The New Microsoft Surface 3 Tablet Hits the Mark

The Surface Pro 3 seemed to be an awkward device with its high cost out of sync with a less than awesome keyboard. However, the new lower cost sibling, the Surface 3, makes some interesting and important design changes. I like it.

Surface 3. Image credit: Microsoft.

For a long time, I maintained that if Microsoft couldn't get the Surface family right, the company should just get out of that product space. Instead, Microsoft did something remarkable. Along the way, it dumped the awful Surface RT (which could not run standard Windows apps) and Windows RT (an ARM based version), and completely rethought the new Surface 3, announced on 3/31.

This new US$499 tablet will go on sale on May 5th and completely changes the tablet game. While the cost of a well equipped Surface Pro, a tablet masquerading as a notebook, was high and one's money would be better spent on a good PC notebook with a great keyboard, the Surface 3 is nicely priced and the accompanying keyboard is a better match.

The Surface 3 comes with an Intel quad-core Atom X7 processor. While not exactly a powerhouse chip, it's inexpensive and is designed for low-power and mobility. The Surface 3, in a similar fashion to Apple's new Apple MacBook, will run Windows apps that don't make great demands on the CPU and graphics. The advantage is a lower cost tablet.

The screen ia 10.8 inches diagonally and the aspect ratio is 3:2 (1920 x 1280) which makes it better suited to use in portrait mode. For a long time, Microsoft and other tablet makers were fixated on the idea that an HD aspect ratio of 16:9 was cooler and more modern than Apple's iPad and would be well suited to HD movies. But they all overlooked that the idea that a tablet is designed to do a lot of things, not just movies, and one designed that way doesn't suit humans well in portrait mode.

Microsoft says that the Surface 3 is ready for Windows 10. It includes a one-year subscription to Office 365. For an extra $100, you can get one with LTE.

Another good thing Microsoft did was to add a microUSB charging port. What non-Apple customer doesn't have a phone charger with microUSB laying around that could be pressed into service? They are ubiquitous.

You can read about the other technical aspects of the Surface 3 at Microsoft's blog. There, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for Surface Panos Panay wrote:

We have used that time to listen to our customers and to learn from them. We’ve also built on all the past work of our engineering, design, software and manufacturing teams, mastering the processes that allow us to offer products that are both beautiful and incredibly powerful. You will see and feel this in every detail of Surface 3.

Time will tell if this new tablet, which ships with 64-bit Windows 8.1, will be able to greatly outsell the Surface Pro series and break into the top five in tablet sales numbers. My first reaction, at this point, syncs with what I've been seeing in other aspects of Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella: for the first time since I can remember, Microsoft is thinking and acting very smart. I would actually be pleased to have a Surface 3, and that's saying something.

I like what I'm seeing from Microsoft these days.