Surface Pro 3: Why my clamshell laptop is history

Can the Surface Pro 3 really replace your laptop? In my case, the answer is yes. For the first time in 20 years, I no longer own a conventional clamshell laptop. Here's my long-term review, based on more than four months of daily use.

Surface Pro 3

It took a few months, but the Surface Pro 3 has finally replaced my laptop.

For the first time in two decades I don’t own a conventional clamshell-style laptop. And I don’t miss it at all.

In convincing me to bid farewell to my laptop, the Surface Pro 3 accomplished something that its predecessors couldn’t. The original Surface Pro, released in February 2013, was a brilliant but flawed device, with inadequate battery life and an awkward form factor. The Surface Pro 2, which arrived six months later, incorporated a 4th-generation Intel Core i5 CPU that delivered much-needed improvements in battery life and performance, but still felt clunky and slab-like in the hand.

I gave those first two Surface Pros a fair chance, but after my evaluations were finished I always returned to my laptop, the well-built and ultra-light Acer Aspire S7. (When my colleague Mary-Jo Foley did the same experiment earlier this year , she made the same choice, sticking with her Acer laptop. And it helps that neither of us was attempting to make the switch from a MacBook Air .)

Over the past five months a Surface Pro 3 has been my constant traveling companion, on a half-dozen short-haul domestic trips. A 15-day international jaunt last month sealed the deal. I sold my Acer laptop as soon as I got home from Europe.

Microsoft provided me with a review unit of the Surface Pro 3, an i5-based model, back in May, a month ahead of the retail launch . After spending a few weeks with that review unit, I ordered one of my own with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of built-in storage, and a red Type Cover; it was delivered on August 1.

I reviewed the Surface Pro 3 earlier this year and gave it high marks. This report is a long-term follow-up that focuses on my personal experience and how I’ve incorporated the Surface Pro 3 into my workflow.

It’s certainly not the only mobile device I use. I always have a smartphone with me, and large-screen devices like the Lumia 1520 and iPhone 6 Plus are able to accomplish tasks that used to require a PC or tablet. But where I might previously have carried a laptop and a tablet in my traveling bag, I’m more likely now to carry just the one device to handle both roles.

Although the Surface Pro 3 replaced my laptop, it didn’t replace my desktop PC. At the moment I have a pair of 27-inch monitors on my desk: Windows 10 on the left, OS X Yosemite on the right. I still need the power, memory, and storage in a desktop PC for the kind of work I do day in and day out. (One example: running multiple virtual machines in Hyper-V.)

The economics are strongly in favor of the desktop form factor, too. The least expensive Surface Pro 3, the i3 model I bought, costs $799 and works great for basic business and entertainment duties; the maxed-out i7, with 8GB of RAM and 512GB SSD, costs $1,150 more. For that differential, I can have both devices: the entry-level Surface Pro 3 to use outside the office, and a quiet, fast desktop with abundant memory and storage as well as a discrete graphics adapter.

When I’m in the office, the Surface Pro 3 is typically snapped into the $199 Surface docking station , where it gets recharged, connects to a wired network, and backs up to an attached external drive (using the File History feature of Windows 8.1).

sp3-docking-station

The design of the docking station is superb. The tablet portion of the Surface Pro 3 clicks very confidently into position, allowing full access to the complement of network, USB, and display ports on the back of the dock.

If I were a less demanding user, I could easily envision using the docked Surface Pro 3 as a desktop replacement. Even the entry-level i3 model has enough graphics oomph to drive two external monitors, and the i5 has no problems with two 27-inch displays running at 2560x1440 resolution.

One scenario that seemed promising at first became a nonstarter after a few weeks of use, though. In theory, you can connect an external monitor, either directly to the Surface Pro 3 or using the mini-DisplayPort connector on the back of the dock, and use both an external monitor and the Surface touchscreen.

In practice, the intricacies of using multiple monitors at different scaling makes this configuration weird and unpleasant. Depending on how you sign in, you wind up with microscopic menus and icons on the Surface display or oversized menus and icons on the desktop monitor.

As a result, I learned to use only the external display (or displays) when the device is docked. The good news is that Windows does a very good job of remembering and restoring your preferred setup. If you need to make adjustments, memorize the shortcut key: Windows key + P.

For a more detailed look at what I do with this combination of devices, see “How the Surface Pro 3 changed the way I work.” In the rest of this post, I look at the hardware itself.

Extreme mobility

The biggest plus for the Surface Pro 3, in my experience, is its portability.

At 818 grams, this device continues to astonish me when used as a tablet. In portrait or landscape mode, it has a solid, well-balanced feeling in the hand. Some people might find that weight excessive, but it’s fine with me, given that lighter alternatives typically have a much smaller display.

The Type Cover brings the total weight to just a feather over 2.5 pounds (1138 g). When closed, the Type Cover protects the display and offers a firm, no-slip grip, making the combo very easy to carry.

One detail that isn’t generally mentioned in reviews: At 200 g (about 7 oz), the Surface Pro 3 power supply is impressively light. It also includes a USB connector on the power brick for charging, a handy feature that eliminates the need for a separate charger for phones and other USB-powered devices. The USB 3 port on the Surface Pro itself also supports charging. Using both outlets, I’m able to able to charge the Surface Pro 3, a phone, and an external battery pack from a single AC outlet.

Because Windows 8.1 Pro is installed, it’s easy to turn on BitLocker whole-disk encryption. (I use BitLocker To Go, another standard Windows feature, on removable drives, including the MicroSD card in the expansion slot hidden behind the kickstand.)

