Microsoft is hoping to entice those keen on their tablets and ultrabooks away from the norm and embrace its latest tablet-cum-laptop, the new Surface Pro 3.
The journey of Microsoft’s Surface tablets has been rocky and uncertain since the very beginning. A company known for its software solutions releasing hardware under its own name was a brave move and it’s pushed hard to put the Surface name in front of consumers faces, but up until this point, the product hasn’t really grabbed enough people’s attention, resulting in some pretty significant losses.
The Surface Pro 3 looks to be the best offering yet however, addressing many of the shortcomings apparent in previous iterations, as well as openly hoping to tackle Apple’s featherweight laptop, the MacBook Air. So after three generations, does the Surface finally have mass-market appeal?
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 design: Lean back
The Surface Pro 3 is bigger than any of its predecessors and appears chunkier than the majority of the other top tablets out there right now too, partly as a result of a larger display than previous Surfaces, but also as a by-product of the PC-class internal architecture.
As a tablet it’s a little too hefty for prolonged one-handed use, weighing in at 800 grams, although the dimensions, namely its impressive 9.1mm thickness make it easy enough to hold if you want to get creative with the Surface Pen every now and then.
In the hand, the milled, chamfered bodywork feels good. Clean, precise edges laden with ports for an external display and a full-sized USB 3.0 port are greatly appreciated too. The powerful hardware also means that despite gunning for a reputation as a part-time tablet, the innards still require a fan for cooling, necessitating vented edging along the top face of the Pro 3 that actually gives it a little functional/visual flare.
The kickstand is one of the problems that plagued previous Surfaces, originally only moving out into one fixed position, then two with the second generation Surface, but thankfully, Microsoft clearly got the message with number three as there’s a new full-friction hinge design allowing the user to prop the Surface up at 22 degrees or push it back as far as 150 degrees.
The Type Cover (sold separately) features a new design too, accommodating the larger body of this latest Surface and adding in a more tactile trackpad that has a satisfying ‘click’ when pressed, plus a wider touch area. The backlit keys don’t feel like they’ve evolved much in the way of a typing experience, although the ability to magnetically raise it up at an angle is more comfortable for long typing sessions.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 screen: Better under pressure
With the MacBook Air firmly in its sights, Microsoft has opted for a 12-inch display (the Air can be had in 11 and 13-inch varieties) sporting a more squared 3:2 aspect ratio and an impressive 2160×1440 resolution.
The ClearType Full HD Plus panel pushes out wonderfully clear, accurate colours and stands up well in strong lighting, although it is a little reflective. The aforementioned aspect ratio also lends itself well to landscape and portrait use, which Windows is well equipped to deal with.
The party piece comes into play when you pick up the Surface Pen, a new premium aluminium stylus designed to help create a more natural drawing and writing experience on the Pro 3’s display.
Featuring an N-Trig digitizer, the Surface Pro 3 can sense up to 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and Microsoft has employed a few technologies to offer the best experience possible. The gap between the display and the glass is smaller, bringing content on the screen closer to the nib of the stylus, latency when sketching is impressively low and it comes with palm detection so you can rest your hand as you would when sketching on paper without worry.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 OS: King of compatibility
Previously, the Windows RT/Windows 8 split undoubtedly hurt the Surface as it offered up a confusing message to consumers about what these tablets were capable of, but thus far, Microsoft has stuck to a sole 3rd-generation Surface Pro and it comes with a full PC operating system.
Sporting the latest Windows 8.1, the Surface Pro 3 is infinitely more flexible as a portable computing device over the likes of the iPad Air or the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S, so despite its size, it’s more comparable to Lenovo’s Yoga laptops or, of course, the MacBook Air.
Able to run anything you’d typically install on a laptop or desktop Windows machine, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of applications at your disposal. The tiled Start screen has thus far garnered a love/hate relationship from users, but it’s customisable and clear to understand, which gets a thumbs up in our books. The Windows app store does add an extra level of confusion however, offering up more touch-friendly variants of popular applications like Flipboard and Evernote, but at the same time, mirroring functionality already possible on the desktop side of the Windows experience.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 performance: Quick off the mark
To be taken seriously the Surface Pro 3 has to be able to compete with similarly specced rivals in offering up a range of skills. Whilst Intel i3 and i7-based versions are on their way, we were using a mid-range model – a 4th generation Core i5 (2.5GHz clocked at 1.9GHz) Pro 3 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage which proved competent with everything we threw at it, not to mention a boot time of under ten seconds.
Provided your au fait with the Windows experience, multitasking between applications was trouble free, getting creative with the stylus was just as responsive as Microsoft promised and to really push it we even tested the ‘But can it run Crysis’ theory.
In truth, graphical power is probably one of the most obvious shortcomings of the Pro 3’s hardware, if you’re looking for a portable gaming machine. Whilst less demanding games like Fez ran without issue, the reliance on integrated graphics means that AAA titles, even older ones like Crysis still strain the Surface hardware (unless you run it at a much lower resolution with all settings at their minimum).
On the battery side, Microsoft quotes nine-hours of web browsing, and we’d concede that it’s certainly a reliable performer, having used it on and off with battery alone for the past three days, including web browsing, streaming video, 3D gaming (Fez, Crysis Warhead and Goat Simulator) alongside some light sketch work.
The 42Wh cell should make the Surface Pro 3 a reliable work companion and if you do need to charge it up, the new connector works both ways round and features an additional full-sized USB port for power.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 verdict: The hybrid you never knew you wanted
There’s no question, Microsoft has created an excellent device. The Surface Pro 3 boasts real PC performance in one of the most compact packages on the market, but…
Whether or not the form factor will work for you depends on a few key things. It’s a lot harder to live with without the Type Cover, making it an essential accessory and an extra £109.99 on top of the £1109.99 you’ve already shelled out for the i5 model we tested.
As a tablet it’s usable, but it’s better suited to a desk or a lap and that then raises the question, ‘Does the Surface form factor lend itself to these environments?’ Lenovo’s latest Yoga 2 laptops seem like a better fit, with a more familiar form factor, but the ability to jump into a sudo-tablet when it’s required.
We love the Pro 3 for what it’s trying to do and to an extent it achieves that goal. If you’re curious enough to lay down cash, you won’t be disappointed for the Windows experience in Microsoft’s own image that this is, but if you’re after portable workstation, there are other options worth considering too.