Surface 3 Tablet - A Perfect Balance of Performance and Value

In essence, the Surface 3 is a thinner, lighter, smaller and cheaper version of the Surface Pro 3. It has a 10.8-inch screen and weighs just 887g with the keyboard attached (622g without), but it's less powerful than many of the laptops it aims to replace. It's kind of awkward on your lap and you'd struggle to recommend it to a friend without pointing out how 'different' it is. It's complicated.

That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but the Surface 3 is more than the sum of its parts. Its Intel Atom processor is competent rather than fast and its battery doesn’t last quite as long as laptops like the Asus Zenbook UX305, but it's charming, versatile and – like a good camera – it makes you want to use it. And, unlike the Surface RT it replaces, it runs on a proper version of Windows, so it's actually useful.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

PROS

Great screen

Near all-day battery life

Nice size and weight for a hybrid

One-year Office 365

Versatile and fun to use

CONS

Not as fast as similar price laptops

Essential accessories cost extra

KEY FEATURES

10.8-inch, 1,920 x 1,280 display

662g

1.6GHz Intel Atom processor

Bluetooth 4.0

802.11ac Wi-Fi

USB 3.0

Mini DisplayPort

microSD

3.5-megapixel front camera

8.0-megapixel camera

Manufacturer: Microsoft

SURFACE 3 – DESIGN

You could easily rename the Surface 3 the Surface Pro Mini, though ‘mini’ is somewhat generous. Its 10.8-inch screen is significantly smaller than the 12-inch Surface Pro and this has several – largely positive – knock-on effects, but it’s mini compared to the Surface Pro, not in an iPad Mini way.

In practice the Surface 3 is a good 200g or so lighter than the Pro. Indeed, the combined 885g weight of the tablet and keyboard makes it 33g lighter than the shiny new 12-inch MacBook. This means the Surface 3 feels more like a genuine tablet than the Pro, and it’s an important difference. You’ll want to use the Surface 3 more because it’s lighter, easier to carry and less cumbersome when out and about.

It’s also thinner – 8.7mm vs 9.1mm – but the more important point is the Surface 3 is fanless. Intel’s Atom processors aren’t speed demons, but they’re efficient enough that they run happily without additional cooling. It’s another way the Surface 3 is a better tablet, as you’ll never be interrupted by the unwelcome whir of a fan.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

Yet the Surface 3’s also a vastly better hybrid than the ill-conceived Surface RT line ever was. That’s mostly down to the fact it runs a full, unlimited version of Windows 8.1, but also because it employs most of things that made the Surface Pro 3 such a great product.

While smaller, the Surface 3 retains the same 3:2 aspect introduced for the Pro 3. It’s a good compromise between the widescreen 16:9 of previous Surface tablets and the 4:3 aspect of an iPad. It works just as well in portrait as in landscape, or in desktop and tablet modes.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

You also get an improved kickstand. It isn’t as adjustable as the Pro’s novel effort, but it has three sensible angles that work well for a variety of situations. You’ll rarely encounter a time when you can’t find an angle that works for you – I found the middle and shallowest angles the most useful.

As with previous Surface tablets, the hinge is impressively durable and this is arguably the easiest Surface to use on your lap. Its size and weight make it less cumbersome than the Surface Pro 3 and it remains stable, provided you keep both your legs level. It’s not as easy to use like this as a laptop, but it’s good enough if you don’t have to do it all the time.

Use it on a table, though, and the Surface 3 feels little different from an ordinary laptop. You can magnetically clip the keyboard to the bottom of the screen to create a more comfortable typing angle, but it feels better for typing when left flat on a hard surface – the angle works best on your lap.

The versatility of the design means you can enjoy using the Surface 3 in settings where laptops are awkward, and you can even use the on-screen keyboard effectively with the Surface 3 at its shallowest angle.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

Connectivity is limited, but not as much as some small hybrids we’ve seen – the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi springs to mind here. The Surface 3 has a full-size USB port, a Mini DisplayPort output and Micro USB expansion, which is sufficient when paired with the fast AC Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Everything you really need is here and Microsoft has even upgraded the two cameras. You now get an 8-megapixel camera at the rear and 3.5-megapixel on the front. They’re both adequate for what you’ll need from a tablet.

SURFACE 3 – KEYBOARD AND TRACKPAD

The keyboard is a decent effort given the constraints of the hybrid design and the smaller screen. In fact, the keys are the same size as those on the Surface Pro 3, so there’s no meaningful compromise there. They’re comfortable to type on and have a not unpleasant sharp, precise action. We’re not talking ThinkPad quality here, but they’ll do.

