Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review

Microsoft has never been particularly good at marketing.  I actually can’t recall any good commercials for anything Windows-related.  Maybe there’s been some good Xbox commercials, but as far as Windows or Microsoft in general goes, all I can think of is that commercial with Jerry Seinfeld and the churros.  Or the Windows Mojave one where they tricked people into saying good things about Vista.

Honestly, I hate the commercials that Microsoft has been airing for the Surface Pro 3, I hate the way they introduced it, and I hate their website for it.  “Hey world, here’s a 13″ MacBook Air, and here’s the 12″ Surface Pro 3.  These two machines are nothing alike and not even in the same product category, so you should buy a Surface!”  If I want a computer with a touchscreen, I’m not even considering a MacBook Air, so why compare the two?  And vice versa, if I’m wanting an actual laptop, I’m not considering a computer that’s slightly awkward to use in your lap.

My SP3That said, Microsoft may be terrible at marketing, but in the hardware/software space, they’ve actually been up to some interesting things lately.  I really like some of their new applications (they may just be the most cross compatible on the market), and well, to get to the point, I bought a Surface Pro 3.  Not to replace my laptop, but because it’s a cool device.  So let’s get into that.

The Surface Pro 3, which I will refer to mostly as the SP3 from here on out, is not a laptop.  It’s also not a tablet.  It’s a hybrid, convertible device that does a little bit of both.  It’s not the best laptop, nor is it the best tablet, but as a hybrid device, it is really the best of both worlds in a very neat little package.  So what use case does it have?  Well, I have two tablets – an original iPad and a 2013 LTE Nexus 7.  I really don’t use the iPad any more, partially because it’s old, but also because I never really found a place for it in my life.  It is too big to comfortably hold for a long period of time, and in the end, I just found it more productive to use my laptop.  My Nexus 7 is a different story, mostly because I can hold it with one hand easily.  It’s light, powerful, and allows me to be just productive enough to where my laptop usually isn’t necessary unless I need to do serious typing (like writing this article) or use software that just isn’t available on Android.

Kickstand

Kickstand deployed with Type Cover magnetically attached to lower part of screen for angled typing mode

With that in mind, where does the SP3 fit in, being even larger and slightly heavier than my original iPad?  I can answer that question with a simple statement: the kickstand is killer.  Yes, you can probably buy a case for whatever tablet you own that’ll prop it up, but it won’t be as good as the SP3’s kickstand.  Because of kickstand, I can use the SP3 in my lap hands free.  I can’t even do that with my tiny little Nexus 7.  And not only does that mean no fatigue from holding the device, it also means I have two hands free to interact with the SP3’s big, beautiful display.  So, if anything, the SP3 is really – in my life, at least – a killer tablet replacement… that just so happens to be a pretty decent laptop also.

Type Cover flat

Type cover flat on the table, kickstand just a tad farther back

Now, let’s get this part out of the way: how easy is it to use the SP3 in your lap like a laptop?  Simple answer is… it’s a little awkward.  If you pop in the Type Cover and snap the magnetic part to the screen (as seen in the picture above), it’s not really that bad, but the keyboard still flexes around, and with the cover right there, you really can’t swipe up from the bottom of the SP3’s screen anymore to perform any touch gestures, which is frustrating.  I really do like the flexibility of the new Type Cover for allowing that angled keyboard mode, but I actually prefer typing with the cover flat down.  It honestly feels better to me, especially when the SP3 is on a desk.

Type CoverThe Type Cover, aside from the above, is kind of remarkable.  The keys have very little throw in them, which is a little disturbing at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly.  The touch pad is great, which isn’t something I could say about previous Surface Type Covers.  Really, if the touch pad were a bit bigger, it would probably be the best touch pad I’ve ever used on a PC, but here, size is really the limiting factor.  Sorry Microsoft, if you’re going to compare, Apple is still king of touch pads.  One thing I wish I’d have done differently here is to go with a blue Type Cover rather than the cyan.  Cyan is really probably the best looking one, but it’s also the lightest one, and light colors show dirt more easily.  Didn’t really think that one through.  You can clean these things, apparently, but that sounds a bit frightening, what with how water and expensive electronics typically don’t mix too well.

Yes I took a picture of my screen instead of a screenshot, and you can DEAL WITH IT

Yes I took a picture of my screen instead of a screenshot, and you can DEAL WITH IT

The pen is really nice, but it’s kind of a gimmick.  If you’re an artist or a student, I’m sure it’s amazing for drawing or note taking.  I can recall many times in college where just typing notes in Word on my laptop was insufficient, and being able to draw in a quick little diagram or figure would’ve come in handy.  But usefulness aside, it’s really a quality accessory.  There is barely any lag while writing with it, and when all is said and done, it almost looks like my handwriting does on paper.  Plus, when you use the pen, the SP3 is smart enough to know to ignore input from your palm, so you can rest your hand on the screen while writing or drawing.  For storage, the pen either goes in this flimsy little loop that comes with the Type Cover and attaches to it via some adhesive, or you can stick it upside down to the side of the SP3 where the magnetic charger plugs in, but of course, that only works when the charger isn’t plugged in.  Oh, also, push that little purple bottom on the top no matter if the SP3 is asleep or awake and bam, it launches OneNote.  Nifty.

