Microsoft Surface 3

Microsoft Surface 3 review

Microsoft delivers a classy, capable hybrid for under £500 - the Surface 3 is a hit

4
Price when reviewed 
419

Let’s take a moment to mark the passing of Windows RT. As the Surface 2 – Windows RT’s swansong – trudges to an early grave, haunted by the spectre of embarrassing sales figures, the Surface 3 is tasked with getting Microsoft’s Surface family back on track. And it looks like it might just have succeeded. With full-fat 64-bit Windows finally taking the place of the not-so-sadly departed RT, Microsoft has redeemed itself by creating one of the best Windows tablets yet. See also: What's the best laptop of 2015?

Microsoft Surface 3

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Building a new Surface

The Surface 3 impresses from the off: it’s just as classy and lovingly crafted as we’ve come to expect from Microsoft’s Surface brand. There’s the same VaporMG metal construction – all bevelled edges, elegant straight lines and brisk curves – and it feels solid and tautly constructed. It turns out that a miniaturised Surface Pro 3 is a very lovely thing indeed.

The Surface 3 is just as attractive as its big brother, then, but it has other talents. Far easier to grab and carry around in one hand than the Pro, the Surface 3 is a device that demands to be taken everywhere. Sure, it isn’t as portable as an iPad Air 2, but at 9.3mm thick and weighing 622g, it’s still light compared to many full-sized Windows tablets.

Clasp on the optional Type Cover, meanwhile, and the pair weigh in at a creditable 884g – a combination that’s a touch lighter even than the feathery 923g Apple MacBook.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: All the features in a smaller case

Microsoft has done a cracking job of shrinking the Surface 3 without diluting the qualities that made the Pro so special. Retaining the 3:2 display ratio employed on the Surface Pro 3 is a masterstroke: there’s no doubt a taller, squarer-shaped screen makes for a more spacious, usable display in both portrait and landscape orientations. It’s a canny choice for a hybrid device designed to flit seamlessly between tablet and laptop roles.

Microsoft Surface 3 review - rear edge view

The kickstand hinge is not infinitely adjustable as it is on the Surface Pro 3, instead offering three positions to choose from. This is no great loss, however, with two of the positions suitable for working at a desk, and the third ideal for use on your lap. In the crush of a commuter train or economy aeroplane seat, the Surface 3 remains an accommodating travel buddy.

Likewise, the slightly smaller Type Cover is superb, with keys that are exactly the same size as that of the Surface Pro 3’s version. Microsoft hasn’t worked some TARDIS-like magic here; there’s simply a smaller border around the cover’s edges.

Just like its big brother, the smaller Type Cover uses magnets to snap into place along the Surface 3’s lower bezel, a feature that tilts the keyboard forward a touch, making it more comfortable to type both on a desk or your lap.

Even the slightly shorter touchpad works well, something you can’t always take for granted on smaller Windows devices. It’s a shame you still have to pay £110 extra for the privilege of owning the Type Cover, though.

Thankfully, Microsoft hasn’t been tempted to adopt Apple’s less-is-more approach to connectivity. There’s still 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4, a full-sized USB 3 port, mini-DisplayPort, a 3.5mm headphone jack and, hidden away beneath the kickstand, a microSD slot. One major change is that the Surface Pro 3’s magnetic charging socket has made way for a micro-USB port – there’s a charger bundled in the box, but the big news is that the Surface 3 can now be charged from any USB source.

Microsoft Surface 3 review - type cover connection closeup

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Display quality

It’s the display that clinches the deal. Although it’s smaller than the Surface Pro 3’s display, the Surface 3’s 10.8in, 1,920 x 1,280 display is every bit as crisp. That’s because the pixel density of 216ppi is identical.

Quality is stupendous, with colours that pop off the screen without ever veering off into oversaturation. There’s no need to reach for measurement hardware to see that the Surface 3’s display is very good indeed.

