Interest in tablet PCs has been on the wane, with even bigwigs like Apple hit: it now makes more money from its Macs than it does iPads. So it’s perhaps not the best time for Microsoft to be launching its third price conscious Surface tablet, and the official 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, thanks largely to its more flexible and productivity-focused design.
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 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, 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.
And inside is Intel’s brand-new 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 few moderately demanding apps at the same time. The further-tweaked Type keyboard also bears a mention; it’s now got a proper, glass-topped matte trackpad with a physical click mechanism, alongside slightly more travel in the keyboard keys. It’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 light years 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 precarious to balance. This new model lets you extend that kickstand quite wide, so it’s easier to balance… if your lap is long enough, that is. The new 3:2 display is great, however. As on the Pro, this aspect-ratio makes it excellent for working with office docs and surfing the web. Some bug do still exist. For example, of the 64GB of storage on the entry-level model, with Windows, the recovery partition and Office 365, you end up with about 35GB left. That extends to a healthier 85GB on the 128GB model, at an extra cost. 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. Starting at $699 RRP is fairly reasonable given the capabilities on offer and it also includes a year’s subscription to Office 365. What makes things a bit trickier, is that to really use the Surface 3 to its full capabilities you’ll need to spend another $240 to add a Type Keyboard and a stylus. Microsoft has done a great job here, with the premium build-quality matching up to that premium price. It’s one of the best hybrids yet, but it could still benefit from further advances in mobile PC tech.