While Surface Pro 3 falls short of offering a true configurator for mixing and matching components during the online purchase process, it still provides more options than any previous Surface device. This time around, you can choose between product editions with different CPUs that span the range of Intel's Core mobile processor lineup. Which makes the most sense for you?
If you're familiar with previous Surface devices, you know that Surface RT and Surface 2—both of which are based on ARM chipsets—each offered only minimal configuration choices: Your only real choice was whether to get the 32 GB or 64 GB version of the product. The original Surface Pro was similar, though that product offered both 64 GB and 128 GB versions at first.
For Surface Pro 2, Microsoft expanded the possibilities greatly: With this version there were/are four product versions offering a choice between 64 GB, 128 GB, 256 GB and 512 GB of storage. And the two upper range versions offered 8 GB of RAM, compared to 4 GB on the two lower-end versions.
With Surface Pro 3, the firm takes the next logical step and finally offers microprocessor changes across what is now five available product editions. (With Surface Pro 2, each product edition utilized the same mid-level Core i5 processor.) So we see an interesting mix of processors, RAM and storage across the these five versions, with the entry-level Surface Pro 3 providing an Intel Core i3 processor, the two mid-level versions offering the same Core i5 processor (but different RAM and storage allotments) and the two high-end versions of course offering a Core i7.
Basic model breakdown
Here's a quick breakdown of each Surface Pro 3 model:
Intel Core i3, 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of solid state storage
Intel Core i5, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of solid state storage
Intel Core i5, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of solid state storage
Intel Core i7, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of solid state storage
Intel Core i7, 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of solid state storage
That seems pretty straightforward. But each component deserves at least a slightly longer explanation. Or a lot longer, in the case of the CPUs.
Since Microsoft's official specs sheet for the Surface Pro 3 doesn't identify exactly which processor it's using in each model, I had to ask around. To the average user, this stuff doesn't matter too much, but if you have specific needs, understanding which processors are available and how they compare to each other—and to the processor types in competing devices—is at least somewhat relevant.
Each is a 4th generation Intel Core "Haswell" processor. These are ultra-low-voltage (ULV) parts with dual cores and Hyper-Threading that utilize a 22mm die size. Each includes an integrated Intel HD Graphics chipset, which varies from processor to processor. There is no dedicated graphics option on any Surface Pro 3 model and perhaps that is something we'll see added in a future generation Surface.
Here's how the processor models break down per product edition:
Entry-level. The entry level Surface Pro 3 model offers a dual-core Intel Core i3 4020Y processor with Intel HD Graphics 4200. It offers a clock speed of 1.5 GHz.
Mid-level. The two mid-level Surface Pro 3 models both offer the same dual-core Intel Core i5-4300U processor with Intel HD Graphics 4400. It offers a base speed of 1.6 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 2.9 GHz.
High-end. The two high-end Surface Pro 3 models both offer the same Intel Core i7-4650U processor with with Intel HD Graphics 5000. It offers a base speed of 1.7 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 3.3 GHz.
As you might surmise from these numbers, each model represents a fairly significant performance boost over its preceding model's chipset, thanks in part to higher Turbo Boost possibilities, but also the bump in integrated graphics capabilities. It is worth noting, too, that none of these chipsets are particularly new: Each dates back to early 2013, and each is the same processor generation we saw previously in Surface Pro 2. In fact, the mid-level offering is identical to what Microsoft provided with Surface Pro 2. (This explains, in part, why I earlier referred to this product as a Surface "2.5" device; from a chipset perspective, it's the same as Surface 2.)
But there is a bit more going on here.
For starters, Microsoft is handling power management differently in this release, and that can impact both performance (bad) and battery life (good). For the first time, at least that I'm aware of, the Intel Core-based Surface Pro 3 lineup supports Connected Standby—or what is now annoyingly called InstantGo—meaning that if you use the device with the default Balanced power plan, you will see the same quick sleep and resume performance—and background software updating while the device power-sips while sleeping—that you can get with Intel Atom- and ARM-based systems.
