When considering which tablet to buy, the Surface and Surface Pro ranges are certainly high up on the list, especially if you plan to use your Windows tablet for work. For me personally, the tablets offer the best experience as they couple the full Windows platform with premium laptop-worthy specs.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been using the Surface Pro 3 and for the first few weeks, it was my sole laptop and had to pick up the tasks that my Retina MacBook Pro would normally handle. The model I’m using right now is the entry-level version – which comes with a 64GB SSD, 4GB RAM and Intel Core i3 processor – but I’ve also previously an upgraded version, which comes with a 128GB SSD, 8GB RAM and Core i5 processor.
After two months with Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, what do I think and can it really replace a Windows laptop as Microsoft’s advertising claims it can? Let’s take a look:
One of my favourite things about the Surface Pro 3 is the integrated kickstand, which is definitely a feature that every tablet should have. The kickstand flips out from the back of the tablet and can be used to prop up the Surface Pro 3, both horizontally and vertically.
The 12-inch display offers 2160 x 1440 pixels resolution at 216 pixels per inch density and while on paper at least, the specs aren’t ground-breaking, the display offers vibrancy and clarity. In direct sunlight, the display can be slightly washed out but overall, it’s certainly good enough to be used in most conditions.
One interesting change with the Surface Pro 3 is the 3:2 aspect ratio, which is different to both the 16:9 ratio on the Surface Pro 2 and the 4:3 ratio on the iPad. Microsoft claim the aspect ratio allows the Pro 3 to display more content than the 13-inch Macbook Air and from personal use, the display can certainly fit a large amount of content.
Windows offers features like being able to snap windows to either side of the display and when used in this mode, the Surface Pro 3 certainly displays more content that I’ve experience from other Windows devices. The 3:2 aspect ratio means that the Surface Pro 3 feels more like a regular tablet when held in portrait mode and at 1.76 pounds, it’s light enough to carry in a backpack.
On both sides of the Surface Pro 3, there are 5MP cameras, which both support Full HD 1080p video recording. While you certainly won’t be using the cameras for still image capture, 1080p video means the front camera should be more than good enough for Skype or video meetings.
The Surface Pro 3 features a silver-coloured magnesium shell that’s smooth to the touch, looks premium from every angle and is thinner and lighter than its predecessor. One of the biggest issues with past Surface devices was overheating and the Surface Pro 3 aims to fix this with vents along the edges to better dissipate heat from the fan.
Despite being a tablet, the Surface Pro 3 comes with a range of connections that you’d normally find on a laptop including a single USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader and Mini DisplayPort output. The full-sized USB port is fully functioning, allowing you to charge items and transfer data at high speeds but I would have certainly liked at least one of the USB port on the other side. I personally need at least two USB ports when in desktop mode but it’s certainly useful to have a full USB port on the move.
Overall, the Surface Pro 3 manages to blur the lines between tablet and laptop and offers a package that seemingly has everything. The key thing that sets it apart from the competition is the optional Type Cover, which aims to offer the functionality of a full keyboard with the portability of a tablet accessory.
The Type Cover
Part of Microsoft’s advertising campaign for the Surface Pro 3 is billing its tablet as a device that can replace your laptop and a key element of this is the Surface Type Cover.
The type cover itself is one of the biggest selling points for the Surface Pro 3: the portability, functionality and design mean it serves a dual purpose; the keyboard allows you to be productive on the go and protects the display while the keyboard is not in use and the soft rear finish looks stylish.
Compared to past Surface keyboards, the latest Type Cover has been completely overhauled and the result is a keyboard with deeper keys that offer much better tactile feedback. The best change over past keyboards is the powerful double hinge system, which latches onto the bottom of the Surface Pro 3 and means you can now use it with just a portion of the cover touching your lap or desk. For portable use on a moving train or on the go, the powerful hinge system is a godsend.
The other addition to the Type Cover is the wider glass trackpad that can actually click; unlike past the keyboards, the clickable trackpad is responsive, supports gestures and means the Type Cover offers the familiarity of a traditional laptop keyboard. While the trackpad can be difficult to accurately press when you’re resting it on a soft surface (such as your lap), it’s still very impressive and you can also configure it to recognise taps instead of requiring a click to action something.
