With the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book recently released, the predecessor – the Surface 3 – has seen a price drop, so let’s see if it can still pull its weight and perform well enough to make it a viable purchase over the newer models.
Microsoft’s Surface range gets refreshed on a regular basis and the available options increase with every iteration. So given that the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book have been released recently (as has Apple’s iPad Pro), can the humble Surface 3 still pull its weight and perform well enough to make it a viable purchase?
The short answer is of course, “that depends what you use it for” but that’s not exactly helpful. So my aim is to put the Surface 3 – and we are talking the standard 3 here, not the Pro – through its paces in a variety of uses to see if it is up to the task.
By day, I am a web developer, so it makes sense that part of the test will be to see if I can get through a day’s work with this little machine. Microsoft aims and markets the Surface to students, so I will also be writing this entire article on the Surface, as well as processing the images and taking the Surface to some client meetings (the closest I can get to lectures). I will also try watching some HD films and playing some games to see if I can outline the limitations of this bit of kit.
The Microsoft Surface 3 Specifications
- Intel Atom 1.6GHz
- 4GB Ram
- Microsoft Windows 8.1 64bit
- 128GB HDD (~110GB usable)
- Microsoft Type Cover 2 (Additional purchase)
- Microsoft Surface 3 Pen (Additional purchase)
Web Development on The Surface 3 – The Mobile Dev Machine
At my desk, I would normally have three monitors; two landscape 1920×1080 and one portrait 1080×1920, so moving down to a single 1920×1280 screen does feel a bit claustrophobic but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to get used to it. I must admit that I do have a standard 1920×1080 screen and adapter ready should I get desperate.
Generally, my workflow involves using Adobe InDesign and PHPStorm at the same time. Neither of these applications are exactly lightweight so it’s an interesting test for this little machine.
Jetbrains PHPStorm is a fantastic piece of software, known as an IDE (“integrated development environment”). When developing with PHP, there isn’t really anything that can beat it; it’s the defacto IDE. It takes around 10 seconds to fully load and get into my development environment. 10 seconds is not exactly quick, but actually once it’s loaded, it will remain open for the entire 8-hour day, so I’m not bothered by that slight delay.
Once open, overall the experience is the same as my standard development machine, with a couple of exceptions. Firstly, the code-completion prompt is a little slow to load, maybe 1-2 seconds. That doesn’t sound like much but if you rely on it, it could get a little frustrating. The second issue is the “code sniffer”, which is a very useful feature that tries to evaluate whether your code is valid. Occasionally, this takes a long time to catch up – up to a couple of minutes sometimes. To be fair though, this was sometimes checking code that was located on a remote server, so that could be making the situation worse.
Adobe Photoshop and InDesign
Absolutely the industry-standard software, the Adobe Creative Suite in general can be demanding and depending on the size of your files, even powerful computers can grind to a halt sometimes, so I am totally expecting some issues. However, in general I am pleasantly surprised. Both pieces of software remain snappy and responsive enough to not get frustrating and even a 120mb InDesign file only takes 15 seconds to load.
I am very happy to admit that I am most definitely not an artist, so I cannot realistically test the painting ability of Photoshop with the Surface 3 Pen. I can comment on the fact that Photoshop is fast to respond to the pen’s input with no lag. It is a very enjoyable experience and feels a lot easier to use than the likes of Wacom tablets that require bizarre a hand-eye coordination knack that I can never get on with. Making minor adjustment to photos is easy and straightforward. I like it.
Firefox and Chrome
This is interesting. Both Firefox and Chrome are surprisingly laggy. With Firefox I use Firebug during development and Chrome’s built-in element inspector. The only solution for both browsers is to restart them on a relatively regular basis (once every hour or so) to reduce memory consumption.
The physical size of the screen here does make development a little bit uncomfortable when trying to have the element inspector open, there just isn’t quite enough room to move around freely. Whilst the resolution is 1920×1080, the DPI scaling just reduces the amount of available space.
There are a few anecdotal reports online about how Chrome does not play nicely with the Microsoft Surface, pertaining particularly to battery depletion and slow responsiveness. My personal experience of Firefox is that it seems to have a memory leak and I find myself restarting it every now and then on any machine.
The physical size of the screen here does make development a little bit uncomfortable when trying to have the element inspector open, there just isn’t quite enough room to move around freely.
