Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: sell your iPad and laptop, and get this instead
Back in March of 2013 we reviewed the original Surface Pro, and established that it can most certainly replace your laptop provided you adapt to the small 10″ screen, buy the Type Cover keyboard instead of the Touch Cover, and learn to use the stylus instead of a trackpad or mouse. Today we’re looking at the third generation Surface Pro, a device capable of almost everything the original was, with some significant improvements to boot.
The Surface Pro 2 was probably the best tablet I’ve ever used. Since I’m more than just a tech journalist, I need the power to use real high-end creative programs that have been around for decades. In fact, I’ve been using Windows-based tablets since 2002 for that very reason. I haven’t even bought a laptop in the 21st century. As a graphic artist and photographer, the pressure sensitive stylus is absolutely imperative for me.
Microsoft’s big point about the Surface Pro 3 is that it’s finally a tablet capable of replacing your laptop. For me, that already happened in 2002 – but for everyone else that remains to be seen. Find out if Microsoft’s latest rises to the occasion in our full review of the Surface Pro 3.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · Software · Battery Life ·
Conclusion · Scored for Me
The Surface Pro 3 is available in a wider range of price levels and performance configurations than ever before. With the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 you only had one processor choice and the different configurations varied only by SSD size and RAM size. Our review unit has a 4th generation Core i5-4300U 2.5Ghz Haswell processor, 8Gb of RAM, 256Gb storage and the battery life can generally last all day without having to plug in.
Our demo device also packs an Intel HD4400 GPU, but other configurations offer even more horsepower for those who need to do more serious computing. You can get versions with 64GB/128GB storage (with 4GB RAM) or 256GB/512GB storage (with 8GB RAM), and for processors you’ve got a choice of the 4th generation Intel Core i3, i5, and i7.
The weight and dimensions have changed significantly from previous Surface Pros. At 292mm x 201.3mm x 9.1mm and only 800 grams, the Surface Pro 3 is much thinner than previous generations. It’s lighter too. The screen size is bigger though at 12 inches, with a gorgeous 2160 x 1440 pixel resolution and a nice 3:2 aspect ratio meant to resemble a pad of paper. Of course, it also has a full sized USB 3.0 port, a Micro SD slot for storage expansion, headset jack, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a Mini Display Port that can be daisy chained for multiple monitors. Front and rear cameras have been upgraded to 5 megapixels each, but since this is a tablet, you probably don’t want to use those for anything other than video chats.
If these 5 megapixel cameras were made by Nokia, they’d at least stand a chance at being passable. Unfortunately they’re not, so the quality is pretty horrible. Still, it’s good enough for snapping something into OneNote or video calling a group of people on Skype.
The new kickstand is a significant improvement. Instead of only one or two available positions, the Surface Pro 3’s kickstand can be adjusted for almost any viewing angle. The first deployment stop is familiar from previous Surfaces: it flips out very easily so you can set it on a table quickly, but the hinge becomes much stiffer when you bend it further to find your desired angle. It’s a great solution, and we’re very impressed with the engineering behind it.
One of our favorite parts of the Surface Pro 3 is the new screen size. The larger 12″ screen and 3:2 aspect ratio makes professional-grade desktop programs like those in the Adobe suite much easier to use. There’s a lot more vertical space available for all of those tools and control panels. The high resolution is great, too, except for some of the programs that don’t yet support high-DPI screens. In those cases, buttons are often way too small.
If there’s a major handicap to this display, it’s the brightness. The screen isn’t quite as bright as last generation’s Surface Pro 2, which means it mainly works best indoors: even with full brightness, outdoor viewing isn’t so good.
In the above photo you can see how the thinness of the Surface Pro 3 on the left compares to the Surface 2 on the right. We had to go super-macro in order to notice any difference.
The new aspect ratio feels great in the hand and on the eyes, especially in portrait mode. It feels like a heavy magazine or pad of paper. It’s very comfortable to hold.
Microsoft had to make larger Type Covers for the new Surface Pro 3 due to the larger screen. They’re still sold separately so that you can choose the color you want.
