Surface Pro 3 Review: Great PC, Good Tablet, Big Price
I’m not one for signs, or fate, or anything like that, but it’s difficult not to see the significance in the fact that I’m writing this review on my third Surface Pro 3. That’s right: there are two other Surface Pro 3 units sitting here in my living room, each one having been great machines suffering from some critical defect that kept them from achieving their full potential. Could these two defective units – and this apparently fully functional one – symbolize Microsoft’s two earlier, not-quite-successful attempts at mastering the tablet-PC hybrid? Sure, let’s go with that. In short, when it’s working, the Surface Pro 3, which goes on sale today, is an excellent machine all around. But is it really the all-in-one device that can replace your laptop and your tablet? In a word, yes – but you’ll have to accept some compromises in terms of its performance in either category.
The Surface Pro 3 unit we received from Microsoft came armed with 8 GB of RAM, an Intel i5 CPU, and 256 GB of internal storage, a configuration that costs $1,299. We were also given the Type Cover, which adds another $129 to the final price. In all, you’re looking at a pretty expensive ultrabook – and even if you went with the entry level model, with an i3 and 64 GB of storage, it’ll set you back at least a grand. Fortunately, the Surface Pro 3 definitely delivers as a full computer experience. Since getting the review unit, I switched over to using it for work and play as often as possible (switching to my other devices only when technical hiccups got in the way – more on that below). I was able to make the transition without much trouble at all, thanks to the Surface Pro 3’s most apparent feature: its fantastic screen size and aspect ratio.
Usually, I work on a 17-inch behemoth laptop from Asus, which rarely leaves my desk. Because the Pro 3 offers a 12-inch display and a 3:2 aspect ratio, my eyes didn’t need much time to adjust to the smaller screen. Microsoft has found the sweet spot in terms of size and dimensions with the Surface Pro 3, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when going back to a 10-inch display – the kind that shows up on the earlier models of the device.
While working remotely yesterday, I switched to my Dell Latitude 10 when the Surface’s battery was nearly drained. Adjusting to such a cramped screen was much trickier than I’d expected, making me appreciate just how much room a 12-inch screen offers. But like I said, 12-inches is the sweet spot. At no point did I feel like the the Surface was oversized, or too big to be practical. It fit into my backpack – built for smaller laptops – with ease. Moreover, Microsoft has worked some kind of wizardry to make the device so skinny while packing everything inside. I had room for tons of other devices alongside the Surface, not to mention a change of clothes, and a charger. The Surface Pro 3 wouldn’t look out of place alongside a student’s textbooks at all.
Performance-wise, the Surface is lightning fast. Start-up takes a hair over ten seconds, and switching between applications is a breeze as well. All week, I’ve had a whole bunch of applications open at once – over a dozen tabs open across two browsers including music streaming, Microsoft Word, my email client, etc. – and I never saw any performance hiccups as a result.
The battery, on the other hand, was none too happy. Using the Surface in the way described above gave me a daily battery life of around seven hours or so. I say “around seven” because I happen to be pretty paranoid about losing my work due to a dead battery, so when the Surface hit about 12 percent, I made the aforementioned switch to my Dell. And in addition to a cramped display, the Dell’s Atom processor couldn’t even hold a candle to to Surface’s i5. It’s an unfair comparison, obviously, but the fact that the Surface is capable of delivering PC-quality performance in such a sleek, portable package is one of the greatest checks in its favor. The Surface even managed to offer solid gaming performance via Steam. Though if you’re looking for something to suck your battery dry, there are few applications better for that. Really, the only weaknesses I ever saw while using the Surface Pro 3 had more to do with the fact that it was running Windows 8 than anything else.
The issues with the current version of Microsoft’s flagship OS have been discussed more than enough times, so there’s little reason to go too far into them here. Jumping onto public Wi-Fi networks is a bit more trouble than it’s worth with Windows 8, but after some diligent Googling, even that problem was surmounted. Moreover, the current incarnation of the OS – Windows 8.1 – works a hell of a lot better now than it did when I first tried it. Speaking of Google, the Surface doesn’t seem to get along as well with Chrome as I’d like. Its 2160 x 1440 resolution is gorgeous, but for some reason, Chrome always looks a little fuzzy, a little pixelly. I decided to switch my web browsing to Internet Explorer during my review period, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how much the browser had improved in the years since Mozilla’s Firefox first wooed me away. That said, copy-pasting text from Word into a WordPress window in IE gave me some weird technical issues, so I had to switch back to Chrome any time I wanted to publish a post. The search for the perfect web browser continues, then.
The Surface also offers three ways to interact with it: traditional mouse and keyboard (or touchpad, in the case of the Type Cover), the Surface Pen, or your finger. All three interaction methods work really well, though I have to admit that the Pen didn’t get much use. It always seemed like a step too far, since the touchpad worked really well, as did my hands. And my handwriting in OneNote using the pen was always pretty heinous…but I guess that’s on my and my lousy penmanship.
Regarding the Type Cover, making the switch from my usual keyboard and mouse set-up took no trouble at all. And the ability to latch the top of the cover to the bottom bezel of the Surface creates an extremely comfortable typing angle. The only potential negative factor there is that typing with the angle makes the keyboard a lot noisier than it is when the keyboard is flat on your desk, though there’s no real difference in sound when using it on your lap.
