A Month with the Surface 3: The Best Tablet Around

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The tablet market is declining, and for good reason. These secondary devices just don't do enough to justify their cost. But from their demise emerges a new kind of 2-in-1 that blurs the line between laptop and tablet, headlined by Microsoft's Surface 3 ($499 to start, $629 with keyboard).

To cut through the promise and experience the reality, I swapped out my 13-inch Dell Inspiron at work, and my Samsung Galaxy Tab and desktop rig at home for the Surface 3 for a month. Here's what I learned.

Just the Right Size

I would have killed for one of these in college. The three laptops that I owned during my time at Northeastern University weighed 8.8, 8.1 and 6.4 pounds. With the Surface 3, I have a system that weighs less than 2 pounds (with the Type Cover attached) and is ridiculously easy to carry around. I can even take handwritten notes with the optional $50 Surface Pen.

Granted, my college laptops had much larger screens, but with the ease of connecting the Surface 3 to a TV or external monitor, there would have been no need to strain my shoulder while lugging an oversize system across campus.

No loop? No problem. Even without the pen holder seen on the Surface Pro 3's keyboard, there's still a simple way to stash the Surface Pen when you're not using it.

Smooth Performance, But Windows 10 Will Be Better

In the office, when I had to flip among Photoshop, multiple spreadsheets and several half-written articles, the Surface 3 had no trouble keeping up. I could even render videos, as long as I didn't need them right away.

The biggest problem I had was with Windows 8.1, which continues to be a hassle for a traditional mouse-and-keyboard setup. But all that will be gone come late July, with the arrival of Windows 10, which features universal apps that break down the barrier between desktop and tablets. There's also a redesigned interface that can sense which mode you're in (tablet or laptop), Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant and the touch-friendly Edge Web browser.

Instant (Media) Gratification

Before heading home, all I had to do was casually toss the Surface 3 into my bag; there's no need to even shut it down first. During my commute, I barely even noticed how heavy it was, and because it was still on, I could pull it out and watch an episode of Silicon Valley, seated or standing, in just a couple of seconds. That is the kind of flexibility I've always dreamed of but never had.

MORE: Best 2-in-1s (Laptop/Tablet Hybrids)

Home Companion

At home, things got even better. While the Surface 3 couldn’t replace my desktop for playing AAA titles like The Witcher 3, for everything else, it's perfect. I used it to view a recipe for sausage and arugula orecchiette pasta from my boy Chef John while simultaneously watching a video detailing its preparation. That's the kind of multitasking iPad users won't be able to do until the fall, when iOS 9 comes out.

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When it came to helping me unwind, I wasn’t stuck with the lightweight apps that plague Apple’s and Google's app stores. In the case of my current free-time obsession — space exploration sim Out There — the Surface 3 gave me access to the Omega version on PC, which features bonus endings and voice-acted dialogue instead of the more basic version I play on my phone.

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Even the much-maligned keyboard, which is admittedly sometimes a pain when used on your lap, has grown on me. After a single day of using the keyboard, I was back up to my typical typing average of 75 to 80 words per minute, and used it to write this entire piece without a single complaint.

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The new micro-USB port makes it a breeze to find a spare cord to juice up the Surface 3, but I felt like it took significantly longer to recharge the tablet than the Surface Pro 3 with its proprietary power connector. Thankfully, the $199 dock kept the Surface 3 charged up, so even over the weekends, when I was away from the office, I never ran out of power.

Bottom Line

Sometimes us tech reviewers get a little too obsessed with clock speeds and transfer tests, because for most people, the Surface 3 is more than fast enough. My biggest problem is that the keyboard, which is really an essential feature, costs an extra $130. This adds a hidden fee to a system that is advertised as starting at $499 — and Microsoft knows it, as evidenced by the asterisk that taunts you in its Web store.

But when it comes to all other sub-$800 systems, the only other machine I'd consider is Asus' UX305. Compared to the Asus, my Surface 3 of choice (the $729 model with 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and Type Cover) has an hour and a half less battery life, but it more than makes up for it with unmatched flexibility.

I think Microsoft got it wrong: The Surface 3 isn't a "laptop replacement"; it's the Kal-El of tablets. It's time to say goodbye to the meager legion of media consumption devices that came before and hello to super tablets capable of a whole lot more.

Author Bio
Sam Rutherford
Sam Rutherford,
Sam is a former penguin trainer and archery instructor who dabbles in esports and has lived on three different continents. If you have some comments on new tech or the best noodle spots in NYC, drop a line @SamRutherford.
Sam Rutherford, on
Add a comment
  • Mark Snyder Says:

    At $579 for a 128GB/4GB version with Type Cover on Microsoft's Black Friday sale, it was a steal. Small and light enough to use as a tablet, big enough screen for media, and works well as a small laptop. Apple should be looking over its shoulder, as the hybrid tablet/laptop has arrived, and its running Windows 10.

  • Tom jamieson Says:

    If you held onto it longer, you'd quickly see it breaks down on a matter of months. Mine only lasted 8 months before showing defects.

  • Brian Says:

    Nobody knows for certain why the tablet market is slowing down. It's likely due to an extended upgrade compared to that of mobile phones. Your intimation that it's due to limited functionality is just your guess.

  • simon Says:

    totally agree with that review, i'd add: no fan!!!! No noise!

  • Linc Says:

    After using the first Surface pro for the last few years I can say...meh.

    Too heavy for a tablet, and too unwieldy with the 'Type' keyboard to be a road warrior.

    I might add that as someone who has used the first Surface Pro for years not mere weeks, I can say the Type keyboard wears out and you WILL be buying a new one for $130 a pop after 24 months.

  • Somya Sharma Says:

    Such an excellent review on Surface 3. I agree with your all points, that you describe well in your post. It is a light weighted tablet, that have dual performance as a laptop or tablet. It offers decent battery life, with a processor sufficient to handle 1080p YouTube videos, Netflix streams, or basic games without batting an eye. The most interesting part, I like more its upgraded Windows OS. Thanks to share this post with us.

  • Veiran Says:

    @james regarding the non-working Surface 3: Contact Microsoft Support. It's possible you have a defect in your device and they should be able to help you resolve it even if it means supplying/suggesting a replacement.

  • james Says:

    can anyone help?my suface 3 wont turn on.only got it 3 weeks ago.i have only used it maybe ten times to get familiar with it.ihe battery power was at 84% i powered down and went to bed.this morning put the charger on and went to power up and it wont??

  • Lynchenstein Says:

    My experience with the Surface 3 was shorter and less positive. While it handled many of the day to day tasks quite well, when it came to streaming Google Play music it stuttered noticeably. Also I see three external monitors on the article, but due to the inability to set screen scanning independently my external monitor was either set to 150% like the Surface, or the surface was set to 100% which meant it was virtually unusable. On its own though, I must say it was just fine. I truly hope windows 10 fixes as least the scaling issue.

  • Tarototh Says:

    I have one. It's great. I got the maxed out 512gb ssd and top processor, which makes this a very expensive computer but unmatched in small size, flexibility and THE STYLUS IS BY FAR the best you can get short of a professional grade drawing tablet which cost 3 to ten grand.

  • Ozz Says:

    Great article, I think Microsoft went the right way with this tablet.

    I been considering this device for my music listening since I can run Foobar2000, I will also be able to use a Msd Card and load all my flack flies.

  • Jackson Says:

    Very interesting article.

    I've been seriously considering a Surface 3, but was a little concerned how well that CPU would handle print-resolution art in Photoshop and/or Manga Studio 5.

    I do wonder if i should wait for V4, but this has certainly given me food for thought.

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