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Surface Pro 3 hands on: Better laptop, yes; better tablet, maybe

As I walked back from Microsoft’s Surface event earlier today, one question kept creeping into my mind: Did Microsoft(s MSFT) improve the new Surface Pro 3 enough to appeal to both tablet and laptop users? It’s too soon to say of course, but I’m writing this post on a Surface Pro 3 review unit with the new Type Cover keyboard. That in itself is telling since I normally use a Chromebook for traditional computing and iPad(s aapl) as a tablet. I also bought a Surface Pro 2 a few months ago that I ended up returning; it just didn’t work for me.

Surface Pro 3, though? I’m intrigued. The hardware itself is pretty impressive at first glance and I can see that Microsoft put quite a bit of time into making the overall device’s usability better: Both as a laptop and a tablet. Some quick thoughts as I use the loaner device for a first post:

  • This 2160 x 1440 screen is superb, both vivid and crisp. |
    Surface Pro 3 display
    It’s now 12-inches diagonally but a 3:2 aspect ratio. That sounds like a crazy ratio yet I like it. Probably because my Chromebook(s goog) Pixel has the same 3:2 setup. That works better for me than the Surface Pro 2’s setup because it’s taller and more laptop-like. I don’t feel as cramped when in landscape mode. I’m still not sold on this screen for portrait mode though: It’s better than the long display on its predecessor but still fairly big.
  • The new hinge on Surface Pro 3 adjusts to nearly any angle between 22 and 150 degrees. I already like it because it’s more customizable. It also works better on my lap as a result.
  • Helping laptop mode is a magnet in the new Type Cover. The keyboard still attaches to the side of Surface Pro 3 but also to the screen bezel. This gives the overall device more sturdiness in laptop mode.
    Surface Pro 3 keyboard
  • I never cared for the trackpad on prior Surface keyboards — a shame because the typing experience was quite good. This new trackpad is bigger and feels like glass although it’s probably very polished plastic. It works much better than the prior trackpad and I don’t feel I need a Bluetooth mouse to use Surface Pro 3.
  • At 800 grams, Surface Pro 3 is lighter than its predecessor, even with its larger display. This device is about a quarter-pound lighter than Surface Pro 2 and it’s thinner as well: Just 9.1 millimeters. Surface Pro 3 feels less bulky than the older model as a result.
  • My review unit has an Intel Core i5 processor running at 1.9 GHz paired with 8 GB of memory. I haven’t thrown any very computing intensive tasks at it, but so far everything is running smoothly in Windows 8.1. I did watch a few YouTube(s goog) videos at 1440p resolution since the screen is capable of viewing them and the only stuttering was due to the network; once fully buffered the videos played back perfectly.
  • I haven’t used the included pen yet even though Microsoft pushed the accessory quite a bit at today’s event. If you’re a OneNote user, the experience looks great: Double-clicking the pen will capture data for OneNote while clicking the pen a single time with Surface Pro 3 in sleep mode will wake the device. Microsoft changed over to N-Trig’s pen technology for Surface Pro 3.
  • A quick camera test showed positive results, both from front (see my Surface Pro 3 selfie below) and back. Microsoft used a 5 megapixel sensor for both cameras. Obviously, Surface Pro 3 plays nicely with Skype since Microsoft owns it.
    Surface Pro 3 selfie

Overall, I like what I see here initially. Surface Pro 3 already looks like a much better laptop. Time will tell in tablet mode because a 12-inch slate can become unwieldy after a while; at least in portrait mode. The kickstand will help for content consumption times, of course.

Surface Pro 3 starts at $100 less than the prior model: You can get one for $799. However, that’s a Core i3 model; the Surface Pro 2 base model has a Core i5. Microsoft didn’t announce pricing yet for upgraded editions which go on sale tomorrow.

With all of these improvements, I’m sure the price will quickly rise once you start loading up a custom model. But in Microsoft’s eyes, you’re getting two devices for the price of one. I’ll be using the review unit in the coming weeks to see if the company has accomplished that 2-in-1 goal. I’m also glad I returned my Surface Pro 2 because I’m already liking the new Surface better. I’m curious though: For those that bought a Surface Pro 2, is there now any buyer’s remorse?

