Design and features
Despite the talk of this being the thinnest Intel Core i-series device to date, it still doesn’t feel quite as thin and ethereal as, for example, the iPad Air. But its thinner body, coupled with a larger 12-inch screen, give it a more upscale feel than either the Pro or Pro 2, which were criticized for a certain boxiness.Both of the previous Surface Pro models had 10.6-inch screens and were 13mm thick, with a footprint of 10.8 inches by 6.8 inches. This new 12-inch version is 11.5 inches by 7.9 inches, but its thickness drops to an impressive 9.1mm. The Pro 3 is also a tad lighter than its predecessor: 800 grams versus 900. Again, when you consider the larger screen, that’s a worthy achievement.With a wink and a nod, Microsoft says this new Surface Pro design isn’t exactly fanless, but it might as well be. That’s because the new system internals, designed in partnership with Intel, allow the system run run not only ultra-low-voltage Core i3 or i5 CPUs, but also Core i7 ones, with a slim, quiet fan moving air as needed, allegedly without that telltale whirring sound, or a fan exhaust blowing on your hands. Our Surface Pro 3, a midrange model with an Intel Core i5 CPU, certainly felt cool during our hands-on testing, but an audible fan also kicked in at times. To call the experience fanless-like would not be accurate.One major difference in the new design is the kickstand, which can be adjusted to nearly any angle between 22 degrees and 150 degrees. That’s especially useful for tilting the screen way back, as an artist using a drafting table might, but as the owner of normal-size legs for a 6-foot-tall male, I still had a hard time getting the Surface Pro 3 to sit comfortably on my lap. The kickstand either kept the screen angle too severe to see clearly while seated, or else the end of the kickstand was sliding off my knees when I tilted the screen further back.Taking the type cover and kicking in its additional top-edge magnetic hinge, raising the back edge of the keyboard to a better angle, helped a bit, as the raised angle feels much more natural for typing (which is why nearly every PC keyboard has tiny feet at the back edge). It’s a small change, but one that says Microsoft is thinking seriously about ergonomics.
Type Cover and stylus
To complement that hinge, the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover has also been redesigned. It still attaches with a satisfying magnetic thunk to the bottom edge of the tablet, it’s still backlit, and the layout and key-feel isn’t much different either.What has changed is the touchpad, which is larger and feels more positive in the click. In addition, the whole keyboard can now be angled up into a more comfortable typing position. This is thanks to an ingeniously simple piece of design, which sees a crease at the top of the keyboard allowing the top edge of the keyboard to fold up and stick to the bottom lip of the tablet with another strong magnet.It’s a clever idea, but typing on the raised keyboard feels strange at first. We dare say you’d get used to it in time, but its bounciness is disconcerting, and it feels insubstantial under the finger.We’re also disappointed by the continuing lack of a stowage slot for the bundled 256-level pressure-sensitive stylus. It’s an odd omission, since Microsoft is clearly placing increased importance on the stylus this time around, with a redesigned tip that better emulates the feel of pen on paper.
It feels accurate, but don’t expect miracles: it felt pretty slippery on the screen when we tried it.A more useful upgrade is the ability to click the button on top of the stylus to perform various shortcut operations: a single press launches the pre-installed OneNote MX, with a further click adding extra pages. It’s also possible to double-press to put the Surface Pro 3 into clipping mode, allowing you select areas of the screen and capture them quickly.
The tragedy of the Surface Pro has always been that the single coolest thing about it doesn’t actually come in the box. The excellent type cover, which acts as a screen protector, full keyboard, and touchpad interface, stubbornly remains a sold-separately accessory, despite the fact that I can’t imagine (or recommend) anyone ever buying a Surface without one. At $129, it’s expensive for an add-on keyboard, but it’s also still the main wow factor of the Surface.The new type cover for Surface Pro 3 is larger than its predecessors, although the older versions will still work — they just won’t cover the entire screen when the flap is closed. It feels like the best add-on tablet keyboard you can buy, while still falling short of a decent budget laptop keyboard. The secondary hinge, really just a line near the top edge you can fold the cover along, lifts the rear up and holds it against the body via a magnetic connection, giving you a more natural typing angle. It’s an excellent ergonomic improvement, although it makes typing louder and clackier.The touchpad built into the type cover is a bit better than the last version we tried, made of what a Microsoft rep described as a “ceramic fabric” material. But despite the improvements, it’s still not responsive, or tap-sensitive, enough for fast-track multitaskers, and the surface area is too shallow to easily navigate all around the screen. You’ll most likely develop a shorthand combination of touchscreen and touchpad, plus pen, to get around.The screen you’ll spend a lot of time touching is a better-than-HD display, measuring 12 inches diagonally with a 2,160×1,440-pixel resolution. The IPS panel looks clear and bright, has excellent off-axis viewing angles, and follows a growing trend toward better-than-HD displays. Do you need more pixels on a 12-inch screen? That’s debatable, but some 13-inch models are already hitting 3,200×1,800 pixels.
