The Surface 3 – A Review

I have been an Apple devotee for many years, and have owned exclusiley Apple Macs and iOS devices since 2005. And yet The Surface 3 and Windows 10 were too intriguing for me to pass up. A few months ago I took the Surface 3 plunge, and I feel it is about time to provide a short review of not only the device, but the experience of ordering, receiving, setting up, and using the tablet.

 

Ordering

The surface 3 is available at a few different retailers in the US, including Best Buy and Amazon. I initially wanted to simply drop into Best Buy and pick one up. They have a nice display of the Surface 3 and 3 Pro, as well as all the needed accessories, including the Type Cover and Pen. However, I decided to set aside my need for instant gratification and turned to the Microsoft Store online. The store is quite nice, and easy to use. I settled on the higher-end Surface 3 model, with 128Gb of storage and 4Gb of memory. The retail price for the Surface 3 is $599, but students, teachers, and university faculty can get 10% off their purchases at the Microsoft store, so that definitely swung me in their direction. Additionally, Microsoft offers Complete Accident Protection coverage for Surface 3s. I’m normally not a fan of extended warranties, but I decided on including this $99 coverage since, as a tablet computer, it will likely suffer more abuse than the average desktop or laptop machine. I also opted to include the dark blue Type Cover, and after much hmming and hawing, the silver pen.

 Delivery

48 hours does not sound like a long time, but when you are anxiously awaiting the delivery of your new toy it can feel like an eternity. I ordered my Surface 3 late Tuesday night, and selected the express delivery. My order shipped on Wednesday morning, and by Thursday evening I had the package in front of me. Great service by UPS, with notification of delivery to my phone and email.

The Surface 3, Type Cover, and Surface Pen all arrived in a single package.  I was underwhelmed by the lack of padding in the box. As soon as I picked up the package I could hear the contents knocking around. Still, everything made it damage-free, so I suppose that I have no reason to complain.

Surface 3 and Accessories

The Surface 3, blue Type Cover, and Surface Pen.

The Surface 3, accessories, And Windows 10

Whenever any reviewer examines a tablet or two-in-one, the first, most obvious comparison that is generally made is to the current iPad, the iPad Air. For years I have been an Apple devotee, and I still believe they make a fantastic piece of hardware, with great software. The current iPad is no exception. It has excellent build quality and a stellar screen. It is light, powerful, and an all-around great device. The iPads in all their various forms are quite rightly the gold standards for tablet devices.

Surface 3 at Starbucks

Surface 3 with Typecover

I have used a variety of tablet and tablet-like devices over the years, from Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and others. The Surface 3 is the first device I have used that can match the iPad in design and build. The Surface is encased in a sturdy magnesium body, with no fan. Compared to the iPad the Surface has a more “industrial” look, with harder edges and flats. The Surface just feels like a quality device. There is no flex, no bending. The glass front feel smooth, and all the joins between metal, glass, and plastic are well made, and perfectly fit. The Surface 3 body also features a 3-position kickstand, a feature that I never knew I needed or wanted until I got it. The ability to simply stand the tablet up or lay it down at an angle is great. The Surface 3 Pro features a smooth, highly adjustable kickstand, but for reasons of size and cost, the Surface 3 is relegated to a mere 3 positions. In principle this leaves the Surface 3 restricted and less comfortable than the Surface 3 Pro. In practice however, this is a non-issue for me. The stand’s three positions provide adequate positioning in 95% of all situations. This is due primarily to the quality of the Surface 3’s screen. The 1920×1280 IPS display is clear, bright, and colorful, and most relevantly for the positioning concern, the viewing angles are fantastic. Looking at the screen somewhat off-axis does not affect the viewing quality, meaning that small positioning adjustments are not generally needed.