Personally, the Type Cover is easily the best portable keyboard I’ve used on any tablet to-date but it does have one drawback; despite the Surface Pro 3 being an expensive device, the Type Cover comes at an additional cost of $120 but is a necessary purchase so adds to your overall outlay on the tablet.
At present, Microsoft is running a promotion offering a free Type Cover with the purchase of any Surface Pro 3 (apart from the entry-level Core i3 64GB version) in the UK but it remains to be seen whether this is a permanent offering. Even if the promotion ends, I would highly recommend buying a Type Cover to go with your Surface Pro 3 as it is essential part of the experience. While the Surface Pro 3 is compatible with bluetooth keyboards, none have the integration and the full functionality offered by the Type Cover.
While the Type Cover is being sold as an optional add-on, the Surface Pen comes included with Microsoft’s latest tablet and the Redmond-based company named the stylus thus to make it seem like a normal pen.
Made from aluminium with a clickable button at the top – which launches OneNote by default – the Surface Pen is included in the box and is integral to the Surface Pro 3 experience. The Surface Pro 3 Pen connects via Bluetooth, is powered by N-trig and offers the closest precision tracking of any Surface Pen to-date.
Unlike other styli, the Surface Pen is weighted to feel like a normal pen and this makes the overall usability and experience much better than other styli. When used for graphical drawing, the Surface Pen tracks position with surprising accuracy and for Note taking, it accurately reflects what you have just drawn/typed.
One thing I’m not a fan of is that the Surface Pen cannot be attached to the Surface Pro 3 in anyway and instead needs to be carried separately. While this is fine for the office worker who carries his/her tablet on the move occasionally, I found it irksome to have to carry the Pen and often forgot to take it with me when leaving the office. Losing the Surface Pen is certainly a concern and until a month ago, it was very difficult to source a replacement but this is no longer an issue, with replacement Surface Pens widely available (in the UK at least).
Overall, the Surface Pen is certainly integral to the Surface Pro 3 experience and the fact its included means the tablet offers more value for money than others at the same price point. Only a handful of tablets come with styli and even fewer are integrated into the tablet so the un-attachable nature of the Surface Pen is certainly not a surprise. I’d have liked the option to configure the clickable button to open a different app by default – and support for multiple clicks to open different applications – but these are merely small gripes with what is, otherwise, a great professional-looking stylus.
The Surface Pro 3 model I have is the entry-level model and offers a Core i3 processor, 64GB SSD (that can be expanded) and 4GB DDR3 RAM but if you need more powerful performance, there are a range of options to choose from (prices correct at time of writing):
Intel Core i3
$799 / £639
Core i5 128GB:
Intel Core i5
$999 / £849
Core i5 256GB:
Intel Core i5
$1299 / £1079
Core i7 256GB:
Intel Core i7
$1549 / £1299
Core i7 512GB:
Intel Core i7
$1949 / £1549
Prices above correct at time of publication
Having used both the 64GB i3 and the 256GB i5 versions, I can safely say that the specs you buy certainly do matter. Unlike most laptops, you can’t increase the RAM as it is soldered directly to the motherboard – but you can swap out the SSD for a larger one – and you’ll definitely need to consider which model is the right one for you.
From my experience, the base model will handle every day tasks like web browsing, app usage and social networking fine and can even handle a little photo editing but only 4GB RAM does mean you have limited resources to work with. When trying to run Adobe Creative Cloud applications, the Surface Pro 3 certainly showed signs of struggling to handle the resource intensive applications.
In comparison, the Core i5 256GB model offers ample storage and 8GB RAM allows you to do a lot more, including using applications such as Photoshop, Lightroom and After Effects at the same time. Like all devices, there is a threshold at which performance begins to suffer but the Core i5 256GB model should certainly handle most, if not all, of the tasks you throw at it.