Attached magnetically to the charging port

Attached magnetically to the charging port

Speaking of the charger, the power brick for this thing has a USB port on it.  That… is… amazing.  It’s so simple, yet so obvious.  Every device, regardless of the number of USB ports, should have this.  Yes, the SP3 is limited to one USB port and having that extra one for charging is great, but it also charges faster than a computer’s USB port.  One or two USB ports is pretty standard these days on non-enterprise targeted laptops, with how thin things are getting.

SP3 charger (left), 2010 MBP charger (right)

SP3 charger (left), 2010 MBP charger (right)

As far as the actual charger plug goes, it’s kind of like Apple’s Magsafe adapter (again, Microsoft, you’ve invited all of these comparisons), except it’s… deeper?  Like, the part that snaps into the computer is longer and has more depth than a Magsafe adapter.  I don’t really give a shit if it looks, feels, and acts exactly like a Magsafe adapter as long as it works, because Magsafe is a good product.  I feel like because of the depth, it might not come out as easily as Magsafe, which means more potential to pull the cord at just the wrong angle and fling the Surface off of the table, but that’s really just speculation.  Either way, I like the design, because like I said, Magsafe is great.  Everything should have these types of power adapters.

The speakers are kind of bleh, but really, what can you expect?  At least they’re front-facing.  And here’s a neat example of Microsoft’s attention to detail: when you press the Windows logo on the side of the screen, the device gives a little tactile feedback.  I think – but am not sure – that maybe they’re sending a very low, inaudible frequency to the speakers to vibrate the device, but I’m not sure.  Either way, it’s a satisfying feature.

The front and rear facing cameras are both 5 MP, and they’re both pretty underwhelming.  Not that I really care though, as I don’t use the camera on my laptop or my tablets often, so I doubt I’ll use it on the SP3 that much, especially when I have an iPhone 6 and an HTC One M8 For Windows (review on that coming soon) to take pictures with.

The display on the SP3 doesn’t have the same high PPI count as most newer tablets and phones, and is just a smidgen lower than the retina MacBook Pros, but it is gorgeous.  When I go from the SP3 to my 2010 MacBook Pro, the difference is so strikingly apparent that it kind of hurts (in that oh so first-world-problems way).  I like the 12″ form factor; I think it’s a good size… for a tablet.  For a laptop, yes, still a good size, as long as you have an external display (which the SP3 can easily do) or a desktop to accompany it.

Build quality on the SP3 (Type Cover aside) seems very solid.  I really can’t get over how sturdy the kickstand feels, though I feel like either that or the charger fraying will be the first thing to go, but hey, that’s why I bought Microsoft Complete!  And speaking of Complete, which is the extended and accidental damage warranty for the Surface, it’s $150 for 2 total years, and covers two accidents with a $49 deductible each time.  If you are the type that actually makes accidental damage claims, that works out better than AppleCare for an iPad.

microSD slot (left), kinetic hinge (right)

microSD slot (left), kinetic hinge (right)

Performance has been great so far, but I haven’t really pushed it.  I got the Core i5 128 GB model, which comes with 4 GB of RAM.  These days, I wouldn’t buy a laptop with less than 8 GB of RAM, especially if the RAM isn’t user-replaceable, but the way Microsoft has spec’d out the SP3 line is very… limiting (I’ll get to that in a minute).  If you start hitting high CPU or RAM, the SP3’s fan will kick on, and the device will get hot, especially around the top.  You can feel it more on the back, but the heat is actually very noticeable through the screen.  It cools off surprisingly fast, though, once you stop pegging out the CPU/RAM.  The fan is noticeable, but it’s pretty quiet (if you’re comparing it to a laptop).  I haven’t really felt limited by the specs of the SP3 I bought.  Honestly, I could’ve been very happy with 64 GB of storage since the SP3 has a microSD slot under the kickstand for easy and basically invisible storage expansion (albeit, much slower to read and write to/from), but the upgrade to 128 GB and a Core i5 processor was worth the extra $200.

