Surface Pro 3: Tablet?

Surface Pro 3: Tablet?

It's either the perfect hybrid or yet another compromise

One of the most common questions I receive about Surface Pro 3 is whether this device is suitable as a tablet. That will depend on your needs, of course, but it's fair to say that the device's large size and PC innards presents a problem for anyone who wishes to use this device as a tablet regularly.

It's an interesting question. But I think the place to start is in Microsoft's explanation of, and rationale for, Surface Pro 3. At the launch event earlier this week, Panos Panay walked us through a recent history of personal computing, in which the original assumption of three years ago was that the tablet was going to kill the laptop. But here we are three years later, he said, and looking out at the field of tech bloggers in the audience, he doesn't see tablets. He sees laptops.

"96 percent of people who use iPads also carry a laptop in their bags," he said. "I guess it's really 100 percent, we just can't prove it." So what happened? Ultimately, tablets really are about consuming content (movies, books, web sites, apps), whereas laptops are about getting work done (Office, Photoshop, etc.). You can do a bit of productivity on a tablet, and you can do a bit of consumption on a laptop, of course. But each device is optimal for only one side of that equation.

With previous Surface devices, Microsoft positioned the RT version at consumption: It was the tablet that could also run Office. Likewise, it positioned the Windows 8-based Pro version at productivity: It was an Ultrabook that could also be used like a (heavy and thick) tablet.

Most people want both things. They want the ideal consumption experience, where they can sit back and enjoy content on a multi-touch device. And they need to get work done, and for that they need a real hardware keyboard on a laptop running Windows. Mr. Panay described this in terms of a conflict. "What is it that I'm supposed to buy," he asked semi-rhetorically.

So now we have Surface Pro 3, with a new design that is aimed at a slightly place than its predecessors. That is, it's not just an Ultrabook that can be used occasionally like a tablet. It is one device that can do both things. It can be both a tablet and a laptop.

That's the theory, anyway.

Here, I'm going to focus on just the aspects of Surface Pro 3 that are related to tablet usage: I'll look at laptop usage in a future article. So how does it measure up ... as a tablet?


On the good news side, Surface Pro 3 has many features and attributes combine to make for a very nice tablet experience:

Thin. The device is indeed thin, at just 0.3 inches thick. That's just a bit thicker than the iPad Air, which comes in at 0.29 inches thick. Seriously, you should be amazed by that.

iPad Air (top), Surface Pro 3 (bottom)

Gorgeous screen. The Surface Pro 3 screen is absolutely gorgeous, with better-than-HD resolution and responsive multi-touch capabilities. It is oriented in landscape mode by default, but can be used in portrait mode as well; the latter usage is better than with 16:9 devices, and thanks to advances in Windows 8.1.

All-day battery life. While devices like the iPad Air get slightly better battery life (10 hours), the 9 hours of rated battery life for Surface Pro 3 is both comparable and worthy of the moniker "all day battery life."

High-quality pen. Surface Pro 3 exceeds the capabilities of all competing, non-Surface Pro devices with its high quality and responsive electromagnetic pen, which is bundled with the device and makes note-taking both efficient and a joy. The OneNote integration is amazing.

Kickstand. Every tablet should have a kickstand. It lets you rest the device at any angle so you can consume content without having to hold the device, albeit only in landscape mode.


On the minus side of the equation, Surface Pro 3 is also a compromise of sorts—as a hybrid PC, it pretty much has to be—and there are certainly some aspects to this device that make it less than efficient as a tablet. These include...

Heat and fan noise. Microsoft correctly touts the fact that the Surface Pro 3 is the thinnest Intel Core-based device in the world, but the downside to its PC innards are that it generates a lot of heat and requires a fan. The device can get warm, and the fan cranks up sometimes. Does it happen in tablet mode? Actually, not so far in my experience. But while iPad Air can of course get warm too, the Surface Pro 3 is still warmer. And it does have a fan.

Weight. At 1.76 pounds (800 grams), Surface Pro 3 is an amazingly light Ultrabook. But that's heavy by tablet standards. An iPad Air weighs just 1 pound (469 grams), or just a bit more than half the weight of Surface Pro 3. It's very noticeable, and for many people will make the Surface Pro 3 untenable for long rounds of use while standing up or whatever. That said, most tablet usage probably happens with the device propped up on a lap or a desk, and the bundled kickstand (noted above) can help obviate this issue.

Size. From a size perspective, the Surface Pro 3 nicely cuts the difference between your typical tablet (iPad Air, with a 10-inch screen) and your typical Ultrabook (with a 13-inch screen). Based on just a few days of use, I can say that it's very suitable for laptop-like usage. But it's much bigger than the typical tablet. And it will be unwieldy for some.

iPad Air (top), Surface Pro 3 (bottom)

Form factor. The 3:2 screen on the Surface Pro 3 is a big improvement over the 16:9 screen on previous Surface devices and most PCs. But it's not quite as ideal, in tablet mode (particularly in portrait orientation) as the iPad Air's squatter 4:3 screen. Put simply, the Surface Pro 3 screen is not as "tall" and weird looking as are 16:9 screens. But it's still a bit big and tall. And a bit weird looking. Again, it's a compromise.

To understand what I mean on that last point, consider these two comparison images. In this first image, you can see a 3:2 aspect ratio in red and 4:3 in black. Both look just fine.

But when you flip it around to portrait, things get visually elongated, especially in the 3:2 screen.

Final tally

It's not a deal-breaker, but when you combine that last issue with the size and weight of the Surface Pro 3, you arrive at a device that is not really ideal as a tablet. It just isn't.

It's not unusable as a tablet. I'd argue that a device like the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro is in fact unusable as a tablet, because it's too big, too heavy, and its 16:9 screen is terrible to use in portrait orientation. The Surface Pro 3 barely flies in under the radar, by comparison. It's not unusable, but it's not ideal.

And this brings me back to that original vision statement for Surface Pro 3. It's supposed to be one device that can do it all and be both a laptop and a tablet. And the truth is, it can do that. Assuming that your own usage is tilted a bit to the laptop (productivity) side of the equation and not the tablet side. If you were going to carry both a laptop and a tablet in your bag, the Surface Pro 3 could perhaps be a reasonable alternative to both.

There is of course one more thing to consider. When you purchase an iPad Air, or an Android-based tablet, or even a Windows tablet, you do so with the understanding that there is some kind of support ecosystem in place where you can find the apps you want, the content you want, and access to the services you use. Sadly, this is an area where Windows falls woefully short of both iPad and Android, and while that's no fault of Surface Pro 3, it is absolutely a strike against it in the tablet rankings. You can simply do so much more with an iPad or Android tablet than you can with Surface Pro 3 (from an apps/content/services perspective).

So it may in fact make more sense to carry both an Ultrabook and an iPad Air with you, weight be damned. But understand that an iPad Air (1 pound) and a MacBook Air 13 (3 pounds) weigh 4 pounds together in a bag. That's double the 2 pounds of a combined Surface Pro 3 plus Type Cover.

Decisions, decisions.

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