Microsoft surprised the tech press on May 20 when instead of revealing the highly anticipated Surface Mini, it debuted an even bigger Surface Pro. Rather than jump into a competitive small tablet market dominated by the likes of the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Apple iPad Mini, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant instead decided to take aim at Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air by supersizing its flagship tablet.
It’s a bold move, and one that makes a compelling case for full-powered, Windows-based slates.
To start, the Surface Pro 3 is a looker. Apple may have set the standard for tablets, but Microsoft is a close second. For the Pro 3, Microsoft kept the magnesium but switched to a dull silver, ditching the all-black aesthetic of its predecessor.
Materials and build quality are top notch. Panos Panay, head of the Microsoft Surface division, dropped the Surface Pro 3 onto a carpeted stage from a few feet off the ground during the launch event. It emerged unscathed, but it’s a demonstration I’m reluctant to re-enact with my unit.
Reassuringly, the Pro 3 doesn’t creak or flex when I apply pressure. At 1.76 pounds, it feels solid without being weighty, making it a breeze to tote around.
One of the biggest changes is the new kickstand. Whereas the Pro 2 sported a dual-position kickstand, the new tablet now features a friction hinge that supports a wider variety of angles. The result is a definite improvement to the Surface Pro’s “lapability.” It especially came in handy in my home office setup, where I was able to position the screen at a comfortable angle beyond what my Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook can achieve.
Bringing More to the Surface
The biggest, most obvious change is the new 12-inch screen (up from 10.6 inches). It is big, bright and crisp at a resolution of 2,160 by 1,440 pixels, which Microsoft is billing as “2K.” Off-center viewing suffers a bit, but overall, colors are punchy, text and graphics pop, and HD video playback is smooth.
Speaking of video, letterboxing is back. The new display has a 3:2 aspect ratio, meaning that black bars will appear above and beneath video that is aimed at 1080p displays.
The included Surface Pen stylus provides accurate, responsive pen input. Clicking its top launches OneNote, the company’s cloud-enabled note-taking app, even while the device is asleep. It’s a handy feature that makes capturing spur-of-the-moment ideas a snap.
The front-firing speakers, smartly camouflaged by the touch screen’s bezel, provide rich sound. Microsoft claims that they are 45 percent louder than those on the Surface Pro 2. Just don’t expect too much in the way of bass.
Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 3’s battery will last 9 hours while browsing the Web. That sounds about right. From a full charge, I was able to get roughly 7.5 hours of battery life after installing apps, viewing the Netflix app, getting real work done and, yes, browsing the Web.
Overall, performance of the Surface Pro 3 is snappy, at least on the Core i5 unit (an Intel i5-4300U processor) with a clock speed of 1.9GHz (2.5GHz turbo), 8GB of internal flash storage and 256GB of internal storage. Most applications, even desktop software, open within seconds.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3: A Windows Tablet for Laptop Holdouts
Its WiFi components (802.11a, b, g and n) grab signals quickly and lock on strongly, both in crowded event spaces and at home. During the Surface Pro 3 launch, Jason Graefe, senior director of channel partnerships for Microsoft, told eWEEK that Microsoft made optimizations that yielded “twice the speed.”
In the real world, Websites load quickly, Web apps refresh quickly and downloads are completed at a brisk pace on a home broadband connection. A full Office 365 install took just minutes.
Surface Goes to Work
And this machine is built for Office 365. Oddly, Microsoft is sticking to its guns and shipping Office only on its Surface RT slates. It’s a shame, because on the Surface Pro 3, Office shines and would be a nice perk at least for consumers who pick up a Pro 3 (enterprises typically prefer barebones configurations that they can tailor to their needs).
Word 2013 on the Pro 3, for instance, is a great experience. Although I had to zoom in a bit (120 percent) and go full screen to avoid squinting, typing up this review on the Surface Pro 3 was surprisingly laptoplike—a huge compliment.
Some of the credit goes to the new Touch Cover. Its mechanical (nontouch) keys and larger, more accurate touchpad make touch typists feel right at home. Instead of lying flat, the Touch Cover now magnetically clips to the bottom bezel, providing a wrist-friendly typing angle on both flat surfaces and one’s lap.
Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1 Pro, and expertly so. The problem is that I find myself constantly bouncing between the tile-based “modern” UI and the classic desktop.
Modern apps generally work well and look great—Flipboard, Kindle and Netflix provide a solid touch experience, in particular—but the Windows Store still has noticeable gaps. In the case of Spotify, it means downloading and installing the desktop version.
It’s not a deal breaker, but the Windows 8.1 desktop, for all of Microsoft’s progress, is still much better navigated with a keyboard and mouse. Its past also lingers, leading to an inconsistent experience. Old-school icons, dialog boxes and menus compete with newer UI elements. Microsoft should follow Apple’s lead on iOS 7 and harmonize Windows 8.1’s experience with a top-to-bottom refresh.
Those blemishes aside, Surface Pro 3 excels at Microsoft’s mission: replacing laptops. Prices start at $799 for a Core i3 unit, a clue that the company isn’t looking to compete with the iPad, but instead with the MacBook Pro and Ultrabooks.
As configured, the Surface Pro 3 in this review (Intel Core i5, 256GB) rings up at $1,428.99, before tax, with the Type Cover. That’s premium Windows Ultrabook territory, but the new Surface Pro delivers the goods in a much more portable, high-quality package.