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

In the case of the Asus, the Wacom stylus was made of thin plastic, but at least it slid right into an internal slot in the tablet body. For the Surface Pro 3, you'll need to either keep in your pocket or bag, or perhaps slide it behind your ear, unless you have a sold-separately type cover and its awkward stick-on stylus-holding loop.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While the Surface Pro pen (Microsoft would prefer you call it a pen rather than a stylus) works in a variety of apps, including The New York Times crossword puzzle app, OneNote is an easy example of how it works for drawing and taking notes. If you have all your Microsoft cloud services properly set up, your OneNote files can sync to other devices such as your phone (with cross-platform support on Android and iOS devices) or laptop (Windows or Mac). Even better, just click once on the Pen's top to open OneNote, even if your Surface is asleep, and notes are automatically saved.

A great keyboard, for a tablet

The tragedy of the Surface Pro has always been that the single coolest thing about it doesn't actually come in the box. The excellent type cover, which acts as a screen protector, full keyboard, and touchpad interface, stubbornly remains a sold-separately accessory, despite the fact that I can't imagine (or recommend) anyone ever buying a Surface without one. At $129 or £110, it's expensive for an add-on keyboard, but it's also still the main wow factor of the Surface.

The new type cover for Surface Pro 3 is larger than its predecessors, although the older versions will still work -- they just won't cover the entire screen when the flap is closed. It feels like the best add-on tablet keyboard you can buy, while still falling short of a decent budget laptop keyboard. The secondary hinge, really just a line near the top edge you can fold the cover along, lifts the rear up and holds it against the body via a magnetic connection, giving you a more natural typing angle. It's an excellent ergonomic improvement, although it makes typing louder and clackier.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The touchpad built into the type cover is better than the last version we tried, made of what a Microsoft rep described as a "ceramic fabric" material. But despite the improvements, it's still not responsive, or tap-sensitive, enough for fast-track multitaskers, and the surface area is too shallow to easily navigate all around the screen. You'll most likely develop a shorthand combination of touchscreen and touchpad, plus pen, to get around.

The screen you'll spend a lot of time touching is a better-than-HD display, measuring 12 inches diagonally with a 2,160x1,440-pixel resolution. The IPS panel looks clear and bright, has excellent off-axis viewing angles, and follows a growing trend toward better-than-HD displays. Do you need more pixels on a 12-inch screen? That's debatable, but some 13-inch models are already hitting 3,200x1,800 pixels.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Video mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack
Data 1 USB 3.0, microSD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery life

Built into the thin body you'll find a full-size USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader, and Mini DisplayPort, 5-megapixel and 1080p HD front- and rear-facing cameras, as well as stereo speakers with Dolby Audio-enhanced sound. Other hardware specs include SSD storage from 64GB to 512GB; 4GB or 8GB of memory; 802.11ac Wi-Fi; and TPM 2.0 for enterprise security.

There is also a $200/£165 Docking Station for Surface Pro 3 with a Mini DisplayPort supporting resolutions up to 3,840x2,600 pixels, five USB ports -- three USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports -- and a Gigabit Ethernet jack. There is a standalone Surface Ethernet Adapter for $40, too.

No matter which configuration you order, you'll have to wait a while to get it (if you're looking just after Microsoft's announcement, which came on May 21, 2014). The two Intel Core i5 models, with 128GB ($999, £849) or 256GB ($1,299, £1,109) of SSD storage are listed as shipping in late June. The Core i3/64GB version ($799, £639) and the two Core i7 versions with 256GB ($1,549, £1,339) and 512GB ($1,949, £1,649) of SSD storage are all listed as shipping at the end of August.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Our fourth-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, coupled with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, matched up well with other premium laptops that might be considered in the same breath as the Surface Pro 3. Application performance was comparable with Apple's current 13-inch MacBook Air, the tablet-like Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, and even last year's Surface Pro 2. For everyday Windows 8 tasks, from Photoshop to Web surfing, it's more than powerful enough, and the higher screen resolution makes it easier to snap multiple apps open at once on the screen.

Intel's basic built-in graphics still can't handle even mainstream games, so don't think of this as a portable game machine. We gave BioShock Infinite a spin at high settings and our standard 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, and got single-digit frame rates. Running at the native resolution on low settings, the game still chugged unacceptably.

The Surface Pro 3 did, however, best most of the competition in battery life, even if only by a small margin. On our video playback battery drain test, it ran for 7 hours and 28 minutes, which is close to a full work day. The Yoga 2 Pro and HP's 13-inch two-in-one X2 hybrid fell only slightly behind, and last year's Surface Pro 2 ran for about 30 minutes less. Of course, as the introductory press conference for the Surface Pro 3 was built in part around comparisons to the MacBook Air, we should point out that the Air ran for more than 6 additional hours on that test.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

Does the Surface Pro 3 really do something so different than its predecessors that it will replace the sea of glowing MacBook Airs seen in the audience during Microsoft's NYC launch event? No, it's still the same basic concept: a Core i-series slate, coupled with a very good keyboard accessory.

In the hand (or lap) shortcomings stood out, including some ergonomic difficulty actually balancing the thing on your lap, and a touchpad that still doesn't work effortlessly. It's certainly different enough from the Surface Pro 2, though, that I can call this a very substantial generation-over-generation leap.

Putting on-paper specs aside, it's already become my go-to coffee shop companion over the past few days, and I'd feel confident taking it on a plane ride or day full of on-the-go meetings. But I'm not quite ready to trade in my laptop just yet.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

HP Spectre 13 x2
715
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013)
532
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
523
Microsoft Surface Pro 2
475
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro
391

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

HP Spectre 13 X2
334
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013)
333
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro
302
Microsoft Surface Pro 2
275
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
236

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance

Apple iTunes encoding test

HP Spectre 13 X2
157
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro
121
Microsoft Surface Pro 2
119
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
108
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013)
82

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance

Video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Pro 2
415
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro
430
HP Spectre 13 X2
435
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
448
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (2013)
865

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Installed Size 4 GB
  • Color silver
  • Weight 1.76 lbs
  • Graphics Processor Intel HD Graphics 4200
  • CPU Intel Core i3 (4th Gen) 4020Y / 1.5 GHz
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