Surface Pro 3: Six Months Later

Surface Pro 3: Six Months Later

It's a keeper

On June 20, 2014, Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3, and the company has since filled out the product lineup with additional models and dramatically expanded availability around the world. I've been using Surface Pro 3 since day one—which actually dates back to May—and was thinking it may be time to follow-up my Surface Pro 3 Review with some longer-term thoughts.

And Surface Pro 3 certainly warrants this attention. It is in many ways the first Surface device that truly meets the needs of customers, for starters. Where earlier ARM- and Intel-based Surface devices hit at that too-small but iPad-like 10-inchish form factor, Surface Pro aspires to be a real Ultrabook alternative. This was the right decision, and as Microsoft notes in its marketing, Surface Pro 3 is indeed "the tablet that can replace your laptop." My concern is that it's also the tablet that can't replace your tablet.

So let's get the negative stuff out of the way first.

The central problem with Surface Pro 3 is the problem with any previous Surface device, or any Windows tablet for that matter: The tablet ecosystem is still very immature, and lackluster compared to what's available on Android or iOS. Yes, the basics are there, and that may be enough for some people. But those complaints about app availability that critics routinely cart out about Windows Phone are far truer of Windows 8. And I've come to understand that the benefits of having one mobile device that can do the jobs of two others are outweighed by the reality of such devices: You're better off using Surface Pro 3 as an Ultrabook and carrying an iPad or Android tablet too.

The lack of at least a second USB port is inexcusable on such a premium/professional device. The fan can be a bit annoying on the mid-level i5 model I have, and I'd imagine the i7 versions are even worse. (And I have to imagine that since Microsoft has declined my request for a short-term review of such a device.)

And while I laud the move away from those tiny widescreen displays on previous Surface devices, the Surface Pro 3's 3:2 12-incher is non-ideal for any number of reasons. It's still too small, for starters: Business-class Ultrabooks have 13-inch (or bigger) screens. Its non-standard resolution makes it hard to match it with external monitors in a desktop replacement scenario. And its super-high-resolution is still challenged by the ineptitude of the Windows desktop environment, and the inconsistent scaling can be maddening. The screen may be the thing I struggle with the most even though it is paradoxically one of the bigger improvements over previous Surface models too.

It's not all bad, of course.

Surface Pro 3 is one of the most wonderfully travel-friendly devices I've ever used: You throw it in a bag and barely even notice its weight or heft. When I'm heading out for a business trip, the Surface Pro 3 is my first choice (and my only choice, really, unless I'm reviewing another comparable Windows device at the time).

This isn't unique or new to Surface Pro 3, but now that I've experienced a kickstand, I hate not having this nicety on other tablets. No, not nicety. It's a requirement. Love this.

It doesn't get enough press, but it's worth mentioning that Microsoft sells Surface—as it does with various Signature PCs—sans crapware. Evaluating recent PCs, like the HP Stream laptops at the low-end or the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro at the high-end, I'm frustrated by how much crap these companies pour into their machines. Surface Pro 3 isn't like that, and it offers the clean, pristine Windows experience Microsoft has always provided, but which PC makers have always royally screwed up.

Some have complained about the Type Cover being sold separately, and while it's fair to point out that no Surface Pro 3 is complete without such a purchase—factor in an additional $129, in other words—this also gives you a choice of color. I think this kind of personalization is important, as it helps endear the device to an individual, and if anything I just wish there were more color options.

The Microsoft tagline I mentioned earlier—"the tablet that can replace your laptop"—may fall short in some ways, but it also undersells Surface Pro 3 in another: Using the Surface Pro 3 Docking Station, this device can also replace your desktop PC. Yes, you'll suffer a bit from fan noise and the display/scaling weirdness I mentioned earlier. But for people (or companies) with constrained budgets or space, having a single device you can use at a desk at work and on the go has some benefit. Most Ultrabooks are not natively dockable in any reasonable way, but the Surface Pro 3 was designed for this usage. So here we have a tablet that is not a particularly good tablet. But it's a great Ultrabook and a pretty desktop PC too. Weird, eh?

I was worried a bit about the durability of this device, and of course various Surface tablets have come under scrutiny for scratches, paint issues and the like. I don't baby this thing at all, have never used a case or cover, or whatever. I just toss it in the bag and go. And examining it closely today to make sure I haven't missed anything, I see normal wear and tear: some discolored scuffing, some tiny and hard-to-see scratches. The Type Cover collects cat hair and has some brown discoloration (from the oil on my skin, presumably), which stands out thanks to its light blue color. The Surface Pro Pen holder, miraculously or by good design, is as rock-solid as ever. I had expected to lose that thing months ago.

Given the evolution back to desktop computing we're seeing in Windows 10, I would like to see the Surface team follow suit and release a true Surface Ultrabook next year, or at the very least a 13- or 14-inch variant of Surface Pro 3 that offers a real hardware keyboard as an option, and not just the constrained Type Cover keyboard we have to use today. But Surface Pro 3 already takes important steps in that direction and the device that Microsoft delivered in 2014 is a good one, even a great one.

In many ways, the highest compliment I can pay any digital device is by using it regularly. And I do continue to use Surface Pro 3 regularly, despite some complaints. That I find myself working around some of the limitations—using a portable USB hub on the road, for example, or using a hardware Bluetooth keyboard with the device while at home—is a testament, of sorts, to how much I really do like it. Still.

 

PS: I'll just mention this here because I know someone will do so if I don't. I didn't mention the Surface Pro Pen as a benefit because I don't use a pen with my PCs. Those who need such functionality don't need me to tell them about it. --Paul

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