Review

Surface Pro 3 review: The be-all, do-all tablet from Microsoft

First impressions are a critical part of our lives. From interviews for your dream job to meeting a significant other, the first 30 seconds of interaction can define an entire relationship. So when Microsoft said that its Surface Pro 3 is the Ultrabook- and tablet-killer that we had all hoped the Surface Pro and Pro 2 would be, you can imagine that the skepticism flags were raised once again.

As its launch event came to a close, Microsoft rolled out the Pro 3 for attendees of the press conference to get their hands on the device. As I ran over to the pick-up area, like a four-year-old on Christmas morning, I was eyeing the dozens of Pro 3s like a hungry lion eyeing up a gazelle in the Serengeti. As I was handed the Pro 3, the first impression was that Panos Panay and his team had built something different; this was not like the Pro 2 even though they embodied similar characteristics.

When you pick up a Pro 3 the first thing you will notice is that it's lightweight, respectably thin and frankly, it looks fantastic. In some ways, it feels like they took a Pro 2 and ran over it with a steamroller. 

The Pro 2 was released about eight months ago but compared alongside the Pro 3, it looks like it needs to hit the gym and then get a makeover. In comparison, the Pro 3 is miles ahead of the Pro 2 in aesthetics, usability and appeal as well.

But the story of the Pro 3 is not all about looks as the device has to perform well in being both a tablet and a laptop; not an easy task. Both the Pro 2 and the original Surface Pro tried to do this, but each fell short of mastering either trait.

The mountain that the Pro 3 must climb is quite high as Microsoft put this device on a pedestal above the Macbook Air - arguably the best laptop on the market. The question is, can the Pro 3 truly be a ‘no compromise’ device?

 

To call the Pro 3 a tablet almost seems unfair to the competition. Yes, it is a tablet but it’s really an Ultrabook smashed into a tablet form factor. When you compare the base Pro 3 to other tablets, it’s not even close (although the Pro 3 does command a premium price tag). But, when you add in the Type Cover 3, it becomes an Ultrabook, one that easily competes with the others around the $1000 price point.

Microsoft’s best and brightest came together to create this surprisingly thin, but also powerful computer. For starters, you get one USB3 port, a DisplayPort, charging port (that has a few added bonuses), microSD slot and a kickstand. We would have liked another USB port here though, as the single port will require you to carry a USB hub in the event that you need to connect more than one device at a time.

The design is unmistakably Surface; with a squared off design and tapered edges, the Surface DNA is evident throughout the look and feel of the Pro 3. It is only available in one color (the same color as the Surface 2, in fact); this wasn't a big deal for us, as we love the color and prefer it to the very dark grey of the original Pro .

Spec Surface Pro 3  
Display 12 inches with 2160x1440 resolution  
Weight 1.76 lbs  
Color Silver  
Storage 128GB + MicroSD support  
Memory 8GB  
Processor 4th generation Intel Core i5  
Cameras 5-megapixel rear camera
5-megapixel front camera
 
Battery Life Up to 9 hours  
Ports

1 USB 3.0

microSD

Headset jack

Mini Displayport

Cover Port

 
Size 11.5" x 7.93" x 0.36"  
Price Starting at $799  
Availability June 20th, 2014  


One issue we do have is that the paint appears to scratch relatively easily, as there are now quite a few small marks on the back of the review device. When chatting with a few others who have been trying out the Pro 3, we learned that some had noticed this while others had not. I’d like to think that I am generally careful with my devices, so the scratches were a bit of surprise. 

If you are obsessive about keeping your devices in perfect condition, we recommend you get a case to prevent scratching the back of the device. Thankfully, there are no scratches on the front of the device, including on the all-important display.

 

The Pro 3 comes with a 12-inch display but Microsoft didn’t settle for 1080p 'Full HD' resolution. Instead, they set the bar high and raised the resolution up to 2160x1440px. There is also a new 3:2 aspect ratio for the display, which is an interesting change.

