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Surface Pro 3 Review

microsoft surface pro 3  01The third time’s the charm they say, and it is well known that if Microsoft works long enough on a product, they’ll get it right. When the Surface Pro 3 launched, that’s exactly what I thought: finally, there’s a Windows tablet that is barely heavier than the iPad 3 (I assume that most people have seen one), but is much more powerful and large enough to run real Windows apps when I need them, with a real keyboard which is connected by wire for low-latency and no charging worries.

Also, the keyboard cover doesn’t double the thickness of the tablet, which is quite common for most tablet add-on keyboards. When in tablet mode, and provided that you have the right app, it feels like an ultra-powerful tablet that’s extremely fluid and responsive. When in laptop mode, it will give you true computer productivity. Is this sound too good to be true, or is it the next Mobile PC evolution? Let’s take a closer look to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and see how it feels to use it in the real world.

Technical Specifications

Configuration as tested: Intel Core i5 (4300U at 2.50GHz, dual-core), Windows 8.1 Pro 64bit, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD ($1299). In terms of performance, the 128GB ($999) model should be the same.

Surface 3 ProSurface 2 ProSurface Pro
Display Size1210.610.6
Display Resolution2160×14401920×10801920×1080
ProcessorCore i3/i5/i7 (gen4)Core i5 (gen4)Core i5 (gen3)
RAM4,84,84
Storage GB64,128,256,512256,51264, 128
Battery Capacity42Wh
Main Camera Megapixel511
Front Camera Megapixel511
Weight (lbs)1.7622
Dimensions (inches)11.5×7.93×0.3610.81×6.81×0.5310.81×6.81×0.53

There are not a lot of 2lbs conventional laptops, but if you want an ultralight that could compete with the Surface Pro 3, I would recommend looking at the ACER Aspire S7, the Lenovo Thinkpad Helix, the ASUS Taichi or a Vaio Duo 11 (if you manage to get one before they are completely discontinued). For a similar feature list, many of those are quite a lot more expensive, or still using Intel’s 3rd-gen processors that aren’t as power-efficient… But that’s what you essentially have to choose from.

What’s new?

"MICROSOFT HAS GREATLY EXTENDED THE POTENTIAL REACH OF THE SURFACE PRO 3"   From a usability standpoint, a few critical elements have been introduced in this version, including a 12” high DPI display with a new pen-sensitive ultra-thin surface, Intel Core i3 and i7 (Haswell/gen4) processor options and a wider range of storage options (64GB up to 512GB) to serve multiple price points. While some of the specification evolution is normal for a computer platform, the overall changes make the Surface 3 Pro very different to use than its predecessors.

Storage

The storage options for the Surface Pro 3 have been extended from its predecessors. With a single model, Microsoft can now target the mid-range to the high-end. People who use the

Computer casually can get by with 64GB of SSD storage, a Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM. Microsoft has greatly extended the potential reach of the Surface Pro 3.

This is great for productivity apps and regular computing. At the other extreme, a power-user can opt for 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. This opens the Surface Pro line of products to a much larger market – even if it is still not for absolutely everyone (the bulk of PCs sold are in the sub-$600 range).

I should point out that it is possible to opt for a Core i3 + 64GB and add another 64GB of storage via the MicroSD slot for less than $40 (street price), or 128GB for $70+. This would let you store movies, music and photos on the MicroSD and keep your apps on the 64GB of internal storage. Before you do that, please take a close look at what your needs are. 64GB is not a lot of storage, even for the OS + apps, so it’s better to take a good look before plunging.

Context

Before we dive deep into the review, let me tell you how I have been using my computers since this greatly influence one’s perception. When I’m at the office, I use a powerful desktop computer with multiple displays. However, for external activities such as press briefings, press events or trade shows, I use laptops ranging from 13.3” to 15.6”. For mobile web development, I prefer the larger screens.

Pertinent to this review, I typically don’t like using Bluetooth mice or keyboards because they have a higher rate of connectivity issues (like not waking up…) and possibly lag than their wired counterparts. Also, I typically don’t use digitizer pens because I type faster than I write and I don’t draw schemas and things like that very often. Since I’m an engineer by trade, my art skills are pretty limited but I do enjoy drawing things when I explain something, or during brainstorming sessions.

