Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. Acer Aspire S7: May the better Windows 8 laptop win

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. Acer Aspire S7: May the better Windows 8 laptop win

Summary: Forget MacBook Airs. Which is the better Windows 8 laptop: The new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 or the Acer Aspire S7? Here's my two cents.

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Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is a tablet that Microsoft is positioning as a laptop replacement. Microsoft officials are calling it a tablet, but claiming it can best laptops, including MacBook Airs, for many, if not all users.

surfacepro3

Yet after a month with the Surface Pro 3, I'd argue that it might not be the laptop of your dreams if you are in the market for a high-end ultrabook-class Windows 8 machine.

This is my "review" of Microsoft's Core i5-based Surface Pro 3, which Microsoft loaned me on May 20, as well as of my Acer Aspire S7 ultrabook. I put the word review in quotes because firstly, I am not really a product reviewer, especially in comparison to some of my tech-journalism and blogger colleagues. And, secondly, this post is more about positioning — in the many senses of that word — than about speeds and feeds, which is what many expect when they see the word "review." (If you're looking for the ultimate speeds/feeds review, I'd suggest starting with this one from AnandTech.)

Microsoft officials have contended for the past few years that tablets are PCs. I've never believed that statement. And after using the Surface Pro 3 I feel even more queasy about this claim.

For some users, the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 can and will be an adequate, if not optimal, laptop replacement. It is light, comes with a high-resolution touch display and includes a digitizing pen for free. For those for whom OneNote and/or note-taking are a key part of their workflow, the Surface Pro 3 is definitely worth checking out.

But for others of us, the Surface Pro 3 is neither fish nor fowl. For me, it's not the best tablet and it's not the best laptop. This isn't a problem unique to the Surface Pro line; it's true, of all members of this emerging class of hybrid Windows devices. 

After a month of hands-on time with the Surface Pro 3, I can genuinely and happily say I am not sorry I shelled out $1,500+ for my 13-inch, Core i7-based Acer Aspire S7 ultrabook just a couple of months ahead of the Surface Pro 3 launch. Finding/buying it was an arduous process, but in the end, worth it.

For the way I work, the Acer is the better device. Granted, I might have been singing a different tune if Microsoft launched what I've been calling a "Surface Book" — an ultrabook-class, clamshell-type laptop. But that isn't what the Surface Pro 3 is.

Why reinvent the wheel — or a form factor that works?

aceraspires7

With the Surface Pro 3, I can't help but feel that Microsoft is trying to reinvent a form factor that doesn't need reinventing.

There is a group of people for whom laptops and ultrabooks are the best device, or at least their device of choice. There's a reason laptops — and Chromebooks, by the way — are the go-to devices for their constituencies. They have solid, permanently attached keyboards and protective clamshell covers that doesn't cost $130 extra. They might not be selling as quickly as tablets. But they are tried and true.

Unlike a number of other tech reviewers who kicked the Surface Pro 3 tires, I didn't pit a MacBook Air against the Surface Pro 3; instead, I compared a Windows 8 ultrabook to the Surface Pro 3. But I still found the Pro 3 wanting.

Over the past month, I sat the Surface Pro 3 and my Acer S7 side-by-side on a table in my apartment, allowing me to grab and go either device when needed. Both run Windows 8.1 Update. Both have the same apps installed. Both, because they are Intel-based, allow me to run "legacy" Win32 apps, such as Google's Chrome browser, Snagit (an image capture tool) and an app enabling me to connect my Verizon EVDO networking card.

The vast majority of time, I found myself opting for the Acer device, even though it's about a pound heavier than the Surface Pro 3.

The keyboard on my Acer is better, in terms of comfort and feel, in spite of the improvements Microsoft has made to the stability and ergonomics with the new Surface Pro 3. On the Acer, the keyboard doesn't partially obscure access to the icons for the applications I have pinned to my Desktop, which happens with the Surface Pro 3 (as my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott also noticed.) There are more built-in USB ports on the Acer (two vs. one on the Surface Pro 3). The Acer just feels more rugged and ready, overall, to me.

