Surface 3 Hands On and Review

Tom Westrick

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Mar 18, 2015
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I had (and still have until it gets sold) an Asus 17? gaming laptop that has served me well, a NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet, and a OnePlus One. Soon after writing that piece, I began a summer study program that has me sharing a room with two other gents, with significantly less space. To pass the time, I watch movies from a communal share drive. Since accessing the drive requires a Windows machine, and I would get movies from the drive then transfer them to my tablet. Additionally, I have an educational program that only works on Windows and OSX. If I wanted to get some additional studying done, it meant breaking out my bulky laptop.

Enter the Surface 3. Announced a couple days after I left for the study program, it seemed to solve my particular problems: it could access the network drives, run my educational program, and still be small enough for me to keep it at my desk and hold up for reading books and comics. When it was released, I had a friend set it up with my account and a few apps, and I?ve been using it for the past month.

Right off the bat, the Surface 3 was a bit of an anomaly for me: for the past few years, I?ve enjoyed using smaller tablets (in the 7-8 inch range) paired with larger laptops (17 inches). I haven?t used a tablet this large since I bought a refurbished iPad 1, which I used for 8 months before trading it for a generic Toshiba laptop. Since then, there hasn?t been much I would do on a tablet that would warrant a large screen- tablets in the 7-8 inch range were small enough for me to put them in a pocket, and were about the size of a paperback book, making them perfect for reading books and comics. When I wanted to do some typing or other intensive work, I?d pull out my laptop and make use of the spacious keyboard. Moving to cloud based services like Google Play Music and Movies & TV meant I didn?t need to bother with plugging the tablet in and syncing content.

In the time I?ve had the Surface 3, I?ve already gotten used to it as both a smaller laptop and larger tablet. I can?t type quite as fast on the (optional) keyboard as I can on my old laptop?s larger keyboard, and there are a few more typos, but I?m sure in the next few weeks I?ll get more accustomed. I can get by with the on-screen keyboard just fine for writing smaller articles and typing in web addresses, but nothing feels as good as a physical keyboard. While I would still prefer something smaller for reading, I had no issues holding the tablet up while reading a novel or comic book in bed, for example. For full disclosure, I bought a Bluetooth mouse a couple weeks after receiving the Surface, but the trackpad suffices for everything except gaming.
Even without the keyboard, navigating around the OS is simple enough, with a few exceptions. The standard Windows 8.1 start screen lets users size their app icons as big or as small as they would like, and even in the desktop interface it?s not hard to double tap an icon to launch a program. One frustration I have is with the multitasking interface. By default, a swipe from the left edge of the screen switches out the current app for the last used one, but it can be configured to stay open so users can see all open apps. That part isn?t the problem. The problem is, getting rid of an open app requires touching the app icon and swiping very quickly straight down. If you don?t swipe fast enough or swipe a little to the left, nothing happens and the app stays open. If you swipe to right at all, the app will be brought to the foreground. Being able to swipe the app straight to the left would solve this problem. Other frustrations include the screen not responding sometimes after unlocking the tablet, forcing me to reboot and lose any work I had. Beyond those two complaints, everything runs smooth. I bought the 128gb internal storage/4gb of RAM option, with about 93 gb left before installing apps and programs. With an additional 128gb from my Micro-SD card, I had plenty of rooms for all my stuff. If you are a little more constrained, there are ways to free up space. All the included applications (with the exception of the Camera, Photos, Store and the Desktop) can be completely uninstalled. If you are feeling extra brave, you can move the tablet?s recovery partition (the portion it will recover from if you need to factory reset it) can be moved to a USB drive and deleted from the tablet.

Unlike lower end tablets and earlier Surface devices, the Surface 3 is running the full version of Windows 8.1, to be upgraded to Windows 10 at the end of this month. Earlier, non-Pro Surface tablets ran Windows RT, which only had access to Windows Store apps. Since the Windows Store had just launched, the selection wasn?t great, and there are still some noticeable apps missing even today. For the past year or so, smaller tablets have been able to run a special OS called Windows 8.1 with Bing, which ditched licensing fees in exchange for Bing being the default search engine on Internet Explorer (users were able to change the default search engine themselves). For the user, it wasn?t much different than standard Windows 8.1, being able to run legacy programs downloaded from a browser or installed from a CD. I played with this version when I bought my father a small HP tablet for Christmas, but didn?t spend more than a few hours with it while setting up his accounts and downloading some games for him. Since the Surface 3 runs full Windows, I was able to plug an external DVD reader to the USB port, install my software, unplug the drive, and go about my day. If you decide against using a keyboard, a touch only environment will be either a non-issue or frustrating depending on how the programs you use are designed. The few programs I have feature big, easy-to-tap icons, so I?m happy. If you need to bring up the right click actions, tapping a holding will bring up the menu.

