About the author: Joe reviews hardware based on how it fits into his life. Joe is a sales professional that manages a team, travels weekly, a part-time professor and gamer. He is a father and husband who also has the privilege of being GWW’s President.
If you want to read my full review, I thank you. If you are considering purchasing the Surface 3 (“S3”) and want my quick take, here it is: YES! The S3 is small enough to fit into the smallest of usable travel bags, powerful enough to run Microsoft Office well (with multiple apps and documents open), and it’s gorgeous. While I prefer to not give advice without knowing the person I’m helping, I think anyone can find a good use for this device.
Targeted at professionals and students, the S3 is really a device for anyone. While it’s not the flagship tablet from Microsoft, that title goes to the Surface Pro 3, it is the most accessible at $499. Although, keep in mind to get maximum usage you’ll need the $130 Surface Keyboard. Even with a true entry point of $630, the S3 is a great value due to the productivity gains, provided you have the proper needs. Note there is still another evolution this tablet will take later this summer when Windows 10 is released as a free upgrade to most Surface owners. At that time, the value should increase as Windows 10 is looking to be a much better OS for tablets than Windows 8.1.
Unlike the Surface Pro line, the S3 is not powered by an Intel i Core processor. Instead, it runs on a Quad-Core Intel Atom x7 running at 1.6GHz regardless of the S3 model you select. The S3 has two models. The difference being 2GB vs. 4GB of RAM and 64GB vs. 128GB of storage. I suggest spending the additional $100 for the 4GB/128GB model as Windows 8.1 eats up roughly 30GB of storage space. Regardless of the model you’e still sporting a highly portable device at only 1.37lbs. Also regardless of the model you get some serious ports: a full USB 3.0 port, Micro USB, MicroSD slot, and mini HDMI. For gamers, you can connect a gaming controller or mouse and fire up Steam!
Battery life is rarely good with any portable device. If managed correctly, you can usually squeeze a few extra hours out of a tablet or laptop. Personally, it bugs me to turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth or dim the screen. Many operating systems will give the user options to tweek some settings based on various conditions. Another set of tasks I’m not fond of. The S3 is rated by Microsoft for up to 10 hours of video playback. Our tests returned a result of 9.26 hours at moderate brightness and volume, without the keyboard plugged in. Importantly, I am able to get through most of a work day without fear of draining the battery. Herein lies the operative concept: I use the S3 as a companion device. It is not my primary computer so it is on standby for several blocks of time throughout the day. Even if you choose to use the S3 as a primary computer you can still plug it into the wall with a convenient Micro USB charging port (the same port as most Android phones).
The Surface Keyboard is expensive at $129.99 but it is a perfect companion for the S3. It snaps onto the S3 by way of a magnetic clasp and collapses comfortably onto the screen when in travel mode. The keys are backlit, which is an awesome feature, and also feel great and responsive when pressed. Microsoft chose to make the function keys secondary to more useful actions such as media controls, screen brightness, keyboard brightness and document management. Overall the keyboard is comfortable and easy to use. In fact, I’ve written this entire review using the S3 and Surface Keyboard.
The Surface Pen is another expensive accessory that Microsoft sells separately. It’s $49.99 and feels like a typical $20 stylus. It does offer a few buttons that can be customized somewhat. I’d stress to everyone that owns or intends to own an S3 to get the keyboard but think hard about the pen. If you aren’t drafting diagrams or art then it’s not really worth $50.
The Surface line is known for it’s kickstand. This has evolved over the years and appeared to land on it’s best iteration with the infinitely adjustable Surface Pro 3. But with the S3 the kickstand can only adjust in 3 positions. I’ll be honest; I’ve never used the Pro 3 so I don’t know anything better than the kickstand on the S3, and I’m able to use it laying down, sitting, or standing.
Apple exploded into the tablet space with the iPad. It was a revolutionary design that paved the way for Surface to exist. Now more than ever it is an expectation that business professionals and students will have a tablet for note-taking that leads to easy reuse and consumption. I’ve used several tablets for business including those based on iOS, Android and Windows. I can honestly say the S3 is the best of them all. The ability to fully use Microsoft Office is the primary reason. On Android and iOS, you can now use Microsoft Office but you can only have 1 document and 1 application open simultaneously. That makes for quite a challenge when you’re doing more than just taking notes in Word. Speaking of which, on Android and iOS, there is no spell check for Microsoft Office. I repeat: no spell check! It’s absurd. Well, it’s strategy on Microsoft’s part. People see “office for iOS” and view it as Microsoft turning the corner. I agree they are, but by limiting the software they keep the best version for their own operating system.
So, using the S3 is fantastic. But it does have limits. General web-browsing, document creation and HD movie streaming is just fine. If this is all you need, then you’ll be ecstatic with the S3. Where it falls short is in the typical areas: gaming and video/photo editing. If you need to edit media there isn’t a tablet in the world that will satisfy you. As for gaming, you can actually get away with it in some ways. The beauty of Windows is access to the library on GOG.com (Good Old Games). There are hundreds, if not thousands of incredible PC games from before the introduction of DirectX 10 that will run on the S3. There are some more recent games as well that I’ve tested: Torchlight II, Mark of the Ninja, and Half-Life 2. They run! Albeit not on maximum graphics settings. But if you’re traveling and need to scratch that gaming itch, you can do so with the S3.
The Surface 3 is a fantastic product. It’s great for students, teachers, and business professionals that travel or are often in meetings. It falls short if you plan on gaming or editing media, but if you use it for it’s intended purposes, the Surface 3 is pure joy. I do think Microsoft would be in a better position to steal market-share from Google and Apple if they dropped the price of the keyboard to $75. Even still, the Surface 3 rocks now and will rock harder this summer when Windows 10 is rumored to release. What is not a rumor is Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for Surface 3 owners. Microsoft’s new OS appears ready to unleash the new Microsoft tablet strategy and Surface 3 owners will be able to take full advantage.