Surface Pro 3: Thinner, lighter, more flexible

Surface Pro 3: Thinner, lighter, more flexible

Summary: Microsoft's latest entry in the Surface Pro line is billed as a tablet that can replace your laptop. On paper, it's a better deal than Apple's MacBook Air. Will you buy it?

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With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft isn’t shying away from a fight. The latest entry in the Surface line, introduced this week at a press event in New York City, takes dead aim at the ultra-premium, ultralight segment currently dominated by Apple’s MacBook Air.

surface-pro-3-v-macbook-air
Photo credit: Ed Bott / ZDNet

On paper, it’s not even close to a fair fight, as the new Surface wins on almost every score. But the market doesn’t pick winners and losers by looking at spec sheets. And the Surface Pro 3, while undeniably brilliant in design and execution, is still also undeniably quirky. Microsoft calls it "the tablet that can replace your laptop." Whether laptop buyers are ready to make that leap is an open question.

I took a loaner Surface Pro 3 home from today’s event. Here are some first impressions, after just a few hours of use.

This thing is ridiculously light. The only onstage prop at today's event was an old-school mechanical scale (shown in the photo above). With the Type Cover and included pen, the Surface Pro 3 is still 180 grams (about 6.5 ounces) lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air.

That achievement is even more impressive when you realize the new Surface Pro has a 12-inch (diagonal) display with a 2160x1440 native resolution. That's significantly larger than the 10.6-inch, 1920x1080 display on the Surface Pro 2. And yes, that's a 3:2 aspect ratio rather than the 16:9 ratio of a typical laptop. The resulting display feels much more natural in the hand when held in portrait mode, where its dimensions are downright paper-like.

The two previous iterations of the Surface Pro were uncomfortably thick. This edition is impossibly thin, especially when you consider that's an Intel Core i5 processor inside. Yes, there's a fan, but it's a custom design that expels air in literally every direction through the thin vents that completely surround the tablet's magnesium case. I couldn't hear the fan or feel any air even when pushing the CPU.

Several signature Surface features get significant changes in this edition. The kickstand, which was limited to a 22-degree angle in the Surface Pro and added a second angle in the Surface Pro 2, now uses a friction hinge that can stop at any angle from zero to 150 degrees. Fully extended, it props the top edge of the display up by just a couple inches, ideal for viewing movies.

The power supply has a completely new magnetic connector that replaces the sometimes-balky five-pin design of earlier Surfaces. (On the downside, that means those old power supplies won't work with the new model, and vice versa.)

The trackpad, another source of complaints, is completely redesigned in the $129 Type Cover for Surface Pro 3. In my brief testing it was smooth and accurate.

Previous Surface Pros included a Wacom digitizer with pen. The Surface Pro 3 uses an N-Trig digitizer and a pen that pairs via Bluetooth. The pen (included with every edition) requires a battery and is stored in a small loop at the left side of the Type Cover.

The pen has a clever button at top that works like a remote control. Tap that button once, as if clicking a ballpoint pen, and it wakes up the device and loads Microsoft OneNote. In the onstage demo, a double-tap of the pen button saved the current screen to OneNote, allowing quick sharing and editing, a feature I didn't test.

The biggest stumbling block for some would-be buyers is going to be that kickstand, which is far more flexible than before but still will feel more awkward in the lap than a conventional clamshell design. (There's a reason they call them laptops.) Another design change that helps is a tiny tweak to the Type Cover, whose top edge now flips up and clamps to the bottom bezel of the display magnetically. That makes the keyboard significantly more rigid and adds some ergonomic tilt as well.

SurfacePro3sideviewTypeCover_Web

One feature that I wasn't able to test is the performance of the 42 watt-hour battery, which reportedly can last for nine hours of steady use and, more importantly, can hold its charge in standby mode for up to a year.

If you liked the earlier iterations of the Surface Pro you'll no doubt love the changes in this, the third edition. If you were put off by the Type Cover or the heft of earlier versions, the improvements here make it well worth a fresh look.

The real question is whether there are enough well-heeled buyers out there willing to pay the premium price for a Surface Pro instead of a MacBook Air. The lighter weight, sharper display, and touch support are pluses for the Surface. But they might not be enough to convince traditionalists to give up that familiar laptop form factor.

