Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 wants to be everything to everyone, but it’s not there yet.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 wants to be everything to everyone, but it’s not there yet.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 wants to be everything to everyone, but it’s not there yet.

Highs

  • Thinnest, lightest Core Intel tablet we've seen
  • Great keyboard
  • Sharp 12-inch screen works well as a laptop display
  • Comfortable touchpad
  • Stylus works great
  • MicroSD card support

Lows

  • Still not comfortable in your lap
  • Too heavy as a tablet
  • Windows 8 desktop apps don't scale well with resolution
  • Windows 8 still a disjointed experience
  • Proprietary charging port
  • OS takes up 20GB of free space

DT Editors' Rating

If at first you don’t succeed, get better and keep trying. This is the tactic that helped Microsoft win a near monopoly in the PC market, own the gaming space with Xbox, and become the default office suite around the world. Microsoft hasn’t lit up the sales charts with Windows Phone 8, Zune, Windows 8, and Surface, but it’s not done trying.

The Surface Pro 3 is Microsoft’s third “Pro” tablet in about 18 months, and this time around it’s made some big changes to try and compete with high-end laptops and tablets, like Apple’s MacBook and iPad lines. The big idea here: Instead of buying a tablet and a laptop, you can buy a Surface and get both things in one expensive, but well-designed package.

Initially, we weren’t impressed with the Surface Pro 3, but we have to admit, after a few days of use, it’s growing on us. Below is a candid list of pros and cons about this tablet/PC. Everyone values different aspects of a device; judge for yourself whether this device is for you.

What’s great about the Surface Pro 3

Industry-leading design and build quality: The Surface Pro 3 is one of the most well-built pieces of hardware we’ve used. Microsoft has improved the design a lot from its previous iteration, making it far more functional as a laptop with a bigger screen, but taken pains to keep the build quality high. The frame is made from magnesium and at 0.3 inches thick, it’s the thinnest full-fledged Intel Core device we’ve ever seen. Believe it or not, Microsoft has put one of the thinnest fans in here of all time, but it’s still whisper quiet, like any other tablet. The kickstand is also now adjustable to almost any position, and feels more durable than ever. If there’s one thing the Surface has going for it, it’s build quality — this is a device that feels like it’s worth money.

Fantastic keyboard (and touchpad): The click-on Type Cover keyboard is pricey at $130, but we can report that it works much better than previous type covers. The keys feel as natural as any ordinary laptop keyboard, and the touchpad for mouse control is greatly improved from the Surface Pro 2. You can use two finger scrolling on this device, and it works well. The other solid change Microsoft made was adding a magnetic strip so you can fold the keyboard up a bit when it’s on your lap, giving it a slight angle and stabilizing it.

Microsoft SURFACE Pro 3 keyboard

Great for airplanes and trains: Thanks to the kickstand, which can now adjust to almost any angle (nearly flat, even), the Surface Pro 3 may be one of the best tablets for use on a nightstand, table, airplane seat, or a train. It sits upright better than most devices, and if you detach the keyboard, it doesn’t take up a lot of space either. The big screen means you can more effectively multitask in these types of environments, too.

Absolutely gorgeous screen and adequate cameras: For the first time, Microsoft has altered the aspect ratio and size of the Surface screen. It has grown from a 16:9 10.6-inch screen to a 3:2 12-inch display. The difference is striking and almost entirely positive. The new Surface screen is big enough to multitask on and use as a desktop computer environment, and thanks to an incredibly gorgeous 2,160 x 1,440 pixel screen, everything is crystal clear as well.

The Surface Pro 3 is one of the most well-built pieces of hardware we’ve used.

The move to a 3:2 aspect ratio has tablet benefits as well. Though we think the screen is too large for a standard tablet, the fact that it’s wider (more like a 4:3 iPad), makes it more comfortable to use in portrait and landscape modes.

On the flip side, the front- and rear-facing 5-megapixel cameras are nothing special, but are more than adequate for video chats and basic shots.

Industry-leading stylus: Hot damn, do we love this stylus. We’ve been using Galaxy Note products and other styli for years now, but Microsoft’s N-Trig Surface Pen really takes the cake. It only has 256 levels of sensitivity, which sounds worse than the 1024 on some Wacom screens, but the experience is phenomenal. The on-screen writing kept up with our handwriting, it was accurate, and the pen has built-in erasing and selection buttons. There’s even a button on top of the pen that launches OneNote. It’s slick and anyone who wants to take notes on an extra large tablet (and has a lot of cash to spend), should strongly consider the Surface.

Clear stereo sound: The two front-facing speakers on the Surface Pro 3 are clear, loud, and get the job done. Few tablets have good sound, but Microsoft is right up there with the sound quality from an iPad. The Surface sounds sensational for the kind of device it is.

Windows 8 is most tolerable in this form: There is no product better designed to capitalize on the strengths of Windows 8.1 than this Surface. The new Windows is built to work on tablets and desktops, and this device is as close to being both as something comes.

Great battery life: Our battery-drain tests keep failing, so we don’t have precise benchmark results yet, but a few days of anecdotal use make it a clear winner. It seems to get around 8 or 9 hours of battery life, which is in line with Microsoft’s estimates. That’s not revolutionary for a tablet, but for a PC it’s great.

What’s annoying about the Surface Pro 3

Very expensive with a lot of pricey extras: The bad thing about good build quality is that it comes at a high price. The Surface Pro 3 starts at $800 for a Core i3/64GB unit, but if you want that keyboard (and you do), it’s gonna cost you another $130. The Surface Pen (stylus) will set you back an additional $50.

