Surface Pro 3 Review: A Tablet-Laptop Mashup

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted May 29, 2014

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 has pretty big shoes to fill. As a laptop replacement, it must provide the functionality and versatility of a mobile PC. As a tablet, it needs to support grab-and-go work styles. Did Microsoft succeed?

But first, a little background. On May 20, Microsoft toyed with industry expectations when it debuted the Surface Pro 3 during a splashy press event in New York City. Larger than its predecessor—the Surface Pro 2 sports a 10.6-inch display versus the 12-inch touchscreen you'll find on the Pro 3—the new tablet was a far cry from the rumored Surface Mini tablet that was widely expected to make an appearance.

Another curious thing happened. Instead of comparing the Surface Pro 3 to rival tablets like Apple's iPad or other Android tablets, the head of Microsoft's Surface division, Panos Panay, mainly stacked the Surface Pro 3 up against Ultrabooks and notebooks. In one of the event's hallmark moments, Panay used a scale to demonstrate how the tablet weighed substantially less than the featherweight 11-inch MacBook Air, which weighs in at 2.38 lbs.

The message was clear. Surface Pro 3 was designed to bridge the gap between tablets and full-featured laptops by blending the portability of the former with the power of the latter.

Smooth Surface Specs

Despite its supersized dimensions, the Surface Pro 3 is a slick slab. Measuring 11.5 inches by 7.93 inches, no one will mistake the tablet for an iPad. Rising a mere 0.36 inches from a work surface—no pun intended—it's slimmer than the keyboard portion of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook that we  use as a daily workhorse. At 1.76 pounds, the Surface Pro 3 feels substantial in your hands without feeling weighty in a gadget bag.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet-laptop combo

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 combines the best features of a tablet and a laptop.

Our evaluation unit, powered by an Intel Core i5-4300U processor, clocks in at 1.9GHz (2.5GHz turbo mode) and features 256 GB of internal flash storage along with 8 GB of RAM. In short, it delivers brisk performance—a good thing since the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1 Pro, the same full-featured OS found on many new notebooks and desktop PCs.

Apps generally load and operate with nary a hiccup, an encouraging sign that the Surface Pro 3 will serve well as a multitasking small business tablet. Microsoft also offers models with Intel Core i3 and i7 processors.

The Pro 3's Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n) connections are solid and swift, depending on network conditions of course. The Bluetooth 4 capability accepts the latest low-power peripherals including the new Surface Pen.

Let's get to the main attraction: the bright, pixel-packed 12-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 2160 by 1440 pixels. In addition to its unconventional 3:2 aspect ratio, the display draws the eye with its crisp visuals and vibrant colors. Taps, swipes and pinches register instantaneously. As with most glass-fronted tablets, expect some glare.

The Pro 3's expansion capabilities are made possible by a full-sized USB 3.0 port and microSD card slot. Buyers can output video to an external display courtesy of the Mini DisplayPort connection.

Surface Pen, the bundled stylus, provides accurate pen input. It also pulls off a neat trick—a click of the Surface Pen causes OneNote, Microsoft's note taking app, to open even if the tablet's in sleep mode. Microsoft's Palm Block technology does a fairly effective job of ignoring unintentional touch inputs.

Microsoft's Got Your Surface Covered

The new Type Covers, an optional accessory, finally deliver on the company's innovative keyboard and cover combo idea. The Type Cover serves as both a screen cover and a keyboard, offering protection for the touchscreen while you tote the tablet around, and it serves as an input device when it's flipped open. Backlit keys provide satisfying travel and the larger, more responsive and clickable touchpad moves the cursor around the screen effortlessly.

More importantly, they provide a more natural, wrist-friendly angle by magnetically clipping to the lower front of the touchscreen. Combined with the kickstand's new friction hinges, settling into a comfortable typing position is easier than ever.

Optional Type Cover for the Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3 Type Covers come in a variety of colors.

You can express your individuality using any of the five Type Cover color options (cyan, red, purple, black and blue). A word of caution: the microfiber-like material surrounding the keys on our test model has already sustained some stubborn coffee stains in the cyan Touch Cover supplied by Microsoft. More muted colors may fare better in environments where stains are unavoidable.

Small Business Productivity Without Compromise

Fortunately, all of the Surface Pro 3's features add up to a compelling alternative to laptops and tablets. In short, it lets you get stuff done without getting in the way, for the most part.

The Pro 3 delivers nine-hour battery life—as long as all you do is browse the Web. However, the battery delivers good mixed-use performance; during a week of working (and playing) with the Surface Pro 3, we got about seven to eight hours of mixed workloads, including extended stints with Office 365.

Banging out articles in Word 2013 is a surprisingly pleasant experience on the new Surface Pro with the optional Type Cover. After a brief adjustment period, we didn’t miss a single key press, and typing came naturally.

The 12-inch display, with its high resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio, offers just the right amount of room for most Windows desktop applications. It doesn't hurt that the Core i5 processor is no slouch and the internal SSD fetches data and files in a snap. Switching between apps, or between the Start screen and Windows desktop for that matter, is fast and fluid.

Thoughtful touches abound. The stealthy, front-firing speakers produce powerful and clear sound. While they lack a little in the bass department—a common issue with mobile device speakers—professionals can run multimedia presentations on the new Surface with confidence.

In addition to the long battery life, road warriors will also appreciate the USB port that Microsoft includes with the power brick. After having (finally) staked out a working power outlet at Starbucks, you won't have to choose between charging your Surface Pro 3 or your smartphone. In what is sure to strike some people as blasphemous, we charged an iPad Mini and the Surface at the same time. Naughty!

The Surface Pro 3 Complaint Department

We do have a few quibbles, however. Compared to Apple iOS and Google Android, the Windows Store lags behind in the mobile apps department. Also, the traditional Windows desktop is nowhere near as finger-friendly as its "modern," tile-based user interface. Bring a mouse for maximum productivity in this mode.

And then, there's the price tag.

The price of entry for a Core i3 model will cost you $799, and it goes up quickly from there. Our test unit rings up at a hefty $1,428.99 with the touch cover.

At just slightly more than $900 for a Core i3 version, the Surface Pro 3 can help small businesses ditch the laptop while enjoying the mobile productivity provided by tablets. If your business requires beefier specs—to run image- and video-editing suites or 3D software for example—then the i5 model stacks up well against premium Ultrabooks.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

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