Evolution is a slow process, but after two generations Microsoft’s hybrid tablet is becoming a distinguished creature indeed. The Surface Pro 3 brings a high-DPI display that’s swelled to near-A4 size; the magnesium-alloy chassis is thinner and lighter; and numerous design tweaks have improved usability. Microsoft calls it “the tablet that can replace your laptop”, and it may not be far off.
The Surface Pro 3 makes a great first impression. Where the all-black exterior of the previous generation conveyed a certain moodiness, the clean design of this version is inviting and approachable. Light-grey metal reaches all around the back and along the tapered edges, and a slight sparkle shimmers under the matte finish. Although the Surface Pro 3 is wider and taller than the previous model, Microsoft has managed to make it not only thinner but lighter too: the chassis now measures a dainty 9.1mm thick and weighs 800g.
The 12in, 2,160 x 1,440 screen (protected by a glossy panel of Gorilla Glass 3) is a big step up from the 10.6in Full HD panels of previous Pro generations. It isn’t only bigger, it’s a different shape, forsaking the widescreen 16:9 format in favour of a 3:2 ratio. That may not sound like a major change, but the ergonomic impact is huge. In laptop mode, the extra height makes the Windows desktop feel gloriously spacious; in tablet mode, your workspace becomes comfortably book-shaped. No matter how you use the Surface Pro 3, it’s a more natural fit than previous models.
Kickstand and Type Cover
One major shortcoming of the original Surface Pro was its fixed-position kickstand. The Surface Pro 2 partially remedied this with a dual-position stand; now, at last, the Surface Pro 3 brings a properly hinged stand that’s smoothly adjustable through 150 solid-feeling degrees. It’s such a simple and obvious fix that we wonder why Microsoft didn’t do it this way in the first place.
The upgraded stand allows the Surface Pro 3 to work in a variety of positions. With the Type Cover attached, the Surface Pro 3 can be propped up on your lap or desk, just like a regular laptop. Unclip the keyboard and fold the stand right back, and using the onscreen keyboard – previously an exercise in slip-slide futility – becomes a viable and even comfortable option.
That Type Cover, incidentally, has grown to match the Surface Pro 3’s expanded dimensions. It now weighs 300g and measures 5mm thick. As before, it clips securely to the magnetic strip along the tablet’s bottom edge, drawing power via the docking connector, and folds up over the tablet’s display to keep it safe from harm when not in use. The keyboard itself is comfortably sized, with a wide, squat touchpad positioned underneath, and backlighting that’s adjustable through three brightness settings. One minor addition is a stick-on loop of elasticated fabric, which holds the Surface Pen in place.
The Type Cover’s big new trick is a small hinged section, just above the keyboard’s function keys, which folds backwards and affixes magnetically to the tablet’s lower bezel, raising the rear of the Type Cover by a couple of centimetres. The effect is to angle the keys into a far more comfortable typing position – addressing the major shortcoming of previous Type Cover designs. It also reduces the Type Cover’s tendency to rock from side to side when used on a lap, which was one of our biggest irritations with the previous iteration.
It isn’t a perfect solution, however. Since there’s no support beneath the angled Type Cover, there’s inevitably some give beneath your fingers – it feels a bit like typing on a shoebox. And since the raised Type Cover entirely covers the lower bezel, it becomes difficult to accurately press items along the taskbar.
The new design has also necessitated the removal of the capacitive Windows button to the right-hand side of the surround. This makes it easy to press accidentally when performing edge-swipes, or when holding the tablet in landscape orientation.
Features and connectivity
The Surface Pro 3’s power connector has been redesigned, from the press-on design of old to a neater, spade-like connector that’s less prone to being yanked or knocked out. As a result, the Surface Pen no longer latches into the power socket: instead, hidden magnets hold it against the tablet’s edge when it isn’t being charged.
Connectivity, meanwhile, hasn’t changed a jot. Despite its expanded frame, the Surface Pro 3 still makes do with a single USB 3 port, mini-DisplayPort video output, a 3.5mm headset jack and a microSD slot. For a device that aspires to replace your laptop, that’s a pretty limited selection. The presence of dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 sweeten the deal, but we suspect that the forthcoming docking station will be essential for any serious desk-based use.
Similarly, the pair of 5-megapixel front and rear cameras are no more inspiring than those of the Surface Pro 2: smeary compression artefacts and mediocre detail are the order of the day. The speakers at least are an improvement. These are now positioned at either side of the display and provide crisp, detailed audio. They’re also a good deal louder than the meek drivers in the Surface Pro 2, although still not as good as those of the best tablets out there – to our ears, the Apple iPad Air gives a more full-bodied performance.
The Surface Pro stylus has undergone a transformation. The passive Wacom stylus of old has been replaced by an active – that is, battery-powered – model from Wacom’s arch-rival, N-trig.
On paper, this may look like a downgrade, since the N-trig stylus recognises only 256 pressure levels, versus the 1,024 levels of the previous stylus. In use, however, it’s indisputably an improvement. The thinner stack height of the LCD and N-trig digitiser shortens the distance between the pen nib and display, making for a more natural, paper-like feel – onscreen ink no longer appears to sit a millimetre or so beneath the pen tip. Microsoft also claims to have improved accuracy and reduced latency, and the new Pen did indeed remain accurate around the screen’s edges, where the old Wacom model tended to drift out of whack.
