For an hour last week, Microsoft’s head of Surface, Panos Panay, spent an hour trying to persuade an audience of tech journalists and analysts that, finally, Microsoft built your dream device: the Surface Pro 3.
It’s a full PC when you need to get work done and a tablet when you want to do casual stuff like browse the web or play a game. Why buy a $US1,000 laptop and a $US500 tablet when one device can do it all for a little over $US900? After all, over 90% of tablet owners still use a laptop.
Plus it’s lighter and thinner than the MacBook Air, all while boasting comparable or better specs. There’s a brilliant 12-inch touchscreen. A silent fan. A pen for doodling and taking notes.
Doesn’t that sound like something you’d want to buy?
It’s the same story we’ve been hearing since Microsoft introduced the first Surface tablets nearly two years ago. Microsoft just did a better job at pitching this time. Unfortunately, that pitch is still an oversell. The Surface Pro 3 pushes us closer to that dreamy all-in-one device, but we’re not quite there yet.
The Surface Pro 3 is available for preorder now starting at $US799, but you’ll need to spend an extra $US130 for the optional but essential keyboard cover. (More on that in a bit.) It ships in August.
What Is It?
From a hardware perspective, the Surface Pro 3 is downright impressive. It’s a marvel that Microsoft was able to squish all the guts of a full PC into something so thin, light, beautiful, and durable. The screen resolution pops. Slap on the keyboard cover, and you’re ready to crank through Office documents and Outlook emails.
It’s wrong to compare the Surface Pro 3 to other tablets, especially on price. This is a PC disguised as a tablet, not a tablet pretending to be a PC. And that’s why the Surface costs significantly more than your typical tablet. Think of it as a MacBook Air competitor, not an iPad competitor.
At 9.1mm, the Surface Pro 3 is only a hair thicker than the iPhone 5S. Without the keyboard cover, it weighs 1.76 pounds, which is heavy by tablet standards but very impressive for a fully featured PC.
If you buy Microsoft’s Surface docking station, you can hook the tablet up to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, making it a replacement for your desktop PC, too. It also comes with a special pen that you can use to convert handwriting to plain text and quickly copy and paste items. The pen connects to the Surface via Bluetooth, and a double-click of the button on the end wakes the tablet up and automatically launches OneNote, Microsoft’s note-taking app.
The keyboard cover got some improvements, too. The touchpad is bigger and bit more responsive. There’s a magnetic strip on the edge that connects to the bottom bezel of the screen, which props the keyboard to a more comfortable typing angle. (Previous versions of the Surface forced you to type flat on the table, which felt awkward.) Microsoft claims that new keyboard angle helps the Surface work better in your lap, too.
What’s It Like?
The Surface Pro 3 is the best Windows 8 machine you can buy. But don’t take that as a compliment.
When I was in the Boy Scouts in elementary school, I won first place in the “turtle race” at the Pinewood Derby. The slowest car. The best of the worst. I got a trophy and everything.
That’s what it feels like calling the Surface Pro 3 the best Windows 8 machine. It’s a sad award for being at the top of the lowest class. It’s not the hardware that’s the problem, but Windows 8. Despite Microsoft’s improvements over the last year and a half, Windows 8 is still clunky and difficult to use. You’re forced into two operating systems, one for touch and one for the desktop. That also means two web browsers. Two email programs. Two settings menus to slog through. Let a newbie try Windows 8 for 15 minutes and she’ll be screaming for the simplicity of iOS.
This is my third Surface review, and it’s the third time I have to say the same thing. The Surface Pro 3 is a mediocre tablet and a mediocre laptop. Put those two together, and you have a pricey device that still isn’t as ideal as using something more traditional.
That said, if you enjoy Windows 8, you’re definitely going to like the Surface Pro 3. It’s the first device you should consider buying if you want a Windows machine. I may not think it’s the optimal operating system, but if you want a gadget that truly can do everything (although not perfectly), the Surface Pro 3 will work out nicely.
What really bakes my noodle is that Microsoft spent so long trying to persuade everyone that the Surface Pro 3 is a laptop replacement, but still charges you an extra $US130 for the keyboard cover. If someone tried selling you a regular laptop without a keyboard, you’d laugh and go spend your money somewhere else. It’s like selling a car without wheels.
And the keyboard isn’t that great. The keys are plasticky and cheap-feeling. The touchpad is a disaster. Two-finger scrolling is a frustrating mess, and I often found myself randomly highlighting text on web pages when I didn’t mean to. Plus, even though Microsoft promised the Surface Pro 3 will sit sturdily in your lap, the keyboard is still too flimsy and nowhere near as good as using a normal laptop.
Battery life was also disappointing. Microsoft claims you can get about 8 hours, but I was only able to get about 5. That’s not great, considering laptops like the MacBook Air can get over 10 hours per charge.
The biggest improvement to the hardware is the kickstand. It’s now fully adjustable, so you can prop the tablet to whatever angle is most comfortable for you. (The last Surface’s kickstand only had two configurations.) It can lay almost flat now, which is probably nice for artists who want to sketch on the device with the pen accessory. In that respect, the Surface Pro 3 matches a regular laptop nicely.
The Surface Pro 3 performs better as a tablet, but its size cripples any chance at the ultra portability we’ve been spoiled by with competing tablets, including Microsoft’s own svelte Surface 2. The Surface Pro 3 is almost a pound heavier than the iPad Air, and the larger 12-inch screen isn’t very comfortable for kicking back on the couch or train so you can casually read an e-book or stream a Netflix movie. If you’re looking for a tablet, an iPad, Kindle Fire, or Google Nexus 7 is much better. The Surface Pro 3 is just too big and the battery life is just too weak compared with the competition.
If you like Windows 8 and use Office a lot, then the Surface Pro 3 is the perfect device for you. It’s the ideal manifestation of what Microsoft believes Windows 8 should be, and you’re going to love it if you buy into that vision.
But for everyone else, Microsoft hasn’t fulfilled its promise of building a device that can do it all and do it all well.
That said, there’s still hope. The Surface team proved the laptop isn’t finished evolving. It showed us that we’re inching closer to a world where yes, maybe we don’t need to lug around two or more devices when one will suffice.
We’re not there yet, but boy are we close.
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