Imagine if you had a time machine that could send you back exactly 13 years. The rules of time travel don’t let you change the past, but they do allow you to ask one question of a single person (time travel is, after all, very complicated). If your question for somebody in 2001 was “What will the future of computing look like,” they’d probably give you an answer that would sound very much like the Surface Pro 3.
That’s both good and bad. It’s good because the Surface Pro 3 is indeed a futuristic machine, a marvel of engineering that combines tons of crazy features into a thin and light package. It’s bad because, well, in 2001 we had almost no way of knowing that in 2014 the whole idea of what a computer is and does would be changing so rapidly.
That’s not to say that Microsoft’s vision for the Surface Pro 3 is antiquated — far from it — but it does show that the dream of replacing the laptop with a hybrid device is more complicated than it first appears. Microsoft has been hard at it for two years and with this device, it is very close to the ideal realization of its goal.
The Surface Pro 3 does a better job of cramming a full-powered computer into a touchscreen tablet than anything ever has before. But can it convince consumers that it’s really “the tablet that replaces your laptop?”
I can say without apology that the Surface Pro 3 is probably the most beautiful thing Microsoft has ever produced. It’s actually difficult to believe the same company that designed the oversized VCR that is the Xbox One also created this 0.36-inch-thick wonder of technology. Microsoft is keen to compare it to the 13-inch MacBook Air and it’s not crazy to do so; both are among the best-designed pieces of PC hardware I’ve used in the last few years.
That’s if you judge it by laptop standards. By tablet standards, it’s a massive machine, with a gigantic 12-inch screen that weighs in at a relatively heavy 1.76 pounds. It’s much lighter than most laptops, but definitely not in the same class as the iPad Air, which weighs only a pound.
The body is made out of magnesium, just like the previous Surface models, with the same angled edges and clean lines that have come to define the Surface lineup. It’s refreshingly clear of logos and other accoutrements, but unfortunately it’s also relatively clear of ports — at least by PC standards. There’s a single USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort, headset jack, and a microSD card slot underneath the hinge. The charging port has been updated, too; it uses a small fin that clicks in with a magnet and is much less likely to get bumped off than before.
Microsoft developed a new fan for the Surface Pro 3 that ostensibly helps make this the thinnest device with Intel's latest processor on the market. It’s nearly as silent as Microsoft claims (but not entirely so), and does seem to do a fairly effective job of keeping the Surface cool. The right-hand side did get warm to the touch when I started putting the processor under extreme duress, but never so much that I couldn’t keep holding it.
Thin and light are both nice, but the biggest functional change in the Surface Pro 3 comes in a redesigned kickstand. Previous Surfaces locked you into one or two specific angles, which meant that getting comfortable with the tablet on your lap was a hassle. This new Surface uses friction on the hinge to allow you to set it at any angle between 22 degrees and 150 degrees. That means it’s great for desk work, great for drawing, and much better on your lap. The resistance on the kickstand feels very well-tuned, giving just the right amount of firmness as you move it. Though I can’t yet say whether it will get looser over time, the mechanism looks like it’s been engineered to prevent that.
The other big upgrade on the Surface Pro 3 is the display. It’s a 12-inch touchscreen that crams in 2160 x 1440 pixels (The iPad Air, by comparison, is 2048 x 1536. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is 2560 x 1600). Microsoft says that it worked very hard to make the entire display thinner (which helps with pen input), and also endeavored to improve the viewing angles. Both claims ring true to me. You have to turn the Surface very far before things start to look weird on the screen, but more importantly, text looks clean and HD movies are super sharp.
My favorite part, though, is probably that this new Surface has a 3:2 aspect ratio. It makes it feel just that much more like a proper laptop in regular use. The last few Surfaces, which had 16:9 aspect ratios, felt cramped in landscape mode and positively ridiculous in portrait. The Surface Pro 3 isn’t exactly natural in portrait mode either, because of its large size, but the 3:2 ratio means that you can use it in portrait and almost touch-type on the virtual keyboard.
The bigger screen makes it feel much more like a laptopPen
The Surface Pro 3 comes with a pen, but it too is different than what came on previous models. It’s slightly bigger and you can’t mount it to the Surface itself anymore, but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.
Drawing with the pen feels super accurate and as natural as putting plastic to glass can reasonably be. The aforementioned thin display stack means your digital "ink" is close to the pen tip and responsiveness seemed good. You can also click the "cap" on the pen at any time to launch directly into OneNote (even when the screen is off) to jot down notes. Adobe says a touch and pen-optimized version of Photoshop should be coming soon as well.
The final piece of the Surface Pro 3’s hardware puzzle is the new Type Cover. As before, it features real, backlit physical keys. It still doesn’t feel quite as good as a proper laptop keyboard, but part of that is the plastic, clackety noise it makes when I’m banging away at full tilt.
Microsoft made the trackpad bigger too. It’s much better than before, but it’s still too small and frustrating in the way trackpads often are on Windows machines. I’m constantly mis-clicking or mis-dragging things and never know whether I should be blaming Windows, the hardware, or my fumbling fingers. That the truth surely lies in the middle of those three options doesn’t really make me feel any better.
