Has Microsoft done it? Has it created a convertible that’s not only brilliant, but can dethrone the MacBook Air as the king of portable productivity? We camped out in our labs for a week with the Surface Pro 3 to find out.
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What Is It?
The Surface Pro 3 is the latest piece of first-party Windows hardware to come out of Microsoft’s sleek Studio B.
It’s a 12-inch tablet/convertible with a beautiful 2160×1440 screen, with an aspect ratio of 3:2 instead of the traditional 4:3 we’ve seen on previous Surface models.
Under the hood is a choice of Intel Fourth Generation Core processor, between the Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 chipsets. You’ve also got a choice of storage and RAM variants with the Pro 3.
It starts at $979 in Australia for the 64GB Core i3 rig. The 128GB i5 is priced at $1209, while the 256GB i5 is priced at $1549. For the i7 versions, you’re looking at $1829 for the 256GB model and an wallet-thinning $2279 for the 512GB model.
We tested the mid-range model, packing a 1.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i5-4300U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. We also ran our Surface Pro 3 with 64GB of expandable storage courtesy of a microSD card that slides in neatly underneath the fancy new kickstand. The model we tested will run you $1549.
You’re able to pick the Surface Pro 3 up from the Microsoft Online store, as well as at Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi from August 28.
First of all, the Surface Pro 3 is finally a device that looks a million bucks right out of the box. It takes design cues from the original Windows RT-powered Surface 2 with its slim figure and silver VaporMG design, but packs a surprising punch thanks to Intel Fourth-Generation Core processors, massive SSDs and more RAM than you can poke a bundled stylus at.
Last year, we thought this sort of thing unfathomable: the idea that you could have the processing power of a Surface Pro inside the body of a Surface RT tablet. But it’s real, and awesome. (Side note: next year’s Surface models had better be gorgeous what with Intel’s new fanless chips and gorgeous reference units!)
The Surface Pro 3 has been so deliberately designed by the boffins in Redmond that it’s gorgeous from just about any angle. I’m writing this review on a plane right now surrounded by businessmen with their MacBook Airs. Everyone wants to know what that pretty, thin silver thing is I’m typing on. It’s almost guaranteed to turn heads.
Much like the Surface and Surface 2 family, the Surface Pro 3 is meant to be two devices in one: an excellent tablet for all your consumption needs, and a practical workstation for all your productivity needs, all tied together by a funky kickstand on the back that could suit both functions. A go-anywhere, do-anything gadget if you will. The last two devices let themselves down, either due to size, impractical kickstands or derpy Windows RT. The Surface Pro 3 is the realisation of Microsoft’s convertible dreams.
- Processors: Intel Core i3, Intel Core i5, Intel Core i7
- Capacities: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
- Screen: 12-inch, 2160×1440 resolution, 216ppi
- Software: Windows 8.1 Professional
- Warranty: 2 years
- Accessories: OneNote Stylus (bundled), Surface Type Cover (optional extra)
It’s thinner and more portable than ever, which makes it surprisingly comfortable to hold as a tablet despite its larger screen size, and makes it incredibly practical to slip into a satchel or backpack to take with you all day.
There’s a new kickstand in town with the Surface Pro 3, and like many things on the new Surface, it’s better than ever. The kickstand originally evolved out of the Surface as a way to make the Surface stand up straight when put down on a table. It then became a major selling point when Microsoft realised it could become a great productivity tablet, with Redmond adding a second kick angle to the stand on the second model. Naturally then, you’d think that the boffins would just install a third angle to the kickstand for the Surface Pro 3. Nope. It’s infinitely adjustable, all the way down.
It has one fixed angle of kick, much like the original Surface, but a little pressure pushes it beyond the catch point and sees the Pro 3 recline luxuriously downwards. Like a sun lounger on a beautiful summer’s day.
The infinite kickstand makes the new Surface infinitely more practical than its predecessors, and in this reviewer’s opinion, also more practical than any other convertible on the market right now.
