Computers / Hands-on Review

Bringing Style to the Surface Pro 3

When is a tablet not a tablet? When it defies the stereotype and becomes a full-performance laptop? When it crosses the technological boundaries of an entertainment device and performs functions usually relegated to a more dedicated device? When you mark the day that you used it to watch a movie on the train, create a PowerPoint presentation at work, and watch your favorite television show at home—all on the same device?

A tablet is more than a tablet when it’s the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

Billed as the “tablet that can replace your laptop,” the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, available for the first time at B&H Photo, has everything a tablet owner could possibly want: a powerful processor, 12" screen with 2160 x 1440 resolution, and nine hours of battery life when web browsing. It also has a 10-point capacitive touchscreen, stereo speakers with Dolby Audio, and two 1080p cameras capable of snapping 5MP still photos.

It weighs a waif-like 1.76 pounds, and is only 0.36 inches thin. This is a significant improvement over the previous Surface 2 tablet, with its 10-inch screen and bulkier weight. It also includes 802.11 ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and has a full-size USB 3.0 port, mini DisplayPort and microSD card reader.

Sounds like laptop specs, sure, but it lacks a keyboard. Fortunately, Microsoft makes a Surface Type Cover which perfectly suits your laptop-emulating needs, and serves as both a keyboard and a smart cover, which suspends the activity of the tablet when closed. It’s only 5mm thick, and—a huge perk—it’s backlit, so you can easily see what you’re typing in low-light conditions. Unfortunately, the keyboard is an added expense and must be purchased separately, inching up the price of the mid-range unit.

Also new in this iteration is the Surface Pen, a unique stylus that performs various and surprisingly useful functions, including writing, drawing, and note-taking. How is it different from the Pro Pen of the earlier versions (you must use the Surface Pen with the Surface Pro 3—the earlier Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 used the Pro Pen)? For starters, it has three buttons; the top button that is used for operating One Note (double click to capture a screenshot) and links via Bluetooth 4.0, a right-click button that brings up menus in different apps like Fresh Paint and acts as a right mouse-click button, and an eraser button that allows you to hold and move over the screen, erasing anything in its path. The pen also utilizes palm-block technology, so that while using it, the screen does not register your palm as a separate writing device, allowing you to rest your hand on the screen without affecting your programs. There’s even a free Surface app that allows you to modify the pen’s tip, pressure sensitivity, and button functionality. 

So, we can see it’s a multi-functioning tablet with some impressive stats.

How does it fare as a laptop?

When you factor in the comfortable backlit keyboard, the stats hold up impressively well. It’s available with newer 4th-generation Haswell processors, using an Intel® Core™ i3, Core i5, or Core i7 processor. Haswells run fast and efficiently while keeping heat to a minimum and ensuring longer battery life. A full nine-hour charge for a laptop? That’s what you get. The processor also allows you to run full native Windows programs, like Microsoft Office, or Adobe Photoshop, and even superfast web browsers like Chrome, without any deviances or step-downs that some laptops offer because of lower processor strength (a caveat: the Core i3 version is great for web surfing and word processing, but in order to really open up the possibilities, shoot for a Core i5 or Core i7 version).  

The clock speed of the Core i3 is 1.5 GHz with no Turbo boost option. The Core i5 starts with 1.9 GHz and can be clocked to 2.9 GHz with Turbo Boost, and the Core i7 starts with 1.7 and clocks up to 3.3 GHz. The Core i3 uses Intel 4200 integrated graphics, while the Core i5 delivers Intel 4400 and the Core i7 uses Intel 5000. Every step-up is a level of customization for games and graphics. The Core i3 fared okay at low settings for some heavy-duty games like Skyrim, while the Core i5 handled the same game with moderate settings, and the Core i7 stepped it up to full settings (although frame rates suffered slightly).

The units can come configured with 64 or 128GB of storage onboard with 4GB of RAM, or with a 256 or 512GB storage setup with 8GB of RAM. Obviously, the higher RAM and storage drive the better, although if you’re budget-conscious like me, you can use the integrated microSD card slot to add up to 1278GB more of flash storage using a microSDXC card.