The backlit keys and nice soft material on the back have made the jump to the new Type Cover, and now there’s a new trackpad as well. Because the keyboard is bigger, Microsoft was able to expand the trackpad as well: 68% larger to be precise, now with a nice smooth plastic instead of the cloth like material of the previous generation. The trackpad supports all of the new Windows 8 multi-touch gestures now: you can swipe the left and right edges to switch apps or activate charms, and you can use two fingers to quickly scroll through the interface. It works much better than previous versions of the trackpad on Surface covers, but it’s still a trackpad. You should learn to use the stylus and touch screen instead since they’re far more efficient.
The new keyboard also has an extra folding area that can magnetically attach to the bottom bezel of the screen. Without this attached, touching the screen can cause the tablet to wobble a bit if you have a steep angle set on the kickstand. Attaching it makes the screen a lot more stable in that scenario and also sets the keyboard at a more ergonomic angle for your fingers.
The MicroSD slot is especially useful for adding storage space to the Surface Pro since the 128Gb version only comes with 89Gb available at first boot (though you can increase that available space with some tweaks.)
The original Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 used an inexpensive version of Wacom’s Cintiq digitizer technology. With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft switched the stylus digitizer technology to an N-Trig version. The advantages include a thinner screen, a smaller visual gap between the stylus tip and pointer display, and better accuracy.
A negative side-effect of that digitizer swap is that the Surface Pro 3’s stylus only supports 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, which is much less than the Surface Pro 2. In real life, though, the difference is not noticeable at all. You still have plenty of control over variable brush stroke widths using the stylus in all of your high end graphics programs.
Where do you keep the stylus now, you might ask? Our review unit came with a type keyboard that has a stretch-fabric loop on it. It’s a much more secure place to keep the stylus compared to the power-port clip that previous Surface Pro tablets used. Since the stylus is metal, you can also mount it to any of the magnetic edges of the Surface Pro 3.
Incidentally, the new stylus has three non-rechargeable batteries inside –one AAAA and two coin cells– and it’s going to be a bummer when they die. They’re necessary, though, to power the Surface Pen’s Bluetooth connection to the tablet, which enables special OneNote functions. You can press the purple button on the end of the pen to launch OneNote even if the tablet is in sleep mode. On our review unit, this only worked some of the time, but we expect software updates to eventually improve the reliability.
The new silver magnesium alloy just looks great on the Surface Pro 3 and the Surface logo on the back of the kickstand is a really nice touch.
Above you can see the headphone jack, as well as the volume buttons on the left and the power button on the right. These controls have changed locations a bit compared to previous Surface tablets, but that’s something that’s easy to get used to.
The other interesting thing is the tiny grill around the bottom edge of the tablet. With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft implemented a whole new method of circulating air within the device to keep it cool. There are very high-end processors inside there, and if you push the tablet with some high-end programs, it’s going to get warm. There is a fan inside and you do hear it when it spins up to handle a heavy processing load.
Oh yes, of course there’s a full sized USB port and a mini-display port that you can hook a bunch of large monitors up to. It’s interesting how the USB port is at such an angle and isn’t completely covered. Still it works very well and seems to require less force than the USB port on the Surface Pro 1 & 2. In other words, it’s easier to use.
Not everything on the Surface Pro 3 is an improvement though. Our biggest annoyance is that the capacitive start button is now smack in the middle of the right bezel when the tablet is held in landscape mode. Microsoft’s Panos Panay says this change was made partially to highlight the Surface Pro 3’s portrait-mode abilities, but it’s now far too easy to press when using the stylus on the screen.
Also, on several occasions during our testing, the back of the Surface Pro 3 got quite hot. A look at the task manager usually showed that this was caused by a background process installing updates, but other CPU-intensive activities will heat the device just as readily. For example, rendering and editing the video review above would get the fan to turn on.
The Surface Pro 3 comes with Windows 8.1 Pro preinstalled. This is the only touch-friendly operating system out there that can run your professional-grade desktop PC programs. That means you’ve got access to the largest computing ecosystem in the world. More software than Android’s and Apple’s app stores combined.
If you’re an artist with Photoshop, Zbrush, Illustrator, Manga Studio, etc. you’ll want to install the WinTab drivers from the N-Trig website in order to enable pressure sensitivity in all of those programs. After you do that, it all works just as well as the Wacom tech in the previous Surface Pros. The new drawing hardware is slightly more accurate, too.
