It’s been an arduous journey for the Microsoft Surface, a tablet-first device that also makes for a pretty good notebook when you flip out its integrated kickstand and snap on a keyboard cover. We liked the very first Surface Pro, though it eventually didn’t sell very well, as people were still coming to terms with Windows 8’s new UI and the logic behind Windows RT, which powered the Surface RT.
The good thing about Microsoft is, if it didn’t get it right the first time, it would try again. And again. The Windows RT-running Surface 2 of late 2013 was a much better machine than its predecessor: faster processor, higher-res display, better kickstand, longer battery life, et cetera. The dropping of the ‘RT’ moniker also marked the beginning of the family’s disassociation with Windows RT, but because it still ran the restrictive ARM-optimized OS, it never really took off.
Arguably, what did see a reversal in its fortune was the Surface Pro 2, which was released alongside the Surface 2. While we’ve heard good things about it, it didn’t come to Singapore. But the Surface Pro 3, which was announced some eight months later, did. And the tablet, which runs full Windows and is powered by Intel’s 4th-gen Core CPUs (Haswell), is a hit.
But what about Surface 3 in the form of a super-thin and compact Windows tablet with power efficiency that rivals the iPads and Android tablets? Well, that didn’t happen. And looking at all the things that did happen in the past 18 months (e.g., PC OEMs bailing out on Windows RT devices, the scrapping of the Surface Mini, the discontinuing of the Surface 2 production, Microsoft’s one-Windows-for-all-devices strategy moving forward), it’s perhaps safe to say that we’d never see an 8-inch and above Surface running Windows RT and using an ARM-based SoC again.
But moments ago, the Surface 3 did happen, though probably not quite how one would expect it to turn out. But it's here nonetheless, and we managed to snag some moments with it to bring you this hands-on.
Let us get this out of the way first: The just-announced Surface 3 doesn’t use an ARM-based processor. Instead, it’s powered by Intel’s new Atom x7-Z8700, the highest-end part in Chipzilla’s latest mobile Atom SoC lineup that was revealed at MWC 2015. Like the other new processors such as the Atom x5-Z8300 and x5-Z8500, the 64-bit, quad-core Atom x7-Z8700 is based on Intel’s Cherry Trail platform, and built on a 14nm fabrication process. It has a base clock of 1.6GHz (burst frequency up to 2.4GHz) and 2MB of L2 cache. At MWC, Intel said that Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba would have devices using the Atom x5/x7 chips, so you can imagine our surprise when we learned that Microsoft is using it too, not to mention the first to have a device ready.
Obviously, the Intel Atom x7-Z8700 offers full x86 Windows support, which brings us to the second most important difference between the Surface 3 and the two Tegra-powered Surfaces before it: the ability to run full Windows. To be more specific, the Surface 3 comes with Windows 8.1, which means in addition to Windows apps (a.k.a. Modern apps or Metro apps) from the Windows Store, you can also install all your favorite third-party desktop apps and games, like Photoshop Elements, League of Legends, and just about anything else you need. Of course, if you need advanced features like VHD boot, assigned access, Client Hyper-V, and BitLocker, you can always upgrade to Windows 8.1 Pro. And it goes without saying that the hybrid device can be upgraded to Windows 10 (for free too!) when the new OS is generally available sometime this summer.
The two aforementioned points aside, the Surface 3 is for the most part a smaller version of the Surface Pro 3. The VaporMg-treated, silver-colored magnesium casing is instantly familiar, so too is the practical kickstand at the back, which still clicks reassuringly into place every time. But unlike the Surface Pro 3’s multi-position, friction-free kickstand, the one on the Surface 3 only has three open positions. In a nutshell, it’s not as awesome as the Surface Pro 3’s continuous kickstand, but it’s better than the one found on the Surface 2, which only props up at two angles.
Also, while the Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch display, the Surface 3’s display (still protected by Gorilla Glass) comes in at a smaller 10.8 inches, and is flanked by front-facing, Dolby Audio-enhanced stereo speakers. This unusual screen size coupled with a 3:2 aspect ratio mean that we’re also looking at an unusual 1,920 x 1,280-pixel resolution. That said, we actually like this resolution, as it gives us more vertical real estate, compared to 1,080p. Microsoft went as far as to say that this is the brightest and most accurate screen a Surface has ever used. At 214 ppi, this display is slightly sharper than the Surface 2’s (208 ppi), and about on par with the one on the Surface Pro 3 (216 ppi). Sure, it’s not as dense as the iPad Air 2’s display (264 ppi), but remember, the Apple tablet has a smaller screen.
Thankfully, pen support remains on the Surface 3. Given that Microsoft is said to have recently bought out N-trig, we aren’t surprised that the latter’s active pen tech stays on the new tablet. With the Surface Pen, you can easily mark up presentations, sign documents, or just have some fun doodling in drawing apps. A click on the pen also opens a blank OneNote document for you to quickly jot down your ideas; and a double-click captures and saves a screenshot. In short, all the pen goodness you find on the Surface Pro 3, just on a smaller canvas. The only caveat is that the pen is a separate purchase this time.
Naturally, the smaller display also means that the Surface 3’s overall dimensions and weight compare favorably against the 12-inch Surface Pro 3. The Surface 3 has a 14% smaller footprint (267 x 187mm vs. 290 x 201mm); and since there’s no perimeter vent around its edges (the Intel Atom SoC dispenses the need for a fan), it's also about 4% thinner (8.7 vs. 9.1mm). The reductions may not sound like much, but along with its light weight (at 622g, it’s the lightest of all Surfaces), the Surface 3, especially in tablet mode, is the most comfortable Surface we’ve ever held. And the build quality is once again exemplary. If you're wondering its statistics compared to the older Surface 2, the latter 10.6-inch tablet is a tad larger at 275 x 173mm, slightly heavier at 676g, but almost as thin at 8.9mm.
