Ditch your notebooks, the Surface Pro 3 is a true notebook killer


Introduction

If at first you don't succeed....

Microsoft’s Surface tablets are company’s first attempt at integrating its own Windows software within hardware that it has designed itself. The move was seen as a risky one and the first generation Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets were not well received.

The Surface RT was a flop that caused Microsoft to take a US$900 million write-down and offer massive discounts in a bid to clear inventory. And while we thought the Surface Pro was a good alternative to existing ultra-portable notebooks, it was unpopular with consumers, presumably because of the confusion between it and the Surface RT.

Since then, Microsoft has taken steps to simplify and reposition its Surface offerings and to also improve on their usability and capabilities. And just earlier in May this year, we had the chance to get a hands-on with their latest Surface tablet, the Surface Pro 3.

Based on our extensive hands-on session, the Surface Pro 3 looks as if it has the best chance of succeeding. This can be attributed to its new design and hardware. The changes are slight, but this is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The little changes add up to have a profound overall impact on how the Surface Pro 3 works and as we have mentioned in our hands-on, the Surface Pro 3 looks mighty promising.

Here with us now is a proper review unit of the Surface Pro 3, which helped us spend more time with it and more importantly, put it through our benchmarks to see just how well it performs. So here it goes. 

 

So what's new?

The new Surface Pro 3 is markedly different from the Surface Pro 2. Perhaps most noticeable of all is its larger 12-inch display. The larger display also translates to a higher display resolution and pixel density - 2160 x 1440 vs. 1920 x 1080 pixels and 216 ppi vs. 208 ppi. Larger display size aside, the Surface Pro 3 also has a more sensible 3:2 aspect ratio. Its predecessors’ 16:9 aspect ratio displays made sense for watching videos and using Windows 8.1 apps, but was often criticized for being too narrow to be used effectively for productivity tasks. The Surface Pro 3's display is bright and sharp, but it is very glossy and prone to catching reflections from surrounding objects.

Elsewhere, the Surface Pro 3 has a similar look and feel to that of its predecessor. The chassis is crafted out of magnesium and has a nice light gray matte finish. It feels solidly built and exhibits no signs of flexing, and almost feels like a solid slab of metal. Even so, despite the outstanding build quality and the larger display, the Surface Pro 3 is actually thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro 2. At 9.1mm thick, the Surface Pro 3 is 4.4mm or a whopping 32% thinner; and weighing in at 800g, it is a good 100g lighter than its predecessor.

Also new to the Surface Pro 3 is the friction hinge kickstand, which can be adjusted to any angle within its 180-degree range. This flexibility makes it more comfortable to use whether it is on a table or your lap, and makes us wonder why the Surface Pro 2’s kickstand only had two measly positions in the first place. More importantly, the hinge has a nice firm yet smooth action that speaks volumes about the Surface Pro 3’s excellent build quality.

Another new feature of the Surface Pro 3 is its pen - not stylus. Clicking the pen opens Microsoft OneNote and lets users quickly take notes, which can then be saved to their OneDrive account. It can also be used to quickly grab screenshots and annotate them for later reference. The pen also features pressure sensitive technology and palm block technology, which means you can write as you would on normal paper and the Surface Pro 3 would be intelligent enough to disregard your palm inputs. All in all, the writing experience of the Surface Pro 3 easily rivals that of the Adonit Jot Script Evernote Edition Stylus and the Penultimate app. The pen also works with other apps such as SketchUp and Adobe Photoshop. You can also use the pen as a regular input device if you think you are too clumsy with your fingers.

Other improvements include the front and rear cameras. The Surface Pro 3 now gets 5-megapixel front and rear cameras that can shoot videos at Full HD resolution. In the Surface Pro 2, these cameras could only shoot 1.2 megapixels shots and record video at 720p. Network connectivity has also been improved because the Surface Pro 3 supports the latest Wireless-AC standard, so if you have a compatible Wireless-AC router, expect to have a better wireless experience.

