Reviewed – Microsoft Surface Pro 3


Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 is the tablet that can replace your laptop. Well, can it?

Microsoft’s marketing for the Surface Pro 3 – its third attempt at creating a prototypal business device for the Windows 8, post-PC era – bills it as the “tablet that can replace your laptop.”

It’s a bold claim and one that plays to longstanding, but more recently challenged, views that tablets are incapable of performing many of the tasks essential for day-to-day business use.

Simultaneously it also challenges not uncommon scepticism about Windows 8’s credentials as a tablet platform, particularly whether it can offer the portability and ease-of-use that iOS and Android devices can.

The Surface Pro 3 is not the only all-in-one device claiming to offer the functionality of a PC and the form factor of a tablet, nor is it the first iteration of the Surface. So is Microsoft all talk or can its latest flagship tablet really be the system businesses have been waiting for?

Screen upgrade

SurfacePro3 headThe most obvious change between the Surface Pro 3 and its predecessors is the larger 12 inch touchscreen. It can accommodate a resolution a resolution of up to 2,160 x 1,440 pixels thanks to an unconventional 3:2 aspect ratio – 38 percent larger and 50 percent more pixels than the Surface Pro 2.

The extra real estate makes a difference when using Windows Store apps alongside Desktop or even snapping individual Desktop windows to either side of the screen. Multi-tasking has always been difficult on tablets so this is a major bonus when using multiple Word documents or even using the Twitter app while tackling Excel.

The other major benefit of the new screen and ratio, according to Microsoft, is that the Surface Pro 3 works better in portrait mode. Browsing or using a ‘Metro’ app is better in portrait than previous generations, but typing is still difficult and the device is a little bit too heavy and unbalanced to use like this for too long, especially with one hand.

You might want to use a flat surface for applications which support the new Surface Pen, a Bluetooth powered stylus that can be used for freehand notes in OneNote, illustrations in Fresh Paint and e-signatures among other things. The stylus is easy to use and works well, with ‘Palm Block’ technology lets you rest your non-writing hand without making an impact on the screen.

Have you lost some weight?

SurfacePro3sideviewTypeCover_WebBut despite the aforementioned weight concerns about portrait mode, the Surface Pro 3 is not a heavy device and is actually lighter than the previous generation. This is partly due to new fan technology that claims to be 30 percent more efficient and eliminates the need to create a channel to exhaust air.

The Surface is extremely quiet and the metal exterior is as elegant as you might expect from a premium product. The other major physical change is that the kickstand now extends to up to 150 degrees, making the device easier to rest on your lap – especially with a keyboard – but any sudden movement while typing on the couch might send it flying. Overall, the Surface looks the part, even if it lacks the sturdiness of a conventional laptop.

But there are compromises. Just one USB port is included, although it is USB 3.0, and although another port is included in the supplied charger, this can only be used to power another device. Another disappointment is the absence of either an HDMI or Micro HDMI port, but there is an external display slot.

This poverty of connection options mean that anyone who wants to use the Surface as their main work machine is going to have to invest in additional accessories. Indeed, it’s mystifying as to why Microsoft doesn’t provide a keyboard as standard. Not only would this give the Surface a key advantage, it would also help protect the display, which is vulnerable without a type or touch cover.

Good performance

Surface Pro 3Fortunately, these design choices don’t appear to have compromised internal performance. There are various processor configurations available to purchase, ranging from a 64GB model with Intel core i3 processor to a 512GB i7 model.

We tested the 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 1.9GHz model and the device was capable of handling any productivity or media application or task we threw at it. The only major performance issues that we encountered were that the device can get hot after prolonged periods of use and that the battery life isn’t comparable with standalone tablets.

Microsoft claims the Surface supports up to nine hours of web browsing, however it’s difficult to see how this was determined. The lifespan isn’t terrible for a laptop with moderate use, but for a tablet it’s not great. Lengthy work sessions are going to require a power connection, an issue if you’re on a plane.

The Surface ships with Windows 8.1, which of course means many existing applications are compatible straight out of the box and removes the need to obtain a tablet version. This is just as well given the continued dearth of choice and quality on the Windows Store.

More laptop than tablet

It’s surprising to discover that if there’s any factual inaccuracy in Microsoft’s bold statement that the Surface Pro 3 is the tablet that can replace your laptop, it’s that the device is better at being the latter than the former.

The Surface Pro 3 comes highly recommended and is an impressive mobile work machine. With a click-in physical keyboard and wireless mouse, it easily beats a tablet or larger laptop for work – even if it feels less sturdy and is deprived of some ports.

A lack of tablet specific software, relatively low battery life (for a tablet, not a laptop) and awkward handling put it at a disadvantage when compared to iOS and Android rivals. However although far from perfect, the touch screen controls in desktop mode compensate for the absence of Windows Store apps – especially when used with the Surface Pen.

The Surface isn’t cheap, starting at £639, and some might say the trade-off isn’t worth it for that price. But on the eve of the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft is closer than ever to realising its vision of a converged tablet-PC ecosystem – even if it hasn’t quite mastered the balancing act just yet.

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