In day to day use, the average user won't notice any performance issues at all, but they will notice that Surface Pro 3 sleeps and resumes nearly instantaneously, which is of course a good thing. But as Johnathan Gabriel—a noted Surface fan and the artist behind Penny Arcade—just noted in a blog post, if you're doing heavy graphics work, you will almost certainly want to get a higher-end, i7-based Surface Pro 3. I suspect the power management stuff has as much to do with his performance issues as does the chipset.
If you don't mind nixing Connected Standby/InstantGo, you can of course simply switch from Balanced to some other plan in Power Options. I've not tried this, but I think I might do so to test the differences. My guess is that this could dramatically reduce battery life, however. It will certainly spin up the fan more often.
Second, it's perhaps useful to compare the processors offered here with what Apple offers in its competing products. They are, after all, the benchmarks.
For MacBook Air, Apple offers a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 part with Turbo Boost speeds up to 2.7GHz, configurable to a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i7. Without looking up the model numbers, the clock speeds alone tell us that those are slightly lower-end parts that the corresponding Surface Pro 3 chips. But they're comparable.
For the 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple offers higher-end chips: a 2.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz) up to 2.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz). Again, without looking up the model numbers, it's clear that these are significantly more powerful than what's offered in Surface Pro 3.
Maybe I'm oversimplifying things here, but I'd say that while the Surface Pro 3 is architecturally a lot closer to the MacBook Air than the MacBook Pro, it also sits somewhat between the two Apple products from a specs perspective. Certainly, Surface Pro 3 "competes" with both in every sense of the word.
There's not too much to say about the RAM except that it is dual-channel LPDDR3. This is the same RAM that Apple uses in its MacBook Air lineup, but is slightly different than the DDR3L RAM that Apple uses in its MacBook Pro line. I'm not a hardware/RAM expert, but my understanding is that the LPDDR3 RAM used by Surface Pro 3 and MacBook Air is designed for devices that required advanced power management capabilities, whereas DDR3L uses slightly more power and is a bit less efficient.
I will sometimes refer to the internal storage in Surface Pro 3 as "SSD" storage, but there is no actual SSD drive in the device. Instead, it perhaps fairer to say that Surface Pro 3, like Apple's products and so many other competitors, utilizes some form of onboard, non-upgradeable/replaceable solid state storage. Whatever. The various storage allotments are clearly defined and easily understood.
What's more important here, I think, is the bugaboo that was raised sometime during the lifetime of the original Surface RT and Surface 2/Pro 2: Available disk space. That is, each device comes with some stated amount of onboard storage, but because Windows and whatever other software takes up a big chunk of it, the space available to the user is always quite a bit less than that reported amount.
Thanks to a variety of factors, Surface Pro 3 has more available disk space than the corresponding Surface Pro 2 models. A big part of this is the improvements in Windows 8.1 with Update 1, of course. But it's not just Windows, of course: Microsoft also bundles a bit of additional software on the device, like the Office 2013 installer.
Free disk space breaks down like so:
64 GB of storage: 37 GB of free disk space
128 GB of storage: 97 GB of free disk space
256 GB of storage: 212 GB of free disk space
512 GB of storage: 451 GB of free disk space
Which one would I get?
While I applaud the additional product editions in Surface Pro 3, this product line obviously needs to mature to the point where customers can use a real configurator to add and remove components at purchase time. For example, I'd like the higher-end i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM, which I feel are a bit more future-proof, but don't need more than 128 GB of storage. Such a device is not available for purchase today.
Given that, and my own needs, I feel like the sweet spot of the Surface lineup is with the i5 models, at least for those who will use the device primarily as a laptop/tablet. And if I were putting my own money down, I'd probably go with the second model—the Intel Core i5, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of solid state storage—despite a few misgivings about the RAM in particular. That would set me back $1128 with the necessary Type Cover—see Surface Pro 3: Let's Talk About the Price for a discussion on that important aspect of the device—which isn't unreasonable for a PC of this caliber.
Or would I? Honestly, given the quality of this device, I could see docking it and using it as a desktop replacement. In such as case, I'd go with the fourth model—the Intel Core i7, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of solid state storage—for $1678. That's $500 more expensive, but again, is not bad for what that is, assuming fan noise isn't an issue and that ULV chipset is strong enough for my virtualization needs.
So many questions. But this is early days, and your needs will of course differ from mine.