The touchpad, however, is very small and awkward. It’s hard to be precise on such a small pad, and using gestures to scroll up and down pages is hit and miss – Google Chrome was particularly bad for some reason.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

But the large, responsive touchscreen makes up for this. It’s often easier to employ it to do some actions, and the nature of the web these days means many websites and web apps are more touch friendly than in the past.

If there’s a serious concern about the keyboard, it’s the durability. The keys and touchpad seem fine, but the soft velour-like material around the palm rests scuffs and wears easily – I only had the Surface 3 for less than a week when small signs of use were obvious.

It’s a cosmetic rather than a functional issue, but the idea that your expensive keyboard accessory could look tatty and worn after a year or so is kind of annoying.

SURFACE 3 – SCREEN QUALITY

10.8-inch, 1,920 x 1,280 IPS LCD with N-Trig digitiser support

The Surface 3's screen isn't as sharp as the Apple iPad Air 2's retina screen – that much is obvious. Its 213 pixels per inch (ppi) is significantly less than the iPad Air (264ppi), but the difference in real life isn't that significant. The Surface 3 looks sharp enough and is easily the match, and often the superior, of any laptop at the same price.

That's no less true of the screen as a whole – it's a very good screen. Colours are punchy yet realistic, it's bright enough to be useable in even harsh lighting and contrast is above average for an LCD screen.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

This makes the Surface 3 as good for watching videos as it is for working on. Any good-quality HD video looks rich and immersive, even if the Surface 3 can't resolve quite as much detail and colour as a top-end TV or OLED phone or tablet – few can. The 1,920 x 1,280 resolution is perfect for working on, too. It offers enough space to comfortably view two documents side-by-side.

It’s a good screen then, but it was one irritating flaw – dynamic contrast. An obvious, not very subtle and deeply annoying dynamic contrast system is active by default. It causes distracting changes in brightness and contrast when watching any video, yet it’s not all that straightforward to turn it off – it’s actually part of the Intel graphics driver software, which isn’t obvious without some research.

This sounds trivial, but it’s been a constant complaint of previous Surface tablets, so the fact that Microsoft hasn’t addressed it is doubly irritating.

Surface 3 review

Surface 3 review

SURFACE 3 – PERFORMANCE

Intel Atom x7-Z8700, 1.6GHz Quad-core with 1.6GHz Intel Burst; 4GB RAM; 128GB SSD; PCMark 7: 2,793; Geekbench 3: 3,491

Performance is the one area that could prove troublesome for the Surface 3, particularly for anyone who’s choosing between a Surface 3 and a laptop, or even the Pro version. Microsoft says the Surface 3 is 80% as fast as the Core i3 version of the Pro, which doesn’t cost that much more than the Surface 3 we’re testing.

Speaking of which, Microsoft will sell two different versions of the Surface 3. We’re testing the £499 version, which has 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage, but there’s also a £419 version with just 2GB RAM and 64GB of storage. Anything running Windows on 2GB will struggle somewhat, so the £499 version is definitely the one to have. The option of 4GB RAM and 64GB storage would be a nice compromise.

The Surface 3 handles everyday computing tasks fine – I had no problems using it as my work machine for a day, where I often had multiple tabs open and music playing while I worked. This should be fine for most people, but you’ll need a little patience when tackling anything more demanding.

For example, cropping and resizing images in Paint.NET means a short, one- to two-second burst of processing time for each image. That’s fine if you only do this occasionally, but a large batch of images takes a long time to process. Likewise, all but the most basic video editing is best avoided.

Surface 3

Surface 3 review

In benchmarks, it’s clear that the Surface 3 is a significant step down in performance compared to the recent influx of Intel Core M-based laptops. The best example is the Asus ZenBook UX305, which was 48% faster in PCMark 7 and 17% faster in Geekbench 3. This is a laptop that costs more or less the same as the Surface 3 once all costs are included, so it’s an apt comparison.

But the Surface 3 is a decent step up from other Intel Atom-powered tablets. It’s 13% faster than the new Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi in Geekbench 3, and a considerable 38% faster than the 2013 Transformer Book T100 – a TrustedReviews Recommended Award winner at the time.

It’s a similar story for games. Sure, you can play some games on very low settings, but there are few games you’d want to play this way. That said, it’ll play any game from the Windows Store without difficulty, and they’re are plenty of lo-fi and retro titles that’ll run fine on this kind of hardware.

Heat certainly isn’t a problem, either – I never noticed the Surface 3 getting warm enough to remark on it.

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