Microsoft's Surface Pro has sized up, embracing its laptop side in an attempt to unseat the MacBook Air as your computer of choice. The Surface Pro 3 won't succeed, but it's a damn good effort.
What Is It?
Microsoft's third swing at reinventing the laptop and the tablet at the same time. A Intel-powered full-Windows slate with a detachable keyboard. A super skinny ultrabook. A ginormous—but surprisingly holdable—tablet.
Why Does It Matter?
The Surface Pro dream has been a long time in the making. With two decent predecessors that weren't terrible but definitely failed to set the world on fire, the Surface Pro dream—a single device that does all your computer-ing—looked shakier than ever. But now, with a brand new look and feel that positions it to go toe-to-toe with the MacBook Air instead of the unstoppable iPad, the Surface Pro 3 is Microsoft's best (and maybe last) chance to prove that this whole thing is a good idea after all.
At heart, the Surface Pro 3 design is functionally identical to the Pro and Pro 2; it's a touchscreen computer with a thin, colorful, optional(!), detachable keyboard. But while the function is the same, the form is anything but. This is a total makeover. And it got here just in time.
The first two Surface Pros were beautiful machines—Surfaces always are—but each was chunky little obelisk; too much beef to be a tablet, too squat to be a laptop screen. Surface Pro the Third, on the other hand, is anything but. Almost impossibly slim (for a full-on computer), the Pro 3 is a mere 0.36-inches thick, making it not only roughly half the size of its predecessor, but also thinner than a 13-inch MacBook Air. And at 1.76 pounds it's nearly half the weight. It's almost as thin as pure-tablet fare; just .07 inches thicker than the iPad Air, and roughly the same thickness as the Windows RT-saddled Surface 2.
It's also a bigger machine. Sporting a 12-inch, 2560 x 1440 screen with a 3:2 ratio, the Surface Pro 3 is bigger than just about any other tablet out there. It's almost more like a mini All-In-One than anything else. That largeness shows when you're toting it around one-handed, but with the keyboard attached, the new bigger screen pulls off something no previous Surface ever could: The illusion of a real laptop.
And that body is not just slim but also beautiful. Light gray instead of dark black, the Pro 3 showcases all the sharp lines and slick industrial design we've loved about the Surface line from the get-go. The inclusion of subtly rounded fan vents along the top edge clash with this look just a little, but not enough to make it gross. This is a still a wonderful-looking machine.
But aside from being thinner and bigger, the Surface Pro 3 also has some design updates that change its functionality in a big way, and for the better. Maybe the best of these is the new hinge. First the bad news: it doesn't click anymore. That snap-snap that Microsoft painstakingly designed to scream "quality!" is now gone. But! In its place is a hinge with resistance, a hinge that offers a full range of motion from zero to 150 degrees. This may not be as fun as clicky-click, but it's a hell of a lot more useful. More than enough to justify the switch.
Then, of course, a Surface Pro is nothing without a Type Cover (though Microsoft still insists on selling Pros without one bundled, which is slightly insulting). And the Type Cover for the Pro 3 has its fair share of new tricks as well. In addition to being blessedly bigger to accommodate the Pro 3's 12-inch screen, it also has a magnetic bar across its top. This bar lets the whole cover fold up to mag-lock against the whole of the Pro's lower bezel for stability. Not only a fun trick, but an immensely useful one. Other than that though, it's the same colorful Type Cover we've always known: a thin, fabric-y, compact-style keyboard that is surprisingly easy to use.
Also it comes with a sticky do-dad that will maybe help you from losing your stylus for like 3 extra seconds before you peel it off because you don't want it there. There's still nowhere to put that thing.
The Surface Pro 3 is a laptop and a tablet. That's the whole idea. But thanks to its larger size—along with the turbo-charged guts—the Pro 3 is clearly laptop-first. And as a computer, the Surface Pro 3 is surprisingly great. It's stable to type on and you can use it on your lap. Two pretty minor features for a laptop that are a major improvement for a Surface.
The laptop-side improvements do come with some tablet sacrifices. If 12-inches sounds too big for a tablet, it is, and you'll be reminded of that every time you hold the Surface Pro 3 without its keyboard attached. When I first saw the Pro 3, I was stunned by how big it didn't feel, but after a few days with it, the distinction became clearer, and a little weirder. The Pro 3 can almost shapeshift before your eyes. Without the keyboard it seems gargantuan. Snap it back on and it shrinks down to normal.
