Blog Post

Surface Pro 3 review: Compromises, yes, but in all the right places

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 hit retail stores today so you can try and buy the device. Like the prior Surface models, this one is marketed as a 2-in-1 device. “It’s a tablet that can replace your laptop,” according to the company. That means, as with any other hybrid design, that compromises are made by definition. You can’t turn a car into a truck-like utility vehicle, for example, without compromising on some of the car’s aspects. (Look up the Chevrolet El Camino if you doubt that.)

Yet with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft(s msft) has turned the compromises between a laptop and a tablet into a strength, finally recognizing its initial vision for the product. Put another way, it has taken user feedback into strong consideration and designed perhaps the best and most powerful hybrid computer to date. I’ve used every Surface and Surface Pro model and so far, Surface Pro 3 is the first one I could see myself using on daily basis.

Trying a trip without bringing a laptop and a separate tablet

In fact, I did just that for several weeks. Typically I use a Chromebook(s goog) for my computing tasks, or occasionally a MacBook Pro with Retina Display(s aapl). And my tablet activities are handled by an iPad Air. But I took the plunge and used the Surface Pro 3 as both laptop and tablet. I even used it to travel cross-country and cover Apple’s WWDC event — a trip that would normally see me bring both a tablet and a laptop. Not this time.

On that trip, for example, I watched a high-definition movie during my flight. The 2 hour and 15 minute flick looked great on the 12-inch, 2160 x 1440 resolution display and used up roughly 25 percent of the battery life. With the user-adjustable kickstand, I was able to stand Surface Pro 3 up in various angles throughout the movie. (Yes, I squirm a bunch on six-hour flights.) I played some games and did other things that I’d normally use a tablet for.

Surface Pro 3 keyboard

When it came time to work, the Surface Pro 3 morphed into laptop mode admirably. I snapped on the new Type Cover keyboard, put the device on my lap in a crowded room and banged out a live blog with no problem. The new Type cover is a big improvement over the prior versions: It has a larger, smoother trackpad and it magnetically adheres to the lower bezel of the Surface Pro 3 screen, bringing much needed stability for use on your lap. This trackpad is the first one on a Surface device that didn’t require me to add a Bluetooth mouse as well. One minor downside with the setup: You lose the ability to do gestures from the bottom bezel and it can be tricky to tap on-screen items near it.

A better display for both modes

About that screen: It too is compromised, because it had to be. One of things I disliked most about every Surface prior to this one was the display design. Until now, Surface computers had widescreen aspect ratios. That’s not bad for a laptop — it’s quite common, actually — but it’s not ideal for a tablet, especially when used in portrait mode. It’s simply too long and awkward — making me feel like as if I was reading my Kindle books on a legal pad notebook. Surface Pro 3 has a larger screen, which is helpful, but it’s also a 3:2 aspect ratio which doesn’t make the device that much bigger than its predecessor.

I’m used to that type of screen ratio because my Chromebook Pixel uses the same 3:2 design. It helps in laptop mode because it provides a taller display, which means less vertical scrolling. And it balances out better in tablet usage as well, both in landscape and portrait modes. If you’re looking solely for a tablet, though, I’m not sure this is the device for you. The Surface Pro 3 is 1.75 pounds; as a tablet, I wouldn’t want to hold and use it for too long. There are many lighter choices available on the market.

Asphalt 8 Surface Pro 3

A well-designed, peppy PC hiding inside a tablet form

Of course, you’re getting much more than a tablet here; you’re getting a well-designed PC built with premium materials that rival any tablet available today. With the keyboard cover, my review unit is a solid laptop boasting a fast 1.9 GHz Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory and 256 GB of internal flash storage. That’s the $1,299 configuration and the keyboard cover is an extra $130. Like many others, I wish Microsoft would simply include it because most people aren’t going to buy this as a tablet only. While you could pair Surface Pro 3 with a wired or wireless keyboard, the Type Cover completes the “laptop” package better than other options.