The detachable Touch and Type keyboard covers that debuted with the original Surfaces were a couple of things that Microsoft got right the first time. The optional Type Cover is the only keyboard cover offered for the Surface Pro 3, and it’s the same for the Surface 3. While previous covers can be used on the Surface 3, you don’t really want to do that: the old 10.6-inch, 16:9 Surfaces’ covers will fit poorly on the 10.8-inch, 3:2 Surface 3; and the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover is too big.
Otherwise, the 5.1mm thick Surface 3 Type Cover works and feels just like the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover, if not better. We like the backlit keys, their tactile feedback, the responsive trackpad, the second magnetic strip that snaps onto the bottom bezel to create a gentle slope for a more comfortable typing position, and the full row of functions keys at the top. And because Microsoft made the cover smaller by trimming the unused space at the sides, the key size on the Surface 3 Type Cover remains largely unchanged compared to the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover. In fact, Microsoft managed to improve on the key travel on the new Surface 3 Type Cover, which means this cover arguably offers the most comfortable typing experience of all Type Covers in existence. Microsoft also claims the keys are now quieter, but we didn't quite notice that in our limited usage.
Didn’t we say earlier that the Surface 3 is like a smaller Surface Pro 3? Aesthetics aside, this is true for the amenities too. The right side is still home to a single mini-DisplayPort for video output and a single full-size USB 3.0 port. The headphone jack is moved to this side too, and right beside it lies a micro-USB port that can be used for charging (power banks for the Surface 3, anyone?) and passing of USB 2.0 data. The bundled 13W micro-USB power supply outputs 2.5A of current, so when you aren’t using it to charge the Surface 3, you can use it to charge other devices, like your smartphones or tablets. Despite running full Windows, the Surface 3 still manages to retain its 10-hour (video playback) battery life. A full charge of the tablet’s battery takes about 2.8 hours. The microSD card slot behind the kickstand stays as well.
The Surface 3 has a pair of cameras: an 8-megapixel one at the rear and a 3.5-megapixel one at the front. Both support 1080p video, but the rear-facing camera can also do autofocus, which is a first for Surface. And since the tablet uses an Intel Atom x7, which supports the Intel Realsense 3D camera (R200), we're hopeful that the Surface 3 will support Windows Hello, the new biometric authentication tech in Windows 10. (We're currently checking with Microsoft on that.)
Unlike the Surface Pro 3 that offers different Intel Core i processors, the Surface 3 only comes with the Intel Atom x7-Z8700. The base model is equipped with 2GB RAM and 64GB eMMC storage, and goes for S$748. There’s also a model with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage that goes for S$898. Both come with a 1-year Office 365 Personal subscription that includes the latest version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and unlimited OneDrive cloud storage.
There’s also an SKU with 2GB RAM and 32GB storage. This variant will feature in an education bundle that may also include the Surface Pen and Type Cover. Exact details and pricing of this bundle would be announced later.
For mobile professionals who can’t do without cellular data connectivity, there's a 4G LTE-ready Surface 3 that accepts a nano-SIM card. (It most likely uses Intel’s XMM726x modem that supports LTE Cat–6 and carrier aggregation.) Pricing and availability details for this model isn’t available at this moment.
Regarding optional accessories, we’ve the aforementioned Type Cover and Surface Pen, as well as a docking station and a screen protector. The Surface 3 Type Cover costs S$199, and is available in bright blue (i.e., cyan), red, and black. The S$73 Surface Pen is also available in different colors: silver, blue, red, and black. The S$288 Surface 3 Docking Station is for users who wish to turn the mobile 2-in-1 device into a full-size desktop workstation. It has two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort output (supports 4K/30p), and a gigabit Ethernet port.
Microsoft is bringing the Surface 3 to 26 markets; and in this part of the world, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea would be getting it. The Redmond-based company puts May 5 as the availability date, but pre-order starts as soon as tomorrow for countries that have an online Microsoft Store.
There are a lot of things we like about the Surface 3: it’s thin and light, it supports digital pen input, and it runs full Windows. Microsoft is targeting students and mobile professionals (e.g., insurance agents, sales people who are always on the move), as well as those attracted to the Surface 3 Pro but who don’t need the power of the bigger tablet or are wishing for something smaller. While these sound about right, we do have a couple of reservations.
At the moment, our biggest bugbear with the Surface 3 is its processor. While the Airmont CPU architecture in Cherry Trail (which the Atom x7 in the Surface 3 is based on) is an improvement over the Silvermont architecture in current gen’s Bay Trail, performance difference isn’t expected to be night and day. The bigger gain should come from the GPU side as the Atom x7 has adopted Intel’s Gen 8 graphics that's featured on Intel's latest Broadwell architecture. That said, Intel claims that the Atom x7 performs twice as fast as the Z3795 (a Bay Trail-based chip found in tablets like the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 and HP ElitePad 1000 G2) in the GFXBench 2.7 benchmark and 50% better in 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, so we will leave final judgement until we can put a retail Surface 3 through its paces. Should Microsoft have gone with the Intel Core M instead? Well, they could, but then we wouldn't have a S$748 starting price.
The 2GB base model also raises our eyebrows. At a silicon level, perhaps the Atom x7 is able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Apple’s A8 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 SoCs, but Windows 8.1 is no iOS or Android. It’s hard to say now if that would change with Windows 10, but if you were to ask us, we’d say just top up the S$150 and get the 4GB version.
Lastly, while the S$748 starting price is great, remember that it doesn’t come with the Type Cover and Surface Pen. Add both and you’re looking at a S$1,020 investment, which isn’t that far off from the cheapest (S$1,108) Surface Pro 3, which is equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB storage.