The first two Surface Pro devices included an integrated Wacom digitizer layer. The Wacom electro-magnetic resonance grid integrated into the display would generate a weak EM field that could induce a current in the Surface Pro pen. Relying on induction, the pen didn’t require a battery. As with many other Wacom devices, the first two Surface Pros featured 10-bit pressure resolution (the digitizer could recognize 1024 different pressure levels).With Surface Pro 3, Microsoft hoped to reduce all aspects of the display assembly thickness in order to meet the 9.1mm thickness requirement of the tablet. Among other things, this meant the Wacom EMR layer had to go. Without the ability to induce current in an external pen, Microsoft had to move to an active pen that could interact with the display. Microsoft partnered with NTrig to provide a solution for Surface Pro 3.The new pen ditches the magnetic mount of the previous design and instead needs to be carried separately. The old magnetic pen attached to the charge port on Surface Pro which wasn’t much better as it meant that the pen only had a place to live whenever your tablet was unplugged.The new pen is battery powered but ships with the batteries needed for operation.The body of the pen uses a single AAAA battery. This battery powers all writing and button functions (with the exception of the eraser launch button). The eraser portion of the pen houses two button-type 319 1.5V batteries. As far as I can tell, these batteries are necessary to enable the eraser launch button and to allow the pen to bring Surface Pro 3 out of sleep.Feature wise the new pen is quite similar to its predecessor. You still get support for hover and the design is pressure sensitive. New to the Surface Pro 3’s pen are a pair of buttons on the edge of the pen and a new eraser button. The latter comes configured to wake the tablet from sleep and launch OneNote by default. With Surface Pro 3 locked and asleep I can wake the device from a single click of the eraser button and have an active OneNote window open in around 1.5 seconds. That’s around 200 ms longer than it takes to wake the device from sleep altogether. The pen’s other two buttons are configurable in Windows.On paper the big regression is in a reduction in pressure sensitivity. While the old design had 10-bit pressure resolution, Surface Pro 3 only allows for 8-bits of pressure resolution. In other words, Surface Pro 1/2 could detect 1024 different levels of pen pressure while Surface Pro 3 can only detect 256. In practice, I haven’t found this to be an issue at all. I’m definitely not an artist, but I spent a lot of time drawing on both Surface Pro models (Wacom and NTrig) and couldn’t find a situation where the new design regressed when it comes to pressure sensitivity. The pressure curves are definitely different between the Wacom and NTrig implementations, but in terms of pure ability I don’t think the reduction in pressure resolution will amount to much.The bigger difference is the new thinner display stack isn’t as strong as the previous model. When applying maximum pressure to the pen on Surface Pro 2, I couldn’t cause the LCD to distort at all. The same isn’t true for Surface Pro 3. The new display stack behaves a lot more like a traditional LCD display in that pushing hard on it will cause color distortion at the point of pressure.Microsoft was quick to point out that by thinning the display stack and reducing reflections it could do a better job of mimicking a traditional pen/paper setup by reducing the distance between the tip of the Surface pen and the resulting dot drawn on the screen. I have to say I didn’t notice a substantial improvement in this area but it wasn’t really bad to begin with in the previous design. I was curious to see if draw latency changed at all with a shift away from Wacom. I pointed a high speed camera at Surface Pro 2 and 3 and measured the lag between the tip of my pen and its impact in software.
Marvell remains Microsoft’s partner of choice when it comes to the WiFi implementation on Surface Pro 3. The updated design features a Marvell Avastar 88W8897 SoC supporting 2-stream 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0. The SoC also features NFC support but it’s not leveraged in Surface Pro 3. WiFi performance is better than on Surface Pro 2. Peak performance improves from around 160Mbps to 260Mbps when connected at an 866Mbps link rate. I didn’t notice any weird behavior or poor performance when connecting to WiFi networks, although as 2-stream 802.11ac implementations go this is hardly the fastest.
