Surface Pro 3 Review – a no-compromise device that really can replace your laptop

Pros

  • Stunning design and premium build quality
  • New kickstand is fantastic
  • OneNote and Pen work beautifully together
  • Solid Trackpad

 Cons

  • Type Cover is still optional
  • Decent battery life 

Verdict: Microsoft sees tablets and laptops differently, and I love this vision.

WP_20140628_20_11_03_ProWhen Microsoft created the original Surface Pro, their intention was to build a true no-compromise device that would replace your laptop and tablet.   I have to give them credit for trying, because if they hadn’t set this goal, we wouldn’t have the Surface Pro 3 today. I can gladly say that Microsoft has finally achieved this goal and created a true no-compromise device. A device that’s gorgeous and category-defining, as well a design icon that will spawn a new wave of devices from various PC manufactures and bring the best Windows experience to the user.

Hardware

Microsoft’s Surface line of devices have always been known to have a very premium build quality. Surface Pro 3 is no exception, as it too is made up of the same magnesium material. Personally, I’m a big fan of the magnesium casing Microsoft has chosen for its Surface family of devices, and the silvery grey color seems to be a better fit for the Surface Pro line. It also happens to be the natural color of the magnesium, and the texture just feels better than that of the previous painted black Surface models.

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Surface 2 at the top, Surface Pro 1 in the middle and Pro 3 at the bottom

Surface Pro 3 is much thinner now, coming in a 9.1mm, compared its beefy predecessors at 13.4mm.  It’s now almost identical to the Surface 2, which is 8.9mm thin. Surface Pro 3 is also a lot lighter now, weighing in at 1.7lbs compared to two pounds the previous Surface Pro models weighed.

Perhaps the most innovative hardware feature is the new kickstand. I can’t stress this feature enough – it’s something that once you get used to, you start to expect every tablet to have. This is a feature other tablet manufacturers, including the likes of Apple, leave to third party case manufactures to build, which in turn creates a flimsy looking and feeling kickstand, and ruins the design of the tablet overall. It clearly shows that Microsoft wanted to differentiate, not only in hardware design, but in what a tablet should be, and it’s a feature that the Surface will always be known for.

The kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 is a revelation compared to previous models. Surface Pro 3 sports a new hinge, which feels very strong, and being able to angle the device pretty much all the way down, is fantastic and opens up so many possibilities. However, this is a needed feature as traditional laptops can angle their screens all the way down, and the Surface Pro 3, which is touted as a PC, must find a way to duplicate it.

WP_20140630_08_36_44_ProThe kickstand now opens up to the traditional 22 degree angle (the only angle) the original Surface models had, but it goes well beyond that. To further extend the kickstand to the maximum of 150 degree angle, you’ll need to apply some force as the hinges add a good amount of resistance.

Despite weighing 1.7lbs, which is a lot heavier than Apple’s iPad Air and the Surface 2, it manages to feel light for a 12-inch tablet. The Surface Pro 3 is of course a full blown high-end PC, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to the lightest tablet on the market which also happens to have a much smaller screen. As far as weight goes on the PC side of things, it is incredibly light. In comparison to the MacBook Air which is considered to one of the lightest PCs on the market, weighing in at 3lbs pounds, Surface Pro 3 easily beats it as it manages to come in a 2.4lbs with the Type Cover connected.

The power button is now on the top left corner as opposed to the top right, the micro-SD card slot remains underneath the kickstand, which is the ideal position. The buttons feel solid when pressed, there’s no flimsiness present, and the hardware screams high quality across the board.

Screen

Microsoft has increased the screen size from a respectable 10.6-inch screen to a far bigger looking and roomier 12 inches. Yes, it is only 1.5 inches larger diagonally, but it feels much bigger due to the new 3:2 aspect ratio compared to the previous 16:9. This puts the aspect ratio somewhere in between the iPad’s boxy 4:3 and the previous Surface models widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. Although 16:9 is the ideal PC aspect ratio, 3:2 makes much more sense on a device like this – it feels a lot roomier and using the device in portrait mode feels natural now. Due to the taller screen, there are now four rows of tiles on the start screen, as opposed to three on previous Surface models.

Another great addition to the screen is the bump in resolution to 2160×1440 from the previous 1920×1080. Due to the larger screen real estate, the boost in pixels per inch is a modest increase, from 207ppi to 216ppi.   Nevertheless, the screen looks noticeably sharper, but more importantly there is very little glare or reflectivity on the screen. This is something that Microsoft attributes to the absence of an air-gap between the LCD and the Cornering Gorilla Glass 3 layer.   In addition, with no air-gap, Microsoft also states that Surface Pro 3 significantly reduces eye strain compared to Apple’s iPad when using for prolonged periods.

Writing and taking notes with the pen just feels a lot better in portrait mode as well, it gives you the feeling of writing on a piece of paper in some weird way, as the pen doesn’t slide so easily on the screen like on the Surface Pro 1 & 2. More on the pen below.

