Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: The best Surface yet is more than a tablet, less than a laptop
Editors' note (June 29, 2017): Microsoft has unveiled its followup to the acclaimed Surface Pro 4 -- the successor to the Surface Pro 3 that is reviewed below and which has been discontinued. Called, simply, the Surface Pro, the newest version is very similar to the Pro 4 model but has modest improvements that include incrementally better battery life, a newer processor, and a quieter, fanless design. On the downside, the Surface Pen stylus that came bundled with previous editions is no longer included by default and the new keyboard covers are more expensive than ever. That noted, the new $799 Surface Pro ($1,027 with the Surface Pen and basic black keyboard cover) remains the gold standard for Windows hybrid PCs though it does not warrant the upgrade from current Surface Pro 4 owners.
Editors' note: The review of Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, originally published in May 2014 and updated since, follows.
Fall '16 update
The Surface Pro 3 reviewed here is a 2014 product. It was replaced by 2015's Surface Pro 4, which remains the company's top-end tablet.
Note that Microsoft has also offered up a full-powered laptop that moonlights as a tablet -- the Surface Book, which starts at $1,499. An October 2016 update of the highest-end model in the Surface Book line, the $2,399 Surface Book i7, delivers souped-up power and battery life.
The Surface line has become something of a category trailblazer. Apple's iPad Pro and Google's Pixel C have borrowed envelope-pushing features like the Surface's snap-on keyboard and multitasking chops. Given that Microsoft is on something of an innovation run -- with the Surface Studio and Surface Dial just the latest examples -- rumors about the next-generation of Surface Pro continue to smolder, but will no doubt wait for 2017.
Editors' note: The original Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review follows.
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 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.
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.
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|
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, microSD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
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.
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.
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.