Microsoft Surface Pro 3 full review
Update 22 January 2016: Microsoft is running a voluntary recall of all Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro 3 power cords sold before 15 July 2015 in Europe, and before March 2015 in the US. Apparently the power cord could become a fire hazard if wound too tightly. You can order a replacement cable here.
Surface Pro 3 UK review: what it is, what it's for
Microsoft markets the Surface Pro 3 as 'the tablet that can replace your laptop'. And it markets it aggresively. The Surface Pro 3 still regularly features on billboards and TV ads. Go to the States and you can't move for Surface Pro 3s in stores, and it is even 'the official tablet of the NFL'. Which must make the makers of performance-enhancing drugs furious, amiright!!? Also see: Best new tablets coming in 2016.
But there is substance behind the hype. The tablet that is also a laptop boast is a fair claim: Surface Pro 3 is not an iPad rival, or at least not only an iPad rival. Microsoft has set out to create a device that is both powerful and portable. A laptop and a tablet, and also a desktop PC. Indeed, my only real problem with the Surface Pro 3 is that it isn't much cop as a standalone tablet. (See also: Which laptop to buy: 2016 laptop buying advice, and the best laptops of 2016.)
It's a 12in slate that runs full Windows and has wireless connectivity as well as USB 3.0 and a DisplayPort. For a 12in computer it is thin and light. It is perfectly feasible as a good portable laptop, and an acceptable if heavy tablet. The question is: is that what people want?
I've been using the Surface Pro 3 for several months now. It is the most portable power laptop I have ever used, but even despite improvements on previous models it isn't better to use than a laptop. And although it is possible to use the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet for the consumption of movies and e-books, and for social networking, it's a very big and heavy slate. Very quickly you realise that portable power is the name of the game here. If you can cope with a marginally less than stellar typing experience, for instance, you can do everything wherever you are. (Read: Why the Surface Pro 3 will be Microsoft's last Surface tablet.)
Microsoft and Intel really want the Surface Pro 3 to succeed, as it showcases the possibilities of the Wintel combination and put Windows 8 into competition with mobile devices such as iPads and Android smartphones.As Intel Core M chips come on stream, and Windows 10 nears, expect to see these types of hybrid device proliferate. If the Surface Pro 3 is a success then OEMs will be keen to head in this direction.
It is indisputably a high-class device, a great feat of engineering. I have always believed that people like having a separate Kindle or iPad for fun things, and a laptop for work. But Microsoft is for just about the first time now turning a profit on its Surface business, so perhaps I was wrong.
In this article I review the Surface Pro 3 from a technical standpoint. Read on as I look at build and design, performance and specifications. Then you can make up your own mind. (See also: New Surface Pro 3 new features.)
One final point. Since Surface Pro 3 came out we have seen the launch of the iPad Air 2. Not the putative iPad Pro, but a tablet that with the A8X chip produces never before seen performance from an ARM-processor device. I mention this only because it shows that just as Surface Pro 3 is a full-spec, power PC shrunk down for mobile, mobile devices are reaching up into the power world. Which makes things even more interesting. Enough: read our Surface Pro 3 review. (See also: New iPad Air 2 review.)
Surface Pro 3 UK review: UK price
In the US the Surface Pro 3 starts at $799 for the Core i3 with 64GB of storage; here in the UK it cost you £639 for the same base model. There are five configurations that differ in terms of what processor, storage and RAM you want; you can pay up to £1,649 for the Surface Pro 3. Here are full pricing details:
- Core i3, 64GB, 4GB RAM - £639
- Core i5, 128GB, 4GB RAM - £849
- Core i5, 256GB, 8GB RAM - £1,109
- Core i7, 256GB, 8GB RAM - £1,339
- Core i7, 512GB, 8GB - £1,649
As a high-spec, powerful and portable laptop, then, the Surface Pro 3 is actually pretty cheap. (See also: Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air comparison: Surface Pro is twice the device... but you'll still buy the iPad.)
