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Microsoft Surface 3 review – 3 months with the base model

Microsoft Surface 3 review – 3 months with the base model
By Douglas Black , last updated on 18 Jul 2015
Summary: I've been using the base model of the Surface 3 as my daily driver for the past 3 months. It's beautifully crafted, decent to type on, and won't break the bank. However, the Surface 3, and especially the most basic model, has a few shortfalls.
Rating: 3.5 / 5   Price range: $499 - $799

THE GOOD

Excellent build quality, ingenious type cover design, beautiful screen, can function as a laptop or tablet

THE BAD

2GB Ram not enough, if you don't need a tablet you can get more for your money elsewhere, not the most powerful CPU, completely unupgradable

About 3 months ago I sold my Asus T200 to a colleague and used it as an excuse to change my work computer to something a bit more interesting.

The T200, my first 2-in-1 and Windows tablet, was a nice machine, but I found the performance and battery life somewhat middling. One of the biggest issues was the WXGA (1366 x 768 px) screen which, when used in tablet mode with the on-screen keyboard, left only about 3 visible lines of text in any word processing programme. The tiny 32GB of storage, leaving me with 3GB of free space, wasn’t fantastic either.

My priorities were basically to find something with (1) a higher resolution screen, (2) better performance, (3) more storage, and (4) sleeker profile. I’m a teacher who frequently plans lessons on the move, so a low weight and small footprint are always a plus. A touchscreen would be nice if I could get one, but it wasn’t required. I did a lot of research before heading to the malls, but the choice wasn’t as easy as I thought.

As the T200 was about 6 months old by that point I had assumed that Moore’s law would have taken effect and I could get everything that I wanted for the same price- or perhaps even cheaper. Alas, no. Acer’s more affordable line of Switch tablets had even lower resolutions than my old T200, not to mention poorer overall design. At the same time, their premium models with higher resolution screens and more horsepower were selling for about twice what I wanted to pay.

The newly released (at that time) Asus UX305 looked to be perfect, except it was selling here (Thailand) for nearly $1000. I couldn’t justify spending that much money on a machine that sold elsewhere for about $600, so I kept looking.

Everything seemed to be either too big, too small, or too expensive. I went from shop to shop for days and started to feel that it had been a mistake to sell my T200. Then I saw the new Surface 3. Sleek, silvery, and solid, the Surface 3 attracted me time and time again. Five hundred dollars for this quality? Its magnesium casing and build quality was (and still is) impeccable, blowing the plasticy Acer, Dell, and Lenovo hybrids out of the water. I needed it. Oh, but the price doesn’t include the essential Type Cover? Well, what’s another $130, right? Oh… and a 3rd party Ethernet-USB dongle? What’s another $30? It turns out the answer to this basic maths problem is $660 USD, and I got my first lesson in what many other reviewers have already pointed out: what appears initially to be a bargain price creeps up quite quickly.

Keep in mind that $500 is for the absolute base version with 2GB ram and 64GB of eMMC storage. It’s another $100 if you want to get the 4GB version, but I again found it hard to justify spending closer to $1000 for a Atom-powered hybrid for work. So, I sprung for the base model.

The questions I asked thenIs it enough for what I want to do? Is this the tablet that can replace my laptop, as Microsoft advertises? are the questions I will try to answer in this somewhat subjective review: Yes and No*. Read on for the details as I review the Surface 3 based on roughly 3 months of using it as a daily driver.

Specs

Here’s what you get for $630 USD in the base version of the Surface 3:

Screen 10.8” 1920 x 1280 px resolution (3:2), IPS, 10-point touch
Processor Atom X7-Z8700  1.6GHz w/ 2MB Cache
Graphics Integrated Intel HD Graphics
Memory 2GB
Storage 64GB eMMC
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 1x full-size USB 3.0, 1x mini-USB 3.0 (for charging and connectivity), mini-display port, microSD card reader, headphone jack
Battery 28 Wh rated by Microsoft for up to to 10 hours of video playback
Operating system Windows 8.1
Size 267 x 187 x 8.7 mm (tablet only)
Weight 622 g (tablet only)
Extras Stereo speakers, microphone, Backlit Type Cover, 3.5 MP front camera and 8.0 MP rear camera with autofocus
s3_closed_side

Sparse I/O.

