Surface Pro 3 review rebuttal: Laptops and tablets beware

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As efforts like After The Buzz, the Pocketnow U-Review, and Empty Nest demonstrate, we’re constantly searching for fresh ways to review mobile technology. The newest product of those efforts is Pocketnow’s “Review Rebuttal” series, in which a member of our team is assigned to test a smartphone or tablet that’s already gone through our standard review process. While the resulting video or editorial doesn’t affect the “official” Pocketnow review score, we hope it provides added context by showcasing an editor’s personal opinion, rather than a team-wide consensus.

We call it the “rebuttal” because the new opinion sometimes differs significantly from the thrust of the original review. Rather than reject or bury that, we think the dissenting opinion is valuable – and we present it for your evaluation alongside select product reviews.

Here at Pocketnow, we’re not so certain that just one review is enough. After all, different reviewers have different perspectives. One editor loved this device so much, I’m surprised it didn’t have a ring on it when I got it. I was equally surprised when I found no red pentagram from another editor. That being the case, after our Surface Pro 3 review dropped a couple months back, I knew I needed to get my hands on this bad boy to give it the full experience and try to come at this from a little more in the middle.

Ever since the webOS days, I have dreamed about a unified ecosystem that transcends form factor into one universal UI. If you learn one, you learn all. It’s such a unicorn of a concept that you can taste how much you want it. HP promised to put webOS on everything from tablets to toasters, all with that same UI. That reality was obviously never realized. Since then, Windows has proceeded along a similar course – and some would argue it has been just as effective as webOS, but we don’t listen to those people.

Microsoft has been shifting toward a mobile-friendly operating system over the last few years in pursuit of that same ideal: use it here, use it everywhere. It has seen some amount of success in that arena – live tiles and all that – but it has yet to achieve the objective. So if you can’t do it in software, let’s give it a go in hardware, right? That is another sub unicorn of the unicorn – a tablet that can replace your laptop. Why carry around two devices when you only need one? With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has taken a great stride toward that ideal.

surface on a bench-780Hardware

The hardware on the Surface Pro 3 is beautiful. Its magnesium body, front glass face, front firing speakers and kickstand all scream quality, precision, and craftsmanship. There were some design choices that I would not have made, but those will be addressed later. Overall, the fine quality of the hardware leaves little doubt that this is a premium device that should get your attention. The buttons along the side and top reflect that same quality. The front firing speakers are practically invisible along the edge of the screen, so much so that you don’t even notice that they’re there until you hear the sound coming from them. It’s not the loudest output we’ve ever come across, but more than adequate for most environments.

The screen is a bright, 2160 x 1440 panel that’s great for watching movies, writing, or reading. It’s easily viewed in strong daylight and dims sufficiently so that reading at night is not a headache-inducing nightmare. Overall, this tablet is solid in the hardware department.

And that kickstand. This is another brilliant piece of engineering. In fact, the kickstand should be on every tablet (as I have said in the past) and Microsoft’s third variation with this Surface Pro 3 got everything right. The kickstand pops out to the 22 degrees you might remember from the original Surface. Then it opens further, further, and even further, like a snake’s jaw all the way out to a 150 degree angle. This allows you to put the Surface anywhere … and we did.

The importance of this feature cannot be understated. From adjusting viewing angles on table, lap, standing desk, and everything in between, this kickstand can handle anything you care to throw at it – or throw it on, as the case may be. The extra stability provided by the keyboard makes this the most lap-able tablet on the market today. I wrote article after article with that tablet on my lap in a moving train without missing a beat. Microsoft hit a hardware home run.

Software

The software experience on the tablet is, well, it’s Windows 8.1. Take that for whatever it means to you. In my opinion, Windows 8.1 is a fine but flawed operating system. There is a very steep learning curve when tackling 8.1, mostly because it is so different from its predecessors. But it’s not as bad as the public outcry has been. Windows 8.1 has an identity problem. Sometimes it’s a desktop app, sometimes it’s a metro app. Some find that to be a broken experience, and they are not wrong. But once you get into the mindset that the “desktop experience” is basically “an app”, it becomes much easier to live with and navigate with.