One of the reasons it works so well is because of the Surface’s new and improved kickstand. Instead of restricting you to a few viewing angles, the kickstand has an almost unlimited range of angles, meaning that you’ll never struggle to figure out the best position for working or playing. When you’re done with it, just snap it back into place magnetically, and you can barely tell there’s a kickstand at all. It’s a wonderful addition that makes the Type Cover even better by association. Best of all, I never once had any accidental touchpad hits while I was typing, a frequent problem on my other touchpad-equipped computers. The Type Cover, with its textured, comfy exterior and backlit keys, is a must-have accessory for the Surface Pro 3. It’s a shame it’s not simply included for free. In fact, that’s just about the biggest drawback I found with the Surface Pro 3: it’s expensive.
As a lowly freelance writer, the Surface Pro 3 would be way out of my price range, even though it’s basically the perfect freelancing machine. Part of what helps justify its cost, though, is the fact that it can replace your PC and your tablet. And while we’re on the subject…
As a tablet…
Tablets, as a rule, are pretty non-essential items in today’s product landscape. When Apple first released the iPad a few years back, it seemed ludicrous that anyone would want a gigantic iPhone, but without the phone part. But the iPad turned out to be one of the greatest consumption devices ever invented. Work and productivity was secondary when you could get all the entertainment you could hope for on one machine. Games, movies, TV, comics, music, the web…tablets were the best way to waste time and feel great doing it.
The Surface Pro 3, by virtue of its sleek profile and touch screen, works great as a tablet. In fact, it’s probably the best argument yet for the Frankenstein that is Windows 8. While using the OS was always a bizarre experience on a non-touch enabled device, the Surface Pro 3 makes switching from Desktop mode to Modern mode feel much more natural. Almost like you’re making a conscious decision: “Now it’s time to play.” The amazing resolution means that comics and movies look their best. And folding the Type Cover behind the device is a smart way to helps users change gears from using a PC to using a tablet. The speakers are great too, offering excellent performance despite being squashed into the Surface’s svelte frame. But all that power comes at a cost.
At its unveiling event, Microsoft talked about the Surface Pro 3’s whisper quiet fan. And it is extremely quiet. You’ll barely notice it’s turned on. Unless, of course, you happen to be touching the metal exterior of the device itself. It gets very warm. Never so hot that I’ve been burned, but certainly warmer than I’d like in a device I’m supposed to hold in my hands. (As a side note, one of the great benefits of using the Surface Pro 3 as a computer is that all the warm bits are held up away from your sensitive lap. Sadly, unless you’re watching a movie, you probably aren’t going to want to hold the Surface in your hands for too long without a cover or case to absorb the heat.)
Reading books via the Kindle app seems slightly too awkward. It’s a minor complaint, but I felt a little funny using it as a tablet in public. It’s great that it works in both modes, but it’s clear where the Surface Pro 3’s strengths lie.
Experiencing Technical Difficulties
As I mentioned above, I had a few troubles getting going with the Surface Pro 3. BestTechie EiC Jeff Weisbein sent me the one he’d gotten from Microsoft on the day of their unveiling event. But when I got it out of the box, I noticed that there as a whole portion at the top of the screen that didn’t respond to touch input at all. After consulting with tech support and the helpful folks at my local Microsoft Store, I was put in touch with the PR people handling the Surface Pro 3, who sent a new unit to me.
That one’s touchscreen had no dead zones – but it had kind of the opposite problem. At random intervals, the screen suffered from “phantom touches” – for no discernable reason, it reacted as though someone was tapping the hell out of the screen. Because I had visual feedback for touch input turned on, I could see where and when it happened (which you can see in the image to the right), but I could rarely ever stop it. Sometimes a restart would get the problem to go away, sometimes not. I went through whole days where the Surface worked just fine, and then, inexplicably, it’d be like someone was mashing the Surface with their fingers while I was trying to work, keeping me from being able to get anything done.
A day later, another unit was sent to my apartment, and here we are. Finally I seem to have gotten a working unit, and, unencumbered with the technical glitches I found in the first two units, the full promise of the Surface Pro 3 has been realized. But it’s more than a little disappointing to have to deal with such disruptive problems on what’s supposed to be top of the line technology.
The good news, of course, is that Microsoft was able to respond to all my issues pretty quickly. If I’d had these issues when the Pro 3 was actually available for purchase, the representatives at the Microsoft Store would’ve been able to swap out my defective unit right then and there. So if you have any issues with your brand new Surface, there’s little doubt that you’d be able to get your problem resolved even more quickly than I did.
Overall, the Surface Pro 3 is great. It’s a really fantastic piece of tech that can easily do the job of a full PC, while taking up only a fraction of the space. And if you want to ditch your tablet and simplify your technological life, then you can. But at the end of the day, it’s a pricey product, and one that may not necessarily justify its cost – at least not quite yet.
Surely consumers should wait a few months while Microsoft works out the bugs in its initial product line. More than that, unless you have a specific need for an ultra-thin laptop, it’s tough to get behind a device that costs this much and is essentially just a really swell laptop. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in love with the Surface Pro 3. I’ve long lusted after the Surface Pro line of products, and it’s been awesome to get the chance to use this one.
However, as great as it’s been, I think I’d have a tough time being able to part with the money necessary to bring one of these home on my salary. On the other hand, if you’re in the market for an alternative to Apple’s Macbook, then the Surface Pro 3 is a great buy. Personally, I prefer this device to the Macbook, though I’ve always been more of a Windows guy in general anyway. But if you’ve been curious about Windows and were looking to make a switch, look no further than the Surface Pro 3. Assuming Microsoft works out the kinks, it’ll be one of the best laptops on the market for some time to come… At least until Microsoft announces the Surface Pro 4 this fall.
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