These are decent specs given the Surface 3’s price and fanless form-factor.

The modern Atom processor is quite capable of handling everyday tasks, the I/O is frugal but sufficient, and the screen is drop-dead gorgeous.

In today’s era of cloud storage, 64GB and a microSD slot (which I filled with a class-10 64GB microSD for media storage) is enough. The spec which I feel is most questionable here is certainly the 2GB of RAM.

More on that in the performance section.

Design and build quality

s3_bottom

The chassis is strong, stylish, and svelte.

Simply put, there are few computers as cool looking as a Surface 3. It attracts comments wherever I go, and it is definitely one of the Surface series’ main selling points (quite a first for Microsoft to come up with a piece of hardware mostly sold by its design, let’s be honest).

Really, minus a couple of niggles, I love almost everything about the design of the Surface 3. The back of the tablet itself is made from silvery magnesium, including the adjustable kickstand that can be set in 3 positions. There is no flex in the chassis whatsoever despite it’s thinness and light weight. It has a high-quality and solid feel that gives you confidence in tossing the thing into your bag and without worry. This confidence is not misplaced, as after 3 months of using the Surface 3 daily, it has nothing more than a couple hairline scratches on the magnesium back.

Otherwise it looks as it did on day one, despite that I did not baby it one bit.

The Type Cover, which attaches to the Surface via a proprietary connection and easily snapped via two strong magnets, is finished with a material that feels somewhat like felt. The feel of it is comfortable on your wrists when typing and its softness protects the screen when closed. The cover can be folded behind the Surface while using it as a tablet without having to detach it, which is a convenient design choice.

Additionally, there is a small secondary fold at the bottom of the Type Cover which raises the top of the keyboard about ¾” up, creating a more natural typing angle at the cost of a slightly less solid feel when striking the keys. Generally I prefer to type with it in this raised position. I only wish there was another set of magnets which would allow the Type Cover to stay either pinned behind the screen or covering it so it would have more of a clamshell laptop feel. This is definitely nitpicking, though.

s3_side

The Type Cover in its angled position.

Laptop Mode and the Type Cover

As I said, I do have a few bones to pick with the design. One of them is with the tablet: the kickstand, unlike in the Pro version, only snaps to 3 predetermined positions. Generally they are sufficient, and when working such as typing this at my desk at the moment, the first, tallest position is best.

However the kickstand comes up short when the Surface is used on one’s lap. There just isn’t enough room on your knees for the edge of the kickstand and the Type Cover to be used in laptop mode. Reducing the angle of the kickstand just makes it worse as it’s more likely the Surface will slip over the precipice of one’s legs and fall to the floor. Because of the limit of the kickstand’s predetermined angles I never quite felt comfortable using the Surface on my lap– an area where Ultrabooks handily beat the Surface in usability.

The Type Cover, which doubles as a protective cover and keyboard, is a brilliant piece of engineering. Despite the 10.8” diagonal measure of the Surface 3, the keys on the Type Cover are fully-sized and have a nearly magical amount of travel to them. If you’ve ever tried to use the previous Surface’s Type Covers with touch “keys” then you’ll know what I’m talking about, but the new Type Covers are like night and day.

I’m not sure how they managed to get so much travel on such a thin cover, but I have no trouble reaching 80-90 WPM typing on it. But wait, there’s more– not only does the Type Cover have full-sized keys with decent travel, it also has a backlight with five levels of brightness. This was something Microsoft didn’t need to do on the budget Surface 3, but going the extra mile just adds that special something extra to the overall package and I’m extremely glad they did.

s3_keyboard_night

The Type Cover backlight in action.

Below the keyboard is a clickpad. It’s a Microsoft Precision pad, which isn’t very customizable in the way of software (unlike, say, a Synaptics pad), but it’s accurate and I don’t accidentally hit it while typing.

The only issue I have with the clickpad is its size as unfortunately there just isn’t enough room below the keyboard to have as much touchpad as I would like. I had to turn the sensitivity all the way up in order to not get frustrated by running out of space trying to get the cursor to go from one side of the screen to the other.

As it’s a clickpad, depressing the left side of the bottom acts as a left click and vice versa (this is reversible for lefties in settings) but you can also use single/double-finger taps instead. I found myself using a combination of both methods, as depressing the clickpad actually takes a little more force than I’d like and it’s also a little bit loud. It’s not anything to worry about, but in a quiet office the clicking echoes under the raised Type Cover somewhat and it can be a bit distracting.

