For the past two weeks, I've put the new Surface Pro 3 through the wringer, using it as often as possible and in as many ways as possible. And while my tests will continue through the product's initial release date later this month, I feel comfortable stating now that Surface Pro 3 is the premium Ultrabook/tablet hybrid that I've been waiting for. And it's an excellent, if expensive, choice for anyone who needs both types of devices.
Not that Surface Pro 3 doesn't come with a variety of compromises, of course. As I've explained throughout the 20+ articles I've written since Microsoft handed me a Surface Pro 3 loaner unit, this device isn't perfect, nor should it be expected to be. But in trying to do so much, Surface Pro 3 succeeds more than it fails.
That could not be said for its predecessors, which, while excellent in their own way, suffered from tiny 16:9 screens and thick, dense form factors. Surface Pro 3 erases these deficiencies, while continuing forward with the many elements that Microsoft did get right in Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2.
What's old is new again
Key among these are the high-quality magnesium construction, innovative cooling system, unique click-on keyboard connector, and integrated kickstand. All have been improved in Surface Pro 3.
The body is no longer painted black, but instead retains the natural soft gray color of the magnesium, which should help obscure scratches somewhat. (That said, when I look carefully, or through a magnifying glass, I do see a number of very small and light scratches on the back of my review unit. Something to keep looking at.)
The cooling system has been updated yet again to accommodate the device's new thinner and bigger form factor—see below—resulting in design that funnels heat through vents along every side of Surface Pro 3, instead of making one area hotter than the others. At least in theory: I notice that the upper right side gets hot first and hotter than the rest of the machine. The fan, which does kick in for what often seems like no reason at all—you know, like any Ultrabook, including Apple's—isn't obnoxiously loud.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Fan and Heat for more information.)
The keyboard connector itself hasn't changed, allegedly, and works with previous generation Surface Type Covers and Touch Covers. But thanks to a new magnetic latching system next to the connector, the new Surface Pro 3 Type Cover can now work in two ways, flat on the table or connected to the bezel magnets, resulting in a stable but angled typing experience. It's supposed to work like a laptop on your laptop, but I can't really make that work.
The integrated kickstand jumps from a two position design in Surface Pro 2 to a frictionless design with no hard stops that offers angles from 0 to 150 degrees. This means that virtually anyone should be able to find the perfect viewing angle for the device, and for those that wish to use the bundled Surface Pen to draw or write, those deeper angles are a natural. It's as stiff and solid as ever.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Continuous Kickstand for more information.)
And then there's the all-new stuff.
It starts, as it must, with the stunning but glossy 12-inch screen, which delivers a "pixel-free" 2160 x 1440 resolution in an unusual but very nice 3:2 aspect ratio. This is proportionally closer to an 8.5 x 11-inch piece of paper, or to the 4:3 Apple iPads. And after years of using 16:9 widescreen PC displays, it's a revelation. We've been sold on 16:9 screens because, you know, that's what movies use. As it turns out that's not even true, but whatever: Most people spend time on a PC trying to get work done, not watching movies. And a 3:2 screen provides a more useful and usable area of onscreen real estate that works well with both the desktop and the Modern environment in Windows 8.1.
(Read Surface Pro 3: "Pixel-Free" 3:2 Screen for more information.)
The device itself is paradoxically bigger than its predecessors, thanks to the screen aspect ratio, but also thinner and lighter. It is highly portable, and a delight to travel with, and the premium design of the body will appeal to image-conscious business travelers who are perhaps too used to condescending chuckles from MacBook Air-carrying fellow passengers.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Portability for more information.)
Indeed, if you're interested in turning the mocking around, you could mention that a Surface Pro 3 plus Type Cover weighs just 2.4 pounds, well under the 3 pounds of just a MacBook Air, or the 4 pounds of a MacBook Air plus iPad Air.
The speakers are surprisingly loud and clear. There are two, and they're mounted in exactly the right place: On the front of the device near the top. Too often with tablets, you get a weird mono sound effect (cough, iPad) that comes from one side of the device. Not with Surface Pro 3: This device can easily fill a large hotel room with non-distorted sound.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Audio and Video for more information.)
The power supply has been improved again, but is now incompatible with previous Surface devices (and vice versa). The new version retains the magnetic latching functionality from before, but now includes an insertable fin that helps both make and keep the connection.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Power Connection for more information.)
It's worked well in my tests, but given the new functionality in the power slot on Surface Pro 3—this is how a coming Docking Station will connect—I wish the USB port on the power supply led back into the device. It's just there to charge devices.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Desktop PC Replacement? for more information about the Docking Station.)