Surface Pro 3 review: build, design
No longer a 10in tablet, the Surface Pro 3 is built around a 12in display. We'll talk about the display in detail in the next section, but the first thing you will notice is that this is a big tablet. It doesn't feel too big, however.
One of the benefits of that bigger display is that there is more space in which to fit the Surface Pro 3's excellent components, and so the more powerful Pro 3 is actually thinner than its predecessor, and indeed any similar full-spec Windows PC. The Surface Pro 3 measures 292 x 201.3 x 9.1mm, although that thickness figure increases to around 16mm with the Type cover included. Either way it's the thinnest Core PC ever made.
Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 weighs only 800g. We measured our Core i5, 128GB Surface Pro 3 at 813g. Add in the Type Cover and the weight goes up to 1110g on our scales. With the Cover and Pen the weight goes up to 1128g.
This is truly impressive engineering. Microsoft has squeezed into a lightweight slate a powerful PC. For a power laptop the Surface Pro 3 is truly ultraportable. It will slip into your bag or briefcase as easily as any laptop or netbook we have used.
Build quality is universally excellent. Despite the light weight the Surface Pro 3 feels strong. It has a metallic feel, but the texture bears many of the characteristics of plastic. The back is a silver-effect finish, with a simple 'Surface' logo. All the way around the sides is a similar finish, with the thin airvent gap that we have seen on previous Surface devices. It's possible this is required for airflow purposes, but it does tend to be a magnet for bits of filth and dust. Connectivity ports, on/off switch and volume controls live around the edges. The camera aperture is at the top of the back side (in portrait mode).
The Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter than previous Surface Pro models, and the larger 12in screen makes for comfortable reading and viewing. The already impressive kickstand can now be secured at any angle rather than the two of the previous model, and the optional Type Cover features a double-fold hinge that allows you to lock it to the display's lower bezel for easier working with the Surface Pro on your lap. We'll talk more about the Type Cover later, but the Surface line's deserved reputation for innovative design continues.
On our model the kickstand/Type Cover combination makes for the ultimate in versatility. You can position the Surface in just about every position from flat to the desk to bolt upright. And the keyboard can sit flat or at a slight incline, like a desktop keyboard. Using the Surface Pro 3 on my lap is my most comfortable experience of working on my lap, but I still prefer to use it on a desk. Regular commuter/workers should consider the Surface Pro 3, however.
Around the front, the Surface Pro 3 is a single sheet of virtual end-to-end glass. The Windows symbol sits to the right in landscape mode or at the bottom in portrait. Switch on the screen and you'll see that the bezels are impressively small for such a thin and light PC.
We can't fail but be impressed with the build quality and design of the Surface Pro 3. It is the thinnest and lighest of thin-and-light PCs, a truly portable, powerful PC. A uniquely versatile device. But that doesn't mean it is the one device to rule them all.
The Surface Pro 3 is a perfectly servicable laptop, and a perfectly servicable tablet. It is sufficiently thin-and-light to work as an okay tablet, but the large screen size - critical for laptop use - means I'd always reach for a iPad mini or Nexus 7 for consumption purposes such as reading an e-book or watching a video. I just don't have the arm strength to want to use the Surface Pro 3. And leaving aside occasions when I am required to work without a desk, I'd always choose a full-size laptop for work purposes where possible. It's just that little bit better. (See also: Best laptops you can buy in 2016.)
Surface Pro 3 review: display
The Surface Pro 3 is built around a 12in ClearType full-HD Plus multitouch display. It is noticably sharper than the previous generations of Surface Pro, a genuinely impressive display at this size. A native resolution of 2160 x 1440 pixels makes for a decent pixel density of 216ppi.
The extra size makes the Surface Pro 3 a feasible laptop. It's a big difference from a 10in tablet with a keyboard attached. And that isn't the only upgrade. Whereas the aspect ratio was previously 16:9, the Surface Pro 3 is a 3:2 device. Open it in portrait mode and it feels like an A4 pad, but in landscape orientation movies look good.