We’ve tried to fault the new kickstand on every possible front, but you can use it perfectly on your lap, lying down, on a desk, standing up, etc. Think of a position and you can use the Surface Pro 3 in it. Brilliant!
Pair that with the new, wider Type Cover (thanks to the wider screen) and you have a keyboard with better travel and a sturdier feel than ever. Another nifty thing about the new Type Cover is a magnetic strip at the top of the keyboard that allows you to snap it onto the Surface, meaning it sits at a slight angle for those who don’t want to type on a flat surface all their lives. That’s great when you’re lying down with the Surface or using it on your lap.
The new Type Cover also includes a much better trackpad, too. Rather than just a flat surface that responds to tap, Microsoft has integrated a clickable surface much like the trackpad on the MacBook family. Two-finger scrolling needs work on the trackpad but it’s way more usable as an everyday pointer device than any Type Cover before it.
The good news there for older Surface users is that the connector appears to be backwards-compatible with Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 models, so you can get great new accessories for your older device. The only thing that isn’t backwards-compatible with the older Surface models is the charger. Admittedly, Microsoft has made the charging port much smarter on the Pro 3, opting for an Apple-like Magsafe-style connection that snaps pleasantly into the device. It does mean you need to get a new charger if you’re upgrading, but it’s worth for the frustration you avoid in the long run.
Microsoft has reinvented its stylus for the Surface Pro 3, creating something specifically designed for OneNote users. Simply click the button at the top of the pen (which connects to your Surface via Bluetooth), and it opens a lockscreen, Metro-version of OneNote. Write or doodle to your heart’s content, and when you’re done, just click the pen again and OneNote saves your work to OneDrive. Microsoft also knows that you lost your stylus within days on the last Surface, so it’s including Pen Loops with every Type Cover and built a groove into the top just so you can attach the pen via its built-in clip with a simple slide.
The Surface Pro 3 has ditched the Wacom digitiser, meaning there are fewer points of touch on the Surface Pro 3 compared to the Surface Pro 2. It doesn’t seem to be an issue, however, from our drawing and writing tests, and the positive upside is that Microsoft has refined its palm rejection algorithms to make taking notes on the screen while resting your hand on it is much more practical.
That screen you’re writing on has an insane 2160×1440 resolution, and colours pop beautifully. The white balance is just about spot on, but if we had to nitpick we’d say there were shades of blue in there that might get annoying for pixel peepers. Thankfully, having garden-variety Windows and not some RT wannabe means you can download any number of programs to help you tweak it to your heart’s content.
Just on the software front, the Surface Pro 3 ships with Windows 8.1 Professional, which has come a long way since the initial Surface Pro. Back then, it was riddled with little UI problems and bugs that made using any device running the OS frustrating. Windows 8.1 on the Surface Pro 3, however, feels more grown-up and capable.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Performance
Graphics: 3D Mark Fire Strike: 527 3D Mark Fire Strike Extreme: 218
Gaming: Tomb Raider: 7.7fps (Normal) 11.4 (Low)
Storage: CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Read): 453.8MBps CrystalDiskMark (Sequential Write): 260.1Mbps
Ultimately, Microsoft wants this thing to kill the MacBook Air, wedging it squarely in-between the 11-inch and 13-inch options, both in screen size and cost. The new Surface Pro has the MacBook Air beat on resolution, size (if you’re talking about the 11-inch model, not the 13-inch), practicality (simply because it’s both a tablet and a laptop) and weight. The Surface Pro 3 weighs an insane 800 grams compared to the smallest MacBook Air which weighs 1.3kg. It also wedges nicely in the pricing scale: the MacBook Air 11-inch (128GB model) costs $1099, ranging right up to the 13-inch (256GB) model which costs $1399. The 256GB Core i5 Surface Pro 3 we tested sits at $1549, but you can certainly get it cheaper than that if you scale down the SSD size and supplement it with a larger MicroSD card for yourself.
Whether it’s better value than the MacBook Air is completely up to you and the spec you choose at the end of the day, we’re just happy Microsoft isn’t charging the Australia Tax on the new Surface Pro 3.