Windows 8.1 is great for full-screen consumption applications as well. You can snap up to 4 Metro apps side by side on the Surface Pro 3’s screen and the interface is designed to make very efficient use of edge gestures. Swipe from the left edge to swap apps, swipe from the right edge to access important functions like settings, printing, or sharing.
Some people may think that switching between the “Desktop” environment and the new touch-friendly modern interface is jarring. That’s true, but it’s no more jarring than opening a program like Lightwave 3D and switching between that and Microsoft Word.
If you’re an Android fan, you can also run Android apps on the Surface Pro 3. They may run a little less smoothly than native Windows 8 apps, but the Bluestacks software has been improving and if you really need a specific Android app, this is a good solution.
If you’re a Google Chrome fan though, you’ll be disappointed. Chrome’s immersive “Chrome OS” mode on the Surface Pro 3’s build of Windows 8.1 is horribly buggy. It doesn’t detect the stylus, its user interface elements are all out of place, and the browser doesn’t even fill the whole screen. The Chrome browser works fine in desktop mode though, and any of Google’s other x86 Windows apps will work.
Still, when you’re using the touch screen, Internet Explorer’s modern full-screen touch browser works much better.
Here’s a good example of a program that doesn’t support high-DPI screens. Many of those controls are extremely small and hard to read. The stylus is accurate enough to get a good grip on most of them, but some are more difficult to activate. You can use the Display Settings control panel to enlarge the interface somewhat, but it may not be enough. Fortunately, Adobe is developing a software update for Photoshop that will play far nicer with high-DPI tablets, and hopefully more programs will follow.
You’re not confined to still images, either: editing video in Premiere Pro is possible on the Surface Pro 3. (If you’re going to try this, a helpful hint: you might be more comfortable using keyboard shortcuts on the Type Cover 3 with your left hand while using the stylus in your right hand.)
The Surface Pro 3 still supports Hyper-V hardware virtualization like the original Surface Pro seen above. That means it’s extremely easy to set up virtual machines and VHDs for running secondary operating systems and other applications not directly supported by Windows 8. In the above video you’ll see how easy it is to get Linux running in a virtual machine. You can imagine it would be pretty simple to keep an extra virtual machine available on the Surface Pro if you want to do some advanced things in Linux.
In terms of “easy to learn” versus “easy to use”, if you’re used to the point and touch UI of an iPad, or the mouse-and-click UI of a Windows 95 PC, you’re not going to be able to look at Windows 8 and instantly know how to use it. Many controls and commands are hidden underneath the edges of the screen and there are other gestures you’ll have to learn for things like scrolling or pinch-zooming other interface elements. However, those new interface conventions don’t take too long to learn and once you get them into your head, the touch-based Windows 8 interaction method becomes very easy to use and very fast. You won’t want to go back to a mouse or trackpad ever again.
For more about Windows 8, be sure to check out our full review.
As mentioned above, the front and rear cameras on the Surface Pro 3 are both rated at 5 megapixels. Yes, the resolution is plenty for high-definition Skype video calls or capturing something that you want to save in OneNote, but taking photos or videos with this tablet out in public is not recommended.
Regardless, here’s a few sample 5-megapixel images from both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras on the Surface Pro 3. Incidentally, the rear camera is no longer angled for recording video while sitting on a table with the kickstand out.
Since the Surface Pro 3 is using 4th generation Intel Core Haswell processors, the battery life has been significantly improved over the original Surface Pro. Instead of getting only about 4-5 hours of battery life on the original Surface Pro, the Surface Pro 3 gets double that. It’s about the same as the Surface Pro 2 which also has the same type of processor. Obviously if you do a lot of CPU intensive stuff like editing HD video, or batch processing hundreds of RAW photographs, the battery life is going to suffer a bit, but in our time with the Surface Pro 3, we have found no need to carry the charger around during the day. Plugging it in when you get home is going to be sufficient for all but the hardest-core of users.
- + Gorgeous high-end silver magnesium alloy hardware; thinner and lighter than ever
- + Larger 12″ screen is much better for desktop programs
- + Pressure sensitive stylus with three buttons including straight-to-OneNote button
- + Kickstand can adjust to almost any angle
- + Available in a larger range of configurations and price points
- + Connected standby allows incoming notifications to sound even when asleep (not available on previous Surface Pros)
- + Largest application ecosystem of any tablet operating system
- + Huge hardware compatibility ecosystem (ancient printers still automatically install)
- + More enterprise & business features than any other tablet (Active Directory support, Bitlocker encryption, central management, multi-user log-ins, etc.)