Industrial Design (excellent)

microsoft surface pro 3  36 640x426

The Surface Pro 3 introduces important industrial design changes. Although it uses the same design language as the previous Surface models, this one packs the performance of an Ultrabook into a body that is 0.36” think (vs. 0.53” previously) for a weight of 1.76 Lbs (vs. 2 lbs previously), which makes it feel very much like a thin tablet that we are accustomed to. With the keyboard on that climbs to 2.4 Lbs. Try this with many tablet keyboards and you may be surprised by the bulk they add to the original tablet form-factor.

If we take into consideration that this is a 12” tablet, it is quite impressive since iPad 3 (a 9.7” tablet) had nearly the same weight not so long ago. Since then, ARM-based tablets have gotten lighter (hence the iPad Air name), but I think that there’s an absolute size and weight that makes it work for most people, and we’re there with Surface Pro 3. The overall thinness and lightness of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 are remarkable.

microsoft surface pro 3  13 640x426During the day to day use, the most remarkable fact is how good it feels in one’s hands. As a tablet, it is great to use to read documents or browse the web, and unlike the original Surface Pro, this one doesn’t feel bulky or oddly heavy, for a 12-inch tablet.

I really appreciate that Microsoft has upgraded the power connector to something that clicks easily. The first iteration was hard to connect and that was one of the rare downsides of the otherwise impeccable industrial design.

Kickstand

microsoft surface pro 3  17 640x426microsoft surface pro 3  14 640x426The surface kickstand design and overall integration to the tablet has been a great strength, and one that has not been equaled to date. It really bugs me when I need to add a big case to my iOS or Android tablet just to have a kickstand (or a keyboard), and thus far, Microsoft came up with the absolute best kickstand integration. "IT IS SURPRISINGLY COMFORTABLE TO WORK WITH"  

The good news is that the best just got better: with Surface you only had one possible angle. Surface 2 introduced a second one, but Surface Pro 3 brings infinite variations between the two positions shown in the picture above. This and the increased width of the Surface Pro 3 makes it much more “lappable” than Surface devices that came before it, and it is surprisingly comfortable to work with. It is almost counter intuitive when you look at the design, but if you setup it so that the kickstand land right before your knees, that provides a pretty solid stance.

microsoft surface pro 3  26 640x426

Since I use the knee as a reference, you may have guessed that extreme flat angles could be difficult to reach because the kickstand would need to rest on something beyond your knee… that is factually true, although in the real world, I haven’t found myself in a case where it actually happened. Your situation may be different, so think about when you had to recline your laptop display at more than 45 degrees for the last time, and that will be your answer.

One final thing that bumped into from time to time is when I work on messy desk, the kickstand tends to bump into stuff. With a regular laptop, you can typically have a fair number of things handing behind the computer. With the Surface Pro 3, you’ll need that space for the Kickstand. Small detail, but if you have a messy desk, it’s good to know!

Backlit Keyboard

microsoft surface pro 3  19 640x426If you need to be productive, it’s clear that a keyboard is essential. Microsoft has kept more or less the same keyboard design from previous Surface tablets (the Type Cover), but the switches respond better and the “click” is sharper despite the short key travel. As an accessory, it is a very light and thin backlit keyboard. After a couple of days to get used to it, I can type at a very decent speed, so if I take into account the size and thinness of the keyboard, we have a winner.

This doesn’t mean that it is perfect. I personally wish that it was using a chiclet layout, but this is very much a personal preference. You can try an older version and it will give you a good idea (85%?) of what to expect. I hope that 3rd party companies will start making accessories in the future. Variety would be awesome.

The trackpad has been enlarged, which is great since it can’t be too big, and even if it remains relatively small, the touch screen function alleviates a lot of the potential trackpad size issues. Even on my Ultrabooks, I tend to use touch first because it’s faster than slide and click on the trackpad. Talking about clicks, I think that the keyboard trackpad button action is a little stiff. While it may get better over time, I would prefer something that is a little softer.