It sits more pleasantly in the hand, too. The battery inside lends pleasing heft, and the matte metal finish is grippier than the plastic of the previous iteration. A new button layout sees two mode buttons along the Pen’s shaft that provide Erase and Select functions, while a tap of the top button instantly opens OneNote – even if the tablet is in standby – and a double-tap activates OneNote’s screengrab tool. We didn’t enjoy having to spin the original Surface Pro Pen around to erase items, so the new arrangement gets a definite thumbs up.
There are issues, however.
The pressure required for pen strokes to register is a little heavier than we found entirely natural; from time to time we had to stop and rewrite words or repeat strokes. Palm detection isn’t perfect either: lifting the pen from the screen, mid-flow, occasionally left unwanted marks. Hopefully such niggles can be addressed swiftly through software updates – or, ideally, a control panel to enable the user to adjust the Pen’s sensitivity and button configurations to suit. With that sort of configurability, the Surface Pen would make an exceptional input device.
The Surface Pro 3’s display delivers excellent image quality. Colours are vivid and rich, and while brightness and contrast are a little down on the outgoing models (we measured a maximum brightness of 325cd/m2 and a modest contrast ratio of 789:1), colour accuracy is excellent. With our X-Rite i1Display Pro colorimeter, we measured an average Delta E of 1.77 – as close to perfect as we’ve seen from a recent laptop or tablet.
The panel is also able to reproduce an exceptional range of colour: we measured it as covering 96.2% of the sRGB colour gamut. Sadly, Microsoft’s screen calibration is some way off for darker tones, with deep greyscales blending into black.
The Surface Pro 3’s 216ppi pixel density isn’t visibly sharper than the 208ppi of the original Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 – the higher resolution comes, after all, with a larger screen. Text is still razor-sharp, though, and photos teem with fine detail. Microsoft ships the Surface Pro 3 with Windows 8.1’s scaling settings at 150% by default; you can switch to 100% and gain a bit more space for applications such as Photoshop or Sony Vegas Pro, but be warned that this makes buttons and icons shrink to fiddly proportions.
Pricing, specifications and testing
The Surface Pro 3 comes in numerous specifications. You can choose from Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, with solid-state drive (SSD) capacities from 64GB right up to 512GB. Pricing varies dramatically as a result, with the entry-level coming in at a very tempting $979. We’d recommend you avoid this one, however: its Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM may do everything you need, but a 64GB SSD is too tiny these days.
A better bet is the $1209 model, which gets you a Core i5, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD; ideally we’d pick the 256GB model, which also doubles the RAM, at $1549. For top performance, you’ll have to dig deep: both Core i7 models come with 8GB of RAM, with 256GB or 512GB SSD options at $1829 and $2279 respectively. Note that these prices don’t include the Type Cover 2, which adds another $149.
We tested the $1209 model, with a 1.9GHz Core i5-4300U, 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 128GB Samsung PM851 mSATA SSD. Its score of 0.62 in our benchmarks indicates power enough for everyday applications, but no more than the Surface Pro 2, which scored 0.61 with a 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U CPU at the helm.
The explanation isn’t hard to find. Under heavy load, we noted that the Surface Pro 3 quickly grew hot to the touch – causing the CPU to automatically dial back its Turbo Boost frequency from 2.6GHz down to 2GHz. Evidently the Surface Pro 3’s tiny fans can’t dissipate enough heat to sustain the highest Turbo Boost frequencies for long.
On the upside, the Surface Pro 3’s battery life strides past its predecessors. With the screen dimmed to 75cd/m2 and Wi-Fi switched off, our light-use test saw the Surface Pro 3 survive a very creditable 10hrs 33mins. We had no problem getting through a full working day of word processing, accessing email and watching videos on YouTube.
The Surface Pro 3 represents a confident step towards the perfect hybrid device. The new 3:2 display, in combination with the lighter chassis, makes it a far more agreeable tablet than its predecessors, while the new kickstand and Type Cover make it a more convincing alternative to a regular laptop. While it isn’t perfect in every scenario, it feels like less of a compromise than previous generations.
Where the Surface Pro 3 stumbles is pricing. Although the low-end models look like great value, we’d hesitate to recommend anything less than a 256GB SSD for serious use – and while it’s possible to add extra capacity via a microSD card, this is normally excruciatingly slow compared to real SSD storage.
You also need to factor in Microsoft’s tight-fisted decision not to include the Type Cover 2 in the base price. Unless you want to miss out on the whole point of most effectively the Surface Pro 3.
At the end of the day, the Surface Pro 3 is a terrific Windows tablet that does a passable impression of a laptop, and if that balance suits your needs, then the cost may be well worth it. But if all you really want is a regular laptop, then, with deference to Microsoft’s marketing claims, you should probably save your money and buy a regular laptop. That doesn’t mean the Surface Pro 3 is a failure, though: on the contrary, it’s a persuasive implementation of the convertible concept.
If things carry on like this, the Surface Pro 4 really could be the tablet that finally consigns our laptops to the scrapheap.
Getting better with every new generation.
Features & Design:
Value for Money: