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