That slight weirdness, the largeness in tablet mode, is completely worth it for the added real-estate in computer mode. Whenever I used a previous Surface Pro, regardless of the guts inside, it felt like a tablet with a kickstand a keyboard attached. The weird, 16:9 screen ratio and lack of angle adjustments was a constant reminder that you were working on a pretender, a faux-PC that you couldn't quite trust. The device never quite faded away, and its limitations where always whispering to you behind whatever it was you were trying to do.
The Surface Pro 3 leaves those limitations behind almost entirely. Within 10 minutes of using this at my desk, I was reaching up to pull the screen forward, trying to coax it into an acute angle to better accommodate my outrageous and dangerous slouch. It can't do that without a proper hinge of course—and it was a shocking and alarming bummer whenever the screen failed to stay in place—but the fact that I was reaching out at all was because the Pro 3 can create the illusion of a laptop. That's a big step.
But that's just on a desk. What about the "lapability" Microsoft promised? The term is horrendous but the feature is amazing. Yes, you can actually use a Surface on your lap now, pretty much anyway you like. It's really wonderful.
And for any of you pedants who would like to point out that you could technically use a Surface on your lap before, these were the kinds of poses that I was longing for, the ones that are now finally possible.
We got our Surface Pro 3 review unit during our big Home of the Future event, so I was using this thing in all kinds of weird furniture creations, and I assure you that I not only sat in but worked in the poses you see above.
There are two innovations at work here that enable this wonderful lap-action. First, there's the mag-bar on the Type Cover that lets the keyboard lock to the tablet with a security that is almost like a hinge. That works perfectly, and is about 30 percent of the equation. The other 70 is the new hinge, the flexibility of which finally makes fine-tuning possible. You can adjust the Surface to exactly the height it needs to be to fit your awkward sprawl on the couch instead of snuggling up to a two-stage kickstand. It makes all the difference in the world.
At the Home of the Future before I got my Surface Pro 3 unit, I found myself dragging around my open MacBook Air, clutching it precariously by the corner. Someone over in [x] room needed an explanation of [y] gadget and I had to go do it, but I also wanted to keep an eye on cyber goings-on on the walk over. With the Surface Pro 3, this kind of behavior became infinitely easier. Flip the keyboard behind, rip it off even, and be on your way as your slightly over-large tablet auto-rotates its little ass off with each step. (I should have tweaked those settings but I never got around it it). Granted, using full desktop applications on the go was still awkward, but it was a different awkward from having a too-small display, and frankly a better awkward.
That's not to say that the Surface Pro 3 is a perfect laptop by any means, however. The battery life is decent—we found we could average around 7 hours of heavy use. That's by no means bad, especially compared to the horrid battery life of earlier Surface Pros (the Pro 2 would max out at around 5 hours). But compared to real laptops than can offer 10 or 15 hours with just a little added girth, 7 hours isn't great.
And while new posture possibilities are great, the Type Cover can fall a bit short. It's passable for typing, but it doesn't feel quite right. It's impressive for a plasticy compact, old-school-laptop-style keyboard, but nothing actively pleasant. Meanwhile the touchpad, while wildly improved from previous versions, is still far from good. It kept doing this thing where it interpreted every click as a right-click for two or three minute stretches no matter how much I exaggerated my finger movements. What a nightmare.
Then, of course, there's also the Surface Pro 3 in tablet-mode. Not much to report there. The Pro 3 is precisely what it appears to be: a very large Windows tablet. It is good for watching Netflix and legally-acquired movies. It is good for casual internet browsing, and casual touchscreen typing. It's noticeably bigger than an iPad or Galaxy Tab or whathaveyou but no better or worse for it. I watched Mad Men in bed on the Surface Pro 3 and nothing blew up or blew my mind, though the back got a little bit hot.
Just like the Surface Pro 2 though, the Pro 3 in tablet made whispers Why do you need all this power? in tablet mode. The answer is of course that you don't. Tablet mode is just a bonus with the Surface Pro 3, a lark. With the older hardware, that reassurance rang a little hollow, but since the Pro 3 is actually a good laptop replacement, the whispers are easier to ignore. They're still there though.