Display (sharp, beautiful)

microsoft surface pro 3  32 640x426The Surface Pro 3 display is gorgeous. It uses an IPS panel with a resolution of 2160×1440, which is quite remarkable. Reading text and looking at photos is extremely agreeable and that only warning that I would emit is that it may become addictive, especially if you have a good old low-DPI monitor on your desk.

Some may say that this is far from the 3200 x 1800 resolution found on some 13.3” laptop. True, but except for a few instances (high-res photos, 4K video), the difference is hardly perceptible while reading test – at least, not on a 12” display.

The color rendering is great and the maximum measured brightness is 328 Nit. Watching movies during a flight or in bed is pretty awesome with it because it’s easy to hold and to rest is most situations.

Using the display in either landscape or portrait mode feels very natural, thanks to the 3:2 aspect ratio. I really like using portrait mode when I read a long article on a website, or even a technical PDF file.

Ports

microsoft surface pro 3  02 640x426There are basically four ports: one audio jack, one DisplayPort, the keyboard dock and one USB 3.0 (you can add the microSD slot to the list if you want). First, having even one full-size USB port does make life a lot easier than with most tablet when it comes to connecting to simple things like printers, mice, USB Keys etc.… For anyone who had to deal with email attachments or file transfers on an iPad for example, just being able to plug a USB key and fix a document from there is heaven.

With the Surface Pro 3, I can also take photos from my DSLR directly to disk using existing Windows drivers for my Canon or Nikon cameras. You may have a situation that makes it as valuable to you.

A small request to Microsoft: I would absolutely love to have a second USB 3.0 because I think that Microsoft could find a way to put that in if people asked for it. I would like to be able to plug an input device (mouse, full size keyboard…) and still be able to plug a camera or a USB key at the same time. Sure, I can use Bluetooth inputs, but I personally prefer having more options with a second full-size USB port. That said, I don’t complain too much because I cannot do any of that with regular tablets.

Digitizer Pen (yes, it works with Photoshop CS)

microsoft surface pro 3  23 640x426Surface Pro 2 already provided a pretty good pen experience, but Surface 3 Pro takes it to the next level. Looking at it from the perspective of someone who draws things very occasionally and not in an artistic context, I found the pen to work remarkably well. This is largely due to the speed of the ink (very small lag) but also to the fact that the outside glass is very close to the LCD surface, so you don’t get that parallax effect when the tip of the pen seems too far away from where the ink appears. This is great, but it’s also the main reason why Wacom was not chosen for this particular digitizer.

At the top of the pen, there is a button that launches One Note right away, which is pretty handy since it saves a few taps. However, it would be nice if the buttons were programmable. Overall, the ease of use, and ink (speed) performance is something that would entice anyone to use it more. I really think that we would take more e-notes if there was less friction and this pen contributes to that.

Photoshop

It works! The good news is that NTrig has public Wintab drivers available today (driver download link and what is wintab?). Photoshop CS currently requires Wintab support, and although this is something that will go away for future Photoshop CS version, the pressure sensitivity needs that driver for now.

"THE PRESSURE-SENSITIVE PEN DRIVER FOR PHOTOSHOP IS AVAILABLE"   After the quick installation, I fired up Photoshop CS (I have a subscription to the latest version), and things worked right away. Pressure sensitiveness was there in all its glory, and Microsoft has promised to add more user-control over the sensitiveness “soon”.

I know that Photoshop users have been worried about the switch from Wacom to N-Trig digitizer hardware, because N-Trig only supports 256 levels of pressure, while Wacom can sense 1024 levels. I personally feel that this works well enough for sketching in Photoshop, but I have never used a Digitizer pen professionally, so I will try to get more opinions on that. For the casual note taker, this is an awesome setup.

If the Pen is critical to your work, I highly recommend reading Microsoft’s post Get To Know The Surface Pro 3 Pen. I don’t want to paraphrase it for the sake of adding length to this review. At the very least, I would recommend being a little cautious and patient if you want to use it for professional purposes. Check out what’s coming from Adobe for devices like the Surface Pro 3.