The display

The 12-inch ClearType display is extremely easy on the eyes, with an aspect ratio that makes the device able to shift comfortably from a tablet to a PC and back again. That ability to transition quickly from work to play, from creating content to consuming it, without having to change to a different piece of hardware, is a big winner for me.

Whether you value that 2-in-1 capability as much is a matter of personal preference, of course.

The larger screen size makes it possible to comfortably read digital magazines, a task I find less pleasurable on the smaller iPad screen. You can see a comparison of the two devices alongside their paper counterparts below. (Surface Pro 3 is in the center, left, with the iPad to its right.) Although the iPad display looks very good, its smaller size and 4:3 aspect ratio make it noticeably inferior to the Surface Pro 3 experience.

Magazines-SurfacePro3-vs-iPad

Battery life

Battery life tests can be deceptive. I’ve found that the Surface Pro 3 can last a full day with off-and-on use, a conclusion confirmed by the Windows Powercfg utility, which says based on its recent performance I can expect 6:54 of active use.

Battery-report SP3

I’ve also been able to drain the battery in under five hours using demanding tasks like streaming full-HD video continuously over Miracast.

Charging is quick: A full charge takes approximately 2:30, which means an hour of AC power at midday is enough to start the afternoon with a nearly full battery. In more than four months of steady use, I haven’t yet been in a situation where I’ve run out of battery before day’s end.

The kickstand

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The kickstand is a marvel of engineering. I’ve written probably 10,000 words on the Surface Pro 3 while sitting at hotel desks over the past few months. With the kickstand back and the Type Cover snapped magnetically to the bottom of the screen, the Surface Pro 3 acts just like a laptop, with a slightly tilted keyboard that makes typing a bit easier.

I frequently leave the keyboard attached but fold it backwards, so that it sits under the kickstand and serves as a base for the display. That arrangement provides an extremely stable way to watch a movie on an airplane tray table.

Speaking of cramped spaces… The kickstand design is at its most vulnerable on airline tray tables, especially the smaller than average tables with no lip on the back. In that configuration, the kickstand can slip off and interrupt whatever productivity one might have had up until that point. Faced with that annoyance, I'll usually opt for actual laptop use. In the narrow confines of an airplane seat, "lappability" is usually good enough.

In other situations, the kickstand’s full range of motion enables some configurations that wouldn’t be possible on another device. I regularly detach the Type Cover, push the friction hinge back almost as far as it will go, and let the tablet sit securely in my lap with the back propped up a few inches, just enough to support typing using the on-screen keyboard.

USB ports

Other reviewers have complained that this machine needs an extra USB port, presumably to match the configuration of the MacBook Air. I’m not exactly sure where that second port would go on a device this tightly engineered. And even if there were enough room, I’m not sure how often I would use that additional port.

As I mentioned earlier, the Surface Pro 3 is clamped into the docking station whenever it’s back in the office. With five USB ports on the docking station and one on the device itself, that’s more than enough connectivity.

SP3-docking-station-back

When I’m traveling, I typically carry a Bluetooth mouse, and the only time I use the USB port is to connect a flash drive for quick file transfers. One USB port is enough for my needs. (And if I did need extra ports, I would toss a mini-USB 3 hub into the bag. Problem solved.)

Storage

I’m not a developer or a videographer, so I don’t need massive amounts of local storage for apps and data files. Most of my working files are stored in the cloud, and I’ve become adept at organizing and syncing those files so that the ones I need are available even when I’m offline.

On the other hand, I do like to use the Surface Pro 3 for music and movies when traveling. The availability of the MicroSD card slot behind the kickstand means that I can easily expand available storage on the Surface Pro 3 by 32GB or 64GB relatively cheaply ($20 or $40, respectively). I’ve opted for the more expensive SanDisk 128GB MicroSDXC card, which costs $120. After formatting it using NTFS, I was able to relocate the OneDrive sync files and all of my music, pictures, and video files.

If I were regularly editing video files or RAW photo images, I would certainly have chosen a model with a larger SSD, both for the capacity and the performance, which is probably five times faster than the MicroSDXC card. But for playing MP3 files or opening Word documents or Excel spreadsheets, the removable storage is more than adequate.

Problems and patches

Like any new hardware product, the Surface Pro 3 had a handful of issues that annoyed early adopters. The most serious was an issue that caused connectivity problems and slow speeds with the built-in Wi-Fi adapter, especially on newer-model routers using the 802.11ac standard. Those issues were resolved within the first two months with a series of firmware and driver updates .

The only other significant issue I've seen reported in the Surface support forums was a nagging issue where the i7 model would incorrectly report that it had overheated after resuming from sleep. That issue was also resolved with a firmware update.

I've had two minor issues with my Surface Pro 3 that required technical support.

The cord on the power supply frayed slightly, exposing bare wires. A replacement unit (and a spare power supply I purchased separately) have not had that problem. It's worth noting that Apple's MagSafe and MagSafe 2 power adapters for the competing MacBook Air have been plagued with defects. More than 75 percent of reviews for the latest version of that product give it a 1-star review.

In a separate issue, my Surface Pro 3 inexplicably lost its ability to connect to the Type Cover. I submitted a warranty request on a Wednesday evening and had a replacement unit in my hands on Friday morning.

Some defects are a fact of life for any hardware product, especially those that involve the sort of extreme engineering found in the Surface Pro series. The latest Consumer Reports Product Reliability Survey concluded that 12-16 percent of Windows laptops will need repairs in the first three years of ownership; Apple's MacBooks, by contrast, had only an 8 percent repair rate.

Aside from those issues, the Surface Pro 3 has been a solid performer for me.

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