Why the Surface Pro 3 has quietly replaced my work PC

surface pro 3

About two weeks ago, I unplugged my Lenovo ThinkPad Twist laptop and set it aside. I replaced it with the Surface Pro 3, connected my peripherals to Microsoft’s docking station, and powered everything up. 

For the first time in my life, I’m working from a Windows tablet. Full time. For work and play.

Think about the significance of that. Unless you fed punch cards into a mainframe, your first experience with a computer was likely a desktop PC. Over time, you embraced notebooks—maybe reluctantly at first, but eventually with enthusiasm. We’re negotiating a similar transition today, as notebooks cede ground to mobile devices as the primary computing engines of people’s lives. 

So for now, I’ve benched my Twist. The Surface Pro 3 review unit I’ve been long-term testing delivers more compelling hardware with comparable performance, strong battery life, Windows compatibility, a good keyboard, and even better mobility. Microsoft’s tablet ticks off all the important boxes, so I’m at a loss for any reason to switch back.

Surface Pro 3 display Mark Hachman

The Surface Pro 3 is both productivity machine and entertainment machine.

The power of a notebook, just thinner

Simply put, the Surface Pro 3 feels like a full-fledged PC, not a tablet. Connect a Bluetooth keyboard to an older tablet, and chances are you’ll notice a brief but discernible delay as your keystrokes take time to register. Switching between apps can also be sluggish. But with an Intel Core i5 4300U and 8GB of memory inside it, I’ve never experienced anything of the sort with the Surface Pro 3, nor would I expect to.

The real surprises emerge when you use Microsoft’s tablet to play games. When I “log off” at night, I can fire up Steam and play titles like Batman: Arkham City or even the Thief reboot on the Surface Pro 3 at acceptable quality levels. Sure, because of space and cooling requirements, you’re never going to have a tablet that can offer all of the performance of a notebook, let alone a powerful desktop. But I’ve been surprised by how well the Surface Pro 3 performs as a PC gaming machine.

Surface Pro 3 Batman Arkham City Mark Hachman

It’s not perfect, but older games like Batman: Arkham City run acceptably on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

Could I have made this argument a year ago? Perhaps—although less convincingly. When Acer released the Iconia W3 8-inch Windows tablet in the summer of 2013, I was intrigued by its potential, but less impressed by what it actually offered at the time. Then there’s Microsoft’s older Surface Pro 2, which measures up much more closely to a PC, but falls slightly short in terms of battery life and the general usability of the keyboard, kickstand and display. Nonetheless, both Surfaces include a fourth-generation Core chip inside, which trumps the third-generation Core chip (the i7-3517U) inside my Twist laptop in terms of performance and battery life.

The bottom line is that I don’t expect the Surface Pro 3 to outshine my laptop in terms of what’s under the hood. If the Surface even delivers comparable performance, that’s enough to justify it, as it’s thinner and lighter than a traditional notebook. 

Don’t forget ergonomics

I’ve had brief flings with oversized tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro, a device with a 12.2-inch display with a 16:10 aspect ratio device, designed from the ground up for productivity. The Surface Pro 3’s 12-inch screen uses a 4:3 aspect ratio that makes the device “taller,” and this display compares favorably to Samsung’s, but I actually prefer connecting the Surface to a larger external monitor. In this setup, there’s nothing separating the Surface Pro 3 from a full-fledged PC.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Michael Homnick

The improved kickstand makes a considerable difference.

But what really distinguishes the Surface Pro 3 from its predecessors is Microsoft’s attention to ergonomics. Both the flexible kickstand as well as the improved Type Cover keyboard nudge the Surface Pro 3 very close to notebook territory.

Ever since I’ve tested the Surface Pro 3 dock, I’ve generally left the tablet docked, but this isn’t a productivity or workstation requirement. I use only one external monitor, which can be directly connected to the Surface via its miniDisplayPort and an HDMI dongle. I also use an external wireless mouse and Microsoft’s own Type Cover keyboard. This setup obviates the need for the dock, and in my home office, that’s good enough for me. That said, the dock is handy for its extra USB ports: I can attach an external keyboard for gaming and connect an external hard drive when the need arises.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Michael Homnick

One of the few weaknesses of the Surface Pro 3—lap use.

About the only time I prefer using my Twist notebook is on my lap: The unified display/keyboard of a traditional notebook doesn’t wobble, while the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover, however improved, still feels a bit flimsy.

Finally, there’s the benefit of weight reduction. At 1.76 pounds (plus another half-pound for the Type Cover), the Surface Pro 3 is much lighter than the 3.5-pound Twist. That makes a huge difference when I’m toting this productivity machine around town.

A consistent OS makes a difference

As both the Surface Pro 3 and the Twist run the same version of Windows, you might think they’re a wash when it comes to the OS experience. But that’s not quite true.

If you’re using the Surface as, say, a tablet, the Surface simply works more effectively with tablet-optimized apps. OneNote, for example, can be automatically launched with a click of the Surface Pro 3’s stylus. With the Twist, however, I have to twist the display back, then launch OneNote, and then try to awkwardly enter a note with it cradled in my arms. A tablet is simply more effective than a notebook that tries to pretend it’s a tablet. 

note pro placeholder image Mark Hachman

Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro allow you to approximate your Windows experience via Web apps. However, they lack the convenience of the Surface Pro 3.

If there’s any drawback to making the Surface Pro 3 your new work PC, it’s the fact that you’ll have to contact your IT department to make sure it’s cleared for use. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to use your own Office 365 subscription, for example.

Finally, a word about price

Many of you are undoubtedly thinking, “Geez, for the price of a Surface Pro 3, sure, you’d better be able to replicate a notebook experience.” And that’s true. A mid-range Surface Pro 3 costs about $1,300, which is roughly double the price of a comparable mid-range notebook. You would certainly expect a $95,000 Tesla to outperform a $22,000 Honda Accord, and the same goes for tablet/notebook comparisons. The Surface Pro 3 is expensive, and this will push many consumers back into notebook territory.

lenovo twist discarded Mark Hachman

For now, my company-issed Lenovo ThinkPad Twist rests alone and forgotten.

To the same point, I have the luxury of comparing a notebook my employer provided for work with a tablet Microsoft provided for evaluation. You do not. You have pricey decisions to make. So, in all fairness, I have to concede that paying extra “just” for portability and convenience may not appeal to everyone.

Nonetheless, we’re rapidly approaching a convergence where the lines are blurring between tablets and notebook PCs, and all consumers should be watching closely for the tipping point. Intel sees hybrid, two-in-one PCs that combine tablets with keyboard docks as the future of the PC. Meanwhile, innovations like Intel’s upcoming Core M, improved SSDs, and wire-free connections will let you safely jump from a notebook to a tablet without missing a beat. And of course prices will drop for “notebook replacement” tablets as well.

For me, however, that day’s arrived. I’m a tablet guy now.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter