Review by Sunetra Chakravati,8/11/2014 3:17:38 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Great design and build quality | Gorgeous screen | Fast and powerful |
Windows 8 app selection still small | Type Cover is expensive and trackpad is poor | Lack of ports |
Now in it’s third iteration, Microsoft is finally confident enough to say the Surface Pro is a worthy replacement for both your laptop and tablet.
When announcing the Pro 3 Microsoft was quick to say it’s a better option than buying an iPad and a MacBook Air - a bold claim, but one which the company is confident it can deliver on. We ditched our iPad and MacBook for a few days to find out if the Surface Pro 3 can really be your one-and-only.
We’ve always liked the way the Surface looks, and for the third installment Microsoft has made it even better. Finished in magnesium, the tablet has a sense of premium build quality equal to the iPad Air. But beyond aesthetics, being 9.1mm thick and weighing 800g, it isn’t really possible (or fair) to compare the Surface Pro 3 with the iPad Air - or indeed any other tablet.
Microsoft claims the new 3:2 aspect ratio make it more usable as a tablet, and it’s right, but the Surface is still a very large slab of glass and magnesium, and not something we can imagine using to read on our daily commute. That being said, with the optional Type Cover (£110) attached and included stylus in your hand, the Surfaced Pro 3 starts to feel like a replacement to your traditional notebook and pen, as well as the laptop. It may not be a reading tool, but it only takes a few minutes to understand how portable the Surface is, despite its large screen.
Around the back you’ll find the kickstand, but a major improvement for this model is how it can be set at almost angle angle, rather than being limited to one or two, as was the case on previous Surfaces. The strand can be set to anywhere between 22 and 150 degrees, and the stiffness of the hinge means it stays securely in place however you position it.
We really like the way the Surface Pro 3 looks; it has build quality Microsoft should be proud of, and is light and compact enough to be carried around all day - even if it isn’t quite as portable as more traditional tablets.
The Surface’s stylus, designed to look and feel like a pen, attaches to the right edge with magnets, but not when the tablet is charging, as that connection gets in the way - something of an oversight by Microsoft here.
The 12-inch screen has a resolution of 2160 x 1550, which means it’s just about impossible to see individual pixels, unless you look very closely. The tiled Start screen of Windows 8.1 and its applications all look great - pin sharp and just beautiful. But the desktop environment, although gorgeous in places, sometimes looks grainy; Chrome doesn’t look good at all, but I imagine this is more a problem with Google than Microsoft.
Brightness can be cranked right up with a couple of screen taps, fending off most of the glare and reflections which plague glass tablet displays. The 3:2 resolution makes far more sense than the 16:9 of previous Surfaces. It gives the screen more depth, giving more space for websites in landscape, and preventing you from looking ridiculous when holding it in portrait. The latter still isn’t as natural as the more compact iPad Air, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
The Surface Pro 3 is available in a number of different specifications. Processors are Intel i3, i5 or i7; RAM is either 4GB or 8GB; storage options are 64, 128, 256 and 512GB.
Microsoft leant us the mid-range Intel i5 model with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. This model costs £849, while the entire Pro 3 catalogue ranges from £639 to £1,649. All include Microsoft’s new stylus, but no model comes with the Type Cover, which costs an additional £110. Being aimed at replacing your laptop, you’re going to want to invest in the Type Cover, and that makes things expensive.
This is where it becomes difficult to compare the Surface Pro 3 to anything other than a high-end laptop. By that yardstick the Surface’s performance holds up well - apps launch quickly, multitasking is smooth and almost the entire user experience is what you’d expect from a laptop. But there are some problems - resizing Chrome in the desktop environment, for instance, was weirdly slow to respond.
Otherwise, both Windows 8.1 and the Surface Pro 3 run fast and smooth - but that doesn’t stop the operating system from still feeling like two completely different user interfaces colliding and creating a confusing experience. Having both the tiled interface (and its tablet-style full screen apps) running in partnership with a traditional desktop feels too much like Microsoft is trying to appeal to two very different audiences.
Sometimes it just doesn’t feel intuitive; say I want to write a document - do I swipe through the tiles looking for OneLook, or do I pick Word from the page with all my applications on? The latter opens Word in the classic desktop environment, whereas opening OneNote keeps me in the full-screen tablet-style apps.
Worse still, some applications can’t offer all of their features without resorting to opening a browser. For example, opening a notification in the Facebook app about a friend’s birthday caused Internet Explorer to open at facebook.com when all I wanted to do was write on their wall.
Despite being sold as a professional machine for getting work done, the Surface Pro 3 does not include Microsoft Office. There’s a free trial, but you’ll have to cough up £8 per month, per user for Office 365 and full access.
Microsoft pegs battery life at nine hours, and while this will vary massively depending on what you’re doing, we found the Surface to live up to this claim when doing basic work like writing and browsing the web.
Updated for the Surface Pro 3, the stylus is designed to look and feel like a premium metal pen and includes a nifty trick where a click of the cap opens a new OneNote page immediately - even if the Surface is asleep and locked. Two clicks lets you take a screenshot, either of the entire display or of an area selected by drawing with the pen.
A slight give in the nib of the stylus makes the connection between plastic and glass feel as much like you’re scribbling on paper as is possible, while the Surface intelligently ignores your palm resting on the screen to make writing feel more natural.
The new Type Cover has an improved trackpad and a new magnet system whereby the keyboard can be tilted upwards at the back to create a better typing angle and help increase stability when typing with the Surface resting on your legs. Although improved, the trackpad is far from perfect. Clicks are more tactile than before, but the pad itself is still small and just not responsive enough - to the extent that using it soon became frustrating. It’s inaccurate and often unresponsive for a moment each time you touch it. A MacBook Air beater this is not.
Finally, given this Surface’s ‘Pro’ name we’d expect to see the Type Cover included in the upfront cost, not tacked on as a £110 optional extra.
The Surface has matured a lot in the two years since it first went on sale. Having grown - both physically and metaphorically - today’s Surface is one which has a clearer idea of what it wants to be. The Type Cover and squarer screen make it look and feel very much like a laptop, only one which has the flexibility of (almost) also working as a tablet.
The hardware is phenomenally good; the superb design and build quality makes us wonder how this could have come from the same company who produced the enormous black box that is the Xbox One. We wouldn’t recommend holding the Surface Pro 3 in one hand for too long, but it’s still every bit as portable as a thin laptop like the MacBook Air - and with all the power and storage to match.
Connectivity is disappointing though, with just one USB port and Microsoft’s decision to go with mini DisplayPort over the more common HDMI.
What lets the Surface Pro 3 down most is its Windows 8.1 software, which still can’t quite work out what it wants to be. The million-pound question is, can the Surface Pro 3 replace your laptop and your tablet? And specifically, is it better than the MacBook Air? The detachable keyboard, touch screen and stylus make it far more flexible than the Air, but as a computer the Apple is still our prefered option - the Surface simply can’t live with the MacBook’s phenomenal trackpad and more comfortable keyboard.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but Microsoft has come awfully close with the Surface Pro 3, and we’re sure, for some people, this will be the ultimate all-in-one solution. But for us, it just doesn’t have the universal appeal of a laptop.