The iPad is a great tablet. It’s well designed, and for the most part, it’s dead simple to use. The iPad is a tablet that sits on your bedside table or coffee table in the living room to quickly browse the web with, check email, read an e-book, and maybe play the occasional game. That’s what it excels in; media consumption.
The non-Pro Surface line was always designed to compete with the iPad. The last two generations all came with ARM processors and were priced very similarly to Apple’s tablet, but despite offering some superior features and capabilities the tablets didn’t take off. This was partly due to the lack of apps on the Modern-focused Windows RT OS, and partly due to the confusing nature of the products. Were they tablets or were they laptops? And why weren’t they good at being either?
Last month, Microsoft announced the Surface 3. It marked the first non-Pro Surface to feature an x86 processor that ran full Windows 8.1. On the hardware side, the Surface 3 builds on elements that made the Surface Pro 3 the critically acclaimed device that it is. Still, the Surface Pro 3 is a different device, designed for a different crowd of people. So how does the Surface 3 stack up as a media consumption device, is it the tablet that can replace your iPad?
This would be the third time I slid a Surface out of its box, and every single time, I got the same feeling of unwrapping something premium. Even when unboxing a high-end Lumia, the feeling isn’t quite the same. Despite being light, the Surface 3 feels solid in the hands. It’s beautifully crafted, designed with simplicity and elegance in mind. You’ll appreciate its quality, even if it doesn’t come in gold.
Powering the device is a quad-core Intel Atom x7-8700 processor paired with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. The Surface 3 is plenty powerful, especially for a fanless system. It comes with a full-size USB 3.0 port, Micro USB, Mini DisplayPort, and a microSD card slot, so it makes using storage drives and connecting peripherals a lot easier than having to use a dongle with the iPad.
There’s an 8MP rear camera with autofocus on the Surface 3, and while it’s a nice upgrade over the Surface 2, it won’t replace your smartphone. The 3.5MP front camera is good enough to use for video conferencing, and it’s also surprisingly good in low-light conditions. Just like the Surface Pro 3, the Surface 3 comes with front-facing stereo speakers, and they make me wish all tablets and smartphones have front-facing speakers. It’s only logical.
It wouldn’t be a Surface if it didn’t have a kickstand. To conserve costs, Microsoft didn’t go with the expensive-to-manufacture, ever so intricate, friction hinge that graces the Surface Pro 3. Instead, the company opted for a new 3-stage hinge and kickstand. It’s not as flexible, but works relatively well in allowing you to use the Surface 3 standing, be it on a table, your lap, or your chest when lying down. Even something as light at the iPad Air 2 will make you feel fatigued after holding it for prolonged periods of time, like when watching a movie, so having a kickstand is a great convenience.
The Surface 3 comes with a 10.8” display with support for up to 10 touch points. There’s no “Retina Display” here, but the 1920 x 1280 resolution is more than adequate. Text looks sharp and you won’t see any pixels unless your nose is touching the screen.
The added 0.2” over the 10.6” screen used on the Surface 3 allowed Microsoft to adopt a 3:2 aspect ratio. As an owner of the Surface Pro 2, and an advocate for widescreen displays, I have to say, I like the display on the Surface 3 better because of the aspect ratio. Widescreen displays are great for movies as there’s no letterboxing, but I spend more of my time in the browser, which is better suited for a 3:2 display, particularly in portrait mode.
The display size on the Surface 3 seems perfect for media consumption. 9.7” on the iPad does feel small at times, no matter how much the resolution is increased, and 12” on the Surface Pro 3 is just too big.
Initially, performance was a major concern for me. My experience with Atom processors in the past has never been pleasant. Intel’s Atom processors have become synonymous with the netbooks that they debuted on. Remember those horrid PCs that also ran full Windows and lagged when you moved the mouse cursor? Thankfully, that’s not the case with the Surface 3, the new Atom x7 processor chugs along just fine.
I tend to have about 20 content-heavy tabs open at a time when browsing the web, and Internet Explorer (Modern) managed them just perfectly on the Surface 3. With the Atom x7 and 4GB of RAM, I could switch from tab 20 to tab 1 or any of the other pages without them having to be reloaded. For the fun of it, I tried switching between them in rapid succession -- no lag and no delays!
Other everyday tasks like watching videos, listening to music in the background, and playing games are also lag-free experiences. You may only notice delays if you’ve switched from a Surface Pro with an Intel Core i processor. In that case the Surface 3 does take slightly longer to load certain apps like News, but that’s to be expected really.
Despite the powerful processor and its fanless design, the device never really heated up during regular usage, even with a number of apps open. It got a little warm during benchmarking, but even then, it wasn’t warm enough to make me feel uncomfortable.
Speaking of benchmarks, the Surface 3 delivered a score of 25446 in the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test, achieving over 100fps in both graphics tests and just under 70fps in the physics test, which is fantastic obviously for a tablet. To put that in perspective, the Surface Pro 2 with its Core i5 laptop internals spat the benchmark out with a score of 42296. The CPU plus internal GPU of Core i processors are a lot better, but that shouldn’t make that much of a difference in Modern UI games.