If you’re someone who plans to use the Surface Pro 3 for highly intensive tasks such as video editing, you may find the increased performance offered by the upgraded Core i7 version is worth the additional price. I’ve run video editing program Sony Vegas Pro on both models I have used and the Core i3 model simply can’t handle it while the Core i5 256GB model does show signs of lag when exporting so consider the improved performance if video editing performance will be a key part of your use.
Overall, the performance of the Surface Pro 3 is certainly high-end and worthy of its flagship status. Given the price of the tablet, we’d have expected nothing less but the key thing is that even the entry level model has ample performance for average daily tasks, meaning it offers a better package than other tablets and portable laptops at the same price.
While the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1 out of the box, Microsoft is launching Windows 10 on July 29th and the new update has features designed to enhance the experience of 2-in-1 devices like the Surface Pro 3. First we’ll take a look at the experience out-of-the-box and next, we’ll take a look at some of the Windows 10 features that will enhance and transform the overall Surface Pro 3 experience.
The Surface Pro 3 runs the latest Windows 8.1 Update 1 and overall performance is mostly smooth but as it runs the full Windows OS, it suffers from the same lack of optimisation that can allow applications to consume all available resources. An example of this is the Adobe CC suite, which caused the tablet to overheat and although the overheating was less on the Core i5 256GB model, it was still present.
That being said, Windows 8 is the company’s best platform for the past few generations and the ability to open touch-friendly versions of applications like Chrome certainly helps when you’re using the Surface Pro 3 in tablet mode. Equipped with live tiles to display information at a glance, the Start Screen is the part that resembles the user interface on Windows Phone the most and while it may not be for everyone, it does have its uses.
The key problem with Windows 8 – at least in my opinion – is that it feels like Windows 7 with a touch-friendly start screen and not a system that’s been designed for touch. However, with its Windows 10 update, Microsoft has redeveloped its operating system to be responsive to screen size and there’s a few features that – when Windows 10 launches on July 29 – will add some very cool tricks to the Surface Pro 3.
Windows 10 update
There’s several ways in which Windows 10 will improve the Surface Pro 3 experience but a few will fundamentally change the way you use the Surface Pro 3.
Although I’ve not yet installed the Windows 10 Technical Preview on my Surface Pro 3, I have used it in a virtual machine and have experienced the features I’ve described below (all screenshots from Windows 10 in VM).
Some of the new features in Windows that will transform the Surface Pro 3 are:
Apps in Windows: the ability to open apps in individual windows on the desktop.
Action Centre: a new centralised settings shortcut and notifications centre
Start Menu: the start screen is gone and replaced by a new Windows 7-like Start Menu, complete with live tiles.
Tablet Mode: Windows 10 will introduce a tablet mode that replaces the default interface with a touch-friendly interface, designed specifically for touchscreen tablets.
Multiple Desktops: the ability to have multiple desktops on one display, allowing you to split your work-life balance.
Microsoft Edge: Microsoft’s latest browser brings Chrome-like performance and is the complete opposite to Internet Explorer, which has finally been retired.
Cortana: Microsoft’s personal assistant will transform how you use and interact with your tablet by bringing contextual information and voice recognition to your slate.
The Verdict: Can the Surface Pro 3 replace your laptop?
Microsoft’s marketing campaign sought to position the Surface Pro 3 as a device that can replace your laptop, your tablet or both and it somewhat can; in its current state, it’s usable as a laptop and as a tablet but it’s not perfect and the Windows 10 update next month will transform it in a real challenger for Microsoft’s partners and Apple’s Mac and iPad range.
A powerful 2-in-1 that aims to challenge the laptop and tablet markets
The Type Cover and Surface Pen offer useful additional functionality that feels a part of the core Surface Pro 3 experience and I do hope that Microsoft makes the free Type Cover promotion a permanent offer. The performance aspect means you’ll want to buy the highest spec version within your budget and while the limit of 8GB RAM means it won’t be perfect for all users, it can certainly combine your laptop and tablet into one portable yet powerful device.
The Surface Pro 3 is just that; a powerful 2-in-1 that aims to challenge the laptop and tablet markets with its inspired design, powerful specs and impressive software (at least once it gets Windows 10.)