Clearly the main differentiator between the iPad line and the Surface line is the Surface’s ability to run Windows 10, a full desktop operating system. This is a choice made by Microsoft, and presents both positive and negative aspects. There are some pretty big pluses to this decision. I am writing this review in the full desktop version of Word 2016, while watching a video on Netflix, and surfing the web, a multitasking load out of reach of the iPad (though the split screen/PIP video is arriving on iPads now, somewhat duplicating to a degree the abilities already present in Windows for years). The ability to do productive work on the Surface 3 has to be considered it’s primary advantage. I feel like I can use the Surface as my productivity device in almost any situation. While I still keep my Macbook Pro around for gaming, video editing, and more intensive tasks, the Surface 3 can handle any basic productivity task with no issue. When you consider that the Surface 3 is running one of Intel’s new Atom processors, and not a full i-series chip, this is doubly impressive.

Yet many of the advantages of the full Windows 10 ecosystem depend on one crucial accessory: the Type Cover (not included, and pretty pricy at $129). The keyboard attaches to the bottom of the Surface 3 with a satisfying magnetic click, and provides a full keyboard and small but surprisingly functional trackpad. I will say that people coming to a Windows PC from a Mac will definitely find the touchpad disappointing compared to the magnificent glass trackpads and trackpad software found in the Macbook line, but it is one of the better, more responsive trackpads I’ve used on a Windows machine. The keyboard itself is not bad. The keys are not too small, but they are closely clustered, making touch typing somewhat more challenging. They keyboard is surprisingly stable for such a thin and light piece of equipment, and the magnetic grip to the front of the Surface provides a comfortable angle for typing. Looking at the new keyboard accessory available for the Surface 4 Pro, I think It is reasonable to think that the next generation of the non-pro keyboard will be improved. Immediately following the upgrade from Win8.1 to Windows 10 I found the keyboard to be somewhat laggy, but that has improved as updates to Windows 10 have come along and is no longer an issue. Would I want to write a novel on this keyboard? No, but for basic blogging, web-surfing, and other productivity tasks it is more than adequate.

One other issue worth discussing regarding the Windows 10 environment is that of software. Clearly with windows 10 the entire ecosystem of Windows software is open to you. But it has to be asked, does this matter? The majority of new, modern software, the software and apps people want to use, is simply not available for Windows 10. Developers, often including Microsoft, throw their best and most novel innovations at iOS and Android, since that is where the marketshare lies. It is easily argued that the Facebook App, Twitter app, Netflix, Hulu, and other apps released for Windows 10 simply do not match up to the quality seen on the iOS and Android sides. And some critical entertainment apps, like Amazon Prime Video, simply don’t exist for Windows 10. Now, it can easily be argued that the same is true for a Mac, that many of the apps we see on iOS and Android don’t exist for the Mac, and like the Surface you must turn to a web browser to enjoy these services. This is true, except that the Surface is trying to position itself as an all-in-one device, a laptop, a tablet, all-in-one. While the device certainly functions as both, the operating system and the app environment clearly feel better suited to laptop use rather than tablet.

But is this a deal-breaker? It depends on your desired use case. If you are looking for an entertainment device, with the latest in media consumption apps, and the latest and most innovative games, then clearly the Apple ecosystem is the place to be. If you are looking for a device that can be used for productivity, and additionally can provide mobile web-browsing, movies, etc., then the Surface 3 is definitely a contender.

Other issues

There are a few more miscellaneous things worth discussing about the Surface 3. First, battery life. The Surface 3 generally gets reasonable battery life, though honestly not as good as I hope for. I average 5-6 hours of web browsing combined with video playback. Not awful, but not what I hope for in a tablet. The Surface 3 dispenses with proprietary connectors and uses a standard micro-USB plug for charging, the same used for many cell phones. The advantage of this is the ease of finding an additional connector and charger for your device. However, the Surface 3 charges SLOWLY. Very Slowly. And if you are using your Surface 3 with any intensity while plugged in, you can actually exhaust the battery faster than you can charge it.

Final Verdict

The Surface 3 is quite a nice device. The excellent screen, low weight, and surprisingly good speed when running a full Windows 1o operating system make this device a contender. Though I do wish the device had better battery life and better charging, I can say that I am pretty satisfied with my Surface 3, and could easily recommend it to anyone looking for a Windows-based tablet.

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