Interest in tablet PCs has been on the wane, with even bigwigs like Apple hit: the Cupertino company now makes more money from its Macs than it does iPads.
So it’s perhaps not the best time for Microsoft to be launching this, its third price-conscious Surface tablet, and the official the successor to the Surface RT and Surface 2.
If any tablet is going to buck that downward trend, however, the Surface 3 might just be the one to do it, thanks largely to its more flexible and productivity-focused design.
Reviewers and consumers have largely agreed that the 12.2-inch Surface Pro 3, launched in mid 2014, was a great improvement on what came before. It more clearly solidified Microsoft’s view of the Surface as a device as much for work as for play, and this new less-costly version arguably brings the best improvements from the Surface Pro 3 down to a less wallet-busting price.
That includes the full version of Windows 8.1 (rather than its predecessors’ Windows RT), a friendly 3:2 aspect-ratio screen, multi-angle kickstand and (optional) improved Type keyboard. Also along for the ride are the Pro 3’s front-facing stereo speakers, full-sized USB 3.0 socket and a mini-DisplayPort output.
The Surface 3 also shaves a fair bit of the size and weight off too, packing a slightly smaller 10.8-inch, 1,920 x 1,080-pixel display and weighing in at 622g (sans keyboard or stylus) and 8.7mm thick.
That’s still not iPad or Android-tablet class, but its a big step down from the Pro 3’s heftier 798g at 9.1mm. And inside is Intel’s shiny new Cherry Trail Atom processor (the x7-Z8700) — a true quad-core chip that keeps Windows 8.1 running smoothly and responsively (provided you don’t run more than a couple of moderately-demanding apps simultaneously).
The further-tweaked Type keyboard also bears a mention; it’s now got a proper, glass-topped trackpad with a physical click mechanism, plus very-slightly more travel in the keys. As before, the keyboard’s still an optional extra though, as is the stylus.
For us, both are basically essential, with the stylus a must to use Windows’ industry-leading handwriting recognition. (Seriously, if you want to input text into a tablet this way, Microsoft is lightyears ahead of the competition.)
In laptop mode, one problem we’ve always had with Surfaces is that the kickstand doesn’t actually work too well on your lap; it’s just too acute, meaning its precarious to balance. This new model lets you extend that kickstand quite wide, which means its easier to balance… provided your lap is physically long enough, that is. (This is, ultimately, still a device that works best on a desk.)
The new 3:2 display is undeniably great, however. As on its Pro sibling, this aspect-ratio makes it excellent for working with office documents and surfing the web, with a view that doesn’t feel cramped like it can on 16:9 tablets.
Some bugbears do still exist. For example, of the 64GB of storage on the entry-level model, after Windows, the recovery partition and Office 365 take their pound of silicon flesh, you end up with about 35GB to use yourself.
That extends to a healthier 85GB on the 128GB model, at the cost of an extra $140 upfront. That storage can also be expanded by throwing a microSD card (up to 128GB) into the slot located under the kickstand, but that won’t be as fast as the onboard solid-state drive.
That $699 RRP for the 64GB version is fairly reasonable given the capabilities on offer here and it also includes a year’s subscription to Office 365.
What makes things a bit trickier, however, is that to really use the Surface 3 to its full capabilities you’ll need to spend another $240 to add a Type Keyboard ($180) and a stylus ($60). You’re looking at about a grand all up, in other words.
Whether that’s worth paying will depend on how badly you want this kind of hybrid tablet/laptop device.
Microsoft has undeniably done a great job here, with the premium build-quality at least matching up to that premium asking price. This is one of the best hybrids yet, but its an idea that could still benefit from further advances in mobile PC tech.
Verdict: The best budget Surface yet, with the full Windows 8.1, light weight and respectable performance.
Price: From $699; Type Keyboard, $180; Stylus, $60