Microsoft Surface 3: The Perfect Travel Device?

Don’t scroll: The answer is “Yes.” If you’re looking for a tablet/laptop and you’re on the go, just buy one now. Get the keyboard; maybe skip the pen.

Hardware

Once upon a time, I spent my life agonizing over hardware specs. I kept up with the latest processor architecture changes and worried about things like RAM latency. If you don’t know what any of that means, good. Here’s the gist: This thing works fine. I worried initially about the RAM (4GB on the high-end model, $599) and how that would translate to multitasking. It’s never been a problem, even with 10 Chrome tabs, a Word document, and a 1080p video playing. The Atom processor, once an underpowered laughing stock of a product line from Intel, has improved dramatically with this iteration and I don’t find myself waiting for my tasks to catch up to the speed I’m able to work. I’d love a faster SSD-based storage system, as the eMMC (like an SD card or USB thumb drive) is quite a bit slower and transferring large photos or videos from my camera or external hard drive can be a bit lengthy.

The 10.8” screen is a thing of beauty. The 1920×1280 display has just enough real estate without making things unbearably small. It’s also been rated as having among the best color accuracy among tablet displays so I feel confident editing photos on the device. The small display, compared to the 12.3” Surface Pro line, makes for a light tablet that fits easily in the hand. I couldn’t even imagine how useful I’d find the built-in kickstand. Having had two iPads (Gen. 1 and Gen. 4) previously, I’d always relied on an external screen protector to hold the display upright, but having an articulating kickstand has made things much simpler.

The cameras work. The keyboard is small, but it works. The pen works. Wifi works. It all just works, and it works together well.

The Pen

I think the pen was probably the part I was most looking forward to using. Before buying the Surface 3, I migrated my teaching planner to OneNote in an effort to be more organized at work. OneNote has an awesome interface that allows you to handwrite your notes. I thought I’d be using this more. I use it occasionally, mostly in meetings and other situations where I need to very quickly jot down one or two short thoughts. I find that I much prefer the clean look of typing longer notes and reminders with the keyboard if I’m given the choice. The pen stays in my messenger bag, rarely used. Still, if you’re drawing either professionally or just to pass the time, the pen is remarkably accurate and a really well designed tool. For some, the small keyboard might be frustrating and make the pen the more appealing option, but I’ve found that I enjoy the feel of the keys and my fingers have adapted well to the small layout.

Gaming

Nope. Go outside. Hit the gym. You have better things to do anyways.

Windows 10

So we come to the crux. For all the hate Windows 8.1 got, it was brilliantly implemented on the Surface 3 when it was released in May 2015. The blocky interface was perfect for a touchscreen and the option to switch to a more traditional desktop environment was a button press away. Windows 10, months after release, still feels like a bit of a half-measure. The first few weeks were particularly rough, and I seriously considered downgrading to Windows 8.1 more than once. Microsoft has been pretty consistently releasing updates, both for the larger Windows 10 environment and for the Surface product line specifically.

I imagine if I had bought the Surface 3 as a Window 10 product, I’d be pretty happy with it. Having bought it with Windows 8.1, I much preferred 8.1. I can’t think of any features that were “lost” in the transition from 8.1 to 10, but certain tasks seemed much easier. Why can’t we have an easily accessible Brightness slider?! Microsoft is committed to Windows 10 as a constantly updated “service”, so I’m sure more usability features will be added as time goes on.

Portability

This thing goes everywhere with me. At 1.37 pounds (a bit more with the keyboard), it’s almost an afterthought in my bag. My older laptop is a 15.4” gaming behemoth and it’s a LOVELY change being able to leave that at home if I want to get some work done on-the-go. The Surface 3 might as well be weightless in comparison. Even better, it’s replaced my daily planner and a gaggle of random printed documents that are easily scanned or photographed and cataloged in OneNote.

Battery life has been up and down, depending on the build of Windows 10 I’m running, but has been trending positively with recent iterations. Microsoft claims 10 hours, and that was certainly true on Windows 8.1. With Windows 10 early on, I was only getting five to six hours of usage. Lately with a number of firmware updates, I find eight to nine to be about average.

My favorite feature is the micro-USB port that is used for charging. If I find myself away from a wall outlet for a long period of time, like in a seat on a budget airline for 12 hours, I have the option of using an external battery pack like this one to extend the life of my device. While it’s on and being used, this slows the rate of internal battery discharge to a sip. When the screen is off, it charges the Surface 3 (albeit, slowly). On a five-day camping trip last summer, I brought it along to use as an e-reader and, with the battery pack, it lasted the entire five days. Battery anxiety is becoming something of an issue for a lot of people, myself included. I freak out a bit when my iPhone dies and I can’t plug it in to bring it back to life. I don’t have that worry with the Surface 3.


 

Is there any reason not to buy the Surface 3? Probably. If you’re a gamer or working with super-intense programs like AutoCAD or the Adobe Creative Suite, you’ll probably want something more substantial, like the Surface Pro 4 or a MacBook Pro. Value your shoulders? Snap it up. Running a shitty little website nobody reads? Perfect. Need a notepad and hate paper? Grab it. For me, it’s a device that fits into my life, rather than being something I feel I have to make adjustments to accommodate. And I find that invaluable.

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