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What tablets should be: Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 1:58 pm 28/08/2014

Microsoft’s Surface machines have always been made to highlight the best experience Windows 8 could bring, and in the Surface Pro 3, the company is improving both the design and spec to make a true Ultrabook competitor. Is the third time really the charm?

Features

The third generation of the Surface Pro 3 takes what was familiar from the second generation, flattens it slightly, and brings it to a bigger screen, making it closer to an Ultrabook than previous models.

The most obvious change is the touchscreen, which leaps from a 10.6 inch 1920×1080 screen on the 16:9 aspect ratio to a larger 12 inch screen running the higher resolution of 2160×1440 on the 3:2 aspect ratio, the same aspect ratio relied on by 35mm cameras.

A bigger screen and a slightly different aspect ratio means you’ll get more screen real estate to work with, and these numbers all translate to a close-to-Retina value of 216 pixels per inch for the screen clarity (Apple’s 13 inch MacBook Pro comes in at 221ppi).

Underneath this is all the technology, and in the Surface Pro 3, that means a few configurations can be selected.

At the bottom end of the scale, is one with Intel’s Core i3 processor, working alongside 64GB storage and 4GB RAM, with a Core i5 with 128GB storage and 4GB RAM also being provided as a second option.

Up from there, you’ll find an Intel Core i5 paired with 256GB storage, or a Core i7 working alongside variants with either 256GB or 512GB storage. Both the 256 and 512GB variants rely on 8GB RAM.

The review model was an Intel Core i5 model working with 256GB storage and 8GB RAM.

Chips, storage, and memory are all important, and Windows 8.1 is installed here out of the box, but so are other bits and pieces, and you’ll find plenty of those in the Surface Pro 3, too.

As such, connectivity is catered for on wireless with 802.11a/b/g/n and 802.11ac, with Bluetooth 4.0 LE also provided here, while wired ports are handled through the standard 3.5mm headset jack, USB 3.0 port, and a Mini DisplayPort. A microSD slot is also provided, under the flap for the kickstand, with Microsoft’s proprietary magnetic Cover port sitting on the bottom edge.

The cameras have received an update, great if you plan on using video conferencing apps or taking pictures with your tablet, with the 720p cameras jumping to 5 megapixel on each side.

The speaker is hard to see, but there in that little recess.

The stereo speakers are also apparently louder, and the kickstand has been changed drastically, no longer supporting merely two positions and being tightened for all manner of positions.

The casing for the Surface Pro 3 is still made of magnesium, with VaporMg still the metal of choice, this time in a lighter grey and matching the look of the Windows RT powered Surface.

Also changed are the dimensions and weight, with 800 grams of power compared to the Surface Pro 2’s 900 grams, with the thickness dropping from 13.4mm to 9.1mm.

Performance

A new year and a new model, and while Intel’s chips are on the verge of being replaced (likely at the end of the year), Microsoft is making good use of the current fourth-generation of Intel Core processors to reinvent its Surface Pro computer.

This reinvention comes at the cost of size, as Microsoft moves past the 10 inch tablet size to come up with a 12 inch tablet that can take on the laptops like the Apple MacBook Air, which actually have a similar thickness going for them.

For this generation, the colours have also shifted, with dark grey being lightened up quite a bit, and a better screen also being thrown in, too.

Looking at the Surface Pro 3, it’s clear the design is still Microsoft’s, with the slanted edges, solid metal body, and a feel of something premium. This isn’t your standard plastic tab, as this oozes professionalism and strength, something few tablets beyond that of the iPad offer.

The feel is equally strong, part and parcel of the magnesium used in its construction, which is light enough to the touch, but still offers the strength of metal, with a body that refuses to buckle as you apply pressure across its surface, excuse the pun.

Let’s talk the changes, because while the size is the most noticeable one, the modified stand is, excuse the pun, the real stand out. Ahem.

Rather than rely on two click settings in the Surface 2, up from one in the original Surface, the Pro 3 relies instead on a tightened hinge which has no settings and nothing for the stand to click into on the part of the Surface tablet.

It is just tight — really tight — a fact you’ll feel as you pull the kick stand out from the back of the Surface tablet into which ever position you prefer.

This an excellent stand, one that doesn’t impose any particular position on you, not like some of the hybrid tablets we’ve seen in recent years, and that’s good news for people who never really know how they’re going to be working and love versatility.

