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Grow Your Business Technology

Microsoft Surface 3 Review: Is It Good for Business?

Microsoft Surface 3 Review: Is It Good for Business?
The Surface 3 earns 4 out of 5 stars. / Credit: Jeremy Lips

Microsoft's Surface 3 is all about the pen. The new laptop-tablet hybrid is essentially a smaller, less-powerful version of the Surface Pro 3, which launched last year. It's a great device for students, but most business users would be better off with a traditional laptop. 

But for the right user — particularly someone who wants to write on his or her notebook's display — the Surface 3 is a hard value to beat. With top-notch stylus technology and a built-in kickstand that gives you a nice angled writing surface, there's no better digital notebook on the market. You also get the full Windows 8.1 operating system and enough power to handle the average daily workload, plus good battery life, an improved keyboard and an amazingly thin and light design. 

The Surface 3 will run you about $680 when you include the pen and keyboard, which are sold separately. So is it worth it for business users? It might seem like a hard sell, especially when the Surface Pro 3 offers more power and a bigger display for only a little more money, and cheap notebooks like the Asus ZenBook UX305 are much more practical for basic office work. But if you want a superportable, affordable note-taking machine that can double as a pretty good Windows laptop, Microsoft's hybrid is a winner.

Design

Slim, sleek and ultraportable, the Surface 3 looks every bit as premium as the Pro version. The magnesium body has the same handsome matte-gray finish, and the same angled edges, as the Surface Pro 3. Plus, the new silver Microsoft logo on the back of the kickstand looks really sharp.

However, the Surface 3 is smaller than the Surface Pro 3 — it measures 10.5 x 7.4 inches, compared to the Pro's 11.45 x 7.8 inches. And because the Surface 3 runs on a low-power Intel Atom processor, which doesn't need a fan for active cooling, Microsoft was able to reduce the thickness from 0.36 inches to 0.3 inches.

The Surface 3 feels really light, too, weighing just 1.37 lbs. For comparison, the iPad Air 2 weighs 0.98 lbs. but has a smaller, 9.7 inch display, and the Acer Aspire Switch 10 weighs 1.2 lbs. and has a 10.1-inch display. Some similar systems weigh more, though. For example, the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi weighs 1.6 lbs. and has a whopping 13-inch display. 

The bottom line is that the Surface 3 won't weigh you down on your daily commute, and you won't even feel it in your bag on a business trip.

Pen support

Other hybrids, like Dell's Venue 11 Pro, are also compatible with digitizer pens, but the writing on those devices doesn't feel nearly as smooth or precise as it does on a Surface tablet. The only devices that can compare in the stylus department are those that come with Wacom pens, like the Toshiba Encore 2 Write tablet and Lenovo's ThinkPad Yoga 12 laptop.The pen tech inside the Surface 3 is easily glossed over, but it shouldn't be. In my opinion, it's by far the best reason for business users to buy the device. The N-trig pen digitizer that's incorporated into the display can detect up to 256 levels of pressure, letting you vary the width and weight of your lines depending on how hard you're pressing, just as you would with a regular ballpoint pen. 

If you ignore my bad handwriting, you can see in this comparison shot that the Surface 3 pen produces smooth, clean lines, whereas the Dell Venue 11 pen makes wobbly lines.

Unfortunately, you'll have to buy the Surface 3 pen separately for $50. Although the pen comes with the Pro 3, Microsoft didn't include it with the cheaper model, presumably to keep costs down. Still, you get what you pay for with stylus technology, and few her devices offer an inking experience this good.

Display 

The Surface 3's 10.8-inch display is noticeably smaller than the Pro 3's 12.2-inch screen, but it still feels surprisingly roomy. Like its more premium big brother, the Surface 3's screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is a little bit taller and less wide than the average tablet or laptop screen. That makes it a bit worse for watching movies — which are generally filmed in a 16:9 format — but a little extra vertical screen space makes productivity tasks like composing documents, managing your email inbox and browsing the Web a lot more comfortable. 