Related Coverage:

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Topics: Microsoft Surface, Hardware, Microsoft, Windows 8

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187 comments
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  • Sounds good

    If I was looking for a portable solution this would be it.

    For companies or individuals that are users of ultrabooks this will be an new option to look at at replacement time as well.

    And even if it doesn't sell great it does fit with their aim of showing what is possible and nudging the OEMs along to do better with the equipment they release. The Macs are a great example of this - never sold particularly well (low market share) but how many times do you see reports comparing product x to a mac product as a benchmark of engineering design.
    aesonaus
    • Why

      If you want a tablet, this is 71% heavier than an iPad Air. Hand held?

      If you want a notebook, then by the time you include the keyboard, NOT included in the claimed 800g and 9.1mm, then there is little advantage in portability over a real ultra book or MacBook Air. And you're stuck with a toy keyboard.

      Microsoft will sell a few, because enough of their market fears to look outside the Microsoft box.

      But beyond that, this yet another Microsoft product without a use case.
      Henry 3 Dogg
      • What

        So lighter weight with keyboard over ultra and mac books, higher resolution screen, touch, fantastic pen is only a little advantage? You just wanted to be negative right?
        With all the heavy lifting this thing can do I would take 71% heavier than an iPad Air any day of the week. This is a computer that can basically execute anything you throw at it while holding with one hand.
        thekman58
      • Huh?

        "If you want a tablet, this is 71% heavier than an iPad Air. Hand held?"

        Have you ever considered the possibility that someone could want a tablet form-factor device with full notebook/desktop capabilities? Sure, the Surface is 71% heavier than an iPad air, but it's also 100x more capable.

        That's like asking why anyone would want an SUV over a smaller compact car or a full size truck. Ummm, because they want the capabilities of both... and that's the whole point of the SUV.

        And while the iPad Air is admittedly an impressively slim and light device, 71% heavier than next to nothing isn't itself very heavy. I have the Surface Pro 2 and the weight is simply not an issue, and especially so when considering the capabilities it affords.

        As for the Surface's advantage over an Ultrabook, sure, the price will end up similar, but you DO still get the ability to convert between notebook and tablet form factors, a very high resolution screen, integrated pressure sensitive stylus and very high build quality, easily rivaling the MacBook.
        PC987
        • Bravo!

          Perfect response, PC987. This is the first Surface PC that I actually want, because it can actually replace both tablet and laptop. I already pre-ordered the i7 with 512 GB SSD.

          Microsoft's future incremental upgrades with be perfect for the surface pro, as the new Intel chips next year will provide even greater battery life and perhaps minor performance bumps. But the form factor right now is awesome and the screen ratio is PERFECTO. Awesome, awesome, awesome, can't wait until it arrives in August!
          Speednet
      • and the ipad is heavier than a drink coaster

        And they both have the same lack of ability to run photoshop, autocad, premiere.
        At least the drink coaster has write-only pen ability.
        warboat
      • So in essence

        You're comparing apple and oranges, and complaining that they aren't alike?

        The iPad air is 71% lighter, and only runs that which Apple lets it run. If the tradeoff between function vs. weight is not important to you, then go buy based on the weight, and don't complain if you can't load the programs you need on it.
        William.Farrel
      • iPad Air?

        Won't even touch a Surface Pro, let alone the SP3. Apple users sometimes don't get it. The iPad, cannot, in any way replace a laptop. Apple has done a great job in marketing that big toy of theirs.
        jdough862
        • Besides being anti-Apple, what's your point?

          Nobody thinks that the iPad replaces a laptop. However, for most users, an iPad fills their needs. If the Surface works for your needs, get it. The ridiculous war between IT nerds between MS, Apple and Android can be waged back in your parents' basement.
          thenitewatch@...
          • Wrong

            No, "for most users", the ipad does NOT fill their need. According to a March Gartner report, Android tablet market share was 61.9% and iOS was 36%. Factor in business users and actual computer "needs" and the market share is decidedly Windows. Most people love almost everything about the iPad - except that it can't do what you NEED it to do. Me and most of the people I know cannot run their business on an Apple device (tablet or laptop). Either 1) the software isn't available, 2) they don't have the training/support, or 3) can't afford the hardware. And even if your statement was even somewhat accurate, there is a huge market - especially for business users - that need, or at least would appreciate, a competitive tablet running their necessary Windows OS. It makes sense for a manufacturer to go after that market. It's good to see MS focusing on the aesthetic aspect of Apple competition and creating a device that addresses most of the problems. Granted, there will probably be bugs and most likely too expensive for most, but yours is a pretty foolish point of view.
            tech_e
          • The majority of people (most) don't own business

            So what's your point?

