There is no PC like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. There have been plenty of Windows tablet-laptop hybrids, sure, but all of them negotiate some kind of compromise — sometimes several — that make them more like one than the other.
The new Surface wants it both ways. The big, glossy slab is unmistakably a tablet, but when you snap in the optional-but-not-really-optional keyboard, you've got a fully-powered PC in your hands. Or rather, lap.
But that's been the promise of every version of the Surface Pro since the first onedebuted in January 2013.
The Surface Pro 3 delivers on that promise better than its predecessorsThe Surface Pro 3 delivers on that promise better than its predecessors, however, thanks to a couple of important design upgrades.
First is the large 12-inch display — a plus size for tablets if there ever was one. Despite the extra real estate, though, the Surface Pro 3 is noticeably lighter than its predecessors: just 1.7 pounds to the Surface Pro 2's 2 pounds. The display is sharper, too: With 2,160 x 1,440 resolution, it's in a class with "retina" level Ultrabooks.
But the Surface Pro 3's deadliest laptop-killing weapon is its kickstand. The Surface kickstand has been a point of differentiation — as well as a point of derision — for the device ever since the original Surface RT. While Microsoft had some fuzzy math that supposedly showed the fixed angle that the stand used was ideal, it was a one-size-fits-all approach to something that needed a far more flexible solution.
Although the design improved slightly with the Surface Pro 2 (which increased the number of stand positions to a whopping two), it's taken Microsoft three tries to get this right: The kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 is exactly what it should have been all along, allowing for tilting the display at any angle up to 150 degrees.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review
Keyboard Levels Up
Thinner and Lighter
The miracle hinge is the Surface Pro 3's killer app. It almost singlehandedly turns the tablet into a credible laptop replacement, allowing a user to tilt the screen to exactly his or her liking while it rests on the lap. In Microsoft's words, this is why the new Surface has the best "lap-ability" of the Surface line, and that's certainly true.
But I did say almost. The kickstand, by its nature, extends the footprint of the device more than a laptop would. That can be a problem when there isn't any room for the extension (people with short femurs, beware).
There's also that keyboard. While the Surface Pro 3 keyboard is by far the best design the line has ever had, it's still a far cry from the excellent chiclet-style keys found on Apple's MacBooks and other Ultrabooks. The keys are big but, overall, it's a little cramped.
Two features make the new keyboard a winner. The upgraded trackpad is miles ahead of the old one, with a clickable, single-button design (although you can still left- and right-click) that's 45% larger than the old one. In all honestly, it's very MacBook-like, which is just about the highest compliment you can pay to any trackpad.
The keyboard's other new perk is the secondary magnet that hugs the keyboard snugly below the screen while also tilting it up slightly. The magnet keeps the keyboard more stable as you type with the machine on your lap.
Microsoft sells the keyboard as an optional accessory, which is utterly ridiculous. The Surface line — and the Pro models in particular — has always been about productivity. Microsoft even goes out of its way to compare the Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook Air. The only reason I can think of to sell them separately is to keep the machine's price deceptively low. But it is a deception: Be sure to add $130 to any Surface Pro 3 price you see.
Between the keyboard and the new hinge, the Surface Pro 3 does a pretty good laptop impression. You have to break some habits — like many, I often hold my laptop by the keyboard as I walk from desk to desk — but those are kind of good problems.
The case for usage
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.
As with previous Pros, I found the new Surface's strongest use case as the workstation replacement. With an Intel Core i5 processor, this machine, which starts at $999, is right at home powering an external monitor and a pile of USB gear. (Versions with Core i3 and i7 processors will be available in August starting at $799 and $1,549, respectively.) That makes me slightly disappointed that Microsoft isn't coming out with the Surface Pro 3 dock at launch, but that's what hubs are for.
Every time I swap out my MacBook for a Surface I marvel at the desk space I reclaim (though stands like the Twelve South BookArc can reduce a Mac's footprint, too). This is something the Surface holds over most Windows hybrids, too, which often lack a kickstand and put their ports to a removable keyboard, requiring you to keep the tablet docked when connecting to external gear.
