Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Impressive hybrid tablet, but keyboard should be bundled

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Impressive hybrid tablet, but keyboard should be bundled

Summary: If you need a Windows 8.1 computer that's flexible enough to be a tablet, a laptop (if you add the optional keyboard) and even (if you add the optional docking station) a desktop PC, then the Surface Pro 3 manages the trade-offs as well as anything on the market.

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  • Editors' rating:
    8.0
  • User rating:
    7.4
  • RRP:
    £799.16

Pros

  • High-quality 12-inch screen
  • Slimmer and lighter than the 10.6-inch Surface Pro 2
  • Multi-angle kickstand
  • Improved Type Cover keyboard and touchpad
  • Good performance and battery life
  • Useful Surface Pen/OneNote integration

Cons

  • Type Cover is an extra-cost option
  • Surface Pen has no proper 'home' on the tablet
  • Only one USB 3.0 port
  • Lacks a full-size SD card slot
  • Runs warm and activates fan more than previous model

Since its debut in 2012, Microsoft's Surface family of Windows tablet/laptop hybrids has generated plenty of coverage and opinion, but only moderate sales. Reviews of the x86-based Surface Pro devices running Windows 8.x have generally commented favourably on their design, build quality and performance, with criticism focusing on some ergonomic shortcomings, battery life (particularly in the first-generation Surface Pro) and premium pricing (especially when accessories like add-on keyboards and docking stations are factored in).

With the third-generation Surface Pro 3, announced in May and available in the UK on 28 August, Microsoft has delivered a larger (but slimmer) 12-inch tablet with, among other improvements, a multi-angle kickstand, a better Type Cover keyboard and a new digitiser/stylus combo with nifty OneNote integration. It's still a premium-priced device though — especially in UK and elsewhere outside the US, where there's a significant markup.

surface-pro-3-thumb
Microsoft's 12-inch Surface Pro 3 is touted as "The tablet that can replace your laptop", but you'll need to buy the optional Type Cover keyboard. Image: Microsoft

This time around, Microsoft is marketing the Surface Pro 3 as "the tablet that can replace your laptop" (which implies that you need the optional Type Cover) and putting out advertisements that explicitly compare it to an actual laptop — Apple's (13-inch) MacBook Air.

Such exercises are interesting, and good debating fodder. However, when it comes down to an actual purchase decision, there are other factors to consider. For example, are you committed to, or biased towards, a particular OS platform — either through personal choice or because of the IT environment at your workplace? Do you value the flexibility of a hybrid touchscreen tablet/laptop, or are you happier with a more traditional touchpad-and-keyboard-driven clamshell device? Speeds, feeds and prices are all important, of course, but it's your preferred OS platform and style of computing that's likely to tip the balance one way or another.

Our review configuration comprised a Surface Pro 3 tablet with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD (£849 inc. VAT) plus the optional Type Cover (£109.99 inc. VAT) for a total cost of £958.99 (inc VAT, or £799.16 ex. VAT).

Design

The most obvious change in the Surface Pro 3 is its larger screen size — up from 10.6 inches and 1,920-by-1,080 resolution in earlier models to 12 inches and 2,160 by 1,440 pixels. That's a 50 percent increase in the number of pixels, a slight increase in pixel density (from 208 to 216ppi) and a change in aspect ratio from a consumer-oriented 16:9 to a more businesslike 3:2.

As far as image quality is concerned, the Surface Pro 3's IPS screen, like its predecessors', is excellent: it displays bright, vibrant colours and sharp text with good viewing angles. The screen surface is glossy, so outdoor viewing may be somewhat problematical.

The potential downside of the welcome increase in screen area is, of course, more bulk and weight. However, Microsoft has done an impressive job here: despite having a 23.6 percent bigger footprint, the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 is actually 4.4mm thinner (9.1mm v 13.5 mm) and 100g lighter (800g v 900g) than the 10.6-inch Surface Pro 2.

