Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: A legitimate work PC in tablet clothing

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Through every iteration, Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet has edged closer to becoming a true laptop replacement. Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro 3 takes several small steps in that direction—along with one giant, game-changing leap. Sure, you’ll still need to make a few compromises, but Surface Pro 3 can legitimately cover your notebook and tablet needs in a single package.

You’ll immediately notice the larger display. The Surface Pro 2’s display measures 10.6 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. Microsoft kicked up everything in the Surface Pro 3: The display is 38 percent bigger at 12 inches in diagonal width, and its 2160x1440-pixel resolution is breathtakingly crisp. Just as importantly, Microsoft’s shift to a 3:2 aspect ratio for the Surface Pro 3 adds 1.12 inches of vertical real estate to what already is a wider tablet. The result is a more luxurious, productive work space—and that’s key when you’re multitasking in a desktop environment.

There are numerous other upgrades behind the scenes. Though physically larger in terms of screen dimensions, Microsoft trimmed 0.24 pounds and 0.23 inches of width from the Surface Pro 2 to create the new tablet. Yet there’s still a full range of Core processors in the Surface lineup, including a Core i7 that somehow manages to live harmoniously in a 0.3-inch form factor. 

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Image: Michael Homnick

Viewed on edge, the Surface Pro 3 looks and feels like a tablet.

I disliked the original Surface Pro. It felt thick and bulky. The slimmed-down Surface Pro 3 feels like a proper modern-day tablet. Microsoft also improved the kickstand and complementary Type Cover, enhancing their ergonomics considerably. Internally, Microsoft moved to the faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, increasing potential wireless throughput.

Unfortunately, the price you pay is, well... the price you pay. Microsoft will ship the Surface Pro 3 in Core i3, i5, and i7 configurations, with either 4GB or 8GB of RAM and storage options up to 256GB. (Check out our earlier story for the exact details.) Our eval unit, a core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, costs $1,300. 

The low-end Core i3 model will cost $800, a price that’s competitive with a slew of perfectly respectable full-fledged laptops. But a high-end Core i7 model exacts more than $2,000 after sales tax, and any future 4G connectivity options will boost prices even further. The new Type Cover costs another $130, and it’s a must-have.

As you can see, to enjoy the full Surface Pro 3 experience, you’ll quickly price yourself out of traditional laptop territory.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Image: Michael Homnick

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2, left, and the new Surface Pro 3. The extra screen real estate can’t be ignored.

Microsoft also moved to a new charger, breaking compatibility with earlier models. And if you bought a docking station for the Surface Pro 2, it won’t work with the Surface Pro 3 due to a port reconfiguration. Perhaps most importantly, many Surface Pro 3’s won’t ship until almost September. 

Longtime Surface fans may be disappointed by the drawbacks, especially if they recently spent four figures on a new Surface Pro 2. But if you’re in the market for a new notebook PC, you should think seriously about replacing it with a Surface Pro 3 as your daily driver for work and play. Thinner, lighter, cheaper, more ergonomic: That’s the Surface Pro 3 in a nutshell.

Bam! And it’s up and running

The Surface Pro 3 boots fast. Crazy fast. So fast that I thought I hadn’t shut it down, and instead had put it into sleep mode. Some of this has to do with the fact that I’ve been reviewing a clean machine. And, obviously, improved SSD technology plays a role. But boot-to-password was on the order of three to four seconds. Be sure to hold the power button a bit longer than normal on first boot, however, as a quick press doesn’t seem to trigger it.

Agam Shah, a writer for PCWorld’s affiliate IDG News Service, noted that the Surface Pro 3’s 2160x1440-pixel resolution isn’t quite comparable to the 2560x1440-pixel resolution of some competing devices. Sure, this may turn off some graphics professionals, but not the average worker. Fewer pixels also tend to mean more battery life. Microsoft claims eight hours of battery life during casual use, but our own in-house battery tests—which entail a continuous mix of scripted Office use and video playback—brought the Surface Pro 3 to its knees after 4 hours, 18 minutes. That falls short of our result with the smaller Surface Pro 2, which shut down after 4 hours, 44 minutes.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Image: Michael Homnick

Cooling vents surround the upper reaches of the tablet. Under load, the fan vents air with an unobtrusive hiss.

