Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: The best Surface yet is more than a tablet, less than a laptop

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.1
  • Features: 9.0
  • Performance: 8.0
  • Design: 8.0
  • Battery life: 8.0

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 17 user reviews
Review Date:

The Good The Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter than the previous two versions, despite having a larger 12-inch display and higher screen resolution. A new kickstand makes it easier to set up and use, and the keyboard cover remains a best-in-class example. The Surface Pro 3 is now optimized for a digital pen, which is included.

The Bad That excellent keyboard cover is not included in the base price, and its improved touchpad still doesn't measure up. The chassis lacks pen storage, and even with tweaked kickstand and keyboard hinges, the Surface Pro 3 still doesn't fit perfectly on the lap.

The Bottom Line While the new Surface Pro 3 is Microsoft's best PC to date, it's more successful as a tablet than a laptop replacement.

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Tablets are great for consuming entertainment, while laptops and other full PCs are required to actually create those works, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Some substitute the charged word "productivity" for creation, but the pitch is the same. You need one device for A, B, and C, and another for X, Y, and Z.

That means there's a sizable group of people out there spending at least part of the time lugging around a laptop and a tablet simultaneously. I've been guilty of that, usually packing a 13-inch ultrabook or MacBook Air and an iPad into my carry-on bag for airline flights.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

With the new Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft, the software powerhouse (and occasional hardware maker) says it finally has the single grand unified device that will satisfy both the creation and consumption instincts equally. You'll feel just as at home watching a movie or reading a book as you will editing video footage or writing your novel.

That's largely the same pitch, of course, we got for the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 tablets, which points to the difficulty in translating the full Windows 8.1 experience freely between a laptop and tablet. Dozens of our hands-on reviews of devices ranging from 8-inch slates to 13-inch two-in-one hybrids back this up, as does the mixed reception to the first two generations of the Surface Pro.

Both of those devices, as well as the Surface Pro 3, at least begin with the right idea and smartly lean toward the laptop side of the tablet spectrum, including Intel Core i-series CPUs and keyboard covers designed to feel more like laptop keyboards.

With the Surface Pro 3, starting at $799 or £639 for an Intel Core i3 CPU and a 64GB SSD, we can see the thinking at Microsoft start to lean even more toward the laptop side, with a new kickstand and touch cover that allow you to work at almost any angle. Our review configuration is upgraded to a Core i5 CPU and 256GB SSD, which costs $1,299 or £1,109, while the type cover keyboard is an additional $129 or £110.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Surface Pro is thinner than its predecessors, with a larger, higher-resolution screen. On that mark alone, it outshines the Pro and Pro 2. The internal specs and performance are largely similar to the Pro 2, but that means it's still just as fast as any current-gen premium laptop.

With the generation-over-generation tweaks to the design, especially the hinge and keyboard, you can see a dedicated push towards advancing the cause of practical usability. It's not entirely there yet, and it's still a leap to say this will be a true laptop replacement for most people, but the Surface Pro 3 is the first Surface device I feel confident in saying I could get away with using as a primary PC.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)
Price as reviewed $1,299 $999 $1,099
Display size/resolution 12-inch, 2,160 x 1,440 touch screen 13.3-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,440 x 900 screen
PC CPU 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 4300U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4250U
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1,024MB Intel HD Graphics5000
Storage 256GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit) Windows 8.1 (64-bit) OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4

Design and features

Despite the talk of this being the thinnest Intel Core i-series device to date, it still doesn't feel quite as thin and ethereal as, for example, the iPad Air. But its thinner body, coupled with a larger 12-inch screen, give it a more upscale feel than either the Pro or Pro 2, which were criticized for a certain boxiness.

Both of the previous Surface Pro models had 10.6-inch screens and were 13mm thick, with a footprint of 10.8 inches by 6.8 inches. This new 12-inch version is 11.5 inches by 7.9 inches, but its thickness drops to an impressive 9.1mm. The Pro 3 is also a tad lighter than its predecessor: 800 grams versus 900. Again, when you consider the larger screen, that's a worthy achievement.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

With a wink and a nod, Microsoft says this new Surface Pro design isn't exactly fanless, but it might as well be. That's because the new system internals, designed in partnership with Intel, allow the system run run not only ultra-low-voltage Core i3 or i5 CPUs, but also Core i7 ones, with a slim, quiet fan moving air as needed, allegedly without that telltale whirring sound, or a fan exhaust blowing on your hands. Our Surface Pro 3, a midrange model with an Intel Core i5 CPU, certainly felt cool during our hands-on testing, but an audible fan also kicked in at times. To call the experience fanless-like would not be accurate.

One major difference in the new design is the kickstand, which can be adjusted to nearly any angle between 22 degrees and 150 degrees. That's especially useful for tilting the screen way back, as an artist using a drafting table might, but as the owner of normal-size legs for a 6-foot-tall man, I still had a hard time getting the Surface Pro 3 to sit comfortably on my lap. The kickstand either kept the screen angle too severe to see clearly while seated, or else the end of the kickstand was sliding off my knees when I tilted the screen further back.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Taking the type cover and kicking in its additional top-edge magnetic hinge, raising the back edge of the keyboard to a better angle, helped a bit, as the raised angle feels much more natural for typing (which is why nearly every PC keyboard has tiny feet at the back edge). It's a small change, but one that says Microsoft is thinking seriously about ergonomics.

Of portrait modes and pens

It may take a second to spot, but there's one major change to the Surface design ID this time around. The capacitive touch button Windows logo -- which brings you back to the Windows 8 tile interface -- has shifted from the bottom long edge of the chassis to one of the shorter edges.

microsoft-surface-pro-3-product-photos-studio05.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

There are two reasons for that, to my mind. First, the new keyboard covers cover the area where the original Windows button was located when you use the second tilt-up hinge. Second, moving the Windows logo button to the short edge points users toward using the device in portrait mode. I've found that most Windows tablets and hybrids are designed around use in a laptop-like landscape mode, which has the screen lying against its longest side, while the all-popular Apple iPad is primarily understood as a device to be held upright in portrait mode, much like a book or magazine.

This ties directly into Microsoft's strong pitch for the Surface Pro 3 as an educational device for note-taking, annotation, drawing, and sketching. The included battery-powered Bluetooth pen is metallic, and more substantial than versions I've tried with other Windows 8 tablets, such as the 8-inch Asus VivoTab 8.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Wireless Connectivity 4G Wireless
  • Type Windows 8.1 Pro
  • Weight 1.76 lbs
  • Operating System Windows 8.1 Pro
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