As, indeed, does everything. Photos are bright and clear, full of colour and detail. And even at this resolution it is difficult to pick out pixels in dense text documents. It's a very good display. The multitouch screen is responsive, too. (See also: The 26 best tablets of 2016 UK.)
Surface Pro 3 review: Type Cover, pen
For the uninitiated the Type Cover is a must-have, although not a cheap, addition to the Surface Pro 3. Costing an additional £109 the Type Cover is a screen-protecting cover that attaches to one side of the Surface Pro 3 using a magnet. It snaps into place with a satisfying click, and then works like a book cover to protect your Surface Pro 3's display.
Fold it out and it works as a keyboard. As with other Type Cover accessories for Surface tablets the Pro 3's Type Cover is a fine device. As good a portable keyboard cover as you will find. We love the ability to set it flat against the desk or at a more keyboard-like angle. And the keys have enough travel to make typing feasible. We'd always rather use a full-sized laptop keyboard, but in the absence of that the Type Cover is the very next best thing.
The trackpad has been expanded from previous Type Covers, and is now a reasonably sized 89 x 43mm. It has distinct left- and right-click zones, and supports gesture control as you would expect. Fold the Type Cover around the back of Surface Pro 3 and the keys are no longer active, a nice touch that allows you to use the Type Cover as a cover even when you are in tablet mode.
When closed the Type Cover presents to the world a felt-like finish, which feels nice to the touch but has a nasty habit of picking up fluff. It is available in several different colours.
The other Surface Pro 3 peripheral is the pen, which comes free with every model. This is a nice, silvery metal device. Click it on and your Surface Pro opens OneNote so you can quicky capture and save a note - even if the Surface Pro 3 is locked. You can imagine this being useful in a meeting scenario. The pen works with any app that uses ink and feels accurate when writing or drawing, and as a left-hander I found it a lot easier to use than many similar devices. Double-click the top button on your Surface Pen and sketch an image and it will be captured to a screenshot in OneNote.
For those who like a stylus/pen the Surface Pro 3's is as good as we have used. Unlike previous models it doesn't attach to the Surface Pro 3. (See also: Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: Surface Pro is the thinnest laptop ever, but you might want the MacBook's keyboard.)
Surface Pro 3 review: specifications, performance
The Surface Pro 3's specifications are truly impressive. Each model comes with a fourth-generation Intel Core processor, either i3, i5, or i7. This is paired with either 4GB or 8GB RAM, and storage options range from a 64GB SSD through 128GB, 256GB to 512GB. Our test model is a Core i5 model with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage. And, of course, it runs the full Intel version of Windows 8.1 Pro.
Sensors inlude ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. There's also a digital compass.
In use the Surface Pro 3 is zippy and fast. Even under load and attempting multiple processes it feels exactly as fast and capable as should a PC with this powerful specification. And the benchmarks bear this out.
In the PCMark7 benchmark the Surface Pro 3 managed a score of 4864. This is a very healthy score, a full 200 points ahead of the 13in MacBook Air with which the Surface Pro 3 will be most closely compared. It's definitely in the top echelon of portable PCs. (See also: Inside the Surface Pro 3: What the specs don't tell you.)
Surface Pro 3 review: connectivity
Connectivity options abound. There is a full-size USB 3.0 port, as well as a microSD card reader that allows you to expand the Surface Pro 3's storage by 128GB. A Mini DisplayPort allows you to use a larger display with your Surface Pro 3. This is important: although there is a bespoke docking station you can buy to turn your Surface Pro 3 into a desktop PC, you could use it with any keyboard and display. So your Surface Pro 3 could be laptop, tablet and desktop PC. There's also a cover port and a headset jack.
If you wanted to use Bluetooth peripherals you could, as the Surface Pro 3 comes with Bluetooth 4.0. You get 802.11ac/802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi via a two-stream 11ac wireless adaptor. This is a Marvell Avastar 88W8897, to be exact, with a top theoretical wireless sync speed of 867 Mb/s.
