Review: Microsoft Surface 3

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Gizmag reviews Microsoft's most well-balanced Surface yet, the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Gizmag reviews Microsoft's most well-balanced Surface yet, the Surface 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com). View gallery (15 images)

Microsoft's first two generations of the Surface 2-in-1 were intriguing enough, but they were also pretty compromised. And though the Surface Pro 3 was a huge leap forward, at nearly US$1,000, it also isn't the cheapest device around. That brings us to Microsoft's lightest and thinnest Surface yet – with a lower price to boot. Read on for Gizmag's Surface 3 review.

The Surface 3 is, in many ways, the "Surface Pro 3 Mini." If you took the Surface Pro 3, shrunk it down a little and took away some of its processing power (along with a few other finer details) ... bam: you'd have the Surface 3.

What that description might not tell you, though, is that the Surface 3 is, in some ways, better than the Surface Pro 3. Considering it's $250 cheaper (once you add keyboard and pen), that's something to get excited about.

The total amount of compromise here may actually be a bit less than it is in the Pro 3. The SP3 is a great laptop, but oversized as a tablet. The Surface 3 flips those two things around: it's a smaller laptop than you might be used to, but it also feels much more natural as a tablet.

For a frame of reference, the Surface 3's screen is 81 percent as big as the Pro 3's screen. The Surface 3's display is also 19 percent bigger than the iPad Air 2's display. There's always going to be some degree of compromise in 2-in-1s, but the Surface 3 is the best balanced one Microsoft has made yet.

Performance isn't amazing on the Surface 3, and you shouldn't expect "amazing" from an Intel Atom processor. But we find it to be perfectly manageable for casual use and light-ish work. I have no problems running Photoshop CC, with five or six browser tabs and a few background apps running at the same time. You might pick up on a little choppiness here and there, but there's nothing to worry about for this price point.

Another big change with the Surface 3 is that Microsoft finally made a non-"Pro" Surface that runs full Windows, including desktop apps. Instead of trying to be an iPad rival with a keyboard (and an app store that doesn't come close to competing with the iPad's), the Surface 3 sticks with Microsoft's strengths, running both touch-based and legacy Windows apps.

It's also the first non-Pro Surface that's compatible with the Surface Pen. It can use the exact same (excellent) Surface Pen that you get with the Pro 3, helping you to navigate desktop apps, get some nice pressure-sensitive input in Photoshop or even scribble memos in OneNote.

Our only complaint about the Surface Pen compatibility is that, unlike with the Pro, you have to buy the pen separately. That's an extra $50 to add to your purchase (though if you're buying the Surface 3, we do recommend getting the pen).

Though we didn't find its performance to be too big of a problem, there are two other compromises that Surface Pro 3 owners will pick up on right off the bat. First, you can't magnetically attach the Surface Pen to the side of the Surface 3, as you can with the Pro. Instead you'll need to rely more on the keyboard's loop for stashing the pen.

The other compromise is that its kickstand doesn't adjust dynamically like the Surface Pro 3's does, instead giving you three fixed positions (not including the completely folded-in position) to choose from.

These things are slightly annoying, but if they helped Microsoft to shave, say, $100 off of what it was able to sell it for, then we can live with them. They don't take that much away from the experience.

We think the Type Cover's keys feel good for typing. Its touchpad, however, is a bit of a weakness. Its sensitivity is pretty good, and it is a moving (or "clicking") pad, but it's also too small to rely on heavily for navigation. Fortunately there's touchscreen input and the Surface Pen to help make up for the shrimpy trackpad.

Battery life isn't amazing, but it is still good. In our benchmark (streaming video, with minimal background apps running and brightness at about 75 percent), the Surface 3 dropped 15 percent per hour – almost exactly what the Surface Pro 3 scored in the same test. There are laptops that do better than this, but these are still good results – and much better than the first two generations of Surfaces.

When you do need to charge, the Surface 3 now uses a microUSB cable. If you own any smartphones or tablets that aren't made by Apple, chances are you have at least one or two of these lying around. It fits the Surface 3's status as a travel device: lose your charger, and you can stroll into any number of truck stops, airport kiosks or retail stores and buy yourself a cheap replacement.

If you're shopping for a Windows 2-in-1 or a laptop in the $600-800 range, we think the Surface 3 deserves a spot on your list. For a student, or someone who only needs a PC for light work, where portability is a big factor, this could work as your main PC. And if you already have a bigger and more powerful desktop or laptop, the Surface 3 could make for a great second machine – for things like road trips, couch surfing or grab-and-go situations.

The Surface 3 may be closer to an iPad rival than a MacBook Air rival, but that analogy only goes so far, as Windows 8.1 isn't really much of a tablet operating system (after two and a half years, the Windows Store still doesn't have a great selection of touch-based apps). But once you arm yourself with that Surface Pen, the Surface 3 becomes a different type of tablet: one that runs some tablet apps along with loads of great desktop apps.

This is the type of tablet Microsoft can carve out a niche for itself with. As long as you don't mind whipping out the pen for smaller targets on the desktop, it works.

While the Surface 3's power and screen size are merely "good enough" for a laptop, it balances things out with the most portable and tablet-friendly package we've seen in a Surface. For some shoppers, that will make it a better buy than the Surface Pro 3.

... and it will only get better when Windows 10 launches to the public, later this year.

The Microsoft Surface 3 is available now, starting at $500 for the tablet only (that's only 64 GB storage, but it does have a microSD slot). The keyboard ($130) is an essential addition to your purchase, and we think the Surface Pen ($50) is almost essential. So consider its starting price to be $680.

For some of the details we skimmed over, you can revisit Gizmag's Surface Pro 3 review from last year.

Product page: Microsoft

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