Microsoft has been caught charging us the Australia Tax before. For those out of the loop, the Australia Tax is when companies charge inexplicably more for a device, service, content or piece of software just because it’s distributing it in Australia and not in the US. Adobe, Apple and Microsoft were hauled in front of the Parliament last year for their antics.
The Surface Pro 3 starts at $US799. Seeing the $979 sticker price in Australia might immediately lead you to think that the Australia Tax is alive and well, but look harder.
US prices don’t include tax like Australian prices do. Add 10 per cent tax to compensate for the GST ($US79), shipping ($US85) and convert that all to Australian dollars, and you find that you’re actually getting cheaper in Australia, as the final price comes out at $1040* for an imported Surface Pro 3.
(*Admittedly, our estimates are a little on the high side, but even when calculated with $US50 shipping and a 9 per cent sales tax at an exchange rate of 0.93 AUD to 1 USD, it still works out at $994.)
What’s Not So Good?
It’s great that the Surface Pro 3 can handle Steam games. Honestly, having a tablet that you can throw open and play a bit of Day Z is awesome from my point of view, but the Surface Pro 3 is far from a gaming machine.
To play games like Tomb Raider, Day Z and even Counter Strike Source we had to turn everything down to Low settings before it would run without lag. It can certainly play the games, but don’t expect to be blown away by the graphics it’s capable of. As you can see by the graphics benchmarks above, the Pro 3 can only produce 11 frames per second on Tomb Raider on the default Low setting. Not stellar performance by anyone’s measure.
Like the last two Surface tablet/convertibles, the Surface Pro 3 has kinks here and there. For example, the hinge sounded a little creaky at times when deployed on its first fixed angle; the Type Cover trackpad has gone from being kind of OK to kind of rubbish on the new model; the speakers (while louder than before) still leave a bit to be desired in the volume and quality department; the fan is weirdly noisy and the OneNote pen accessory drops its Bluetooth connection whenever it damn well feels like it. These aren’t issues that would dissuade us from recommending or even buying the Surface Pro 3 for ourselves, but it’s just something to keep in mind.
The Surface Pro 3 is also missing a couple of things that it probably should have: namely a second USB 3.0, and a bundled Office 365 subscription. Wouldn’t it be nice if Microsoft sweetened the deal of its flagship tablet/convertible device with the flagship productivity software it’s trying to flog customers? Even if it were bundled for just the first year, Microsoft would nab just about every customer that bought a Surface Pro 3 into its ecosystem. That’s where the cream comes from.
The battery on the Surface Pro 3 is better than before, but still leaves a bit to be desired. As usual, it seems to be the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules sucking most of the power. The Surface Pro 2 shipped with an overzealous Wi-Fi module that sucked power so severely that we got four hours worth of life in our tests.
The Surface Pro 3 isn’t that bad, lasting around 7 hours in our stress tests, but it’s still amazing to see that a device designed to challenge the 13-inch MacBook Air still does less than half of its main rival’s battery life.
Should You Buy It?
In short, the Surface Pro 3 is a convertible masterpiece. It brings quality first-party hardware with a premium feel. For the longest time, convertibles have just felt like experiments in design: hinges that flip, turn and pivot but don’t feel 100 per cent right. The Surface Pro 3, however, feels smooth, well-engineered and practical.
It’s something you’ll definitely use as a tablet and as a laptop, simply because it excels at both. It’s just the right size and weight to be a tablet, yet sturdy enough to replace your Ultrabook. And with accessories like the Surface Dock and OneNote pen, it’s fit for so many different things.
We highly recommend the Surface Pro 3, provided you’re going to be using it as an everyday Ultrabook-replacement meant for work and a bit of play. The only caveat we’d add onto our glowing recommendation is this: if you need something with grunt, whether it’s for gaming or creative work, it’s definitely worth investing your cash elsewhere. The top-end Core i7 Surface Pro 3 can get jolly expensive, and that cash may be better invested elsewhere.
For the most part, however, we love the Surface Pro 3 and think you will too.