I've been having a recurring dream lately. No, not the one where Betty White teaches me to hot-wire a car. Instead I'm in the future, using some sort of 'post-PC' device that combines the best of my laptop and tablet. It's the perfect hybrid of convenience and efficiency.
Then last week, Microsoft introduced the Surface Pro 3. It looked as if the dream had come true.
In fact, at its news conference, the head of the Surface team directly said that this device would meet my expectations of the laptop of the future. Sometimes real life can be stranger than dreams.
Yes, Microsoft is confident that -- with a larger, higher-resolution 12-inch HD screen, new keyboard, improved kickstand and $US799 starting price -- its new Surface Pro 3 tablet can replace not my iPad, but my beloved 13-inch MacBook Air.
So I tested that claim. For the last week, my laptop has lived under my bed as I've spent my waking life with the Pro 3. On its third attempt, Microsoft has leapt forward in bringing the tablet and laptop together -- and bringing the laptop into the future. But the Pro 3 also suffers from the Surface curse: you still make considerable compromises for getting everything in one package.
The Surface's new kickstand sits more comfortably on a lap. (Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal)
The Pro 3 is a tablet -- it's just a different kind of tablet. At 1.76 pounds, it's not an iPad kind of tablet. Microsoft is clearly going after its original vision of the tablet here (stylus and all), rather than Apple's more limited -- but more successful -- approach. You can't hold the Surface Pro 3 for hours, reading in bed. Its weight and cumbersome size wear out your arm, and the back corners of the tablet can get quite warm.
Still, I find it useful in the living room as a shared window to the internet. And with the included digital pen, the Surface Pro 3 becomes a legal pad. Microsoft has improved the ability to rest your whole hand on the screen, and the handwriting recognition has gotten quite good.
But the Surface Pro 3's greater appeal is as a laptop replacement. In fact, it's one of the most portable PCs ever made. Microsoft has remarkably crammed all the high-power guts of a laptop -- in the case of my $1300 review unit, a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage, though sadly only one USB port -- into that thin magnesium case. Even the MacBook Air is almost double the thickness and weight.
That gap narrows when you add the new Type Cover keyboard to convert the tablet into a laptop, of course. The backlit, 0.2-inch-thick accessory still clicks into the bottom of the tablet, but a magnetic strip along the top of the keyboard allows it to be propped up against the screen.
The slope is helpful, though the lack of support causes the keyboard to bend a bit. That also means you press harder on the keys, resulting in a loud clacking. You won't find a better keyboard for a tablet, but you'll find much better keyboards, even in the budget laptop aisle.
The trackpad has been enlarged, but not enough -- it still feels claustrophobic. Two-finger scrolling doesn't consistently work, either, and because the pad is so close to the keyboard, the cursor can easily jump when you're typing. It's so frustrating, you'll want a mouse instead.
The new trackpad has been enlarged, but still feels claustrophobic. (Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal)
Not only did Microsoft not do enough to perfect the Type Cover, that very thing that makes the Surface a laptop, but it still isn't included in the box. It's a $130 add-on. That's like buying a car without tires.
However, the "lapability" -- Microsoft's term to describe the stability of the device when it sits on your lap -- is now much improved. The screen can be adjusted to most angles to better position it on your legs. The top-heavy setup still takes more tinkering than a laptop, but I was able to write parts of this review while lying in bed and sitting in a lawn chair with my knees bent.
I made up a term, too: Surfprints, the indentations that can be left on your skin by the sharp metal kickstand.
Battery life is much better than the last Surface Pro -- Microsoft deserves credit for even beating the battery life of the latest ultrabooks. Still, it doesn't live up to the all-day promise Microsoft has made touting its new machine. The Surface streamed video for seven hours; the MacBook Air lasted nearly 9.5 hours in the same test. And in regular use with the screen brightness all the way up, the Pro 3 gave a "battery is low" warning every three to four hours.
From time to time, the two Pro 3 tablets we tested would die suddenly and require a hard reboot. Microsoft plans to release a software update to fix the issue before the tablet is widely available in June.
The Pro 3 can truly challenge a real laptop in raw power. Other than minor lag in Chrome, everything runs smoothly. The beautiful, high-resolution 2160 x 1440-pixel screen and its new 3:2 aspect ratio make it easy to put windows side by side on the desktop or lock three apps across the screen.
While I love that feature -- and Windows 8.1's separate desktop and tablet worlds make more sense on a device like this -- I still find Microsoft's latest operating system overly complicated and disjointed.
The new 12-inch screen allows you to run three apps side by side. (Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal)
And though there are some finger-friendly things I do in what Microsoft calls the "Modern" touchscreen interface, I find myself most of the time in the classic Desktop, where trackpad and keyboard rule. The announced return of the original Start menu will help further distinguish the separate laptop and tablet interfaces.
The Surface Pro 3 shows that Microsoft has real hardware skills now, and the device has many of the right elements of my dream post-PC. Yet I am left wondering: why didn't Microsoft make this a better laptop?
A bigger, better trackpad and keyboard might not sound very post-PC, but there is still nothing more vital to the way we interact with our laptops today. And while you won't find a tablet out there that will let you get more work done, the Type Cover-and-kickstand combo, innovative as it may be, is no match for even the most basic laptop.
The Surface Pro 3 isn't the device of my dreams -- not yet. But I find it pretty amazing to watch the future of computing unfold without having to close my eyes.