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Can The Microsoft Surface 3 Be Your One and Only?

It’s been a few weeks since we started using Microsoft’s Surface 3, and we’ve been really impressed with its capability. It’s not their pro model, but it’s far from what we’d call “budget”. For the modest price, you really get a lot of machine. Our previous Surface 3 review covered the specs and features, while this post will go into more detail on the practicality and capabilities.

Specs and Pricing

There’s two models of Surface 3, high spec and low spec, and each are available with LTE wireless internet access. So technically, there’s 4 models. We’d immediately rule out the lower spec model, which comes with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The higher spec has 4GB of RAM and 128GB, is only $41 more, and will last you a lot longer.

  • 2GB RAM / 64GB Storage: $458 Amazon ($499 Retail)
  • 2GB RAM / 64GB Storage + 4G LTE: $599 Retail
  • 4GB RAM / 128GB Storage: $499 Amazon ($599 Retail)
  • 4GB RAM / 128GB Storage + 4G LTE: $799 Retail

All other specifications are the same. They include WiFi (latest version, ac), bluetooth 4.0, and a quad-core 1.6GHz Atom processor. They’re also all the same weight and size. For the price, we’d recommend the higher spec’d WiFi model. Surface does in fact have a slot for a Micro-SD card, so you could always expand the storage, but you wouldn’t be able to add more RAM.

Screen and External Display

The Surface’s screen is 10.8″ and features a “ClearType Full HD Plus” display. It has a resolution of 1920×1280 and is pretty high pixel density at 214 pixels per square inch. This screen isn’t breaking any mobile/tablet records, but it does look absolutely beautiful. Everything is really crisp and colors and extremely vivid. The brightness control and auto-brightness work near-perfectly. Text renders extremely clearly and upon really close inspection you can’t see any pixelation on the fonts. Microsoft’s ClearType uses sub-pixel rendering to add a lot of sharpness to text and graphics.

Surface’s ability to output to pretty much any monitor makes it really appealing. The best part is, there’s no proprietary adapters required. All it needs is the pretty common Mini-Display port cable. You can then hook it up to any monitor that supports VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, you name it. It can even output wirelessly to supported displays. I hooked up the Surface to my high resolution Dell monitor, and it can output 2560×1440 beautifully. It also does so seamlessly. There’s a lot of display settings you can play with to make it even more perfect, like adjusting ClearType text on your external monitor. I personally am really fond of the above-and-below setup where you have a monitor placed above the Surface. Since the resolution is so great, you can really make the most of dual screens. You can extend the monitors, or have them mirror eachother.

Performance

The biggest criticism of Surface 3 would probably be its Atom processor. It doesn’t have the Core-i processor of its Pro sibling, but it’s surprisingly capable. I figured I’d have to keep multi-tasking to a minimum and everything would require a little extra patience. That wasn’t the case at all. It handles multi-tasking really well. Most people will be able to treat Surface 3 like a regular computer. That means 10s of browser tabs, excel, a music player, some file explorers, and even other applications running too. Everything feels really snappy. YouTube videos start playing immediately without stutter. Videos stream really smoothly and you can have it playing in the background of your 20 other tabs.

I definitely pushed Surface, and there was really only one scenario where I’ve noticed any sort of sluggishness, and that’s file downloads. For whatever reason, my model wasn’t able to make the most of my internet speeds. On a laptop I can exceed 200mb/s down, but with Surface I was only able to achieve around 12mb/s down. Strangely, it did hit my top upload speed of 25mb/s. The slower connection is really only noticeable when downloading files or loading some really clunky webpages. It didn’t seem to affect video streaming.

Unfortunately, Windows got rid of their “Experience” benchmark, but I ran a third party benchmark. The benchmark is a bit unfair considering it’s comparing to desktops using the latest specs, but the results were not too surprising. It basically scores like a lower end desktop, which these days are still pretty good. The weakest result was graphics. This isn’t a gaming rig, but I was still able to play Steam games. They were noticeably not running at the highest quality, but they were definitely still playable.

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Battery

The 10 hour battery is great, but charging it is not as great. The Surface has a built-in micro-USB charging port, which was a real bonus because it’s a very universal cable. Depending on the power adapter you’re using, a full charge could easily take all night. Microsoft’s charger is a lot faster, but even still, it can take 5+ hours for a full charge. As I use it, the battery is at 50%, and with Microsoft’s charger, it says I have 4.5 hours left until a full charge. My other gripe is that out-of-the-box standby settings left me with a dead surface after a day or two. I had to dig through settings and have it hibernate after it goes to sleep. Standby, by default, maintains a WiFi connection even on battery.

Keyboard

Get a keyboard! The on-screen keyboard is really not ideal and is cumbersome to use. There are a few modes, which is helpful, for adjusting the spacing and the keyboard size, but if you’re doing anything more than a quick search, you’ll want a keyboard. Microsoft’s Surface Keyboard Cover would probably be a great bet. Since there’s only one USB port, I’m using an all-in-one keyboard/mouse combo that works amazingly.

Practicality and Usability

What’s really appealing about Surface 3 is that it can do so much, or so little. In other words, you can use it like a full-on Windows computer, or you can toggle it into tablet mode and use it in full-screen simple mode. It’s really light, really portable, can run any application, and can output to any Monitor or TV. Plus, it’s a touch screen. There’s really a lot of options. It can do everything a standard Laptop can do, but it comes with a better price and a lighter build. It can also do everything a tablet can do, though maybe it might take a bit of extra effort to make it perfect. It’s the best of both worlds, unless of course you need a very powerful laptop and/or an iOS/Android tablet. The Windows App Store doesn’t have everything that iOS/Android do, but there’s an incredible amount of games and apps, including some of the more popular ones.

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  1. I have a Surface 3, and while I work at home, I use my desktop, but when I travel, the Surface is really all I need. And I can actually remote desktop back to my home PC if I need to (particularly if I need to do development). I keep all my files on OneDrive, so I have immediate access to them from the surface, which is fantastic.

    At home I use the surface as a tablet – like for looking up trivia while watching TV, watching Netflix, Facebook, etc… I do make a point to plug it in overnight every other day at home, so I’m never surprised by a dead battery.

  2. I don’t have any heavy processor needs (I don’t edit video or do CAD, for example) so the Surface 3’s top-end Atom is more than enough for me. But it’s about so much more than a good-enough chipset. The Surface 3 is far more portable than other 2-in-1’s like the Surface Pro 3 and 4 or similar offerings from Asus and Lenovo. The pen works great – not as well as the new pen on the Surface Pro 4, but still very well, and I use it every day because OneNote is awesome. And I completely agree with the reviewer – the device handles multitasking very well, better than you might expect. That’s probably because Windows 10 is slimmer than previous versions of Windows. It’s no Core i7 beast, but if you don’t need that, and you put a premium on portability, there’s nothing better. I don’t have another PC at home – I don’t need one.

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