Finally, a Surface you can really use on your lap
Microsoft actually did one more thing with the Type Cover. It added a magnetic strip, so that you can fold it up and attach the top of it to the front of the Surface. The idea is to make the entire thing much more stable on your lap, but it also elevates the keyboard for better typing. It’s a clever solution to one of the core design questions on the Surface, but if I’m honest, I can’t say it makes things radically better.
When it introduced the original Surface, Microsoft bet that people would be willing to make a tradeoff: more fiddling with a kickstand and keyboard cover in exchange for getting a PC-like device that also can serve as a tablet. The relentless refinement it’s made to those core ideas over three iterations of the Surface Pro have paid off. Yes, this is finally the Surface that you can use on your lap. No, it’s still not as convenient as lifting up the screen on your laptop.
The model I tested has an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It’s the middle-of-the-road model that Microsoft is offering. Priced at $1,299 (plus $129.99 for the Type Cover), it’s probably the most reasonable option for most people. Performance is really good, for the most part. It boots from sleep quickly and most apps are responsive and snappy.
But there are weird moments where the Surface Pro 3 seems to bog down. Actually, it would be better to say that there are weird moments where Windows 8.1 Pro itself bogs down, through no fault of the hardware it’s running on. Various apps (I’m looking at you, Chrome) inexplicably can’t be resized without a ridiculous delay between where your cursor / finger / pen is and where the window is following. Microsoft definitely chose the right zoom level for this resolution (150 percent), but sometimes it caused hassles with certain apps and functions. I installed Steam and booted up Transistor, only to find that that half the game was off-screen due to resolution issues.
All of these bugs are the sort of thing that can happen on any PC, but the mismatch between this beautiful hardware and these intermittent hassles made them all the more annoying. A flagship device ought not to have issues like this.
I found that battery life was pretty solid, but maybe not quite up to the all-day claims that Microsoft is making. It stayed alive for 7 hours and 50 minutes in our battery rundown test, which even just a year ago would be impressive. In fact, it was impressive a year ago — the Surface Pro 2 got nearly the same battery life in our tests. But in the age of the 12-hour MacBook Air and 10-hour iPad Air, 8 or so hours is just average.
Using the Surface Pro 3 intensively (with 10 or so apps running and mixing internet and some video streaming), I was reaching for the charger by mid-afternoon. That’s good enough for me and ratcheting down brightness and open apps would probably have made it even better. If that’s not enough for you, you’ll at least be happy to hear that the power brick for the Surface Pro 3 is delightfully small and has a USB charging port on it to boot.
Put me firmly in the camp of people who believe that Windows 8.1 Pro still hasn’t resolved the operating system’s fundamental identity crisis. Reasonable people can disagree on this point (see the comments, below), but bouncing between more modern "Windows Store" apps with the Metro UI and the classic desktop is still jarring. If you manage to just live in one or the other it’s great, but trying to mix both just leads to confusion.
Sometimes when I click a link it opens up IE on my desktop, other times it opens the sleeker tablet-ized version. Snapping apps to the edge of the screen is genuinely useful, but the traditional Windows desktop apps aren’t aware enough to go back to a reasonable size if I’ve accidentally shrunk them down mid-snap. With enough expertise, you can mitigate or even eliminate some of these problems — but the core problem is that Windows 8.1 seems to ask us to learn and manage too many different ways of working.
Bouncing between more modern "Windows Store" apps and the classic desktop is jarring
All that said, the Windows Store has made some strides in app availability and quality since the Surface 2. It’s still not even in the same galaxy as what’s available on the iPad, but it’s not as desolate as it once was. Plus, there are still plenty of traditional Windows desktop apps to choose from. If you have bought into OneDrive and the rest of Microsoft’s cloud services, the experience feels seamless, and I have to admit that there’s nothing better than classic Office on Windows for productivity.
But at the end of the day, I still just wish there weren’t two browsers, two sets of settings, and above all two wildly inconsistent experiences that just don’t mesh together all that well.
The ideal physical form for Windows
The Surface Pro 3’s hardware is undoubtedly impressive. Although Microsoft calls it a tablet, it’s better to think of this Surface as a full-fledged PC that can work as a large tablet in a pinch. More than anything else, the Surface Pro 3 is the ideal physical form for Windows 8.1. Both the OS and the hardware feel like a computer with some (occasionally great) tablet features tacked on top. It’s as though the bits that make up Windows prayed really hard and created a physical version of themselves.
The Surface is so PC-centric, it’s hard to even think of it as being in the same category as the iPad. Instead, Microsoft is very clearly taking aim at the MacBook Air, but beating the most popular laptop on the market is a very tall order. Taking everything into account, the hardware is now very competitive between the two. So whether you think the Surface Pro 3 is a better alternative depends almost entirely on what you think of Windows and the Microsoft ecosystem.
It took three iterations for the hardware to live up to Microsoft’s original vision for the Surface, but now it finally does. If you believe that Windows 8.1 hasn’t taken off because the hardware hasn’t been good enough, the Surface Pro 3 removes that argument from the table. It’s simply hard to identify areas where it can get radically better. If the Surface Pro 3 can’t get consumers on board with Windows, Microsoft is going to need to seriously rethink its software strategy at a fundamental level.
Photography by Michael Shane. Additional reporting by Dan Seifert.