Mobile Technology

Review: Microsoft Surface 3

Review: Microsoft Surface 3
Gizmag reviews Microsoft's most well-balanced Surface yet, the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Gizmag reviews Microsoft's most well-balanced Surface yet, the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 makes for a great Windows tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 makes for a great Windows tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Gizmag reviews Microsoft's most well-balanced Surface yet, the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Gizmag reviews Microsoft's most well-balanced Surface yet, the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 isn't big for a laptop, but it's big enough to get the job done (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 isn't big for a laptop, but it's big enough to get the job done (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3's magnesium build is nearly identical to the Surface Pro 3's (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3's magnesium build is nearly identical to the Surface Pro 3's (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 is a great couch surfing (and couch work) kind of device (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 is a great couch surfing (and couch work) kind of device (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 has a 10.8-in display, with the same 3:2 aspect ratio we saw on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 has a 10.8-in display, with the same 3:2 aspect ratio we saw on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
It's running Windows 8.1 now, but expect the Surface 3 to get better when Windows 10 launches to the public (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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It's running Windows 8.1 now, but expect the Surface 3 to get better when Windows 10 launches to the public (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Typing on the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Typing on the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
At just 622 g (21.9 oz), the Surface 3 is light for a full Windows-running tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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At just 622 g (21.9 oz), the Surface 3 is light for a full Windows-running tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 is 8.7 mm (0.34-in) thick, not including its keyboard cover (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 is 8.7 mm (0.34-in) thick, not including its keyboard cover (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Another look at the Surface 3's magnesium build (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Another look at the Surface 3's magnesium build (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface Pen isn't included, but it does work with the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface Pen isn't included, but it does work with the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The pen comes in handy for navigating the Windows desktop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The pen comes in handy for navigating the Windows desktop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 makes for a light and portable mini-laptop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Surface 3 makes for a light and portable mini-laptop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The kickstand snaps into three different positions here, as opposed to the dynamically-adjusting one found on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The kickstand snaps into three different positions here, as opposed to the dynamically-adjusting one found on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Microsoft's first two generations of the Surface 2-in-1 were intriguing enough, but they were also pretty compromised. And though the Surface Pro 3 was a huge leap forward, at nearly US$1,000, it also isn't the cheapest device around. That brings us to Microsoft's lightest and thinnest Surface yet – with a lower price to boot. Read on for Gizmag's Surface 3 review.

The Surface 3 is, in many ways, the "Surface Pro 3 Mini." If you took the Surface Pro 3, shrunk it down a little and took away some of its processing power (along with a few other finer details) ... bam: you'd have the Surface 3.

What that description might not tell you, though, is that the Surface 3 is, in some ways, better than the Surface Pro 3. Considering it's $250 cheaper (once you add keyboard and pen), that's something to get excited about.

The total amount of compromise here may actually be a bit less than it is in the Pro 3. The SP3 is a great laptop, but oversized as a tablet. The Surface 3 flips those two things around: it's a smaller laptop than you might be used to, but it also feels much more natural as a tablet.

The Surface 3 is a great couch surfing (and couch work) kind of device (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 is a great couch surfing (and couch work) kind of device (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

For a frame of reference, the Surface 3's screen is 81 percent as big as the Pro 3's screen. The Surface 3's display is also 19 percent bigger than the iPad Air 2's display. There's always going to be some degree of compromise in 2-in-1s, but the Surface 3 is the best balanced one Microsoft has made yet.

Performance isn't amazing on the Surface 3, and you shouldn't expect "amazing" from an Intel Atom processor. But we find it to be perfectly manageable for casual use and light-ish work. I have no problems running Photoshop CC, with five or six browser tabs and a few background apps running at the same time. You might pick up on a little choppiness here and there, but there's nothing to worry about for this price point.

Another big change with the Surface 3 is that Microsoft finally made a non-"Pro" Surface that runs full Windows, including desktop apps. Instead of trying to be an iPad rival with a keyboard (and an app store that doesn't come close to competing with the iPad's), the Surface 3 sticks with Microsoft's strengths, running both touch-based and legacy Windows apps.

The Surface Pen isn't included, but it does work with the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface Pen isn't included, but it does work with the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

It's also the first non-Pro Surface that's compatible with the Surface Pen. It can use the exact same (excellent) Surface Pen that you get with the Pro 3, helping you to navigate desktop apps, get some nice pressure-sensitive input in Photoshop or even scribble memos in OneNote.

Our only complaint about the Surface Pen compatibility is that, unlike with the Pro, you have to buy the pen separately. That's an extra $50 to add to your purchase (though if you're buying the Surface 3, we do recommend getting the pen).

Though we didn't find its performance to be too big of a problem, there are two other compromises that Surface Pro 3 owners will pick up on right off the bat. First, you can't magnetically attach the Surface Pen to the side of the Surface 3, as you can with the Pro. Instead you'll need to rely more on the keyboard's loop for stashing the pen.

The other compromise is that its kickstand doesn't adjust dynamically like the Surface Pro 3's does, instead giving you three fixed positions (not including the completely folded-in position) to choose from.

The kickstand snaps into three different positions here, as opposed to the dynamically-adjusting one found on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The kickstand snaps into three different positions here, as opposed to the dynamically-adjusting one found on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

These things are slightly annoying, but if they helped Microsoft to shave, say, $100 off of what it was able to sell it for, then we can live with them. They don't take that much away from the experience.