Used as a laptop at my work desk I found that a USB port replicator was basically a requirement due to needing access to the LAN. If you’re using it for any length of time you’ll definitely want to use an external mouse. However, unless you have Wifi-enabled printers in your office (I don’t), you’ll also need to connect the USB-Ethernet dongle that you will have to buy separately. Swapping out your mouse for an Ethernet line is frustrating at best, so I highly recommend getting a high quality port replicator for it.

Tablet/Stand Mode

Over the last 3 months I can’t honestly say I have used my Surface as a tablet much at all.

Sure, I’ve watched TV shows and YouTube videos on it or held it up in the office to show a colleague a photo, but I haven’t really used it as a tablet much because I haven’t wanted to, and only did it when I needed to as a result of being crammed into a small seat on a local flight or car.

Part of the reason for this is probably Windows 8.1 (the experience is better in Windows 10, but I’ll talk about that in a bit), another part my blunt, imprecise fingers, but mostly I still feel that typing and using a mouse is the fastest and most comfortable way to get anything done. The on-screen keyboard is fine, but given a choice between pecking awkwardly at the screen or keyboarding as I have for nearly 2 decades, I’ll take typing with real keys any day of the week.

Does it work as a tablet? As well as any Windows tablet could, I think. Does it work in stand mode? Sure. Is there a reason you’d put it in stand mode instead of laptop mode? Not really. The only reason I can think of is if you had a very limited space and you’d like to watch something without holding the Surface in your hands. Overall, I still feel that touch is a supplementary interface for Windows, and not near a primary one.

Display

The Surface 3’s 10.8” 3:2 display is one of the best I’ve ever seen at this price point. It’s resolution is 1920 x 1280, a few more pixels than a traditional 1080p HD display due to the slightly taller screen, making the Surface a bit more comfortable to use than most sub 11” displays would be.

You can check out other reviews if you want to get technical, but what I will say is that regardless of the size, it’s sharp, beautiful, and bright. I haven’t used it above 50% brightness indoors since I got it. It’s even usable outdoors, despite being a glossy touchscreen. Due to the high DPI I’ve been using it with the Windows elements scaled to 150%, which is the default and has worked well given the relatively small dimensions of the machine. It’s quite something to see a display this vibrant and accurate on a machine in this price range.

s3_.75 view

The 10.8″ display is bright and clearly visible even used in sunlight.

Now, if you’re looking at buying a Surface 3 to use as a primary computer without an external monitor then you’re probably wondering if 10.8” is big enough. After a few months using the Surface 3 in such a capacity, I think I can say that no, it’s probably not big enough as your only display. A few of my colleagues have caught me squinting from my chair from time to time and teased me about my little Surface.

If you’re going to be keeping it on a desk most of the time and using it like a laptop then it can feel just a little tiny, especially after a few hours of intense concentration. If I were to use a Surface 3 as my only machine I would definitely recommend investing in an external monitor.

Real word performance

Initially I thought the Surface 3 would be a decent upgrade in speed over my older T200. Literally every component from the CPU to the eMMC storage is an upgrade. I believed 2GB RAM would be enough as my trusty T200 had done alright with a slower, older Atom, less storage, and 2GB as well. This overlooks one important detail, however: My previous machine with 2GB of ram was running the 32-bit version of Windows 8.1. The Surface 3 runs Windows 8.1 64-bit.

The result is that the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 requires roughly 50% more memory than its 32-bit counterpart, and the RAM of the Surface 3 is completely non-upgradable, and it is here where the base model of the Surface 3 shows its limits.

The 2GB Surface 3 runs individual apps such as Excel, PowerPoint, and Word quite satisfactorily. I watched the end of Game of Thrones Season 5 on it while traveling and playback was smooth. Even 1080p videos on YouTube can stream smoothly– just don’t try doing anything else at the same time. I was also happy to discover that the speakers on the Surface 3 are quite excellent for their size, showing a surprising ability to fill a room with crisp– even somewhat bassy sound without distortion.

Unfortunately, once you start multitasking, you might feel a bit like a Silent Sister from the Game of Thrones finale, shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at Microsoft as your Surface thrashes, hitches, and stutters. I don’t believe the processor or the SSD hold the machine back, but the 2GB of RAM has become a frustrating limitation that I deal with on a near daily basis.

