If Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is too much tablet for your school at too high a price, it now has a little brother that just might be the best Windows tablet to date. While it could still stand to shed an ounce or two, the Surface 3 packs a lot of punch for everything from teaching a math lesson to using reading comprehension software.
Like the Pro 3 and unlike the original RT Surface model, the Surface 3 uses a full version of Windows 8.1 and can run a wide range of general-purpose and specialty education apps. At 1.3-pounds, the Surface 3 is half a pound lighter than the Pro 3 model but 5-ounces heavier than the current iPad Air 2, although the Surface 3 provides a much larger screen than the iPad. It feels good in the hand, never gets more than warm and should be fine for a day of teaching or learning.
Add in the $130 snap-on Surface 3 Type Cover keyboard and you have a 2.1-pound package that is the equivalent of a mid-range notebook or desktop computer. Available in two shades of red and blue as well as black, the keyboard cover has 18.5-mm keys, although the Tab and tilde keys are smaller than the rest. Plus, like its predecessors, the shallow keys take some getting used to. A nice design touch is that the Type Cover is lined with soft felt on the bottom so you won’t be scratching up a library table.
A big bonus is that rather than the Pro’s proprietary power adapter and magnetic connector, the Surface 3 can use a USB adapter with a micro-USB cable, although with a peak power consumption during charging of 13-watts, you should use the included adapter. It should work with most charging carts and enclosures designed for Android and iOS devices.
The Surface 3 is only 0.3-inches thick, just a hair thicker than the iPad and a tenth of an inch slimmer than the Pro 3. With its unique fold out stand, the Surface 3 is excellent on a tabletop, although using it with the keyboard on a lap can be awkward. It can be set to three angles (22-, 40- and 60-degrees) rather than the Pro’s stand that can be adjusted to just about any angle from nearly flat on the table to almost vertical.
The 10.8-inch display may not be up to the iPad Air2’s 2,048 by 1,536 resolution, but it is more than an inch larger, making navigation and work much easier on the eyes. Its HD imaging should be more than enough and is a big step up for those used to XGA displays. One of the brightest screens around, the Surface 3 uses Intel’s HD Graphics accelerator.
Its 10-point multi-touch screen is not only responsive and accurate, but with the $50 optional Surface Pen, it becomes an art tool with 256-level pressure sensitivity. The pen uses an AAAA battery and comes in colors that match the keyboard.
There’s a shirt-pocket clip at the top of the stylus that conveniently can attach the pen to the keyboard, but there’s no way to attach it to the tablet. That’s where Microsoft’s Surface Pen Loop comes in. Essentially, a piece of fabric that can be attached to the side of the tablet to hold the stylus in place when it’s not in use, the loop comes with the pen, matches the keyboard’s colors and extras cost $5.
It is tightly integrated with OneNote and can do a magic trick in the classroom. Click the button on the top of the stylus and OneNote pops up for quickie scribbles or twice to automatically save the current screen.
Inside, the system is powered by an Intel Atom x7-Z8700 quad-core processor that runs at between 1.6- and 2.4GHz. The $600 model I looked at includes 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space, but the more popular one at schools will likely be the $500 one that has 2GB of RAM and 64GB of space.
Regardless of which you get, the Surface 3 includes some cool goodies. In addition to a year of Office 365 and 1TB of online storage space with OneDrive, the system comes with an hour of Skype time per month.
It has the basic connections you’d expect from a tablet, with a single USB 3.0 port, mini Displayport and the ability to use a micro-SD card. It has a headphone jack, WiFi and Bluetooth, but no wired LAN port; it worked fine with a USB-to-LAN converter.
The port selection can be augmented with Microsoft’s $200 Surface 3 Docking Station, which is money well spent for teachers and computer labs. In addition to charging the system, the dock can connect with a wired LAN and has four USB ports, two of which are the newer USB 3.0 type. There’s also audio jack and a second mini-Displayport jack.
Its performance isn’t as stellar as the Core processor-powered Pro systems, but is good enough to rate a 775 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8 benchmark. That puts it solidly in the middle of current systems. Its battery pack powered the system for a reasonable 6 hours and 40 minutes of continuous video playback over a WiFi network. That’s an hour and a half longer than the high-performance Surface Pro 3 but about an hour short of the iPad’s abilities, but plenty for a full day of sustained school work with a little left over at the end for grading or homework.
The system I looked at came with a 1-year warranty and Windows 8.1, but includes a free upgrade to Win 10 when it comes out, just in time for the 2015-16 school year. It might seem ironic (and a bit of a tease) in a world where you’re likely still using Windows XP (or at best Win 7), but this might be the impetus needed to start the transition.
While I admire its starting price, the costs add up quickly if you want the full package, which I think will be the case with teachers. With the keyboard cover, stylus and dock, the complete system comes to nearly $900. The good news is that Microsoft gives teachers and students a 10-percent discount if you get the Surface 3, cover and pen.
$450 with educational discount
+ Beautiful display
+ USB power
+ Includes Office and online storage
+ OneNote integration
- Gets expensive with accessories