Microsoft Surface 3 (review)

If you want to buy a Surface, Microsoft’s hybrid laptop-tablet device, you should buy the new Surface 3. It’s the Surface that’s both useful and affordable. It starts at $500 and runs a fully operational version of Windows. The Surface 3 is a very good Surface; the Surface Pro 3 is the best Surface, but it’s more Surface than most people need. The Surface 3 is the Surface for everyone.

OK, actually, it’s not that simple. The full Surface experience requires the $130 Type Cover (for typing) and the $50 Surface Pen (for interacting with the touchscreen). That’s $680 for the whole package, which puts the “cheaper” Surface well beyond the price range of the average PC buyer, who, statistically speaking, spends less than $500. At $499 for the tablet alone, the Surface remains firmly in luxury-purchase range, along with the same-price iPad.
At least the Surface lineup is more accessible than ever. And with the Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3, Redmond’s concept of a unique, ultra portable machine feels fully realized. This seems like the thing Microsoft has wanted to build all along.
the Surface is meant to be all things to all people. It’s “the tablet that can replace your laptop,” right? One part ThinkPad, one part iPad. That means you need just one device, which stores all your files, apps, and settings. But it requires a lot of compromise. Take the 10.8-inch screen: It’s actually pretty useful, since the 1920 x 1280 resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio offer more vertical space and screen real estate than older Surfaces. But the display will feel teensy to anyone used to a 15-inch laptop.
In almost every way, it’s just a smaller, less expensive Surface Pro 3. It’s a sturdy, attractive device, made of a single block of silver aluminum that looks as refined as anything Apple makes. It weighs a mere 1.4 pounds: I barely notice it in my bag at all, and I don’t mind holding it in my hands for hours either. It runs a mobile-friendly, super-efficient 1.6GHz Intel Atom X7 processor instead of the Pro’s desktop-class Core chip. That helps drive the price down, and means the Surface 3 doesn’t need a fan—it’s just 8.7mm thick, big for a tablet but tiny next to most $500 laptops. It offers a generous helping of I/O—USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, a Micro USB charging port, and a microSD slot—and the same port layout as the Pro 3. The only clear downgrade is the kickstand: The Surface Pro 3 has an infinitely adjustable kickstand, but this one snaps tight at three distinct angles. Apparently, the better hinge was too expensive.
By itself, it’s a tablet. You’ve got the 1080p screen, the solid front-facing speakers, and a solid nine or ten hours of battery life. Having a kickstand is nice, too; I’ve always liked using a Surface in the kitchen while cooking.
The real problem in tablet mode is Windows. Windows 8 is a mess when it comes to touch-friendliness, since you’re forced to jump between touch-optimized apps and poking at tiny checkboxes in Control Panel. And there’s still the app problem: the Microsoft Store is devoid of great games, apps, and utilities. A free, automatic upgrade to Windows 10 should help later this year, adding the handy Cortana assistant and improving some app and menu design. But even Windows 10 doesn’t feel fully optimized for touch. It’s still very much a keyboard-and-mouse OS. There’s still time before Windows 10 comes out, to be fair, and the situation may improve. But you should wait and see before you buy.
Of course, attaching a keyboard and mouse is easy—just click in the Type Cover attachment, which now comes in a few new colors and cleverly uses a magnet to prop it up at a comfortable typing angle. It’s still awkward to use on your lap, but the Type Cover offers a nice keyboard and a totally usable trackpad. It’s perfectly useful at a desk, and is a really fantastic, instant-on coffee table computer—you can reach over and type to look something up, or grab it off the table to flip through photos of other movies starring James Marsden.
Here, though, you make other sacrifices. The X7 processor is up to basic tasks like Office, Netflix, and web browsing, but it falters quickly when you turn up the pressure. Splurging $100 on the upgrade from 2GB to 4GB of RAM helps, because otherwise you’ll see some slowdown at about a dozen browser tabs. You’ll also get 128GB of storage, rather than 64GB.
Since it’s running a full version of Windows 8.1, and not the needlessly hamstrung Windows RT, it’s compatible with every legacy app and game you own, plus the one weird version of Photoshop you pirated three years ago. They work, which is far better than nothing, but power is lacking. And when you sit down at a keyboard and mouse to do work, the brief slowdowns you learn to tolerate on a tablet start to become frustrating. And for real, multitasking work, the screen is still just too small. (The Pro 3’s 12-inch, 2160 x 1440 screen feels enormous by comparison.)
On one hand, the Surface 3 is a triumph. It tries to do a great many things, and does them all serviceably. Microsoft tried to balance power with portability, simplicity with usability, laptop with tablet. In every case, it found the right balance. You absolutely can get by with this as your only device, tossing everything else but your smartphone. That’s more true here than of the Surface Pro 3, which is a laptop pretending to be a tablet. But the bad news for Microsoft is the good news for you: You can do better than the middle ground.
Thanks to the proliferation of cheap and universally accessible cloud storage, you can have your data and documents follow you everywhere. I can use my iMac at home, a Chromebook on the road, a ThinkPad at the office, or the random Kinko’s kiosk without missing a byte. We’re nearing a world in which good gadgets become task-specific: When you want to read on the bus or watch a movie in bed, use a light, thin, touch-first tablet. When you want to futz with spreadsheets or hammer out some email, cozy up to a laptop’s keyboard and big screen. It’s so easy to access your data from anywhere, to make any device your device, that there’s no need for the one thing you can take everywhere and use for everything. Why settle for the lowest common denominator when you can have the best of all worlds, and nothing to carry home?
Microsoft’s biggest advantage, of course, is price. With the Surface 3, you only need to buy one device. A cheaper Surface is a welcome thing, and if you’re looking for a single device that is useful every single second of the day, the Surface 3 is it. It’s an excellent execution of the Surface vision.
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