Software: Windows 8.1 Pro

microsoft surface pro 3  33 640x441One of the huge advantages of a device like this is that it runs Windows 8.x. However, not only it technically “runs” Windows perfectly, but it does it at comparable speeds to a full-size Ultrabook, which is not the case for many other tablets on the market.

For anyone who needs both a “true” tablet format and impeccable Windows compatibility, the Surface Pro 3 is an incredible design. I think that Microsoft nailed by opting for a 12” display because 11”+ is where Windows Desktop becomes really usable and while 13.3” may have been too big for a tablet, 12” is the sweet spot for desktop/tablet hybrid use.

When using a single screen, Windows 8.1 manages high DPI pretty well, and so far, I haven’t bumped into any particular problem. If you are a heavy Google Chrome user, be warned that Chrome support for high DPI is very much flaky and non-official, but I have posted some instructions to run Chrome in High DPI on Windows 8+, but this is pre-alpha. On the other hand, Firefox and Internet Explorer provide impeccable support for high DPI displays, and I use IE on a regular basis, unless I need a development plug-in which I don’t since I don’t do any coding on the Surface 3 Pro.

Desktop apps

The nice thing with Surface Pro is that all Windows apps work and they work very well. From Office to whatever apps that you have downloaded over the years to every website, things just work like they would on your computer – and that includes Adobe Flash. On the 12” display, everything is readable (I have a 20/20 vision) and I think that most people who are ok with a 13” laptop will be fine with the Surface Pro 3.

Tablet apps

The Metro apps benefit only mildly from the extra screen space since most are already optimized for a touch interface and work quite well for smaller displays. To be honest, I use less than 10 Metro apps, and most of them are related to video, so they don’t benefit as much from the high DPI screen as the desktop apps would. When they are available, the Metro apps provide a much better user experience in tablet mode, so I recommend checking the Microsoft store to see if your favorite apps are there.

Entertainment

Watching movies is my main “multimedia” activity on this tablet and it works beautifully. Since it’s a PC, I really appreciate that it’s very simple to transfer data to/from the device, especially with a simple USB stick. Of course, you can get fancy and set up a DLNA server on your tablet, but I prefer the good old Windows network shared folder. Old habits, I guess.

Again, the nice thing with this is that every single music service and app work. If they don’t have a Metro app, there’s probably a Desktop app and a web version becomes your ultimate fallback. You’ve got more options, and it feels good.

System Performance

The overall peak performance is comparable to Ultrabook laptops using the same platform, which is impressive given that it is much more difficult to cool such a thin system. Microsoft has developed a new type of ultra-flat fan just for this design. The only time it kicked in was when I ran the 3DMark11 graphics benchmark test, so I don’t expect that to happen regularly (if at all) for most people.

Since 3DMark11 is a gaming benchmark, I may as well tell you right away that this is not a gaming machine by any means. You can probably play older games and casual games, but since it uses Intel’s integrated GPU, which is meant for basic graphics, don’t expect Call of Duty and other heavy hitters to scream (many may not work for that matter), and you can forget about 3D gaming at the native 2160 x 1440 resolution. If anything, you will probably decrease the resolution to achieve higher framerate (FPS), which is what most games will do.

surface pro 3 pcmark7 surface pro 3 3dmark11

One of the more interesting performance number that I have is the PCMark system performance “per Lbs”. Of course, it’s easy to build a fast computer that is big and heavy, and building a thin and light is not too hard if it’s wimpy. But speed/weight is what everybody really wants and here’s how it looks below. As you can see, the Surface Pro 3 packs a lot of punch for its weight. You basically don’t compromise in performance by “going thin”.

surface pro 3 pcmark7 lbs

I also ran “Tablet benchmarks” like Geekbench (CPU score) and 3DMark IceStorm Unlimited (gaming score) to give you a sense of how this compares to an iOS or Android tablet. Despite scoring relatively low as a PC, you can see that the performance is substantially higher than many tablets that could (very) remotely be compared to it. Obviously, this is not an Apples to Apples comparison, but those numbers are intended to give you a sense of where things stand. Here are the results: surface pro 3 geekbench multicore

surface pro 3 3dmark icestorm unlimited

Low-end graphics on PC can easily give high-end tablet graphics a run for their money

As you can see, there is still a huge difference in terms of raw performance when you go from an ARM-based high-end tablet to a high-end PC tablet. I didn’t put these scores to say that Surface Pro 3 is so much more powerful, but to give you a perspective on what the hardware of each platform can achieve at top speed. Whether you need the horsepower or not is for you to decide.