As a laptop, this definitely falls into Ultrabook™ country—and the price reflects that. This has a great side job as a tablet, but a tablet is used mostly for entertainment purposes, and the Surface Pro 3 has so much more to offer. Where the Surface Pro 3 really starts to step forward is as a multi-purpose educational tool. The note-taking properties of the Surface and its ability to incorporate the Surface Pen into its apps will appeal to far more consumers than its base specs. The ability to multi-task is also a bonus—try opening multiple windows on an Android tablet and you’ll immediately note the benefits of a full Windows tablet—giving the Surface an edge in productivity, as well.

So where does the Surface Pro 3 fall short of expectations? Oddly enough, it’s the little things it doesn’t do that you notice right away—things like the adjustable kickstand, which works great on a desktop, but horribly in your lap. I frequently had to adjust the stand several times while in the car (I often write my articles outside or in the local library, but I do a lot of my editing in the car). I also found the lack of volume-control buttons on the keyboard annoying, since the rocker volume button is placed a little too close to the earphone jack for my comfort.

I would also caution that you immediately download any updates for the Surface Pro 3 upon purchase. The review unit we had exhibited some weirdness in finding the Marvell Wi-Fi adapter the first few times we connected. After several weeks, it’s been smooth sailing, but it made me pause when I realized how disappointed I would be when I bought one of these, which eventually, I will.

My final thoughts on the Surface Pro 3 are these: I’ve always wanted one, and could not muster up the courage (or the money) to buy them when they were the Surface Pro 2. I even strayed and recently bought a convertible 2-in-1 laptop from another manufacturer. I wish now that I had saved my money, because the Surface Pro 3 is what I was looking for. A convertible tablet that functions well as a laptop, and will keep me working and productive, but not let me down when entertaining me. Is it the perfect hybrid computer? It is. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, the Surface Pro 3 has feet firmly planted in Tablet Town and Laptop Land. Where you use it will be up to you, so happy travels.

Software Windows 8.1 Pro
Exterior Casing: Magnesium
Color: Silver
Physical buttons: Volume, Power, Home
Dimensions 11.50 x 7.93 x 0.36 in (292.10 x 201.42 x 9.14mm)
Weight 1.76 lb (0.79 kg)
Hard-Drive Size Solid-state drive (SSD) options: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB
Memory 64GB or 128GB version with 4GB RAM
256GB or 512GB version with 8GB RAM
Display Screen: 12" ClearType Full HD Display
Resolution: 2160 x 1440
Aspect Ratio: 3:2
Touch: Multitouch input
Processor • 64GB/Intel i3 version:
4th generation Intel Core i3-4020Y 1.50 GHz with Intel HD Graphics 4200
• 128GB and 256GB/Intel i5 version:
4th generation Intel Core i5-4300U 1.90 GHz (with Turbo Boost Technology up to 2.9GHz) with Intel HD Graphics 4400
• 256GB and 512GB/Intel i7 version:
4th generation Intel Core i7-4650U 1.70 GHz (with Turbo Boost Technology up to 3.3 GHZ) with Intel HD Graphics 5000
• TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip for enterprise security
Wireless 802.11ac/802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy technology
Battery Life Up to 9 hours of web browsing5
Cameras and Video 5MP and 1080p HD front- and rear-facing cameras
Built-in front- and rear-facing microphones
Stereo speakers with Dolby Audio-enhanced sound
Audio Stereo speakers with Dolby Audio-enhanced sound
Ports Full-size USB 3.0
microSD card reader
Headphone jack
Mini DisplayPort
Cover port
Charging port
Sensors Ambient light sensor
Warranty 1-year limited hardware warranty
Surface Pen Dimensions: 135mm (length), 9.5mm (diameter) • Weight: 20 grams
Pre-installed Apps Flipboard
Skype Wi-Fi
OneNote MX
Sudoku/Microsoft Number Puzzle
Fresh Paint
In the box Surface Pro 3 • Surface Pen • 36-watt power supply • Quick Start Guide • Safety and warranty documents

Items discussed in article