It's the first non-Broadcom 11ac wireless chipset we've come across, although perhaps not without its teething problems. Some forum threads would suggest from when it first appeared in this tablet people had problems connecting to Wi-Fi. Happily this seems to have fixed, and we can confirm that we had absolutely no problems with Wi-Fi connectivity on the Surface Pro 3.
Surface Pro 3 review: battery life
Microsoft claims up to nine hours of web browsing use. It's a bold claim, putting the Surface Pro 3 firmly in the MacBook Air class of all-day battery life. We've not yet benchmarked the Surface Pro 3's battery life, but we can say that after a full day in the office web browsing, downloading and writing this review the Surface Pro 3 is still going strong and telling us half the battery capacity remains.
Whether or not the nine hours is realistic, the Surface Pro 3 is part of the new breed of ultraportable workstations that allow you to step away from the mains for a significant period of time.
UPDATE: more than 24 hours after we started using the Surface Pro 3, during which time we have used it on and off for more than one day's work, 43 percent of battery life remains. It really is a great performance. (See also: Surface Pro 3 release date, price and specs UK: Windows 8 tablet goes on sale this month.)
Surface Pro 3 review: cameras
The Surface Pro 3 comes with two 5Mp cameras - hardly high-end, but about what you'd expect from a laptop rather than a smartphone or tablet. A quick glance at the Microsoft forums shows that some people are unhappy with this. So let's be clear: the Surface Pro 3 is not a great camera. It is perfectly feasible to use as a conference calling, Skype machine. But it is not going to replace your DSLR or even your smartphone when it comes to capturing photos. We've included some test shots below.
As to video, both cameras can capture 1080p video. So for video calls the combination of great screen and 1080p camera is a good one.
Surface Pro 3 review: test shots
Click to view full size.
Surface Pro 3 review: changes from Surface Pro 2
As well as iterative specification upgrades, there are two signficant changes to the Surface Pro 3 when compared to its predecessors. The first thing is the display size. Whereas previous Surface Pro devices were 10in tablets, this is a 12in slate. This fits with the message that the Surface Pro is a laptop replacement, rather than a rival to the iPad or the Nexus 7. It's a subtle change of message, but not a subtle change - Surface Pro 3 really is laptop-size in use, if not in your bag.
The other tweak speaks to the same thing. Microsoft has introduced a new keyboard cover to the Surface Pro 3. Unlike older models there is no Touch Cover: the thicker but more typing-friendly Type Cover has been stretched up to fit. And it has been improved with a wider touchscreen and a better, two-angle setup that allows for a better typing experience in laptop mode.
Similarly, the kickstand integral to the Surface Pro 3 has now got multiple points. The changes to the Surface Pro are all based around it being more of a laptop replacement than an overspecced tablet. And that's significant. (See also: Surface Pro 3 vs Surface Pro 2 comparison: new Windows tablet is bigger and better - but who will buy?)
Surface Pro 3 review: verdict
A very decent laptop replacement, and an okay tablet, the Surface Pro 3 is undeniably impressive. If you need a single device to do everything we can't think of any better device. And when you consider the cost of buying a discrete laptop, tablet and desktop PC the Surface Pro 3 is priced to shift. The question remains as to whether people want a single device rather than multiple gadgets that are better at their individual tasks. Microsoft's latest results suggest that Surface Pro 3 is winning hearts and minds. Has it won yours?
Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Specs
- Windows 8.1 Pro
- Intel Haswell Core i3/i5/i7 processor
- up to 8GB DDR3 RAM
- up to 512GB SSD
- 12in ClearType full-HD (2160x1440, 216ppi, 4:3) multitouch display
- USB 3.0
- 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Mini DisplayPort
- 2x 5Mp cameras (front and rear)
- stereo speakers with Dolby sound
- Surface Pen
- battery life up to nine hours (web browsing)