The Mobile Dev Machine Conclusion
Having given myself a full day’s work on this machine now, not only is it possible to develop on this machine, it is actually an enjoyable experience. The thought that I actually could pack up and walk down to the nearest coffee is a real boon. I must admit though, I would definitely choose to use a USB mouse as I am not a fan of touchpads and I would probably connect a second monitor just for the ability to have reference files visible at the same time.
Client Meetings – Lectures and Note Taking on The Surface 3
There are some very clever “Quality of Life” features. For example the top button on Surface Pen. In order to start taking notes, you click the button at the top of pen (in exactly the same fashion you would click a ballpoint pen to reveal the nib). This automatically opens Microsoft OneNote and creates a new “Quick Note” ready for taking notes.
I quickly realised that by pinching to zoom in, I could then fit absolutely masses of notes on one “page”. By zooming out and scrolling around this one page, I didn’t ever run out of space. By signing up to a free Microsoft OneDrive account, my OneNotes are automatically synchronised to the cloud for backup and simple sharing to clients and colleague.
Even if the Surface is in sleep mode (although not hibernation), clicking the pen button will still bring up a new OneNote page ready for taking notes. This can be useful and annoying – if you need a clean page per note, then it’s brilliant but if you are taking notes less regularly during a meeting or lecture then your notes will be spread out across pages. Obviously you could stop your Surface from going to sleep but then you run the risk of depleting the battery much more quickly.
When writing with the Surface Pen within Microsoft OneNote, there is no lag and it is very similar to writing on a glossy surface like a whiteboard or the Esquoia Reusable Notebook, albeit with a stiffer pen nib. There is a useful indicator that appears when the Pen nib gets within about a centimeter of the screen and it also features palm-rejection so no accidentally scrolling or writing whilst you rest your hand on the screen.
Lectures and Note Taking Conclusion
It is very apparent that Microsoft put a lot of thought into note-taking on the Surface . Writing on this thing is simply amazing and if people haven’t seen one before, they will comment on it. It is such a pleasure to take notes that I don’t ever want to go back to paper.
Gaming and Recreation with The Microsoft Surface 3
My aim here is not to review the games, rather to give a brief overview of how well the perform on the Surface. We know that the Surface 3 is not going to play the latest games, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a plethora of games that it can play. With some patience and playing around with settings I have had some good results with some very enjoyable games.
I randomly picked some games from my Steam library and gave them a go. I chose Road Redemption, Mirror’s Edge and Besiege. None of these games played at the full 1920×1080 whilst achieving 30fps and actually even with reduced resolutions I still never hit the 30fps mark for any length of time. That is not to say that the games were unplayable, not by any stretch.
Road Redemption is currently in “Early Access” (i.e. under development) so it would not be fair to expect a smooth and polished experience. However, by reducing the resolution to 1280×800 I can achieve between 15 and 30fps. Occasionally this dips to around 8fps when there were lots of AI players but honestly, at ~20fps it is smooth enough to play and enjoy.
Mirror’s Edge was released in 2008 so I had higher hopes given its maturity. Leaving the resolution at 1920×1280 it still hits between 8-22fps until meeting some of the AI enemies where the fps drops. In general, Mirror’s Edge is definitely playable but you do have to be a bit forgiving in some of the more complex situations.
Besiege is also an Early Access game so once again I don’t expect a completely perfect experience. Whilst the fps sat somewhere between 5 and 25, Besiege is extremely playable. This is because a lot of the game is played in “building mode” where fps are not particularly important. Even during the “playing” part of the game the low fps count don’t overly bother me.
It should be said that all three of the random games I selected can look gorgeous on higher resolutions so it a shame that I need to reduce the resolution in order to play them smoothly. To be fair to the Surface though, it has never been billed as a “gaming machine” and the drop in resolution is a worthy sacrifice in order to be able to play on the move. If you are a gamer, you probably have a more beefy machine and so for those odd occasions when you want to game and all you have is your Surface, you expectations are going to be lower.
Web Browsing and Watching Films
As I touched on above, there are some minor issues with both Chrome and Firefox running on the Surface. Restarting the browsers does solve the issue with memory consumption and it’s not too big of a deal. There are some anecdotal reports of Chrome having serious impacts on battery life but I have not experienced that.
