Microsoft Surface 3 review

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Usability

Another cost-cutting measure is the fact that you no longer get the pen in the box: it's a £45 option. As we said in our Surface Pro 3 review it's a wonderful gadget. Tap the button on the end and OneNote will launch even if the tablet is in standby. A double-press takes a screenshot, after which you can draw a marquee to save only the portion you want and then annotate it before quickly sharing it.

Some people may not want the pen, so they'll save money but selling the Surface 3 without the keyboard makes even less sense than with the Surface Pro 3. Yet again, it's an option but no sane person would buy a Surface 3 and exclusively use the on-screen keyboard. The only reason you'd consider a Surface over, say, an iPad Air 2 is because you want Windows. And Windows programs generally work best with a keyboard - not a fingertip.

It wouldn't be as much of an issue if the keyboard in question didn't cost £109.99, because without it, the Surface 3 is just a mediocre tablet. The keyboard may be backlit and come in a choice of colours but this bumps up the price of even the base model to £530. If you don't already have pen and need one, this takes it to £575.

If Microsoft wants to offer more choice, a non-backlit keyboard would be a nice option to have, along with a £55 price tag. Better still, of course, would be to bundle a keyboard with the device.

At least it's a decent keyboard. Like the Pro's it has a double hinge with a small section that's held against the screen bezel by strong magnets. This give the keyboard enough of an angle for comfortable typing. Some people will find the keys too small, but as someone with smaller hands, I found touch typing was relatively easy. Only on the very odd occasion did a key fail to register.

When you don't need a physical keyboard you can either fold it behind the Surface or rip it off completely. On its own the Surface 3 weighs 622g and feels significantly lighter than the 800g Pro 3. However, it's still much thicker and heavier than many tablets. Although its screen is over an inch smaller, the iPad Air 2 weighs almost 200g less and is nearly 3mm thinner.

And with the same palm-blocking technology as its big brother it's comfortable to lean on the screen as you write with the pen.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: performance

There's no doubt that the Surface 3 has a good screen. It's an IPS panel that's bright and has good viewing angles. Being glossy, it's still highly reflective and not much use outdoors.

In our tests it managed to produce the same gamut (range of colours) as the Surface Pro 3's screen with 90 percent of sRGB and 69 percent of the tougher Adobe RGB test. For colour accuracy, the smaller screen is slightly better than the Pro model, with a Delta E figure of 1.08, against 1.5 of the Surface Pro 3.

Maximum brightness was measured at 366cd/m2, and contrast at 660:1.

It may have a "Full HD Plus" resolution, but it's not as high as the Air 2 or - if you prefer a comparison to a Windows laptop - Dell's XPS 13 which starts at £849.

Despite being the most powerful Atom processor available the x7-Z8700 is no powerhouse. It's fine for light duties (including basic photo editing) and we found it zipped along even with several tabs open in a web browser, plus Word and Excel running alongside.

It doesn't take much to find the limits, though. Switching between applications takes longer than most average laptops and you won't want to wait the extra time it will take to apply complex effects in Photoshop compared to the Surface Pro 3. We wouldn't recommend a Surface 3 for video editing, either.

In the PCMark 8 Home test we saw a result of 1383 without hardware acceleration. This compares poorly with the Core M processor in the Asus ZenBook UX305F which scored 3424. In the Work section, the Surface could manage only 1557, while the UX305F scored 3312.

It's a shame Microsoft went with the Core M instead of the Atom.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Battery life

We test tablet battery life by playing an HD video on loop from our Synology NAS, first setting the screen brightness to 120cd/m2. The Surface 3 lived up to Microsoft's claims by lasting just over 10 hours before needing a recharge. 

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Cameras

There are front- and rear-facing cameras, the former having 8Mp and the latter 3.5Mp. The front camera is perfectly good for Skype chats, and the rear delivers acceptable photos in emergencies, but I can't imagine many people feeling comfortable holding up such a large device whenever they want to take a snap.

Microsoft Surface 3 review: Software

A small incentive to buy a Surface 3 is that you get a year's free subscription to Office 365 Personal, which would otherwise cost around £60.

The disadvantage, common to all Windows tablets, is that Windows 8 is the least good mobile OS. If you were planning to use the Surface mainly as a tablet, you won't enjoy it as much as an iPad or Android device. Part of the issue is the interface which isn't as slick or intuitive, but a bigger problem is the apps. Even when you can get the one you want, it's usually inferior in quality or features (or both) to the iOS or Android version.  

OUR VERDICT

Objectively, the Surface 3 is the best compromise between a laptop and tablet. It's a highly portable gadget which can run full Windows programs and it costs less than the Surface Pro 3. It's not exactly cheap by the time you've added the keyboard and stylus, though. It's also only good for lightweight duties - it's less powerful than laptops costing the same - and some people will find the screen is too small for 'proper' productivity. It's a better work tool than an iPad and Bluetooth keyboard, it has to be said, and if you only need to use office apps and a web browser, it could be exactly what you're after. Most people are better off spending more on the Surface Pro 3 or, if you don't need a touchscreen, a Core M laptop such as the Asus UX305F.