The Surface hardware is beautiful as always, but now it has functionality to back it up. The combo of new hinge, Type Cover lock-bar-thingy, and a bigger screen make the Surface Pro finally laptop enough. Instead of offering a vague glimpse at the future that faded away the second you tried to do anything (like the Surface Pro 1 and 2 did), the Surface Pro 3 really feels futuristic, through and through. Using this thing on your lap is a joy simply by virtue of being possible and feasible and even pleasant. Of course, that accomplishment is nothing more than baseline laptop adequacy, but it's still great somehow.
I love the new hinge. I miss the clicks, but the added range of motion is another completely worthwhile trade-off. Besides, the resistance the hinge offers still has a real sort of tactile gravity to it. It feels serious. It feels like a thing that will not loosen up with age. On the other hand it also looks like a thing that will inevitably get mired in gunk of some mysterious origin, but so far so good.
The big screen, man. The big screen is just so clutch whenever you have the keyboard attached. It makes it feel like a real computer, and offers enough real estate to make Windows 8-y features like snapping actually worth it. It's impossible to overstate how right of a choice the move to this bigger screen size was. Yes, it makes for a slightly unwieldy tablet but the trade-off is so so so so so so so worth it. Also at a resolution of 2560 x 1440, that screen is a damn sight better than the MacBook Air's, and it shows.
OneNote integration is fun. When you click on the stylus's retractable-pen-style button, OneNote leaps to life on your screen, and you can start scrawling all over it. Questionably useful for folks who can type faster than they write (everyone?) but a fun little gimmick nonetheless. Also the pressure-sensitive stylus is nice to use, even if you are a person who has no business drawing. Here is a doodle I did of my spirit animal:
It's not exactly a flaw but Microsoft doesn't include Type Cover with the devices it sells; that's an extra $130. And considering that it's basically mandatory, the Surface Pro 3 is actually, sneakily, $130 more expensive than Microsoft would have you believe.
As far as the Pro 3 has come towards being a laptop, it's still not a laptop, and occasionally that will annoy you. It cannot operate at an acute angle. It takes two steps to open (unfold the cover, unfold the kickstand) as opposed to just opening a clamshell. The Type Cover is fine but it's no actual keyboard. These failings are more minor than ever, but still present for laptop users who are used to laptops.
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.
The fans are quiet but the back can get really obnoxiously hot while you're watching Netflix.
That trackpad is just not. good. enough.
I keep losing that stylus. The little attachment doohickey that lets you attach it to the Type Cover is better than the previous it-attaches-to-the-charging-port solution, but the bar was very, very low.
Should You Buy It?
How often do you carry around your laptop—open—by the corner. A lot? Like, a lot? Then yes, maybe. Not a lot? Then no, probably not. The Surface Pro 3 is definitely a great device, but do you really need its superpowers?
The bigger question is Now that the Surface Pro is advanced enough that it's not actively shooting itself in the foot, does the Surface dream hold up? The answer is a resounding "kind of."
The Surface Pro 3 is now a passable laptop, which is fantastic. But the added benefit of a full Windows tablet is still pretty niche. I don't own a tablet, and having a Surface Pro 3 around my apartment did not enrich my life in any appreciable way. Twittering and casual emails are still best done from my always-within-reach phone, and the Surface Pro in tablet or laptop mode is no better or worse for watching movies in bed than my MacBook Air, or any Windows laptop.
Granted there are other, very specific use-cases for this thing. The announced and upcoming, Surface-styled version Photoshop will probably make this great for photographers. Both of the photographers we have on staff have already approached me to borrow this review unit for a bit because they hate lugging around MacBook Pros. Artists will probably dig this thing for its pressure-sensitive stylus and bigger-than-ever screen, providing they can avoid losing the stylus. Everyone else? Well, it's a cool piece of hardware, but you don't need it, and a traditional laptop—Windows or otherwise—can probably suit you better.
The costs of choosing a Surface Pro over a traditional laptop are fewer than ever but they're still present, while the benefits are still fairly niche. So if they appeal to you, by all means buy a Surface Pro 3; it's fantastic for what it is. That doesn't mean, though, that it's necessarily what you want.
Surface Pro 3 Specs (as tested):
Display: 12-inch, 2160 x 1440
Processor: Intel Core i5 Haswell
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000
Storage: 256GB SSD
Ports: Full-size USB 3.0, microSDXC card slot, Headset jack, Mini DisplayPort, Cover port
Dimensions: 11.5" x 7.93" x 0.3"
Weight: 2 pounds
Price (of review model): $1,300 tablet + $130 Type Cover