I tend to use Firefox as my main browser and there is one minor point that I would like to make here; When the Type Cover 2 physical keyboard is not attached, the onscreen keyboard will not appear when tapping on text areas with Firefox. This is not a huge deal, but for general browsing without the keyboard attached, it is a bit annoying after a while and Chrome does not suffer from this issue so it should be fixable.
Streaming films from Amazon Prime and Netflix poses no issues whatsoever and short of saying “it works and it’s great” there’s not a great deal here that needs to be explained. Both Netflix and Amazon’s players are perfectly suited to touch screens
For watching ripped DVDs and Blurays, like most people, I use VideoLan Player (VLC). Interestingly, when loading high quality videos from the hard-drive, VLC can take around 20-30 seconds to load, giving you enough time to think it actually isn’t going to load. On multiple occasions I have been impatient and ended up loading multiple players of the same movie whilst waiting for it to load.
The only caveat with VLC is that the user interface is quite small and it does take some practice to correctly “aim” your taps to hit the correct button. There are some gesture controls though, so once you’ve successfully hit the play button, controlling volume and scrubbing through the timeline is straightforward and intuitive.
Comments on the Surface 3 hardware
During my day of developing and when writing this review, I have found the Type Cover 2 keyboard in its angled position is extremely “bouncy” when typing quickly and I find it throws off my muscle memory and leads to a lot of mistakes. However, when it is lying flat, it is extremely comfortable to use and I can actually type more swiftly and accurately than on my full-sized keyboard.
There is no getting around the fact that the touchpad on the keyboard is simply diabolical. There is a noticeable “physical” lag when scrolling with two fingers – it is only after you have swiped about 1cm that the scrolling actually kicks in. That might not sound like much but it gets very annoying, especially considering the touchpad itself is only maybe 4cm in-depth.
The second frustrating point of the touchpad is the right-click area which (in theory) occupies the lower right-hand side of the touchpad. It feels like pot-luck whether I achieve the right-click or just end up with a left click. The touchpad itself is so horrible that when I am using the Surface 3 for any length of time, I use a USB or Bluetooth mouse.
The Surface Pen features a fine, stiff nib that makes accurate work very easy. As mentioned above, once the nib is within about a centimeter of the screen, an on-screen indicator appears so as you “aim” the nib, you know exactly where you are going to make contact and “palm rejection” get enabled. Now, I tend to hold a pen quite close to the nib, so it took a bit of time to retrain the way I bring my hand toward the screen, ensuring that the nib touches the screen before my hand, otherwise my palm tends to interact with the zoom and scrolling.
There are two “mouse” buttons on the shank on the pen and to begin with, I would accidentally press these with my thumb or finger. I did quickly learn to recognise the position of the buttons in relation to my finger to make sure I didn’t press the buttons unintentionally.
With the Type Cover 2 Keyboard detached, the Microsoft Surface 3 is a very satisfying piece of kit to hold in your hand. It feels solid and well-made and the kickstand is robust and snaps positively into one of 3 angled positions.
This has been an interesting experiment for me. I honestly expected to come away with a much more negative feeling about the Microsoft Surface 3 yet in actual fact I find that I have grown very fond of it. Judging it on it’s actual performance, it doesn’t seem like it would be a very enjoyable experience yet in actual fact, the experience “feels” better than its performance suggests.
For business or school/university-type work I think the Surface is in its element but, like a relative who is starting to get on in years, just give it a bit of time and a gentle nudge every now and then to help it along its way and it will be fine. Put it into more demanding environments, such as gaming or video editing for example, you will start to notice its limitations.
Will I carry on using it for development? Absolutely yes. However, a bluetooth mouse and second monitor are on my office desk and whenever possible, I will be using them. Whilst traveling to and from client meetings though, it gives me the opportunity to sneak in some additional development time and for taking notes at those meetings, well I couldn’t ask for anything better.
My Surface 3 has become my go-to device for recreation, from watching movies, browsing the web and yes, even playing games. I just find that the combination of portability, the touchscreen and the full Windows experience make it a fantastic device for most situations.
So, getting back to the original question “is the Microsoft Surface 3 still a viable purchase?” I think the answer is “absolutely” with a couple of caveats: Firstly, remember you are not buying a top-of-the-range device so don’t expect it to act as such. Secondly the difference in price compared to the newer Surface 4 and Surface Book is considerable, so unless you definitely need that extra horsepower, give the Surface 3, keyboard and Pen serious consideration.