Surface Pro 3: A brilliant, quirky, nearly flawless laptop replacement

Summary:Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is a gorgeous piece of hardware, hugely improved from its predecessors. It's not for everyone, but is it right for you?

If you're in the market for a Windows-based laptop replacement, the Surface Pro 3 should be on your short list.

surfacepro3-overall
Image credit: Microsoft

Microsoft's third shot in the tablet-that-can-turn-into-a-portable-PC category represents a huge improvement over its earlier attempts. I called the first Surface Pro, released in February 2013, "brilliant, quirky, and flawed," and argued that it "has enough flaws that many potential buyers will either say no outright or play wait and see."

Last fall's Surface Pro 2, released in conjunction with Windows 8.1, was basically just a spec bump that added a Haswell processor (improving battery life) and gave the trademark Surface kickstand a second angle.

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Surface Pro 3, on the other hand, is a complete redesign that maintains the original Surface Pro vision (and a few of its quirks), while tackling its biggest flaws head-on.

Like its predecessors, the Surface Pro 3 isn’t for everyone. It's also hard to categorize. Lining it up next to a conventional laptop or a full-size tablet results in an odd set of comparisons and, inevitably, reviews that focus on the mismatches.

I attended last week's launch event in New York City and came home with a sample of the Surface Pro 3, provided by Microsoft, which I've used extensively for the past 10 days. As I did with the original Surface Pro, I'm writing this review in Q&A format, with the goal of helping you figure out whether the newest Surface Pro is a match for your working style.

What's new in Surface Pro 3?

Conceptually, the new model shares key design features with previous Surface Pro versions. In its simplest form, it's a tablet, but it has the guts of a premium Windows 8.1 Ultrabook, with a fourth-generation (Haswell) Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processor, 4 or 8 GB of LPDDR3 memory, and up to 512 GB of flash storage. (For more details about the Surface Pro 3 configurations, see Which CPUs will you find in the Surface Pro 3? )

The Surface Pro 3 has a light magnesium finish, like that of the Windows RT-powered Surface 2 introduced last fall, and unlike the fingerprint-attracting dark matte finish of both older Surface Pro models. The Surface logo is etched on the back.

In its physical dimensions, the Surface Pro 3 is dramatically different from its predecessors. At 9.1mm, it's a hair (or two) thinner than an iPhone 4S and 33 percent thinner than the slab-like Surface Pro 2.

surfacepro3-thickness

The shape is different, too. The Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6-inch (diagonal) screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio and a native resolution of 1920x1080. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a resolution of 2160x1440. That gives you 50 percent more onscreen pixels in a physical screen that is about 10 40 percent larger. 

Amazingly, despite the much bigger screen the Surface Pro 3 is actually 120 g lighter than its predecessor. The combination of lighter weight, a thinner package, and a more balanced shape means the Surface Pro 3 is significantly more portable than older models. It feels very comfortable in the hand.

The single USB 3.0 port, mini-DisplayPort adapter, and Micro-SDXC card slot are familiar, but the 802.11ac wireless adapter is an upgrade, as are the front and rear 5MP cameras and the digital compass. The TPM 2.0 chip is an upgrade from the TPM 1.3 chip in older models. The power connector has been redesigned and is much easier to attach than the previous design (you can see a picture of the new connector in my Surface Pro 3 Q&A ).

The Surface Pro's trademark hinge now supports a continuous range of positions instead of the one or two in the previous designs. With the hinge fully extended, the Surface Pro 3 is propped up at a slight angle, for drawing or watching a movie.

surfacepro3-kickstand

Every Surface Pro comes with a pen, but this pen is different. It's an active device, battery-powered, with a top button that you can click to wake the device and open OneNote. Microsoft says the new pen is a "platform," which presumably means other apps besides OneNote will be able to programmatically connect to it as well.

The Surface Pro 2 speakers were rightly criticized for not being loud enough. Those speakers are moved to the front on the Surface Pro 3 (you'll have to look very carefully to see them), and they deliver an impressive amount of volume.

The system software has matured also. Windows 8.1 Pro is installed, and this edition supports Connected Standby, which means it wakes up in a fraction of a second and can hold a charge for much longer than the Surface Pro 2 while still performing background tasks in low-power mode.

How does it perform? And how long does it last when disconnected from AC power? I answer those questions on the next page.

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Bring Your Own Device, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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