Microsoft Surface 3 Review: Not Quite a Pro, But Premium Nonetheless

by Reads (76,360)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Software & Support
    • 8
    • Upgrade Capabilities
    • 7
    • Usability
    • 9
    • Design
    • 10
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Features
    • 8
    • Price/Value Rating
    • 7
    • Total Score:
    • 8.00
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10


  • Pros

    • World-class build and design
    • Full-sized USB and kickstand prove invaluable for productivity
    • Decent performance, all things considered
    • Excellent display
  • Cons

    • Base unit's 2GB of RAM low for a device in this class
    • Win 8.1 and core apps take up too much space
    • Necessary accessories too pricey

Quick Take

Although it has a chipset commonly associated with budget tablets and notebooks, the Microsoft Surface 3 is still a premium device that is well worth the $499 base price, even in a market awash in cheaper alternatives.

It’s called a Surface, but everything about it has changed. It has a different size, different design, different chipset, and different operating system than its predecessors.

With those changes, the new Microsoft Surface 3 now has more in common with dozens of other Windows tablets and notebooks on the market. This speaks to the former uniqueness of the line – a uniqueness that didn’t lend itself to market success.

The team at TabletPCReview had good things to say about the Surface 2 and Windows RT. They both had salient strengths, and compared favorably to other devices at the time in terms of performance and productivity. But since they failed to attract the user and developer base required for any platform’s success, it’s very likely that Microsoft made the right move in changing operating systems in its successor.

But before deciding that, let’s take a closer look at the new Atom-powered Microsoft Surface 3, this time running a complete and 64-bit version of Windows 8.1.

Build & Design

Take a look at last-year’s Surface Pro 3 and shrink it about 10%. That’s the Surface 3. It’s a thin and fanless tablet with a 10.8-inch display. It measures 10.52 x 7.36 x 0.34 inches (whd), and weighs a scant 1.37 pounds.

The Surface line has always featured an industry-best build quality, and that continues here with the Surface 3. This feels like a premium device thanks to its magnesium body, and it’s extremely well designed. It’s not the thinnest or lightest, but no tablet outside the Surface line comes close to the Surface 3’s balance of portability and quality. This thing will survive the day-to-day rigors of even heavy use, and probably still look like new a year out. On top of that, the kickstand offers enough utility to make us wish every tablet had one.


Microsoft Surface 3 -- Display Glare

Microsoft Surface 3 — Display Glare

The Microsoft Surface 3 has a 10.8-inch display with a resolution of 1920 x 1280, which translates to about 213 pixels per inch, or a mere 3 PPI less than the Pro 3. It retains the Pro 3’s 3:2 aspect ratio, and is better for it.

The Surface 3 never feels as small as its size, and even a cluttered desktop or busy spreadsheet never gets claustrophobic. It supports up to 10 touch points and Microsoft’s N-Trig stylus (sold separately).

The display tends toward warmer colors, with whites expressing a subtle magenta hue. At max brightness, the Surface 3 can cut through glare as well as any other device in its class, which is to say well enough to use in high-contrast settings (like Word), but not comfortably.

Buttons and Ports

Microsoft Surface 3 Ports

Microsoft Surface 3 Ports

The Surface 3 has a power button and volume rocker on the top of the device, along with the magnetic keyboard receptacle on the bottom. The right side features the mini DisplayPort, full-sized USB 3.0, and microUSB ports, just above the 3.5mm headphone jack. A microSD card slot hides underneath the kickstand.

Most Atom-powered Window 8.1 tablets have a microUSB port that serves double duty for charging and accessories, so it’s nice to see Microsoft sticking with multiple ports like its other Surface models. It’s doubly nice to see Microsoft going with a microUSB charging input. All other Surfaces have a proprietary magnetic charger, similar to a MagSafe. Sure, that’s high-end, but we’d much rather have the utility of a common standard.

The microUSB port also acts as a host, meaning users can use it for accessories like keyboards and mice, with the right micro-to-full adapter. It will also support a USB Ethernet adapter for those looking for a more wired experience.

While the volume rocker is on the left side of the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft relocated it to the top on the Surface 3, making it easier to use. On the Pro 3, pushing the left-sided volume rocker too often shifted the tablet to the right. Pushing down from the top, as you do with the Surface 3, makes so much more sense and keeps the tablet stable.

As with the Pro 3, the Windows softkey sits on the right landscape edge, and can be disabled for pen users worried about accidentally hitting it with their palms.

The front-facing speakers are predictably mediocre, but are good enough for personal use. But that’s the case with 99% of tablets we review. At least Microsoft has them facing the right way.


Microsoft Surface 3 Kickstand and Optional Keyboard

Microsoft Surface 3 Kickstand and Optional Keyboard

The Surface 3 shares the same design elements of the Surface line, including its iconic kickstand. While the Pro 3 has a fluid kickstand that can prop the tablet up at just about any point, the Surface 3 kickstand features three stops.

We found three stops to be plenty for 99% of use cases, and we found the kickstand to be sturdy and well-built. It offers a satisfying click when opened, and even features what Microsoft calls a “safety mechanism” that makes it near unbreakable, allowing it to open more fully should someone accidently lean on it.


1 Comment

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  1. randallintacoma

    Nice review and I agree that this is a really nice tablet PC. I bought the base model to replace an older laptop. While this laptop was just 15 inches and not heavy, it was never used by my family except on the desk we kept it on. No one ever took it to a chair or outside or made any kind of portable use of it. I bought the Surface 3 on the day it was released and it has already been all over the house and yard. Family members will use it at the desk, and then take it to a chair or the couch. It has had more use in its first month than the laptop ever got. As for your comments about the keyboard and pen: My Surface3 is paired with a compact Bluetooth keyboard that we already owned, so I did not need to purchase the Type Cover. I did purchase a pen for the tablet, but my $49 pen came with a color matched adhesive loop in the box, so that $4.99 loop price is really just for replacements. I acknowledge, as does Microsoft, that the loop is not the ideal solution but I’d hate it more if they made the tablet thicker or the pen thinner just to build in a silo, and I suspect so would reviewers who now complain about the loop.