Our Core i5-based review unit always felt snappy and responsive. Microsoft defines it as a “tuned” version of the Core i5-4300U, the upgraded chip Microsoft adopted midway through the Surface Pro 2 life cycle. But the Surface Pro 3’s Worldbench 9 score was just 72, whereas the Surface Pro 2 achieved a score of 74. 

The Surface Pro 3 retains the microSD slot of previous generations, as well as the single USB 3.0 and miniDisplayPort connector. (Plan accordingly to use the tablet with an external monitor.) The power button has been moved from the top right to the top left. Microsoft says an upcoming docking station will include three USB 3.0 connectors and two USB 2.0 connectors, as well as Gigabit ethernet.

The cameras have also been upgraded, with 5-megapixel devices front and rear, enough for full 1080p Skype chats. 

New stylus upgrades the Windows 8.1 experience

Our review unit includes the latest Windows 8.1 Update. On the software front, I can find only two changes: First, when you shut down the tablet, you’re asked to “pull down” the window to turn it off, just as Windows Phone does. The second is a serious omission: While the Surface Pro 2 offered 200GB of free OneDrive storage, the Surface Pro 3 does not. Ditto for the year’s worth of Skype Premium calling and Wi-Fi access that the Pro 2 offered.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Image: Michael Homnick

The new stylus is nice, although a bit awkwardly placed.

The Surface Pro 3 also ships with a chunky new pen from N-trig that features what Microsoft calls decreased parallax. Simply put, the digital ink “flows” more closely from where the pen touches the screen. And here’s a nifty trick: The tablet can be roused from sleep mode by holding down the button on the top of the pen, which immediately launches a new OneNote note without requiring a password. 

Digital ink is polarizing: Either you like it or you don’t. Emirates Airlines hands out Surface tablets to its flight crew members, who tote them around as cheat sheets for their passengers. For them, the Surface Pro 3’s new pen might be an upgrade. But the Surface Pro 3 is still too heavy and awkward for long-term, one-handed use. Microsoft wants you to use the Surface Pro 3 as a digital legal pad, but it’s a use case that requires setting the tablet on a table.

OneNote Surface Pro 3 Image: Mark Hachman

Inking with OneNote is perfectly acceptable, although the size of the tablet may be fatiguing if you hold the Surface Pro 3 in one hand.

The pen’s storage loop also needs improvement. A velcro strap would be clumsy and gauche, but it’s simply too difficult to remove and re-secure the pen in its Type Cover loop. While I’m not asking for a slimmer pen, securing it within the tablet (the Samsung Note approach) would be a better solution—though perhaps unfeasible, given that the Surface Pro 3’s internals are already packed to capacity with other components.

On a train, on a plane

Surface chief Panos Panay has made “lapability” (a dreadful word) one of the selling points of the new Surface line. In essence, lapability qualifies how a Surface tablet stacks up to a notebook when resting the device on your lap. In the service of improved lapability, Microsoft has added two new features to the Surface concept: an improved “friction hinge” that affords the tablet’s kickstand a continuous range of motion, and an improved Type Cover with a secondary magnetic connection.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Michael Homnick

The Surface Pro 3 fits comfortably on a lap, without the wiggle of prior models. And the kickstand shouldn’t dig into your legs, either.

The first generation of the Surface lineup included a kickstand that folded back to a 22-degree angle. The second-gen Surface Pro 2 adds a second, 55-degree angle. With the Surface Pro 3, these limitations effectively disappear. The tablet still clicks back to the 22-degree angle, but then it can support any angle up to 150 degrees. Microsoft says the hinge has been tested to hold up over repeated use.

To test lapability, I used the Surface Pro 3 on a plane from New York to San Francisco, as well as on a commuter train. Flying in coach, the Surface Pro 3 still fit relatively comfortably on a tray table, with a bit hanging off the edge. Typing was no problem. In terms of key travel and spacing, Microsoft says that the new Type Cover 3 is essentially the same as the second-generation model, and the keys are still backlit, too.

