If you're in the market for a Windows-based laptop replacement, the Surface Pro 3 should be on your short list.
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.
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.
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.
How long does the battery last?
The Surface Pro 3’s tiny package includes a four-cell, 42 watt-hour battery. Compared to its rivals, that's on the small side. The Lenovo Yoga Pro 2, for example, has a 54 watt-hour battery, as does the 13-inch MacBook Air. Keep that in mind when evaluating battery life.
Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 3 battery will last for up to nine hours when browsing the web or doing video playback. I couldn't match those numbers. In my testing, the system kept operating for 7:21 of continuous activity while using the Wi-Fi connection to stream video and perform background tasks. That's at least 45 minutes more than the Surface Pro 2 performing similar tasks.
In more normal usage scenarios, using Office, a web browser, and other apps, the Surface Pro 3 lasted all day and then some. And as long as you can find an outlet at some point during the day you can extend that life significantly; in my tests, the 36-watt power supply brought the battery back to a 50 percent charge in about an hour and restored a full charge in well under three hours.
It's also worth noting that the Surface Pro 3 power supply is significantly thinner and about 50 g lighter than the old model. That's a couple ounces you won't miss carrying through the airport.
As with the previous Surface Pros, the power adapter has a 5-watt USB connector on the brick, allowing you to charge another device at the same time as the Surface Pro 3. (You can also charge a third device such as a smartphone using the onboard USB 3 port.)
How does it perform?
The configuration I’m using includes an Intel i5-4300U processor with 8 GB of memory and a 256-GB encrypted Samsung PM851 Series solid-state drive. For mainstream business apps, this is a tremendously responsive computer. Office documents open virtually instantaneously, file transfers are speedy, and the system sleeps and resumes with alacrity.
Multi-touch operations are, without exception, smooth and responsive, with no lag.
The Surface Pro 3 does include a fan, which dissipates heat through a continuous vent that surrounds the entire chassis. In 10 days of heavy use, I’ve only heard the fan make noticeable noise once — while playing a game of Microsoft Solitaire (one of a handful of Microsoft apps preinstalled on the device). The right rear of the device occasionally gets mildly warm to the touch, but was never warm enough in my experience to be uncomfortable.
How well does it work as a tablet?
At 800 g (1.76 pounds), the Surface Pro 3 is the about the same weight as the original iPad, and only about four ounces heavier than the 3rd and 4th generation iPads. That's a remarkable achievement considering that there's a full Intel-based PC inside. But it's downright heavy compared to modern tablets in its class, such as the iPad Air and the Kindle Fire HDX, both of which weigh one pound or less.
In sustained use, I found the Surface Pro 3 comfortable to use as a tablet, and the bright, sharp screen was very easy on the eyes. It's especially easy to use in portrait mode, using the Surface Pen to take notes and sketch. Reading digital magazines and ebooks is especially satisfying on the large screen in portrait mode, unlike the Surface Pro 2, which was heavy and awkward in this orientation.
One design change worth noting: For the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft moved the Windows button from the bottom of the long edge of the device to the right side. That's an ideal placement for use as a tablet in portrait mode, but I repeatedly hit that button accidentally when using the device in landscape mode, sending me unexpectedly to the Start screen. It's a design problem that Microsoft needs to address.
How well does it work as a laptop?
Microsoft positions the Surface Pro 3 as "the tablet that can replace your laptop." That's where the biggest quirk in this device's unique design makes itself apparent.
A conventional laptop has a rigid base and a hinge that allows you to balance the device on your lap and type or move the pointer with the trackpad without any flex. The unique Surface Type Cover, while more rigid than the original design, still has a bit of flex. In addition, finding the right balancing point can be a challenge, depending on your sitting position.
In addition, the Surface Pro 3 makes one design change in the Type Cover, allowing you to fold up the top so that it magnetically attaches to the bottom bezel of the display, as shown below. That gives the keyboard more stability, but it has one undesirable side effect: With that magnetic connection made, it's awkward to touch icons on the Windows taskbar.
