Before I even begin, you should have full disclosure: I have always wanted a Surface tablet. Billed as the tablet that can replace your laptop, the Surface Pro 3 (and the Surface 2 before it) is one of the few technological gadgets I had been missing in my life. But instead of saving up to buy one, I wasted my money on a mid-tier 2-in-1 with a detachable screen, and have been disappointed ever since—more so than when I found that acid-washed jeans went out of style. Sigh.
Now that I’ve had this review unit for more than six weeks, I realize why I wanted a Surface so badly. It’s more than just the ease of switching between tablet mode and laptop seamlessly—although that is a big part of it. It’s more than just having a fully functioning Windows tablet that runs native programs without glitches or lag, although that’s also a bigger part of it. It’s not just because of the cool extras you get, like an extraordinary stylus that naturally and organically works and feels like a real pen, or the almost-Retina screen, or the amazing type cover, which enhances the laptop usability of the device (sold separately—grumble, grumble).
I wanted a Surface because it’s cool. But I’m glad I waited for this version, because it really distances itself from the previous versions.
It starts by upgrading the screen to 12" and boosting the resolution to 2160 x 1440. It weighs a svelte 1.76 lb. My review version was a 256GB Intel® Core™ i7 model, top of the line; although I did use the Core i3 version, as well, for comparison. Which would you prefer? I suggest you look at the Intel Core i5 model, which is powerful enough for complex work, but not as pricey as the Core i7 model. And while price is definitely a factor, you would still pay a premium for a laptop with similar specs. A 4th-generation Haswell Intel Core i7 laptop with a boosted screen and an Ultrabook™ form factor will run a pretty penny these days, and you can’t snap it in half to use as a tablet. Advantage: Microsoft.
But specs aside, there needs to be a practical use for this kind of highly advanced technical equipment. One does not simply walk into the land of Mordor, nor does one simply purchase a Surface Pro 3 without good reason, which is why, instead of reviewing the Surface Pro 3 from my point of view, I decided to let each of my family members take a crack at it, and have them take the Surface Pro 3 for a week and then relate their experiences to me. The family that techs together, talks together, or something like that. Unfortunately, I will have to translate some of their opinions about the piece into language normal people can understand. The two teens in my house communicate in their own special way—they really seem to like “dem French-fried pataters,” if you know what I mean. As for my wife, she has her own set of opinions about what a pricey hybrid should and shouldn’t do for her, and whether I can or can’t afford one of these.
REVIEWER ONE: My Daughter
Likes: Music, art, poetry, anime, and video games
Dislikes: Music, art, poetry, and video games favored by her younger brother
“So, Dad, what’s up with your new toy? Is this going to be like the leaf blower we got you for Father’s Day, and then you used it once, and then left under the shed for like, two years? Or are you going to actually use this?
“Thanks for letting me hang with this. Me and my bae were totes unimpressed with your last laptop. I mean, I got better Wi-Fi on my braces. This one, though, looks cooler. I like how slim it is, and how light. The laptop you gave me for my birthday two years ago is putting a permanent bend in my spine, it’s so heavy. What I like best about this Surface Pro 3 is that the pen is awesome—I can write, draw, paint—it’s totes sci-fi, dad, very Minority Report. I took it to school, and was tweaking notes in class like a crazy cat lady. I mean, there were h8ers everywhere throwing shade and trying to front, but the Surface was all that. I was using the pen in my art class to design a new style of dress, then went into biology and sketched out a heart, threw in colors for the major veins and blood vessels, drew my BFs name in the middle, you know, and then I got to English Honors and wrote margin notes on a piece I was reading. Cray cray, I know. I love it. Can I have one? And if not a Surface Pro 3, how about a car?”
Translation: She loved the versatility of the tablet aspects of the Surface Pro 3, but she really liked how the pen allowed her to be creative. And the answers to her last questions were: no, and absolutely not.
REVIEWER TWO: My Son
Occupation: Student, hardcore gamer
Likes: Games, games, and games—and French fries
Dislikes: Anything that takes him from his games
“Hey Dad, what’s up? What’s that? Another laptop? Come on, you must have like six of these by now. This one looks pretty sharp. What’s the resolution on the screen? Wow. That’s high. What kind of processor? Can it play games? What kind? Let’s try Skyrim. Yeah, this is pretty tight. I don’t have any problems with frame drops or lag. Okay, let’s try Elder Scrolls. Hmmm. Impressive. Now let’s throw wrenches. Load up something that bounces the frame rate. Yeah, Guild Wars 2. Now put the settings up as high as they can go. Okay, not that high. Awesome. Now let me play and you can come back in twenty minutes. What’s that? No, the pen is pretty useless to me while gaming. But that backlit keyboard is the shiznit. I can rock this thing in the dark. Cool. Can I play Xbox 360 games on this? I have to wait until Windows 10 comes out? Okay, I’ll just be in the living room playing. Nice laptop, by the way.”
Translation: Plays games, but not the ones he likes the most. When Windows 10 comes out, it’s been reported that you can play games on the Xbox 360 or Xbox One, and then continue the game on any Windows-10-connected laptop, desktop, or tablet. This means I would have to give up the TV or the Surface when my wife kicks him out of the room.
REVIEWER THREE: My Wife
AGE: She says I can’t tell you.
Occupation: Web Marketing, accountant, stay-at-home mom
Likes: Pinterest, Facebook, Skype, Microsoft Office suite
Dislikes: Husbands with no idea of how to allocate money
“Oh, no, what is that? It looks expensive. Please tell me you didn’t trade the cow I gave you this morning for magic beans, Lawrence. Please. Another laptop? Don’t you have, like, six already? What do you mean they’re all broken?