By going with a 3:2 layout, the device doesn’t feel as wide as its predecessors and frankly, feels much better in your hands and on your lap. The best part of this aspect ratio change is that in a 3:2 setup, you can run two full screen apps side by side. When you are using the device as a tablet, this is fantastic, but when using it like a proper Ultrabook, the functionality is not so important as I mostly use the desktop side of the OS in this setup.

Color reproduction, accuracy and viewing angles are all fantastic with our review unit and we are quite pleased with Microsoft’s choice of panels here. The IPS panel sports 216 PPI which Microsoft calls ‘Pixel Free’ technology. Basically, it means you can’t see the pixels and it is true, you can’t see the pixels even if you get your eyeballs right next to the display.

100% Zoom

Even though you can see the pixels when zoomed in at 100%, you can't see them with the naked eye.

We have had trouble finding any fault with the display. It's the right size for this type of a device and the panel easily meets our expectations for what a premium device should offer.

 

The chassis retains the Surface design that we have seen previously. With a silver-matte style finish and angled edges, it’s 100% Surface DNA.  But where it starts to differ from previous devices, besides the screen size, is how Microsoft was able to fit a proper Core series CPU inside the thin chassis.

The fan involves a bit of technical wizardry and black magic. Typically, when you think of a fan, you think of a loud whirr, along with heat discharge, and loss of battery life to support the mechanical apparatus. While it is unclear exactly how much of a power-drain the fan is on the battery, we can talk about the other two items.

First off, you can hear the fan; sorry Microsoft, but it’s on very rare occasions that you can hear it and for us, we only heard it when running 3D Mark and during one instance of a Windows Update installation and reboot. Even then, the fan was not as loud as you would think and only produced a modest hum, but alas - despite Microsoft's assertions to the contrary - you can hear it.

Apart from those two isolated instances, the fan is the stealth bomber of cooling apparatuses. During the majority of our normal use, we never heard it nor did we feel hot air from any particular region of the device.

The internals of the Pro 3 are a serious leap in technology in managing to squeeze in everything into such a compact chassis, and Microsoft should be proud of what it has built. Even though it has a fan - because only the cool kids run fanless, or something - we would have preferred to enjoy increased performance instead of an under-clocked CPU.

But does the device get hot? That’s a fair question given that some Ultrabooks can melt your thighs after using Photoshop for 10 minutes. During our review, the Pro 3 remained well within tolerable boundaries for heat.

Does it get warm? Certainly. Hot? Not even once. We never had the device get above a moderate level of warmth - and that includes those occasions when we ran benchmarks on it or performed other intensive tasks.

 

If you call it a stylus, Microsoft might come after you. Well, okay, probably not - but the Surface Pen that comes with the Pro 3 leaves behind the antiquated ways of what we typically call a stylus. It is a fantastic peripheral and once you integrate it into your workflow, it becomes a prized possession.

For starters, the pen is built out of quality materials and does not feel like a plastic toy. Its metal casing is accompanied by two buttons around where your index finger rests and a 'cap' button at the top where you would typically click a pen to extend the nib. The pen has a good amount of mass to it as well - 20 grams, which isn't too heavy but enough to make it feel substantial, like a quality piece of kit.

The unique aspect to the pen is its ability to launch OneNote with the tap of the purple button on its base. The idea is that the pen makes it easy to launch the note-taking application and quickly jot down what's important and then move on. It's a clever trick and we can see, how for some, this will be a handy feature that helps to separate the Pro 3 from other devices on the market.

The pen makes use of N-trig technology and has 256 points of sensitivity which means that you will see different results on screen depending on how hard you press down. For example, a heavy press will result in bold, heavy ink inputs, whereas lightly pressing the pen down will give you faint ink strokes.

