We had high praise for Microsoft’s third Surface tablet to run Windows 8 back in August of last year, when we declared “this was what tablets should be”. Six months on, is it still what tablets should be?
Heralded as one of the best gadgets for productivity, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 has proven to gadget freaks and regular folk that the company has what it takes to produce a solid tablet aimed at more than just watching TV shows, movies, and playing games.
It impressed us when it landed on our desk last August, so much that we gave it just a hair under five stars (4.5), thanks to all the attention paid to its design, performance, and usage scenarios. It was Microsoft’s best look at Windows 8, and even though Windows 8 hasn’t been quite the winner Microsoft had hoped, its Surface Pro 3 demonstrated that Windows 8 could be an excellent choice when it came to making and creating things on the go in a tablet form.
For the past few years, tablets have predominantly been about content consumption, and that is why many have labelled the tablet a “content consumption device”. You could make them a “content creation device” if you wanted — with keyboard accessories, digital pens, and various applications — but you weren’t necessarily getting the full experience that a computer could offer. That is, you weren’t using a computer, but rather a touchscreen slate designed to fill that middle gap.
We need to stress this, though: you can get any tablet to be a content creation tool. The Apple iPad and its plethora of apps and accessories have certainly shown that this is possible, we know numerous writers, reporters, office workers, and regular folk using it as such (hey, we’ve even written a book on an iPad). It’s just that you have to rely on the apps that exist to service your needs, or have one created for you.
That’s not for all people, and if you presently rely on a Windows app to do your bidding, a Windows slate — one running the full version of Windows — might be just what the doctor ordered.
Since the release of Windows 8, we’ve seen a few companies attempt this, and many have gotten close, but the one that keeps pushing the curve for making Windows perform better is Microsoft.
And that makes sense: Microsoft created Windows 8, so surely it knows the best way to make Windows work on a tablet.
Microsoft’s tablets are part of its “Surface” branding, and we’ve checked out the “Pro” line-up — that is the ones that come with the full version of Windows you’re used to using that can run the Windows 7 apps you might have, as well — since they were first released, with the Surface Pro reviewed in 2013, and the Surface Pro 2 reviewed back in early 2014.
But while those two got close, the Surface Pro 3 nailed the formula, and really made the tablet something we thought we could use long term.
Six months on, is that the case?
Yes and no.
First off, we need to say that aspects of this tablet we still love. For starters, we still love the weight and how easy it is to hold.
We still love knowing that it’s there ready to go when we take it out of our backpack, and it still grabs attention when we use it, and people see that this is a keyboard equipped ultra-thin gadget with a bloody bright screen in front of us when we need it.
The magnets that hold the keyboard are still strong, as are the magnets that hold the proprietary power port, and this is still just as strong a connection as we’ve seen in the past. We’ve heard stories of the Surface Pro 2’s magnetic adaptor running into issues and not quite clicking into place, and this is certainly not the case with the Surface Pro 3.
We’re also still big fans of the stand joint and its ability to pretty much work at any angle we want to use the tablet at.
It’s a little loose at one end of the spectrum, but not overly so, and the ability to use the Surface Pro 3 in pretty much any position and on any surface — excuse the play on words — makes this a delight to keep with you, and then to take out and get working.
The pen still grabs us, too, and it has become one of the most necessary things for us when it comes to Photoshop work on the fly, because while the touchpad built into the keyboard is usable, Photoshop and other creative tools are much more usable when the stylus is employed, and we can hold the spacebar down and use the stylus to move around an image with ease.
But if we could point out things that are obviously having issues on the Surface Pro 3 six months on, there would be two very noticeable aspects that are hard to get past, and they’re the sort of things you only start to notice about three or four months in: patches and keyboard issues.
So let’s start with that first one.
Every Windows user knows that one of the biggest banes of their existence is the patch. With computer software — any software, no one is exempt — comes bugs and holes, and with bugs and holes comes patches, as the company that creates the software tries to fix any issues that might pop up. Generally, as one patch fixes a bunch of bugs or holes, it introduces another set, and the logic continues that you’ll be getting patches until you decide to never use a computer again.
It is what it is, and nothing is ever perfect.
But Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 might have received the worst sort of patches we’ve seen, with the skill to dent your productivity and just leave you with hours of frustration.