Another marked improvement in the Surface Pro 3's design is its multi-angle kickstand, which finally reaches the destination towards which the first- and second-generation models were stumbling with their respective (and restrictive) single- and dual-position kickstands. The new hinge is sturdy, opens from 22 to 150 degrees and makes it much more comfortable to use the Surface Pro 3 in laptop mode — both on a flat surface and on your lap.

surface-pro-3-review-kickstand
The Surface Pro 3's multi-angle kickstand can go from 22 to 150 degrees. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Talking of laptop mode, that obviously requires a keyboard — which unfortunately remains a £109.99 (inc. VAT) option, despite Microsoft's MacBook Air-focused marketing campaign. There's only one add-on keyboard for the Surface Pro 3 — the Type Cover with backlit notebook-style keys. The Surface Pro 3's magnetic docking port will accept older Touch Covers with their membrane-style keys, but of course these (and previous-generation Type Covers) are designed for a 10.6-inch screen rather than a 12-inch display.

surface-pro-3-review-type-cover
The double-hinged Surface Pro 3 Type Cover supports a more comfortable typing angle, although this mode obscures the lower bezel. Note also that the Windows touch button is now on the right-hand side. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

As well as an improved clickable multitouch touchpad with two-finger scrolling and pinch-zoom, the new Surface Pro 3 Type Cover has a double hinge and an extra magnetic strip that supports a more comfortable raised typing position (see image above). This does have the drawback of ruling out Windows 8.1 gestures involving the lower bezel, so you'll have to swipe down from the top bezel instead. Another consequence of the new keyboard attachment mechanism is that the Windows touch-button has had to move from the bottom bezel to the right-hand bezel, where it's more easily activated accidentally.

Like previous models, the Surface Pro 3 feels very solidly built, its smart light-grey magnesium alloy chassis incorporating a fan grille running along the top and halfway down the sides. Teardown analyses confirm the tablet's sturdy construction, but also criticise it for being hard to get into, using too many different-sized screws and having a glued-down battery. Repair experts iFixit gave the Surface Pro 3 a 'dismal' one out 10 for repairability. Our advice is simple: don't try to open up your Surface Pro 3.

As far as ports and connectors are concerned, there's a single USB 3.0 port on the right side, beneath a Mini-DisplayPort. Also on the right side is a (thankfully) updated magnetic power input connector — the previous design was annoyingly fiddly to engage. The power button is on the top, at the left-hand end, while the left side has the volume rocker. There are stereo speaker slits in the left and right bezels, about a centimetre from the top, while the top bezel houses a five-megapixel camera, an ambient light sensor and a microphone — a trio that's repeated at the back. The MicroSD card slot is also at the back, beneath the kickstand on the right side. Many Surface Pro users, and photographers in particular, would appreciate a full-size SD card slot.

surface-pro-3-review-dock
The Surface Pro 3 Docking Station greatly expands your connectivity options, but it costs £164.99 (inc. VAT) extra. Image: Microsoft

If you need more connections, and are feeling flush with (your or your employer's) cash, you can invest in the £164.99 (inc. VAT) Surface Pro 3 Docking Station. This will give you three USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45) connection, a Mini-DisplayPort, a headset jack, a security lock slot and a power input. A docked Surface Pro 3 can be a credible desktop computer, as it can run up to two external monitors at 60Hz (at up to 1,900 by 1,200 for the Core i3 model, or 2,880 by 1,800 for the Core i5 and i7 models) in addition to the internal display.

The Surface Pen is another point of difference between the second- and third-generation Surface Pros. The Surface Pro 2 had a Wacom EMR digitiser and a passive stylus that recognised 1,204 pressure levels, while the latest model replaces this with a thinner N-trig digitiser and an active Bluetooth pen (requiring an AAAA battery and two coin cells) that recognises 256 pressure levels. The two-button Surface Pen looks and feels like an actual pen, and we found it satisfying to use both for note-taking in OneNote and painting (albeit ineptly) in the bundled Fresh Paint app.

surface-pro-3-review-onenote
The new Surface Pen lets you wake the tablet from sleep and fire up OneNote with a single click. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Talking of OneNote, there's some clever integration with the Surface Pen: a click of the pen's top button wakes the tablet from sleep and fires up OneNote ready for note-taking; and if you're browsing the web, for example, and want to take a clipping, a double-click of the button takes a screenshot and automatically loads it into a OneNote page for annotation. Note that if you want to convert handwritten notes to text, you'll have to download the (free) desktop application from onenote.com— the bundled Windows Store OneNote app doesn't support this.