The idea is to mimic the appearance of using a real pen on paper, and the results of using the Pro 3 are about as good as you would expect any electronic representation of a pen to be. We have had good results with the N-trig setup but we know that a Wacom digitzer may have been preferred by some as it has many more points of sensitivity, although in practice, few users will be able to appreciate the difference in this regard. 

Coming in at 137mm in length and 9.5mm in width, the pen is actually a bit thicker than the Surface Pro 3 itself. If you are wondering why the pen does not have a built-in garage... well, it just won't fit inside the tablet's housing. You can read more about Microsoft's decision to include an external loop to house the pen here, including how the pen can attach to the side of the Pro 3.

The accuracy of the Pro 3 + pen is superb, and while nothing can truly mimic the feel of writing on a piece of paper, the Pro 3 does get close. Since the optical stack on the Pro 3 is quite small, the pen tip gets very close to the screen and creates a natural feeling while you're scribbling notes.

The two buttons on the front of the pen allow for right-click and to erase content in OneNote. One thing we hope Microsoft will eventually allow is the ability to re-map the keys on the pen. While we know some may love OneNote, I'd love for the ability to have it launch another app on demand. For example, I take tons of screenshots for Neowin and to have it launch the snipping tool and allow me to quickly draw out the screenshot area with the pen would be a huge boost to my workflow.

When you pull the pen out of the box, you do have to sync it with the Pro 3 and this is done during the initial setup. There is a small light on the pen that turns green after you hold the purple button down for about 10 seconds that enables you to pair the device. It's relatively simple to do and took us only a few seconds in practice - and you should only have to do this once, unless you lose the pen. If you do lose it, replacements can be purchased from the Microsoft Store for $50.

We don't have any hard figures on the pen's battery life and Microsoft doesn't have them listed anywhere on its website but so far, the battery has not failed us yet, even after a significant amount of use while testing the device.

After getting used to having the pen by our side, it has become a key tool for us when using the Pro 3; dare we say it is 'fun' to use because it has been executed so well, and with OneNote integrated deeply, it's no surprise that the pen is now critical to our daily use of the device.

We know that the pen may be a distraction to some - we're still quicker with a mouse and keyboard setup, frankly - but when you need the pen, it's right there next to your Type Cover 3 and it's a joy to use.

 

In nearly every advertisement of the Surface line of tablets, there is always a common peripheral shown: keyboard covers. With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft also introduced the new Type Cover 3. While the updates may seem a bit modest at first, the new version is a rather significant improvement in terms of usability.

The new Type Cover is larger than the previous versions, naturally, as the Pro 3 is quite a bit larger than the Pro 2. As we showed previously, even though the keyboard covers are backwards and forwards compatible, they do look a bit silly when paired with the wrong generation of device. Still, it's not a bad thing that Microsoft kept this interoperability, as those of you who have invested in covers for prior generations could forgo buying the new Type Cover for your Pro 3. But as you'll see in this post, even if you have a previous generation cover, it may still be worth splurging for a new Type Cover 3, as the improvements are noteworthy.

For starters, Microsoft has made the top edge of the Type Cover 3 a solid magnet. This allows the Type Cover to attach itself to the bottom bezel of the Pro 3. By creating this long connection point, it creates a solid pivot point for the keyboard. This translates into better usability in your lap as the keyboard feels like it is 'one' with the Pro 3 and not simply a peripheral attached by a couple of magnets. It's a simple, dual-flex, style setup that goes a long way for the Type Cover 3 and the Pro 3.

Another benefit of the dual-flex style design is that it creates a small 'triangle' and raises the cover up just enough to make it feel a little more ergonomic. When you attach the cover to the bottom bezel, it shortens the footprint of the device too, making it easier to use in the cattle car section of an airplane.

Microsoft also made a big point about the trackpad on the Type Cover 3. If you have used any of the prior keyboard covers, you will know that the trackpad was mostly for looks and offered little usability. Thankfully, the new trackpad is now larger and covered in glass beads. The clicking mechanism has been reworked as well and offers a much more solid "click" sound and feel than the previous generation. In short, it feels like a real trackpad and is actually useable. 

