The original Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 were supposed to be laptops in tablet form, but it was a false promise: Although the products performed well, they still had compromises. Microsoft's new Surface Pro 3 aims to eliminate those issues — or at least reduce them to point where they don't matter.
The design is a good step in that direction. One problem with tablets that also want to be laptops is screen size: 10 (or so) inches just doesn't quite cut it in laptop world. To really work as a device for "getting stuff done," you need 11 inches minimum, and the Pro 3's 12-inch screen fits the bill.
Of course, the larger the device, the less usable it is as a tablet. The Surface Pro 3 gets away with it, though: Weighing just 1.76 pounds and about a third of an inch thick, the Surface Pro 3 is lighter and thinner than the Pro 2. It's actually just slightly heavier than the original iPad, which was about 1.6 pounds.
The 3:2 aspect ratio doesn't feel weird, even though it is.The 3:2 aspect ratio doesn't feel weird, even though it is. When you're in laptop mode, the only thing that throws you is the Windows logo appearing along the right edge of the device rather than below the screen.
The new Type Cover keyboard snaps in just like previous models, and those earlier keyboards are still compatible with the Surface Pro 3. On one side of the keyboard is a fairly cheap-looking holster for the digital pen, but that's still a better solution than the magnetic pen holder on previous Pro models.
The kickstand hinge is impressive. The minimum angle is something like 30 degrees (otherwise the tablet would tip over), but you can go way beyond that, up to 150 degrees. The level of resistance is just right — light enough for you to manipulate with one hand, but hard enough to stand up to everyday tapping and writing.
The extra magnetic seal that you get by folding the edge of the keyboard toward the screen really does improve the "lap-ability" of the Pro 3 — you can finally use the Surface on your lap, at any angle, with minimal keyboard shake. Typing out parts of this hands-on on the Surface Pro 3, the experience felt close, if not exactly like, typing on my MacBook Pro With Retina Display.
The keyboard's new touchpad is much better than previous versions.The keyboard's new touchpad is much better than previous versions. The first Type Cover had clumsy buttons and last year's was a postage-stamp-sized button that didn't actually click. The new cover has a dramatically improved design — a single surface that's 45% larger than the previous pad, which also brings back the clickability. It honestly feels a lot like a MacBook touchpad, which is widely regarded as best in class.
Microsoft apparently spent a lot of time perfecting the experience with the digital pen that accompanies the Surface Pro 3, and it shows. Latency — the scourge of pen and paint apps — really kills your flow, and it's rampant (looking at you, Samsung). On the Surface Pro 3, I couldn't detect any latency while using the pen with OneNote, but when I switched over to Fresh Paint, the app had trouble properly registering my scribblings. I don't think this was a problem of latency, just compatibility, but it was surprising since it's a Microsoft app.
Clicking on the back of the pen will instantly call up OneNote, even if the tablet is in standby mode. Write your powerful thought, click again, and the note goes right to OneDrive. It's a well-thought-out experience and very practical, except for one thing: I don't use OneNote. I'd love a way to integrate the pen with Evernote, but that seems unlikely in the near future — especially since Evernote for Windows 8.1 doesn't yet support handwriting input.
The Evernote issue is representative of the ongoing challenge Microsoft faces: It can build all the great hardware it wants — and at first blush the Surface Pro 3 is fantastic — but great hardware does not an ecosystem make. For that you need strong developer support, which in turn leads to great app experiences, and on that score Windows 8/8.1 has struggled.
Now that I've gotten my hands on it, the Surface Pro 3 makes a strong case as a laptop replacement. But it hasn't yet convinced me it's an iPad replacement as well, and to close the deal, it's going to have to do both.
Watch for our full review in the coming days that will take that question head-on.
Up Close With the Surface Pro 3
Tags: Microsoft, Surface Pro, Surface Pro 3