For some people, the "laptopability" issue is no big deal. I took an informal poll of more than 100 followers on Twitter, asking them how often they actually use a laptop PC on their lap for typing. More than half said rarely or never, while roughly a quarter said they use their laptop in this fashion daily, often on a train or on the couch.
If you primarily use a laptop as a desktop replacement, typing on a stable surface such as a desk or table and switching to tablet mode elsewhere, the Surface Pro 3 will probably mesh with your working style just fine. But if you want the ability to balance the device on your lap and type at full speed, you'll want to spend some serious hands-on time with this device to see if that position is comfortable for you.
In August, Microsoft will begin shipping a $199 docking station for the Surface Pro 3, with its own power, 2 USB 2.0 ports, 3 USB 3.0 ports, a wired Gigabit Ethernet port, and a mini-DisplayPort adaptor. The new dock is an improved version of the current Surface dock. It takes all of about three seconds to slide the Surface Pro into the dock (you don't need to remove the Type Cover), clamp it into position, and begin using the device as a no-compromises desktop PC with a full keyboard, mouse, large monitor, and peripherals.
For mobile professionals who want full desktop capabilities with the ability to switch quickly to a lightweight mobile device, the docking station is a must-have accessory.
Is there enough storage?
The two configurations available for shipping in June include an i5 processor with an SSD containing either 128 GB or 256 GB of capacity. Microsoft has trimmed the footprint of Windows 8.1 and the recovery partitions so that there's an extra 3-5 GB of available storage compared to the original Surface Pro. In all, you can expect Windows 8.1 and the recovery partitions to take up about 24-28 GB, leaving plenty of space for data files.
The availability of OneDrive cloud storage also works in the Surface Pro 3's favor. You can store a large number of files online and set specific folders to be available offline, making efficient use of local storage.
If you need extra storage, the Surface Pro 3 contains a MicroSD slot that can accommodate up to 128 GB of additional data. A button in the Windows 8.1 PC Settings lets you automatically designate that removable drive as the default storage location for music, pictures, and videos. I've used that configuration with previous Surface Pro models and tested it on the Surface Pro 3 with no issues.
You'll have to search for this button. In PC Settings, it's not under Disk Space, as you might expect, but instead is at the bottom of the Devices pane.
In August, Microsoft will ship a lower-priced version of the Surface Pro 3 containing an i3 processor and a 64 GB SSD. That configuration might feel cramped to a power user accustomed to larger onboard storage, but it should be more than adequate for casual web browsing and media streaming, especially with the availability of removable storage.
Is the price right?
The Surface Pro 3 is most definitely not a cheap PC. It's a solidly built, well-engineered device, and you will pay a premium price for that build quality and engineering.
The $129 Type Cover is a must-have accessory, which means that the two mainstream configurations with an i5 processor, $999 for 128 GB of storage and $1299 for 256 GB, will total $1128 or $1428, respectively. If you have to pay sales tax or VAT on the purchase, factor that cost in as well.
Those prices are competitive compared to similarly equipped Ultrabooks. The ultra-thin Acer S7-392, for example, lists for $1,499 with a similar i5 CPU, 8 GB of memory, and 256 GB storage. Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro in that configuration is $1,299. The 13-inch i5-based MacBook Air with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of flash storage is $1,299.
In August, Microsoft will ship the i3 version, which costs $799 without the Type Cover, as well as an i7 configuration that runs $1549 (with 256 GB of storage) and $1949 (with a 512 GB SSD).
You can spend less for a portable PC, but in general you'll get inferior build quality, lower screen resolution, and less capable hardware.
In its previous incarnations, the Surface Pro was an interesting curiosity, but its flaws, especially the odd shape and size, made it impossible for me to recommend. The Surface Pro 3 deals with almost all those objections impressively. If you can accept its brilliant but quirky design, it's a serious contender for any Windows user who wants a super-lightweight cutting-edge mobile device.