The keys on the device still feel mostly the same as the previous generation and offer minimal travel distance before actuating. We would by no means call this a best-in-class keyboard, but it's quite easy to type on, and we had no problem pounding out emails (or writing this review). It does take a bit of time to get accustomed to the travel distance of the keys but once you do, it feels right at home.

Like the last iteration of the Type Cover, the oils from your fingers quickly stain the keyboard. Even with diligent cleaning, the 'glossy reflections' that result from the transfer of oil on your hands appear to happen quite quickly, which is exactly what happened with our previous Type Covers. Not a huge deal, but if you like to keep your electronics in like-new condition, be prepared to use a microfiber cloth on the keys after every use.

Generally speaking, the Type Cover 3 is a big improvement over its predecessors and is another small piece of the Surface puzzle that helps build out the suite of hardware and peripherals that make the Surface unique.

 

Ah yes, the age old question of whether or not a thin device can really perform as well as a larger device with more internal space. Microsoft made it clear that the Pro 3 should be able to cope with even heavy-duty performance requirements by allowing customers to specify an Intel Core i7 processor under the hood. Knowing how thin the device is and that an i7 can somehow run just fine in this space is a marvelous achievement of engineering for Microsoft.

With that being said, our device has an i5 in it and its performance is better than the Pro 2 but only by a small margin. The reason for this is that the display has a much higher resolution and to drive that display, the GPU and CPU get taxed a bit more than on the Pro 2 with its 1080p screen.

Inside our review unit is a Core i5 4300U which is slightly faster than the Pro 2s 4200U processor and of course, we have Intel HD 4400 graphics, which is the same as the Pro 2. So in terms of raw performance, there is not much of a gain at the i5 level but the optional i7 should give it an extra kick in the pants in the performance benchmarks.

Frankly, though, I’ve never been a big fan of benchmarks applications but I know that they serve a purpose. But these figures are isolated cases of raw performance and don’t always show the bigger picture. For example, the Pro 3 boots up fantastically quick and generally runs quite well. While some applications like Chrome tend to bog down the machine (seriously Google, what’s the deal here?), Modern Windows apps all ran flawlessly.

Nonetheless, you can see the 3D Mark scores above that should help those of you who want to use this device for gaming gain a better understanding of the performance you can expect. Just know that without a proper graphics chip inside, the device will never be best equipped to run the latest and greatest games at their maximum settings.

 

Like many other tablets, the Pro 3 has both a front and rear camera. While we will never understand why a tablet needs a rear camera as the shooter on your smartphone is almost always better than what comes with a tablet, here we are, once again.

The rear camera works as you would expect. The shutter speed is quick, but the images themselves are quite poor and that ridiculous feeling you have of holding up a 12-inch slab of metal to take a photo is still present.

To put it simply, the rear camera works when you have absolutely no other access to another camera and will allow you to take a snap as needed but don't expect to become the next Ansel Adams with your Pro 3. The colors tend to be washed out in broad daylight and in low lighting there is more grain than an Indiana farm.

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The front camera makes a lot of sense for video calls and taking ridiculous selfies and we had no issues with it at all. Using it with Skype or Google Hangouts resulted in a good experience and that's really all that matters for a front facing sensor. Both of the images above were taken using the rear camera and as you can see, the images are pretty unremarkable.

 

When you take something thin and try to turn it into a speaker, the typical result is flat, tinny sounding audio that crackles the louder you turn it up. So, when Microsoft said that the speakers were 45% louder in the Surface Pro 3 when compared to the previous generation of devices, our skepticism shifted towards louder, cheaper sounding audio.

We know that audio preferences are diverse, and what one may consider 'good' audio, others may consider comparable to that of a phonograph. With that being said, I tried to keep expectations in-line with other comparables such as the Acer S7.

