When the first- and second-generation Surface devices were launched a few years back, I got to work with some review samples in order to really put them to the test.
Although I was generally quite impressed with the hardware, I couldn’t get my head around their actual usefulness or their unique added value.
This was mainly the result of all the limitations that came with the preinstalled Windows RT operating system.
That problem was tackled successfully with the introduction of the Surface Pro 3 in 2014, but the device initially proved to be too costly.
To cut costs, Microsoft has engineered the Surface 3, which is the first non-Pro Surface device to feature a full version of the Windows 8.1 operating system.
For this review, I was able to get my hands on a European press sample with 4GB RAM, a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) and the Type Cover keyboard. This setup should sell for about R11 000 when bought through Orange.
The entry-level version of the Surface 3 has 2GB RAM and a 64GB SSD, which will be available at the Orange online store for R7 800 (at the time of writing), excluding the optional keyboard.
All versions of the Surface 3 come with a free upgrade to Windows 10, which is scheduled to be launched somewhere around August 2015. Each Surface 3 is also supplied with a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal and includes 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage.
Look and feel: premium magnesium casing
The main difference between Surface 3 and its big brother, the Surface Pro 3, is its smaller, 10,8-inch screen with slightly lower resolution of 1 920×1 280 pixels. It is also marginally thinner because of the new processor, which doesn’t require an active cooling fan and heat dissipation vents.
Including the optional Type Cover keyboard, the Surface 3 weighs just 902g, and without it it’s a mere 622g. This makes the device highly portable and easy to carry around, which is ideal when you plan to take it with you wherever you go. For an overview of all the other differences between the Surface 3 and 3 Pro,
As with all previous Surface models, the Surface 3 features an integrated kickstand. While the one on the Surface Pro 3 can be set in any desired angle, the kickstand on the Surface 3 only has three positions to choose from. Although this may come across as a big limitation, the three pre-set angles should provide a comfortable work position nonetheless.
The unconventional 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface 3’s touch-sensitive screen makes it a bit more square-shaped than the previous 16:9 Surface devices, which weren’t as successful as Microsoft had hoped. The Surface 3 offers the same premium look and feel as the Pro 3 model, mainly because both feature the same solid and durable magnesium exterior.
Another similarity with previous models is the lack of connectors and ports. It’s a good thing, then, that the important ones — a full-size USB 3 port and a mini DisplayPort connector — are present. The latter can be used to connect it to one external display at a maximum resolution of 4 096×2 160 pixels (4K).
On the back of the Surface 3 is a micro SD card slot to facilitate additional storage space or easy transfer of files. The device also has a micro USB charging port that needs to be connected to the included 13W power supply for the device to start charging. This port also facilitates a conventional smartphone adapter to charge it, although that will take a lot longer to charge the battery to full.
The optional Type Cover accessory can be connected to the Surface 3 by using the dock-connector that sits at the bottom of the device. It uses an efficient magnetic locking mechanism to keep the keyboard in position.
Although far from cheap (R1 500) the Surface 3 Type Cover is super thin (5mm), very light (255g), well-crafted and uses backlit keys so you can keep working in the dark even during load shedding.
On top of that, it also doubles as a screen protector. I found the keyboard to be comfortable and well equipped for typing even the longest of documents. The touchpad, on the other hand, is simply too small. I’d definitely advise getting a separate mouse if you really want to get things done.
Hardware and benchmarks: lacks horsepower
Microsoft’s Surface 3 is powered by the brand new Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor, which in turn is based on Intel’s Cherry Trail architecture. This 14nm chip was designed to be extremely energy efficient despite housing four cores. Each core runs at a base frequency of 1,6GHz and can briefly accelerate up to 2,4GHz when necessary.
To keep the entry-level price of the Surface 3 as low as possible, Microsoft decided to fit the cheapest version of the Surface 3 with only 2GB RAM and a 64GB SSD for storage, none of which can be upgraded at a later time.
Although it might be tempting to save a bit of money, I wouldn’t recommend buying this version. Not only does Windows 8 require a minimum of 4GB RAM to run smoothly, there’s also just 36GB of free SSD space available after the operating system takes its share. Besides, I’m pretty confident that the upcoming Windows 10 operating system also wouldn’t mind 4GB of RAM instead of a measly 2GB.
To connect with the Internet and other devices wirelessly, the Surface 3 features a Marvell Avastar chip that supports all 2,4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi standards up to 801.11ac, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.
Although our review sample didn’t have support for 4G mobile networks, a version with 4G LTE capabilities should become available later this year.