The baby Surface.
I t was a long journey for Microsoft to get to this product. You could look at it as the next-gen successor to the Surface RT, and indeed it is. The smaller form factor of previous RT machines was appealing, and sat well with the idea of a transformable tablet/laptop, but Windows RT, for better or worse, never caught on enough to warrant Microsoft sticking with that platform. RT Surface machines were also hobbled with an ARM-based Tegra processor, which made running full Windows an unhackable technical impossibility.
This new device is what the loudest voices have been begging for over the years. But it’s not so much the Windows RT lineage that really drives what this is – it’s more the success of the big brother Surface 3 Pro and its wins with form factor and design that’s driven the Surface 3. With the new Surface 3, we have a baby Pro that’s smaller, lighter, cheaper and less powerful. Any one of those reasons – apart from the slower CPU – may be reason enough for someone to choose the Surface 3 over the Pro 3.
The Surface 3 runs full Windows 8.1, which will soon become Windows 10 for free as part of the upgrade program. That’s made possible by the CPU, which is now an Intel x86 chip. What’s more, it’s the first device to sport Intel’s new Cherry Trail Atom. With this SoC, Intel is pushing harder than ever into the mobility space, and is keen to dispel the poor reputation Atom was saddled with from the early netbook days. The new Atom sits below Intel’s also-new Core M, which in turn sits below the desktop i3/i5/i7 range. The x7 version in the Surface 3 is the fastest of that family, running at 1.6GHz and burst mode up to 2.4GHz. It’s a fanless design, and consumes a mere 2w in operation. So, you won’t find the space-consuming vents as seen on the Surface Pro 3, and battery life benefits, with the Surface 3 good for around 10 hours of operation. Subtract 2-3 hours for intensive tasks, but overall it’s still a couple of hours better than the Surface Pro 3.
The quad-core part is sufficient to drive Office apps and have two running simultaneously. Any more than that and you’ll be taxing the system memory, not so much the CPU. Of the two available configurations, the 128GB SSD/4GB RAM model, at $839 is obviously much more desirable than the lesser 64GB SSD/2GB RAM version ($699). However you can do a lot with the 2GB model if your goals are a mobile Windows PC that can handle light tasks, and that’s the whole point of this device. It’s not designed as a powerhouse, that’s what the Surface 3 Pro is for.
Onboard storage can be supplemented via a microSD card via the included slot.
The smaller screen size (10.8in vs 12in for the Pro 3) suits the mobility focus, but much more interesting is the shift to a 3:2 aspect ratio. Almost every laptop and most tablets today are a 16:9 ratio, including the Surface Pro 3, but that means less vertical screen real estate and that’s a bit of a bother when you consider that’s actually where you want screen size in a portable device, given that a taller aspect ratio lets you see more of the work you’re doing, or the web page you’re browsing. It’s a bit of a gamble for Microsoft – 16:9 screens look nicer in a showroom – but it’s a design win for practicality and we hope it inspires a new trend.
The moderately powerful and eminently portable Surface 3 loses some of its dazzle when you throw the Type Cover keyboard into your shopping trolley. It’s a fine keyboard alright, with a slightly quieter and springier feel than the Pro 3 model – but it’s $180. The whole design ethos of the Surface range is centred around the detachable keyboard and the functional versatility it brings. Yes, the Surface 3 is a fine Windows tablet, and the cool magnesium case and fabulous three-position kickstand add a lot of appeal, but at the end of the day you know you’re probably buying it so you can get the keyboard with it. Unfortunately the combined price edges the overall cost into premium tablet territory, or even that of an entry-level ultrabook. On the flipside, a 1 year subscription to Office 365 Personal is included.
Nevertheless it sits in the market as a clever idea executed supremely well. Its design and build quality is second to none, and its mobile utility is very appealing.