Microsoft had a full house for its launch of the Surface Pro 3 in New York City last month. In the interim, they've gotten plenty of attention from a tech press that is understandably skeptical after the Surface line's sputtering start.
For this post, I'm reprising a format I used two years ago after the original Surface launch event. I've picked out a dozen reviews of the Surface Pro 3 from reviewers at top tech sites. (I didn't include my own review here but encourage you to read it after flipping through this summary.)
The range of opinions among those reviewers is impressive, from enthusiastic recommendation ("Consider it Liked, Favorited, +1'ed and Pinned") to flat-out rejection ("I’m sorry to say that I can’t recommend it").
For each review, I've included a screenshot, usually with a highlighted snippet of text from the first page, plus a link that includes the review's full title. That's followed by an excerpt from the review, and finally by my summary.
For those that didn’t follow our WWDC 2014 live blog, around an hour before the event Anand handed me the Surface Pro 3 review unit to write the text portion of that article. While I’ve used a Surface Pro 2 before, this was my first encounter with the Surface Pro 3, and I decided to try and use it for the liveblog.
In short, it was surprisingly usable, although there are a few caveats. These issues basically come down to a lack of polish, as I encountered some strange bugs throughout the day as I tried to write things down.
One month after the launch event, AnandTech has yet to publish a full review. Until they do, this short and casual post gets top billing as the most recent review. It's a surprisingly even-handed and calm account, with a generally approving tone, based on a few hours' use in a somewhat chaotic environment. The benchmark charts and deep dissection you might normally associate with an AnandTech story are in a separate preview by Anand Lal Shimpi.
As a piece of engineering, the Surface Pro 3 is spectacular. Make no mistake: Microsoft can build attractive, well-designed, cutting-edge hardware. On these terms, Microsoft has already become a top-tier PC vendor. This is quality hardware.
But I don't believe that Microsoft's approach of using a kickstand with a loose hinge can ever produce a machine that can properly fill the laptop role. This is Microsoft's third attempt to optimize this design for laptop-style usage. It's still not good enough. I'm not sure if it ever will be. And what's so frustrating is that we've seen form factors that can pull this off: the clamshell keyboard attachments as used by the Lenovo Helix, and countless HP models such as the Spectre x2, Split x2, and Pavillion x2. They do it. They work, and they give that all important "lapability."
I would love to see a Surface that uses the design of these competitors, but Microsoft apparently won't give me one. Microsoft calls the Surface Pro 3 "the tablet that can replace your laptop." Until the company ships a clamshell keyboard, that's just not the case. As a result, I'm disappointed every time I use it. Microsoft is promising the thing I want, and it has shown it has the engineering prowess to deliver what I want. It's just not actually doing so.
A typically thorough, meticulously detailed, and occasionally caustic review by Peter Bright, whose disappointment that the Surface Pro 3 isn't more like a clamshell laptop is obvious. It's worth noting that the Surface Pro 3 turns in stellar scores in the Ars benchmarks, including a Wi-Fi browsing battery life score of nearly 9 hours. In the end, this review is highly personal, almost to a fault. On the key issue of how well the Surface Pro 3 performs as a laptop, Peter says: "This is the flexibility I want, it's the flexibility I've become accustomed to in more than a decade of regular laptop usage, and it's the flexibility I demand of any putative laptop replacement. Surface Pro 3 doesn't deliver."
The new Surface Pro is thinner than its predecessors, with a larger, higher-resolution screen. On that mark alone, it outshines the Pro and Pro 2. The internal specs and performance are largely similar to the Pro 2, but that means it's still just as fast as any current-gen premium laptop. With the generation-over-generation tweaks to the design, especially the hinge and keyboard, you can see a dedicated push towards advancing the cause of practical usability. It's not entirely there yet, and it's still a bit of a leap to say this will be a true laptop replacement for most people, but the Surface Pro 3 is the first Surface device I feel confident in saying I could get away with using as a primary PC device.
