Testing: Microsoft Surface 3 Laptop

By Norman Chan

This is more laptop than tablet.

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.

I'm a big fan of the display Microsoft put in the Surface 3. It's a 10.8-inch IPS LCD touchscreen, with a resolution of 1920x1280. I really like that 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes the Surface comparable to a sheet of 8.5x11 paper, and tall enough so that browser windows don't feel cramped when I'm using the laptop in landscape orientation. At that resolution and pixel density, you can comfortably run Windows at 100% desktop scaling, which is still ideal since Windows 8.1 still doesn't scale to higher density displays as well as Mac OS. And with laptops using lower-power processors like Core-M or Atom, running a 3200x1600 resolution screen is overkill. Talking about you, Lenovo Yoga Pro 3. 1920x1280 is a sweet spot for desktop real estate and performance.

It's a really nice screen, too. The IPS LCD here has a bright and even backlight, with excellent color reproduction and good contrast. Photos look accurate and text looks sharp. The touchscreen is much better than the display found in the Asus UX305 I recently tested--Microsoft didn't cheap out here.

The addition of the pressure-sensitive digitizer makes a mouse unnecessary, since you get pinpoint precision with the active pen tip.

I've been an unabashed proponent of touchscreens for laptops; using your finger to scroll and zoom when web browsing feels natural and honestly isn't fatiguing. Don't think of it as a mouse replacement--it's a nice complement to trackpad and mouse input in day-to-day work. The addition of the pressure-sensitive digitizer makes a mouse actually unnecessary, since you can get pinpoint precision with the pen tip. For most tasks, I keep the Surface Pen in my hand and seamlessly switching between finger and digitzer input for broad touch and cursor interactions. While I'm not an artist and can't speak to the Surface Pen's proficiency as an art tool, it was fast and accurate enough for taking notes and light sketching in meetings. My only beef is that there's still no good place to store the pen when travelling with the Surface 3. The small loop holster on the side of the keyboard is flimsy, so I just keep it in my pocket, alongside my everyday carry ballpoint.

The smaller size and weight of the Surface 3 makes it ergonomically comfortable to use when standing, as well. A concern was that the 10.8-inch design would make it too small, but I actually like the increased mobility. Going back to the Surface Pro 3 may be difficult--it feels bulky by comparison. From an ergonomics standpoint, I only wish that Microsoft had put the same hinge in this device--the three angles it snaps to isn't sufficient. At its furthest extension, the kickstand goes to 60 degrees, far short of the 150-degree "canvas" position of the Pro 3's hinge. An unfortunate cost-cutting design decision.

Additional cost-savings come with the use of Intel's Cherry Trail processor, the newest in its reborn Atom-lineup. Cherry Trail is the 14nm version of Bay Trail, the low-power system on a chip that's been used in phones, tablets, and even some laptops. Its performance is a known quantity: a fair bit slower than Intel's Core processors, but inheriting some of the architecture and graphics chip designs of Intel's 8th-gen Broadwell chips. It has Intel's integrated HD graphics, for example, but the GPU maxes its clock at 600MHz and has 16 execution units vs Core-M's 850MHz max and 24 EUs. In Intel's consumer chip lineup, the 2-watt SoC sits below (and costs much less than) the Core-M processors, and both are designed for fanless computers. That Microsoft chose to use Cherry Trail was hopefully not just a price consideration, but a vote of confidence in the desktop performance of this latest Atom chip.

Compared with a Broadwell or even Haswell machine, Surface 3 is unsurprisingly slow. But it actually fared well when I benchmarked it against Core-M laptops like the MacBook and Asus UX305. With a 1.6GHz base clock and 2.4GHz clock at burst (not Turbo), it completed our Photoshop benchmark only a minute behind the Haswell system, but was neck and neck with the .8GHz Core-M (without getting hot, either). Where it chugged was with batch image processing and exports in Lightroom, and large Handbrake encodes. This is not a machine for video editing or gaming, but it wasn't sluggish at all for web browsing with plenty of Chrome tabs, video streaming, and even image work. It's a totally serviceable computer for office work--just limit how many layers you'll use in Photoshop edits.

Perhaps the more relevant performance bottlenecks are in RAM and storage. Surface 3's base model has 2GB of memory and 64GB of storage, which doesn't sound bad when you position it as a tablet (ie. iPad competitor). But in the world of laptops, that's not great. The step-up model I tested had 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which is needed for the way I multi-task with tons of Chrome tabs--bummer that's not the default configuration. And internal storage space isn't as big a concern--given that the Surface 3 has a microSD card slot--as much as the storage type. The internal storage is housed in eMMC, which is essentially an integrated SD card. That's not a deal-breaker, but it is decidedly slower than an SSD connected over a SATA interface. Another potential cost-cutting decision.

Battery life does benefit from the use of Cherry Trail, and I was satisfied with Surface 3's ability to keep up with a full travel day out of office. In my tests, it lasted just past 7 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, 9 hours of local 1080p video playback, and 6 hours of Netflix binging. That's respectable when you consider that the Surface 3 only packs a 28Wh battery, compared to the 42Wh battery in the Pro 3 and 40Whr battery in the Core-M MacBook. I'll take the weight savings!

Speaking of the MacBook, the Surface 3's Type Cover is a much better keyboard than the slim-travel keys on Apple's new ultra-portable. I've grown fond of the Type Cover design, and the keys aren't much smaller here than they on the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover. I've typed comfortably with it on my lap and on an airplane's fold-down tray. The only gripe in function: the trackpad remains too small and isn't smooth enough, but I'm using the touchscreen and pen most of the time instead, anyway. That, I can excuse. What's tougher to stomach is the keyboard's $130 price tag.

And that's ultimately what brings the Surface 3 down, despite how much I like it as a travel and meeting computer. The base price of $500 doesn't get you all that much, aside from the nice formfactor and screen. You have to spend an additional $100 for the RAM upgrade (which I think is necessary), $130 for the keyboard, and $50 for the Surface Pen. I wouldn't even want to consider the $200 dock, which just acts as a port extender to add three USB ports and a wired Ethernet jack. All-in, a Surface 3 kit costs almost $800, which is the price of a fine entry-level Core notebook. Asus's UX305 may not be as slim or have as great a screen, but it gets you much more performance potential at $700. With all the tradeoffs Microsoft made in processor, kickstand, and storage, the premium price of the Surface 3 accessories hurts it. Including the keyboard and pen, I wouldn't want to spent more than $650 for what you're getting here. Hopefully we'll see some better-priced bundles or deals later this year.