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A full sized USB 3.0 port, mini Display Port and a microUSB port for charging adorn the right side along with a headphones port. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
Anyone familiar with Microsoft’s other Surface tablets will instantly recognise the Surface 3. It looks just like the Surface RT and Surface 2 before it, with a grey metal body, three-position kickstand and a capacitive Windows button.The Surface 3 is also 2mm thinner and 54g lighter than its predecessor, at 8.7mm thick and 622g in weight. Compared to most tablets it is both thick and heavy – the iPad Air 2 is 6.1mm thick and weighs 437g – but it is slim and light for a full PC. The Surface Pro 3, for instance is 9.1mm thick and weighs 800g, while even Apple’s thinnest and lightest MacBook is 13.1mm thick and 920g.The Surface 3 has a smaller screen than the Surface Pro 3, but has the same 3:2 ratio as its bigger brother. Most Windows laptops and tablets use the wider 16:9 or 16:10 ratio, which is better for video consumption but worse for browsing sites and reading text.The 10.8in full HD screen has wide viewing angles and is relatively crisp for a PC, but isn’t in the same league as many tablets or high-end computer screens that have twice the resolution and higher pixel densities such as the iPad Air 2, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S, Apple’s MacBook, Dell’s XPS 13 or the Surface Pro 3.
Microsoft hasn’t fixed the fundamental problem with Windows and high resolution (HiDPI) displays yet – I’m told Windows 10 will do that – which means how applications look on the screen is a bit hit and miss.Windows apps downloaded from the Microsoft store look crisp as do some standard applications such as Google’s Chrome. But many do not take advantage of high resolution icons and text. As a result programs such as Evernote look awful with blurry icons, menu buttons and text.The Surface 3 comes with a copy of Microsoft Office 365 personal, which is a nice added extra and works very well on the tablet.
The Surface 3 is powered by Intel’s Atom X7 1.6GHz quad-core processor, which is the chip maker’s latest low-power processor for mobile devices. It is a very different animal to the poorly performing Atom chips used in netbooks circa 2007.General computing performance is solid. The Surface 3 feels snappy and handled most things without issue. Light Photoshop duty was fine, as were standard office duties. It can also support a second screen through the mini DisplayPort – connecting a standard 22in monitor worked well enough, but made the Surface 3 a bit sluggish, as did opening over 15 tabs in Chrome.The Surface 3 is completely fanless, however, which is impressive given the performance. It is silent and even when installing apps while attempting to write this review it barely got warm.Also notable is the inclusion of a full size USB 3.0 port, which makes connecting accessories, mice or just about anything very easy – a big bonus for a full PC. A docking station is promised for later in the year, which will add further ports and utility as a desktop computer replacement.
Microsoft’s proprietary magnetic charging connector has been replaced in the Surface 3 with a microUSB port. The tablet ships with a high-powered microUSB charger, but it can be charged with any USB charger.It charges quite slowly with the charger in the box when in use – adding only 5% in about an hour. It will charge even slower with a less powerful USB adapter. A full charge takes three to four hours when in standby.The battery lasts for around seven hours of general computing in my testing, which is far from the 11-plus hours of battery offered by ARM-based tablets but is good enough for a day’s work.
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The keyboard is thin but the keys have decent feedback and are backlit for working at night. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
The Surface 3 does not ship with a keyboard – it is a £110 extra. I would call it optional, but it’s not really. Without the keyboard the Surface 3 is a mediocre tablet. With the keyboard it’s an excellent hybrid.The keyboard acts as a cover for the screen, magnetically attaching to the side of the Surface 3. It has full-sized backlit keys that, while slim, have a decent amount of travel. It is very clicky though, and is noticeably louder than most other laptop keyboards.The trackpad is solid, if a bit small, but supports two-finger scrolling and other standard gestures.The Surface 3 also has an optional pressure-sensitive stylus costing £45. It is accurate, feels like a pen and rivals a dedicated Wacom tablet making drawing on the screen or hand writing a pleasure, but is very much optional.
The Surface 3 has an eight-megapixel camera on the back, which works well enough for a tablet, but isn’t worth writing home about. The front-facing 3.5-megapixel camera is solid for video calling.