It does seem strange that Microsoft revamped the Surface Pro so quickly. I think this may be the device it wanted to deliver last year but simply couldn’t swing it at the time. And now that Windows 8.1 is here, Microsoft’s hardware is more in step with its software. That won’t likely make any Surface Pro 2 buyers feel better, but for Microsoft’s overall Surface strategy it simply makes sense.

This post was updated on May 21 to correct the Surface Pro 3 screen resolution.

35 Responses to “Surface Pro 3 hands on: Better laptop, yes; better tablet, maybe”

  1. dricht1

    A pretty good basic overview. Nice work.

    As for buyer’s remorse, it’s actually not an easy question. Yes, when it comes down to it I would have preferred not to buy the Pro 2 knowing what I do now (because I do have a spare laptop to get me by), but I don’t actually regret doing it. I bought the Pro 2 knowing that sometime near the holidays a Pro 3 was almost a given, and an upgrade might be in the cards. I simply can’t begrudge Microsoft for delivering way above and beyond expectations AND managing to work in an early release for the more ‘standard’ i5 models.

    I mean, when I bought my surface pro 2 none of us had any idea this kind of machine was even possible. Hats off to Microsoft.

  2. No buyers remorse here Kevin, but let’s break all this down into it’s individual details:

    1. The device is bigger than it’s predecessor. That’s an issue for me because I like the compactness of a 10″ device. Remember as well that I’m still rocking a very high-end 10″ netbook.

    2. They added 802.11ac and Gigabit Ethernet – two big points that I did miss with the Surface Pro 2.

    3. I like having a Core i7 under the hood. What I don’t like is that this is still Haswell. If I do end up replacing my netbook with a Surface Pro, I’ll wait for a Broadwell variant.

    4. 2560×1440 takes a serious IGP to run. While Haswell did fine running MANY 3D gaming titles at 1920×1080, I would feel more confident moving up to Broadwell and enjoy the benefits of a better IGP.

    5. Where’s the car charger accessory? Does the current one work with this?

    6. Given that this device is physically bigger, I would appreciate seeing a full-size SD card slot for once.

    7. Hooray for the adjustable kickstand!!!

    Feel free to peruse over my review of the Surface Pro 2. I didn’t keep it either, but not because I didn’t like it:

  3. beepily

    Argh. N-trig? I was almost in love. Now I’ll have to hold on to my cash until someone can reassure me the pen compares to Wacom tech and there will be sufficient driver support for pressure sensitivity in my favourite apps. Or not. :(

  4. jhesr

    Microsoft has gone all in now. They are totally at war with the OEMs with this device.

    Replacing laptops with a Surface 3 means they want to take over the hardware market for Windows devices.

  5. pjs_boston

    With decent laptop level specs, the Surface 3 is prices at 1,500 bucks. For that money I could get a MacBook Air and an iPad Mini. That’s the problem. Even if it has improved significantly, it’s still a second rate laptop and a second rate tablet in one. Better have two optimized devices that work together.

    • Steven Ramos

      The super hi-res screen is what is drawing me to the Surface Pro 3. I always have multiple windows up and I’m gushing over the resolution. The MBP Retina gets as pricey as this new Surface. A Macbook Air Retina would smash this thing if Apple will make it, and they kept cost down. I’m currently in the market for a new laptop and would buy the SP3 in an instant if it were a but cheaper.

      • dricht1

        A MacBook Air retina would need to be considerably more expensive for Apple to keep margins up on them, which is the primary driving force behind the company. Keep in mind their last refresh merely bumped the processor by .1 GHz, an unnoticeable increase.

        Beyond that, it’s unlikely that the MBA will ever manage to beat a Surface Pro in terms of value; it simply loses too much flexibility without a touchscreen or detachable keyboard. It requires an iPad if you want tablet functionality, and that instantly kicks the price higher while also compromising the unified experience of having just one device.

    • Brandon Paddock

      That’s just not true. The i5 256GB model with the new Type Cover Pro is $1429. Compare that to the i5 256GB MacBook Air at $1299 (13″) or $1199 (12″). How are you going to buy one of those and an iPad Mini for less than $1699 or $1799?

      Never mind that the SP3 has a faster CPU, way higher res screen, and is way lighter and more portable. By my math, it’s a way better laptop than the MBA.

      And in what way do a MacBook Air and iPad Mini “work together?” Never mind that an iPad Mini is a completely different class of tablet.

    • dricht1

      You are entirely incorrect.

      Decent laptop, for most people, is the 999 model. Even that offers more power than the MacBook Air and vastly more power than any flavor of iPad. It also offers a unique and much more enjoyable unified user experience; yes, you need to learn Windows 8.1, but once you know how to use the OS it really brings everything together.

      Of course, we could step up to a higher-end Surface Pro 3 and smash the iPad even more thoroughly while cranking up the cost of the MBA to match it, but the exact same thing applies at those levels.

      Your math on this subject is just plain incorrect.

  6. makelvin

    Frankly, I don’t think Apple has anything to worry about with their iPad. First of all, many people think that iPad Air is too heavy and that is why they prefers the iPad Mini; this new Surface Pro 3 weights twice as much. The whole thing is just too big and heavy for use as a tablet at this point.

    As the author indicated, the Surface Pro 3 seems to compete more in the laptop market rather than a tablet, both in price and performance. As a laptop, it seems to be lightweight with reasonable performance. But at its base price of $799 plus $129 for its keyboard, it is effectively $929 laptop. With Apple just recently dropped their Macbook Air’s base price of $899. The Surface Pro 3 is actually more expensive than the Macbook Air. Sure, it has a touch screen and it is slightly lighter, but at the same base price, it also only has a Core i3 instead of Core i5. The Macbook Air also comes with 128GB of flash instead of 64GB. The truth is when the price is this close, people will choose between their OS preferences. In this case it will be Mac OS X vs Windows 8.1. People who preferes Mac OS X will not be switching to Windows 8.1 or vice versa with the introduction of Surface Pro 3. Each with continue to stick with what they are used to and comfortable with already. The bottom-line is Apple will not have to worry about losing their Macbook laptop market either. Instead, the people that should worry about the Surface Pro 3 is the Microsoft Windows OEM partners that is making Windows tablets and laptops such as HP, Lenovo, Acer, and ASUS, etc. The Surface Pro 3 will directly compete with other Windows laptops/notebooks and/or tablets.

    Ironically during the presentations, Microsoft keeps trying to reassure their OEM partners that the introduction of Surface Pro 3 do and should not compete with their business model and strategy. I don’t see how that is possible, any OEM partners who actually believe that do not deserve to exist in the market in the first place.

    • Brandon Paddock

      Note that the i5 in the MBA is a particularly slow version of it. It might not be any better than the i3 in the SP3, and the i5 in the $999+ SP3 is significantly faster.

      Also note that not only is it a touch screen (*and* with an awesome active digitizer pen), but the screen is just miles better and higher res. The 11″ MBA screen is still only 1366×768, and the 13″ is only slightly higher than that (a far cry from even the 1080p of the *old* Surface Pro).

      Oh, and it’s lighter. And works as a tablet. And has two far better cameras.

      So no it isn’t priced identically, but it’s priced competitively for sure.

    • dricht1

      Though I haven’t gotten a chance to test the Pro 3 hands-on, I can pretty safely assure you that the i3 model will have day-to-day performance on par with the MBA. Head to a retail store with a decent i3 SSD PC on display (the low-end HP split comes to mind) and compare it to the MBA; I imagine that some tasks are better handled by the i5, but web browsing (using a very fast mobile hotspot for wireless), YouTube videos, basic programs like pages/wordpad, calendar, email, etc all show no discernible difference in load times or performance.

      And the HP actually booted slightly faster, with comparable wake-from-sleep time.

      There’s a lot more to a computer than its specs.

