Review: Microsoft Surface 3, Everyday Tablet Laptop Workhorse

Some time ago, I wrote up a review on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. I called it the future of laptops and still believe that was a fitting title - even more so with Microsoft's most recent hardware announcements. The device was sleek, versatile and had the horses to take on some editing tasks I put it to, but the price is probably not something that fits within everyone's budget. Good news! For those wanting much of what that Surface Pro 3, and now the Pro 4 have to offer, it's definitely worth checking out the Surface 3.

The Surface 3 is a "lite" version of the Surface Pro 3, more than anything else. This isn't a replacement for the now defunct Surface RT. You get the same utility from the Surface 3 that you get from the Pro 3 but in a budget-friendly package. Of course that doesn't come without some tradeoffs. Running Intel's Atom x7 instead of one of the Core ix processors means that you're going to get a laptop that runs slower than the Pro 3. The most important thing people are going to need to do when looking at the Surface 3 is temper their expectations. I'll get into that in a moment, but let's look at that hardware first.

The Surface 3 model I tested was the 128 GB model with 4 GB of RAM. It comes equipped with a quad-core Intel Atom processor, 10.8' 1920x1080 touchscreen and 8 megapixel camera. You also get expandable storage, up to 128 GB through the microSD slot, one USB 3.0 port, a mini display port, a headset jack, with charging handled through a standard micro USB port. You get two options when you pick up a Surface 3: wifi or wifi with LTE. Adding LTE adds an additional $100 to the price. Microsoft bills the Surface line as "the tablet that can replace your laptop," and while I disagreed with that notion with the Pro 3 (I said that it's the laptop that can replace your tablet), I actually agree with it where the Surface 3 is concerned. And I think that is an important point! When you look at the price of this device, there are cheaper laptops on the market but for a good tablet, you're going to pay close to what the base price is, or more. And if you want to be truly productive, it's not really happening on a tablet. I know people keep touting that tablets can be productive but I think that comes at too great a cost. I think there are still too many compromises with tablets which don't allow for real office productivity. With the Surface 3, you don't have to make compromises to get solid productivity, and you get a device that is equally a joy to use as a tablet and a laptop.

Let's get this out of the way, you're going to have to factor in an extra couple hundred dollars for your purchase to get the utility out of this laptop that it's capable of. It doesn't come with the keyboard cover, so you'll have to put up another $130 for that and an additional $50 if you want the pen. Once you have that keyboard attached via the magnetic connection, you're set for maximum productivity, which will be easy to achieve as the Surface 3 also comes with 1-year of Office 365 access included. With that you get Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Publisher, and Access. You also get OneDrive cloud storage and 60 Skype world minutes each month for 12 months.

Those are the pros for productivity. The cons are this: that keyboard isn't as comfortable as I'd like for long periods of typing. Banging out quick emails? No problem. Writing short blog posts? No problem. If you're a writer, or student writing long papers, I'd use a beefier keyboard. Microsoft's keyboard cover isn't bad, it just isn't great for endurance work. The keys have good travel, the trackpad is ok but at the end of the day, they don't beat an accessory with spaced out keys, a bit deeper travel and a good mouse or larger trackpad.

That said, I think that for most users the keyboard cover will be more than sufficient. We know that most users are utilizing their laptops for answering email, content consumption and social posts. For those uses, the keyboard cover fits the bill.

For everything else you might use the Surface 3 to accomplish, you should be able to do so efficiently. Video chatting, light image editing, creating presentations, it's all there. You can use the 3.5 megapixel front-facing camera for your Google Hangouts or Skype sessions, but you also get an 8.0 megapixel rear-facing camera with autofocus for capturing an impromptu photo if you need to. The Surface 3 also has a built-in microphone and is outfitted with stereo speakers with Dolby® audio. The speakers produced sound that wasn't bad at all for something that size, just don't expect earth shattering bass. If you want deep, rich sound with head nodding bass, just plug up to the headphone jack with a decent pair of cans and rock out!

Battery life and heat from processor intensive tasks are affected by the same parameter. Whereas the Surface Pro 3's come with 15-watt processors, the Atom processor in the Surface 3 rates at 2-watts. What that means for you is better battery life and a device that doesn't get hot under heavy use. Matter of fact, looking at the design, it is fanless and you'll be hard-pressed to find any obvious venting around the edges of the device, unlike it's sibling which has venting around the top to move heat up and away from you and your lap.

With regard to battery life, that will be dependent on what you're doing and which model you have. If you have the LTE version, your battery life will be less because you're adding another radio that is drawing power. The WiFi only model that I tested was able to get me through the workday consistently, which means about 8 hours of on and off usage.

If you're a fan of the Surface Pro 3, you're looking for something with a lower cost of entry and need a laptop that can handle your everyday tasks, then look no further! Solid battery life, solid computing, a year of Office 365 included make this a pretty solid option for those looking for a workhorse computer whether you're a student, parent or professional. The only downside is that at $499 you're still going to need to buy the keyboard to fully realize the Surface 3's utility and that will cost you another $130. On the upside, if you consider that you're getting a tablet and fully functional computer, which together would cost you much more than the $630 for the Surface and keyboard, you still come out ahead… that is, if you were in the market for both anyway.

Disclosure: Microsoft provided me with a demo Surface 3 for the purpose of this review.