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Microsoft's Surface 3 is a $499 tablet that could be a full Windows laptop

Third time's a charm?

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Microsoft is back with a brand new Surface 3 tablet, but this time things are a little different. While the original Surface RT and Surface 2 tablets didn’t let you run traditional Windows applications, Microsoft is ditching ARM processors and Windows RT to bring a full version of Windows 8.1 to its new Surface 3 with an Intel Atom chip. If you use Chrome, iTunes, Steam, Photoshop, or the thousands of other desktop apps available in Windows then you’ll finally be able to use them on a non-Pro Surface tablet. Microsoft has recognized its confusing mistakes and it’s moving on. Windows RT is a distant memory, a bad nightmare Microsoft wants to forget. Surface 3 will start at just $499, and it's available to pre-order today with devices shipping on May 5th in the US / Canada and May 7th internationally.

The first thing I noticed about the Surface 3 when I got an early look at it is how similar it is to its predecessor. Microsoft still wants its Surface line to be somewhere between a tablet and a laptop, but the result is usually a tablet that really wants to be a laptop. That's no different this time around. The Surface 3 has the same silver magnesium casing, a similar thickness, and the smaller roughly 10-inch display you’d expect from Microsoft’s basic Surface offering. At first glance it looks like Microsoft has simply rebadged its unsold stock of Surface 2 tablets and squeezed a fanless quad-core Atom processor inside. That’s a fair assessment until you look a little closer and find the subtle changes here.

Microsoft Surface 3 hands-on photos
While the Surface 2 and Surface RT before it used a 10.6-inch display with an awkward 16:9 aspect ratio, Microsoft is improving this for the Surface 3. The new tablet uses a 10.8-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. That might sound like a small difference, but it actually makes it a lot more usable in portrait orientation, and it brings it closer to the tablet experience you expect from an iPad competitor. It doesn’t really sacrifice the way you use the Surface as a laptop either, so it’s a good move all round.

Surface 3 kickstand

Elsewhere, there are more and more signs of subtle design changes and tweaks like the new Microsoft logo at the rear. Disappointingly, the Surface 3 doesn’t borrow the same adjustable kickstand from the bigger Surface Pro 3, but it does introduce a three-stage kickstand. During my limited testing, I found that it wasn’t ideal for lap use, and I preferred the adjustability found on the Surface Pro 3. The angles on the Surface 3 kickstand are a good stop gap, but moving your screen out of the way of glare or just simply positioning it at a comfortable angle could be a challenge in daily use.

No adjustable kickstand like the Surface Pro 3

To help with lap use, Microsoft is upgrading its smaller Surface Type Covers to accommodate the Surface 3. Just like the Surface Pro 3, they snap into place underneath the screen with magnets to help make the keyboard a lot more sturdy in your lap. While you can use the new Surface 3 Type Covers on the Surface Pro 3, and vice versa, the difference in size will make it an odd experience. Likewise, the older Surface 2 covers are still supported, but the screen size change means they won’t fit snugly. There’s a variety of colors, including a new bright red option that looks more orange than red. It's gorgeous.

Microsoft Surface 3 hands-on photos

One of the selling points of the Surface Pro lineup is the stylus, and Microsoft is now brining this to the Surface 3. It’s the same pen found on the Surface Pro 3, and it works identically. You can click the top to activate OneNote, and inking appears to be smooth and accurate like the Surface Pro 3. There are also new color options for the stylus to match the Type Covers, with blue, red, black, and silver all available. Just like the Type Cover, Microsoft isn’t bundling the Surface Pen with the Surface 3. That’s surprising as the company does supply a pen with the Surface Pro 3, but if you want one you’ll need to pay $49.99. While the Surface 3 starts at $499 for the base 64GB model, the Type Cover ($129.99) and Pen ($49.99) bring the total price to nearly $680 if you want the full capabilities, or nearly $630 if you only want to add a keyboard. Compared to the 64GB iPad Air 2, that’s only an extra $30 for the keyboard so it’s competitively priced. Surface 3 covers pens

If you’re an Android or Windows Phone user then you’ll be pleased to hear the Surface 3 now has a Micro USB charging port. Microsoft isn’t opting for USB Type-C like Google or Apple just yet, but the port swap does mean you can charge the battery using your normal phone charger. You’ll still get a full-size USB port, microSD reader, and a mini DisplayPort, so there’s plenty of room for connectivity. Speaking of connectivity, there’s even an LTE option (starting at $599) that will ship soon, with support for nano-SIM cards. Both the standard Surface 3 and Surface 3 LTE models will get a free Windows 10 upgrade and also come pre-loaded with a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal which includes full Office apps and 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage.

Microsoft is really aiming the Surface 3 at students and those who don’t need the full power of the Surface Pro 3. During my brief testing I didn’t notice any major performance issues with the 4GB of RAM model (2GB is the base), but I’m sure that most Steam games won’t run on this tablet and Photoshop or any video editing apps will likely strain its abilities. If you're just surfing the web and editing documents then it should be just fine for basic tasks. Microsoft’s decision to drop Nvidia’s Tegra processor in favor of Intel’s Atom could have an effect on battery life, though. It’s hard to tell right now, but Microsoft says you’ll get up to 10 hours of video-playback. We’ll be reviewing the Surface 3 in the coming weeks, so we’ll find out soon whether Microsoft’s latest tablet is really third time a charm.

Microsoft Surface 3 hands-on photos