It's been an arduous journey for the Microsoft Surface, a tablet-first device that also makes for a pretty good notebook when you flip out its integrated kickstand and snap on a keyboard cover. We liked the very first Surface Pro, though it eventually didn't sell very well, as people were still coming to terms with Windows 8's new UI and the logic behind Windows RT, which powered the Surface RT.
The good thing about Microsoft is, if it didn't get it right the first time, it would try again. And again. The Windows RT-running Surface 2 of late 2013 was a much better machine than its predecessor: faster processor, higher-res display, better kickstand, longer battery life, et cetera. The dropping of the 'RT' moniker also marked the beginning of the family's disassociation with Windows RT, but because it still ran the restrictive ARM-optimized OS, it never really took off.
Arguably, what did see a reversal in its fortune was the Surface Pro 2, which was released alongside the Surface 2. While we've heard good things about it, it didn't come to Singapore. But the Surface Pro 3, which was announced some eight months later, did. And the tablet, which runs full Windows and is powered by Intel's 4th-gen Core CPUs (Haswell), is a hit.
But what about Surface 3 in the form of a super-thin and compact Windows tablet with power efficiency that rivals the iPads and Android tablets? Well, that didn't happen. And looking at all the things that did happen in the past 18 months (e.g., PC OEMs bailing out on Windows RT devices, the scrapping of the Surface Mini, the discontinuing of the Surface 2 production, Microsoft's one-Windows-for-all-devices strategy moving forward), it's perhaps safe to say that we'd never see an 8-inch and above Surface running Windows RT and using an ARM-based SoC again.
But moments ago, the Surface 3 did happen, though probably not quite how one would expect it to turn out. But it's here nonetheless, and we managed to snag some moments with it to bring you this hands-on.
The first Intel Atom x7-Z8700 device
Let us get this out of the way first: The just-announced Surface 3 doesn't use an ARM-based processor. Instead, it's powered by Intel's new Atom x7-Z8700, the highest-end part in Chipzilla's latest mobile Atom SoC lineup that was revealed at MWC 2015. Like the other new processors such as the Atom x5-Z8300 and x5-Z8500, the 64-bit, quad-core Atom x7-Z8700 is based on Intel's Cherry Trail platform, and built on a 14nm fabrication process. It has a base clock of 1.6GHz (burst frequency up to 2.4GHz) and 2MB of L2 cache. At MWC, Intel said that Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba would have devices using the Atom x5/x7 chips, so you can imagine our surprise when we learned that Microsoft is using it too, not to mention the first to have a device ready.
Obviously, the Intel Atom x7-Z8700 offers full x86 Windows support, which brings us to the second most important difference between the Surface 3 and the two Tegra-powered Surfaces before it: the ability to run full Windows. To be more specific, the Surface 3 comes with Windows 8.1, which means in addition to Windows apps (a.k.a. Modern apps or Metro apps) from the Windows Store, you can also install all your favorite third-party desktop apps and games, like Photoshop Elements, League of Legends, and just about anything else you need. Of course, if you need advanced features like VHD boot, assigned access, Client Hyper-V, and BitLocker, you can always upgrade to Windows 8.1 Pro. And it goes without saying that the hybrid device can be upgraded to Windows 10 (for free too!) when the new OS is generally available sometime this summer.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
The two aforementioned points aside, the Surface 3 is for the most part a smaller version of the Surface Pro 3. The VaporMg-treated, silver-colored magnesium casing is instantly familiar, so too is the practical kickstand at the back, which still clicks reassuringly into place every time. But unlike the Surface Pro 3's multi-position, friction-free kickstand, the one on the Surface 3 only has three open positions. In a nutshell, it's not as awesome as the Surface Pro 3's continuous kickstand, but it's better than the one found on the Surface 2, which only props up at two angles.
Also, while the Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch display, the Surface 3's display (still protected by Gorilla Glass) comes in at a smaller 10.8 inches, and is flanked by front-facing, Dolby Audio-enhanced stereo speakers. This unusual screen size coupled with a 3:2 aspect ratio mean that we're also looking at an unusual 1,920 x 1,280-pixel resolution. That said, we actually like this resolution, as it gives us more vertical real estate, compared to 1,080p. Microsoft went as far as to say that this is the brightest and most accurate screen a Surface has ever used. At 214 ppi, this display is slightly sharper than the Surface 2's (208 ppi), and about on par with the one on the Surface Pro 3 (216 ppi). Sure, it's not as dense as the iPad Air 2's display (264 ppi), but remember, the Apple tablet has a smaller screen.
Thankfully, pen support remains on the Surface 3. Given that Microsoft is said to have recently bought out N-trig, we aren't surprised that the latter's active pen tech stays on the new tablet. With the Surface Pen, you can easily mark up presentations, sign documents, or just have some fun doodling in drawing apps. A click on the pen also opens a blank OneNote document for you to quickly jot down your ideas; and a double-click captures and saves a screenshot. In short, all the pen goodness you find on the Surface Pro 3, just on a smaller canvas. The only caveat is that the pen is a separate purchase this time.
Naturally, the smaller display also means that the Surface 3's overall dimensions and weight compare favorably against the 12-inch Surface Pro 3. The Surface 3 has a 14% smaller footprint (267 x 187mm vs. 290 x 201mm); and since there's no perimeter vent around its edges (the Intel Atom SoC dispenses the need for a fan), it's also about 4% thinner (8.7 vs. 9.1mm). The reductions may not sound like much, but along with its light weight (at 622g, it's the lightest of all Surfaces), the Surface 3, especially in tablet mode, is the most comfortable Surface we've ever held. And the build quality is once again exemplary. If you're wondering its statistics compared to the older Surface 2, the latter 10.6-inch tablet is a tad larger at 275 x 173mm, slightly heavier at 676g, but almost as thin at 8.9mm.