In fact, testing reveals the Surface 3’s display is superior to the Surface Pro 3’s. It’s brighter, for one, reaching a maximum of 403cd/m2, and the contrast ratio of 833:1 is a touch better, too. Colour accuracy is superb, the IPS display dredging up an impressive 97% of the sRGB colour gamut – again, a better result than the Surface Pro 3 – while colour accuracy was near perfect, the Surface 3 delivering an average Delta E of 1.81 and a maximum deviation of 3.38.

The only weakness is the Surface 3’s backlighting. Just as with previous models, there’s a telltale glow of backlight leakage around the panel’s edges, and the backlighting is by no means perfectly even.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Touchscreen and the Surface Pen

It might seem like heresy to cover such a beautiful display in smudges and fingerprints, but the Surface 3 urges you to do exactly that. The touchscreen supports ten-point multitouch, and provides a silky-smooth feel that allows fingers to glide across the display. It works superbly, as you’d expect.

The Surface Pen remains excellent. It’s exactly the same as that of the Surface Pro 3. The pressure sensitivity works wonderfully in sketching and painting apps such as Fresh Paint, and functions just as effectively for handwriting and inking applications. It’s comfy to hold, with the matte finish providing the right amount of grip.

There are some annoyances: with the Surface 3, the Pen is a £45 optional extra, and there’s still nowhere on the tablet itself to dock it. One option is to use a stick-on loop of fabric that attaches it to the Type Cover, as with the Surface Pro 3, but Microsoft now has the cheek to charge £4.50 for the privilege. Happily, it’s just as effective to simply clip the Pen to the top edge of Type Cover.

Microsoft Surface 3 review - surface pen

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Prices, specifications and performance

The Surface 3 comes in two flavours. For £419, the base model provides 64GB of eMMC storage and 2GB of RAM. Spend an extra £80 and the £499 model boosts up to 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. Models with integrated 4G are on the way, too, but pricing and dates haven’t yet been confirmed.

Whichever model you choose, though, the Surface 3 is powered by Intel’s latest generation of Atom processor: the quad-core 1.6GHz Atom x7-Z8700. This marks the debut of Intel’s Cherry Trail platform, which takes the existing 22nm Bay Trail architecture, shrinks it down to a 14nm process, and tacks on an upgraded GPU based on Intel’s Broadwell-class HD Graphics cores.  

Performance is the Surface 3’s biggest compromise. To be fair, this isn’t entirely due to the limitations of the fanless Atom processor. The slow eMMC storage plays a part, too, forcing the Surface 3 to a crawl once you start pushing it harder. The occasional slowdown isn’t a killer blow, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a low-powered device best suited to modest workloads and light multitasking.

Needless to say, the Surface 3 struggled with the more intensive parts of our tough new benchmark suite, but the results clearly outline where its weaknesses and strengths lie. A score of 28 in the image-encoding portion of tests puts the Surface 3 a long way behind the 1.1GHz Core M-equipped Apple MacBook, which scored 60.

Microsoft Surface 3 review - type cover

However, the Surface 3’s quad-core Atom evens the score in the video-encoding benchmark, its four cores nudging past the Core M’s dual-core, Hyper-Threaded CPU with a result of 26 to the MacBook’s 24. Multitasking was a wash: both the MacBook and Surface 3 scored 3.

The Surface 3’s Top Trump is battery life. Its Atom x7 sips a mere 2W of power, and despite the bright, potent IPS screen, we found it easily capable of lasting the whole day. In our 720p video-rundown test, with screen brightness calibrated to 120cd/m2 and Wi-Fi turned off, the Surface 3 lasted 11hrs 36mins. That’s very good for a Windows tablet, and not too far behind the Apple iPad Air 2, which lasted 12hrs 46mins in the same test.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: graphics performance

One area where the new Atom really delivers is with improved gaming performance: the Broadwell-class GPU is a huge upgrade on the previous generation.