The build quality on the Surface 3 is top notch. The sides, hinge (more on that in a second) and back are all made from a light grey magnesium, and it feels sturdy without being too heavy. The hinge has three positions it can click into, unlike the Surface Pro 3 which can rest in any position. Having said that, the three positions the hinge settles in are very versatile, and make typing very easy whether on a table or a lap. Beneath the hinge is the micro-SD card slot, allowing users to add up to 128 gigabytes of extra storage. The slot supports the Micro-SDXC standard, so as newer, larger cards with the standard become available, they should work just fine. If you have a Micro-SD card inserted, it will show up as the D drive, with the main internal storage occupying the C drive. The back of the hinge has the newer, completely square Windows 10 logo, whereas the home button on both the front and keyboard use the 8.1-style angled logo. Neither one looks better than the other, it?s just odd to see both being used on the same device. On top of the Surface is where the power and volume buttons reside, and they give nice, tactile feedback when pressed. The left side is bare, while the right has all the ports: from top to bottom, a mini-DisplayPort, a USB 3.0 port, a Micro-USB port (more on that in the next paragraph), and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the bottom, you?ll find the necessary connections for the keyboard cover. On the front right, you have the aforementioned home/Start button, while closer to the top on both sides are the speakers. Sound from the speakers sound loud and clear, and they blend into the design well too.

Microsoft?s decision to go with an older Micro-USB port for charging has some positives and negatives. On the positive end, Micro-USB cables are fairly common, and if you lose the included charger (or want something faster), it?s not hard to get a replacement. Additionally, if you have a USB on the go adapter, you can plug it in and have a second full size USB port for mice, thumbdrives and other peripherals. However, USB-C ports will soon become the new standard, as with those come faster charging, faster data transfer, and a reversible plug. As it stands, the included charger does just fine, but I went ahead and bought a faster one made by Dell.

As far as included and optional goodies, the Surface 3 includes a year of Office 365 (a subscription featuring all the Office applications plus 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage), with the keyboard and pen sold separately. The Surface Pro 3 included the pen, but not Office 365. I feel most customers will get more use of the 365 subscription, so it?s good to see Microsoft change things up there. The keyboard is a separate purchase for both, and a little pricy at $130. The keyboard doubles as a cover, and does a good job keeping the screen protected while the Surface isn?t in use. The keys themselves offer decent but not spectacular travel, and are even backlit. It?s easy to tell a lot of engineering went into making this work as well as it did, and I personally believe $130 is a fair asking price. If you don?t feel the same, a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse will do the job just fine. To save some money, Costco is offering a bundle that includes both the keyboard and pen for $599 plus tax for the 64GB/2GB model and $699 plus tax for the 128GB/4GB model that I chose. One downside is you can only get the black keyboard with this bundle, not the more vibrant red or blue options. In addition to the Wi-Fi only models, LTE versions will become available in the coming weeks for $100 over each base price.

I haven?t bothered mentioning raw performance, since depending on the user the Surface 3 is either perfect or underpowered. If you will be installing newer games from Steam or need graphically intensive programs such as Photoshop, look elsewhere. If you aren?t into gaming too much (or play lighter games such as emulators) and can get by with less intensive photo editing software, you?ll be just fine. The two games I bought from the Store (Halo: Spartan Assault and Halo: Spartan Strike) played just fine, and Photoshop Express from the Store worked well too. I?m satisfied with the battery life as well, easily making it through a day with a lot of music listening, writing, browsing the web, and a couple hours of watching movies and studying. I use the desktop version of Internet Explorer to browse despite its reputation, although the Modern, more touch friendly version is also included if you fancy that. You can also download and install any third party browser, though some (Chrome in particular) can greatly affect the battery life.

A couple points I haven?t touched on have been the pen and the two cameras. The pen performed well in the little time I spent with it, it just isn?t my preferred method with interacting with the device. If you do enjoy using styli, you?ll be satisfied. Unless there is a national emergency, I absolutely refuse to use the rear camera on a tablet, but the Surface 3?s rear camera is an 8 megapixel/1080p video model, while the front facing camera is 3.5 megapixels, also with 1080p video. It should make for clear video calls, but I?ll try a few in the next couple weeks to confirm.

Overall, I?m very pleased with my purchase. This type of hybrid device won?t be for everyone, with power users preferring more storage and RAM and other users not getting anything they couldn?t use a cheaper tablet for. There are still programs out there that are Windows and Mac OSX only, and if you want a thin, light, high quality tablet that also runs those legacy programs, the Surface will do the trick. If you?d like that and would prefer a little more horsepower or a larger screen, the Surface Pro 3 would be a great option, although the Surface Pro 4 should be out soon with Windows 10 being released. Speaking of which, I will check back in a little over a month once I install the update and see what bugs and annoyances remain. I?ll also go more in depth with the pen and cameras. If Microsoft can get rid of my few complaints, I will be a very satisfied customer.

Mahdi Ghiasi

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Jan 20, 2013
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About the multitasking issue, you don't need to pull it down that much quickly. You can just grab it, move it a little to the right (while your finger is still touching the screen) and continue pulling it to bottom normally.

Also if you want to close the current app, just grab the app from the top and pull it to the bottom. (A long swipe from top to bottom)


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Dec 10, 2013
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Thanks for the extensive review. I am happy with my purchase of the Surface 3 so far (I took advantage of the Costco deal.) Sometimes it seems arbitrarily slow, but usually it zips right by. Sites like and the verge seem to have a hard time rendering. But it overall it has taken over 80% of my laptop use (which is now a Win 10 test dummy). I think f you have a very capable desktop, then the S3 is the perfect on-the go-companion. One final thought though, how come windows central never had a review for the S3.

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