That Type Cover also does one more very important thing, by the way. It holds the digital pen that comes with Surface Pro 3. If you’ve never taken digital notes in Microsoft’s One Note app, I think you’re missing out. The app is a decade old but is still among the best for note-taking thanks to its notebook-like interface. Writing with the pen works very well, although digital artists may not like the fact that it only has 256 levels of writing pressure. I’m not one of them and for me, taking notes on Surface Pro 3 was a natural experience.

one note notes sp3

The pen is also a Bluetooth device, and here’s where it shines: Microsoft integrated the pen buttons to work with One Note and Surface Pro 3 directly. Press the eraser button and Surface Pro 3 wakes from sleep, firing up a blank One Note page. Press the button twice and no matter what app you’re in Surface Pro 3 will let you clip a screen shot, which is saved to One Note. All my notes were quickly synched through the cloud to my other non-Microsoft devices also running One Note.

The “app gap” is less a problem now but there are exceptions

Being a Microsoft device, Surface Pro 3 obviously runs Windows apps. Depending on your needs, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. I can get by with a browser or Chrome OS device for most activities and use tablets or phones for my app addiction. For those who need or want Windows, however, Surface Pro 3 runs it well. You have the traditional desktop and can install nearly any Windows legacy app. You also have the new touch-friendly “metro” mode, which is mostly what I used.

I still find the occasional tablet app I use on iOS or Android not available for Windows. But those are farther and fewer between. The “app gap” Microsoft first faced with the initial Surface products is largely gone. And in most cases when I couldn’t find an app I wanted or needed, I was able to use the browser. You won’t find an Amazon(s amzn) Instant Video app, for example, but that’s OK: Watching Amazon’s media content works just fine in the browser. And because this is a PC, you can use Amazon’s Unbox app to download high-definition content from its store for offline playback — which isn’t possible on traditional mobile tablets.

OneCalendar featured

Some app limitations frustrated me, though. Microsoft’s Calendar app is well-designed and easy to use. But it doesn’t play nice with my Google calendar — a problem for me because we’re a Google Apps shop at work and I use Google for personal use as well. I had to find a third-party calendar workaround as a result. Internet Explorer doesn’t work well with Google+, either; tapping the Notification icon with a finger often does nothing while tapping it with the pen does work. But these are issues specific to my needs. If you don’t use Google Calendar or Google+, they’re obviously a non-issue.

Impressive even with compromises

All in all, then, I’m impressed with Surface Pro 3. When I’ve needed a device for lean back type tablet activities — watching movies, playing games and web surfing — it worked well as long as I didn’t have to hold it for more than an hour or so. The kickstand helps here for landscape tablet mode. When it was time for more serious activities — long-form writing and web research — it was a laptop I could use practically anywhere for hours. Microsoft says the battery should last up to 9 hours; I generally got between 7.5 and 8 hours when using the device mainly as a laptop.

Surface Pro 3 display

Closing the loop, is the Surface Pro 3 filled with compromises? Absolutely, as any device that tries to fill two very different needs would be. I’d say Microsoft has balanced those compromises very well, however. I don’t think the device could be much lighter and thinner — it measures in at 0.36 inches — and still contain all of the hardware inside that makes it a powerful PC, for example. You certainly trade some stability from a traditional laptop but the newly designed keyboard minimizes that issue.

Has Microsoft finally delivered “a tablet that can replace your laptop”?

If you want or need to run Windows and don’t mind using a browser the occasionally impossible-to-find app, I’d say yes, provided you splurge for the new Type Cover as well. The $999 model with the same Core i5 but half the memory and storage as my review unit can save you a little money. If you’re the type of person who is satisfied using a tablet far more than a full laptop these days, you can save a bunch of money and skip the Surface Pro 3 entirely.

I don’t particularly need Windows for what I do. But if I did, I’d be happy buying a Surface Pro 3 and carrying one device around instead of two. If you buy in to that approach — and that may take some hands-on convincing for many — Surface Pro 3 is well worth the look.

This post was updated at 5:33pm to correct the internal storage capacity of the review unit, which is 256 GB, not 128 GB.

35 Responses to “Surface Pro 3 review: Compromises, yes, but in all the right places”

  1. Relieved

    I like this review, well done Kevin. I was not expecting a balanced review when I started reading the article, just because of so many others that I have already read. I am forced to leave a comment here.

