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Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3- The Future of Laptops, NOW!

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Microsoft recently released the latest version of their Surface line of computers amidst the headlines of the losses they've taken on product sales in the previous generation Surface and Surface Pro 2. I can't say whether the Surface Pro 3 will be the hero Microsoft needs but I can say I believe it is the modern computing experience users deserve! I actually walked away from this review more confused about my next laptop purchase… MBP or Core i7 Surface Pro 3? There's a lot that goes into a statement like that, for me, so I'll unpack it all in what will be a little longer than my usual reviews. I hope you'll stick with me through to the end!

Surface Pro 3 Specs


Microsoft released several versions of the Surface Pro 3 at various price points. The review unit I was given was a mid-level model equipped as follows (click the link for full-size image):
Click to open full size image.

When I was looking to review the Surface Pro 3, I wanted to see if it was truly a device that I could give to my high school and college age children for their needs, as well as if I could use it for my own, which is a much taller order. Since children do so much homework online, they need a device that can handle whichever websites school districts are using as their teacher/student portals, as well as getting to sites for research. Just about any modern laptop can handle that task (and many tablets as well), but throw in having children who have needed to do some light video editing for school projects, who have an interest in writing code and Photoshop, need to use PowerPoint from time to time and are gamers. Add to that the occasional need to bring a laptop to and from school if they use them in the classroom and you begin to narrow down the field. Then there's the price. Not too many people want to spend a fortune on a laptop for the kids, when there are so many inexpensive choices on the market.


What's the need? One word, “flexibility.” A modern device should be a chameleon without sacrificing functionality. I've seen my youngest son bang out an essay on his Moto G, our Chromebook, his Windows 8 laptop (non-touch), an iPad, whatever he felt like using at that moment. It would seem then that the Surface Pro 3 (SP3 for the rest of this write up) would be ideal as Microsoft is actually marketing it as “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” After having used it for the last month, I'd actually call it the laptop that can replace your tablet; for the most part. You should know before you buy that you're going to have to factor the price of Microsoft's Type Cover into the total price of the SP3. You'll want that to complete the portable package so that product lives up to its full potential.



Surface Pro 3: For The Kids


The flexibility of the SP3 is that you get a device that is light and comfortable enough to use as a tablet, like many youths are used to today, but you get laptop functionality. If your children have a project they put together on the device, you don't have to figure out how you're going to get it off of the device if it is too large to email. Sure there are easy ways to do this like using OneDrive, Dropbox or Google Drive but if your child's teacher isn't familiar with using any of those services, you can simply stick a flash drive into the USB slot and deliver the project that way. Or there's the microSD card reader. You can place the project on a microSD card. The SP3 is comfortable to use as either a tablet or laptop and whatever you can't find in the way of software for Windows Store which is the “tablet” side of the equation, you can jump over to the desktop to use the web equivalent.


Weighing in at 1.76lbs, the SP3 is almost twice as heavy as the iPad Air but there are two major differences between the two: the SP3 provides a full PC computing experience and it has an ingenious kickstand. The kickstand on the Surface uses a new hinge design which goes from 0 to 150 degrees back. This allows you to use the device at a normal laptop screen angle all the way to laying almost flat on a surface with just enough angle to make writing on the device with the included Surface Pen or typing via the on-screen keyboard a natural, comfortable experience. Not at any time did the hinge feel loose or unstable, whether on a table or in my lap. It's this built-in kickstand which negates the weight argument in my opinion and makes the weight difference between the SP3 and iPad Air a moot point. Of course, we'll have to see how the hinge holds up over time. Everything about this device screams “perfect for the next generation” except for the price. If you have it, you're good to go. For many people though, I think $800 for a laptop for the kids to use is a tough proposition given the lower priced competition on the market. Even with the current student discount pricing you're still looking at $719.10.


So, as a dad who is very involved with my children's schooling and their extracurricular academic activities, would I feel comfortable providing this computer for high schoolers or a child going off to college? Absolutely. I'm confident that it can cover everything they may need it to do from the mundane to the creative. That is something that some of the cheaper options cannot provide. My children also have the more accessibly priced Chromebook C710 but there are things they just can't do as easily, if at all, on that device when compared to the SP3. Chrome OS is getting better, but it isn't there yet and if price isn't a factor, I'd buy them the SP3 every day of the week and twice on Sunday!