Yes, with just 3 Tabs in Google Chrome and a few background tray apps open as I write this in Google Docs, it runs fine. There isn’t any delay in rendering pages or in typing (as one would expect on a $630 computer in 2015). But if you open the task manager you’ll see that with essentially just Chrome open with 3 tabs (and no multimedia content streaming), 86% of the 2GB memory is already used.

Start running a few more apps or open a few more tabs and things take an unpleasant turn as the system runs out of memory and has to swap from the (relatively slow) eMMC drive. Open iTunes to play some music while work? Now you’re at 95% utilization and it takes noticeably longer to switch tabs or apps. Want to watch a YouTube video in another tab? The system will slow to a crawl and it only gets worse from there.

Is this a problem for you? I honestly didn’t think it would be a problem for me, even after checking forums for the user experience with the base model beforehand. Most people said that it was really only an issue if you’re trying to run Photoshop, edit large spreadsheets, or open 20 tabs at a time. However, the real world limits are quite a bit more modest than that, and trying to run more than 2 apps at a time is going to drastically reduce your productivity and user experience as simple actions take longer and longer to complete.

I haven’t really tried to do much gaming on it, but I did play one session of the critically acclaimed 2D Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, which ran decently after I turned off the pixel-smoothing filter. The machine did throttle and performance dropped somewhat after about 30 minutes, however, as temperatures from the CPU started to mount.

The Surface 3 has no fan, so it cools passively once hitting certain temperatures. It never got uncomfortably hot, but the upper half of the tablet is slightly warm to the touch during daily use and will feel noticeably hotter when the CPU is being taxed to its limits as one would expect. I never felt it was uncomfortably hot. If you do plan to play basic games on the Surface, keep in mind the fact that it will likely need to throttle (like most fanless ultraportables) at some point, so throttle-back on your expectations of gaming as well.

Overall, although in daily office tasks the performance of the 2GB version occasionally courts unacceptable levels it ultimately stays just on the cusp of acceptable for most tasks. But if you plan on doing anything more than office work and browsing on it you will almost certainly not be satisfied.

Battery life

The battery of the Surface 3 is not big, but thankfully the Atom x7 processor is incredibly frugal. Ultimately, most users will get between 7-8 hours of use from it between charges. I found I can unplug it in the morning and work on it all day without getting too close to running out of power, which is nice when considering that I’m always using the Type Cover. Are there tablets with bigger batteries and better battery life? Certainly, but there are also many with worse battery life (the Surface Pro 3, for example). I can say that the battery is sufficient and running out of juice is rarely a problem.

That said, charging the Surface 3 is a bit slow. Though it charges via a standard mini-USB port, it comes with its own higher-wattage adapter and cable. Even with the specialized charger, however, it still charges very slowly, especially during usage. Even with the system in standby you’ll be looking at a charge time of over 5 hours, and longer if you’re using it.

One of the advantages of using a mini-USB port for charging is that you should be able to charge it nearly anywhere as long as you have a USB cable and a phone charger. What I’ve found, however, is that due to the low wattage of most phone chargers, they can’t supply the surface with enough power to charge it while it’s being used. Thus, the Surface 3’s battery will actually run down during use while plugged into most non-Surface USB AC adapters. It will still charge (slowly) when in standby, but it’s something to keep in mind when traveling and only bringing one adapter. Best to bring the Surface 3 adapter and use it for all your devices.

Price and availability

The Surface 3 is available worldwide at similar price profile: $500 for the base model of the tablet with 2GB RAM and 64GB storage, $600 for 4GB RAM and 128GB storage. Recently an LTE-enabled version of both the 2/4GB models has been announced but pricing has yet to be confirmed.

While $500 seems like a steal at first, remember that that is for the Surface 3 tablet itself and does not include the  Type Cover. And frankly, the Surface 3 is not worth buying without it. Because the keyboard is so crucial for the overall experience, for all intents and purposes the Surface 3 should be considered as costing $630 for the base 2GB version and $730 for the 4GB version.

Something I didn’t mention in this review yet is pen/touch digitizer support, which is available for another $50. I have not used them myself, but I have heard they function well.

