- Versatile design
- Excellent software compatibility
- Attractive screen
- Good connectivity
- Type Cover is an essential accessory
- Heavy for handheld use
- Weak on-screen keyboard
Microsoft Surface 3 Review: The Surface Pro 4 may be Microsoft’s new star player, but if you don’t need all that computing power, or your pockets aren’t quite as deep, the Microsoft Surface 3 should still offer everything you’re after.
Despite only existing in the market for around three years, the Surface design language is now well and truly established and we have a pretty clear idea of what to expect when Microsoft stamps the ‘Surface’ name on a new device (with perhaps the exception of the new Surface Book).
Although it’s the more affordable offering in the product family’s lineup, the Surface 3 looks to pack the same high level of fit and finish as its more professional siblings. You can expect a fine-edged, straight-sided slate with an integrated two-stage kickstand and front-facing stereo speakers.
Every Surface product treads the line between tablet and laptop, which in this instance means it’s nowhere near as light as an iPad Air, but can still be used one-handed whilst retaining a full-sized USB and display port, meaning its connectivity chops are superior to most other standalone slates from the off.
The Windows logo set into the bezel serves as a capacitive home button, which was more of an essential before the upgrade to Windows 10, however it’s still a nice inclusion, whilst the body also features hardware controls for sleeping and waking the Surface 3 as well as a magnetic docking channel milled into the base to accommodate a Type Cover.
It’s somewhat of a prerequisite if you’re buying a Surface that you pick up a Type Cover at the same time in order to get the most out of the tablet’s talents for productivity and avoid struggling with the somewhat awkward on-screen typing experience – an extra that Microsoft should consider bundling with every Surface at launch.
Screen and Surface Pen
The 10.8-inch Full HD display might feel as though it lags behind the likes of the QXGA AMOLEDs found on Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 twins with regards to fine detail, but everything looks perfectly crisp and clear. Colour distortion takes a slight hit at more extreme angles, but for the most part it appears to be a bright, accurate screen with low reflectivity – we just wish those bezels were a touch thinner.
As the Surface 3 is notably smaller than its Pro counterparts, you could argue that the screen is a little on the cramped side should you interact with the interface using touch alone, but luckily it’s also a very responsive panel with 10-point multitouch.
The other big component of any Surface experience is stylus input and the Surface 3 supports both the Surface Pen 3 and Surface Pen 4, although unlike the Pro 4’s magnetic storage system, you’ll still need to attach the pen loop to the Type cover or keep it tucked away in a pocket when it isn’t required.
The Pen itself runs on a small AAAA battery with excellent longevity quoted at up to a year. On one end you’ll find the top button that can be used to launch OneNote – Microsoft’s note taking application, or capture screenshots with a double-press.
Unless you’re looking for a device with the explicit purpose of digital illustration, the 256 levels of pressure sensitivity should offer enough variation between strokes to help achieve the result you’re after. The Surface 3 packs reliable palm detection too and the Pen’s additional right click and eraser buttons are always on-hand should you need the extra functionality.
Handwriting recognition was also intelligent enough to identify my child-like scrawl and overall latency, although not as low as on the Surface Pro 4 or iPad Pro, is wholly usable. It collectively makes for one of the stronger stylus experiences out there and will suit those looking to jot down notes or quick doodles.
When the Surface 3 originally launched back in the first half of 2015, it came packing Windows 8.1, since then the arrival of Windows 10 has marked a dramatic reimagining of what Microsoft’s current-generation computing experience looks like, and it’s unquestionably for the better.
You can switch between the more conventional Windows interface, which by default sets you on a desktop complete with app icons, start menu and task bar, or swap it out for a more touch-friendly interface in tablet mode – which essentially scales up the live tiles from your start menu into a full screen experience when you’re not in an app. This switch can be made by attaching and detaching the Type Cover or from within the settings menu.