We think the Type Cover's keys feel good for typing. Its touchpad, however, is a bit of a weakness. Its sensitivity is pretty good, and it is a moving (or "clicking") pad, but it's also too small to rely on heavily for navigation. Fortunately there's touchscreen input and the Surface Pen to help make up for the shrimpy trackpad.

The Surface 3 makes for a great Windows tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 makes for a great Windows tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Battery life isn't amazing, but it is still good. In our benchmark (streaming video, with minimal background apps running and brightness at about 75 percent), the Surface 3 dropped 15 percent per hour – almost exactly what the Surface Pro 3 scored in the same test. There are laptops that do better than this, but these are still good results – and much better than the first two generations of Surfaces.

When you do need to charge, the Surface 3 now uses a microUSB cable. If you own any smartphones or tablets that aren't made by Apple, chances are you have at least one or two of these lying around. It fits the Surface 3's status as a travel device: lose your charger, and you can stroll into any number of truck stops, airport kiosks or retail stores and buy yourself a cheap replacement.

The Surface 3 has a 10.8-in display, with the same 3:2 aspect ratio we saw on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 has a 10.8-in display, with the same 3:2 aspect ratio we saw on the Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

If you're shopping for a Windows 2-in-1 or a laptop in the $600-800 range, we think the Surface 3 deserves a spot on your list. For a student, or someone who only needs a PC for light work, where portability is a big factor, this could work as your main PC. And if you already have a bigger and more powerful desktop or laptop, the Surface 3 could make for a great second machine – for things like road trips, couch surfing or grab-and-go situations.

The Surface 3 isn't big for a laptop, but it's big enough to get the job done (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface 3 isn't big for a laptop, but it's big enough to get the job done (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Surface 3 may be closer to an iPad rival than a MacBook Air rival, but that analogy only goes so far, as Windows 8.1 isn't really much of a tablet operating system (after two and a half years, the Windows Store still doesn't have a great selection of touch-based apps). But once you arm yourself with that Surface Pen, the Surface 3 becomes a different type of tablet: one that runs some tablet apps along with loads of great desktop apps.

This is the type of tablet Microsoft can carve out a niche for itself with. As long as you don't mind whipping out the pen for smaller targets on the desktop, it works.

While the Surface 3's power and screen size are merely "good enough" for a laptop, it balances things out with the most portable and tablet-friendly package we've seen in a Surface. For some shoppers, that will make it a better buy than the Surface Pro 3.

... and it will only get better when Windows 10 launches to the public, later this year.

At just 622 g (21.9 oz), the Surface 3 is light for a full Windows-running tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
At just 622 g (21.9 oz), the Surface 3 is light for a full Windows-running tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Microsoft Surface 3 is available now, starting at $500 for the tablet only (that's only 64 GB storage, but it does have a microSD slot). The keyboard ($130) is an essential addition to your purchase, and we think the Surface Pen ($50) is almost essential. So consider its starting price to be $680.

For some of the details we skimmed over, you can revisit Gizmag's Surface Pro 3 review from last year.

Product page: Microsoft

6 comments
Tomasz Wawrzyczny-Than
"That analogy only goes so far, though, because Windows 8.1 isn't really much of a tablet operating system (after two and a half years, the Windows Store still doesn't have a great selection of touch-based apps)" ... and yet the Surface Pro 3 has a bigger application selection that ipad or mac.. go figure Will @_@
ManishBhatia
Desktop apps are the not the same as bonafide touch apps. Going to a website to launch things on a small screen is not the same as tapping the app for your favorite movie streamer, watch app, bank apps and so on that are scarce in the Windows store The Surface 3 is a great device and I have one. It is however NOT for someone looking for a true tablet experience filled with apps galore. I use it mainly for browsing the web and the 3:2 format is perfect for that.
Dan Lewis
I wish Microsoft would go ahead and make the keyboard work separate from the screen. Why haven't they taken that step for greater versatility? I want to be able to separate the screen, physically, from the keyboard, and with that separate keyboard, type on the screen. I want the keyboard to be physically separate, but still linked to the screen. I don't understand why the project group behind Surface hasn't made this (to me) obvious step. I won't buy one until that happens. Wake up, Microsoft.
Atul Malhotra
I would just buy the 500 dollar tablet and not the KB. I don't even need the pen !! In fact, few months down the line, I will get the tab for about 400 USD in India. That would be a killer deal !!
Rann Xeroxx
The Surface 3 fits certain use cases very well... some being lite users such as students or casual browsers or as a companion device to a more powerful device. I still use my Surface RT and the only thing really missing is the ability to run the occasional x32 app such as corporate VPN or VoIP. Adding full Pen support is just icing on the cake. Price wise the S3 is more comparable to the iPad Air 2. The S3 just gives you so much more in connections, full programs, mousing (for RDP and such), etc. And it was mentioned about touch ability on the desktop, I simply install TouchMousePointer that gives you a virtual touchpad. This has worked great when I need that fine touch that my fingers are too big or clumsy to do. As far as apps, MS just announced at Build that Visual Studio will be able to take a iOS or Android natively written code and easily compile it to run on Windows 10. And because iOS apps have better tablet aspects, the iOS apps will run on tablets and larger devices. This is on top of universal apps. I really think this is a good device for the price for a lot of people.
Tomasz Wawrzyczny-Than
@ManishBhatia I'm sure desktop apps are not the same as touch screen apps, but you should still be able to push buttons etc using the touchscreen interface. I believe it will be easier for companies to update their native apps to support windows 10 touch screen interface than creating a new app in the app store.