With Surface Pro 3, Microsoft finally had a Surface tablet that made sense. The combination of a kickstand tablet with its detachable keyboard, stylus support, x86 processor, and full version of Windows made for a lightweight PC that was a good fit for all manner of mobile workers. While still not the device for everyone, Surface Pro 3 established a niche for Microsoft's PCs.
But this only represented a partial redemption. The non-Pro Surface line—meaning, the first generation Surface RT and the second generation Surface 2—never found market success. They used ARM processors and ran Windows RT, Microsoft's version of Windows 8 built for ARM. As such, they couldn't run traditional Windows software. In spite of this, they still sported a traditional Windows desktop (and specially recompiled versions of Office), providing an experience that was not quite Windows, but not pure tablet, either.
It wasn't immediately clear how Microsoft wanted to iterate the Surface line. When Surface Pro 3 was revealed, it wasn't joined by a corresponding ARM Surface 3. Instead, there was evidence of an 8-inch, ARM-powered Surface Mini that was mysteriously canceled at the last minute.
Today, we have the answer: Surface 3. But the name is almost misleading. This isn't just a new iteration of the Surface 2. This is Surface Pro 3... Lite.
Like Surface Pro 3, it has a large 3:2 aspect ratio screen, though it's a bit smaller, with a 10.8-inch diagonal and a 1920×1280 resolution, instead of 12.5 inches and 2160×1440.
Like Surface Pro 3, it has a magnesium body with a multi-position kickstand, though it's a bit simpler, supporting three discrete positions instead of a continuously variable one. It also, at last, ditches the Surface family's proprietary charging interfaces in favor of micro-USB charging.
Like Surface Pro 3, it supports stylus input with its integrated N-Trig digitizer, in addition to 10-point multitouch, though unlike Surface Pro 3, the pen is an optional extra that will cost $49.99.
Like Surface Pro 3, it has a range of accessories, including the all-important Type Cover keyboard/cover (which will cost $129.99) and a docking station. The latter includes a gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 3 and two USB 2 ports, a mini DisplayPort output, and an integrated charger, and it will retail for $199.99.
Most critically of all, like Surface Pro 3, it has an x86 processor and runs the full version of Windows 8.1. Instead of Surface Pro 3's Haswell processor, Surface 3 is the first system on the market to use Intel's Atom x7 processor, previously known as Cherry Trail.
The x7-Z8700 is a 64-bit quad-core processor with a base clock speed of 1.6GHz and a peak of 2.4GHz. The Cherry Trail CPU is an incremental revision of its predecessor, named Bay Trail; the move to a 14nm manufacturing process, from 22nm, should make it a little faster. The real work was done in the GPU: Cherry Trail's GPU uses the same building blocks as the GPU found in Intel's Broadwell processors, which should provide a healthy boost in graphics performance.
The processor is paired with 2 or 4GB RAM, with the former having 64GB and the latter 128GB of storage. The whole package weighs 1.37lbs, and Microsoft reckons it'll manage about 10 hours of video playback.
We're expecting to get our hands on a Surface 3 some time in the next few days. For now, spec-wise and design-wise, the Surface 3 already seems tremendously more compelling than the old ARM Surfaces. Surface 3 is just a baby Surface Pro 3; a little smaller, a little cheaper, but no longer the weird, incompatible non-Windows Windows system that it was when it had an ARM processor.
It's just Surface Pro 3's little brother. It can do everything that Surface Pro 3 can do—it runs the same software, and it can drive the same hardware—but it does so with lower specs and a correspondingly lower price. The 2GB/64GB unit will retail for $499. The 4GB/128GB version will cost $599. Microsoft is also including an option that the Surface Pro 3 doesn't have: integrated LTE, as a $100 option on both the 2GB and the 4GB units. The LTE versions will also support GPS/GLONASS positioning.
As an added sweetener, systems will come with a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal.
Pre-orders on the non-LTE units will open today through the Microsoft Store in most of the markets that the Surface family is currently sold in. Hardware will become available in some markets on May 5, and in all 26 by May 7. LTE availability through T-Mobile and Verizon will come later in the year.