The Surface 3 is an attempt to turn the Surface Pro line-up into a more manageable device
While Microsoft has struggled to make itself relevant in the smartphone space, even after buying up Nokia’s hardware division, the software giant has made impressive in-roads into the tablet market with its Surface line up of slate computers. They may not sell like iPads, but its Surface Pro line-up has carved out a niche of its own for Windows users who want the best of both worlds: the power of Windows and a full QWERTY keyboard with the portability of a tablet.
Its brand new Surface 3 is an attempt to package that formula up into something a bit more manageable – not to mention cheaper. Starting at just £419 for the 64GB WiFi model, the Surface 3 is closer to a Chromebook in price than a MacBook or a high end gaming rig, but it can run just the same apps thanks to full Windows 8.1 onboard. It’s an experience marred only by the compromises we’ve come to expect to keep the price down.
The Surface 3 looks just like a shrunken Surface Pro 3, and that’s no bad thing. While its striking, recessed edges give it a sense of thickness throughout, it’s only 8.7mm deep, and feels solidly made. It’s brittle with a premium finish, so unlike some cheapo Android tablets, you do not want to drop it to see what happens, but hey, that’s what you expect from expensive technology.
Save for the Window button, there are no interruptions on the front face, just that screen, with a few trimmings around the edges that are effectively invisible when confronted head on: USB and Micro USB ports, a micro SD card reader and a Mini Display Port for hooking up to a monitor.
Our only real niggle with the exterior in fact is the kickstand, which can only be positioned to a couple of angles, rather than as you please. It’s got shallow and near-vertical covered for using on a desk, but the lack of any more options might annoy artists planning on using the Surface Pen to doodle away digitally.
This time round, the Surface 3 comes with a micro USB lead for charging, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it does mean you can use your phone’s wall charger to juice it up and saves the need for a proprietary cable and power brick; on the other it does mean you have to watch out what you plug it into. Many devices with USB inputs do not have a high enough power rating, and will flat out not charge the Surface 3, so watch out for that.
By far and away the Surface 3’s main selling point is its display. At 12-inches, the Surface Pro 3’s touchscreen was just a little too big, at least for those used to iPads clocking in at under 10-inches. With a display measuring 10.8-inches diagonally, the Surface 3 feels much more manageable, closer to an iPad than the snapped off screen of a bulky 15-inch Acer laptop.
For power users who like to ‘snap’ apps side by side, this may be an inconvenience, but for more casual users it’s a productivity boon as well as simply more portable. It does have one trade-off however, which is that the optional Type Cover is now more cramped and difficult to type with, but it’s not included by default, something we’ll get to shortly.
The display is bright and crisp, with a full HD resolution that makes it more than usable in daylight if you fancy posing outside at a cafe this summer. The 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface Pro 3 has also been carried over, which is a subtle blessing: we’ve always hated the widescreen 16:9 ratio of most Android tablets, which are so long they’re effectively rendered unusable in portrait mode. The Surface 3 suffers no such problems and you can happily prop it up on your legs, rather than across them, to browse the web.
Though it lacks a fan so it’s as quiet as a mouse – or a phone, at any rate – the Surface 3’s internals are all Intel this time around, unlike the feeble mobile processors used by its predecessors.
Just like a PC
This is a PC, albeit without a keyboard. There’s 2 or 4GB of RAM inside, as well as a quad-core processor (although the graphics are integrated, as you’d expect from a low power machine). As a result, it performs just as you’d expect.
You can do some mild Photoshopping, watch YouTube videos in full HD and browse the web without slowdown.
Want to play games though? They’ll need to be yesteryear’s, dialled down to low-res settings, or else less-taxing titles like Candy Crush.
That’s more than enough for most users, who will never manage to slow this Surface down. However it is worth mentioning that under heavy load, with 10 or more pages in the browser open, it struggles more than a Chromebook, especially if you like to have two different browsers open at the same time.
That’s to be expected from a more versatile and powerful operating system, but something to bear in mind if you’re a bit of a tab hoarder.
This low power also has the added advantage of giving you a battery life almost comparable to Apple’s top tablets and laptops.
We found the Surface 3 ran for seven hours on a charge while online, compared to an iPad’s nine or ten, which is respectable when you consider that Intel processors are typically much more power hungry than their mobile counterparts.
The rear 8MP camera probably won’t beat the one in your pocket on your smartphone (and if you regularly pull out a tablet to take photos, you deserve any insults that come your way).
But it’s sharp enough in a pinch. The 3.5MP front-facer is great for selfies and video chats with far away friends on the sofa too, especially since Skype is supported by so many more devices than Apple’s closed-off FaceTime.
However, Windows 8.1 has done little to address the issue of the Great Confuddling that Windows 8 wrought upon the world. (“There’s no desktop, no wait here it is, hang on it’s gone again, what does this Start button actually do?”).
On tablet or PC it feels like two operating systems trying to get along in a tiny bedsit meant for one. The fact that the traditional desktop mode is effectively an app (that can also open apps) will blow technophobes’ minds, and even if you can grasp this concept, it’s quite tedious – iPads only have one launcher for a reason.
Windows 10 should alleviate some of these issues. If you can accept Windows 8.1’s shortcomings, it’s a very powerful OS, with lots of excellent software bundled in, including Office with a 365 one-year subscription, Skype, and the excellent OneNote and OneDrive. And unlike an iPad, there are no restrictions on the apps you can install, no walled garden you’re forced to stay in. Want to get your games from Steam instead of the Microsoft Store? Go ahead. Just don’t expect to be playing the latest shooter on this lesson in compromise.
You can do with it as you please, and everything, apart from the low-power processor, has been future proofed for the launch of Windows 10. Of course how many of those naysayers haven’t already bought another tablet to surf on the sofa and stay in touch on holiday remains to be seen. If you’re in that niche and are put off by the price of the Surface Pro 3 though, this is the slate for you.