Add it all together, and you’re at about $1,000. If you want a 128GB unit with a faster Core i5, you’re at about $1,200, and the high-end 256GB/Core i7 model starts at close to $1,700 with all the accessories. This is a lot of money, roughly equal to some of Apple’s MacBook Air and Pro models, and double the cost of an iPad, and most Windows or Android tablets.

Surface Pro 3 requires mighty long thighs to sit comfortably in a lap.

It’s not lap-able: As much as Microsoft is trying to make the Surface into a more competent laptop alternative, it’s still not nearly as comfortable in the all-important lap position. Most people, including Windows Weekly hosts and Microsoft enthusiasts Mary Jo Foley and Paul Thurrott, are going to find the Pro 3 too large to comfortably sit on the lap. The Pro 3 is less comfortable than previous Surfaces because the screen is larger, making it more top heavy, and the keyboard sticks out further. Add in a rear-protruding kickstand and the Surface Pro 3 needs mighty long thighs to sit comfortably in a lap.

Big and heavy as a tablet: While it’s good as a stationary tablet, and its amazingly thin when you consider its PC origins, if you start carrying Pro 3 around, you’re going to notice pretty quickly that it weighs almost 2 pounds, and more with the keyboard. Thanks to its 12-inch screen, we found it too bulky to store in any kind of bag other than a full backpack or laptop bag, and carrying it around will tire out your arm. For its size, the Surface is remarkably thin and light, but you make a lot of portability sacrifices when you opt for a tablet with a 12-inch screen. And because there is no smaller Surface to choose from (yet), those who want a premium compact tablet will have to search elsewhere — probably among Android and Apple competitors.

Some desktop apps are blurry: That very high screen resolution creates a few problems, too. For some reason, a number of classic PC desktop apps and menus look a little blurry. Everything is functional … just not pretty. Spotify, iTunes, and Chrome browser are a few examples of apps that suffer from this. Other installations, like Avast and LibreOffice (this tablet does not come with MS Office), showed up very clear and crisp. Whatever this problem is, we hope it’s easily fixable by application developers. 

Microsoft SURFACE Pro 3 ports

Only one USB port: Though the Surface desperately wants to compete with laptops, it also has one other crippling disability: a lack of ports. There’s only one fully-functional USB (3.0) port and one Thunderbolt port. The proprietary charging cord has one extra USB port on it, but we’d hardly call that functional. If you want a full swath of ports, you need to opt for a Surface desktop dock. It would have been nice to have two full-size USB ports, at least. Plug in a mouse and you’re done, currently.

We should also note that there’s a MicroSD card reader, but no full-size SD card slot, which will make it difficult for those who use a camera.

Needs more configurations for buyers: We like that there are a bunch of different models to choose from, but laptop buyers used to the Windows ecosystem may find it frustrating that you cannot mix and match storage, RAM, and processor options. There are only five models of the Pro 3 to choose from, and they escalate in storage, RAM, and processor in very rigid ways. If you want a more powerful Core i7, be prepared to also buy at least a 256GB solid-state drive and 8GB of RAM as well.

Windows 8 is tough to use, and disjointed: Unfortunately, we don’t love Windows 8. Right now, it’s still a very disjointed experience requiring you to hop around between a flat, squared, tablet-friendly Live Tile Start screen to the classic Windows desktop. There is probably a way to merge these worlds, but Microsoft hasn’t found it yet. There are still two totally different kinds of apps, two totally separate settings menus, and most other things about the operating system oddly jump from the complicated old look to the overly modern, overly simplistic design of the Live Tile environment.

If you’ve gotten used to Windows 8, more power to you. Or maybe you’re a fan. But for the premium price tag, we wish this tablet came with more user-friendly version of Windows.

Not great for gaming, and it gets hot: Gamers may want to avoid the Surface Pro 3. We tested performance by installing and playing League of Legends on native resolution and compared to other tablets, the Surface dragged its feet. It had a low of 15 frames per second (fps), a high of 31fps, and averaged about 24fps, which is noticeably slow, even for a PC with an Intel GPU. When we lowered the resolution to 1080p, it upped the average to 28fps, but still performed choppy.

More troubling was the heat and fan. We could audibly hear the fan and the temperature of the tablet reached about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t enough to burn you, but may be enough to eventually cause a shut down. Our unit was using a Core i5 processor, so we can only imagine how hot the Core i7 may get. Encoding a long video could result in an overheated Surface.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to like about the Surface, and Microsoft is going out on a limb to create a premium product to showcase Windows 8.1. Unfortunately, for the $1,000 to $2,000 asking price, we think many of you would be better off just buying a nice laptop, and maybe an extra tablet if you still have the cash. When it comes down to it, the Surface is designed as a laptop alternative.

It has some strengths thanks to its more portable tablet form, but it also fails to do a few things as well as an actual laptop would. If you can only buy one product, and you want it to be mostly a PC, but have some tablet elements to it, this may work for you. But for everyone else, we still recommend buying a standard laptop and a standard tablet.

Highs

  • Thinnest, lightest Core Intel tablet we’ve seen
  • Great keyboard
  • Sharp 12-inch screen works well as a laptop display
  • Comfortable touchpad
  • Stylus works great
  • MicroSD card support

Lows

  • Still not comfortable in your lap
  • Too heavy as a tablet
  • Windows 8 desktop apps don’t scale well with resolution
  • Windows 8 still a disjointed experience
  • Proprietary charging port
  • OS takes up 20GB of free space
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