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

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?

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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.

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, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets, Bring Your Own Device

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

    The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 just can't be beat. Its an all around great next generation device capable of handling most computing tasks. It would seem only gamers would not be able to take advantage of this device and that would be due to the extreme heat issues encountered with playing games. Overall it looks to be the ideal device and soon as my local Microsoft store has one I'm going to run down there and check it out.
    Loverock.Davidson
    • You are kidding me!!!

      Yiu really cannot be serious about this....
      andy.james
      • So how much did you pay for your?

        which version did you buy for your expert opinion? Just curious - based on you silly rant below.
        ScanBack
        • I'm detecting a lot of shill votes...

          The fact that LD has 30 flags and you've got 7 doesn't really help much.

          Honestly though, Economister getting 60 up-votes for insulting the author just takes it home.

          Oh well, I guess that if you support Microsoft in any way, shape, or form, you're wrong and you deserve to be flagged by a vote-spammer.

          Sound logic, I guess.
          ForeverCookie
          • For those who don't understand the voting system.

            Up-votes do nothing.

            Flags however, do.

            Take that into consideration every time you false flag a comment for daring to have a differing opinion.
            ForeverCookie
          • Re: For those who don't understand the voting system.....

            A flag could simply mean the voter disagrees with a comment given. So yes taken in that context flags do matter.
            5735guy
          • You guys realize they mean nothing?

            Votes and flags mean nothing. They are an artifact of the old commenting system.

            They don't have any meaning or practical effect. (And they will undoubtedly be gone when ZDNet gets its next redesign.)

            So don't obsess over them.
            Ed Bott
          • True but. . .

            ". . . they will undoubtedly be gone when ZDNet gets its next redesign"

            Along with this article and with the Microsoft Surface.
            Henry 3 Dogg
          • Henry 3 Dogg - Strange Comment

            Is your sole goal to sound clever while making snarky comments? The surface has actually demonstrated some staying power while it has continuously improved. So why do you think it is going away? Or, is giving reason too much of a stretch for you.
            larsonjs
          • ?

            Was Ed Bot just trying to be clever when he discounted the views of readers saying that the votes and flags would be gone by the time ZDNet did it's next redesign?

            If so, more people flagged his comment than voted for it. And almost twice as many flagged your snarky response to my comment. Whereas more than 10 times as many voted for my commented than flagged it.

            Do you believe in democracy?

            The article is still here and so are the votes and flags, so the jury is still out in that one.

            Ditto the Microsoft Surface.

            Why do I think the Microsoft Surface will go away? For the same reason as the public have declined to buy it resulting in a massive backlog of losses from dumped inventory

            Be Clear, the only reason that the Surface is still around is that Microsoft has deep pockets and has been willing to continue throwing good money after bad. It's got a long way to go to bap back it's accumulated losses.

            Microsoft is fundamentally a software company. I suspect that the Surface was meant to kickstart the demand for Windows Tablets, much as Google uses Nexus devices to kick start demand for Android.

            Instead, Surface has convinced other potential Windows Tablet builders that it's not a place to be. Microsoft has a lot of bridges to mend.
            Henry 3 Dogg
          • Speaking of a redesign...

            Are we getting an edit button?

            Besides that, votes do in-fact, have a practical effect.

            When somebody stumbles upon this review, what do you think they'll see when they scroll down?

            60 up-votes on a comment calling you a biased shill.

            What happens when there are multiple comments calling you a biased shill, all of which have been artificially boosted with a vote inflator?

            When multiple people are fooled by that the false majority into thinking that you're a "biased shill", the title will stuck.

            The ZD|Net community may be small, but even we have a voice.

            It only takes one person to discredit another, after all.

            You may not care, but your readers certainly will.

            The mud-slinging around here already getting ridiculous, we don't need any full-on conflicts full of people taking up arms.

            When it comes to trolls, not even SJVN articles get this bad.
            ForeverCookie
          • RE: Speaking of a redesign...

            "It only takes one person to discredit another, after all."

            I'm sure that can be automated so it doesn't take a person.
            Sacr
          • Re: When it comes to trolls, not even SJVN articles get this bad....

            You slate me for singling out Ed in previous articles but you do the same here with SJVN.

            Is it perhaps just a case of you agree with Ed and disagree with SJVN ?
            5735guy
          • @5735guy: What are you talking about?

            I'm talking about the rampancy of trolls.

            SJVN gets a pretty large share when it comes to mud-slinging wars, but Ed's articles are almost always battle zones.
            ForeverCookie
          • Funny thing is...

            ...I didn't even notice that comments had votes or flags until I read these comments on this article.
            JohnKeiff
          • Some of us read the article and comments for information, and ignore idiots

            Up votes might matter for some, like down votes. The Kardashians also matter for some. However, unless you have something meaningful to say about the device itself or the way in which one can use the device, most of us pretty much ignore you, both uppers and flaggers. Please, take the snark back to FB, and leave this forum to the discussion of the device. Thank you, and have a nice day.
            gardoglee
          • Re: You guys realize they mean nothing?....

            Then why are they still there ?

            Wouldn't their removal partially represent a restriction of opinion. If a comment were outrageous the reader would no longer be capable of flagging it.

            Furthermore to be able to vote for the comment means you are in agreement with the contributor.

            What is wrong in that ?
            5735guy
          • Wondering

            I just wondering if this is the comment section of Surface 3 or about the voting system of ZDnet. While I like the voting system, where you agree or disagree with some one comments, I don't rely on it. For one, if you click on the Votes star, every single votes after that matches the one you vote for. Example, right now you have 6 votes. If I vote for you to 7 votes, every single comments after that will have 7 votes. It does not matter if the next commenter does not have any or have 12, it becomes 7. Only way to correct that is to refresh the page. Second, what is a flag? For me a flag represent the comments of this person is inappropriate. I prefer a thumbs up or down, and be accumulative. Not canceling each other.

            Now to the gist of the article. I love to have the Surface 3. My only point is just to overprice. It should come with the type cover as part of the deal and at least be $100 cheaper. The stand issue is not a big deal for me. I don't put laptop on my lap. I tend to look where to rest the laptop. With Surface 3 been a tablet, it will be better for me to use as a tablet when there is no place to set it down. Not always I am typing. I am sure no one will photoshop with a laptop in their laps or use CAD design this way either. Mostly you will be reading e-mail videos, playing light games, etc., you will be doing something that you won't need a keyboard. But I love to have the keyboard and a mouse with me. In the end I find the Surface more convenient or better then a Ultra laptop. For one, it's now much lighter at 1.67 lbs. The lightest Ultra book is double that. Second, the screen resolution is much better on the Surface 3. Third, the quality of Surface 2 is excellent so I can assume Surface 3 is also great. HP product and support is bad. Dell is much better, but still don't have all the refinement I am looking for. Acer quality from past experience have let me down. Asus, is better in my experience than Acer, but they still don't have the right product. So, on the end Surface 3 is the best product, except for its price.
            jazzy2945
          • re: You guys realize they mean nothing?

            > And they will undoubtedly be gone
            > when ZDNet gets its next redesign.

            I have no doubt about it The last redesign introduced the brilliant "no editing" feature and as a bonus added the 'broken threading" feature. I highly anticipate a "no voting" feature in the next go-round!
            none none
          • RE the redesign

            When they do this redesign, how's about, besides up and down votes, introduce a category called "shill". Reviews like yours have real value, but unfortunately the less savory elements in all the major companies also hire these "50 cents per post" shills. It's a verified fact, but it's something we don't need.
            Please consider this..
            Nick Ettema