The biggest minus on my Acer S7 so far has been the screen. The screen resolution is fantastic (2560 X 1440), but the display seems susceptible to pitting, resulting from whatever pebbles/couscous crumbs (?) were on my keyboard when I closed the cover. The small pits I've seen aren't affecting image quality but they are noticeable enough to be annoying and worrisome. 

Permanently attached keyboards still lap it up

And then there's the hot-button issue of "lappability."

I appreciate that not everyone needs to type for hours in cramped conditions on their laptops, like many of us journalists and bloggers do. But I'd argue that many PC users type in/on their laps more than they might realize. Students in classrooms; information workers in impromptu meetings; e-mail respondents on planes, trains and automobiles: We are lap typists. And unless you are willing to creatively modify your Surface Pro 3 (or unless you have really long thighs), the Surface Pro 3, even with its much-improved kickstand, is still nowhere near as lappable as a regular laptop.

I realize all "reviews" are colored by the reviewers' workflow, habits and openness to new technologies. I also know journalists/bloggers represent a tiny fraction of the potential audience for a device like the Surface Pro 3. For me, a traditional ultrabook like the Acer S7 has the combination of power, comfort, lappability and good looks for which I was willing to pay a premium price. Your mileage may vary.

Surface Pro 3 officially goes on sale on June 20 at Microsoft Stores and Best Buys. The i3 and i7 models are due out in late August and can be preordered now.

Update: On June 19, Microsoft rolled out a firmware update for Surface Pro 3, which will be available immediately to those with the new devices. The firmware update includes a fix to power/Connected Standby issues some of us reviewers had noticed, and also provides general performance updates, according to a company spokesperson. The firmware update is available for download via Windows Update.

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

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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112 comments
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  • Just as every time...

    Every time I read your "reviews". I posted my dislike. You delete it. Every time.

    The problem with your review is not that you are not a reviewer. Problems are: 1. you don't fully understand the product you are "reviewing". 2. You talk too much about how you feel. I can tell you are not representative to the journal public.

    It doesn't have be better than laptop in every category. It is lighter, thinner, a lot more portable. This already means a lot of money for many people. Maybe not for you. I don't like the way you are talking about this. You emphasis how you feel. If you are writing blog to the public, how you feel less important than how most people would feel.
    jk_10
    • Bloggers can't delete comments.

      Only moderators can do that.
      ForeverCookie
    • I think he makes a good point though

      by using how she feels and her context it means that users aren't forced to think something works only one way, for Mary it is clear that those few differences are important. A lot of reviews don't always consider real life conditions and are more focused on the specs than say how easy it is to use in a coach or on the sofa.

      At the end of the day apart from the stats most Reviews are the writer's opinion anyway.
      pseudodragon52
      • Oops title should read she

        not he
        pseudodragon52
        • jk_10 & jdyl are larely right.

          Its one of the biggest problems around ZDNet articles. And it runs on a continuum from writers just saying too much about how the product makes them feel about it to other writers going so far as to not only let us know how they "feel" about the product but to pretty much equivocate their feelings on the record to the product being actual crap if it isn't one that makes them "feel" good and a wonderful product of course if it makes them feel good. The latter kind of writer is of course the most problematic when its clear that for example; they don't like the brand, therefor the product from that brand could never make them feel good, therefore the product is actual crap.

          Its rampant around here to the point of being absolutely ludicrous sometimes. Getting at the truth about a product at ZDNet can be a wicked struggle sometimes despite the sheer number of articles and writers that often comment on a particular product.

          Its so horrible sometimes, if your clever, you can sometimes actually get your best meaningful information about a product when you know the particular writers biases, you have a reasonable amount of tech savvy, you know whats important and not important to you in a product of the kind the writer is reviewing, and so long as your unbiased yourself. In a sense, if your honest and unbiased and reasonably intelligent yourself you can auto-filter the writers review to claw through there nonsense and see what at least partially going on.

          The biased and untech savvy are lost. They simply wade in with vigor and applause on ridiculous negative articles on products where they don't like the manufacturer, and join in on lifting the reviewer to the sky who gives good reviews to products they like, and as noted above; its got to the point where its often very predictable who the reviewer will be based on the product, and whether the review is negative or positive.

