Surface Pro 3: "Pixel-Free" 3:2 Screen

Surface Pro 3: "Pixel-Free" 3:2 Screen

A happy, happy surprise

Well, they finally did it: With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has delivered on a bigger-screened Pro device, as I and so many others had requested. But Surface Pro 3 exceeds expectations in this regard in several ways, with the 12-inch unit offering a "pixel-free" resolution of 2160 x 1440 and a 3:2 aspect ratio. These unusual qualities come together to provide a unique computing experience that could very well put Surface Pro 3 over the top.

With all previous Surface devices—Surface RT, Surface Pro, Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2—Microsoft delivered a 10.6-inch screen in a 16:9 aspect ratio. All but the original Surface RT were full HD displays, with a resolution of 1920 x 1080. This type of screen makes sense for a consumption-oriented tablet that will be used exclusively or nearly so in landscape orientation. But it's less optimal for productivity work and is oddly awful in portrait mode, where the vertical height of the screen and device appear oddly pronounced.

My complaints about the Surface Pro screens centered primarily around the size of the screen, as I felt that a 10.6 screen, while fine for consumption purposes or general tablet usage, was unacceptable in a Pro device. I pointed out, regularly, that the corporate standard for Ultrabook screen sizes is 13 inches, and that 11 inch Ultrabooks target children and home use. This is relevant, because the Surface team has promoted its Pro devices as "a PC ... not a consumer tablet, companion toy thing." (Surface RT/2, by comparison was marketed as "a tablet first, with some laptop use.")

I'm not unique or particularly insightful in pointing this out. In fact, it's all very obvious. And Microsoft's corporate customers have told them over the past year or more that they needed a bigger device than the Surface Pro/Pro 2.

While there are a lot of things that went into the design of Surface Pro 3, I'll get to some of the other innovations here, like the bigger but thinner design, in future articles. For now, let's just focus on that screen. It's quite interesting to me how different it is from the typical Ultrabook screen.

12 inches. In New Details Emerge About Bigger New Surface Pro, I wondered aloud about where this device would fall from a screen size perspective, reasoning it would fall somewhere between the 10.6 inches on Surface Pro 2 and the 13 inches on the typical Ultrabook. And sure enough, Microsoft found that 12 inches was the sweet spot: Anything smaller is too small for an Ultrabook and anything bigger is too big for a tablet. The new screen is 38 percent bigger than Surface Pro 2.

Pixel-free. Microsoft says that the 2160 x 1440 Surface Pro 3 screen is "pixel-free," which is really the same claim that Apple makes when it describes screens on its own devices as being "Retina": Individual pixels are too small for the human eye to see at a normal distance from the screen. The screen has 50 percent more pixels than Surface Pro 2.

3:2 aspect ratio. First, it has a nearly square 3:2 aspect ratio, something that is more akin to the iPad, say, than your typical PC laptop or Ultrabook. If you're used to looking at a modern portable computer, the screen will seem "tall" when used in the normal (for Ultrabook/laptop usage) landscape mode. It's optimized for productivity work—and even Visual Studio for you developer-types—instead of watching videos. Which, when you think about it, makes all kinds of sense.

Portrait mode. The 3:2 aspect ratio also means that Surface Pro 3 is more optimal for use in portrait mode, as a tablet. Here, the expectation is that you could use the device as a digital notepad with the bundled electromagnetic pen—another topic for a future article—much as you would an 8.5 x 11 inch pad of paper. (In truth, the screen is smaller than a piece of paper, and is perhaps about 80 percent as big). Yes, the device is on the big side for a tablet. But the thinness and lightness of Surface Pro 3 combine to make this less problematic than you may currently believe.

Smaller bezel. In New Details Emerge About Bigger New Surface Pro, I also noted that a smaller bezel would help Microsoft squeeze a larger screen into a smaller device. And sure enough, the Surface Pro 3 has noticeably smaller bezels around the screen, especially at the top and bottom (in landscape mode).

Display scaling. While the new Modern environment utilizes over a decade of screen scaling technologies and looks gorgeous on high DPI displays like that in Surface Pro 3, issues with desktop display scaling in Windows are, of course, legendary. Improvements since the release of Windows 8 have helped matters here somewhat—Panos Panay said that the screen is optimized for this scaling—but since the target audience for this device will be sticking to the desktop for much of the time, this is still an area of concern. The default display scaling is 150 percent, by the way.

Within the confines of a device that can be used as both a tablet and a laptop, the Surface Pro 3 screen is arguably ideal. I may personally prefer a bigger 13-inch (or even bigger) screen, but I think Microsoft struck the right balance with this one. And the 3:2 aspect ratio is an absolute surprise and a delight, something I never expected to see.

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