The Surface lineup for Microsoft has been extremely interesting to watch. What first launched in October 2012 as the Surface RT has been constantly iterated upon, and of course the Surface Pro line has evolved even faster. Surface Pro 3 has finally provided Microsoft with something that critics and consumers alike seem to have bought in to, and sales have been very strong since the Pro 3 was launched on May 20th 2014. However there has always been questions about the “consumer” version of Surface. Surface RT was, frankly, a sales disaster. The much improved Surface 2 fixed many of its shortcomings, but certainly did not set the world on fire. So now we have the third generation Surface, aptly named the Surface 3. There are a pile of changes that Microsoft has made to this generation of device, and obviously their hopes are that Surface 3 will be as popular as the Surface Pro 3 has been, but extending the device back down to a lower price point.

That price point is important. As much as the Surface Pro 3 has gained its share of fans, it is far from cheap. The most inexpensive model starts at $799, and for that you still do not get the keyboard. Surface 3 moves that bar down significantly, and the starting price is the exact same as the original Surface RT, at $499. Microsoft had to trim down the Pro model to hit this price point, but the cuts were well placed.

Surface RT compared to Surface 3

I think looking at the Surface 3 in a vacuum would be improper, since the device now is really an evolution of the previous two Surface models. From a build quality standpoint, the original Surface RT was top notch, with its VaporMg case, the revolutionary kickstand, and high attention to detail for all of the aspects from buttons to display. I think in 2015 it is pretty obvious what the shortcomings of the Surface RT were though. Performance was less than acceptable with the Tegra 3 SoC on board, and Surface RT was handicapped with the confusingly named Windows RT operating system and the lack of software compatibility that goes with using an ARM CPU instead of traditional x86. Surface 2 fixed the performance issue by moving to NVIDIA’s Tegra 4 SoC, and while not the outright fastest tablet chip, it was at least in the ballpark. However it kept the Windows RT operating system at a time when everyone else had abandoned it.

Surface 3 has fixed that final issue and at the same time made some amazing improvements to the overall design and feel. Full x86 Windows is on tap, for better or for worse, and powered by a brand new SoC. This must be a special moment in history where a Microsoft built device is the launch vehicle for a brand new product from Intel. The Surface 3 is powered by the 14nm Intel Atom x7, in this case the x7-Z8700 model which is the current top of the line Atom processor. Codenamed Cherry Trail, this is the massaged Bay Trail cores now built on Intel’s now mature 14nm FinFET process, and they include the same GPU cores as Broadwell.

Microsoft Surface Comparison
  Surface 3 (Base) Surface 3 (High) Surface 2
Size 10.52 x 7.36 x 0.34 inch
267 x 187 x 8.7 mm
10.81 x 6.79 x 0.35 inch
275 x 173 x 8.8 mm
Weight 1.37 lbs - 622 g 1.49 lbs - 675 g
Display 10.8-inch ClearType Full HD Plus
1920x1280 resolution, 3:2 ratio
10-point multi-touch
Surface Pen Support
10.6-inch ClearType Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution, 16:9 ratio
5-point multi-touch
Battery 28 Wh, 13 W AC Adapter 31.5 Wh, 24 W AC Adapter
Storage 64GB 128GB 32GB or 64GB eMMC
CPU Atom x7-Z8700
Quad Core 14nm
1.6 GHz Base Frequency
2.4 GHz Burst Frequency
NVIDIA Tegra 4
4x ARM Cortex-A15 @1.7GHz
WiFi Marvell 802.11ac + BT 4.0
LTE Models at a later date
802.11n + BT 4.0
Ports USB 3.0, Mini-DisplayPort, microSD,
Micro USB charging, 3.5mm Headset Jack
USB 3.0, micro-HDMI, microSD, proprietary charging
Software Windows 8.1
Office 365 Personal with 1TB OneDrive (1-year)
Windows RT 8.1
Office 2013 RT Home & Student Edition
Front Camera 3.5 MP 3.5 MP
Rear Camera 8.0 MP with Autofocus 5.0 MP
Operating System Windows 8.1 64-bit Windows RT 8.1
Warranty 1-year limited 1-year limited
Price $499 $599 $449

In addition to the new SoC, Surface 3 can be purchased with up to 128 GB of eMMC storage, and the higher storage models also come with 4 GB of RAM. This compares to the base model which is 2 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage, which is already one of the big improvements Microsoft has made with Surface. 32 GB of storage on a Windows tablet is really the bare minimum required, and the move to 64 GB as the base is going to make this tablet far more usable. You can of course add more storage with a micro SD card, but until Windows gets the great SD card support from Windows Phone, it still means that you need to manage your storage more than you should have to.

There are so many changes with the Surface 3 that really, this is likely the Surface that most people wanted from day one, but did not know it. First up is the new (again) kickstand.