This is a comprehensive, mostly dispassionate tour of the entire device with lots of on-point observations from Dan Ackerman. For the most part, this review compares the Surface Pro 3 with Ultrabooks from HP and Lenovo; one of the few comparisons with the MacBook Air (a reference to the MacBook Air's superior battery life) is prefaced with this pointed observation: "as the introductory press conference for the Surface Pro 3 was built in part around comparisons to the MacBook Air, we should point out…"
With each generation of Surface devices, Microsoft gets closer to building a device that can replace both your tablet and laptop. Unfortunately, though, the company's progress has been gradual, and even after three attempts, it still hasn't addressed some serious usability flaws. This time around, the biggest problem is the keyboard. It's tough to say who should buy the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop alternative when the very thing that makes it a notebook replacement -- its optional keyboard -- offers a subpar typing experience and a frustrating trackpad. Adding insult to injury, it's not even included in the box; it's an optional $130 accessory that helps drive up the cost compared to similar PCs.
The good news is that despite its larger screen size, the Surface Pro is easier than ever to use as a tablet, thanks to a thinner, lighter design and more sensible aspect ratio. If Microsoft could just figure out the keyboard thing (and start throwing it in for free), I'd be more inclined to recommend this as a laptop replacement. For now, unless you want a tablet and laptop in equal measure, and sincerely enjoy using Windows Store apps, a touchscreen Ultrabook is still your best bet.
A by-the-numbers review that ends up giving the Surface Pro 3 a rating of 79 (out of 100). The Engadget template covers every base and Dana Wollman's detailed observations are valuable with a minimum of attitude.
Extended periods of my time with the Pro 3 were maddening, not because the hardware is bad, but because Windows can't always hold up its end of the bargain. Scaling for separate screens, despite clearly being an option in the settings, never worked for me once. That meant that while using my dual-monitor setup, I was doomed to tiny text on the Pro 3's high resolution screen in order for my external display to look good, or huge windows on my display to make the Pro 3 look OK. This is a long-time problem with Windows 8 that updates have addressed, but that still seems to pop back up with certain devices. It's aggravating as hell and a borderline deal-breaker.
On top of that I have two other, personal and specific Windows pet-peeves—the lack of a decent Campfire client, and a version of Google Chrome that refuses to upscale well—that make working on the Pro 3 (and any Windows device) stressful and unpleasant. They're present whenever I use a Windows laptop, yes, but on the Pro 3 they're somehow worse; they put me in a bad mood and serve to highlight all of the Pro 3's other weaknesses.
After calling the Surface Pro 3 "a laptop replacement that just might work" in his first look, Gizmodo's Eric Limer turned thumbs-down for the final review, with a chatty, eccentric, and extremely personal write-up. The pictures of him testing the device in laptop mode are hilarious.
At the unveiling event, over and over again, Microsoft Surface lead Pano Panay sought to show how the Surface Pro 3 favorably compares to the MacBook Air. He even put it on a scale opposite the Apple ultraportable.
Now, weeks after the launch and almost two weeks after I packed a bag with both the Surface Pro 3 and an Apple MacBook Air, I can tell you that the comparison is apt and, on balance, fair. Better yet, the Pro 3 survived the journey and, despite some annoying bugs and bad decisions, exceeded my expectations.
Now, as I finally fly back home and write this post on the Surface Pro 3, and despite the aforementioned, but utterly solvable bugs, I am more convinced than ever that this is the ultimate hybrid device for Windows devotees. The interface is not always as smart, intuitive or nearly as cohesive as what you’ll find in a MacBook Air, but I suspect that if you already use that laptop, nothing short of the Cupertino company disappearing is going to make you switch anyway.
In the real world, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is an impressively capable laptop replacement. If Microsoft follows my suggestions the Surface Pro 4 could be unstoppable.