The Microsoft Surface 3 costs £419 with 64GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, or £499 with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM, available on 7 May.
The Surface 3 is Microsoft’s best compromise between price, size and power yet. As a tablet it performs admirably – not as good as dedicated tablets with longer batteries, crisper screens and slimmer profiles, but good enough.The situation is similar when it comes to using the Surface 3 as a laptop replacement. It’s not as easy to use on a lap, and isn’t as powerful as similarly priced laptops, but it does the job well enough.The biggest issue is that at £419 without the £110 detachable keyboard it’s really not all that cheap. The Surface Pro 3 with a better screen, faster processor and similar battery life comes with a keyboard for £639.Despite that the Surface 3 is the best jack of all trades yet and is arguably a better work machine than an iPad with a keyboard case.ack in July 2013, a few weeks after Edward Snowden’s revelations about internet and mobile-phone surveillance began, I wrote a column that began: “Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world.”
The spur for the column was my realisation of the extent and astuteness of Snowden’s choice of what to collect and reveal. His was not some opportunistic smash-and-grab data heist, but a considered, informed selection of cases where he thought that the National Security Agency was violating the US constitution and/or circumventing its laws. Snowden was clearly no stereotypical left-wing dissident; he seemed closer to what US constitutional lawyers called an “originalist” – someone who regards the constitution as a sacred, inviolable document that citizens – and their governments – must continue to respect and adhere to. If Snowden were in the US today, I suspect he would be a supporter of Rand Paul.What Snowden did was careful and considered: he identified examples of what he regarded were unconstitutional activities on the part of the NSA and then downloaded documentary evidence of these activities that would corroborate his judgment. Given the staggering scale of the activities revealed, I remember thinking that it would take us a long time to realise the full extent of the surveillance mesh in which we are entangled. So it has proved.
But a few recent revelations suggest that we may now be getting down to bedrock. Two concern the consummate hacking capabilities of the NSA and its overseas franchises. The first – which came not from Snowden but from Kaspersky, a computer security firm – showed that for at least 14 years a unit in the NSA had succeeded in infecting the firmware that controls hard disk drives with malicious software that is able to persist even through reformatting of the disks.Firmware is computer code embedded in a read-only silicon chip. It’s what transforms a disk from a paperweight into a storage device. The hack is significant: the Kaspersky researchers who uncovered this said its ability to subvert hard-drive firmware “surpasses anything else” they had ever seen. Being able to compromise firmware gives an attacker total control of the system in a way that is stealthy and lasting, even through software updates. Which means that the unsuspecting victim can never get rid of it. If you think this has nothing to do with you, the compromised drives were manufactured by most of the leading companies in the disk-drive business, including Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba, IBM, Micron and Samsung. Check your laptop specifications to see which one of these companies made the drive.The second revelation, last month, came from a GCHQ presentation provided by Snowden and reported in online publication the Intercept. Documents showed that a joint NSA/GCHQ team had hacked into the internal computer network of Gemalto, the world’s largest manufacturer of sim cards, stealing, in the process, encryption keys used to protect the privacy of mobile communications internationally.
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Gemalto makes the chips used in mobile phones and credit cards and numbers among its customers AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and 450 other mobile network providers. It currently produces 2bn sim cards a year.If the attempted breach were successful, it would give security agencies the potential to monitor covertly the mobile phone communications of a large portion of the world’s population. Gemalto has conducted an investigation which concludes that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that an operation by NSA and GCHQ probably happened”, but that the attack “only breached... office networks and could not have resulted in a massive theft of sim encryption keys”. And even if the intruders had stolen encryption keys, the company claims that “the intelligence services would only be able to spy on communications on second generation 2G mobile networks. 3G and 4G networks are not vulnerable to this type of attack.”Oh yeah? The implication of these latest revelations is stark: the capabilities and ambitions of the intelligence services mean that no electronic communications device can now be regarded as trustworthy. It’s not only your mobile phone that might betray you: your hard disk could harbour a snake in the grass, too.No wonder Andy Grove, the former boss of Intel, used to say that “only the paranoid survive” in the technology business.