Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Good news, bad news

After two weeks with the Surface Pro 3, the good and the bad come into sharper relief.

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Surface Pro 3: after constant use, the dual personality of Windows 8.1 can grate. Brooke Crothers/CNET

The Surface Pro 3 has held up well after two weeks of constant use, but it's not the Holy Grail of hybrids.

First, the bad news -- which is old news, in a way, because it's about Windows 8.1.

Standalone tablet -- not: Maybe the US Internal Revenue Service has -- by some freak string of unintended consequences -- the right strategy.

Only now is the IRS finally upgrading to Windows 7 from Windows XP, as IRS commissioner John Koskinen said in testimony before Congress. (Streamed a little more than a week ago on C-SPAN.)

That's a good thing, in a way. The IRS won't have to deal with dual-mode Windows 8.1. By having two modes (desktop and "modern," aka, Metro-style), Windows 8.1 is kind of a jack of all trades and master of none. And this hurts the Surface Pro 3 experience.

Take Google's Chrome browser (see related note at bottom). It runs in "Windows 8 mode," which is 8.1's touch-friendly personality, but that mode is not really much different than Chrome's desktop variant.

As a consequence, much of the time, unattaching the keyboard is not really an option for me (I use Chrome a lot, like many other people). Other browsers like Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer are better optimized for touch in Metro mode but not enough to turn the tide.

Then there are other prominent Windows applications, like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office.

Adobe has had touch and scaling problems for a long time too, though the company is working to improve scaling and the touch experience on Windows 8.1. Microsoft Office has yet to be optimized for touch on Windows. I use Office 365 on the Pro 3 but only with Microsoft's Type Cover keyboard attached.

Yeah, I know, I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said a thousand times before about Windows 8.1, but the lack of a decent touch experience grates over time and has a big impact on the Pro 3.

Want other examples? I don't have the time or space to list them all, but it's all pretty much the same story.

A light, elegant touch laptop -- yes: Now the good news. It might be better to think of the Surface Pro 3 as an extremely thin and light (it's under 2 pounds) but powerful laptop with a touch screen when you need it.

In short, when the Type Cover keyboard is attached, I have few complaints. I can get work done with just about every major productivity application under the sun but also switch into passive, lean-back mode and use touch.

As long as you remember the productivity-first, tablet-second principle there's much less of a chance of being disappointed with the Pro 3.

Face it, Windows 8.1, like Windows 7 and Windows XP (as the IRS can attest), is still optimized for doing work with a mouse and keyboard.

It's a work in progress: The Surface Pro, Surface Pro 2, and Surface Pro 3 are still a work in progress. More so than, let's say, the MacBook Air, which has pretty much been set in stone for several years.

But it's a necessary experiment and I'm very willing to participate in it, even if it's not an entirely satisfying experience.

I used to believe that somebody, somewhere would someday invent the perfect hybrid. Now I'm not so sure. Apple has avoided the category to date. And companies like Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Asus, and Dell keep trying. But I've tried many of those products and find them less satisfying than Surface, even with its shortcomings.

Here's where Microsoft has succeeded: With the Surface Pro 3 the company has put more horsepower (aka Intel Core i5 and i7 processors) in a thinner space and lighter package (0.36 inches thick, 1.76 pounds) more elegantly than anyone.

And it's done this behind the glass, not under the keyboard like laptops have done for decades. That's a significant achievement.

A bona fide thin-and-light design goes a long way. So, it's a no-brainer to grab the Surface Pro 3 if I'm going to do work on the road. That alone is a big win for Microsoft.

Note about Google Chrome: Related to the Chrome discussion above, a footnote: Chrome is pretty ugly when first installed on the Surface Pro 3. The problem is, it's not tuned upon installation for the high-resolution (aka high DPI mode) Surface Pro 3 screen. So, you have to jump through some hoops (i.e., dive into Windows or Chrome settings ) to fix that. Not hard to do but not something your average, non-tech-savvy user would know about, or even consider.

Note about stylus: Finally, I should mention the stylus (which I don't use). There are artists and others who think that the Surface Pro 3 is great for using with a stylus.

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By the way, the Surface Pro 3 works great attached to an Apple Cinema display. Brooke Crothers/CNET

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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