            Listen Microsoft's Surface has been on the market for a long enough time, if business's felt it was the perfect tool for their business it would have been a success by now. They embrace the iPad pretty quickly, why are they not embracing the Surface the same way? This Microsoft Windows, no?

            "Most people loves the iPad yet it can't do what they need it to do" what sense does that statement make? Why would they buy something if it's not doing what they need? IPad have something like 90$ satisfactory ratings btw, since introduction.
            dave95.
          • Duh!

            they buy it to be "cool"! to "Fit in"! THEN they realize, it's NOT for them! & does NOT do what they need it to do! That it is ONLY a walled garden! Pretty to look at BUT you're walled in & can only do so much!
            HBCASurfer
          • That's Me!

            Yes, I did buy the iPad to be "cool" and fit "in", but I found it did not meet my needs. It is a ONLY a wall"ed" garden. A garden with no fertilizer if I may be permitted to stretch the metaphor. Pretty to look at (ooh!), but you're walled in and can only do so much. I tap to show tunes. That's pretty much it. Tap, tap, tap to show tunes.

            It just couldn't do what I needed. Getting girls. And full-scale thermonuclear war. Where's your protective wall NOW, Hippy?!?
            Doug Bott
          • Still 96% of iPad owners

            Buy a Laptop!
            so that 90% iPad satisfaction must be for angry birds or some flappy crApps!
            Ive never seen people using their iPads for real work, taking notes? yeah, but still they go back to their PCs and send emails, and do their work the rest of the day on them.
            And the business owners only use the iPads to take payments with Square (Which charges 2.75% and that is a lot) "Here comes my commercial so you can skip it": they should try http://ozzomstore.com their tools are all integrated and with the lowest merchant service rates guaranteed because they work with a Level 1 MSP that can also give you Interchange rates (wholesale Credit Cards Prices like visa, amex, discover etc)

            good day people!
            ozl@...
          • CrApps!

            Seriously! The App Store is filled with flashlights and fart apps. One million flashlights and fart apps. I'm. going. MAD. Nothing to Discover. Built by Squares. What AMEXspected to doo! MADNESS.


            Good day to you, too, shark-like thing!
            Doug Bott
          • Define "pretty quickly"

            The iPad was launched in 2010 and has only really began to see any mainstream business adoption in the past year. I figure that gives the Surface at least another 12 months to catch fire in the enterprise.
            Nierteroth9
          • Exactly.

            The iPad is a toy. An extremely versatile toy, but a toy nonetheless.
            Jacob VanWagoner
          • There is a differece between meeting 90% of the needs ...

            ... of all users and meeting all the needs of 90% of users.

            I have yet to see any useful statistics from the blogs about this but for some PC users, all they ever did with their PC was surf the 'net, use e-mail, use social media, listen to music, and collect/share photos. For those folks, a tablet can generally do the job - for $200 to $500.

            But, if the user needs even one tool which is only available for an Intel processors, they need Windows or MacOS X (or maybe Linux - except that most everything ported to Linux is also ported to Windows and MacOS X).

            I would venture a guess that most tablet owners are also dependent upon at least one or two legacy Windows applications. These folks have already laid down $400+ for their laptop PCs.

            They can add any tablet for another $200 to $500. If they need for their tablet and PC to share information, the Surface 2 is their most versatile choice.

            If their PC is ready to be retired, they can instead buy a Surface Pro and spend no more money than they have invested in a new PC and a new tablet together.
            M Wagner
          • you are wrong

            " for most users" is WRONG

            hence why only 10% of mobile os in the world is ios in icrap.

            hence why windows tablet steadily increaseing its share.
            beggerking
          • iOS At

            Windows Phone / Surface together rivaling Android.


            Wildfire, people. Wildfire!

            (* I just made all that up. Sorry.)
            Doug Bott