Finally, while the Surface Pro 2 was available only with a Core i5 processor, the new Surface Pro 3 can be spec'ed with a Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 processor. In total, there will be five configurations to choose from - a single Core i3 configuration and two Core i5 and Core i7 configurations each. The Core i3 system comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of capacity. The less expensive Core i5 configuration comes with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage; whereas the more expensive one gets 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The two Core i7 configurations differ only in the amount of storage they have, one with 256GB and the other has 512GB. The Surface Pro 3 also has a microSD card slot for users who need additional storage.

As for graphics, the Surface Pro 3 relies on Intel integrated graphics and the Core i3 models are powered by the Intel HD Graphics 4200, whereas the Core i5 and Core i7 models are powered by the Intel HD Graphics 4400 and Intel HD Graphics 5000 integrated GPUs respectively. Bearing all this in mind and the points that we made earlier with regards to its dimensions and build quality, the Surface Pro 3 is undoubtedly an impressive piece of kit and is something of an engineering marvel.

Here’s a table that quickly summarizes the various configurations:

Surface Pro 3 Configurations
Processor Memory Storage Graphics Price
Core i3-4020Y (1.5GHz, 3MB L3 cache) 4GB 64GB Intel HD Graphics 4200 S$1,108
Core i5-4300U (1.9GHz, 3MB L3 cache) 4GB 128GB Intel HD Graphics 4400 S$1,348
Core i5-4300U (1.9GHz, 3MB L3 cache) 8GB 256GB Intel HD Graphics 4400 S$1,728
Core i7-4650U (1.7GHz, 4MB L3 cache) 8GB 256GB Intel HD Graphics 5000 S$2,138
Core i7-4650U (1.7GHz, 4MB L3 cache) 8GB 512GB Intel HD Graphics 5000 S$2,698

Our review unit here is equipped with a Core i5 processor and has 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. We were also supplied with the Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard. This keyboard attaches magnetically to the base of the Surface Pro 3 and transforms it into a bona fide notebook. It is about 5mm thick and weighs around 300g, so it does add some heft to the device, but even so, the Surface Pro 3 with the Type Cover keyboard attached is still one of, if not the thinnest Ultrabook around.

Expectedly, the keys are a little shallow, but they have a positive 'clickety' action and we got used to typing on them just after a short while. The trackpad is a little narrow, but it is accurate and responsive enough that we could forgo using a mouse. What’s more, the keys are also backlit, so no worries about typing in dark environments - like on a plane, for example. Also, the new Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard has a double-fold hinge that allows it to attach to the lower bezel of the Surface Pro 3. This elevates the keyboard at an angle, which makes it more comfortable for typing. Unfortunately the Surface Pro Type Cover is an optional accessory that must be purchased separately at a considerable price of S$183. But if it is any consolation, it is available in a variety of colors including cyan, red, blue, purple and black; and can also be folded to double up as a protective cover.

The Red Type Cover is probably one of the best new color additions made to the stable of Surface Pro Type Cover color options and we would highly recommend it. It is however a Microsoft online store exclusive, so you'll have to order it online. On another note, if you do own older Touch or Type Covers from your older Surface devices, it will work perfectly fine with the Surface Pro 3 - with the exception of the size mismatch because the older Surface devices were smaller than the 12-inch Surface Pro 3. So if you do have an older cover lying around, you could try saving some cost by giving it a try first. In any case, the purpose-made Surface Pro Type Covers are still superior and a better match for Surface Pro 3.

9.0
Design
9.5
Features
8.5
Performance
8
Value
8.5
Mobility
9
The Good
Fantastic build quality
Larger display yet thinner and lighter
High-resolution, crisp display
Adjustable friction hinge kickstand
Adequate processing power
Good pen input
The Bad
Only a single USB port
Type Cover is an optional accessory
Only 4GB RAM on entry-level models
Lacks gaming performance
Glossy display
Awards:
Editor's ChoiceMost Innovative Product