REVIEW: Surface Pro 3 - Third time lucky for Microsoft?

With Steve Ballmer out of the picture and Microsoft chanting the ‘platforms and productivity’ mantra espoused by new CEO Satya Nadella, the Surface Pro 3 just might be Microsoft’s last chance to turn its tablet/laptop hybrid into a commercial hit.

Microsoft has been talking up Surface Pro 3 sales stating that the latest model is already outpacing earlier versions, which probably isn’t too big a feat given that since the launch of the original Surface in 2012, Microsoft has lost $USD1.73 billion dollars on Surface and Surface Pro.

That’s not including the advertising dollars that Microsoft has pumped into marketing the device and while the Surface Pro 3 might be selling better than its predecessors Microsoft remains tight-lipped on the number of actual units sold.

With Steve Ballmer out of the picture and Microsoft chanting the ‘platforms and productivity’ mantra espoused by new CEO Satya Nadella, the Surface Pro 3 just might be Microsoft’s last chance to turn its tablet/laptop hybrid vision into a commercial hit.

With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft is openly targeting the best-in-class notebook - Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air.

From a hardware standpoint, Microsoft has addressed a lot of the criticisms levelled at the Surface Pro 2 with a much thinner and lighter profile while also delivering a larger and sharper display, in addition to a more versatile kickstand, improved type cover and tighter Pen stylus integration.

But does the Surface Pro 3 finally deliver on Microsoft’s one device promise?

Lighter, thinner, and versatile kickstand

Surface Pros have always been beautifully made machines with their solid magnesium build, but the problem is that they were too bulky to use as a tablet and too small to use as laptop. Microsoft has sought to rectify these problems by re-engineering the Surface Pro 3 to be substantially thinner and lighter while also managing to squeeze in a larger 12-inch display.

At a mere 9.1mm thick, Microsoft’s latest effort is not only thinner than the MacBook Air but has a slimmer profile than even the iPad 4 and falls short of the iPad Air by only 2 millimetres. It’s an impressive feat of engineering when you consider that the Surface Pro 3 comes loaded with a full-blown Intel Core i7/i5/i3 processor and up to 8GB of RAM.

Microsoft has also shaved 100 grams off the overall package, which now tips the scales at 800 grams. The downside, however, is that it still weighs almost twice as much as the iPad Air or the Samsung Galaxy Tab S, making the Surface Pro 3 still too heavy to use as a tablet for an extended period of time.

As a notebook, however, the Surface Pro 3 is the thinnest, the lightest device doing the rounds. With a larger and sharper 12-inch 2160x1440 resolution display on board, it’s infinitely more comfortable to use as a notebook. The change to a 3:2 aspect ratio as opposed to 16:9 means that it feels more like a proper laptop in regular use while giving you extra vertical space when using it as a tablet in portrait mode.

The kickstand has also been redesigned and now allows you to position the Surface at any angle between 22 degrees and 150 degrees instead of limiting you to one or two specific angles. This means that using the Surface on your lap or on a desk is no longer a hassle and it also makes the Surface ideal for writing or drawing (with the use of the included Pen stylus) by flipping the kickstand all the way around and laying it on a slight angle.

The best stylus experience on a tablet

Microsoft has given some much needed attention to the included stylus which the company is now calling the ‘Surface Pen’. True to its name, it actually looks and feels like a real fountain pen, crafted with a solid, polished aluminium finish. 

The writing experience is top-notch and comes complete with pressure sensitivity and palm rejection so you can rest your hand on the screen while writing. You can also press a button located on the top of the pen to launch directly into OneNote even when the machine is locked, which is handy for quickly jotting down the odd note. Microsoft plans on adding more functions down the road such as double-clicking the button to instantly capture a screenshot of whatever’s on your screen.

There are also two buttons on the side of the pen that can be used to perform different functions, for example, holding down one of the buttons will make the pen act as an eraser in OneNote. As highlighted in our review of the Surface Pro 2, Windows 8 has excellent handwriting recognition so instead of using the default on-screen keyboard, you can write by hand using the pen and it will translate that into text.

The pen also makes hitting buttons and menus in the traditional Windows desktop environment more tolerable.

Updated Type Cover still cramped

Microsoft has made some minor changes to the Type Cover keyboard accessory that clips onto the Surface and effectively turns the tablet into a notebook.

There’s a magnetic strip at the top of the type cover so you can fold the upper portion into the bottom bezel of the Surface’s screen, providing a more ergonomic typing angle and improved stability when used on your lap. I wasn’t able to type as fast as I could on a regular notebook keyboard like the MacBook Air due to the lack of space between the individual keys.  Further, the Air’s keys still have more give and feedback than the Type Cover.

The Trackpad is now 63 per cent bigger and made of a more glass-like material as opposed to the fabric coating from previous versions. While the trackpad feels better than before, it is still smaller than what you would normally find on other notebooks and feels just too small to use comfortably for long periods. A Bluetooth mouse is recommended if you plan on using the Surface Pro 3 as a daily driver for work. 

Quirks from previous models remain unaddressed - the trackpad will intermittently become unresponsive for a minute, requiring you to re-connect the magnetic type cover into its slot. The trackpad also has a habit of randomly interpreting every click as a right-click for a few minutes until it eventually corrects itself.

Battery life good, not great

Microsoft claims an improved battery life of up to nine hours, however, our day-to-day experience found the Surface Pro 3 to be about on par with last year’s model, topping out at a little over 7 hours. It’s a shame that there was no significant improvement in the battery department when competing notebooks like the MacBook Air deliver almost double the battery life at 12 hours and with flagship tablets coming in at 10 hours.

We also would have liked to have seen at least two USB ports instead of the one USB 3.0 port. There is the option of purchasing a docking station accessory which provides five USB ports and an Ethernet jack, but it comes at a pricey $229.95.

Third times a charm

Microsoft touts the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet that can replace your laptop and, so long as you spring for the $150 Type Cover accessory, which is generally true but it’s not without some compromises.

Apple’s MacBook Air offers the better notebook experience with a superior keyboard and trackpad in addition to lasting almost twice as long in the battery department.

The Surface Pro 3 is also a more expensive option. Although the base model starts at $979, it only comes with 64GB of storage, 24GBs of which is taken up by the OS. Anyone intending on using the Surface Pro 3 as a notebook will need at least 128GB and a Type Cover, which raises the asking price to $1,359.

And if you’re solely judging the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet, then it’s hard to ignore the dearth in quality apps in the Windows Store when compared to iOS or Android.

That said, the larger 12-inch display, excellent pen stylus, lighter and thinner profile and strong productivity software ecosystem, makes the Surface Pro 3 the best Windows notebook around and an excellent option for professionals on the go who desire a productive tablet.