Microsoft hasn’t been successful in a lot of hardware endeavors in the past, but it has at least gotten things right with the Xbox, the Lumia handset business and the Surface devices. Right on time to see off Windows 8.1 and usher in Windows 10 later this year is the new Surface 3, a device that changes things a lot for the non-Pro Surface product lineup. Is it a laptop? Is it a tablet? Its both, but it is also more useful than the Surface devices that preceded it.
In previous years, the non-Pro Surface hybrids were very different. The first generation shipped with Tegra 3 hardware in October 2012, including a quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU at 1.3GHz, Geforce graphics that largely resembled older architectures seen in the Playstation 3 and Geforce G80 family, 2GB of DDR3 memory and 32 or 64GB of storage. Running on Windows RT, it had quite a lot of uses and wanted to bank on the netbook craze, but it just wasn’t quite there. Not being able to run traditional x86 applications on the Windows desktop was a big part of that, even though the platform was entirely virus-free.
Surface 2 shipped in September 2013 and had quite a lot of improvements. The kickstand was better, the pen stylus was more accurate, the display and resolution was increased to 1080p and it shipped with Tegra 4 hardware, with 2GB of RAM complimented by 32 or 64GB of storage. But there were still lingering issues – the storage in use was eMMC memory, so it wasn’t very fast. The much-vaunted Power Cover never materialised, so the battery life was still an issue, and the Windows key was still in the wrong spot. Well, it looks like the third time was the charm with Surface 3.
The display is now 10.8-inches diagonally and sports a resolution of 1920 x 1280, a 3:2 aspect ratio. Inside is an Intel Atom X7-Z8700 processor, based on the Cherry Trail family. Cherry Trail is a mixture of technologies from Haswell and the 14-nanometer process and improvements to the GPU from Broadwell and the result is… Braswell. Yes I know, its not very original, but when you’re dealing with a CPU family that will really only be out for about a year or less, I don’t think anyone wants to put much thought into the name.
Microsoft says that the Surface 3 is the thinnest and lightest Surface they’ve ever designed, but that goes hand-in hand with a smaller battery, sitting at up to 10 hours of run time. While Microsoft doesn’t publish the size of the battery, the Atom X7-Z8700 has a scenario design power (SDP) of 2 watts, which allows it to run without a fan, so we’re looking at something like a 5W thermal design power (TDP) level with a battery that could be around 45W/hr in size. The case is still made of magnesium alloy to increase durability and reduce everyday wear and tear.
Fixing some of the performance issues of old, the new Surface 3 comes with either 2GB or 4GB of DDR3-L memory and 64GB or 128GB of storage. That isn’t eMMC flash but rather a mSATA-based SSD, but don’t expect that to be user-replaceable. Connectivity is catered for with mini-Displayport, one USB 3.0 port (not type-C, sadly), a microSD card reader and a 3.5mm combination audio jack. There’s 802.11 AC wireless LAN already inside and Bluetooth 4.0 through an integrated Intel wireless NIC. There’s also a 8.0MP rear-facing camera with autofocus (no flash) and a 3.0MP front-facing camera for video conferencing.
If you’re willing to pony up the cash, there is also the option of having LTE embedded, though it is going to be quite pricey. It is surprising that this thing has LTE as an option while Surface Pro 3 doesn’t – maybe that will change later. There is also a micro-USB connector, but its only function is as a charging port. There is also a docking port available that adds on a second mini-Displayport connection, an ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports and a 48W wall charger.
Microsoft says that these devices will be made available to purchase in a select number of countries on 5 May 2015. The cheapest option will be the 2GB and 64GB model without LTE at $499, but that excludes the keyboard and pen stylus, which has 256 levels of pressure. The keyboards come in light blue, sunset red, red, black, purple and cyan colours, while the pens only come in blue, red or black. The Surface tablet only ships in a steel grey colour.
The range tops out at $880 for the 4GB and 128GB LTE model with a Type Cover and the Surface pen. All Surface 3 devices ship with one year of Office 365 Personal, as its just big enough to not qualify for the free Office that Microsoft is now including on devices with displays smaller than 10.1 inches.