Perceived performance

During regular use, the Surface Pro 3 is super responsive for things like scrolling, opening Windows, files etc… In that respect, it feels just like an Ultrabook. The Windows Modern Design (formerly Metro) interface is extremely fast and responsive to scrolling and other user inputs. I only have one thing to say: “want more apps!”

Battery Life (very good)

I really like using video playback as a test for battery life because it is often an excellent indicator of how long the battery will live when compared to doing things like editing text, and doing some general office work.

In my test, I played a 1080p MP4 video for 1 hour with the following settings: Display at 150 Nit, No speaker sound, WiFi ON, Bluetooth OFF. During that time, 11% of the battery was consumed, which leads us to a theoretical 9 hours or so of HD video playback, which is very nice and would confirm Microsoft’s own claim for a 9-hr battery life.

As always, your luck may vary depending on what apps you use and what processes run in the background, but out of the box, the battery life is pretty nice, and clearly much superior to the Surface Pro 2.

Best use case: ultra-mobility

I’ve used the Surface Pro for a couple of weeks now, and it is clear to me that if your priority is ultra-mobility, then this is an excellent device to consider. When I say Ultra-mobility, I’m thinking about use cases that have two main priority, in addition of requiring a full Windows OS:

1/ Lightweight and ultra-portability, for executives, employees who go to customers’ offices/houses, tests in the field, marketing, communications etc.. The list is non-exhaustive.

2/ Light to medium level data entry. I’m saying that because the Surface Pro keyboard is nice, but it is still slightly less productive than a regular laptop keyboard, which is itself less productive than a full-size keyboard. Granted, I’m speaking for myself, but you should think about how much data entry or writing you need to do. As a reference, I think that this is completely OK for writers like myself, but accountants may have a different point of view on the keyboard.

Conclusion (Exquisite)

microsoft surface pro 3  10 640x337The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is an amazing and unique computer, there’s no question about it, and if you know its strengths, it will serve you very well. Like any extreme computers, you can’t just get one and expect it to feel like an ordinary laptop. The real question is: is it for you? And to answer that, there are only a few things to take into considerations:"SURFACE PRO 3 IS AN AMAZING AND UNIQUE COMPUTER"  

1/ First, I’ll be telling you right away: this is not an iPad or Nexus 7 tablet replacement. Those tablets great at what they do (content consumption), but they are also weak at getting real work done and can’t run legacy apps, or connect with most PC peripherals. Their peak performance is also on the lighter side. If I owned a Surface Pro 3, I would not feel the need to buy an 9.7” iPad. However, if I just needed to consume content, regular tablets are a much more affordable option.

Screen size: 12” is nice and big for a tablet, but also relatively small for a laptop. If you have never owned a 11” laptop or something like that, check one of these in a store nearby. You will be surprised by how nice it looks, and you will get a good feel for how readable (for you) it is.

Laptop Platform Rigidity: When I go Tradeshows my laptop is often resting in places like the top of my backpack, or other uneven places. I sometimes rely heavily on the overall rigidity that clamshell laptops provide. All you need are three points of contacts and you’re good to go. The Surface Pro 3 design doesn’t quite work that way, and may prove difficult to stabilize in extreme conditions. It is a wonderful device on a tablet, or even on your lap, but it just doesn’t rest on a surface the same way a laptop would.

Final words: Surface Pro 3 is easily 33% lighter than most high-end Ultrabooks, and is more portable and more comfortable to carry in your backpack than any other portable PC I’ve used. If like me, you travel a lot, you know that any additional pound matters.

Technically, the hardware platform and the software can do anything a regular Ultrabook does. It is now up to you to think about whether the design will fit your need. Because when it does fit your needs, the Surface Pro 3 will rock your socks off.

Overall product rating: 9/10
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