Whilst previous generations of non-Pro Surfaces packed a neutered Windows experience in RT, the Surface 3 shrugs off ARM hardware architecture for Intel’s, which also means you get full blown Windows 10 and the ability to run full desktop-class applications. The Windows Store endures and has a few choice picks as well as offerings from popular services like Facebook and Evernote, for those looking for a touch-centric experience, but you can also throw traditional desktop applications – like the full versions of Microsoft Office, Steam and Photoshop ont here without any trouble.
There’s a lot more variation in full Windows versus the closed experience mobile operating systems typically offer, which is great if you want to tinker with the user experience, but that also does mean there’s a lot more to manage – although Microsoft has done a good job of trying to keep things organised from within the settings menu.
Windows on the Surface 3 has a couple of nice tricks like Action Centre, which consolidates quick settings toggles, notifications and messages into one slide out panel, along with snapped multi-tasking good enough to make the iPad Air 2 blush.
As we already touched on, the jump to full Windows 10 over the restricted RT-based operating systems of old required new silicone in order to run the show and as a result the Surface 3 is powered by a quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor backed up by 2GB or 4GB of RAM depending on the model you decide to pick up.
In general usage it fits the bill with respectable fluidity and reliability, however we tested a 4GB model and based on our experiences would ward you away from the smaller 2GB version as it doesn’t take a huge amount to draw out the occasional stutter or chug in performance – primarily through high resolution video playback or 3D gaming (it does however seem comfortable with multi-tasking which is handy).
That big body also accommodates a respectably sized 7480mAh cell, which Microsoft claims will provide up to ten hours of usage, however with mixed use, we typically managed closer to seven. The nature of running a desktop operating system on tablet-centric hardware means that should you carry out desktop operations more frequently than say, run apps from the Windows Store, you’ll likely drain the cell faster, which is something to bear in mind.
We’re by no means disappointed with the longevity the Surface 3’s battery packs, it just feels distinctly average for its size, falling behind the gold standard in tablets – the svelte iPad Air 2 (which usually hits around 9/10 hours of use per charge). It’s also slow to charge, taking several hours through the provided microUSB charger, which also lacks the integrated USB port found on the Surface Pro power bricks.
You’ll find a 3.5-megapixel front-facer and an 8-megapixel rear camera, both of which centre around a fairly rich UI for a tablet, borrowing heavily from Nokia’s Lumia Camera experience, which made its tablet debut on 2013’s RT-powered 2520.
A key security component of Windows 10 is Windows Hello, which saw its most effective implementation on the Pro 4, however the pre-Windows 10 camera arrangement of the Surface 3 doesn’t offer quite the same level of competence, so you’ll have to forgo facial unlock, despite the solid clarity of the front camera and opt for a PIN, picture or conventional password instead.
As we inspected the Surface Pro 4 ahead of the Surface 3, despite the latter launching back in the first half of the year, it’s more a case of deciding whether or not the stripped back Surface experience of the 3 is still valid as we move into 2016.
It packs some unique qualities you’ll only find within Microsoft’s own Surface line (and maybe the HP Spectre X2), with a clear focus on productivity over creative applications or gaming. By comparison, its biggest rival has to be the iPad Air 2, which still holds its own despite being a year old – it has better battery life and more consistent all-round performance, but the Surface 3’s flexible Windows 10 experience and form factor help it stand out in its own way.
As we mentioned before, staying away from the 2GB versions mean you can expect to fork out around £499 plus £109.99 for a compatible Type Cover. That affords you 128GB of storage and even 4G LTE for £178.99 more, which seems like a solid premium tablet price tag for what Microsoft is offering here. Just understand clearly what sort of device the Surface 3 is before you lay down your cash.
|Screen resolution||Full HD (1920x1080)|
|OS||Windows 10 Home|
|Processor||1.6GHz/2.4GHz quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700|
|Memory||2GB/4GB RAM (Tested with 4GB)|
|Storage||64GB/128GB (Tested with 128GB)|
|4G LTE||Yes (optional)|
|Bonus features||Surface Pen, Type Cover, integrated kickstand, Dolby audio,|