You probably know all there is to know about Windows 8.1 so I won’t go into too much detail. The Surface 3 with 4GB of RAM comes with Windows 8.1 64-bit, the same operating system you would get on regular desktop and laptop computers. You still have the option to switch between operating in the Modern or the Desktop worlds, but regular tablet users likely won’t ever find the need to use the Desktop, unless they need to be productive or creative.
For those that only need to consume, the tile-based Modern UI is your home. But let’s talk about apps. Keep in mind that we’re trying to determine how well the Surface 3 performs as an iPad replacement. In this case, Windows desktop apps are not a replacement for Modern apps. The argument that full Windows 8.1 is a solution to the Modern “app problem” doesn’t work here. It doesn’t matter how many millions of desktop apps Windows has, for someone looking for a media consumption device, desktop apps just won’t cut it. Those apps are not designed to be touch friendly, and many of them scale poorly on high-DPI displays like the one on the Surface 3.
The good news is that for the everyday user, most of the essential apps are available, a lot of them are pretty great too. Modern Internet Explorer is fantastic, and the Mail, Xbox Music, Sports and other default apps work excellently. Then you have superb third-party apps like ReddHub, Tweetium, Nextgen Reader, Flipboard, Bookviser, MetroTube and a lot more. These are apps that you may use on a daily basis, and they get the job done. For services that don’t have a Windows app, they typically have a web service that can be accessed with Internet Explorer, which can then be pinned to the Start screen for quick access.
The real problem is low developer interest in the platform, and while that’s not something that will change overnight, we’re already seeing promising results and increased interest for Windows 10 and its Universal App Platform. The Surface 3 will of course be eligible for the free upgrade to Windows 10 in the summer, and Microsoft has already issued the green light to install the Insider Preview on the device now that the necessary drivers have been released.
In terms of battery life, the Surface 3 easily lasts a full day with normal usage, and that includes leaving the device alone during an afternoon nap. Under regular usage throughout the day, I noticed that it would last about 9 hours, not quite the 10 that Microsoft touts. That would include activities like browsing the web, listening to music, watching a couple of TV shows, and some casual gaming. Wi-Fi is always on, and the screen brightness set to automatic, which indoors would have it hovering around 35 to 50%. Overall, battery life is very acceptable.
Charging the Surface 3 was a bit of an issue. Microsoft dropped its proprietary charger with the Surface 3 and went for a typical Micro USB port instead, which is great, except that it still requires the device to be plugged directly into a power outlet to charge. Even when using the USB port on the Surface Pro 2’s charger, the Surface 3 reported that it was “plugged in, but not charging”. So if you want to use your Surface 3 and charge it at the same time, you’ll need to plug it into the wall.
As we near the end of the review, I thought we should have a look at the accessories. Here’s where the hybrid nature of the Surface 3 shines. These accessories are design for people who need something more than just a media consumption tablet.
For students and people who find themselves taking notes a lot, the Surface Pen will transform the way you use the Surface 3. With a click of a button, the Surface Pen launches OneNote, making it quick and easy to take notes and organize them. The Surface Pen is also great to use Desktop apps with as well, you’ll need the precision it provides if you don’t have a trackpad or a mouse to use.
Again, for people who need to get productive, the Type Cover is a necessity. Along with the Surface Pen, it transforms the Surface 3 into a complete package, taking advantage of all that the tablet has to offer. The Type Cover is essentially the same as the one launched alongside the Surface Pro 3, featuring the magnetic strip and larger trackpad, except it’s smaller to fit the Surface 3, and the Windows 8 charms keys have been replaced with system keys, probably in anticipation of Windows 10.
The Surface 3 can also function as a desktop replacement. This would allow mobile professionals to have one device to replace their tablet, laptop, and desktop. To make this possible, they’ll need the Surface 3 Docking Station. Just like the Surface docks before it, it provides access to additional USB ports for peripherals like mice and keyboards, a DisplayPort connection for external displays, Ethernet and more. The Surface 3 slides right in and is instantly connected to all these devices.
Once again, these accessories are not necessities for those looking for an iPad replacement/media consumption tablet. They add value to the Surface 3 in terms of productivity. None of the accessories come bundled with Surface 3, which is good since it helps bring the price of the device down, and users that want them get to choose from the colors they prefer.
The Surface 3 is a beautiful device, it takes a lot of what made the Surface Pro 3 great, and offers it at a fraction of the price. Can it replace the iPad as a media consumption tablet? Yes, but just barely. Modern, touch-friendly apps are aplenty, but developer interest and support leaves a lot to be desired. Desktop apps aren’t a solution to that problem, but Windows 10 Universal Apps might be. Microsoft sells the Surface 3 starting at $499 just like the iPad, but at this point in time, it would seem like the Surface 3 is more of a cheaper alternative to the Surface Pro 3 than a complete iPad replacement.
Microsoft’s latest tablet can function as a productivity tool thanks to its fantastic accessories, and the Atom x7 processor inside is just powerful enough to run demanding apps like Photoshop and viewing complex 2D floorplans in AutoCAD. If you need a device for anything more demanding than that, even the Core i3 Surface Pro 3 would be a better choice.