Side-by-side multitasking feels fine, thanks to the tablet's relatively high (and unusual) 1,920 x 1,280-pixel resolution. That's not as sharp as the Pro 3's 2,160 x 1,440p panel, but it's more than sharp enough for average business users. Text looks crystal clear, even when zoomed out, and images look vibrant and colorful.

Keyboard

Finally, a Surface keyboard that won't make you pull your hair out in frustration: The new Surface 3 Type Cover looks just like the Pro 3's cover, but boasts a couple of important improvements.

The keys themselves don't appear to have changed much; they're the same size as on the Pro 3 keyboard, and are just as shallow, with a meager 1 millimeter of travel. In general, deeper keys offer a more desktoplike typing experience and are thus more comfortable for extended typing sessions. 

But the keys feel snappier this time, as they require a bit more force to press and deliver a little more feedback than the Pro 3's Type Cover. Plus, the keyboard base is a lot more rigid than it was with the Pro 3, so it doesn't bend or flex at all, even when you're typing forcefully. The result is a keyboard that feels legitimately good to type on; I wrote most of this review on it and never really missed my desktop keyboard.

As with the Pro 3, the top of the Surface 3's Type Cover lifts up and snaps magnetically to the bezel, making the whole package feel more stable. It also provides a nice sloped angle for the keyboard, which feels very comfortable for extended typing sessions.

Now, for the bad news: As with all other Surface devices, the Surface 3 doesn't come with its keyboard. Instead, the accessory is sold separately for $130.

Touchpad

Unfortunately, the tiny touchpad still leaves something to be desired. Measuring just 3 x 1.45 inches, it's even smaller than the compact pad on the Pro 3. That doesn't leave you a lot of room to navigate. I couldn't move the cursor from the top to the bottom of the screen without lifting my finger until I upped the cursor speed. However, that had the unfortunate side effect of making the cursor control a bit jumpy. On the bright side, basic mouse navigation feels sensitive and precise at the default setting, and gestures like two-finger scrolling are more responsive than they were on the Pro 3. Plus, using the touch screen and pen for navigation largely mitigates the touchpad's shortcomings.

Kickstand

Unlike the Surface Pro 3, which provides a flexible kickstand that can be positioned at any angle, the Surface 3's kickstand snaps into exactly three different viewing angles. Still, that's one more than the original Surface 1 and Surface 2 tablets, which offered just one and two angles, respectively.

The first kickstand position is pretty good for working on a desk, and the second is better for typing with the device on your lap. But it's the third angle — which is nearly flat — that really makes the difference. As previously mentioned, it provides a very good angle for writing on the screen with the Surface pen — something you won't get from other pen-equipped tablets.

The kickstand provides a few other advantages as well. In particular, it gives you a good way to prop up the Surface 3 while you're typing while allowing the whole package to remain extremely thin and light. In contrast, most other hybrids depend on beefy keyboard docks to stand upright and don't provide a very good viewing angle. 

Ports

The Surface 3's selection of ports is generous for a tablet but sparse for a laptop, especially compared to the average business notebook. You get a single full-size USB 3.0 port for connecting accessories, an SD card slot for expanding the internal storage and a mini DisplayPort for connecting the device to a monitor or projector. That's the same selection you'll find on the Pro 3; however, a traditional notebook will give you at least two USB ports, and the average business notebook includes extra video-out ports (usually HDMI and VGA).

'Lapability'

If you're looking for a device to use primarily as a laptop (i.e., use it on your lap), the Surface 3 isn't a great choice. As with other Surface iterations, the Surface 3's kickstand still feels a bit awkward when resting on your knees. And, due to the kickstand, I couldn't scoot the device out as far on my thighs as I would have liked while typing.

The bottom line is that the Surface 3 is an adequate laptop if you need it to fill that role on occasion. But if you want a device that really feels at home on your lap, the Surface 3 isn't it.