Inside, Surface Pro 3 is powered by an Intel Core processor, though which you get depends on which model you choose. (I highlight the choices below.) The review unit features a 1.9 GHz Intel Core i5-4300U processor, which is about as mainstream as it gets. But combined with the 8 GB of RAM and the speedy 256 GB SDD drive in this unit, Surface Pro 3 performed fantastically well no matter what I threw at it. That said, because the Intel processors used by Surface Pro 3 provide only integrated graphics options, hard core gamers will not be pleased.
There are some miscues in the hardware design, however. Because of the way the Type Cover can magnetically latch to the bottom of the screen in landscape mode, Microsoft moved the Windows button to the right bezel. (When attached, the Type Cover would have hidden the button and made it inaccessible.) It's too easy to hit by mistake, doesn't even line up with the Charms-based Windows button onscreen (a classic design mistake only Microsoft could make), and makes it hard to use the Surface Pen because the palm blocking technology doesn't appear to apply to this button. Oops.
Surface Pro 3 also continues the Surface Pro tradition of providing only a minimum of port expansion, which I think is a mistake. There is plenty of room on this device for more than one USB 3.0 port—seriously, Microsoft, its 2014—not to mention Ethernet and Thunderbolt. Adding them wouldn't hurt the experience and would only benefit many.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Hardware Expansion for more information.)
The Type Cover is both good and bad. On the latter front, it's an extra purchase, so you will need to factor its $130 cost into the already considerable cost of the Surface Pro 3 (which is discussed below). I'm including Type Cover in the review because I feel that this accessory is mandatory—you don't buy a portable, full-sized PC without a keyboard—and every Surface Pro 3 user will want one. Fortunately, it's excellent. And it's also available in a range of colors, including the cyan my review unit came with, black and purple. If you shop at Microsoft Store, you can also choose red, and Best Buy customers can get a nice-looking dark blue version.
As noted above, the new Type Cover can sit flat on the table as before or you can connect the top of it to the bottom of the Surface Pro 3 screen and enjoy an angled typing experience. The keyboard isn't as good as the typical ThinkPad keyboard—what is?—but it offers a good-enough typing experience with physical key travel and satisfying clicking sounds. I do sort of wish that they had made the keyboard bigger, given the bigger surface area of the new accessory. But it's serviceable.
More positively, the Type Cover's new trackpad is a joy, and is a considerable improvement over the unusable trackpad that marred all previous Type and Touch Covers. This one is much bigger, but not obnoxiously too-big like the silly units you find on MacBooks and other laptop, and it has a high quality glass-like sheen that is easy to find and use. (It's not actually glass, though there are apparently glass beads incorporated into it somehow.)
(Read Surface Pro 3: Surface Pro Type Cover for more information.)
Surface Pro 3 also comes with a new Surface Pen—it's not a stylus, as the pen—obsessed fans of such devices will tell you—that is superior in every meaningful way to its predecessor and made of much higher quality materials. It features one-click access to OneNote plus two buttons on the barrel for erase and selection modes, and the pen tip supports 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, more than enough for even the most strident artist. There's still no integrated pen holder in Surface Pro 3—the device is just too thin—but Type Cover comes with a handy little holder that I like a lot.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Pen Primer for more information.)
Tablet usage and power management
As a hybrid device that can perform the duties of both a laptop and a tablet, Surface Pro 3 has some hits and some misses. Power management in my prerelease unit is a decided downer, with wonky issues that seem to drain the battery too fast and prevent certain power management niceties. Microsoft is aware of the problems and says it will issue a fix ahead of the public release, so I'll give them a pass for now, at least on that bit.
Surface Pro 3 is notable in that it is the first Intel Core-based product to feature the sophisticated Connected Standby power management capabilities that debuted in Windows 8 and were previously available only in Atom-based tablets and devices. Thanks to the issues noted above, this doesn't always work properly at the moment. But the theory is that it will come on instantly, like a device, as long as it has been less than four hours since you used it. At the four hour mark, Surface Pro 3 turns into a PC and goes into hibernation, so it will take a few seconds to wake up, and you'll actually see the boot screen.
Fortunately, Surface Pro 3 boots from a cold start—a rarity—and resumes from sleep or hibernation in just seconds. The performance there is amazing.
As a tablet, Surface Pro 3 is a bit big. And it's a still a bit awkward to use in portrait mode despite the 3:2 screen. It doesn't look as tall and stretched as a 16:9 device does, but it's still big and tall. And the available reading apps, aside from what's built-into Windows, are a bit lackluster.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Reading Experience for more information.)