Which brings me to what is really my biggest gripe about the Surface, and that is its pricing.  The Core i3 64 GB model is $799, Type Cover not included.  I think it’s dumb to bash Microsoft for not including the Type Cover, so I won’t.  Choice is good, some people might not want the Type Cover, so why pay more for them to include it?  So at $799, you’re looking at a 64 GB tablet.  A 64 GB iPad Air 2 is going to run you $600, if you’re going to compare tablets, but there are such huge differences between the two that it’s hard to compare, just like there are huge differences between the SP3 and the MacBook Air – the comparison that Microsoft would have you make.  It’s very difficult to say what I think the SP3 should cost, but… it feels too expensive.  When I said that Microsoft had really limited the configurations available for the SP3, I said so because model to model, the differences are storage and processor-based.  You can’t get a Core i5 model with 128 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM.  If you want 8 GB of RAM, you have to get the Core i5 256 GB model, which costs $300 more.  Now, maybe I’m alone here, I can and did pay $200 more for a CPU upgrade and double the storage, but $300 for the same CPU, double the RAM, and double the storage?  Yeah, that’s a bit much, especially when – for what the SP3 is – 256 GB of storage seems pretty unnecessary.  I have a microSD card, One Drive, Google Drive, Drop Box, external hard drives…I really don’t need 256 GB of storage on a tablet.  Oh, but Microsoft says this is a laptop, so I guess that’s why.  And, if this was a laptop, I’d probably want 256 GB of storage, but it’s not.

Extra room required by kickstand not a problem in my lap, but I'm 6'1"

Extra room required by kickstand not a problem in my lap, but I’m 6’1″

So let’s get into that, just so we’re clear on why the SP3 is not a laptop.  If you are short, you have a short lap.  If you are in school and are in a lecture hall, you may have used those “desks” with the writing areas that are just big enough for a small Scantron sheet and just about nothing else.  If you’ve flown, you’ve seen how small tray tables are.  All of these are places you could use a laptop (even on those crappy lecture hall desks), but not a Surface Pro 3.  With the kickstand, the SP3 needs extra room to be able to stand up.  There is no hinge, so no friction.  Without being at an obtuse angle to the Type Cover, the SP3 will collapse onto the Type Cover.  I wouldn’t have much of an issue will calling the SP3 a “notebook” computer, because it actually kind of feels more like a notebook than a laptop does, and I was never really a big fan of calling laptops “notebooks.” Names should reflect characteristics, right?

By the way, the SP3 maxes out at $1,949 for a Core i7 and 512 GB of storage.  That is really, truly premium laptop pricing for a device that I can’t consider a laptop.  Generally speaking, I feel like each configuration of the SP3 should be about $200 less than they retail for.  That said, I don’t regret spending the money I spent on mine, it’s just an observation on pricing.  I feel nearly identical about MacBook Pros (finally, a commonality!), but the reason people still buy both of these devices is simple: they stand nearly alone in what they do.  No matter how close the hardware competition is for MacBook Pros, those competitors don’t run OS X, and that’s one of the key selling points.  Similarly, there’s just not another device out there that does what the SP3 does as gracefully as Microsoft’s own device.  Lenovo’s Yoga Pro 3 may come close, but whereas the Surface is more of a tablet than a laptop, the Yoga is more of a laptop than a tablet.  Similar, but different.

Windows is not so good at text scaling, sometimes (left) and pretty good at it other times (right)

Windows is not so good at text scaling, sometimes (left) and pretty good at it other times (right)

Now, here’s the surprise for this review: Windows 8.1 is brilliant on this thing.  I know, this should be obvious, but really, wow.  Windows 8.1 shines on touchscreen devices, way more than you’d think.  I love running “modern” (previously called “metro”) applications on this thing.  I love the live tiles and I love playing with arranging them just right.  If Microsoft had released Windows 8 for touchscreens and only included the new start screen there, leaving the old style start menu on a separate version of Windows 8 for non-touch devices, Windows 8 would’ve been a smash hit.  Like, wow.  It’s so freaking good I can’t even believe it.  It’s not perfect (get your text scaling game on point in desktop mode, Microsoft!), but man, is it good!  The Windows app store is kind of barren, but the big names like Facebook and Twitter both have truly remarkable apps there that are worth using over just visiting in a browser.  Now if only Google would stop pretending like Microsoft doesn’t exist…

Have I mentioned how freaking cool this kickstand is?

Have I mentioned how freaking cool this kickstand is?

I don’t want to give the Surface Pro 3 a __ out of 10-style rating.  Not now, at least.  I want to use this thing much more extensively and get a feel for how this device will continue to integrate in my life, especially since I don’t plan on giving up my laptop any time soon.  I was planning on buying a new MacBook Pro or Air next year, but now I’m sort of putting that on the backburner – not because the SP3 has taken its place, but because I don’t want to spend that much money on computers in such a short amount of time.  For right now, I will just say that the Surface Pro 3 is a very solid device that really brings “cool” back to Microsoft, so to speak.  This odd “convertible” category is in such infancy at this point that I can’t say the SP3 is a slam dunk purchase for anyone looking for a tablet or a laptop, but if you understand the caveats of this category and you’re on the edge, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  Truly, the Surface is closer to being what I wanted out of the original iPad than anything else on the market; an awesome tablet that also runs a full-fledged operating system.