We criticised previous Surface Pros for having nowhere to stow the stylus when the magnetic power input is in use, and Microsoft has done something about it — up to a point — with the Surface Pro 3. When you buy the optional Type Cover, you get a small packet containing a colour-matched Pen Loop, which is a fabric loop with an adhesive attachment designed to fix to the underside of the add-on keyboard. The thinking, presumably, is that you can attach the loop exactly where you want it — left or right side, for example. The trouble is, on our review sample at least, that the adhesive wasn't strong enough; it also takes a bit of shoving to get the pen in and out of the loop. Result: the whole thing can easily come adrift, as it did in our travel bag on its first journey.

surface-pro-3-review-pen-loop
The Pen Loop is a less than satisfactory solution to housing the Surface Pen. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Furthermore, the Pen Loop seems more of an afterthought than the elegantly designed solution you're entitled to expect on a premium-priced device. The chance of mislaying your (very useful) stylus remains as high as it was before, unfortunately. For the moment, we advise that you clip it to the groove in the Type Cover keyboard or keep it safely in a jacket or coat pocket.

Features

The Surface Pro 3 runs on fourth-generation Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors, our review unit being powered by the dual-core 1.9/2.9GHz Core i5-4300U with 4GB of (non-expandable) RAM. This chip has a maximum TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 15W — the same thermal envelope as the 1.6/2.6GHz Core i5-4200U used in last year's Surface Pro 2. The integrated HD Graphics 4400 GPU is the same as in the previous model.

Storage on our review unit was a 128GB Samsung mSATA SSD; other models are available with 64GB, 256GB and 512GB of SSD storage. If you need more capacity, there's the MicroSD card slot under the kickstand, on the right-hand side.

Wireless networking is handled by a Marvell Avastar Wireless AC network controller that supports dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi (last year's Surface Pro 2 didn't support the latest 802.11ac standard). As well as wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0, the Marvell wireless chip also supports NFC, although this isn't implemented on the Surface Pro 3.

Soon after the Surface Pro shipped in the US in June, reports emerged of connectivity problems with 802.11ac wi-fi, prompting a number of firmware upgrades from Microsoft. These are still coming — the latest system firmware update on our review system is dated 19 August. We didn't notice any wi-fi connectivity glitches during the review period, but it's worth keeping an eye on the relevant Microsoft forum.

If you want a wired network connection, you'll need to buy the optional £34.99 (inc. VAT) Surface Ethernet Adapter, which will take the tablet's only USB 3.0 port out of the running for any other duty. It's either that or the full £164.99 (inc. VAT) Docking Station option.

There's a pleasing lack of software 'bloat' on the Surface Pro 3, which, apart from OneNote and Fresh Paint (to show off the stylus functionality), has the standard Windows 8.1 Pro complement of apps.

Performance & battery life

Microsoft's Windows Experience Index (WEI) gives a useful summary of a system's performance, broken down by subsystem. Under Windows 8.1 Pro, the WEI scores are out of 9.9:

CPU Score  7.4
D3D Score  5.4
Disk Score  8.15
Graphics Score  5.9
Memory Score  5.9

Overall, this is decent level of all-round performance, with — as you'd expect — the integrated graphics, and particularly 3D graphics, proving the weakest subsystem. The SSD and Core i5 CPU are the stars of the show.

Microsoft claims nine hours of web browsing from the Surface Pro 3's 42Wh battery. In our tests, which involved taking power consumption measurements under different workload and screen brightness conditions, we estimated that you can expect around 6.6 hours' life with middling screen brightness and a mixture of idle time and challenging workloads. That's an improvement on the 5.4 hours we estimated by similar methods for the Surface Pro 2. However, if you're hitting the system continuously with heavy workloads, don't expect battery life to exceed around 2.5 hours.

During testing we noticed that the Surface Pro 3 gets warm in the top-right section when running serious workloads, whereupon the system's single fan audibly kicks in. One run of the Cinebench R15 CPU test, for example, is enough to warm up the device and set the fan running. This happens more often than it did with the Surface Pro 3's thicker-chassis predecessors, which each had two fans.

Conclusion

As a hybrid tablet/laptop, the Surface Pro 3 is, generally, very impressive. The design changes Microsoft has implemented are largely successful — a bigger 3:2 aspect-ratio screen, a thinner and lighter chassis, useful stylus/OS integration, an improved add-on keyboard and touchpad. Performance and battery life are both acceptable.

