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Microsoft Surface 3 review: Trickle-down computing combines premium design and budget prices

Dropping the specs and price, Microsoft keeps a lot of what made the Surface 3 Pro unique, including the overpriced keyboard add-on.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
9 min read

Review Update: Fall 2015

In October, Microsoft made significant changes to its Surface line of products, introducing a new version of its flagship tablet, the Surface Pro 4, and its first-ever laptop, the Surface Book. The successor to the popular Surface Pro 3, the Surface Pro 4 starts at $899 and features the latest Intel processors, a perfectly-sized 12.3-inch display with a just-right 3:2 aspect ratio, and hardware and software tweaks that improve upon the previous model. The $1,499 Surface Book has many of these same specs, but it's a full-powered laptop that moonlights as a tablet, making for a distinctly better in-lap experience. (Read the full Surface Pro 4 review here and the full Surface Book review here.)


Microsoft Surface 3

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.

Microsoft has since dropped the Surface Pro 3 from its lineup -- making this potentially a good time to get a good deal on remaining units. But the Surface 3 lives on, and, starting at $499, remains a compelling value. That noted, the Surface Pro 4 offers significantly superior specs including a larger display and higher resolution, a native Windows 10 operating system, and a more powerful Intel processor. For a more detailed analysis of how the Surface 3, Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Book stack up, check out CNET's head-to-head comparison.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (pictures)

See all photos

Editors' note: The original Microsoft Surface 3 review follows.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the Pro 3 version, this new keyboard cover includes a secondary hinge, which is really just a line near the top edge you can fold the cover along, lifting the rear up and holding it against the body via a magnetic connection. This gives you a more natural typing angle. It's an ergonomic improvement, although it makes typing louder and clackier.

The small touchpad built into the type cover is still not really responsive or tap-sensitive enough for fast-track multitaskers, and the surface area is too shallow to easily navigate all around the screen. You'll most likely develop a shorthand combination of touchscreen, keyboard strokes and touchpad to get around.

The touchscreen has a 1,920x1,280 native resolution, which is more than enough for a 10.8-inch display such as this. The 12.5-inch Pro 3 has a 2,160x1,440 resolution, and both screens have a 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes them feel more like writing on a pad of paper when held in portrait mode (a sold-separately stylus runs $49, £45 or AU$69).

Ports and connections

Video mini-DisplayPort
Audio 3.5mm stereo headphone jack
Data 1 USB 3.0, micro-SD slot, 1 Micro-USB
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0

Connections and performance

Built into the Surface 3 you'll find a full-size USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader (under the kickstand), and Mini DisplayPort. A second USB port, a micro version, is used primarily for charging, and it will work with any compatible Micro-USB power adaptor, or even a portable battery pack.

On a low-power system such as this, especially one meant to be used as a slate at least part of the time, you're at the mercy of tablet-friendly apps and interfaces. The Windows 8 tile interface holds up well in this regard, although navigating the traditional desktop view in tablet mode is a real hassle. Popular Windows 8 apps vary widely in quality. Facebook and Twitter apps work well enough, but both waste a lot of screen real estate in landscape mode. Netflix works well, but the Amazon Kindle app is awful.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're looking to the official Microsoft Windows app store, built into every Windows 8 machine, to help you find better apps, think again. Even after more than two years, it remains a tangled mess of sketchy content and knockoffs of more popular apps, and feels completely uncurated. For instance, an early pass on the "Top Paid Apps" section included apps promising pirated copies of everything from Marvel Comics movies to Game of Thrones episodes, but they were expunged within a day of our asking Microsoft about them.

On the positive side, the system, like many low-cost Windows laptops right now, includes a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal, which ties into your Windows/OneDrive account.

The new Atom CPU in this system is the 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z8700. In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, it was faster than system with slightly older Atom CPUs, and in our multitasking test, it was faster by a significant margin. But, both the Asus T300 Chi, with Intel's new Core M processor, and the Surface Pro 3, with a last-gen Intel Core i5 processor, were significantly faster.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This serves to remind us that an Atom-powered system is simply not going to be as powerful, and isn't as well-suited to all day, every day computing as even a Core M system (and we've knocked the speed of that chip as well). But, as a secondary or travel computer, it's certainly more than fast enough.

The battery in the Surface 3 beats the one in the Surface Pro 3, but only by a small margin, running for 7:41, versus the Pro 3's 7:28. That's not as much as the best Core i-series PCs get (which can top 10 hours), and Lenovo's ThinkPad 10 Atom-powered tablet ran for about 30 minutes longer, but that's more than enough for a cross-country flight or an afternoon of coffee shop reading and writing.


The overall excellent engineering and design of the Surface Pro 3 has trickled down to this mainstream-friendly model. Even with the CPU dialed back to an Intel Atom, and the screen both smaller and with a lower resolution, it feels reasonably premium especially given the low starting price.

If the Surface 3 included it expensive, but necessary, keyboard cover in its base price, it would receive a very strong recommendation. As it is, adding the keyboard drives it into territory where you'd rightly expect more power for the price.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi 468Microsoft Surface Pro 3 523Microsoft Surface 3 764Lenovo ThinkPad 10 946Acer Aspire Switch 10 953
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 236Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi 238Microsoft Surface 3 617
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Apple iTunes encoding test

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 108Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi 109Microsoft Surface 3 300Lenovo ThinkPad 10 316Acer Aspire Switch 10 372
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Lenovo ThinkPad 10 489Microsoft Surface 3 461Microsoft Surface Pro 3 448Acer Aspire Switch 10 372Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi 314
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Microsoft Surface 3 Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z8700; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 128GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.9GHZ Intel Core i5-4300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD 4400 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core M 5Y71; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5300 Graphics; 128GB SSD
Lenovo ThinkPad 10 Windows 8.1 Pro (32-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z3795; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB SSD
Acer Aspire Switch 10 Windows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3745; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB SSD

Microsoft Surface 3

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Battery 7