Surface 3 Review: Microsoft’s Best Attempt Yet

Microsoft (MSFT) recently sent me a new Surface 3 tablet to try out, along with the optional Surface Pen and the Type Cover than turns this Windows-powered tablet into a laptop.

Microsoft Surface 3 review
Source: Brad Moon

It took a few attempts for Microsoft to get the hang of this tablet thing. The Surface Pro 3 (reviewed here) was the point where its professional tablet clicked and the Surface 3 marks the same milestone for its consumer tablet.

Ditching Windows RT is the big win, but there are also significant hardware changes.

Throwing Windows 10 into the mix makes the new Surface 3 an even better proposition.

In our Surface 3 review, we explore the features and upgrades that make this tablet a worthy competitor to the likes of Apple’s (AAPL) iPad Air 2.

Surface 3 Review: Big Changes in Hardware

Surface 3 easier to hold
Source: Brad Moon

The first thing I noticed after unboxing the Surface 3 was how much more comfortable it was than previous versions in tablet form.

The old 16:9 aspect ratio — which made the first two Surface tablets feel overly stretched and awkward to hold — has been ditched in favor of a more user-friendly 3:2 ratio. The case is slightly thinner and lighter as well, and the end result is the Surface 3 is actually pleasant to hold in tablet mode.

Microsoft also switched the CPU supplier, replacing the Nvidia (NVDA) Tegra powering previous versions with an Intel (INTC) Atom chip.

The Surface 3 also gains the more expensive Surface Pro’s support for the Surface Pen, a capacitative stylus that has neat tricks like one-click launching of OneNote for handwriting or drawing.

Surface 3 Review: Even Better With Windows 10

Surface 3 review, Surface pen
Source: Brad Moon

Hobbling its consumer tablet with Windows RT was a costly mistake for Microsoft, to the tune of a $900 million write-down on unsold inventory, slashed prices and a black eye for the Surface brand.

It stuck with RT for the Surface 2, despite consumer confusion over a version of Windows that couldn’t run Windows PC software.

With the Surface 3, RT is gone and like the Surface Pro, Microsoft’s consumer tablet is able to run the same Windows software that laptops and desktop PCs run. This move makes the Surface 3 far more usable than its predecessors and gives it some real credibility as a 2-in-1 laptop contender.

Windows 10 makes the experience even better.

Once through the Windows 10 invite and install process, the Surface 3 and optional Type Cover really shine.

Besides the overall wins from the new OS (the improved Edge browser and resurrected Start Menu to name a few), a Windows 10-powered Surface 3 recognizes whether the keyboard is attached or not and automatically adjusts its user interface appropriately: traditional Windows desktop with the keyboard, and a tiled tablet interface without.

It’s much more than a parlor trick, and it makes the hardware engineering seem even more cohesive.

Surface 3 Review: Specs

surface 3 review, new surface 3 specs
Source: Brad Moon
  • 10.8-inch 1920 x 1280 Full HD + ClearType, 10 point multi-touch display
  • Quad-core Intel Atom x7 CPU @ 1.6GHz
  • 2GB or 4GB RAM
  • 64 GB or 128GB built-in storage
  • 3-position kickstand
  • Full-sized USB 3.0 port, microSD card slot, Micro USB charge port
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Mini DisplayPort
  • 8.0 MP primary camera with autofocus, 3.5 MP front-facing camera
  • Stereo speakers with Dolby audio
  • Surface Pen support
  • Battery rated at up to 10 hours video playback
  • 10.52 x 7.36 x 0.34-inches, weighs 1.37 pounds
  • Windows 8.1 with free upgrade to Windows 10
  • Starts at $499

Note: Surface 3 review model was 4GB/128GB configuration, with optional Type Cover and Surface Pen

Surface 3 Review: Conclusion

Surface 3 review, conclusion
Source: Brad Moon

The Surface 3 is a big improvement in every way over the Surface RT and Surface 2, and the user experience only gets better with the Windows 10 upgrade.

The ability to run desktop Windows software is a big win, and although the hardware (especially in the base model) isn’t going to offer a great user experience if you try to run demanding software, the Surface 3 is perfectly capable of casual Windows use.

Add the Type Cover, and you have a viable 2-in-1 device that plays the part of both tablet and PC quite well.

Because this is a Windows tablet, you’re left with a fairly paltry app selection compared to the iPad or tablets running Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Android, but for casual use — web surfing, checking social media or streaming video — it works well.

Add the optional Type Cover and it makes a passable laptop.

It’s still a tad on the expensive side once loaded up (choose the more capable 4GB model, add a Type Cover and Surface Pen and that $499 balloons to $780), but if the Surface 3 can replace both a laptop and tablet for you, it could actually end up saving you money.

As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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