Surface Pro 3 review: Compromises, yes, but in all the right places

Gigaom

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 hit retail stores today so you can try and buy the device. Like the prior Surface models, this one is marketed as a 2-in-1 device. “It’s a tablet that can replace your laptop,” according to the company. That means, as with any other hybrid design, that compromises are made by definition. You can’t turn a car into a truck-like utility vehicle, for example, without compromising on some of the car’s aspects. (Look up the Chevrolet El Camino if you doubt that.)

Yet with Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has turned the compromises between a laptop and a tablet into a strength, finally recognizing its initial vision for the product. Put another way, it has taken user feedback into strong consideration and designed perhaps the best and most powerful hybrid computer to date. I’ve used every Surface and Surface Pro model and so far, Surface Pro 3 is the first one I could see myself using on daily basis.

Trying a trip without bringing a laptop and a separate tablet

In fact, I did just that for several weeks. Typically I use a Chromebook for my computing tasks, or occasionally a MacBook Pro with Retina Display. And my tablet activities are handled by an iPad Air. But I took the plunge and used the Surface Pro 3 as both laptop and tablet. I even used it to travel cross-country and cover Apple’s WWDC event — a trip that would normally see me bring both a tablet and a laptop. Not this time.

On that trip, for example, I watched a high-definition movie during my flight. The 2 hour and 15 minute flick looked great on the 12-inch, 2160 x 1440 resolution display and used up roughly 25 percent of the battery life. With the user-adjustable kickstand, I was able to stand Surface Pro 3 up in various angles throughout the movie. (Yes, I squirm a bunch on six-hour flights.) I played some games and did other things that I’d normally use a tablet for.

When it came time to work, the Surface Pro 3 morphed into laptop mode admirably. I snapped on the new Type Cover keyboard, put the device on my lap in a crowded room and banged out a live blog with no problem. The new Type cover is a big improvement over the prior versions: It has a larger, smoother trackpad and it magnetically adheres to the lower bezel of the Surface Pro 3 screen, bringing much needed stability for use on your lap. This trackpad is the first one on a Surface device that didn’t require me to add a Bluetooth mouse as well. One minor downside with the setup: You lose the ability to do gestures from the bottom bezel and it can be tricky to tap on-screen items near it.

A better display for both modes

About that screen: It too is compromised, because it had to be. One of things I disliked most about every Surface prior to this one was the display design. Until now, Surface computers had widescreen aspect ratios. That’s not bad for a laptop — it’s quite common, actually — but it’s not ideal for a tablet, especially when used in portrait mode. It’s simply too long and awkward — making me feel like as if I was reading my Kindle books on a legal pad notebook. Surface Pro 3 has a larger screen, which is helpful, but it’s also a 3:2 aspect ratio which doesn’t make the device that much bigger than its predecessor.

I’m used to that type of screen ratio because my Chromebook Pixel uses the same 3:2 design. It helps in laptop mode because it provides a taller display, which means less vertical scrolling. And it balances out better in tablet usage as well, both in landscape and portrait modes. If you’re looking solely for a tablet, though, I’m not sure this is the device for you. The Surface Pro 3 is 1.75 pounds; as a tablet, I wouldn’t want to hold and use it for too long. There are many lighter choices available on the market.

A well-designed, peppy PC hiding inside a tablet form

Of course, you’re getting much more than a tablet here; you’re getting a well-designed PC built with premium materials that rival any tablet available today. With the keyboard cover, my review unit is a solid laptop boasting a fast 1.9 GHz Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory and 256 GB of internal flash storage. That’s the $1,299 configuration and the keyboard cover is an extra $130. Like many others, I wish Microsoft would simply include it because most people aren’t going to buy this as a tablet only. While you could pair Surface Pro 3 with a wired or wireless keyboard, the Type Cover completes the “laptop” package better than other options.

