Microsoft Surface 3: A smaller and more refined chip off the old block

Microsoft Surface 3: A smaller and more refined chip off the old block

A new Surface for a different audience

The Microsoft Surface line of 2-in-1 devices has had a checkered history. But since 2012's fragmented offering consisting of the Surface RT and Surface Pro, Microsoft's Surface tablets-cum-notebooks have gone through a series of iterative improvements that, slowly but surely, have pushed the devices to the forefront as serious notebook alternatives.

Indeed, Microsoft finally hit on a winning formula with last year's Surface Pro 3. Its crisp 2,160 x 1,440-pixel display finally ditched its predecessors' 16:9 aspect ratio in favour of a 3:2 aspect ratio that worked better for productivity tasks. Given that the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 was targeted at business and creative professionals, the new 3:2 aspect ratio provided valuable vertical screen real estate to work with. Case in point: a so-called 'taller' display' would allow you to view more text in a document at any one time, whereas a 'wider' one would simply stretch it across the screen.

And at just 799g in weight and a svelte 9.1mm thick, the Surface Pro 3 (capable of being equipped with up to a fourth-generation Intel Core i7 processor) appeared to have found the sweet spot in terms of ease of handling, portability and performance.

Building off the same formula

While industry watchers were expecting the latest Surface slate out of Microsoft to be an upgrade to the immensely popular Surface Pro 3, we instead got the Surface 3, a sized-down version of the larger slate. But that's not to say that we are disappointed. The Surface Pro 3 was not cheap - the lowest-specced Core i3 model cost S$1,108 and the highest would set you back by a whooping S$2,698 - so we're glad to hear that Microsoft has decided to package the quality and winning design of the Surface Pro 3 into a smaller, more affordable package for less demanding users.

As we noted in our hands-on preview of the device, the Surface 3 looks quite literally like the smaller sibling of the larger Surface Pro 3. They feature the same silver-gray magnesium alloy construction and the same impeccable build quality. Even though it's supposed to be somewhat less premium than the Surface Pro 3, the new Surface is still solidly built and all the parts are welded together seamlessly.

At just 8.7mm thick, it is also Microsoft's thinnest Surface yet. Adding the Type Cover bulks it up to a still-slim 13.6mm, just marginally thicker than the new Apple Macbook released earlier this year. It is also the lightest Surface ever, weighing just 622g - a good 178g lighter than the Surface 3 Pro and almost 300g lighter than the new MacBook.

It even works with the same N-trig active pen that we saw with the Surface Pro 3, with the same functionality that we loved. Unfortunately, this is also one area where Microsoft has cut back for the new device - the pen is not bundled with it and will have to be purchased separately for S$73. This is probably why the Surface 3 does not prompt you to pair with the Surface Pen during setup. Instead, you'll need to enter the Bluetooth settings menu to manually pair the pen.

That aside, the pen functions pretty much the same as did on the Surface Pro 3. Clicking the top button brings up OneNote for quick note-taking, and the palm block technology functions as admirably as ever.

The Bluetooth pairing is handled by the onboard Marvell Avastar 88W8897 chip that also integrates support for the 802.11ac wireless standard (2x2 MIMO spatial stream multiplexing with data rates up to 866.7 Mbps) and NFC.

When it comes to the Type Cover keyboard, the Surface 3 gets its own sized-down version of the backlit keyboard that we loved on the Surface Pro 3. Unfortunately, it is also an optional accessory and getting one will cost you S$199, the same as the Type Cover for the Surface Pro 3.

The Type Cover keyboard is also where Microsoft's attention to detail is the most apparent. While the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover keyboard acquitted itself quite well, one minor niggle we had with it was its shallow key travel and slightly mushy feel. In this area, the Type Cover for the Surface 3 is not merely a smaller version of last year's Type Cover and instead boasts farther key travel distance that makes for a better and more tactile typing experience. The new Type Cover keyboard represents quite a significant improvement in typing, all while maintaining a slim 4.9mm-thick profile. It's also available in two new and more vibrant colors - bright blue and red.

Connectivity-options wise, the Surface 3 still offers only one USB 3.0 port and a single mini-DisplayPort output on its right edge. We'd have liked to see more USB 3.0 ports, but given that this is supposed to be the more affordable model, we're not complaining. Microsoft has also swapped out the reversible charging port on the Surface Pro 3 for a more conventional microUSB port. The reversible, magnetic charging plug for the larger slate was a nice touch, but microUSB compatibility adds to the broader, mass-market appeal of the Surface 3 - if you lose the charger, you no longer have to shell out S$108 to replace it.

In addition, Microsoft has made some placement changes to the headphone jack and volume controls. The headphones jack has been moved to the bottom of the Surface 3's right edge, while the volume rocker is now positioned at the top, next to the power button. We like the new placement of the headphone jack as it's now more convenient to plug in headphones while using the Surface 3 with its Type Cover keyboard. The headphone cord can now trail discreetly from its bottom edge, instead of dangling from the top as with the Surface Pro 3. With regards to the volume rocker, we found it equally easy to use on both tablets, so it really comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Furthermore, should you be in need of more storage, the Surface 3 takes a leaf from the Surface Pro 3's book with a microSD card slot hidden under its kickstand.

Finally, Microsoft has also released a dedicated docking station for the Surface 3 to help it circumvent its limited port options. At S$288, it's not exactly cheap, but you get a far more complete array of ports that will enable you plug in a mouse, optical drive and external hard drive all at the same time. You also gain access to the Internet via a Gigabit Ethernet port, in case Wi-Fi isn't available.

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