Microsoft has introduced its thinnest and lightest Surface tablet yet, and I know what you’re thinking: no, the Surface 3 isn’t the long-rumoured Surface Mini.
That said, the new tablet bears many of the qualities you might expect from a small Surface — it’s plenty portable and more affordable than the Surface Pro 3, while packing less in the power department. And that last point could prove a concern.
The Surface 3 is the first non-Pro Surface to get full-fat Windows 8.1, rather than Windows RT, which featured on the Surface RT, Surface 2 (and Surface 2 4G). At 10.8 inches, the new tablet is closer in length to those devices while being slightly taller due to its 3:2 aspect ratio display.
Foregoing an Intel Core-series CPU (what, no Core M?), the Surface 3 comes with a Quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700 "Cherry Trail" CPU clocked at 1.6GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.4GHz), 2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
If you want to dial up the power (slightly), a second version comes with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Both will be available starting May 7. The former spec will set you back £419 (around $619, AU$814), while the latter comes in at £499 (around $738, AU$970).
While cost of entry is lower than entry-level Surface Pro 3, which starts at £575 ($799, AU$979), that device gets you a more powerful Core i3 fourth-generation Intel CPU and a larger display.
I’ve always loved the design of Microsoft’s Surface products, and the Surface 3 is no exception. Its smooth edges and two-tone silver-and-black finish just lend it that premium edge over most other Windows tablets.
If you’re thinking that the Surface 3 is overpriced considering the specs inside, you can be reassured that design and build quality is partially responsible for that. Still, the price is a lot to ask for a device that comes with an Intel Atom CPU that may struggle to run Photoshop and other demanding applications. But we’ll reserve judgement on that point until our full review.
The Surface 3 sports the same magnesium alloy design as previous Surface tablets, and at 622 grams (versus the Surface Pro 3’s 800 grams), it’s noticeably the lightest Surface yet. Holding it to scribble in OneNote using the Stylus Pen (once again sold separately), it’s the closest yet to feeling like you’re wielding a pad of paper in the hand.
If the Surface Pro 3’s multi-position kickstand was considered a step forward, the Surface 3’s is three steps back. Literally. In a similar manner to the Surface Pro 2 (which has a two-position kickstand), you can position it back at three different angles, which could make it less attractive to designers who have got used to the Surface Pro 3’s flexible leanings. For the casual user, however, it provides enough variation — even if it doesn’t balance particularly well on the lap.
One of the Surface 3’s standout features is its display. It’s sharp, and especially bright, with deep blacks and bold colours that ‘pop’. At a pixel-resolution of 1,920 x 1,280 it provides more than enough room for snapping apps and windows side-by-side, and you can see more of what’s going on vertically thanks to its 3:2 aspect ratio.
One of the big selling points of Microsoft’s Surface tablets is that you can use them as both a tablet and a laptop, and the Surface 3’s touch-sensitive display is highly responsive to touch. While double-tapping icons and moving Windows around isn’t particularly taxing using a finger, and you get more accuracy using the Stylus Pen.
The display’s clarity and strong colours make it suitable for watching videos. Firing up a 1080p YouTube clip produced impressive results, and the Surface 3 should be similarly up to the task of displaying content streaming from Netflix and other services. Microsoft plans to offer a version with 4G LTE connectivity, though a date and pricing is yet to be confirmed.
The Surface 3 comes with a number of accessories in tow, including a Surface Pen that’s identical to the Surface Pro 3’s. It possesses a reassuringly weighty feel and has a pressure-sensitive nib that lets you make thicker strokes by pressing down on the display harder.
Like members of the Surface Pro line, the Surface 3 comes with a Type Keyboard Cover, which isn’t included as standard and will add an eye-watering £109.99 (around $162) to the cost. When the Surface is billed as a more affordable cousin to the flagship Surface Pro 3, having to shell out around a quarter of the Surface 3’s cost for a sub-par accessory is a tough pill to swallow.
It operates identically to previous Touch Covers and features backlit keys, in addition to what Microsoft claims is a more accurate trackpad. If you weren’t convinced by previous Surface keyboard covers, there’s nothing that will make you want to pick one up this time around. With shallow key travel, the emphasis is once again on portability and it fares badly going up against chiclet-style alternatives on full-size laptops — such as the one on the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi. Even when you snap the Surface 3’s keyboard to the bottom edge of the tablet to make it sturdier, it still doesn’t come close.
The Surface 3 will also be offered with a docking station that adds additional output and charging ports for £164.99 (US price yet to be confirmed). Unlike previous Surface tablets, the Surface 3 charges via micro-USB instead of using a proprietary connector. Microsoft claims that the tablet’s battery will provide up to 10 hours of video playback, but stopped short on commenting how long it will take to charge.
The fact remains that the Surface 3 is the most affordable Surface tablet yet, while being the lightest and thinnest in the family. For that reason it stands a chance of swaying you if you was tempted by the Surface Pro 3 but was put off by its price tag.
That said, the Surface 3 isn’t a great deal more affordable than the Surface Pro 3, and once you consider that it has an Atom (rather than Core-series) CPU, and you’ll need to pick up at least a Keyboard Cover (not to mention the Stylus Pen and docking station), the price ramps up for a tablet that may not come close to providing the power to run the applications that many owners will need.
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