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Surface 3 review: This one is worth recommending, though it's no bargain

Mark Hachman | April 28, 2015
Think of the Surface 3 as a smaller, cheaper Surface Pro 3, with slightly disappointing battery life but surprisingly good performance.

Performance: basic, but that's the whole point
Think of the Surface 3 as a machine designed to run Office and other general day-to-day productivity and entertainment apps, and you'll be satisfied. Content creation in Word, OneNote and other Office apps is perfectly acceptable, although I did find myself squinting a bit at the small, high-resolution screen. I couldn't see any slowdown while running 1080p YouTube content or Netflix videos.

In our initial hands-on of the Surface 3 we compared it to older Atom-powered tablets. In this new group of benchmarks, we added the Surface Pro 3 and a few full-fledged laptops.

In general, the Surface 3 offers performance that's about 60 percent of what you'd get from the Surface Pro 3 in general Office work, but about 25 percent more than the older "Bay Trail"-class Atom-based tablets (as represented by the Lenovo Yoga Tablet 10). That difference becomes more profound when comparing the Surface 3 using conventional graphics benchmarks, as the table below shows.

The glaring weakness of the Surface 3 compared to the Surface Pro 3 is in disk access, which can mean slow app launches and other slowdowns. Using the CrystalDiskMark 3.0 benchmark, the Surface Pro 3 read and wrote 4GB blocks of data at 507.1 MB/s and 242.9 MB/s, respectively. The Surface 3 read and wrote the same data at 118.9 MB/s and 49.69 MB/s, respectively.

Gaming will be a mixed bag on the Surface 3. Pick a frantic 2D sprite-based game like The Expendabros, and it will run flawlessly. Move up to something that taxes the 3D hardware a bit more, like 2011's Serious Sam 3: BFE, and it runs acceptably at the very lowest settings. 

It's possible that Microsoft has its eye on another gaming experience: game streaming. In the near future, Microsoft hopes to stream games over a wireless network from an Xbox One, letting the console do the heavy lifting. Microsoft sees the Surface 3 as the ideal tablet for basic Office productivity and casual use, so it'd seem natural to optimize that experience for the Surface 3.

Note:  We ran early benchmarks while the Surface 3 was docked, and the tablet locked up twice--no dreaded Blue Screen of Death, just no response. Microsoft told us they hadn't had similar reports from other early Surface 3 users. When we ran the PCMark Creative Conventional test for this review, the tablet locked up again--only this time, it was sitting undocked on a bench. Because the Surface 3 is passively cooled, we speculated there might be conditions where it can't accommodate a thermal spike. We ran the PCMark Creative test a second time without issue, however, and we were unable to force the Surface 3 to crash by looping other benchmarks repeatedly. 


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