Configurations

The Surface 3 comes in two different configurations, both of which are powered by a decently zippy Intel Atom processor and feature identical 10.8-inch displays. The difference between the two comes down to RAM and storage space. The baseline $499 model comes with 2GB of RAM and a modest 64GB of storage space, while the pricier $599 model comes with 4GB of RAM and a more reasonable 128GB of storage.

The cheaper model might sound tempting, but let's be real: 2GB of RAM just won't cut it for any semiserious workload, and 64GB of storage will fill up pretty fast after you install a couple of programs. That's why I consider the pricier $599 model the only real option for business users.

Performance

It's not as powerful as the Surface Pro 3, but the cheaper Surface 3 will probably suffice for users with only modest computing needs. The unit I reviewed runs on a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor with 4GB of RAM, which provided decent performance for checking email, browsing the Web, editing documents and light image editing.

On the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the Surface 3 scored a modest 3,351, which is well above the tablet average (2,404) but well below other hybrids like the Intel Core M-powered Asus T300 Chi (4,319) and the Core i5-powered Surface Pro 3 (5,665). The iPad Air 2 also performed better on the test, scoring 4,547.

We also ran the Surface 3 through our productivity test, which tasked the device with matching 20,000 names with their addresses in OpenOffice. It took Microsoft's new hybrid 13 minutes and 31 seconds to complete the test, which is nearly a minute faster than the tablet average (14:23) but slower than the T300 Chi (7:05) and way behind the Pro 3 (4:43).

The Surface 3's eMMC hard drive is also a bit sluggish compared to the Surface Pro 3's blazing-fast solid-state drive (SSD). The Surface 3 took roughly four times as long as the Pro 3 to complete our file-transfer test, which involves copying about 5GB of mixed media files from one location to another.

Videoconferencing

The 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera on the Surface 3 is very good for videoconferencing sessions. It captures clean, clear photos, with accurate colors, so it's good for meeting with clients and colleagues on the go. Plus, the Surface 3 delivers loud, clear audio, so you won't have any trouble hearing the person on the other end of a call.

Battery life

If you need a device that can last through the end of the workday, the Surface 3 delivers. It ran for a solid 8 hours and 1 minute on our battery test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi with the screen set to 100 nits of brightness. That means it lasted longer than the Surface Pro 3 (7:27). The average tablet lasts longer (8:37), but most devices in that category have less power and smaller screens. For example, the iPad Air 2 ran for an impressive 9 hours and 20 minutes on our test, but it has a more compact 9.7-inch display.

Software

The Surface 3 comes with a clean copy of Windows 8.1, which suits the touch-centric device very well. A handful of useful productivity apps come pre-loaded, including OneNote for taking notes, OneDrive for storing your files in the cloud, and Skype for basic videoconferencing. But the biggest perk for business users is a free 12-month subscription to Microsoft Office 365, so you can use Word, Excel and PowerPoint for one year without paying a dime.

Bottom line

The Surface 3 is an excellent hybrid, but it's a niche device for business users. If you're looking for a replacement for your laptop, the Surface 3 is a mediocre choice, mostly due to its kickstand-based design. For most workloads, a traditional laptop will be a lot more practical, and there are some excellent ultraportable notebooks in the same price range like the ZenBook UX305.

So, who should get the Surface 3? It's perfect for business users who want top-notch pen support. It's also a pretty good pick if you want the most portable Microsoft Office machine around. Plus, it doubles as a very good entertainment hub for after-work hours, or for use on an airplane.

In other words, it gives you most of the Pro 3's best qualities but in a more affordable package. On the other hand, the Pro 3 is powerful enough to be your only work machine, especially when coupled with a dock for desktop use.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a superportable, affordable hybrid with great pen support, the Surface 3 is hard to beat.

Brett Nuckles

Brett Nuckles has been a working journalist since 2009. He got his start in local newspapers covering community news, local government, education and more before he joined the Business News Daily staff in 2013. He graduated from Ohio University, where he studied Journalism and English. Follow him on Twitter @BrettNuckles.