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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Harrison H. said,
Probably not very well. It's an Intel HD 4400. If it was the 5100 Pro or 5200 Pro, that would be a different story.

Not sure why they went with such a low end graphics card (the 4400 is probably what you will find in almost all laptops sold with an integrated card at the moment, outside of Macbook Pros).

i7 version comes with HD 5000.

Sounds like the i7 version is what I should aim for then. I've been wanting either an ultrabook style laptop or tablet with an NVidia 800M series GPU, but frankly the few options out there are either too expensive or very cheaply built. I know any Intel graphics won't come remotely close to the NVidia chips, but at this point I just want a really well built machine for under $2k.

pmbAustin said,
The i7 model + keyboard will NOT be under $2k though.

Yes it is - $1599 + $130 + taxes is just under $2k. I wouldn't buy the 512GB version's way overpriced.

Put it into canvas mode and fold the keyboard back and use the OSK. That should make it more ergonomic for the lap. That's what I do on my SP (san canvas mode). Even using a regular laptop on the lap is rather annoying imho. That's why this line of devices is so versatile.

sdreamer said,
Put it into canvas mode and fold the keyboard back and use the OSK. That should make it more ergonomic for the lap. That's what I do on my SP (san canvas mode). Even using a regular laptop on the lap is rather annoying imho. That's why this line of devices is so versatile.

Surprised no one has mentioned that really, what with the extra angles that could be a real help. Hopefully some review will get round to mentioning it!

As a 6'2" person myself I never have used my SP1 Pro on my lap in a plane, and I do travel a lot but always use the small tray table to put it on. I don't think you can actually fully check lapability like this, partially yes, but the real lapability is when you sit down in a normal way, not cramped in a plane :) (unless you fly business of course).

Still, thanks for the article, nice to see reviews popping up everywhere!

I still think MS should make a hardware keyboard dock for the surface too, at least for SP3.

As much as surface's keyboard covers are thin, light and portable, there'll be situations when they just wont be comfortable enough to use.

P.S. In the very least it'll end all the "your stupid tablets will never replace my laptop, MS" comments. :p

Maybe you should have undocked the keyboard and used the touch/pen interface? Or maybe that didn't occur to you? You can do that with a Surface. You can't do that with a laptop. even a MacBook Air.

Truth is, most Americans just don't have "laps". The average American belly is slightly larger than the average American lap, so the idea of an American using a laptop is fanciful at best. Maybe you should let some Asians try it out on one of the civilized (leg-room wise) Asian airlines such as Cathay or Singapore? The first laptop came from Asia (Kyocera). This is because most Asians have laps. Most Americans don't.

Edited by Major_Plonquer, May 22 2014, 4:02pm :

nice review. I think it is as good as it can get without making it heavier at the cover. It is a law of physics problem at this point centered around mass distribution and center of gravity issues.

however I think this tells me all I need to hear: it will not be as great as a 4lb laptop but it is not 4lb. It will not be as great as a 1lb tablet but it will not be as bad as one when you have to type on glass or carry 1lb worth of keyboard crap around.

basically if you want a more productive tablet and a more mobile laptop, the intersection is bound to be a bit messy but the cost and weight savings combined with the fact it will increasingly be light enough to replace the tablet make me think MSFT truly has invented a new category of device. One which may very well replace tablets down the road even if it cannot for physical reasons match a bigger laptop.

I love this article. IMO, people came up with this category in RESPONSE to the surface products, not because of them. Its called Fear.

I get pretty tired of the "lapability nitpicking from the Mary Jo's of the world. It's obvious this is not a laptop at it's core, and that MS was concentrating on making it as easy as possible to use on your lap, but not primarily used on your lap. Give a little, get a little.

The Surface 2 is FINE on my lap, no complaints whatsoever. Lets just concentrate on the good stuff here, there is so much of that. Bring on the good stuff, try not to over think the lapability crap, it tends to rule the conversation and Panos and the team have worked way too hard on this prime piece of hardware to have every review of it start out with the stupid lap stuff. But thanks for the input.

I like your quick analysis. It cleared up a couple of my questions. I will wait another year before taking a gamble on these things. Thanks.

And when did lapability even become a benchmark?

Lapability was always a benchmark. Just that previously it only applied to strippers.

MS have been working on tablets for at least 10 years and they are still flailing about and yet to produce a great devices that normal people want. Its a bit embarrassing for them really.

Personally i never use laptop on my lap but thats just me. my back get tired if i do that. I use it on some sort of table or i laydown put it on myself or put it on bed. On the go i guess i can hold it like tablet.

Something that Microsoft just hasn't advertised enough regarding lapability and the need for a keyboard is how the on-screen keyboard has fantastic handwriting recognition and the ability to turn your normal writing into a digital form. So, say you don't have the space to use the whole setup or it's falling off your laps, you can easily just write normally on the screen and it will be converted to a digital form. This is also far more natural than typing, at least it would be for some, especially the older generation, though I suppose, it is also slower.

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