The desktop behaves just like an app in Windows 8.1. It can be split, it can be swiped down to close, it can be swiped in from the left in the task switcher. Keeping that in mind, it’s not that hard to keep Modern apps and Desktop apps separate. But you shouldn’t have to, and we’ll leave it at that. The rest of the operating system is tough to get used to, but once you do get used to it, it works really well. Swipe in from the left to switch tasks. Swipe in from the right to access settings. Swipe up from the bottom to see a full list of apps. Tap on a tile to open apps. When in doubt, search. None of this is particularly brain busting, but it’s not exactly intuitive either.

The bottom line here is, if you already like Windows 8, the software is great. If you hate Windows 8 because you’ve heard it’s really bad … well, you’ve heard wrong; give it a chance. If you hate Windows 8 because you’ve used it and you just frankly don’t like it, buy a Macbook. We won’t judge.

surface-pro-3-batteryBattery

For the bulk of the review period,  I used the Surface Pro 3 daily as my primary device. For a full 10 days, I left my Macbook and iPad at work and did everything else on the Surface. I had no problems whatsoever working this way, and I would welcome doing so again. I did notice a bit of trouble in the battery life department. I don’t know if this is because of the screen brightness, or the frequency of use, or the number of apps I had open, but I never felt that ten hours of battery was realistic.

Then again, I’ve never felt that way on my Macbook either, so take that for what you will. All told, most days, I left work with a fully charged Surface Pro and used it on the train, at home, and then again on the train in the morning and returned to work to plug it in, generally with about 15-20% battery left in the tank. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But, that’s actually more like 16 hours!” Sure, but most of those I’m sleeping and so is the tablet. On the weekends, where the tablet sees much more use during daylight hours, I was usually plugging in the charger toward late afternoon, maybe after 7-8 hours of off-and-on use.

This is not a condemnation of the battery life. There are a lot of things to consider:

  1. I was the third user of this Surface in its short life span.
  2. This Surface shipped with a software-induced battery issue that was corrected with an update.
  3. Neither I nor the average user will generally need 10 full hours of battery life.

Overall, I’m going to say that the Surface’s battery life was on par with, or a little below my Macbook’s battery. The difference was negligible.

design780

Design choices

As beautiful as the Surface Pro 3 is, there are some design choices that I don’t like at all. First of all, on the keyboard there is a pen holder for the Surface Pro 3’s digitizer. This pen holder is basically an elastic band that is stuck by the user to the keyboard cover (or presumably to anything else the user wants to stick it to). This leaves a rather unattractive rounded square on the bottom (outside when closed) of the type cover. It’s just ugly and there’s really no reason for it, except to offer the user a choice of where they want to stick it. Seriously, Microsoft, take control of your product. Put the holder where you think it should go. Stitch it in all nice and purdy-like. If you stitch it, they will come.

Across the top of the Surface is a silver-colored, non-magnesium band that goes mostly from end to end. I can’t be sure what purpose this bar/cover/whatever serves, but it’s just not-silver enough to be noticeable against the rest of the beautiful body of the Surface. I speculate that perhaps this is a piece that is necessary for the assembly of the tablet. If that’s the case, it should also be made out of the same material as the body, or it should be an “accent” color which accentuates the body, instead of trying to mimic it badly.

The type cover on the Surface is a brilliant piece of engineering. Microsoft was concerned about consumer complaints that the Surface could not balance well, so it changed the kickstand and keyboard. The keyboard now attaches magnetically against the front of the tablet to provide a triangle of stability at the front of the device. This is a brilliant move that addresses a ton of concerns, but it creates one too:

Internet Explorer is Microsoft’s web browser. Windows is Microsoft’s operating system. The Surface is Microsoft’s hardware. In the modern version of Internet Explorer, similar to the Windows Phone browser, there is an ellipsis at the bottom of the screen which you use to access the address bar, tabs, etc. When the keyboard is propped up and magnetically attached to the face of the device, it comes right up to that ellipsis in a nice neat square little corner. Well, I don’t know what your fingers look like, but mine are of the round variety. Which makes pressing that ellipsis to access the address bar (which is kind of an important thing on a web browser) almost impossible.

