OK, it's no surprise that Microsoft's new Surface Pro 3 ships with the very latest version of Windows. But the timing of these releases is interesting and, I think, not coincidental. With Windows 8.1 with Update 1, Microsoft is acknowledging that a big percentage of its user base still wants to use Windows efficiently via keyboard and mouse. And with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft is applying the same logic on the hardware side, providing a device that is a wonderful Ultrabook first, instead of a compromised sort-of tablet. More so than ever in the past, this software and hardware are made for each other.
I've written tons about Windows 8.1 with Update 1—in fact, you can and should buy my very inexpensive $2 e-book Windows 8.1 Field Guide for the full story—but it's not hard to express why this release is so important. After the almost insanely unilateral changes Microsoft made in Windows 8, it's been stepping back from the cliff in subsequent (free) upgrades. Windows 8.1 achieved an interesting parity, I think, by mostly denuding the Modern environment on traditional PCs while making it easier to ignore the desktop on multi-touch tablets and devices. And Update 1 finally took the first step towards making Windows feel natural again on traditional PCs. (More is coming, of course, in the form of a new Start menu alternative and floating Modern app windows.)
But Windows doesn't stand alone. It is served by desktop applications and Modern mobile apps, of course, by cloud services, and by the hardware on which it runs. And as was the case with Windows itself, the hardware in particular was a bit scattershot around the time of the initial Windows 8 release. PC makers clearly hedging their bets on multi-touch and delivering instead a number of largely non-compelling and compromised devices to market.
For its part, Microsoft tried, it really did. It made a huge bet on both the multi-touch tablet future and its ARM-based Windows RT variant, and failed mightily with both. Of the original Surface devices, only Surface Pro sold well (at least before massive discounts aimed at clearing out inventory), and it was late to market. So for the second generation devices, Microsoft delivered the Pro 2 unit right up front. And it only needed to fix a few things—primarily battery life—to carry forward.
But Surface Pro 2, as I've found, is still too much of a compromise. It's too thick and heavy to use comfortably as a tablet. Its screen is too small, and the wrong aspect ratio, to be acceptable to most professionals, whether they're IT pros, information workers, developers, or whatever. And Surface Pro 2 didn't offer enough customization. You were stuck with a mid-level Intel Core i5 processor, for example, no matter how much you spent.
Until now, we've been denied that nearly perfect Windows 8.1 device: no hardware is truly perfect, in the sense that it cannot be universally compelling for all people. We've seen a great multi-touch Ultrabook in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. And we've seen a great transforming Ultrabook in the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro. But they're not ... perfect. The X1 can't be used as a tablet. And while the Yoga 2 Pro can, it's thick and heavy, and the screen is too big.
But now we have Surface Pro 3. It's also not perfect, of course. But in the sense that compromise is not really a bad word, it strikes an amazing balance between all of the possible usage cases. It is the most perfect, if you will, of the Windows devices I've used thus far. And as you must know, I've used a ton of them.
Indeed, there is something wonderful that happens when you have a single device that can do it all from a Windows capabilities perspective. And Surface Pro 3 is that device. If you want to use it like a normal Ultrabook, go nuts: The keyboard and screen are excellent, you have your choice of screen angles, and the performance you expect from such a machine. But you can also use the responsive ten-point multi-touch screen, something you'll do more than you may believe, and not just in tablet mode. And Surface Pro 3 of course comes with that amazing electromagnetic pen, perfect for note-takers. Want to replace your desktop too? Soon, you can get the docking station.
So it's a complete solution, yes. But Surface Pro 3 is unique in that none of these experiences are particularly compromised. With Surface Pro 2, for example, you could do everything I mention above. But the screen is tiny. The device is too thick to use it as a tablet, and looks terrible in portrait mode regardless. And the battery life is OK, but not fantastic.
Surface Pro 3 improves on all of those things. And while I haven't had to a chance to actually use it docked, I did so with Surface Pro 2 for several months last year and found that it worked just fine, thank you very much. Given how this one is tracking, I expect the Surface Pro 3 docking situation to be even better. (And what I will be testing is docking Surface Pro 3 with the Plugable USB 3.0 docking station I did use with Surface Pro 2 before the official dock showed up.)
What makes all this possible, by the way, is Windows. The very latest Windows version does a particularly good job of letting you move seamlessly between usage modes—keyboard and mouse, multi-touch, pen, second screen, Ethernet or wireless, whatever—and mix and match as needed. All of which are supported by Surface Pro 3.
What this update really did was go a long ways towards making Windows 8.x finally usable and consistent with keyboard and mouse. So when you right-click on the Start screen using the Surface Pro 3 trackpad, or the pen, you get a familiar context menu. But when you tap and hold using your finger, you get the new touch-first Modern UI instead. It works both ways in the manner you expect. It works like you're working. (Almost) every time. (Again, work in progress.)
In Surface Pro 3, we see virtually all of the hardware one needs to make Windows 8.1 with Update 1 really sing. (Virtually, but not all. There's no GPS in Surface Pro 3, for example, and no 4G LTE option, both of which are frankly weird omissions.) Is it the perfect synthesis of hardware and software? The ultimate symbiotic relationship?
It's close. It's pretty damn close.