Microsoft is announcing Surface 3, the successor to its Windows RT-based Surface 2. Yes, Surface 3 fills a gap in its hardware lineup, but it’s not quite the device you’ve been led to expect. Forget the rumors, folks: Surface 3 is nothing less than a lower-cost Surface Pro 3. And that’s a good thing, as it will open up Microsoft’s “tablet that can replace your laptop” design to a much wider audience.
For the past week, I’ve been nervously watching as rumors—some right, some wrong—appeared about this coming device. The most obvious mistakes in these reports were the chipset—it’s not based on Core M processor, which actually makes tons of sense, as you’ll see—and the timing: no, it’s not launching or shipping at Build in late April.
But now we can forgot the rumors. Here’s what’s really happening.
“Surface Pro 3 obviously landed very well, and we’ve gotten tremendous feedback from both the press and our customers,” Microsoft’s Daniel Laycock told me during a video briefing from New York City. (I tried to make the trip for an in-person, but it didn’t make sense schedule-wise.) “It really is the tablet that can replace your laptop. But to achieve that level of performance, Surface Pro 3 commands a certain price premium. And we wanted to make a Surface that captures the best of Surface Pro 3 but is more accessible to more customers, and have more options to accommodate different needs and budgets.”
The result is Surface 3.
At first blush, Surface 3 closely resembles Surface 2. And as Microsoft Surface director of program management Dennis Meinhardt held it aloft and spun it around for me to examine virtually, I was pretty sure that I was in fact looking at was a Surface 2. It features the same natural gray magnesium color and the same basic form factor, and it lacks the heat venting that is required on the more expensive Surface Pro 3.
But first appearances can be deceiving. And that’s because Surface 3 actually takes some design cues from Surface Pro 3 as well. As I quickly learned, everything about Surface 3 is a reaction to the past, both to the successes of Surface Pro 3 and to the failures of previous, RT-based non-Pro Surface tablets. So what Microsoft is trying to achieve here is a non-Pro Surface that brings the best of Surface Pro 3 down to a more affordable price point while retaining the nice things about RT-based Surface tablets—lightweight, thin, great battery life—and improving on the problems: performance and compatibility. It’s a “full Windows and Office machine,” as Meinhardt put it.
So going forward, consider each point about Surface 3 with that perspective in mind: It’s a non-Pro Surface that offers the best of Surface Pro 3 while retaining what worked with previous non-Pro Surface tablets and fixing those things that didn’t work.
Let’s start with the externals.
“Surface 3 is our thinnest Surface ever,” Mr. Meinhardt told me. “It’s just 8.7 mm thick and weighs only 622 grams [1.37 pounds].” By comparison, Surface 2 was 8.89 mm thick and weighed 676 grams (1.49 pounds). Surface Pro 3—which, again, requires heat venting—is 9.1 mm thick and weighs 800 grams (1.76 pounds).
The body, as noted, is the same natural gray—Microsoft calls it silver—magnesium that worked so well on both Surface 2 and Surface Pro 3. This material has proven itself to be resilient, and while I can closely eyeball my own Surface Pro 3 and find tiny, normally invisible scratches, there are no paint peeling issues or obvious cosmetic problems despite many months of abuse.
I don’t have one in front of me yet—though I’m expecting to get a review unit in early April—but my gut feeling is that Surface 3 will work better as a tablet than a laptop, thanks to its smaller size, whereas I know that Surface Pro 3 works better as a laptop, thanks to its larger screen size.
Yes, Surface 3 has a smaller screen than Pro 3—at 10.8 inches, compared to 10.6 inches for Surface 2 and 12 inches for Pro 3—but it’s not widescreen as on previous non-Pro Surface tablets and instead shares the 3:2 aspect ratio of Surface Pro 3. But it still offers a high pixel count, with an oddball 1920 x 1280 resolution packed into its 3:2 frame. That screen shares other similarities with that of SP3—it’s optically bonded and has the same great color accuracy as the SP3 unit—but it also improves on the SP3 screen in one key area: it’s a bit brighter.
Spin the Surface 3 around and you’ll see a bright new reflective polished steel Microsoft logo, where Surface Pro 3 features a Surface textual logo and previous Surface devices had Windows logos. This is in keeping with Microsoft’s new focus on its own brand over that of product brands. (I wrote about this change recently in Microsoft Has One Brand to Rule Them All.)
The kickstand reverts to a three-position design instead of using the more expensive and complex variable tilt design used with Surface Pro 3. This helps keep the device thin, and Meinhardt told me that there’s no flex when open and no gaps when closed. It didn’t appear to go back quite as far as does the Pro 3, which can be used like an artist’s drawing surface thanks to its unique design.
Port-wise, Surface 3 appears to lineup very closely to Surface Pro 3. There is a single full-sized USB 3.0 port, a miniDisplayPort for video-out (compatible with Pro 3 accessories), a microSD card reader (positioned under the kickstand a la Pro 3), and a headset jack. But power doesn’t come via the strange magnetic power connector Microsoft evolved over three generations of Pro devices. Instead, it uses a more prosaic, compatible and inexpensive micro-USB connector for power.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Apple and Google just announced laptops powered by USB-C, a leading edge connection. Why didn’t Microsoft use USB-C?