That Type Cover also does one more very important thing, by the way. It holds the digital pen that comes with Surface Pro 3. If you’ve never taken digital notes in Microsoft’s One Note app, I think you’re missing out. The app is a decade old but is still among the best for note-taking thanks to its notebook-like interface. Writing with the pen works very well, although digital artists may not like the fact that it only has 256 levels of writing pressure. I’m not one of them and for me, taking notes on Surface Pro 3 was a natural experience.

The pen is also a Bluetooth device, and here’s where it shines: Microsoft integrated the pen buttons to work with One Note and Surface Pro 3 directly. Press the eraser button and Surface Pro 3 wakes from sleep, firing up a blank One Note page. Press the button twice and no matter what app you’re in Surface Pro 3 will let you clip a screen shot, which is saved to One Note. All my notes were quickly synched through the cloud to my other non-Microsoft devices also running One Note.

The “app gap” is less a problem now but there are exceptions

Being a Microsoft device, Surface Pro 3 obviously runs Windows apps. Depending on your needs, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. I can get by with a browser or Chrome OS device for most activities and use tablets or phones for my app addiction. For those who need or want Windows, however, Surface Pro 3 runs it well. You have the traditional desktop and can install nearly any Windows legacy app. You also have the new touch-friendly “metro” mode, which is mostly what I used.

I still find the occasional tablet app I use on iOS or Android not available for Windows. But those are farther and fewer between. The “app gap” Microsoft first faced with the initial Surface products is largely gone. And in most cases when I couldn’t find an app I wanted or needed, I was able to use the browser. You won’t find an Amazon Instant Video app, for example, but that’s OK: Watching Amazon’s media content works just fine in the browser. And because this is a PC, you can use Amazon’s Unbox app to download high-definition content from its store for offline playback — which isn’t possible on traditional mobile tablets.

Some app limitations frustrated me, though. Microsoft’s Calendar app is well-designed and easy to use. But it doesn’t play nice with my Google calendar — a problem for me because we’re a Google Apps shop at work and I use Google for personal use as well. I had to find a third-party calendar workaround as a result. Internet Explorer doesn’t work well with Google+, either; tapping the Notification icon with a finger often does nothing while tapping it with the pen does work. But these are issues specific to my needs. If you don’t use Google Calendar or Google+, they’re obviously a non-issue.

Impressive even with compromises

All in all, then, I’m impressed with Surface Pro 3. When I’ve needed a device for lean back type tablet activities — watching movies, playing games and web surfing — it worked well as long as I didn’t have to hold it for more than an hour or so. The kickstand helps here for landscape tablet mode. When it was time for more serious activities — long-form writing and web research — it was a laptop I could use practically anywhere for hours. Microsoft says the battery should last up to 9 hours; I generally got between 7.5 and 8 hours when using the device mainly as a laptop.

Closing the loop, is the Surface Pro 3 filled with compromises? Absolutely, as any device that tries to fill two very different needs would be. I’d say Microsoft has balanced those compromises very well, however. I don’t think the device could be much lighter and thinner — it measures in at 0.36 inches — and still contain all of the hardware inside that makes it a powerful PC, for example. You certainly trade some stability from a traditional laptop but the newly designed keyboard minimizes that issue.

Has Microsoft finally delivered “a tablet that can replace your laptop”?

If you want or need to run Windows and don’t mind using a browser the occasionally impossible-to-find app, I’d say yes, provided you splurge for the new Type Cover as well. The $999 model with the same Core i5 but half the memory and storage as my review unit can save you a little money. If you’re the type of person who is satisfied using a tablet far more than a full laptop these days, you can save a bunch of money and skip the Surface Pro 3 entirely.

I don’t particularly need Windows for what I do. But if I did, I’d be happy buying a Surface Pro 3 and carrying one device around instead of two. If you buy in to that approach — and that may take some hands-on convincing for many — Surface Pro 3 is well worth the look.

This post was updated at 5:33pm to correct the internal storage capacity of the review unit, which is 256 GB, not 128 GB.

Image copyright Microsoft.

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