- + USB 3.0 and MicroSD for storage expansion and high speed peripherals
- + 7-9 hour battery life to get you through a full work day
- + Charger is easier to attach than previous Surface tablets. The charging brick is smaller too.
- – New stylus requires 3 non-rechargeable batteries inside it which will need to be replaced someday
- – Intel Core CPU generates some heat when under heavy use
- – Capacitive home button is very prone to accidental presses now that it is on the right bezel
- – Using the kickstand & flexible keyboard option on your lap takes getting used to
- – If you need to run programs that don’t support high-DPI screens, their interface may appear extremely small. There is some forced scaling you can do in the control panel, but it may not be enough.
- – Stylus accuracy, while increased, may not be accurate enough on some of the extremely small UI elements in programs that don’t support high-DPI screens
- – Stylus does not have its own silo within the tablet and needs to be attached externally. This is probably because the stylus is thicker than the tablet.
The Surface Pro 3 surely is not your average little $200 tablet. Its internal components and screen size should communicate that. As such, the pricing may seem a bit daunting – however you have to remember that this is a high-end Tablet PC that can handle practically anything your desktop computer or laptop can. All of these models can currently be pre-ordered at the Microsoft Store website or any real-life Microsoft Store. The Core i5 models will be shipping in June, but the Core i3 and Core i7 versions won’t be available until August.
– Intel Core i3, 64 Gb storage, 4 Gb RAM – $799
– Intel Core i5, 128 Gb storage, 4 Gb RAM – $999
– Intel Core i5, 256 Gb storage, 8 Gb RAM – $1,299
– Intel Core i7, 256 Gb storage, 8 Gb RAM – $1,549
– Intel Core i7, 512 Gb storage, 8 Gb RAM – $1,949
None of those come with the new Surface Pro 3 Type cover, so if you want one of those, you’ll have to add another $129. Original and 2nd generation Type/Touch Covers will still work with the Surface Pro 3, but they don’t cover the entire screen since they were designed for the 10.6″ Surface tablets. There will also be a new docking station available for the Surface Pro 3 (it’s different from the Surface Pro 1/2 docking station), but pricing and availability have not been announced just yet.
Looking at those prices may hurt your wallet a bit, but again: this can replace a much heavier laptop that you’re probably still carrying around anyway. If you’re a student in a cramped dorm room, you can plug in a USB TV tuner and replace your TV, too. Given the new instant-access to OneNote, it could replace the pen & paper many people still carry around as well.
The Surface Pro 3 loses a few points for having batteries in the stylus and an awkward capacitive start button in the bezel, but everything else makes the Surface Pro 3 the best tablet PC we’ve ever used. The large screen and super thin body combined with the most powerful mobile computing hardware around make the new Surface Pro 3 practically irresistible.
As mentioned, the price may be daunting, but this is a tablet for professionals and people who still need to carry around a laptop because that’s the only way they can get the real work done. Want to work on some AutoCAD engineering designs? How about some 3D models for export to a 3D printer? Want to develop your own programs with Visual Studio or any other integrated development environment? Do some work on a video editing project in Premiere Pro, create a Blu-Ray interactive menu in Encore, design some special effects animations in After Effects? All of that is do-able on the Surface Pro 3, but not so much on an iPad or Android tablet. What’s more, with the included stylus, you can still work with all of those programs while standing around waiting, relaxing on the couch or sitting on a crowded train.
Thanks to Windows 8, not only does the Surface Pro excel at professional work-related uses, but it’s also pretty great at the consumer-style tablet functions like reading magazines or ebooks, listening to music, renting movies, social networking, controlling an Xbox, and playing games. Be sure to check out “Living with the Surface Pro” to see how useful the original Surface Pro was in our personal real-life scenarios, all of which still apply to the Surface Pro 3.
If you’ve ever wished that you could use your laptop computer while walking or standing instead of having to set it down on a table, or if you’ve ever used an iPad and wished that it was capable of heavier projects that you need your laptop for, then you’re sure to like the Surface Pro 3. Just like how Smartphones made iPod MP3 Players, PDAs and separate mobile phones obsolete, the Surface Pro 3 will take care of practically everything you might use a tablet and laptop computer for.