Simple: Microsoft isn’t as precious as those companies, and understands that everyone on earth already has a slew of micro-USB chargers lying around. And you can use any of them to charge Surface 3: they will all work, albeit a bit more slowly than the 13 watt power supply that Microsoft provides with the tablet. Compatibility—and common sense—wins the day.
Surface 3 also includes two improved cameras: a 3.5 megapixel 1080p front-facing camera and an 8 megapixel 1080p rear-facing camera with auto-focus.
Look inside Surface 3 and you’ll find Intel’s latest mobile system on a chip (SoC) design, the “Cherry Trail” Atom x7. Indeed, Surface 3 will be the first PC to ship with this design, and Meinhardt told me it provides some important improvements over the Core M chips we’re starting to see on other ultraportable tablets and laptops.
First, don’t be alarmed by the Atom brand: the Atom x7 is a “very performant” CPU, I was told, and I was promised I’d be surprised by the snappy performance. It offers stellar battery life—a problem with Core M—and because it’s so tiny the system can be even thinner and lighter than what’s possible with Core M. It’s also completely fanless, a huge plus. Overall, Microsoft promises over 10 hours of battery life for video-playback.
From a specs perspective, what we’re looking at is a quad-core 1.6 GHz Atom x7-Z8700 processor with 2 MB of cache, and support for Intel Burst up to 2.4 GHz. The system is also powered by 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM and either 64 GB or 128 GB of SSD storage, depending on the model. (Pricing is discussed below.) Surface 3 also sports Wi-Fi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and an LTE version will be offered too.
SIM card slot on the LTE version(s) of Surface 3.
You will also find a standard Surface cover port on the bottom of Surface 3. As you might expect, this means that Surface 3 can use previous Type Cover designs, including the versions for Surface Pro 3. But because Surface 3 is a different size, you will almost certainly want to get a new Surface 3 Type Cover instead.
This new Type Cover looks and works like the Pro 3 version, in that it comes in multiple colors, shares the same basic design, and supports two positions. It’s backlit, too, and has a precision trackpad like that on the Pro 3 version. But there are some subtle improvements: the keys are “snappier” and have a slightly different feel, I was told. And the trackpad has improved accuracy. Given my issues with the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover, I’m curious to try this.
The Type Cover, alas, is an extra cost add-on, as it has been on all Surface devices. It costs $129 like its predecessors, and will come in two new colors—light blue and light red (almost orange)—plus of course black, purple, cyan, and red.
Also extra cost is the Surface Pen, which will set you back $49. But there’s lots of good news here, too. That Pen is the same one that Microsoft ships with the Surface Pro 3, so you can mix and match, and it’s just as sensitive as on Pro 3, offering 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. But it will also be made available in different colors, like Type Cover (to be exact, in silver, black, blue and red). So even Surface Pro 3 users can get in on the color coordination going forward.
There’s even a Surface 3 Docking Station which looks like the one for Surface Pro 3 but has been remade to accommodate the smaller new tablet. It’s made from the same dark titanium color as the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station and offers a similar array of expandability, with a second miniDisplayPort port (which supports an external display with up to 3840 x 2160 resolution), gigabit Ethernet, four USB ports (two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.o), and a 48 watt wall charger that will charge the Surface 3 even more quickly. I didn’t get pricing on the Docking Station, but the Pro 3 version is normally $199.
OK, the final item to consider is of course the price. Microsoft was hoping to come up with a lower-price option for people who can’t afford the Surface Pro 3, and the entry-level Core i3-based Pro 3 costs $930 when you factor in the cost of the Type Cover ($799 for the tablet plus $129 for the typing cover). Surface Pro 3 of course comes with Surface Pen.
Surface 3 with Docking Station.
The base Surface 3—2 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage—costs $499. So the real entry level price is $630 including Type Cover, or $680 if you add in the Pen too.
The next model offers 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage and costs $599, or $730 with the Type Cover, or $780 with Type Cover and Pen.
The versions with LTE will be $100 more, and you can get LTE with the 2 GB/64 GB or 4 GB/128 GB versions of the device. So the most you could spend on Surface 3 is $880: For this you get a Surface 3 tablet with 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB of storage and LTE compatibility, a Type Cover, and a Surface Pen.
Each Surface 3 comes with a one-year subscription of Office 365 Personal, which includes full desktop versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, plus unlimited OneDrive storage.
Whether these prices are reasonable or not will depend on your needs and of course on how this device performs in real life. But it’s already pretty clear already that Surface 3 at least fills the hole vacated by Surface 2. Indeed, Surface 3 pricing is identical to that of Surface 2, which is interesting when you consider the added utility of a non-Pro Surface that is truly PC compatible and can use Surface Pen.
Looking at the non-Windows competition, Surface 3 will compete against full-sized iPads ($399 to $829) with some form of hokey keyboard add-on and full-sized Android tablets too. That it’s a real PC is both a benefit and a problem, but once you start talking integrated keyboard, I think the pros outweigh the cons. We’ll see.
Unlike previous Surface devices, Surface 3 will be broadly available quickly. You can preorder a Surface 3 starting today, March 31, and the first Surface 3 tablets and peripherals will ship to customers on May 5 in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Surface 3 will be available in 26 markets by May 7, Microsoft says, and the LTE versions will be available through T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless in the US, and in other markets, later this year.