“What’s this? Oh, they’re all the greatest technological breakthrough since electricity. You said that about your electric toothbrush. What’s so special about this? Okay, it’s light, nice. I like this material, what is it? Magnesium casing? Sounds very Jetsons. How do I keep the kids off my account? I can have separate accounts for each member of the family, huh? Because we are not buying four of these. Okay, let’s see what else it can do.
“I need Microsoft Word and Excel running so I can work on the budget for this three-ring circus you call home. I also need PowerPoint up so that I can work on my proposal to the school board. The last tablet you brought in didn’t run Windows, it was an Android tablet. I had a lot of trouble using their productivity programs efficiently.
“Wow, this is much faster and a lot more streamlined than using knock-off programs. Okay, so now, I want to catch up on my favorite shows. Can I stream Netflix? Will it be jumpy and jittery like it was on that budget laptop you brought home a couple of months ago? Ha! That’s what you say.
“Okay, now you’re talking. Beautiful screen, by the way. I can use all the software I normally use day to day. I can watch TV, stream music, go online and web-browse with ease. So tell me why this is so different? Why are you bending it backwards? You’re going to break it. Oh, I see. It’s a tablet with a keyboard that can flip behind the screen. Very nice. What’s that? The keyboard is extra? How much extra? Hmmm… doesn’t really work as a laptop without the keyboard.
“No, you can’t have one. Nice try, though. But you can get me one for my birthday.”
REVIEWER FOUR: Me
Likes: Tech, gadgets, games, and computers
Dislikes: Bad tech
The Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft is quite possibly what the word “hybrid” refers to when speaking of hybrid tablet/laptops. It does what so many have tried to do—it blends the experience of a tablet with that of a fully functioning laptop. From the tablet point of view, it may seem a little conspicuous to some. Holding this 12" device tablet-style on your lap will definitely get you some stares on the morning commute, but the bright, vivid high-resolution and very responsive capacitive screen will make any tablet-oriented tasks (playing games, browsing the Web, watching movies) as enjoyable as it is on any other tablet, bar none. No one has yet to simulate this 12" experience; well, not yet—right Apple?
Flipping the magnetically attached keyboard to the back of the screen may not be to everyone’s liking, but the dynamic works, and the keys immediately stop responding so there are no errant clicks or commands sent through to the tablet. This is a design concern that still plagues other hybrid manufacturers. Some have screens that flip back, others have screens that rotate, but none corner the ease and simplicity of the Surface Pro 3 tablet. Unfortunately, the keyboard, while essential to making this a perfect laptop, is not included, and the extra cost may deter some buyers.
While the speakers are strong, they’re not spectacular, but speakers are something that will never be outstanding on a tablet. The camera does a good job of both video and still captures with 5MP cameras on the front and back, and the thin, light design (less than 2 pounds and only .36 inch thin) makes taking pictures and videos a breeze.
The laptop experience is just as satisfying, depending on the model you get, and you’ll see a huge difference in power and task performance based on that. The Intel Core i3 model is perfect for light work—web browsing, schoolwork, watching movies—but you really need at least a Core i5 or Core i7 model for game playing, photo editing, or light video editing. Consider the price differences carefully when making your choice, since you’re going to want to stick to your purchase decision for a while.
As a laptop, the Core i7 version does the most credible job of adding power and performance to the mix. The Core i7 version will put up its dukes against any other Ultrabook™ or notebook, and will come out of that fight with few bruises, if you’ve purchased the Type Cover keyboard. With the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover keyboard, the backlit keys add a nice extra dimension, and there’s enough of a tactile feel to make long-term typing less of a hassle. Using third-party and aftermarket keyboards will work, but they don’t give you the same “flip-it” experience of the Type Cover. The Surface Pro 3 also has a weird wedge kickstand that feels flimsy, but does the job of keeping the tablet upright so that you can emulate the laptop experience. But, you should know, the Kickstand does not present the most comfortable options, especially those with shorter laps or, as I find, in compact spaces like the subway. On a desk or tabletop, however, I could pump out story after story and pound on the keys without the Kickstand giving way.
What Hybrid Fans Have Been Looking for
Finally, one of the most entertaining and outstanding features of the Surface Pro 3 is the included Surface Pen. On most other laptops and hybrids, a stylus is extra, and performs mundane tasks with varying results. The Surface Pro 3, however, seems to have built itself around the pen, using it for excellent note-taking abilities, graphics programs, and more. I spent hours playing with the pen, and found that the Microsoft-oriented programs, like One Note and Fresh Paint, were suddenly applications that I sought out, and not just bloatware added for faux-productivity goals the way most bloatware is. One Note made a definite impression with my teenage daughter, who used it to take notes in several classes. She said that not having to lug around several different multi-subject ringed binders for notes was a blessing in disguise. When using Fresh Paint, I found that instead of using my chubby, bulky fingers to create artwork, the pen (with various functionalities like one-click line-width switching) was much more intuitive, and as close to using an actual pen as any stylus I have encountered.
So, the bottom line is: you will find that the Surface Pro 3 is what hybrid fans have been looking for. It’s a tablet experience with laptop functionality, in one centralized location, without the need to detach a screen or rely on a series of complicated hinges. Why does the Surface Pro 3 stand out in the crowd? It’s light, thin, and visually beautiful. Its power and performance are unmatched so far, and if you were looking for either a new Ultrabook or a premium tablet, consider the Surface Pro 3. It has the best of both worlds.