Beaten by the battery
Back to that battery result, it frankly isn’t even close to the best I’ve seen from a tablet. In my own use of the Pro 3 – over 10 Google Chrome tabs, Spotify streaming high bitrate audio, TweetDeck running and HipChat active with the keyboard backlit – the slate lasted 3 hours and 55 minutes. Both tests were run at max brightness on the “Balanced” power setting.Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 3 can hold out for up to 9 hours of web browsing before kicking the can. Considering that both PCMark 8 and my own test are plenty more strenuous than that simple task, perhaps the device could last longer under lighter loads.Lowering the brightness will undoubtedly boost endurance, and I noticed that the tablet can last for days on standby. Regardless, this is a device meant to handle relatively heavy work loads. It’s true: both the 13-inch MacBook Air and iPad Air outlast the Surface Pro 3 in our tests. Under more intense loads, it wouldn’t be surprising to see either maintain their lead over Microsoft’s tablet. Perhaps it’s Windows 8.1, or more likely that QHD screen – regardless, there’s room for improvement here.
Given the high-resolution display and the all-round quality of the design (albeit with a couple of minor niggles), the Surface Pro 3’s starting price of £639 seems reasonable. Remember, though, that this doesn’t include the Type Cover keyboard, an essential purchase in our book, which bumps up the price to £749. At this price, the fourth-generation (Haswell) Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage start to look a little mean.Still, there’s a healthy selection of alternatives for more power-hungry users. We’d love to use a 512GB, Core i7 Surface Pro 3 as our main PC, but the £1,759 price tag is too steep.The best-value option appears to be the 256GB Core i5 model, which costs £1,218. It’s pricier than a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro of a similar spec, but not prohibitively so, and for our money it’s a far more portable device, with a more appealingly shaped screen.
kickstand leans back
Microsoft has upped its game in almost every way with the Surface Pro 3, but most crucial is the new and improved Type Cover. The upgrades to this accessory were essential to what Microsoft’s mission to eliminate the laptop. (The improvements were so vital that keeping it an accessory was a clear misstep.)For one, the typing on this cover has been massively improved, with deeper travel and speedier, more powerful pushback than ever from the keys. The larger clickpad – yes, “clickpad” – now clicks with the force you’d expect from a laptop. Though, I did have to be rather deliberate in scrolling through web pages.That the new Type Cover now snaps to the Pro 3’s lower bezel might sound like a silly addition. But it makes for a far more sturdy and comfortable typing experience on your lap.Lastly, the Redmond, Wash. company finally went and bent that kickstand nearly all the way back, allowing users to fully adjust its angle.
This proved to be a boon while balancing the device on my lap for typing, as well as for just browsing my favorite websites while watching TV at the widest angle.The hinges are incredibly stiff, requiring considerable force before they begin to give way. You should want that kind of rigidity from a device you’re to use essentially for any and every computing task.
The Surface Pro 3 did, however, best most of the competition in battery life, even if only by a small margin. On our video playback battery drain test, it ran for 7 hours and 28 minutes, which is close to a full work day. The Yoga 2 Pro and HP’s 13-inch two-in-one X2 hybrid fell only slightly behind, and last year’s Surface Pro 2 ran for about 30 minutes less. Of course, as the introductory press conference for the Surface Pro 3 was built in part around comparisons to the MacBook Air, we should point out that the Air ran for more than 6 additional hours on that test.
Does the Surface Pro 3 really do something so different than its predecessors that it will replace the sea of glowing MacBook Airs seen in the audience during Microsoft’s NYC launch event? No, it’s still the same basic concept: a Core i-series slate, coupled with a very good keyboard accessory.In the hand (or lap) shortcomings stood out, including some ergonomic difficulty actually balancing the thing on your lap, and a touchpad that still doesn’t work effortlessly, but it’s certainly different enough from the Surface Pro 2 that I can call this a very substantial generation-over-generation leap.Putting on-paper specs aside, it’s already become my go-to coffee shop companion over the past few days, and I’d feel confident taking it on a plane ride or day full of on-the-go meetings. But I’m not quite ready to trade in my laptop just yet.