Surface Pro 3: A four hour plane ride and a test of lapability

It's 6:15 A.M and I am on a plane to Charlotte, North Carolina. Having left NYC, I'm now taking the Surface Pro 3 out for its first spin in the real world. As I take my seat among the other animals in the cattle class section - with a cramped ~24in of legroom for a 6'2" male - I pull out my Surface Pro 3 and place it on my lap. 

Lapability, a term that Panos Panay loves to use, is a straightforward concept: how does the device perform on your lap? While the first two iterations of the Surface line of tablets claimed that this issue was moot and that the device worked fine on your legs, reviews stated otherwise. So, will the Surface Pro 3 actually live up to the claims of being the best all-in-one device ever? If our early tests are any clue, it's off to a good start but it's not all perfect.

After getting buckled in to my window seat and waiting for the altimeter to hit 10k feet, I began to ponder how Microsoft tests 'lapability'. Do they ride in the back of the plane and try it out in these cramped situations or is it in the more spacious environs of an office? And when did lapability even become a benchmark? Was the Surface really the first device that ever required this type of test and is that even a thing that should be tested? Well, here we are, testing lapability thanks to the Surface.

The Pro 3 has two key features going for it that greatly enhance that use of the device on your legs, a wider kickstand and a folding-hinge setup on the Type Cover. The latter is actually far more useful than we thought it would be when we first saw the device demoed on stage. 

The kickstand has grown by about 1.5 inches in width and that small amount of extra length goes a long way towards increasing ease of use. Because of the gain in width, you don't feel like the device is going to slip off your inner-knee and tumble to the ground. Frankly, my legs are square to my hips in the back of this plane and the Pro 3 feels just about as sturdy as my Acer S7. While it is not perfect, the gains in stability here are quite noticeable over the Pro 2, and for those of you managed to use a Pro 2 on your lap, the Pro 3 will feel like it is right at home. 

The Type Cover has also improved the stability of the device with the folding-hinge setup. Along the top of the keyboard is a long magnet that attaches to the bottom of the Surface and angles the keyboard just enough to create a firm typing platform. By attaching the entire Type Cover to the bottom of the Pro 3, there are fewer pivot points when compared to the Type Cover 2 which again, makes the device firm up a bit when bouncing around in turbulence and overall, makes it easier to use. 

Additionally, when you do fold the keyboard up and attach it to the Pro 3 with along the bottom, it also shortens the footprint of the Type cover by about an inch. Sure, that may not sound like much but in the back of this airplane, every inch counts. 

If you haven't ever used a Type Cover with a Surface, we recommend you try one out at a retail store before dropping the $950+ for a Pro 3 and a Type Cover. While the leaps in usability on your lap are significant over previous models, we know it may not be for everyone and your personal experience is what really matters here. And in the above scenario, the Pro 3 worked quite well on my lap, so much so that on a plane, it was a comparable experience to a traditional laptop.

But my test was not perfect. You see, in the back of an airplane there is a seat in front of you - and with that seat there, the Pro 3 somehow felt more stable and less vulnerable to falling off my lap. When sitting in an office chair, the natural position of the Pro 3 is near the end of your legs and without the seatback in front of me, I was a bit less confident in its ability to be a full-time lap device because it felt more prone to falling to the ground.

With a traditional laptop, the majority of the weight is in the keyboard, but with the Pro 3, even though it is a featherweight, the bulk of the mass is still vertical. When using my S7, I can push and tug it around by the keyboard while it is on my lap, the Pro 3, not so much, as you get a bit nervous that pulling on the Type Cover will make it fall over or off your legs and I don't want to be the one who finds out that you can't catch a Pro 3 by its Type Cover.

Inevitably, though, lapability will be a very personal decision for you. How often are you actually using your laptop on your lap? I know the answer for me is not that often - the exception tends to be at press events and other similar gatherings - but I do still need that capability, which makes the Pro 3 a bit less desirable than the Acer S7. But, if you are a more traditional laptop user who is always at a desk or at a coffee shop, the Pro 3 is fantastic. The improvements to the Type Cover are notable and Microsoft deserves some credit for their ability to pull out new tricks to make the keyboard even better while remaining incredibly thin.

So what's the verdict? I have been using the Pro 3 for about 4 hours of flying time now and frankly, I'm pleased with the use case. Is it better than my Acer S7? Not quite, I adore that keyboard as the Type Cover's keys don't offer the same spongey love as the S7, and in open environments such as an office chair, the laptop still wins. But, I will say this: for the first time using any Surface, I could seriously consider replacing my beloved S7 with the Pro 3 - and for those of you who know how much I gush over that laptop, this is a big win for Microsoft. 

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