But, despite Microsoft having only a few tenths of an inch to work with, they have done a reasonably good job at getting quality audio out of the small speakers squeezed into the Pro 3's slender frame. 

As you would expect, the highs were acceptable, the mids were average for a laptop style speaker and the lows, well, they are absent from the experience. But, one nice thing about the Pro 3 is that it does get loud, much louder than we initially expected from the two small speakers that are seated facing the front of the device. The Pro 3 also supports ''Dolby Audio-enhanced sound' which is a tuning mechanism to make sure that the tiny speakers output the best possible audio that they can.

The audio from the Pro 3 will suffice for most users who need to watch a quick YouTube video or partake in an office webinar, and with the volume boost you can do so and annoy those around you as well.  But for any serious audio experience, we still highly recommend getting a quality set of cans for your ears or using a set of external speakers. After all, let’s be honest - while the speakers meet our expectations for what audio should be from a tablet this thin, it still falls short of the audio quality you'll get from using proper dedicated audio equipment.

For those curious, I have used the speakers quite a bit - on everything from Spotify to Skype, and beyond - and the results have met expectations. I was a bit concerned about testing out Skype as laptop speakers and cell phones traditionally have made voices sound a bit ‘tinny’ compared to the actual tones of the conversation, and I could still detect a bit of that going on here but it’s really not all that bad.

But again, for a device that is only 0.36 inches thin, Microsoft has done a good job of making sure that the speakers are not abysmal. In fact, we would say that they are comparable to the best Ultrabooks, and thanks to their increased output they are capable of filling a decent sized room with modest sound.

 

The kickstand is one of the unique features about the Pro 3 that we love. For starters, it is well integrated into the design of the device, so it never feels like it was a last minute addition to the platform. With the Pro 3, Microsoft refined this feature once again. Where the original Pro had one only one position for the stand, the Pro 2 had two stopping points - but the kickstand on the Pro 3 takes things to a whole new level, with one fixed stopping point and then a variable stop mechanism.

When you pull out the kickstand from the back it initially stops at one position, a comfortable angle for most use cases such as on your lap or on a desk. But, if you pull on the kickstand more, you can increase the angle of the kickstand to allow the device to be propped up at nearly any angle and quite frankly, it's fantastic.

What this allows you to do is define where the kickstand should stop for your individual use rather than what Microsoft tells you should work for you. As with the previous iterations of the Surface, the kickstand is sturdy at any pivot point, giving you the confidence to use it without worrying that it might collapse or snap off. 

The kickstand is a major feature that really separates the Pro 3 from other tablets on the market. The execution is fantastic and truly adds value to the tablet. With this new hinge setup, Microsoft has managed to make the kickstand infinitely more useful.

 

Power connector

"Oh thank you, Panos" were the words muttered from my mouth when a new power connector was shown off with the Surface Pro 3. If you have used any of the previous generation Surfaces, you will know that attaching the power connector is not a great experience. Sure, some may say it worked just fine but trying to plug it in, in the middle of the night in the dark, is like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube on NASA's vomit comet. Someone is likely saying that this is a bit dramatic but after you use the 'new' power adapter, going back to the old way feels archaic.

The new power connector uses a blade-style setup that slots into the side of the Pro 3. It is reversible but do note that this power connector is not compatible with the previous generation Surface devices. There is also a small indicator light near the tip of the charger that helps you identify if your Pro 3 is getting the juice to fill the battery. On that note, the charger is a 36-watt power supply that can fully charge the device in four hours, or get it to 80% in two hours time. 

As with the previous chargers, Microsoft has included a USB port on the power brick. Additionally, the power brick is smaller and lighter than the previous charger.

Attaching the connector to the Pro 3 is quite simple thanks to its strong magnets. The charger will detach with a modest amount of pressure on the cord which should reduce the likelihood of someone tripping over your cord and sending your Pro 3 flying across the room. One issue we do have, though, is that if you pull straight down on the cord, the blade design does not slide out of the unit which means that you can pull the device off of a table in this scenario. 

