Microsoft's long-standing sales pitch for its Surface computer is that it's the "tablet that can replace your laptop." That tagline is based on the premise that the Surface is to be bought and used as a tablet first, with full "productivity" capabilities enabled with the use of an x86 processor (allowing full Windows 8.1), type keyboard cover, and digitizer pen accessory. But I think it's the other way around: the Surface line--especially the Surface Pro 3--are really competent laptops that can also be used in as tablet alternatives. And with the new Surface 3, which gets rid of the limited RT operating system, that laptop-first positioning is more true than ever. After using it for a while, I've been impressed with the Surface 3's formfactor and performance as a mid-range and travel computer.
Surface 3 is a departure from the ARM-based original Surface and Surface 2, and actually has more in common with the Surface Pro 3 (one of my favorite devices of last year). Instead of running the limited Windows RT, Surface 3 now uses an x86 processor and runs the full version of Windows 8.1. That means it can install Desktop applications like Photoshop, Handbrake, and other productivity tools.
Physically, its design has also been rethought. It's actually lighter than Surface 2 (1.37 pounds from 1.5 pounds), yet has more screen real estate. That's because its now equipped with a 3:2 aspect ratio display, like the Surface Pro 3. Surface 3 also adopts the new Type Keyboard cover design from the Pro 3, with two magnetic contact strips for increased sturdiness and usability. No more debates about "lapability"--this is definitely a device you can use comfortably on a desk, lap, or even on an airplane tray. Another thing it's inherited from the Pro line--the active N-Trig digitizer pen, which makes it a really great digital notebook, if not Wacom tablet alternative. Surface 3 is essentially a lightweight version of the Surface Pro 3, both in terms of formfactor and performance. That's a really good thing.
There are some other notable differences, though. The kickstand only locks in three positions, unlike the Pro 3's versatile hinge. That's perhaps a space-saving choice, but more likely a cost-saving measure for Microsoft. But on the plus side, charging is now done over a microUSB port instead of a proprietary connector. That's a net-positive, though charging does take longer on the Surface 3 than other laptops.
Testing the Surface 3 was an interesting exercise in trying to understand Microsoft's design decisions for the product. They seemingly spared no expense with some aspects of the devicethe build quality and display, for example. But they also seemed to have made some cost-cutting choices in other areas that affect performance. We'll start with the good stuff, and then talk about the tradeoffs.