Surface Pro 3

The new Surface Pro 3 Type Cover includes a larger, wider “clickpad” with reduced friction.

What I can’t say for certain, however, is whether the Surface Pro 3 will deliver a good experience if the seatback in front of you is reclined. As fate would have it, the one time when I actually wanted to endure such discomfort, the passenger in front of me slept throughout my flight with the seat in the upright position.

Dan Laycock, a senior manager for Microsoft, said his Surface Pro 3 is too tall to fit comfortably on a tray table with the seat in front reclined fully. A lot will depend on the recline pitch of the seat in front of you, and how much you’re willing to fiddle with the placement of the tablet and keyboard. I will say, to Microsoft’s credit, that I was able to use the Surface Pro 3 with the Type Cover comfortably on my lap, and type on it for extended periods.

I’ve used the 11-inch MacBook Air as well as the Surface Pro 2 under reclined-seatback conditions, and both are short enough to fit. Notebook displays can also fold down toward you, eking out a few extra millimeters. The Surface Pro 3 can’t do that. However, as Laycock noted, you can fold the Surface Pro 3 back—you’ll just have to use the on-screen keyboard instead.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Image: Michael Homnick

See how the bottom edge of the Type Cover folds back where it attaches to the tablet? This is the secret to the Surface Pro 3’s greater stability when resting it on your lap.

The real key to so-called lapability is a tweak to the Type Cover 3 keyboard. Click it in, and it looks the same as the previous generation’s, albeit wider, to match the width of the tablet. You’ll notice, however, a narrow strip on its long, connected edge that uses a second magnetic connection. When folded down, this strip raises the keyboard to a slight angle, and it also reinforces the Type Cover’s connection across the entire tablet. It’s a slight difference, but a significant one. Earlier Type Covers feel flimsy on your lap, but the additional support of the Type Cover 3 stabilizes the whole unit. The Type Cover 3 works with earlier Surface models, too.

I also used the new tablet on a swaying commuter train in San Francisco. The Surface Pro 3/Type Cover 3 combination offered enough stability, flexibility and headroom to make me quickly dismiss the Surface Pro 2 combo. The bottom line is, you’re going to like this.

I did run into two bugs: I folded up the Surface Pro 3 as the woman next to me exited the train. When I opened it again, the trackpad wouldn’t work, and the cursor had vanished. Rebooting solved the problem. And there was this odder issue: When I connected the Type Cover 3 to my older Surface Pro 2 to check connectivity, it worked just fine. But after I reconnected the Type Cover 2 to the Surface Pro 2, the Type Cover 2 failed to connect, even after several reboots. Another, older Type Cover failed to work as well. Microsoft believes software updates will fix Type Cover issues like this.

Surface Pro 3

This is still the choice you’ll have to make: Traditional notebook or tablet?

Third time’s the charm?

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 represents an improvement on all fronts. If Microsoft's "rule of three" holds, then this will be the Surface that gets it right. Let's face it: the original Surface wasn't much of a tablet. The Surface Pro 3 certainly is.

But for all of the Surface Pro 3's charms, you may be better served by exploring other options in the Windows 8.1 space, whether it be a hybrid or a traditional notebook. These competing devices may not have the Surface Pro 3’s gorgeous display, but they’ll likely cost a few hundred dollars less, sport longer battery lives, and maybe even face the challenges of the airplane tray table with greater aplomb.  

That's not to downplay what Microsoft has accomplished with the Surface Pro 3, however. With its latest tablet, Microsoft continues to hone in on what buyers increasingly want: a spacious sheet of thin glass for work and play. 

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft's Surface lineup just keeps getting better and better, with an improved screen for desktop use and an upgraded Type Cover for the road.


    • Larger screen offers 38 percent more real estate for getting work done.
    • New Type Cover is much more stable than previous models
    • Battery life now quoted at eight, not six hours


    • Prices may still give one pause, especially versus a notebook
    • Microsoft eliminated free OneDrive cloud storage from Surface Pro 3
    • Stylus holder is awkwardly placed
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