  7. Hm. “Starting at $799” with an i3 seems a little pricy for the Windows crowd when they can get lots of (cheap) laptops with keyboards for less than half that.

    I dunno.

    • pjs_boston

      If you want 256GB of storage and a Core i5 processor, the price skyrockets to 1,500 bucks. I can’t see a business case for this machine.

      • Brandon Paddock

        You mean $1429 (with the new type cover pro), versus $1300 for the i5 256GB MacBook Air (13″, or $100 less for the 11-inch).

        But for your $130-230 extra you get a significantly faster CPU, a way, way higher res screen, and it’s a tablet. And much lighter and more portable (especially versus the 13″ MBA).

        So… the business case seems pretty clear. It’s priced competitively. It’s clearly not a copy of anything out there, so the value comparison is a little more complicated. But the pricing absolutely seems reasonable to me.

      • rannxerox

        My company buys ultrabooks for $1,400 with 256GB SSDs, no touch screens, and lower res. They are nice devices but what corporate pays for a device is far different then what a consumer expects to pay.

  8. It’s over $2,100 for the top model (Surface + type/cover + e-net adapter). That’s going to be nearly impossible for me to justify to the bean-counters as a corporate purchase when they see 3 of our approved ultra-portable laptops cost $2,100.

    • Digeratti

      In most cases the mid range model will serve you just fine, i5 / 8GB RAM / 256GB. Its plenty fast. What type of work are you doing that requires the top model?

    • I can’t believe bickering over the prices. Heck when I bought my first IBM Thinkpad it cost me $1700 in the early 2000’s. But that laptop with it’s portability allow me to do tech support on the road and on the fly. I matched my day job salary which made the purchase cost a moot point. I paid out of pocket, you’re talking about having “the company” pay for yours! Chances are most of you probably make a good middle class American salary also–talk about First World Problems…sheesh!

    • Robin Sayer

      I don’t see that being a fair criticism – most IT departments have seen the Mac Air and Pro start proliferating in their environments, despite the fact that typical Windows enterprise PC is still good after 3 years, while the Macs which are already more expensive tend to only last a year or two before the owners want the next toy. Being as its normally execs that push the mac into environments they tend to get them as well.
      This is the closest device that could possibly provide something to those staff who typically demand a Mac book air (because they need something light) while also wanting a tablet – that could actually last a few years – and still be cheaper.

    • Nate Lawrence

      Hi, Abbie,

      The best way to answer this for yourself is to go to a Best Buy or Microsoft Store near you and try it out for yourself, after they have the Surface Pro 3 in stock.

      It may be difficult because display models don’t usually have art apps installed and don’t allow you to install desktop apps, but you should be able to install Fresh Paint or SketchBook Express from the Windows Store for free.

      The Surface Pro 1 and Surface Pro 2 both had Wacom digitizers and pens which offered 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity.

      The Surface Pro 3 uses an N-Trig digitizer and pen (N-Trig’s pen uses a battery, unlike Wacom’s) which only offers 256 levels of pressure sensitivity.

      Many people who hear this react negatively based on the numbers alone, but others seem to think that N-Trig’s tech works just fine for sketching, so you need to really try both the Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro 3 for yourself and see if you notice a difference.

      Here’s a video of the artist who draws the comic strip ‘Penny Arcade’ sketching on the Surface Pro 1 over a year ago:

      If you decide that you prefer the Surface Pro 1’s and Surface Pro 2’s precision then I would wait until the Surface Pro 3 begins to be sold, since you may find that the price of a Pro 1 or 2 drops or people who want to upgrade to a Pro 3 start selling their Pro 1 or 2 on ebay.

      There is a blog called Surface Pro Artist which has used both Surface Pro 1 and 2 who is going to be doing a series of blog posts about using Surface Pro 3 for art and whether it is as usable as the Pro 1 and Pro 2 next week, so stay tuned for their thoughts.

      I hope that helps some!

  9. I have learned that if you suffer easily from buyers remorse, the tech world is no place for you. That said, I do kind of wish I hadn’t purchased my surface pro 2.