Surface Pro 3: For Dad, For The Creative


For my own use, I'm currently looking to replace my aging unibody 17” Macbook Pro (2009). This is a built-to-order behemoth with the 7200RPM HDD, maxed out RAM and anti-glare (matte) display. Frankly, I don't regularly need the horsepower and don't want the weight but I do want a more modern, powerful processor so that when I do any video editing the process is faster. I'm willing to sacrifice some things for others and know that using the Surface Pro 3 versus my old MBP, which has a discreet graphics card, will require some sacrifices. I was in for a treat when it came time to edit though! More on that later. Additionally, I need a laptop that can handle whatever I might need to do in a day, whether that's writing up a simple article, performing some light web design, image editing and audio editing. I need something with enough power to handle a truly tough task, but want it in a form factor light enough to run around all day and not “feel” it. First world problem, I know, but when I'm at a convention like the Consumer Electronics Show for a week and I'm running around the show floor, to meetings and evening mixers, after 12 hours the backpack I'm using can get very heavy.


So, let's get into it! First things first, this display is beautiful but has much more than looks for the creative hobbyist, amateur and professional. The display is a 2k color-calibrated beauty and what that means for you is true-to-life color reproduction when you're editing photos in Lightroom or using color correction to adjust skin tones and skies in Adobe Premiere Pro. The first problem I encountered as a result of the high resolution display is the way Google Chrome renders… it looks terrible! Internet Explorer looks just fine, but Chrome is my preferred browser so I needed to get that issue resolved. The quick fix for that is to hit Chrome's download site and get the Beta version of Google Chrome. Once you do that, you'll solve two issues: Chrome has some interesting quirks on Windows 8.1 where interfacing via touch is concerned, and again, the way it renders on-screen is pretty bad. Everything looks “fuzzy.” Once you install the Beta, you're all good and things look like they should.


After I had Chrome downloaded and installed, I went and downloaded Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2014 and Adobe Photoshop Elements 12. I have a 1TB external drive that I keep a bunch of video footage archived on and was going to use that footage to edit a quick 2:00 minute piece. I wanted to test out how:


  • The computer moves through HD footage in the “source monitor”
  • Renders clips during the editing process
  • Handles color correction
  • Handles real-time effects previews
  • Handles exporting edited content

Overall, everything was fast enough to keep me from pulling my hair out or feeling like I was back in the early 90's where we would edit then take our lunch breaks when it was time to render anything because that was how long it took. The raw footage I used was: AVCHD 720p, mixed base 29.97, 59.94 from a Kodak 7i8.Zi8ring export of the final sequence, the CPU usage ran all the way up 98%, with RAM use as high as 1,338MB (of 4GB). In the end, it took approximately 1 minute to output a 1:55 edited clip. For me, having two decades of professional editing experience, the speed of the Surface Pro 3 is completely acceptable for basic to intermediate editing. Even for compositing you should be fine. Nothing replaces having a discreet graphics card but given the fact that I'm looking to go lighter and I'm willing to make sacrifices, for the kind of editing I'm doing, I'd have no trepidation about completing a personal or hobby project on time.


The other tasks I used the SP3 for were photo manipulation, light web design and basic HTML editing. I run a couple blogs all on the Wordpress platform and for social media management I'll need to open up an image editor like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements (and from time to time, Skitch) on a daily basis. The i5 processor and integrated Intel HD4400 graphics chip handled all of these activities with aplomb and I didn't at any time feel like I was waiting for the laptop. Of course your mileage may vary if you're a Photoshop or Lightroom power user but you also have the option to plug it up and change the power settings from “Balanced” and create a custom power plan. I did wade through that option briefly and saw that there weren't too many options to increase power. It was pretty much your standard fare: changing the time when components sleep, ambient light sensor options/display brightness options and that's pretty much it. No “High Performance” settings option here so I think that you get what you get in terms of performance. I didn't spend a great deal of time there, so you may find something I didn't, thus the “your mileage vary” disclaimer.


There are a couple issues I do think Microsoft needs to fix and I think they're actually fairly easy things to do; in some cases at considerable expense though.


One big issue you'll have to be aware of when power-using the SP3 is that it has only one USB 3.0 port. So, if you want to use a full-size keyboard and mouse for content creation or whatever else you have in mind, you're going to want to either pick up a USB hub, or the better option in my opinion is to pick up the Docking Station which will run you another $199.99. For that you'll get another 3 USB 3.0 ports, 2 USB 2.0 ports a Mini Display port and as a bonus, the design of the dock leaves the SP3's on-board Mini Display port and single USB 3.0 ports available to be used while docked. All the SP3 versions are capable of pushing its display plus two more while docked, with the resolution of the two externals depending on which processor you have.


If you're going to be doing any serious writing or editing, you're going to want that hub or dock. While the Type Cover works fine for email, status updates and short articles, anything more than that and you're going to want the comfort of a full-size keyboard. For long periods of typing, the Type Cover began to feel a little cramped for me. Many vendors are using chiclet style keys which tend to provide decent spacing (see the Zagg keyboard I reviewed recently) which really didn't bother me too much during extended typing but the Type Cover's keys offer no such luxury. Don't get me wrong, the keyboard itself is functionally a cover and keyboard and does well at being both. Ideally, I'd just like to see Microsoft use some of the space at the outer and top edges of the keyboard to space the keys out a bit more. One aspect of the Type Cover I don't think they need to improve upon is the trackpad. It's pretty darn good for a cover/keyboard. Heck, it's pretty good for a laptop trackpad in general!