    Heads up, I am venting here, just out of relief. I have to say this is an eye opener from a fan boy perspective. Relieved to see an article which simply focuses on the features and not getting carried away (forcing might be a better word) by the authors own preferences (or should I say biases). Tired of reading so called “reviews”, where they are forcing a point by laser focusing on an obscure dis-advantage while ignoring all other obvious advantages and basing a conclusion on that one off dis-advantage. I have read authors painfully trying to justify their point (just an example: it is not lap-able in an airplane, really, how many hours/days in a year do you fly and how many of us lap a laptop on an airplane). They are so childish I am amazed the authors don’t see it themselves, leading to the point, is it all on purpose ???? HOPE NOT. I know that is a wild thought but reading those reviews just leaves me WHAAAAA !!!????? these authors are actually paid to do these reviews.

  2. Jordan Scherger

    We’re hoping to use a tablet as a workstation replacement and for our field work. Marking infrastructure fixes(while away from the vehicle) and tracking worker vehicle progress. If the surface 3 had a SIM port at least or GPS it would be the clear winner. Most field staff do have a smart phone so we may have to have them turn on hotspots as a work around.

    A panasonic toughbook G-1 seems like the best fit except for the price.

    An Ipad air may also work if we find the right vehicle dock and users are okay with using logmein /VDI.

  3. Michael Reilly

    The loss of the Wacom pen system is a big problem for artists, designers, architects, or similar intentioned persons.
    >> I visited BB last week and looked at the SP3. The screen was beautiful and sharp. Maybe I can do AutoCAD or Revit on it, by linking to my home workstation (w/ reading glasses, maybe). The other features like the kickstand, are great. …and then I tried the n-Trig pen. An SP2 was next to it, with Wacom. On the SP2, I could draw a short or long, straight line. Very nice. It drew like a pen. I’m not an artist; but I’m a wannabe artist, an architect who was a draftsman for many years. Drawing with a pen can be summed in one word, “float”. A good pen floats ink over the paper or film. The Wacom floated the ink over the screen paper smoothly and beautifully. Drawing with a pencil can be summed in one word, “spread”. A pencil spreads the graphite along the paper texture; and with a good hand, it looks beautiful. The SP3 n-Trig did not float the ink smoothly, like a pen. It rather spread the ink/pencil along the surface, like a pencil. In fact, it drew perhaps more like a hard charcoal pencil. It didn’t draw nearly as nice as the Wacom pen.
    >> When I drew a short or long, slow line with the SP3 n-Trig, I noticed something ominous; it drew very minute squiggles that had nothing to do with my hand movement. I will probably buy the SP3, when the i7 version comes out, with HD 5000 graphics. I’m not definitely sure. If I buy, it will be joy mixed with pain, because the wonderful Wacom system has been deleted. How could MS not see this? Michael Reilly, Architect

  4. Walter Wright

    This excellent review is pretty much on track with David Pogue’s reading as well, and makes one wonder what smooth beast is shuffling toward Cupertino to be born. It’s nice to have a little more productive competition.

    As for one device instead of two? Take the next step and put in a phone and….

    Why not?

  5. Good review but you failed to mention it’s biggest downfall, the fact that it has the dreadful Windows 8 in it. I bought a hi end Lenovo last week with Windows 8, kept it for several days and ended up taking it back because of that junk Windows 8.

    • Andrew

      I installed a start menu and it works almost exactly like my old windows 7 pro laptop – visual studio, SQL server, the whole shebang. When I use it as a tablet with the type cover detached I never need to switch to desktop mode. “Metro” mode is just fine for watching movies/other consumption activities. Windows 8 bashers get over it. There are many other things in the world more deserving of your complaints.

  6. Alex Oh

    Thanks for the review. You mentioned that it felt weird reading Kindle books on a legal pad size screen. I read alot of textbook size programming books. Do you think the 12 inch screen is nice for reading PDFs that are textbook size?

    • I actually have a few programming texts myself right now — it’s really good for them IMO. On my flight to WWDC, I used the SP3 in landscape mode with keyboard and had one window open to my text and another window open to a code editor. Not a bad side-by-side experience if you want that as well.

  7. Lalibela Nile

    The best review of the SP3 thus far and a lot of that has to do with your desire to actually respect objectivity. I am beyond grateful; thank you very much sir…

    This is one of the few articles that did not attempt to decide for the potential buyer. My MB Pro is my primary computing device and I have to also use Windows apps [VMware Fusion 6] and since I travel a lot, the SP3 is the most ideal device for me…

  8. Quentin Moore

    Great review. I like my SP3 but it’s no replacement for a laptop, mainly because of the keyboard. I find that I make more errors with this keyboard than a conventional one. Maybe this will change over time. I also had difficulty pressing the bottom of the screen when the keyboard was attached.