Also on the versatile side is the screen which is bright, clear, and easy to view from most angles. There’s a small amount of colour wash-out at extreme vertical angles, but it’s not enough to bother us, especially when you realise that you shouldn’t be using a computer from these positions.

Close to Apple’s Retina is certainly close enough for us, and we were happy using such a high resolution screen in a small size.

With both a fantastic screen and a highly adaptable stand, you can actually use the Surface Pro 3 in all manner of working conditions, from the cramped impromptu workspace that is a bus to your soft and cosy bed, and even — if you so choose — on that big sprawling work desk you can’t escape from.

Microsoft even provides a dock for that last one, which allows you to keep your TypeCover keyboard connected, plugging in what essentially amounts to a port replicator in from the back, with 4K output possible from this gadget.

We haven’t been able to play with that yet since it wasn’t available at the time of review, but we have managed to play with another accessory, and it’s one you’ll need if you want to get some serious productivity going, and that’s the keyboard.

The Surface Pro 3 on the left, the Surface Pro 2 on the right, both equipped with Type Cover keyboards.

In the original Surface Pro machines, the keyboard was already a big deal, and you had two options: the Touch Cover and the Type Cover

The Touch Cover was essentially a touch-sensitive keyboard with no tactile buttons and only the sounds of tapping being made from the computer, while the Touch Cover let your fingers dance and tread on a shallow keyboard that provided just enough traction to be comfortable and still provide island-style keys.

We probably don’t have to tell you which of the two was more popular with Surface users (but if we do, it’s the Type Cover), and in the third incarnation of the Surface Pro, Microsoft has found a few ways to make the new keyboard even better.

For starters, it’s a little bigger. Not the keyboard itself, mind you, just the cover, with the keys and keyboard width and length still the same. That’s fine, because Microsoft had that nailed last time, anyway.

Now, though, it has improved the keyboard substantially by providing two ways to type here, both flat (top in the photo above) and now elevated and at an angle (below), as the magnet at the back of the TypeCover can mount directly to the bottom bezel of the Surface Pro 3 screen, all at once raising the key slope and cutting the screen off exactly at the keyboard level.

An improved mouse is also here, and for many, that was the weak point of the previous Type Covers, with a touchpad built into the fabric of the previous keyboard.

That has gone this time, thankfully, and been replaced with a proper button-based trackpad, with the entire surface acting as a button similar to Apple’s (and Samsung’s) trackpad designs.

In use, it is excellent, and provides a worthy inclusion for people who don’t necessarily want to use their fingers or the included stylus to operate the Surface Pro 3, with a more common and sometimes easier to recall method of interacting with their computer.

Indeed, with both your finger operating the touchscreen for Windows 8.1 and the trackpad at your disposal on the TypeCover, this is like having a great ultra-light notebook, albeit one in a metal body weighing 800 grams.

Over to the performance, and this should be pretty much bang on what you’ll expect out of a machine set out with an Intel Core processor running Windows 8. In our review unit, the supply of 256GB storage and 8GB RAM was a perfect match for the fourth-generation Core i5 “Haswell” chip, though if you prefer, a 512GB model can also be found at the ready.

That compliment of storage, memory, and processor power made it one of the most capable of light laptops, competing directly with pretty much everything touting the Intel Ultrabook specification, and handling the same sort of fare.

This makes it ideal for the obvious array of actual work activities, with writing documents, working on spreadsheets, emails, web surfing, social networking, and the odd basic game or two, but because there’s more to a content creation and productivity device than this, we installed a few more things.

For instance, we threw on Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which let us use the combination of input controllers — finger for touch, trackpad on the TypeCover, and stylus with buttons — in Adobe Photoshop for photo editing and RAW processing (yup), InDesign for working with publications, and Audition for letting us play with audio files directly. While the 256GB amount of storage isn’t a huge amount for video, we’re sure we could probably manage a few video projects this way, if we really wanted to.

Valve’s online gaming system that is Steam also had some play on the Surface Pro 3 for us, and while this is by no means a gaming machine — no Ultrabook-styled machine is, for that matter — you can get some gaming done here. Not much, we’ll be honest, with the titles sitting on the lighter end of the scale.

Don’t approach the Surface Pro 3 if 3D gaming is high on the agenda, because it won’t happen.

Shadowrun’s limited 3D engine still looked excellent on the 2160×1440 screen, but it’s a top-down isometric 3D title, so isn’t going to succumb to the high frame-rate requirements of a 3D first-person shooter, which isn’t going to be handled by this machine. Sorry, the included Intel graphics just aren’t going to cut it for running full-screen on this sort of resolution.