          Example; want to know just how great the latest Microsoft product, particularly a Windows product is?

          Read a SJVN review on just about anything Windows based, let yourself understand that the only reason he is writing about a Windows product in the first place is torpedo it in the hopes that one day the great ship Microsoft will sink if enough Microsoft haters actually manage to connect in some meaningful way with enough torpedo's. Consider as much as he distains Microsoft products generally, such as Windows, he will take a very good look at them to see what it is that he can find that makes him feel the worst and to discover anything he might be able to translate into a problem.

          Then when you read his review, think hard and honestly about what your reading and what parts make some sense and what dosnt. Articles that are full of hate often find themselves with some of the juiciest parts not really making a lot of sense. You have to simply discard the parts that honestly don't make sense. Read the parts that are left. Consider if the hateful remarks are just his personal feelings about the particular feature or issue he is talking about and ask yourself am I enough like SJVN in my needs that I will hate that particular thing the same, or close to the way he does? In most cases if you don't hate Microsoft to begin with, most of these kinds of points he makes will be meaningless to you.

          Consider whats left. Is there anything real here left, or is it simply far fetched speculation about what "could go wrong". If there still appears to be something "real" left in his complaints, that may be something you need to look into. Compare his level of complaint to how such an issue will or would likely impact on you.

          When you read an SJVN review on a Windows product, you know for a fact if there really is anything bad there, he will point it out and jump up and down. If there really is anything there just sorting it out from the rest of the nutso suff is the hard part.
          Cayble
      • This was not a proper hardware review

        If you have read as many reviews as I have you would probably have the sense that the most useful reviews are the ones that give as little personal opinion as possible and just objectively report the device experience based upon metrics such as heat, noise, viewing angle, performance, fit and finish, price, benchmarks (real and synthetic), specs, and use case. Those metrics should compose about 95% of the review. If done properly, you should have all the information you need to get a good idea of the device. But if the piece is 95% opinion, then just how helpful do you think that is to a buyer? This review was mostly an opinion piece that does little more than state "I like this more than that." Go check out Mobile Tech Review on Youtube, notebookreview.com, and Laptopmag.com. Those will show you a proper journalistic hardware review.
        jdyl
        • Review, preview.

          IF someone asks your opinion about your new Taurus and you give them your opinion, would it be part of your decision to consider buying one. Not all of the readers are geeks. Lighten up, opinions are like flavors, everyone has their reasons and needs for thiers.
          vger_z
      • No, he does not make a good point...

        MJF is an expert on what she likes. She can only share her opinions and readers must draw whatever conclusions they can from [reading] it. She would be delusional if she tries to foist her likes on others.

        Readers who are interested in the product owe it to themselves to consider multiple opinions and, if possible, test-drives before they make a decision.
        auogoke@...
    • She never said she was a reviewer

      I enjoyed reading about her opinion of the device. As others stated, all reviews are opinions. And the Acer and alcohol comment by another was priceless.

      Thanks MJ.
      Luke Skywalker
    • Hi. I have never deleted any of your comments

      I don't mind people disagreeing. The moderators are in charge of deleting comments, which they do for reasons like profanity, etc. MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
      • I like the "review"

        Reviews are about feelings. I know the tech specs, I want to know how it fits into a lifestyle and see if it would work for me. Its why I am thinking about an S7 opposed to a Surface 3.
        jaredthegeek
    • ... *sigh*

      1) Had you read her 'review' you would have noticed that she does not claim to be a reviewer. It is an opinion piece plain and simple, and with her background she has more than earned the right to have an opinion.