  9. I like the review and agree, the “product” is OK. You reviewed a Laptop that can be used a Tablet.
    1) The Laptop, as configured including the keyboard, costs $1429. That’s high for 1.9 Ghz CPU, and the screen size.
    2) The Tablet is bit too large and heavy, But that’s OK, it’s free.

    The product fits replacement/upgrade Laptop buyers. But that’s a very competitive market.

  10. Fogbank

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. Might you also address these? A) did you think the drive size was too small if used for a laptop replacement? B) did you use Microsoft’s dock and/or something else to attach a second monitor and external drive?

    In a follow-up article I’d love to read your thoughts on the best laptop competitors to the new Surface 3. That is, Windows-based laptops with strong stylus integration.

  11. Silversee

    Hi Kevin. I’d like to compliment you on this review, which you have obviously put a lot of time and thought into. In technology today, is rare to see a non-Windows user put real effort into reviewing a Windows device, and it’s even rarer to find someone who is a heavy user of Google services give much credence to Microsoft’s alternatives.

    I have a great respect for a reviewer who can step outside of their own personal workflow and consider the needs of readers who may have different requirements and preferences. A few high profile writers have slagged off the Surface Pro 3 with highly personal, dismissive reviews that basically boil down to “it’s not a MacBook” (see Katherine Boehret’s piece on Re/Code). Gigaom is to be commended for its professionalism which you have demonstrated here.

  12. someguynamedme

    Not a chance.

    I will never use a 12″ screen for what I do on a laptop, any kind of data input becomes a major eye strain after a short period of time, certainly wouldn’t do any PC gaming on it either, its just too small.

    I will also never use a 12″ tablet, its too big to be holding for long periods of time trying to do what I do on a tablet.

    About the only thing I would use this for is to watch movies/tv on the go but then again…why when my tablets do that job fine. Especially for the price the cheapest version of this is, just don’t see it, ever.

    I just don’t see this device becoming remotely popular with anyone but students for note taking in class, professionals that just MUST have the latest device to show off during meetings (also for note taking), and perhaps some artists that for some reason need a mobile device for drawing their art on…cant really see that being big with them though since touchscreen monitors are far bigger and cheaper giving them more of what they really need.

    • You do realize the 12″ screen on the Surface 3 is larger than most 13.3″ laptop screens? I don’t see many people using over a 13″ laptop these days…..

      • someguynamedme

        I have seen only one single person ever use a laptop under 14″, a student who only used it to take notes in class and couldn’t stand it for anything else other than basic web browsing because it was too small.

        The proof is in their sales. Or should I say LOW sales. And its the same with 12″ tablets, low sales because they are too big.

    • Andrew

      Got mine on Friday, love it so far. I will be getting two docking stations, one for work and one for home. Eye strain solved. If I’m out and about and need to do some light productivity it’s easy to carry. For tablet usage there is a trade off. It is heavy to hold up for long periods of time. But if you are reclining in a chair or sofa, it works just fine.

  13. Very nice article.

    I have to be honest though I’ve never been a fan of hybrid type devices. I used to think I couldn’t live without my iPad but since doing away with it I haven’t once felt as though my life was less productive.

    I use my Macbook Pro with retina display at home and for most of my work, and my Samsung GS5 on the move. Im quite satisfied that I can do pretty much everting I need between the two.

    For me 2 in 1 devices aren’t really relevant.

  14. Purchased a Surface Pro 3 on June 20, 2014, my browser (in half screen viewing mode) flickers and a white round light appears near the camera. Help!

  15. John Gibson

    It’s a shame for those who do use Google services that Google isn’t more adept at creating decent web interfaces. Whether it be Chrome on a high dpi windows display or google services in IE it seems like Google has a lot of design issues that most competent developers do not have.

    I’m not sure if it’s incompetence or outright hostility to the Windows platform. The former seems more likely although I can’t rule out the latter considering how Google behaved towards Microsoft when it came to the YouTube app for Windows Phone 8.