Microsoft’s browser, Microsoft’s OS, and Microsoft’s hardware. Seriously.

Granted, you can access that area with a swipe down gesture from the top of the screen, or you can tap the ellipsis with the digitizer, but you shouldn’t have to. Visual design cues should be available for use in any way the user cares to use them, be it finger or digitizer.

Digitizer_keyboard7802And speaking of the digitizer…

Microsoft put a lot of functionality into its digitizer, including a ton of really awesome OneNote compatibility. Click the top button once, launch a new note. Double click it and grab a screenshot. Two buttons on the cylinder act as mouse buttons. These are all pretty useful features. I’m not the artist Adam Lein is, so I can’t comment on how useful the pressure sensitivity is or isn’t. I’m sure that’s important to a lot of people, but I’m not one of them. When using the digitizer, I felt like I was using the future.

But.

The digitizer was very much like Windows 8 itself. It seemed to have a bit of a personality crisis. The digitizer could highlight, but it couldn’t drag in some places. In other places it could drag. In some places if I wanted to select I had to use the digitizer, but if I wanted to scroll I had to use my finger. Sometimes, I couldn’t get the digitizer or my finger to do what I wanted to do, so I had to resort to the trackpad on the keyboard. Bottom line, I wish the digitizer had worked more like a mouse and less like a pointer. If this is supposed to be a tablet, then you shouldn’t need three different devices (if you want to call your finger a “device”) to accomplish three similar tasks. Microsoft needs to figure out a way to make a digitizer a mouse replacement as much as it needs to figure out how to make a tablet a laptop replacement.

hello_world780

Conclusion

This is the tablet that can replace your laptop (assuming you also get the Type Cover). In many ways, it’s more of a laptop than a tablet. From storage capacity, to raw power, to ease of typing and work, this thing is a beast that will gladly accept anything you decide to throw at it. Lately, the theme with Microsoft –whether it’s the hardware, software, or digitizer– is confusion. There’s a lot to be desired in the overall user experience, especially when compared to Apple. I’m not making this comparison unfairly since Microsoft drew the parallel itself during the Surface Pro 3 announcement. It is very possible to pass off a lot of this confusion as “Microsoft being Microsoft,” but a user should not have to.

That being said, a little confusion is to be expected when trying to capture a unicorn. This is not a transition that is going to happen overnight. What is important is the progression of Surface to Surface Pro 2 to Surface Pro 3. Extraordinary strides are being made and Microsoft has almost nailed it. Stamp out some of these bugs and welcome to the future, friends.

This is a great device, and if you’re in the market for a high-end Windows 8.1 experience, get this. That isn’t even a question. There are certain advantages to having two devices, as I learned on vacation. It should also be said that while the Surface is a great laptop and a great tablet, there is still room at the table for a 7-8-inch tablet. A Dell Venue Pro 8, a Nexus 7, or an iPad Mini would go very nicely with this tablet. There are just some times that you don’t need a 12-inch screen. Bottom line, if you love Windows, or you’re willing to learn Windows, this should be at the top of your list of devices to check out. It’s not without its compromises, but Microsoft really did score a winner here and I will be sad when I have to send it on.

Itching for more insights on the Surface Pro 3? Howling mad at anything (or everything) Doud dropped above? Hold off for a second and get the whole picture: see our full Surface Pro 3 review, as well as Taylor Martin’s decidedly less positive take on the device, and then head over to our Instagram account to laugh at the SP3 in precarious positionsOr, fine, just motor on down to the comments and start clacking away – but keep it civil, y’hear?

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About The Author
Adam Doud
Adam joined the tech world after watching Jon Rubenstein demo the most epic phone ever at CES 2009. He is webOS enthusiast, Windows Phone fan, and Android skeptic. He loves the outdoors, is an avid Geocacher, Cubs/Blackhawks fan, and family man living in Sweet Home Chicago, where he STILL hosts monthly webOS meetups (Don’t call it a comeback!). He can be found tweeting all things tech as @DeadTechnology, or chi-town sports at @oneminutecubs.Read more about Adam Doud!