Microsoft’s Next Non-Pro Surface Announced

Seemingly out of nowhere, Microsoft simultaneously announced new 2-in-1 hardware and the future of its low end hardware brand. Previously, the Surface RT and Surface 2 featured ARM-based Nvidia Tegra chips and the firm’s ARM-based version of Windows. These devices never sold in very good quantities and typically received rave reviews for their hardware design, but disappointing murmurs for the OS, which did not support traditional desktop apps. I, on the other hand, did enjoy my Surface 2 quite a bit as it gave me a distraction free writing experience, consistent performance, good battery life, and a balance of high end hardware features at a fair price.

The Surface 3 seems to follow in the same footsteps as its slightly-more-affordable-than-the-pro-model predecessors. It’s still built with Microsoft’s machined aluminum and magnesium casing for a premium look and feel, it’s still pretty thin and light, and it has a great screen, detachable keyboard, has great battery life, and now includes an Intel Atom x7 x 86-based processor. All starting for $499.

Wait, an Atom Processor?

If you’re unlucky enough to remember the days of Netbook dominance, the Atom named has been tainted for you and there’s no going back. Atom started off as the name for Intel’s awful low-power single-core barely-handles-web-browsing chips that debuted within 7-10 inch Windows-based “netbooks.” They were called netbooks for the same reason ChromeOS is called ChromeOS. Because web browsing is all it could really do.

The Atom x7 is Intel’s latest and greatest mobile chip, designed to bit fitted into 7-10 inch tablets like the Surface 3. There have been literally no performance reviews of this chip, as the Surface 3 is the only device I’ve heard of to be announced with it, but then again, if you’re going to be looking for a high performance system, you should probably be looking elsewhere anyway.

But it’s not going to be a slouch either. The X7 features four 14nm Airmont cores running at 1.6 Ghz stock and with the room to “turbo boost” up to 2.4 Ghz when the device demands higher performance. Intel’s new Airmont cores are essentially shrunken down Silvermont cores (Bay Trail), and as Anandtech discovered, these old Silvermont cores are actually quite capable, blowing away AMD’s quite capable A-4 chip, destroying the top end ARM chips, and even Intel’s own higher-voltage Pentium chips on occasion. Intel’s graphics performance was also notable, consistently beating AMD’s Radeon 8330 chip, and on several magnitudes less of a power draw. A dye shrink of Silvermont will result in lower power loads and probably slightly greater performance.

But that said, this is still an Atom chip, and it needs to be mentioned that this will not be a high performance machine. Most desktop games like Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and First person shooters will be unplayable on Intel’s graphics chip. Similarly, video editing, photo editing, and even those big-ass 50MB Excel spreadsheets, let alone SQL databases, will all suffer under the Atom processor. But, it can handle extensive multi-tasking, general home use Office documents, checking and composing e-mails, web browsing, and a few light game apps from the Windows Store. Which means almost everyone who doesn’t work from their computer. Once again, I want to stress that this is a replacement of the Surface 2, not a new type of Pro device.

New Inputs

Despite not being a Pro device, Microsoft has managed to shove in as many Pro features as it could. This new Surface is being released with a new Type keyboard, which shares the same surprisingly effective magnetic arch-building keyboard that the Pro 3 got. It will work with previous generation keyboards, but due to the Surface 3’s 10.8″ 3:2 form factor versus the Surface RT and 2’s 10.6″ 16×10 form factor, you’ll probably want to pick up a new keyboard so it’s now sloughing off the side and whipping around like a loose bandaid.

Speaking of that form factor, the Surface has retained the same high-quality high-color-fidelity screen as the Surface 2 and Pro 3, but it now comes with a strange high-DPI 1920 x 1200 resolution. This brings it pretty close in line with the DPI of the Pro 3. Considering the moderate increase in resolution and the relative power of the Atom X7’s Gen 8 graphic chip compared to the Tegra 4, I wouldn’t expect that we’ll run into any significant performance issues with the screen, given the use case I described above.

Microsoft also shoved in a digitizer in the screen, a new addition for the non-pro family, meaning you’ll be able to use a digital pen with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, similar to the Pro 3. I would imagine this is another N-Trig designed pen like the Surface Pro 3, not the Wacom variant provided with the Surface Pro 2. The design is almost exactly the same, with a OneNote button on top, two buttons along the side, but now the new pen includes the additional colors to match with your keyboard.

Some Strange Design Decisions

Microsoft only brought some of the design changes from the Pro 3 over to the new lower-cost variant. For instance, the device still carries the same silver/dark silver dual-tone casing as the Surface 2. The primary reason for this is that the Surface Pro 3 has a fan that vents out from the top, resulting in a more uniform magnesium-silver back panel to push the air up out of the casing, rather than into a camera assembly made of plastics. Since the Surface 3 will be fanless, this is not needed, and the old Surface 2 assembly with its dark grey camera assembly will be used.

We’re also missing the 150 degree hinge assembly that featured so prominently in the Surface Pro 3. With the Pro model, you can essentially pick an angle and it will sit there without too much wobble. With the Surface 3, we’re going back to a staged hinge assembly, albeit a 3-angle hinge. It’s an improvement over the previous model’s 2-angle hinge, with a 3rd angle that looks to be about 110 degrees or so.

