(Pocket-lint) - Microsoft is a software company at heart, which has seen the Windows operating system maker not always taking like a duck to water when it comes to hardware. From the uncomfortable Microsoft Band, to the flurry of budget Lumia handsets following the acquisition of Nokia, it's a giant company finding its way on the hardware ladder one step at a time.
But with Microsoft Surface - the convergent tablet-meets-laptop device - plenty of steps into its life, the latest Surface 3 is a product that makes even more sense than its forebears. It shows experience: a better judgement of value, without compromising on build quality.
Following on from the 12-inch Pro 3 model launched in 2014, the 10.8-inch Surface 3 is smaller, slimmer and you'll save roughly 50 per cent the price of its Pro cousin. But then it is, technically, less powerful - yet even with these nips and tucks it doesn't scrimp on hardware appeal, nor ability.
Has Microsoft finally cracked it? Or is the Surface 3 still a tablet-meets-would-be-laptop device that's sat on the fence between two product camps?
Out of the box and there's one key thing missing from the Surface 3: a keyboard. We're showing off the shiny red Type Cover in our photos, but that will set you back an additional £109 - so something to keep in mind when pricing up the device.
Surface 3 with red Type Cover keyboard, sold separately
Yes, older Surface keyboards can be used in conjunction with the Surface 3 if you have one, but they won't fit it perfectly (Surface 2 was 10.6-inch) to double-up as a protective cover too. So you'll want a new one.
ithout the keyboard the Surface 3 is, in essence, a chunky tablet with a flip-stand to the rear. That's why we struggle to call it a true 2-in-1; it's a product sat on the fence.
To the side there's a full-size USB 3.0 port, bringing a sense of laptop-like functionality, alongside a new miniUSB charging port - not the proprietary magnetic connector of earlier models - a 3.5mm headphones jack, and Mini DisplayPort.
Importantly there's also a microSD card slot around the back under the flip-stand, used to expand the on-board memory. Which, no doubt, you'll want to do: the 128GB review sample we've been sent has almost 91GB available from the off, so losing nearly 40GB of the smaller 64GB variant due to the operating system install may be too much of a squeeze.
Surface 3 has a microSD card slot tucked underneath the flip-stand
That's one of the things about Windows: it eats into a chunk of storage, yet it's far more powerful than the nonsense Windows RT version that the very first Surface device pushed to the public. Here it's RIP RT, and good riddance. Plus, come the summertime, Windows 10 will be pushed out to all Windows 8 users for free - Surface 3 included.
Despite the storage squeeze, the Surface 3 doesn't scrimp on the build quality at all. Indeed, it delivers the same magnesium chassis finish as found in the pricier Pro 3. We've handled both models side by side and there's nothing between them in terms of quality; cool to the touch, it's a solid construction that both looks and feels well made.
However, the Surface 3 boasts an 8.7mm thickess, making it the most slender Surface to date - more so than the Pro 3. Although not especially slim in tablet terms, think of it as a full-on Windows 8 PC and it stands its own ground. We do think the smaller scale model will suit more prospective buyers, whether for work, play, or a bit of both.
Surface 3 (top) and Surface Pro 3 size and thickness compared
Standalone the 620g tablet body becomes 885g with the keyboard attached, and just how many other 11-inch laptops are slimmer and lighter, even with keyboard attached? That's a key point that will see the Surface 3 widen its appeal.
The flip-stand to the rear doesn't have a freely rotational hinge as found on the Pro 3, though, instead popping out from flat into one of three positions. Each position will have its own use depending how steep you wish to view the device, but that's one compromise to consider. At least it's not restricted to a single position, as with the original Surface.
For the £419 starting price, this all sounds like rather good value. But add the £109 keyboard and the £528 total is pushing towards more powerful mid-level laptop territory (think Asus UX305, for example).
Surface 3 with its flip-stand in position two of an available three
Our review sample also came complete with the Surface Pen - the same stylus as bundled with the Surface Pro 3 - which works really well with the lower-spec model, but, again, is an additional accessory and £45 cost if you want it. Plus there's nowhere to logically store the stylus, which is odd.
The 10.8-inch within the Surface 3's 267 x 187mm frame is built with a bezel similar to a laptop screen surround. Whether in portrait or landscape orientation there's a black border on each side, which is useful for holding. It's roughly a thumb-width in thickness, making it broader than some dedicated tablets.
Make no mistake about the screen within though: it's a quality IPS panel and the brightest of any Surface yet. That earlier acronym means the viewing angles are solid no matter how steep the angle the screen is viewed from (within reason), avoiding contrast and colour falloff. That's a real important factor for any laptop-type device, and something more budget devices so often fail to deliver.
Surface 3 shows off its bright 10.8in Full HD screen
However, in the Surface 3's case the exterior coating is somewhat reflective. It's not to excess, but it does catch the light more than a matte panel, which can make outdoor work a little tougher than it ought to be.
In terms of resolution the 1920 x 1080 pixel display delivers an ample 204ppi density. At this 10.8-inch scale, which is roughly the size of an A4 sheet of paper, that's more than enough in our view, catering for movies and much more. It's also a ClearType panel, meaning sub-pixels are used to smooth out text, but even so the overall colour is bright and auto-brightness adapts well to changing lighting conditions.
Power and battery
How bright you'll want to leave the screen will depend on how long you need the battery life to hold out for. We were holding out for ultra-impressive battery life, particularly with the cool-running, fan-free Intel Atom quad-core processor - it's the 1.6-2.4GHz x7-Z8700 derivative; the first Cherry Trail processor we've seen in any device to date - but it didn't exceed our expectations.
It did match them though. Our two days of use have delivered around the 8-hour mark per charge, with the usual array of browsing, word processing - a year's subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal is included (at the time of writing, this may change later in the product's life) - YouTubing, and email. Even watching movies shouldn't dent it too much from our experience.
Surface 3 is the only model to charge via Micro-USB, just like a smartphone
As this is a fan-free machine it's not the most powerful out there of course. Whether you'll genuinely notice this depends entirely on what you intend to do with the device. There's no dedicated graphics, so don't expect to be running top-notch games or video editing in real-time. We've thumbed through the Microsoft Store to download a few lighter games, but that's as far as it will sensibly go.
Dual cameras are also on board: the rear offering 8-megapixels and autofocus, the front a cut-down 3.5MP for Skype calls and the like. Not that we're fans of using tablets for photography, but they are useful for some applications - you just won't catch us at a gig with a Surface 3 raised in the air.
The Microsoft Surface 3 might not be the biggest or most powerful of the Surface family, but it is the most sensible one to date. Now that might make it sound kind of boring, which isn't really far from the truth.
We've always felt that Surface products have had an issue with balance: although the Surface 3 is a great laptop-replacement that won't cost the earth, that's only true if you buy the keyboard at greater expense; while as a standalone tablet it's powerful, but far chunkier than its competitors. The scales have always tipped back and forth with Surface and its fence-sitting position in the market, and the third-generation device still doesn't quite achieve all the things it sets out to be.
And yet it's a perfectly good product. A solid construction with Full HD screen front and centre, ample processor and resulting battery life, added Surface Pen compatibility (sold separately), and with full Windows 8 on board (that'll be Windows 10 come the summer), there's little amiss. Yet despite ticking all those boxes, it's just not going to be the product to suit everyone. For those it matches, though, we have no doubt there will be lots of happy customers.