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Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft goes thinner, adds a bigger screen, and starts at $799 (hands-on)

Adding a pen stylus, revamped keyboard cover, and more flexible kickstand helps the Pro 3 feel more like a laptop replacement than other tablets.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
7 min read

Tablets are great for consuming entertainment and media, 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 at the same time. 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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With the new Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft, the software powerhouse (and sometimes 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.

Of course, that's largely the same pitch we got for the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 tablets, which points to the difficulty in translating the full Windows 8 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 Surface Pro.

Both of those devices, as well as the Surface Pro 3, smartly lean towards 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 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.

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 drops the thickness to an impressive 9.1mm.

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Built into the thin body you'll still 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 or 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi; and TPM 2.0 for enterprise security.

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 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 and ran quietly during our initial hands-on testing, but the same can be said of many Windows 8 tablets, some of which are truly fan-free.

Another immediate difference in the new design is the kickstand, which can adjust to nearly any angle between 22 degrees and 150 degrees. As the owner of normal-sized legs for a 6-foot-tall male, 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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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).

The better-than-HD touchscreen display, 12-inches diagonally at 2,160x1,440 resolution, looks clear and bright, and follows a growing trend towards 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.

Built for a pen, in portrait mode

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.

There's two reasons for that, to my mind. First, the new keyboard covers snap in over 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 towards using the device in portrait mode. I've found that most Windows tablets and hybrids are designed around use in landscape mode, which has the screen lying against its longest side, while the all-popular Apple iPad is primarily understood as a device to held upright in portrait mode, much like a book or magazine.

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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 eight-inch Asus VivoTab 8. 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.

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 Windows devices such as your phone (unlikely) or laptop (rather more likely). 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 future update will let you double-click the top of Surface Pen to instantly capture and save a screenshot.

The next great tablet keyboard

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 anyone ever buying a Surface without one. At $129, 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 cover is closed. It still feels like the best add-on tablet tablet keyboard you can buy, while 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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The touchpad built into the type cover is better, made of what a Microsoft rep described as a "ceramic fabric" material. It's still 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.

Along with the type cover there is a new $200 Docking Station for Surface Pro 3 with a Mini DisplayPort supporting resolutions up to 3840x2600, 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.

Thinking different

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 -- but it's certainly different enough from the Surface Pro 2 that I can call this a very substantial generation-over-generation leap.

We'll be testing the Surface Pro 3's application performance and battery life, so stay tuned for a full review and benchmark results.

Additional reporting by Josh Goldman.