The most interesting thing about the power connector is what Microsoft hinted at during its recent AMA: It might actually be a Thunderbolt port. Why would Microsoft do this? Well, if it truly is a Thunderbolt port, then it can pass a lot of data through the connection (such as video out and/or power USB hubs, etc) which would be quite handy with a dock or other peripherals. 

Finally, the charger is a two-piece setup, which makes it easier for travel. By unplugging the cord that attaches to the socket, you can wrap it around the brick without fear of breaking the casing around the pivot point near the brick.

Battery life

To truly be a no compromise device, battery life is a critical component of this equation. Having been using the Pro 3 for many weeks and in various situations, we are averaging a little over 8 hours of battery life. At the top end, I peaked at about 9 hours of use but that was including flight time where I had the WI-Fi off and was simply typing for the majority of that time.

On the low end, the battery kicked the bucket after about 6.5 hours and this included watching two HD movies on a recent 1400 mile road trip.

To put that battery life into perspective, it’s good but not exceptional by any means. For a tablet, it is comparable to the competition, but compared with the Macbook Air, it falls short. However, when compared to other Ultrabooks like my beloved Acer S7, the battery life is roughly the same.

 

One of the complaints about the previous-generation Pro and non-Pro Surfaces is that on your lap, the experience was less than acceptable. As we previously noted in our lapability test, the Pro 3 makes large gains in this area. 

The extra width of the tablet and the new pivot setup with the Type Cover 3 make for notable improvements when used on your lap. While the Pro 3 is still not as solid on your legs as a traditional laptop, it's finally reached the point where it is acceptable. It's by no means the best device to buy if the majority of your usage is done on your lap, but if you are using your Pro 3 on a desk the majority of the time and your lap sparingly, then the Pro 3 performs well enough in this area for most users.

 

What Microsoft has done with the Pro 3 is improve on every conceivable aspect of the Pro 2. It’s bigger, thinner, has an awesome pen and an even better Type Cover. We can honestly say it’s a fantastic machine but there are caveats you should be aware of before you drop $900 (or much, much more) on the device.

First, the Type Cover 3 is a must; buying the Pro 3 without it is like getting a hamburger without French fries; it’s criminal. Second, the Type Cover 3 is good, but it is not the best keyboard out there.

The Pro 3 is fantastic if your criteria for a new machine are mobility first and everything else second, as the device is incredibly versatile and offers a wide range of inputs that are good enough to get work done. If you want a device with a great keyboard and a great display and are ok without having the note taking ability of the Pro 3, I’d still recommend that you look elsewhere for another device.

With that being said, the Pro 3 is an excellent device, and the trade-offs are now in the range of being acceptable to the point where I could see myself using this device every day. While the lapability is good, it still has room for improvement but in nearly every other scenario, the Pro 3 provides a decent experience for the user.

Another thing to consider is that this is a laptop in a tablet form factor. To call it a tablet is a bit weak as the device can do so much more than simply allow you to digest content and the price reflects this as well. Yes, we know that other tablets can get into this price range too but for us, we classify the device as an Ultrabook with tablet capabilities. If you purely want a tablet, you should check out the Surface 2, as the price is much lower and you'll enjoy much greater value if all you want is a device to sit on your coffee table.

Some may get caught up in the price of this device as it is not cheap, starting at $799 for a Core i3 and the Type Cover 3 is not included. Buying the cover and the tablet pushes the price above $900 which, for a tablet, does seem far too expensive. But, to us, the Pro 3 is not a tablet, it's an Ultrabook in tablet's clothing - and when viewed as such, at that price, the whole package makes far more sense. 

So, what’s the final verdict? Should you buy the device, should you pass? If you were on the fence about the Pro 2, then no doubt, you should buy the Pro 3. But even if you hadn't considered Microsoft's earlier Pro devices, and you're now on the lookout for a new laptop, the Surface Pro 3 had better be on your short list. 

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