Cameras

Surface Pro 3 has dual 5MP cameras as opposed to the dual 1MP cameras the previous Pro models had. I spent some time testing out the cameras, and I can firmly say that they’re decent. Although the cameras are decent, I highly doubt anyone will plan on taking photos with such an immense tablet.

I would say that selfies look pretty good, but perhaps the best part is Skype video calls, as the cameras are able to capture you in 1080P now, compared to 720P on the Surface Pro 2.

Type Cover

Microsoft has received a lot of criticism on the trackpad that the previous Surface generation type and touch covers came with. This time around, Microsoft not only made the trackpad a lot bigger, it has the same characteristics as trackpads on many high-end laptops. It now has a smooth high-quality feel to it, and it clicks in as well. Microsoft has managed to incorporate glass beads into it – this is something high-end laptops use in their track pads.

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The keys are the same size as previous touch covers, the extra space on the keyboard actually went into making the trackpad bigger and adding an additional magnetic strip. This magnetic strip, which goes across the top of the keyboard, allows it to clip to the bottom of the screen. This is ideal for creating an angled typing experience you’re accustomed to on a regular laptop.   It’s also a fantastic addition for when you’re using the Surface Pro 3 on your lap, as it makes the device much sturdier. Traditional laptops are bottom heavy, but Surface Pro 3 is the opposite – that’s why having the extra magnet grip engaged helps keep the tablet from shaking when typing on the lap.

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Type Cover keyboards for the Surface Pro 3 are available in a wide range of colors, they come in black, purple, cyan. There are couple of retailer-specific exclusive colors as well – the red one is exclusive to the Microsoft Store and the dark blue is only available at Best Buy. I chose black due to my experience with this material being hard to clean. Black won’t show stains as much as the brighter colors will. I purchased the cyan Type Cover 2 with my Surface 2 last year, and it’s not as nice looking as it used to be – this material attracts dirt and it’s nearly impossible to clean.

Overall I can say with confidence that the Type Cover is fantastic this time around, it’s also a must have with the purchase of a Surface Pro 3. It’s too bad Microsoft doesn’t include it in the price of the Surface Pro 3, since buying a full-sized PC without a keyboard doesn’t make sense, but ok, I guess I’m used to this already as it’s nothing new with the Surface line. This new Type Cover keyboard is a significant improvement over the previous Type covers, the new trackpad is a revelation over the previous version, and the addition of pen strap is like a cherry on top.

Pen

WP_20140629_09_42_22_ProBefore I get into the details of the Pen, I have to say that one of my favorite features of the Surface Pro 3 is the fact that it enables you to launch OneNote by pressing the purple button on top of the Pen, even if the device is locked. It’ll take you right into OneNote without the need to enter a password. It makes using OneNote an amazing experience. I find myself making excuses to launch OneNote with the Pen just because of how impressive the experience is.

But back to the Pen now. This new Pen quite is different than its predecessors, and that’s due to Microsoft using an “N-trig digitizer” as opposed to a “Wacom digitizer”. If you compare the Pens from the previous Surface Pro models to this one, Surface Pro 3‘s Pen is built out of premium material, as opposed to plastic. It’s also thicker due to it housing a single AAAA battery (which I didn’t know even existed), but feels surprisingly nice and evenly weighted – it’s not heavier on one side or another as the weight is dispersed evenly. In addition, it has two extra buttons at the bottom – one is used for erasing and the other for selecting.

One takeaway about this Pen is that it supports 256 levels of pressure sensitivity as opposed to the 1024 the Wacom Pen provided. However, in real world, it’s not noticeable and seeing plenty of artists’ reviews of Surface Pro 3, just confirms that even more. I haven’t been able to notice a difference in pressure sensitivity, even when deliberately trying.

I found the Surface Pro 3 Pen to be more accurate across the board, when comparing to the previous version. Not a massive difference, but a noticeable one. I found myself getting frustrated sometimes trying select smaller touch points on the Wacom pen, and this is one area where I noticed improvement.

Battery

After spending many days with this device, I was happy with the battery life, but I didn’t expect phenomenal results. Surface Pro 3 is rated for 9 hours of battery life, but in the real world, nothing comes close to the actual rating, with whatever product, so I expected about 8 hours, and that is what I usually got.

For a device so thin and for the computing power it provides, this is a good result in my opinion.

However, it’s a little shy of Apple’s latest MacBook Air battery performance threshold. It has been reported that the Core i7 and Core i3 versions will have the same battery life as the Core i5 that I purchased.

One of the features that I’m particularly impressed with is the new low-power “Connected Standby”, this gives Surface Pro 3 the ability to go into a deep low-power state mode after about 4 hours of standby. In addition, it’s able to turn on and off instantly now.

I did however have issues with the Surface not turning on after being in low power state, in fact this is something I experienced with all my Surface devices thus far. I learned the trick to getting them started though, but I wish I didn’t have to do this. I press and hold the power button for a few seconds and let go, then I keep repeating this until it turns on. To be fair it only happened a few times.   Users who received the models Microsoft gave out at the Surface event experienced it a lot more than I did, but Microsoft did release a patch for this issue on June 19th and pre-release reviewers are reporting much better results now.