Lance Ulanoff clearly gets the PC mindset (as one would expect from the former editor-in-chief of PCMag.com), and he prepped for his two-week road trip very smartly. The entire article is a great read and highly recommended. My favorite line? "It was entertaining to see how many people marveled that I was using Surface Pro 3. It was almost as if I was trying to type on a ferret. I had to explain that, yes, I was using it, and quite successfully thank you very much. Most of these doubters were, like me, MacBook Air users."
Over the past week, I've used the Surface Pro 3 during meetings, powering my workstation, kicking back on a couch, in the back seat of a taxi, standing in a subway, curling up in bed, and more. In every one of those situations, the Surface passed what I consider the key test: For most of the time (but not all), the physical device faded to the background and let me concentrate on the task at hand — whether it was updating an Excel document or finding a movie on Netflix.
That isn't to say there weren't some issues. In cramped spaces, you'll sometimes miss the extra six inches or so of leg space that you need to give up for the kickstand. For downloading big files, you sometimes miss having an Ethernet port. And although it's fairly light for its size, the Surface Pro 3 isn't exactly the first device you'd grab for reading on a commute.
But as everything devices go, the Surface Pro 3 scores very high. The point isn't to be the best at any singular task — it's to negate the need to carry, and even own, multiple devices that do pretty close to the same thing anyway. For the Surface, redundancy is the enemy.
This is the official Mashable review, and the headline gives away the conclusion. Of all the Surface Pro 3 reviews in this collection, Pete Pachal's is the one that most clearly articulates the case for the device as a single piece of hardware that consolidates the functions of other devices.
But the Surface Pro 3 is not for me, for one very specific reason that might resonate with you, too. Its keyboard and trackpad just aren’t as good as those found in many laptops, and certainly not in high-end laptops like the MacBook Air, the Apple machine that Microsoft has held up as its main competition for the new tablet.
At a minimum, the Surface Pro’s input devices require a period of adjustment. That’s why I spent several weeks with the Surface before writing this. I kept waiting for something to click, for my brain and my fingers to get used to the keys and the trackpad.
But nothing clicked. The Surface Pro’s trackpad is finicky; it’s not great at detecting multiple-finger inputs (like two-finger scroll) and because it’s substantially shorter than a laptop’s trackpad, you’ll find yourself hitting keys instead of the pad. [And] the whole keyboard-kickstand balancing act felt unsteady compared with a laptop’s rigid frame. There was a slight, annoying bounce of the keyboard case when I typed, and in tight places — airplane and train seats — the machine was an ergonomic catastrophe of moving parts.
To me, these flaws were damning.
This review should really be titled, "The Surface Pro 3 Isn't for Farhad Manjoo," because its sole point of reference is the author's workflow. Manjoo tosses in several references to "an audience out there that will love the light, stylish, and surprisingly powerful Surface Pro 3," but doesn't really try to address any of the differences between those buyers and himself.
He freely admits he isn't a tablet fan, doing "passive computing tasks like idly browsing the web or scanning email and Twitter" on a smartphone and using the large, heavy MacBook Pro for "intensive work, which requires excellent input devices." The Type Cover and trackpad don't measure up, and there's only a tossed-off mention of the Surface Pen, which "might also be especially useful for artists or others who are fond of pen-based computing." The unsatisfying verdict was thoroughly predictable.
Of course, everything's relative, and this review is not nearly as cutting as Manjoo's review of the original Surface, written when he was at Slate. That review's title ("Why is the Surface so bad?") says it all.
At its launch event, Microsoft continuously asked people to compare the MacBook Air to this Surface Pro 3. I’m sorry to say that I can’t recommend that comparison, nor can I recommend it as a replacement for your iPad or Android tablet.
This, the single most negative review of the bunch, can basically be summarized as "It's not a MacBook Air."
