Technology

Microsoft Surface 3 first look: Gadget Watch

Andrew Sadauskas /

Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled the Surface 3, the latest in its series of hybrid tablets and laptops.

The new device will be available in Australian stores from May 5, ahead of the forthcoming release of Windows 10. It supersedes the Surface 2, and will be sold alongside the 12-inch Surface Pro 3.

Unlike its predecessor, which ran a cut-down version of Windows aimed at tablets known as Windows RT, the Surface 3 has a full Intel Atom processor (rather than a smartphone processor) and can run (almost) all your desktop programs.

Microsoft also claims the new device is thinner and lighter than its predecessors, and has better battery life to boot.

So is it time to take another look at the Surface? It’s time to find out.

 

Tech specs

 

The Surface 3 runs a full copy of Windows 8.1, and will be upgradeable to Windows 10. This means, unlike the Surface 2, it will be fully compatible with desktop Windows apps.

It features a 10.8-inch full-HD display (with a resolution of 1920 x 1280 pixels) and is powered by a 1.6GHz quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor (with a burst speed of up to 2.4GHz).

The device also includes a 3.5-megapixel front and an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, with both able to capture 1080p video, a full-size USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort and a microSD slot. There will also be an optional docking station and stylus available.

 

The consensus

 

At The Next Web, Napier Lopez says the Surface 3 fixes many of the issues of its predecessors, including providing full compatibility with the desktop version of Windows, although the display doesn’t quite match the latest Retina iMacs:

The preceding Surface RT and Surface 2 only supported Window RT’s touch-friendly ‘Modern’ apps – well, other than the Office suite – meaning running software as common as Photoshop or iTunes was completely out of the question. If you wanted to use the programs you’d known for years, you’d have to shell out a lot more money for the a powered-up Pro model that could load a full version of Windows.

The Surface 3 turns the tables by running Windows 8.1 (upgradeable to Windows 10 for free this summer), so much so that it feels more like a ‘Surface Pro Mini’ than a follow-up to the Surface 2.

The Surface 3’s 1920 x 1280 display is pretty great. The 3:2 aspect ratio makes it much better for browsing photos or reading vertical content than the old 16:9 on the Surface 2… It’s not quite as clean as what you’d find on an iPad Air or some Android tablets, but good enough to display 1080p video natively and probably as much as you need at this size.

Tom Warren at The Verge says while the Surface 3 is slightly thicker than an iPad Air 2, the trade off is (aside from processor-intensive games) it will do most of the things you’d expect a full PC to do:

As a tablet, the Surface 3 is still bigger, heavier, and thicker than the iPad Air 2, but you’re also getting a whole lot more. There’s a single USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort, headset jack, and a microSD slot underneath the hinge of the kickstand. They’re not the only ports, though: Microsoft has swapped its magnetic charging mechanism to Micro USB which means you can use a normal phone charger to juice up the Surface 3. It also doubles as a full-size USB port if you buy the necessary adaptor.

But the biggest change to the Surface 3 is what’s inside. Microsoft has opted for an Intel Atom x7 processor, which means the Surface 3 can now run a full version of Windows 8.1 with support for traditional desktop apps. This isn’t the same Atom processor from the dreadful days of netbooks, but the performance still isn’t great compared to $499 PCs. I’ve used iTunes, Chrome, Photoshop, and a number of other Windows desktop apps, and most of them run just fine at a basic level until you start to push things further. Steam is the big exception, as most of the modern games just won’t run well at all. That’s not really surprising, as this isn’t exactly designed to be a gaming laptop for those titles, but if you want to play some basic mobile games from the Windows Store, it should handle those okay.

Despite the issues highlighted by Bright and Lopez, Ars Technica’s Peter Bright praises the build quality on the Surface 3:

For all the missteps, the one thing that Microsoft truly nailed with the Surface line has been build quality. They feel like quality devices. The Surface 3 is no exception; it still has a magnesium alloy body, it still has a surprisingly sturdy kickstand, it still has neatly beveled edges. The front is once again all glass, and again the glass is optically bonded to the LCD panel, eliminating the air gap that would otherwise exist. This construction both enhances rigidity and improves the pen experience by ensuring that the digital ink appears as close as possible to the pen tip.

The Surface 3 is a very neat, versatile little machine. A lot of people will be able to make it work well for them. It works as a tablet. It works in most ways as a laptop. With the dock, it can even power a big screen and connect to a ton of peripherals. This is simultaneously a great digital notepad and a fine Office workhorse.

In comparing the Surface 3 to the iPad Air 2, Christian de Looper at Tech Times notes the key difference is in terms of its ability to be used for productivity as well as consuming content:

Microsoft has long been hailed as a king in the business market, and the Surface 3 is no exception. It features a full version of Windows 8.1 with a year free of Microsoft Office 365. It also features an Intel quad core Atom processor, a USB 3.0 port, a microSD card reader, and an 8MP rear-facing camera with a 3.5MP front-facing camera, all for only $499.

The iPad Air 2, however, is somewhat aimed at a different market. While many argue that the iPad is getting better at being for the business-minded, it’s still better off as a content consumption device rather than a content creation device. All things considered, the Surface 3 is a far more powerful tablet than the iPad Air. Not only that, but it is a more powerful tablet for the same price.

The Surface 3 has certainly won over a fan in CNN’s David Goldman:

There is nothing else available on the market with the Surface 3’s combination of price, design quality and size. If you must have all three, then the Surface 3 is for you.

There are more powerful, larger-screened PCs on the market for the Surface 3’s price — but you’re not going to get anything nearly as portable or elegant. You could get something just as portable, but not nearly as powerful.

Can it get the job done? Sure. Can it serve as your only PC? For most people the answer is yes. For a computer that’s half the width of your pinky finger, that’s pretty impressive.

 

Should you get one

 

If you’re looking at getting a Windows laptop and tablet, there are certainly other devices you should also take a look at, including Acer’s Aspire R13 convertible laptop and Lenovo’s ThinkPad series of laptops and tablets.

It is probably also worth considering whether you need a full desktop PC or just a laptop/tablet.

With that being said, if you’re in the market for a new laptop or tablet and need to run Windows, this is the first device you should look at in the store.

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Andrew Sadauskas

Andrew Sadauskas is a former journalist at SmartCompany and a former editor of TechCompany.

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