But if you’re a gamer of the retro style, especially with so many pixel-art games on the resurgence, you’ll be fine here, provided you don’t plan on gaming for too long far from a wall socket.

The charge ports are very different in the Surface Pro 3 (top) compared to the Surface Pro 2 (bottom).

As you can probably imaging, gaming also impacts battery life pretty dramatically, dropping full charge to no charge in around one to two hours, depending on the severity of processor power.

Without gaming, the Surface Pro 3 manages, though isn’t the best around, with five-ish hours, pulling in a little more if you decide to pretty much leave the Surface Pro 3 a WiFi connected web surfing writing machine. With the functions stripped back, you can get six hours, but we’d stick it closer to five across the board from a full charge.

That’s not a huge change from the Surface Pro 2, which managed around 6 hours itself, although generally hit 4 to 5 if you were using it more frequently (which we found out months after the review). We suspect this is because of the bigger screen and thinner design, both of which would impact the battery life considerably, especially since outside of a few slight revisions, the Intel processors used in both the Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro 3 would be close.

For many, five to six hours should be plenty, though we’d like to see a little more juice out of the Surface Pro 3. If you switch WiFi off, we suspect you might be able to squeeze a little more out, but ultimately, a Surface Pro 3 version of the Microsoft Power Cover would help this a long way.

Beyond the regular performance, some of the other touches are welcome, as they make the Surface Pro 3 really stand out.

New power plug (top) trumps the old power plug (bottom).

One is the proprietary charger, which is different from the last generation and easy to use thanks to the thin plastic cable being drawn in and held in place with magnets. This is better than the previous generation which also used magnets, but over time would wear away at the paint job and not always clip in place properly.

The charger also still has a USB port on the brick, which is still a fantastic inclusion if you head on a trip somewhere, making it easy to charge your phone from without needing to bring with a separate charger.

Microsoft’s updated stylus is also weighted better, features easier to locate buttons, and now made from a premium material — metal — which helps to make it feel more like a pen.

We’re also fans of the OneNote purple button on the end of the pen, which like a pen clicker, allows you to press it to start up OneNote from any screen — working or locked and in standby mode — and get straight into taking notes

If anything, taking digital notes will feel completely fluid for people, and while it’s not quite as fast as using a pen and paper, the Surface Pro 3 isn’t far off, and for this reviewer highlighted just how poor his handwriting had become while his typing speed had increased.

A magnet on the right side of the computer is also a welcome touch, great when the power cable isn’t plugged in for snapping the stylus to the side of the computer.

This might not mean much to you, but previous Surface users had this option, with the Surface Pro’s stylus snapping in thanks to its use of the shared power connector recess. With a different power connector, the stylus doesn’t have this option anymore, but thanks to a magnet can still sit in this spot.

There’s even a loop include with the new keyboard, which is a little fabric piece to attach to your keyboard to keep the pen nearby.

Even the sound has been improved, which is now loud enough out of the tiny front-facing speakers to enjoy a small movie by yourself without plugging a pair of headphones in.

Overall, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is a very well thought out device totally made for productivity, and while no machine is perfect, Microsoft’s third try at the Surface manages as close as can be, marrying a brilliant blend of excellent design, solid component choice, and an understanding that tablets should be more than just about content consumption, with creation on the agenda, also.

With that, our only complaints from the Surface Pro 3 stem from the few ports on offer, the lack of an included keyboard and a bug which continues to plague the Surface Pro machines.

We’ll tackle them one by one because that really is the order of importance here, and the omission of ports, or rather, the missing standard two USB ports that most small laptops offer.

It’s true that Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 does use a different design and a different screen from its Surface Pro 2 brother, but the port selection may as well be the same, and if you struggled with the few expansion options from that machine, you’ll struggle here, too.

There is, just like on that computer, a single USB 3.0 port and a single DisplayPort for you to work with, as well as the microSD card slot for expanding the storage, but that’s it. Not two USB ports like most computers, and no HDMI port, with video handled through DisplayPort.

Will most people have a problem with this?

Probably not, and in fairness to Microsoft, the Surface Pro 3 is designed around the logic of being a totally mobile productivity station, but if you say wanted to plug in both an external hard drive and a CompactFlash or SD card reader at the same time, you’re out of luck unless you have a USB hub laying around.