It's a first-person-only account, written in classic "Yeah, but…" style. Each bit of praise ("Propped up with its improved kickstand, the Surface Pro 3 is easier to use in laptop mode than its predecessors") is followed immediately by a dismissive counterpoint that starts with but ("But folding the keyboard over and using this thing as a tablet is not an enjoyable experience"). What sounds like an odd network configuration problem gets a lot of attention, as do minor problems with the OpenTable and Twitter apps.
The Surface Pro 3’s hardware is undoubtedly impressive. Although Microsoft calls it a tablet, it’s better to think of this Surface as a full-fledged PC that can work as a large tablet in a pinch. More than anything else, the Surface Pro 3 is the ideal physical form for Windows 8.1. Both the OS and the hardware feel like a computer with some (occasionally great) tablet features tacked on top. It’s as though the bits that make up Windows prayed really hard and created a physical version of themselves.
The Surface is so PC-centric, it’s hard to even think of it as being in the same category as the iPad. Instead, Microsoft is very clearly taking aim at the MacBook Air, but beating the most popular laptop on the market is a very tall order. Taking everything into account, the hardware is now very competitive between the two. So whether you think the Surface Pro 3 is a better alternative depends almost entirely on what you think of Windows and the Microsoft ecosystem.
It took three iterations for the hardware to live up to Microsoft’s original vision for the Surface, but now it finally does. If you believe that Windows 8.1 hasn’t taken off because the hardware hasn’t been good enough, the Surface Pro 3 removes that argument from the table. It’s simply hard to identify areas where it can get radically better. If the Surface Pro 3 can’t get consumers on board with Windows, Microsoft is going to need to seriously rethink its software strategy at a fundamental level.
The Verge gives the Surface Pro 3 an 8.0 on its 10-point scale, with reviewer Dieter Bohn praising the display and dinging the weak cameras and "just average" battery life. It's a solid review that zeroes in on some details other reviewers missed, such as the advantages of the 3:2 aspect ratio and problems with the high-DPI display in Google Chrome and Steam. (The irony that both of those third parties are competitors of Microsoft goes unspoken.)
The Surface Pro 3 shows that Microsoft has real hardware skills now, and the device has many of the right elements of my dream post-PC. Yet I am left wondering: Why didn't Microsoft make this a better laptop?
A bigger, better trackpad and keyboard might not sound very post-PC, but there is still nothing more vital to the way we interact with our laptops today. And while you won't find a tablet out there that will let you get more work done, the Type Cover-and-kickstand combo, innovative as it may be, is no match for even the most basic laptop.
The Surface Pro 3 isn't the device of my dreams—not yet. But I find it pretty amazing to watch the future of computing unfold without having to close my eyes.
That one word in the headline, desperately, had to make at least one product manager in Redmond wince. Especially after Surface chief Panos Panay had singled out reviewer Joanna Stern and her MacBook Air at the launch event for an extended bit of banter. The review itself is well written and perceptive, as you would expect, and never goes for a cheap shot. Of several reviewers who tackled the Surface Pro 3 version of the Folgers Challenge ("We've replaced Joanna's MacBook Air with this Microsoft tablet. Let's watch what happens!"), this is my favorite.
If all you need is a tablet, get a tablet; you’ll save money, weight, and thickness. If all you need is a laptop, get a laptop; you’ll save money, you’ll probably have more storage, and your machine will be more rigid and secure when it’s in your lap.
And, of course, if you prefer Apple’s unified, attractive universe of machines that work wirelessly together, well, then a Windows machine isn’t for you.
But if you own or carry around both a tablet and a laptop, then the Surface is calling out your name. There’s nothing like it.
It’s so much better than the sales figures would indicate. We, the buying public, are not giving it a fair shake.
David Pogue may have left The New York Times for Yahoo, but you'd have no trouble guessing the author of this review even if I redacted the by-line. The trademark Pogue video is there, this one updating the "I'm a Mac" TV ads with the Surface Pro 3. The clever, occasionally over-the-top writing style is there, too, although balanced nicely by Pogue's accurate observations. More than most reviewers, he seems to understand and respect the person for whom this device was designed.