Wrap-up

The base model of the Surface 3 is a great hybrid package at a decent price with a few letdowns. It sounds cheesy to say but the Surface 3 isn’t just a tablet, laptop, or Windows machine. The whole experience of the tablet with the Type Cover and the way the whole system works together creates something more than the sum of its parts and I believe Microsoft is trying to sell a “Surface Experience” here.

s3_desk

My home setup. Note the generic USB cable powering the Surface.

Speaking of the Surface Experience, a quick addendum on Windows 10: I upgraded to Windows 10 Preview via the insider programme about a week ago and the overall experience is far superior to Windows 8.1.

Windows 10 automatically detects and switches from desktop to tablet mode when the Type Cover is folded back or removed, eschewing the taskbar and making apps full screen and more touch-friendly. It’s magic. It’s too early to tell how much of an improvement Windows 10 is over 8.1 as the final version is not set to be released for a couple more weeks, but it certainly is an improvement. I feel that Windows 10 makes the Surface 3 more viable and complete as a user experience, and would highly recommend upgrading to it as soon as you can spare a few hours.

Wrapping up, how is the Surface Experience on the base model at $630 after 3 months? It’s stylish. Occasionally great. Sometimes middling. Often frustrating.

I’m not sure why Microsoft forces consumers to make the choice of an extra $100 for a nearly essential 2GB of RAM, because in the end it’s going to be the customer’s satisfaction that suffers. Having to choose between spending $630 and $730 for a computer is a tough decision because once you start getting into the $700 price range the competition gets a lot fiercer.

Sure, the Zenbook UX305 doesn’t have a touchscreen or backlit keyboard, but it’s ultraportable and honestly probably going to be more a more productive tool than a Surface 3 would be. And then there are also the likes of the Transformer Book T300 Chi or the Switch 11 V to consider, both Core M powered and both selling for under $700.

If you need a hybrid for some reason then the Surface 3 remains competitive at $730. Ideally, Microsoft will drop the 2GB version entirely while keeping the price of the base model the same around $500 by reducing storage or perhaps only offering the Office subscription in the more expensive models. I am optimistic about the future of the Surface line. Microsoft has gotten so much right in the 3rd iteration with just a few misstepsthey just have a little bit further go to in tweaking the price, specs, and design to perfect the overall experience.

Thinking of buying a Surface? Own one but have a very different experience? If you have any questions or comments, sound off in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to reply to you within a couple of days. Thanks for reading!

Douglas is a teacher, mobile tech enthusiast, weightlifter, personal trainer, SCUBA diver, and traveler. He currently lives in Bangkok.

5 Comments

  1. FYI

    July 21, 2015 at 4:07 am

    Uh, never use chrome browser, problem solves.

    Even SP3 series cannot hold this ram,process eating monster.

  2. Douglas Black

    July 21, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Hi FYI,

    I have also tried Waterfox and Edge. The limitations are similar, though Edge is probably the best as it’s the most lightweight. I’m considering trying Win 10 32-bit once it’s released and will see if that makes it more functional.

  3. Joao

    August 1, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Charges via Micro-USB, not mini-usb, right? The typical android has a micro-usb connector.

    • Douglas Black

      September 6, 2015 at 5:57 am

      Dear Joao,

      You are correct. I meant micro-usb. :)

  4. Rene' Baatenburg

    January 2, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    As an older, not too savy computer user, I found the Surface 3 to be a pain in the neck. The Surface is a neat little beauty but after using it for only 2 months I want to return it. I can’t tell you how many times the wifi just disappeared! It would work fine at night, but the next morning it would be gone. And was told there were no wireless networks available to choose from. The sound also disappeared!? The Best Buy Geek Squad guy had a hard time figuring it out. When checking on my history, it told me there was nothing in my history. The keys don’t feel “deep” enough and find it hard to type. It would switch from keypad typing to screen typing without me changing it. And could NOT get it to switch back. Mr. Geek Squad did fix these problems for me. But he had to do a fair amount of dancing on screen to do so. I could not have done the same. I have used PC’s and Macbook in the past and have never run into these frustrations
    Again, I am not too savy with computers. But I will now have to deal with the bald spots on my head from pulling my hair out.
    Seriously, I was very excited about the Surface 3 but it is lucky I didn’t snap it in half over my knee.
    Thanks! Really appreciate the info you provide.

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