Microsoft Surface 3
Microsoft managed to keep the Surface 3 launch under wraps, so it was a surprise when it was announced earlier this year. Given that the Surface Pro 3 was the first such device we were able to recommend buying, a cheaper version should surely be good news.
The Surface Pro 3 is a great feat of engineering, but not everyone needs the power of a Core i7 for browsing the web, sending emails and creating documents in Office 365. So a Core M-based tablet running full-blown Windows 8.1 (rather than the hamstrung Windows RT) is what we’d been waiting for.
Unfortunately, that’s not what we got. Instead, there’s an Atom x7-Z8700, the first Cherry Trail processor to be seen in a tablet. It’s a quad-core part, running at 1.6GHz but capable of boosting up to 2.4GHz when necessary.
This is the only processor on offer, meaning you have a choice of only four models: 64GB Wi-Fi for £419, 128GB Wi-Fi for £499, 64GB Wi-Fi + LTE and 128GB Wi-Fi + LTE. Currently there are no prices for the cellular versions, nor a set release date. The 64GB models have 2GB of RAM, while the 128GB versions have a more suitable allocation of 4GB.
There’s also a microSD card slot for adding more storage, but with a full-size USB port, you can easily connect USB flash drives and hard drives for almost unlimited storage.
One of the great things about the Atom processor is that it doesn’t require a fan for cooling, which means the Surface 3 is completely silent. Since that’s what we’ve all come to expect from a modern tablet it’s not a unique achievement by any means, but it’s still welcome one.
The casing is made from the same magnesium as the Pro version, without the vents around the edge. Microsoft says it could have made the Surface 3 thinner, but chose not to in order to leave enough room for the full-size USB 3.0 port.
There’s also a Micro-USB socket: another welcome feature as it means that you can charge your Surface 3 with any USB charger and Micro-USB cable. However, you’re best off with the bundled power supply, which delivers 2.5A (or 13W) and charges the tablet much faster than a phone charger can.
We’re big fans of the frontmounted stereo speakers, which you can hardly see in the screen bezel. They sound better than you’d expect, because they’re not shooting sound away from you like most tablets do with rear-facing speakers.
Unfortunately, you don’t get the same infinite-position kickstand as the Surface Pro 3. The baby Surface clicks into three positions, the first two being the same angles as the Pro 3, and the third giving much more of a lean – ideal for sketching or annotating.
One of the biggest attractions of the Pro 3 is its larger screen: 12.1in versus the 10.6in of the Surface Pro 2. It’s still small by laptop standards, but just big enough to be usable for productivity and strike a good balance between size and portability.
The Surface 3’s screen is a step backwards, though. At 10.8in, it’s smaller than any laptop or Chromebook. Microsoft has changed it to a 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes the tablet nicer to use in portrait mode than 16:9 Surfaces as it’s closer to the aspect ratio of paper. And since you can use the Surface Pro 3 pen with the Surface 3, those who want to draw or write will appreciate the more pad-like dimensions.
The resolution of 1920x1280 equates to a pixel density of 214ppi. That’s not particularly high, but if anything we’d prefer a lower resolution on a display of this size. Usually we’d say the opposite, but Windows doesn’t scale well and at the default text size everything is tiny. If you’re used to using Windows on a large or lowresolution screen, adjusting to the Surface 3 can take some time.
Having swapped a 15.6in office laptop for the Surface for the duration of the review, we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s possible to use a 10.8in screen for work. It’s just not that pleasant.
Microsoft says there are several reasons for making the Surface 3 smaller: to offer more choice, to give better battery life and to make it cheaper. So if you were hoping for a less powerful, cheaper Surface Pro 3, bad luck. This is arguably a better Surface 2 that can run legacy Windows programs, but it’s not an alternative if you had your heart set on a 12in screen.
Another cost-cutting measure is the fact that you no longer get the pen in the box: it’s a £45 option. As we said in our Surface Pro 3 review, it’s a wonderful gadget. Tap the button on the end and OneNote will launch even if the tablet is in standby. A double-press takes a screenshot, after which you can draw a marquee to save only the portion you want and then annotate it before quickly sharing it.
Some people may not want the pen, so they’ll save money but selling the Surface 3 without the keyboard makes even less sense than with the Surface Pro 3. Yet again it’s an option, but no sane person would buy a Surface 3 and exclusively use the on-screen keyboard. The only reason you’d consider a Surface over, say, an iPad Air 2 is because you want