So what's to complain about? As far as the hardware is concerned, there are a few niggles: the too-easily-activated Windows touch-button in the right-hand bezel; the risible Pen Loop and lack of any other 'home' for the Surface Pen; the single USB 3.0 port; the lack of a full-size SD card slot; a tendency to run warm under load, with consequent fan noise.

The Surface Pro 3's premium pricing could be an issue for many potential buyers, and the fact that the Type Cover remains a £109.99 (inc. VAT) optional extra is particularly egregious. Given that Microsoft touts the Surface Pro 3 as "the tablet that can replace your laptop", the standard bundle really should include the key component that facilitates this claim.

Hardware niggles and price aside, if you need a Windows 8.1 computer that's flexible enough to be a tablet, a laptop (if you add the optional Type Cover) and even (if you add the optional Docking Station) a desktop PC, then the Surface Pro 3 manages the trade-offs as well as anything on the market.

It won't be for everyone, though. Fans of other operating systems, of clamshell laptops with 'proper' keyboards, of low-end prices, and anyone who can't get on with Windows 8.1's schizophrenic 'Modern'/desktop user experience will need to look elsewhere.

Read more reviews

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 29.21 x 0.91 x 20.14 cm
Case form factor slate tablet with add-on keyboard
Weight 0.8 kg
OS & software
Operating system Windows 8.1 Professional
Software included OneNote, Fresh Paint
Chipset & memory
RAM installed 4096 MB
RAM capacity 4 GB
Video
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4400
GPU type integrated
Video connections Mini-DisplayPort
Display
Display technology TFT touch-screen (active matrix)
Display size 12 in
Native resolution 2160x1440 pixels
Connections
USB 1 x USB 3.0
Other keyboard connector
Docking station port 1
Flash card Micro-SD
Networking
Ethernet via optional USB 3.0 adapter or optional docking station
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0
Input
Pointing devices touchscreen, stylus, multitouch touchpad (on optional Type Cover)
Keyboard optional Type Cover
Camera
2nd camera front
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 5 megapixels
Main camera resolution 5 megapixels
Audio
Audio connectors headphone
Speakers stereo
Microphone front and rear
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter, Surface Pen, Pen Loop
Other Type Cover (£109.99), Docking Station (£164.99), Ethernet Adapter (£34.99)
Battery
Battery technology lio-ion
Estimated battery life (mfr) 9 h
Number of batteries supplied 1
Number of batteries supported 1
Removable battery No
Processor & memory
Clock speed 1.9 GHz
Processor manufacturer Intel
Processor model Core i5-4300U
Solid-state drive
Interface SATA III
Capacity 128 GB
Expand

Prices

Price
Price GBP 799.16
Price USD 1128.99

Topics: Tablets, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Reviews, Windows 8

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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Talkback

53 comments
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  • Too Expensive

    4.0

    Too little SSD memeory as W8 requires a lot of space and what no keyboard. Needs to be designed so it's $400 cheaper and includes the keyboard. The surface design needs 14nm chips to work better.
    Alan Smithie
    • ahem...

      Let's hope for a fanless Cherry Trail version, a successor of the non-Pro model that skips RT and keeps the pen. That's a different target market than this device, tough.
      Sacr
    • You just described a different computer

      8.0

      that is in the same price range of an iPad, which doesn't have a similar CPU, Ram, Storage or keyboard for that price range you are suggesting.

      There are more choices that just the Surface and if you look there are options available at that price range.
      Emacho
    • You're kidding, right?

      You can't get a computer with an i5, a higher than HD display, pen support, and the weight/thickness of this device for the price you're talking. You can get a thick laptop or a tablet, sure, but this is more of an ultrabook in terms of notebook.
      Michael Alan Goff
      • Agreed!

        7.0

        Very good.
        MeMyselfAndI_z
    • It has an SSD and it is lighter and thinner then most premium ultrabooks

      7.0

      @ Alan Smithie: Compared to premium ultra books it bests them in battery, weight and size and keeps an SSD. You can put larger SSDs if you want up to 512.

      Have you seen any other laptops that sell at the price range you suggest with SSD, HD display ultra-ultra book size and weight, digitizer, backlit keyboard.

      At the existing price I don't believe you could find something equivalent. Keep in mind that road warriors will definitely pay the money to get the reduced weight and battery life.
      MeMyselfAndI_z
    • You aren't the target user.