Detach the three cables (power, USB and Mini DisplayPort), slap on the keyboard, and boom — your PC is ready to go to meetings. Even if there are couches.
Where the Surface Pro 3 falls short — somewhat deliberately — is in delivering a tablet experience.
Where the Surface Pro 3 falls short — somewhat deliberately — is in delivering a tablet experience. While it's certainly a capable machine hardware-wise, it'sWindows 8.1 that often lets you down.
The Windows Store (which sells the touch-first Windows apps) has a lot more apps than it used to. Facebook, Foursquare, Flipboard and Twitter are at last in the catalog, joining old favorites like The Weather Channel, Hulu Plus and Fruit Ninja. There's even a Flappy Bird clone.
Unfortunately many of those apps are a shadow of their versions for iPad. Evernote for Windows, for example, doesn't support handwriting input, which would be really useful to have considering the Surface Pro 3 comes with a digitizing pen. It's not like this is the first Windows tablet to come with a stylus, either — they've been around since the initial launch of Windows 8. The Evernote guys have had plenty of time; they just haven't bothered.
That's, sadly, a recurring theme with Windows apps. Share something from Dropbox? You'll need to use the site. Want to add "feelings" to a Facebook status update? Not available in the Windows version. Feel like listening to some Spotify? The Windows desktop app will have to do.
That said, the Surface Pro 3 is more than capable of doing all those fallbacks. And for just kicking back and "consuming" with photos, music or video, it's still a fine tablet. But an iPad experience it ain't.
About that digital pen that comes with the Surface Pro 3: It's pretty damn good. Previous Surfaces had included pens, but Microsoft went for a total redesign this time around, equipping it with two buttons and providing a clip for slipping in a breast pocket. (Can you think of anything nerdier than a digital pen in a pocket protector?)
Overall, drawing on the Surface Pro 3 is a pleasurable experience. The active pen feels good and does not slide all over the screen (though I could use a bit more drag). Where you place the pen is where your line appears; Microsoft's attention to cutting down screen layers appears to be paying off.
It has a good companion in the deceptively powerful, but somewhat under-featured, Fresh Paint (no layers, no zoom, no selection, too).
The pen boasts 256 levels of pressure-sensitivity, but it often felt as if it has just two — I couldn't always get all the increments I desired. Lines were often too light or too heavy.
The Bluetooth nature of the pen is responsible for the pressure sensitivity and ability to rest my palm on the screen while I draw. However, if the Surface has the kickstand engaged, it would fold all the way down under the weight of my arm. In the end, I found it easier to draw without my palm on the screen.
There are a couple of buttons on the pen, which I accidentally hit when I was drawing. Sometimes this deleted a line.
I haven't drawn much on the Surface, so I considered all these issues small adjustments I'd have to make. Overtime, I got better at handling these little quirks and came to enjoy drawing on the Surface. I do look forward to drawing with other apps, like Procreate and Sketchbook … if they ever make it to the platform.
Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 is the tablet that can replace your laptop. They could have added, "Really! We mean it this time," since that was pretty much the promise of the first two Surface Pro models, too.
Can it? Yes. Will you want it to? Only if you don't use your laptop as, you know, an actual laptop most of the time. Because even though the Surface Pro 3 can simulate a laptop extremely well, it's still a simulation. A well-crafted notebook computer with chiclet keys will provide a better experience, every time.
A better typing experience, that is. For watching videos, whipping through photos, or just being book bag-friendly, this gadget runs circles around any laptop. I don't know if a single machine will ever satisfy all our digital needs, but when it comes to device unity, the Surface Pro 3 is simply the best product ever made.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Powerful computing in a light tablet • Excellent kickstand • Innovative digital pen
Keyboard costs extra • So-so tablet apps • Still not quite a laptop
The Bottom Line
It may not be the perfect laptop or the perfect tablet, but as an everything device, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 makes an incredibly strong case.
Lance Ulanoff contributed to this review.