The trackpad on the Type Cover keyboard is very sensitive and is “clickable.” I know some people don't like to tap a trackpad and prefer the kind of tactile feedback that the clicking sensation provides (sweetheart, I'm looking at you) so this will be a welcomed feature. That said, I've had no issue with this trackpad registering my taps. Also, it's multi-touch so two finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom, etc all work. No “tap tap” dragging of items though. You'll need to left-click the trackpad, then drag with another finger or the other hand.



The Laptop That Can Replace Your Tablet; For The Most Part


Without the Type Cover, the SP3 has a great on-screen keyboard which gives you four different options for use: touch keyboard, split thumb keyboard, handwriting “keyboard” and a full keyboard. This is fine for tablet use and works great in most apps I tested. I'm not a big fan of moving across the screen when holding the SP3 in landscape mode so I was partial to the split thumb keyboard but holding the table in portrait mode was fine with all of the keyboards. The biggest complaint I have with using the SP3 as a tablet is the fact that you can't bring up the Taskbar without the Type Cover or a mouse attached. Silly, I know, but that's how it is. I have a little trick to get around that, but it's more labor intensive than it should be. You can bring up the full keyboard and use the keyboard shortcut for bringing up the Taskbar which is [Windows Key]+T.

    

If you want to get to the Taskbar without a mouse or keyboard attached, you'll need to bring up the Full Keyboard version of the touch keyboards (second image) as it has a Windows key which will allow you to use the Windows Key + T combination.

Now, I could complain that there is still a lack of high quality software in the Windows Marketplace and that would be accurate but, remember, this is a full computer. Don't like the Facebook app? Just hit the desktop. Don't care for the terrible Evernote Touch app? Just download the full Windows version, which is amazing. Same with my wallet app of choice, 1Password. It isn't in the Marketplace either, but no matter, I just downloaded the full Windows version of that as well (thank God they've finally brought it into parity with the Mac version). Unlike Windows RT, which I am no big fan of, there's little to complain about on the SP3 running Windows 8.1 Pro. This device isn't hampered by the lack of developer love in the marketplace because what's missing there can be had on the desktop and that is its strength. The Surface Pro 3 really is flexible in a way that very few devices out right now aren't.


Speaking of flexibility, this go ‘round, Microsoft changed up the Surface Pen, making it wider and changing the technology so that instead of over 1k levels of pressure sensitivity it now has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. I've seen some folks complain about that, but I'm not a professional artist (or even a hobbyist) so that isn't a big deal for me. What is a big deal is that I've used the Pen and enjoyed it. You can use it to sign documents, handwrite notes in meetings (which is what I've used it for), mindmapping and sketching, mark up images and double-click the pen to take screenshots. Double-clicking opens OneNote and allows you to select a region of the screen to capture. You can then use the Charms Bar to share the capture. A single click will automatically open OneNote. The Surface Pen has three buttons: one on the top of the pen, and two on the barrel. One of the two buttons on the barrel is to erase things drawn with the pen and the other is a “right-click” button. The Pen runs on AAAA batteries and connects to your SP3 via Bluetooth.



Final Thoughts


I would fully recommend Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 to anyone who asked me if it is worth it! Period. Full stop. What will determine of the person asking goes out and buys one is their budget. This isn't a cheap laptop. This device is priced well into ultrabook territory and it requires a perspective shift on the part of the consumer. You really are getting two devices in one. When you're factoring in the cost of upgrading your tablet, and looking at purchasing a newer computer, between the two you may pay as much as, or more than, the total cost of a Surface Pro 3 with Type Cover.


Despite any complaints I've had with this device, I wouldn't hesitate to make it my daily driver and I've been on Macs for the last few years. That said, as someone who considers himself a “creative” there are still some OS refinements that OSX has which leave me undecided about where exactly I'll be spending my money next; but those have nothing to do with the Surface Pro 3 as a product, per se. I have to honestly say that as much as I was “ok” with Windows 8 and have much respect for Microsoft for trying something new and innovative, I didn't think I'd be seriously considering ditching my beloved Mac. The Surface Pro 3 is a compelling enough product that that is exactly where I'm at today. It really has just about everything I'm looking for. If only Windows 8.1 played media directly from the folders, I'd be sold without any further thought. Maybe in Windows 9? For now though, you can pick up a Surface Pro 3 starting at $799.

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