When Microsoft announced the Surface 3 this past spring, I was intrigued. This is a device that is in the price ballpark of the Windows RT-based Surface 2, but has an Intel ATOM processor which allows it to run the full Windows 8 (and now Windows 10) operating systems. In a nutshell, it’s a small, reasonably-priced notebook-tablet hybrid that is able to run standard Windows applications. You can imagine I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype.
In the interest of full disclosure, this will not be a full technical breakdown of the Surface 3. Many others have already written those, so it would be superfluous. This post is designed more as a comparison from a usage standpoint.
I have two primary comparisons for the Surface 3. I own both the original Surface RT and Surface 2 tablets, and have been a big fan of the small form factor of the Surface 2 for traveling for over a year. It is fantastic from a size and weight standpoint, but it isn’t very powerful and can’t run full Windows applications. It is truly a tablet, not a laptop replacement.
On the other side, the computer where I spend the majority of my time is a Lenovo ThinkPad T530. From a performance standpoint, this is on the other end of the spectrum. The ThinkPad has an Intel i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM and two SSDs. Quite simply, it is a very fast computer. But that power comes with a significant amount of heft; it is certainly not small or light. After I started traveling with my Surface 2, the ThinkPad rarely leaves the docking station.
With that said, I know the experiences and limitations that both ends have. My desire was to see where the Surface 3 would fit into that spectrum. Would it be able to perform adequately as both a tablet and a notebook – or would it simply be left wanting in significant areas? Before I review the device, I wanted to provide a quick spoiler alert: I was able to use a pre-release review unit for a couple of weeks and was impressed enough that I shelled out my own money to buy one personally, so that should say something.
Since getting the Surface 3, I have used it in three primary ways. First, it replaced the Surface 2 as my travel device. Most of the time I simply don’t need the power of my ThinkPad when I’m traveling, and I will happily do without the power to shed the extra weight on trips. Second, I use it around the house for personal web browsing or watching videos in the Netflix or WatchESPN apps. Lastly, I use the pen input along with OneNote to take notes in church.
A few aspects of the Surface 3 have been good from a travel standpoint. From a size standpoint, I have loved the Surface 3. It is a different ratio form factor than the Surface 2 (3:2 instead of 16:9), but it is essentially the same size and weight. I have traveled several times with the Surface 3 and it has been a very positive experience. As a tablet, it does not have to be taken out of my bag at the security checkpoint. It also does not have to be stowed while flying, so it can be used from gate to gate without having to be stowed. But having the full keyboard enables me to switch it into laptop mode to get real work done.
The battery life is outstanding. I used the pre-release review unit heavily for note-taking at the Microsoft Ignite conference. At the end of each day, I still had plenty of battery remaining. The lowest I went the whole week still had me ending the day with 30 percent remaining battery.
I also obtained a third-party dongle that enables me to use the miniDisplayPort to present via VGA, HDMI or DVI depending on what is available in a given conference room. It was very natural and convenient to use the full version of PowerPoint on a touch-based device to give a presentation.
From a personal use standpoint, it has been ideal around the house for my personal web consuming at the table, on the couch or elsewhere. The small size and ability to easily swap between tablet and laptop modes has made it very convenient for using it in way that a standalone tablet or laptop simply would not have been.
I only have a couple of full Windows applications that I use on the Surface 3 and they have generally functioned decently well. One of those apps requires higher specs than what the Surface 3 offers. It will still run, but it is sluggish at times. It is certainly not a deal breaker though; you just have to be aware that a resource-hungry application may have performance issues.
My other key personal use of the Surface 3 is to take sermon notes in church. Once again the small form factor makes it reasonable to carry into this environment and I have found that using the pen to take handwritten notes is less noisy in a quiet environment than using the keyboard which I have done for the last couple of years with my Surface 2. On a technical note: The pen is excellent. It is very responsive and does a fantastic job of allowing you to take handwritten notes without any noticeable lag.
One note about the keyboard and pen though: Neither of them are included with the purchase of the Surface 3. In my opinion, the keyboard is simply not optional. It is something that you must have to get the full functionality and use from the device. The pen is optional depending on your use of the device. I have used the pen extensively and am very glad to have it as an option.
As noted earlier, I was impressed enough that I spent my own money to get one. It is a really good balance of convenience, functionality, power and price. It is certainly worth considering depending on your individual needs.
I see the Surface 3 as a good option for a few key usage scenarios. For people who need to run standard Windows application, but don’t require a super powerful computer, this could be a decent option. I’m thinking of the casual user who mainly uses their computer for web browsing, Office applications and things of that nature. It seems like it could be an ideal fit for students from a portability and note-taking perspective.
Mobile or field workers are potential candidates for this device, as well. I see it as an ideal travel device since it is very lightweight, yet also extremely functional. It is certainly not going to replace a powerful notebook, but it functions very well as a secondary device.