It is not, however, all that heavy. Sure, Surface Pro 3 is about half again as heavy (1.4 pounds) as an iPad Air (1 pound) when used as a tablet. But it's not necessarily "heavy." I think the awkwardness of the size of the device is a bigger issue for this usage.
(Read Surface Pro3: Tablet? for more information.)
Battery life, so far, has been on the low end of acceptable. Microsoft promised up to 9 hours of life while web surfing, but I've consistently seen just north of 7 hours, and that's true whether I'm watching HD videos in a loop or actually using the device as I would any laptop. I suspect part of the problem may be the power management stuff I mentioned above, so I'll be looking at this again after the Microsoft fix arrives.
Still, 7.25 hours of battery life—my rough average—is probably good enough for most people. It's certainly more than enough for any cross-country flight, though using Surface Pro 3 on a plane will be difficult unless you have enough space and are on a plane with decent tray tables.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Battery Life, Part 1 for more information.)
Windows + software
From a software perspective, Surface Pro 3 of course comes with Windows 8.1 with Update 1, which is an excellent and refined version of the original Windows 8, and one that nicely aligns with the hardware capabilities of the device. There's no crapware on Surface Pro 3, of course—one of the many benefits of buying direct from Microsoft—but also no free version of Office. There is an Office installer for those with an existing Office 365 subscription or whatever.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Windows for more information.)
Configurations, price and availability
As with previous Surface Pro units, Surface Pro 3 is only available in prebuilt configurations, and there is no option to customize your own machine with whatever processor, RAM and storage options you prefer. On the good news front, there are now more choices, including a range of Intel Core processors, something that wasn't possible with Surface Pro or Pro 2.
Surface Pro 3 – 1.5 GHz Intel Core i3-4020Y, 64 GB and 4 GB of RAM - $928
Surface Pro 3 – 1.9 GHz Intel Core i5-4300U, 128 GB and 4 GB of RAM - $1,128
Surface Pro 3 – 1.9 GHz Intel Core i5-4300U, 256 GB and 8 GB of RAM - $1,428
Surface Pro 3 – 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7-4650U, 256 GB and 8 GB of RAM - $1,678
Surface Pro 3 – 1.7 GHz Intel Core i7-4650U, 512 GB and 8 GB of RAM - $2,078
Note: These prices include the cost of a Type Cover ($130), as I feel that accessory is essential.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Understanding the Hardware in Each Version for more information.)
This is a nice mix, and while I'd like to see a true configurator at the online Microsoft Store, I suspect we'll get there eventually.
These devices are also quite expensive. The $1000 to $2100 price range you see above represents the very upper end of the PC pricing structure, so Surface Pro 3 doesn't just compete with MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it competes from a pricing standpoint with a few high-end PC devices like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
(Read Surface Pro 3: Let's Talk About the Price for more information.)
Some will lament that there's no viable low-end Surface—the long-awaited Surface mini was built but delayed at the last minute recently, and Surface 2 is a solution looking for a problem—but given the new Surface mantra of not competing directly with partners while creating new product categories, it might make sense. Certainly, the build quality is more BMW than Jeep.
Unfortunately, it may be a while before you can get Surface Pro 3. The mid-level i5 model I'm testing—with an Intel Core i5 processor, 256 GB and 8 GB of RAM for $1,428—is available now for preorder and will ship on June 20 alongside the other i5 model. But the i3 and i7 models won't ship until sometime in August.
Surface Pro 3 is a premium Windows 8.1 hybrid PC that can perform the duties of both a laptop and a tablet. It's more successful in the former category, which makes sense given its PC innards. But it's not a terrible tablet, despite its large size, though a better and bigger collection tablet-oriented apps would always help.
As an alternative to both tablets and laptops, Surface Pro 3 will appeal most to those businesses that are already buying both devices for their users—plus a smart phone—because they can save money while retaining their PC- and Windows-based investments.
For individuals, the Surface Pro 3 value equation is a bit murkier, given the price of the device and the simple fact that most will still want a separate tablet. But Surface Pro 3 is also a wonderful "stage" for Windows 8.1, as Microsoft used to say, a "no compromises" device that really does provide the best of both worlds in a way that is seamless, not awkward. Watching Windows 8.x and Surface Pro mature side-by-side has been interesting, and this is the first of these devices that I feel matches my own needs, the needs of many real-world information workers, and the original vision for this product line.
If you were on the fence because previous Surface Pro devices were too small, too thick, or just "off" in some vague way, take a look at Surface Pro 3. This is a well-made, nicely designed device that really does live up to its promise. And if you're looking to replace a laptop or Ultrabook, Surface Pro 3 absolutely deserves some consideration.
Surface Pro 3 is highly recommended. It's expensive, but in this case you really do get what you paid for.