We’re not quite sure what patch brought it in, but at one point several months ago, the touchscreen stopped working properly.
You would swipe up to unlock the computer and while you would be swiping from bottom to top, the unlock would only go half way. So you’d try again, and again, and again, and that screen that you would try to get to — the one where you type in your password or PIN — would never show, because the image screen you’re supposed to swipe up at just wouldn’t get out of its way.
We eventually found we could touch the keyboard instead or use the included Surface stylus to make the system do what we want, but we shouldn’t have to, and the touchscreen should just work, like on day one, and day two, and on day 120, even though it wasn’t working as well here as it should have been.
The touchscreen failures would continue, though, and your fingers would lose connectivity for the Windows 8 swiping gestures, refusing to pull up the charms or letting you jump quickly between apps. Again, the Microsoft stylus would often save us, but if you don’t want to use the pen all the time, you shouldn’t have to, and we started to wonder what was causing this.
Was the touchscreen losing calibration, was the hardware failing, or was it something else altogether?
We tried the first one, recalibrating several times over the course of a week, and found that this wasn’t making much of a dent. We considered the hardware, but doubted it based on what we were experiencing, bringing the likely culprit to something else altogether.
Some of the screen’s drivers would actually appear to stop working properly as we were touching the screen, and we could see proof of this as we were using the Surface, evident from the soft circle seen in the above screenshot.
That’s our finger touching the screen, and to make matters worse, we could reposition the touch mark or remove it easily. Swiping it out of position wouldn’t always work, and often it would stay on the screen as we worked using the mouse.
Eventually it would go, and our fingers could go back to work, but this issue told us there was a driver failing, likely from a patch that had been rolled out over time.
As we’ve mentioned before, the pen would usually get us through this, and if not the pen, the touchpad mouse, but these should not be happening, and one of the world’s best productivity devices should have better patches than what we were seeing.
Beyond the software bugs, six months on, we’ve found that the keyboard can be a little frustrating.
While we still love how thin it is, and how it still provides just enough travel to get work done, we’re not impressed that it needs to be replaced about a couple hundred thousand words in.
You might say “if you’re writing that much on your computer, you deserve to replace the keyboard”, but the serious side of this is most laptops can take a lot more than what the Microsoft TypeCover can, and if you’re a writer and the Surface Pro 3 is your dedicated machine, you’ll need to replace it after a good four or five months of writing.
How do we know?
At around 10,000 words away from one of this writer’s books being completed (none published yet), the “R” key started playing up, and when we say “playing up” we actually mean “stopped working”.
Words that used that letter would miss it most of the time, unless we double-typed the letter or struck the key remarkably hard.
It was frustrating, that much we could tell you, and we encountered a similar problem with the Surface Pro 2 last year, but stopped using that computer for writing the moment it popped up. This time, we kept on with it, and found the problem persisted until the keyboard was replaced.
Now with a new keyboard, the “R” key — and every other key for that matter — is running perfectly, but that brings us to one specific point: the keyboard for the Surface Pro 3 is optional and extra, with a price tag of around $150. For that sort of money, the keyboard should last longer, especially since most laptop keyboards will.
Granted, the Surface Pro 3 isn’t a dedicated laptop, but the very fact that it is pushed like a laptop replacement — basically a tablet that can do it all and then some — should mean the keyboard would handle excessive typing better than what we’re currently seeing.
We’re still using the Surface Pro 3, that said, and it is one of our favourite machines to use. In fact, in the past week since we started writing this piece, the touchscreen has started to become more responsive, almost back to the days when we first started using it.
Perhaps a new patch has been rolled out that addresses our concerns. We sure hope so, and maybe six months on, Microsoft’s team of programmers are beginning to work out how to restore this excellent machine to greatness.
But these sorts of bugs should be more rigorously tested, ironed out, and barely visible, and we know we’re not the only ones crying out for patches and updates that work, and for a keyboard that survives longer, because it’s this sort of experience that could cause Microsoft to lose customers to other computer manufacturers long term.
Ultimately, when the Surface Pro 4 rolls around — we’re guessing October for Windows 10 — Microsoft really needs to nail some of these kinks, because while we still love the Surface and what it means for our productivity, the frustration some of these issues create could make a Surface owner think of switching when they rear their ugly head.