from the Surface Pro 3.

Like every previous Surface, you'll want the optional keyboard cover. With large backlit keys packed into a very slim cover, and connecting via a magnetic hinge, its the cleverest bit of engineering about the Surface line. Unfortunately, as with the previous models, the add-on keyboard costs a hefty $129, £110 or AU$180 (but comes in a variety of colors). And, as the Surface 3 is a different size than the older models, you'll need the new keyboard cover made specifically for this unit. Interestingly, the other keyboard covers we had from previous Surface Pro models all worked when connected to the Surface 3 -- they just don't match up with the screen size.

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