Put head-to-head with a Bay Trail-generation Dell Venue 11 Pro, the Surface 3 amply showed the strengths of the new graphics core. To keep a level playing field - don't forget, the Surface 3's 1,920 x 1,280 display has a few more pixels than the Venue 11 Pro's 1,920 x 1,080 panel - both devices were tested with GFXBench GL's T-Rex offscreen benchmark, which runs at a 1080p resolution. In this test, the Surface 3 absolutely trounced the Dell's Bay Trail-class GPU: while the Dell achieved a choppy average framerate of 15fps, the Surface 3 eased to an average of 40fps.

In most scenarios, though, the Surface 3's graphics performance is CPU-limited. The Atom is no processing powerhouse, after all. Testing across a variety of titles such as Dishonored, Left 4 Dead 2 and BioShock Infinite, it wasn't uncommon to see framerates dip into the low teens, or even single figures, during more complex scenes or intense action. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the Atom's CPU was being pushed to breaking point. 

Generally, though, it is possible to eke a playable experience out of the Surface 3. Dial the detail settings right down, drop the resolution down to 1,024 x 768 (or lower), and many titles will prove playable. That is, as long as you don't mind putting up with the odd bout of choppiness. Only BioShock Infinite proved too much for the Surface 3, even with the detail and resolution settings dialled right back to their minimum. At best, it was borderline playable, with the framerate hovering just below 20fps, but severe framerate dips made a real slog of the hectic boss battles. Older titles based on Valve's Source engine, such as Left 4 Dead 2, fared much better, with the framerate rarely dipping below 20fps, even with the screen absolutely swarming with undead foes. And suffice to say, if you're willing to delve into each game's settings files to manually tweak the low-level engine settings, then it may be possible to squeeze even more performance out of the Surface 3.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Everything else

It's heartening to find that Microsoft hasn’t skimped on any of the more minor elements. The cameras are excellent. By tablet standards, the front-facing snapper has an unusually high resolution of 3.5 megapixels, and while pixel count is no mark of quality, it serves up crisp, lifelike selfies and video chats. The rear-facing 8-megapixel camera is surprisingly capable, too, dredging up a decent amount of detail with a pleasingly natural colour balance.

Both are helped by the Camera app’s new burst mode, which lets you choose the best out of ten photographs, shot in rapid succession. When it comes to quickly grabbing an image and sharing it with others, the Surface 3 is in its element.

The pair of speakers – one mounted either side of the display – are pretty good too. Some distortion sets in at maximum volume, but there’s just enough mid-range presence to make both music and speech clear and pleasant to listen to. They’re better than the iPad Air 2’s speakers, delivering audio with far more presence and stereo separation, and the positioning means they’re less easy to muffle by accident.

Microsoft Surface 3 review

Microsoft Surface 3 review: verdict

Compared to the slew of budget-priced Windows tablets on the market currently, the Microsoft Surface 3 looks expensive – stratospherically so considering it’s only powered by an Atom CPU.

However, this device is in a completely different class to your average budget Windows tablet. Everything – from the display to the cameras, the build to the battery life – is a cut above. No two ways about it, the Surface 3 stacks up against the best premium tablets from any manufacturer, Apple included.

The optional extras do see the prices rack up pretty quickly. The price of the base model rises from £419 to £574 once you factor in a Type Cover and Surface Pen, but in fairness that’s still cheaper than a similarly equipped iPad Air 2. And, don’t forget, the Surface 3 can run Windows applications, has a slightly superior display and does a better impression of a compact, lightweight laptop into the bargain. It even comes bundled with a year’s subscription to Office 365 Personal; another small but welcome bonus.

There are negatives to be found, not least the fact that, despite all the tweaks, Windows 8.1 remains a mediocre tablet OS: the app store is an embarrassment, and the interface can feel awkward on a small, high-DPI screen.

When the free upgrade to Windows 10 arrives, however, the Surface 3 promises to come into its own. The Surface 3 is the iPad rival Microsoft was trying to make all along, and finally it’s got it right. Now all we need is Windows 10.

Price when reviewed 
419inc VAT, 64GB model £499, 128GB model

Read more about