The microSD slot is still here. Yay upgradeable memory!

Also missing in action is the keyboard, because rather than include the keyboard inside the box, the improved Type Cover is still an optional extra, even though we’re pretty sure most people would prefer Microsoft to just flat out bundle this in since you’ll want it to be, you know, uber-productive.

You can still use the old Type Cover keyboard with the Surface Pro 3 if you would like to, a move which could help to save some money (even if it does bring a less impressive experience), but it will not cover the Surface Pro 3 up when closed the way it did the Surface Pro 1 or 2, thanks to the 3’s larger screen size.

If you so choose, you can even mount the old Surface Type Cover to the Surface Pro 3. We wouldn't, but you can.

Basically, if you’re going with the Pro 3 and are anticipating doing some typing, expect to fork out another $149 for the Type Cover for that, factoring that into the overall cost. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not much, especially since you’re likely already paying so much for the Surface in the first place.

That said, we’ll be curious to see how long the new Type Cover keyboard lasts for. On the Surface Pro 2 in the past not-quite-year, we’ve written half a book and countless reviews, among the hundreds of emails and notes we’ve taken, and only in the past few weeks has it begun to feel like it is wearing away, with some of the keys deciding not to work.

Time will tell if the same will happen to the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover, and we’ll let you know when it does.

Using the Surface Pro 2 Type Cover looks silly when closed, but it does work.

Our other quibble is one we hope you never encounter, because it’s a bug that can seriously leave you unnerved and concerned for your device and data contained inside: the Microsoft Surface power bug.

Apparently, the Surface Pro has a few different power states, and every so often when it goes to standby and needs to be revived later on, it doesn’t quite make it out of its deep sleep mode. When this happens, you’ll find the power button doesn’t do much, leaving the system off and unpowered, even if there is plenty of battery life, as we experienced once during the review period. It doesn’t matter what you do either; you’ll frantically hold down the power button, stop, try again, stop, try again, and hope that it does, yes, this time, return to life.

For the most part, the solution came from a bit of web searching and some playing around with standard tablet reset keys, with the answer presenting itself by removing the Type Cover keyboard and holding the volume rocker in the up position while holding the power down for between 12 and 15 seconds.

At last, the screen flickered to life, the Surface logo re-appearing and hope returning to our tablet.

As we said, we hope this doesn’t happen to you, and the fact that few reviews have had this listed tells us it’s a rare bug, but it’s one of those bugs that really does need to be patched up later on, so Microsoft, when you’re ready, please release a patch for this heart-stopping one.

Size differences.

Conclusion

Whenever a manufacturer releases a third product in a series, reviewers like to use the term “third time lucky” or “third time the charm,” and why not? This is a phrase that everyone uses, as it usually describes that third time being the time when all the bugs, or the important problems having been ironed out.

We even said it in the intro to this review, but Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 doesn’t necessarily deserve that intro, nor does “third time lucky” need to be mentioned.

The simple fact was in the Surface Pro 2, Microsoft made huge improvements to the Surface Pro base, resulting in a solid portable 10 inch tablet made for more than just watching movies.

In its latest incarnation, one of the best 10 inch tablets is now one of the best tablets hands down, and Microsoft’s third Surface Pro is easily one of the company’s best products to date, with attention paid to pretty much all aspects, and an improvement across the board.

We're not kidding about the Surface Pro 3 being thinner. Surface Pro 3 on the left, Surface Pro 2 on the right.

Windows is easy to use here, the hardware is great, and overall, it feels like you can get some work done. You can also stop doing work and watch movies or play some games, and while the Windows Store could still do with some games made for that not-quite-Metro interface, there are plenty of other games you can download.

But it’s an excellent computer, and that’s all there is to it.

Thinner, lighter, well-built, and made to work: this is what tablets of the future should all be like.

Good luck getting me to stop using it.

Price (RRP)

$979 (starting from): Core i3 with 64GB ($979), Core i5 with 128GB ($1209), Core i5 with 256GB ($1549), Core i7 with 256GB ($1829), Core i7 with 512GB ($2279);

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Stylus included in the box; Fantastic screen; Excellent build; The stand is incredibly tight and very versatile; Improved power connector; Louder sound; New TypeCover keyboard is even better than before; Power supply still includes an extra USB port for charging that phone of yours;

Product Cons

Still very few ports available on the unit; No keyboard included in the box;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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