Another odd decision is the replacement of the power connector. For every single Microsoft Surface product until now, they’ve used a proprietary magnetic connector of some kind. These connectors are nice because they snap in easily, don’t wobble, bend or break, and snap out easily when the device is yanked or knocked off a table.

However, this new model will be powered by an industry standard microUSB port. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s great because if you lose it, you’ve probably got about 40,000 extra microUSB chargers laying around. There’s no need to go out and buy a $70 charger, which is something most Apple users will know about and lament. However, we also lose some of the super-cool factor and convenience of a magnetic charger, which is a bit of a bummer. That said, with all the tech in this device, I’m sure they did it mostly to save on money. It’s way cheaper to use an industry standard than to custom build your own power brick.

Price and Value

So the million dollar question is whether it’s worth it. And that’s kind of an iffy question. $499 will get you the base tablet with 2 GB of RAM and 64 GB of SSD storage. Another $100 will get you twice the RAM and storage. But the biggest problem is that absolutely nobody will buy this for base cost. Nobody buys a Windows tablet expecting to use it only with touch. If someone wants a multi-media tablet, they’re going to probably buy an iPad or an Android tablet simply because the app store’s better. The only time you’d buy a Microsoft tablet is because you need Outlook, Word, Excel, or some sort of legacy program that only works on the Windows desktop. And that also means you’re going to probably want a keyboard as well.

And that’s where things get sticky. As usual, Microsoft is selling their Type keyboards for $130. Also, unlike the Pro 3, you won’t get the pen with the tablet. That would run you another $50. So the base price of a Surface 3 really comes down to $630, or $680 if you plan on using that pen technology. If you opt for the $100 upgrade, which gives you the specs you probably actually need for an x86 computer, you’ll be running up the tab at $730 – $780. At that price, Microsoft is running dangerously close to some excellent top end 2-in-1 laptops like the Yoga 3 (8GB RAM + 128GB SSD for $899.99) and HP Spectre x360 (4GB RAM + 128GB SSD for $899.99) which both run with the much more capable Intel Core i5 processor.

But Microsoft has never pitched the Surface brand as a budget brand. The Surface brand represents the best in technology and design, not necessarily in power per dollar. This device is slimmer, more portable, has a better calibrated and higher quality screen, high-end digital pen input, great battery life, and a potentially more beautiful machined metal design than either of the two options I mentioned. Furthermore, this is a premium Microsoft product, which guarantees its Nexus-like status regarding quick and responsive firmware updates and support. They’re also throwing in a 1-year subscription to Office 365 Personal ($69.99) to sweeten the deal a bit.

So is it a good value? Not really. You’re getting subpar specs for a high-to-mid range price. But this would be a great machine that would last an entire college career and still be kicking afterwards. It’d be a great living room input for some quick web access, recipe lookup, or to stream content to the TV and sound system. It’d be a great presentation companion for e-mail access, PowerPoint presentations, signing contracts, Remote computer access, or even the odd spreadsheet. Heck, I’d even imagine that this would be an awesome auto-shop companion that could run x86 diagnostic software and track purchases. Basically, this is the Surface Pro 3 for the non-Pro, appropriately enough. Like an Everyman’s Surface. It’s not cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a Surface Pro 3.

My Thoughts

Okay, maybe this header is a bit misleading, as if I was just channeling someone else for about 1500 words. The above are all my thoughts of course, but as I said above the break, I am considering a replacement for my Surface 2, and thus I am keeping an eye on all options. Will I spring for the appropriate replacement of a Surface 3?

Probably not.

The reason is more personal than you’d think. First of all, I will never use the pen. I guarantee it. My wife, who is in grad school, barely uses the pen. Second of all, I’ve realized that I need a bigger device. I love to use my computer in my lap, and my lap demands a wider device. This new Surface is actually less widescreen than the previous version, which is a big problem. I’d need to scrunch my legs into uncomfortable status in order to keep the laptop standing on my legs.

Third of all, the performance worries me. As someone who is starting to get into crafting videos on this website, I’d rather not have to use two different devices for the same article. With the Surface 2, I dealt with it. With my next device, I’m not going to want to.

I’m thinking that my next device will be something like the Yoga 3 or the Spectre x360, but once again, that’s just because of personal preference. I absolutely love the Surface keyboard and will miss it greatly. I love the portability of the Surface, the fact that I can tuck it under my arm while heading to my car and not worry about the weight or it dropping. I will miss these things greatly, should I move away from the Surface. Which I still haven’t decided yet.

I don’t mean to mention these things to dissuade you away from a device like this, but to place emphasis on how personal these buying decisions can be, and the kind of things I now think about as an experienced computer buyer. Either way, it’s great to have choice. I love the fact that I am torn between several different excellent models of computers, and you should love the choice as well. I applaud Microsoft for creating a device that is definitively different from the rest of the market, both in hardware decisions and price decisions.

Mike Lohnash