      2) Not everyone is looking for an iPad replacement with an x86 copy of Windows on board. In fact, I would imagine that the people who read this blog are particularly interested in more business oriented products which MS keep claiming the Surface Pro line is suppose to be, but continues to fail at. Many of us do not care about the raw weight and size of a laptop, and only view it as a secondary consideration to usability, features, and our own personal workflows. It is great that the Surface Pro 3 has made such strides towards making such a thin device... but at the same time Broadwell is right around the corner, and before Christmas there will be plenty of Core i5 tablets that are even thinner and have no need of fans. With the release schedule of the Surface lineup I would not be surprised to see a Surface Pro 4 with a fan-less Broadwell configuration before the year's end. Why pick up a dead end product when there are much more useful traditional laptop devices available?

      3) She never once said that the Surface Pro 3 was a bad product. Quite the contrary she has stated quite a few times that it is a pretty nice device, but simply does not fit her workflow. She (and several other reviewers) feels that it would not fit the workflow of many serious computer users outside of people who need to take constant notes, or do artwork of some kind.

      4) Reviews come in all flavors. If you want a technical review, then go check out Anandtech, or Tom's, or another site that focuses specifically on reviewing the technical aspect of products. When reading or listening to MJF it is all about (solid) rumors, direction, and getting a feel for the practicality of different products and ideas, and that is exactly what this 'review' covers. What else would you expect?
      CaedenV
      • Students

        I thought the article was generally poor, unstructured and lazily written, and didn't consider different workflow perspectives properly. For example MJF only very briefly mentioned the SP3 note taking abilities (which is probably it's major USP), but then dismissed the device for students on classrooms. How does that compute?
        Properly used, hand written note taking over subject material is a fantastic way to capture information and truly listen, especially when coupled with audio recording. This is a workflow which works not only for students but in fact anyone who needs to listen to others and accurately record information or opinion.
        I think MJF would have been better to just say it didn't work for me, rather than a half hearted attempt at a review. MJF is an influential person and should show more responsibility in my view.
        Robertofrog
    • You don't fully understand the product you are 'reviewing'

      She may or she may not, but neither will virtually everyone buying them. If you had to understand them in order to like them or build an opinion about them, Microsoft would be doomed. At the end of the day, reviews like hers are not going to be some scientific analysis, but they'll answer the question "did it work for me, and how may my experience relate to others?"
      WebSiteManager
      • It is

        a Microsoft product. The Surface product already a history of confusion. (Windows RT or Not).
        ctopher5669
        • Only confusing if

          how is it confusing if you not including RT; what make is so confusing. Its not the 1st touch screen windows computer in a tablet form factor
          Meansman
          • Surface is confusing

            Within a short amount of time, Microsoft has come out with the Surface RT, Surface Pro, Surface 2 RT,Surface 2 Pro, and Surface Pro 3. They were supposed to have a mini but dropped that, they also dropped every line of Surface except the Surface 2 RT and the Pro 3.

            The Pro 3 isn't really a tablet (to large) and the RT isn't popular, so it has to make one wonder, where the hell are they going with all of this?

            I think the App Store in the future will be just a little toy, no one really wants to write apps for it (I don't see business jumping on the App band wagon).

            So in the end, I am left thinking Microsoft is just grasping at straws, waiting for something to stick.

            PS: I thought the review was fair, because it is the authors opinion.
            KarterJK
          • Surface Is Confusing - KarterJK

            Get up to date and state correct information

            1. There was never a Surface RT II, Microsoft dropped that after the first release. There is just Surface and Surface Pro, how is that confusing.

            2. They have not dropped the Surface Mini, the just decided to release it at a later date.

            3. No announcement has been made that there will not be a new Surface device sometime in the future either. So it is only speculation on you part the MS had dropped the Surface device and are only going to do the Surface Pro devices.
            smehaffie
    • I found the review

      refreshing.

      It is a very interesting read and sums up the situation for people who need to type a lot. I think she understands the devices well enough and she is comparing them for the type of work that she does.

      To be honest, I can't remember the last time I typed on my lap, I always type on a desk or table - and then I generally use my Microsoft Natural keyboard. I have a tablet and it is great for sitting on the sofa or taking written notes in a meeting, but I wouldn't want to type on it on my lap (even with its click-in keyboard "dock"), I plug it into the desktop dock, connected to said Natural keyboard when I need to do real work.
      wright_is
      • Or

        Use the pen to take notes
        Meansman