      The target user values mobility over price. Note that it compares price-wise very competitively with premium ultrabooks with SSD drives. Dell's XPS dimension ultrabook goes for about $1800 when configured the same. It, of course, does more but it is also heavier and thicker and probably not as good battery life. That is worth $$$ to road warriors.

      When you get into high-end laptops, which are defined by having an SSD, very thin (less than an inch) and light (3lbs), this competes very well as it is much thinner, much lighter, just as fast and has a pressure based digitizer pen too. And comparable, if not superior battery life.
      MeMyselfAndI_z
  • Too Expensive

    4.0

    Too little SSD memeory as W8 requires a lot of space and what no keyboard. Needs to be designed so it's $400 cheaper and includes the keyboard. The surface design needs 14nm chips to work better.
    Alan Smithie
    • $400 less is not happening

      The specs on the machine are strong. Like a MacBook Pro, this machine is loaded with quality components That said if you want to reduce the price, like others have said, make the keyboard $0. No doubt that Microsoft is making up for what little margin if any exist on the machine, with the sale of the keyboard.
      Luke Skywalker
      • price is the key

        6.0

        Everybody believes that all mac products are vastly over priced in relation to production costs. What the market is waiting for is someone to produce a good quality product for a fair profit margin. I agree that "road warriors" will pay high prices but why not make something of the same quality at a price everyone can afford - pile em high and sell em cheap!
        cymru999
    • No it doesn't

      W8 doesn't require lots of space and there's this thing called the cloud. So what space you do get is plenty for working off line and installing productivity software.

      There is also the sd slot which will double your storage, and of course the usb.
      Pastabake
      • Correct, W8 uses about the same disk as W7. 256G and 512G available

        If 128 is too small get a bigger SSD.
        MeMyselfAndI_z
  • ....but keyboard should be bundled

    6.0

    And thats the sticking point isn't it. To come anywhere close to competing with traditional Laptops an included Keyboard is essential and not an optional extra.
    5735guy
    • You are probably right about bundling.

      7.0

      They should just up the price to cover it.
      MeMyselfAndI_z
  • An excellent product

    8.0

    Surface pro 3 is excellent, but still it needs some changes to be fully useful,
    I think surface pro 3 is a new category of computing that will define the future.

    the keyboard must be more tough, i think it's still hard to use surface pro with keyboard attached on your knee. this issue must be solved.
    also the one USB port is not enough for anything. at least three is the minimum.
    FadyNabilNashed
  • Looking forward to giving this a try

    8.0

    Considering it is not available yet in the UK I can't rate it in use.
    As far as I can see it is competitively priced for the very high end. Microsoft compare it with the MacBook Air and it is priced against this.
    Like most I think it needs the keyboard cover to make it complete. I'd also look to have the docking station for my office.
    The only thing that makes me not so sure is the lapability. I prefer my ultrabook to a tablet when composing emails because of the weight distribution - I can have it at any angle and it stays in that position. Not sure this will have that perfect combination but looking forward to trying it when they come to the stores next week.
    trinityict
  • Switching between touch, pen and keyboard/trackpad is not a good experience

    To my dismay, what I have found on Windows is that the touch stops at launching an application and you do have to switch over to keyboard/mouse for most of your file related tasks. File explorer is horrible even with a pen and trackpad if you have to switch from touch. I have seen people confused when to use touch and when to use the keyboard/mouse combo and when to use the stylus. The hardware and performance is good, but the experience still sucks. Perhaps that is the reason why they don't sell that well compared to iOS and Android.
    GoForTheBest
    • Have you tried windows 8? the screen is equivalent to mouse

      7.0

      And it has touch based keyboard. You can use office.
      MeMyselfAndI_z
  • Old saying

    You can't polish a turd.
    rag2
  • Just about perfect

    9.0

    Yes price is high, but the build quality, specs, and form factor justify the high price tag.

    The only con I have found using my i7 Surface Pro 3 is the USB 3 Port does not pump out enough power. Using an AOC Displaylink monitor causes the Surface to crap itself until it is unplugged. Work around - plugging the monitor into a powered USB Hub causes it work correctly.

    Works great as a laptop, works great as a digital notebook (the paper and pencil kind), and works great as a large screen tablet.
    AceOfClubs