Kickstand and Accessories
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  • MrSpadge - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    Using legacy apps (which are still called programs) should be fine with the pen. Except for the high DPI display - depending on how legacy the app exactly is.
  • Alexvrb - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    It runs touch-friendly modern apps (including Universal apps which will be getting a boost in the near future) as well as more traditional software. You can use just about any external accessory that you can with a regular PC. If you use the dock and a larger monitor this can even replace the desktop for many users. In many ways it is more versatile than the devices you mentioned.
  • stephenbrooks - Saturday, May 9, 2015 - link

    Actually a lot of programs designed for mouse input (click and drag) work pretty well on a touchscreen Windows machine. The main problem is the buttons tend to be too small for fingers.

    It would be great if Microsoft could have an option to magically enlarge GUI elements a bit when in touch mode.
  • jaydee - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    When I say lack of apps, I mean as designed as portable tablet. That's what MS is touting, it's a tablet and laptop in one.

    Of course it has tons of apps as a Win8/10 device, but if that's all you're really after, why buy something that straddles the line between laptop and tablet? Why not an XPS 13 or Spectre x360? Proportionally few of those Windows apps tend to run real well on a 10" touch screen with a resolution of 1920x1280.

    It just seems to be in an odd place. I'm not sure what it does really well, other than its display. CPU/RAM/SSD are all compromised as a laptop and it's too expensive for what it does as a tablet. It's not "bad" by any means, I really do *want* to like it, it just doesn't seem to do the laptop thing well enough, be a tablet at a low enough price point. And I'm someone who would like to replace my iPad Air with something convertible like this. But if I'm going to buy a laptop that can also be used as a tablet, it's either going to have to have higher performance, or be cheap enough to not feel bad replacing in a couple years, and I don't feel either with this (particularly with accessories). I'm much more apt to get the i5/8GB/256GB HP Spectre x360 @$1,000, while more expensive, I feel much better about thinking about using for the next 5 years, compared to the Surface $600 + type cover + dock @ $930 and still has a tablet mode. The Surface Pro 3 is nice, but I'm not sure what it offers over the Spectre x360, at a sales price of ~$1,130 (retail $1,300), not to mention being a gen behind with Haswell still. If history is any indication, I will like the SP4 as a product, but probably not at it's price point.
  • Impulses - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    If the base model included 4GB and/or they at least threw in the pen for free with certain combos, it'd be more enticing. It's still an attractive package for people who just want a secondary system, but a lot of those are just gonna end up with cheaper tablets or more capable laptops.

    Even tho it's significantly cheaper than SP3, and it's exactly what a lot of people said the base Surface should've been all along, it still feels like less of a value proposition than SP3. Better storage and Type C might've made it more appealing...

    As it is it feels too much like something they'll refine significantly for the next rev... Big EDU discounts could sway things tho. A simple $100 student discount would make it a $530-630 hybrid competing against $400-500 tablets and $750+ laptops, much better sweet spot.
  • simard57 - Thursday, May 7, 2015 - link

    Costco has a bundle that includes keyboard and pen for $100 more over the 2GB and 4GB models
  • illegaloperation - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    How much is portability worth to you?

    The HP Spectre x360 weigh over twice that of the Surface 3.

    Also, why is the Dock being factor into the price? The Dock is nice to have, but it's hardly essential.
  • The0ne - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    Just curious, what apps are you missing one the Windows platform? For someone like me who would use this for work, I can't imagine an app that is not available that I would use. You mean it doesn't have the hundreds and thousands of useless apps that are in all markets? Always confused by this statement.
  • jaydee - Tuesday, May 5, 2015 - link

    In order for it to be considered a good "tablet", it has to do all those things that tablets are known for. Apple and Android have this tremendously large ecosystem that many people are vested in and there's a huge selection for. Obviously "entertainment" apps are going to be useless for people who use this for work. Just like the "productivity" apps aren't useful for those who use it for entertainment, etc. Certainly, the Windows tablet is a better match for a certain type of productivity user like yourself, then a gamer per se. What a tablet has come to be, for many people though is a ubiquitous device that transcends both genres and I don't see that in the Windows platform. Not to mention the fact that Apple/Android tablet users are going to have a hard time switching over if they've invested a decent amount of money into their Apple/Android apps.

    Like I said, I really want to like this device, but it just feels like too many compromises as a laptop and a mixed bag as a tablet. Does that mean that it's not a great device for some people? Absolutely not! I just don't see it doing one (laptop) or the other (tablet) well enough to break through mainstream and be a big seller at this price point. As other people have mentioned, if it were a lower price or included accessories or faster storage or Core-M instead of Atom were here, I would probably feel much different, but it's too many compromises as is.
  • Gigaplex - Monday, May 4, 2015 - link

    With Windows 10, Microsoft is aiming to bridge the "App gap" by making porting of iOS and Android apps to Windows fairly trivial.

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