Software

WP_20140630_10_56_20_ProMicrosoft has taken Windows 8 to new level with Windows 8.1, and just recently with the addition of Update 1, the operating system became more complete. The two different environments it possesses (Metro & Desktop), are now not so separate from one another. Windows 8.1 and Surface Pro 3 are made for each other, and it just makes using the two a fantastic experience. With the change in aspect ratio, you can go wild and snap 3 apps side by side if you want.

Laptop Use

One of the questions on everyone’s mind is whether Surface Pro 3 can replace your laptop. This is a tough question to answer as there are so many different types of laptop users out there, and it’s nearly impossible for a hybrid device such as this to fully replace a laptop for everyone. However, I would say that for most people, YES! Surface Pro 3 can definitely replace your laptop, in fact it’ll be a better fit in so many cases than a traditional laptop. The one caveat that I have however, is that there is only one USB port, which for people using a mouse with a USB connector can be a pain if you need to plug anything else in.

Other than that, performance is stellar, I purchased the Core i5 version, and I found it to be super quick, never lagging or stuttering. I used LightRoom and Photoshop heavily, and have found the performance to be great. I haven’t tested out any high-end games, but having played StarCraft on my Surface Pro 2, proved to be a pretty good experience, as I was able to play on medium-low settings while running at 1080P. This is not a high-end gaming rig, but you’ll be able to play pretty much any high-end game, just don’t expect to play on high settings.

I would suggest for people who are looking to replace their laptop with the Surface Pro 3 and happen to be power users, to go to your local Microsoft Store, or at least a Best Buy and try it out. This is an expensive machine, and you would want to make sure that it’ll fit your needs.

Tablet Use

Another question people ask is whether Surface Pro 3 feels good as a tablet. I can say that after owning one, it may eliminate your need to purchase a tablet and just use the Surface Pro 3. It does a really good job at being a tablet, unless you’re planning on using it purely as a reading device.

Surface Pro 3 is not your average tablet, it’s much bigger than your traditional 8 or 10-inch device, but it doesn’t feel too big. However, if you’re planning on using it in instances where you find yourself holding it in your hands for prolonged periods of time, then you’ll find it gets heavy after a while. Nevertheless, it makes for a great tablet, especially if you’re an artist, as the Pen can do wonders if you know what you’re doing.

I don’t think anyone will be buying this device to use as a tablet primarily, unless you have some specific needs. Traditional tablet users who already have a laptop and want a pure media consumption device, shouldn’t even bother with the Surface Pro 3, as it has a pretty hefty price tag, and you’ll be able to find a much cheaper offering for your needs.

People buying the Surface Pro 3 buy it to replace their laptops, and find that they don’t need an additional tablet afterwards.

Configurations and Pricing

Unlike the previous Surface Models, Surface Pro 3 comes in a wide variety of configurations. I would recommend going for the Core i5 with 4GB of RAM, as that’ll run all of your traditional applications, such as Photoshop and everything else.

  • $799   = 1.5GHz Intel Core i3-4020Y / 4GB of RAM /  64GB SSD
  • $999   = 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U / 4GB of RAM /  128GB SSD
  • $1299  = 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U / 8GB of RAM /  256GB SSD
  • $1549  = 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-4650U / 8GB of RAM /  256GB SSD
  • $1949 = 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-4650U / 8GB of RAM /  512GB SSD

Final Thoughts

After using this device extensively, having travelled with it, and using it in every possible occasion, I can say that Microsoft has created something truly special. This is a whole different ball game compared to previous Surface models – Surface Pro 3 is a massive leap forward in design and overall usability. Every single aspect of the previous Surface Pro has been drastically improved, making it a true design icon.

This is a device that has the potential to change PC hardware as we know it, and will definitely set a strong example for PC manufactures to follow. Microsoft should market this thing like there’s no tomorrow, because the world needs to know that this thing exists.

Surface Pro 3 may never be the perfect laptop or tablet replacement, but it doesn’t have to be, because not everyone needs a traditional laptop. In fact, a lot of people don’t. This hybrid device has some serious potential to disrupt the market, as many consumers would love a device that performs the duties of both a laptop and a tablet.

This is a device that screams thoughtfulness in every aspect, as this is as close to a no-compromise device that you can get. It’s cheaper than a MacBook and iPad combo, and if you opt for a higher-end model, it’ll be a lot more powerful than the two combined.

Microsoft has a winner on their hands, I can confidently say, despite this device being expensive, this is a case where you get what you pay for.

4 thoughts on “Surface Pro 3 Review – a no-compromise device that really can replace your laptop”

  1. Excellent review of a stellar device! My “adding” Surface Pro need a new baby brother! One question. I have noted that all the photos I’ve seen of it have the pen attached to the left side is the keyboard, which seems unnatural in a world full of “righties”. Can it be moved to whichever side you prefer?

    1. sure it can! its just a little strap you stick on. I happen to be a lefty so I ended up sticking on the left side.

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