Is the Surface Pro 3 really the best of a laptop and tablet?Microsoft started thinking about tablets long before the iPad arrived. But despite the iPad Air being Apple's fifth effort (iPad mini excluded), Microsoft still seems to be figuring out what its tablet ought to be. By and large it has tried to straddle the tablet and laptop worlds, but only with mixed results. The 10-inch screens on the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 always felt slightly wrong, and the less said about Windows RT the better.
Microsoft's latest answer is to make the Surface Pro 3 larger, much larger. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch screen and this time with a squarer 3:2 aspect meant to mimic a notepad. It still crams in 'laptop level' processors and all the accordant features (full Windows 8.1 Pro for one), but a totally flexible stand and huge number of tweaks (including a refined pen experience), create the feeling of a more confident, complete product than anything that's come before.
Surface Pro 3 UK release date: The Surface Pro 3 is available for pre-order now and goes on sale in the UK on 28 August. It's already on sale in the US.
Surface Pro 3: DesignAs noted already, the main change is the size and shape of the screen. The 10-inch, 16:9 aspect screen on previous Surface tablets always felt unwieldy — too wide, too much like a letterbox rather than a tablet. The Surface Pro 3 may be a whole 2-inches larger diagonally, but it feels far less clumsy in your hands.
This is especially apparent in portrait mode, where the squarer 3:2 aspect just feels right. It's still very much a two-handed tablet, of course, but then so were the old Surface Pros and at 800g it's 100g lighter than before. The change in aspect is a profound one that totally transforms the experience for the better. It feels like a proper tablet.
The other vital change is the built-in hinge. The Surface Pro had one, rather too steep, angle; the Surface Pro 2 added a second, shallower angle; the Surface Pro 3 now has a totally flexible hinge that goes almost entirely flat (see below photo) and supports every angle between. It's a seriously impressive piece of engineering that makes the Surface Pro 3 far more flexible.
SEE ALSO: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs Surface Pro 2
This is the flattest angle the new hinge supports
This is a more typical angle — note the magnetic fold in the keyboard
This hyper-flexible hinge is joined by another neat change, a magnetic fold in the keyboard (above) that creates a more natural angle for the keyboard when typing. I found this very comfortable when I tried it and there's impressively little flex in the keyboard in this position, though those with a particularly heavy handed style might disagree.
This change is also aimed at making the Surface Pro 3 easier to use on your lap — i.e. to make it a better laptop. It needs to work if the Surface Pro 3 is to be a convincing laptop replacement. Does it work on your lap? I'm sitting on the fence for the moment. What little time I did spend using the Surface Pro 3 on my lap felt better than previous Surface Pros, but this is one aspect you need to live with to understand.
SEE ALSO: Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air
The Surface Pro 3 now has front-facing stereo speakers
Surface Pro 3: Surface Pen and One NoteThe other key ingredient to the Surface Pro 3 is the Surface Pen, which (unlike the keyboard) is included with every purchase. The Surface Pro 3 uses a different 'pen' to previous Surface Pros, though, opting for an N-Trig stylus over the Wacom 'active digitiser' of previous versions.
You hold down the first button to 'erase' and the second one acts as the right-click on the mouse
Microsoft says this is because the N-Trig pen allows for a more direct experience — where you press is exactly where your input appears, whereas the Wacom digitiser had a slight 'parallax' effect where the point of your pen and the detection point were slightly offset. It's an interesting trade-off, though, as the N-Trig pen has 'only' 256 levels of pressure sensitive vs. the 1,024 levels on the Surface Pro 1/2 pen. The N-Trig also requires a battery when the Wacom didn't.
I'm not really qualified to comment in-depth on this compromise from a professional artist/illustrators point of view, but I can imagine this change will disappoint some who came to love previous Surface Pros for their creative potential. The change does, however, serve Microsoft's intended purpose very well, as it makes writing notes on the Surface Pro 3 really nice. The input is, as Microsoft claims, very direct and accurate and there's a nice heft to the Surface Pen that makes it comfortable write with.
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This optional pen holder comes with the keyboard
The Surface Pen is also tightly integrated with OneNote, Microsoft's note-taking and clipping software. You can access OneNote without unlocking the Surface Pro 3 just by pressing the purple OneNote button on the top of the pen — it's just like accessing your phone's camera from the lock screen.
This button acts as a useful shortcut throughout OneNote and Windows. Tapping it within OneNote automatically creates a new note, and you can use it to take a screenshot of your screen, crop what you want to and then save it to OneNote. It's all very neatly executed and the 3:2 screen aspect makes the Surface Pro 3 a more natural 'notepad' than before.
Is there a pent-up desire for a digital notepad in this mould? I can't really answer that, but the popularity of the Galaxy Note 3 and co. suggests there could be, and the Surface Pro 3 delivers the best digital notepad experience I've seen.
Surface Pro 3: ScreenOn first viewing, the Surface Pro 3's screen looks like an absolute peach — an important point of difference given the the rival 2014 MacBook Air has an underwhelming screen. The 2,140 x 1,440 resolution gives the Surface Pro 3 216 pixels per inch (ppi), only slightly less than the iPad Air's 264ppi and much more than the MacBook Air.
SEE ALSO: Best Windows 8 laptops and tablets
Subjectively, I found colours and contrast impressive, too. The red of the background in the above shot really popped from the screen, and the black level appeared very good for an LCD — no LCD can approach the contrast quality of AMOLED screens like those on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 and Tab S 10.5.
This was in a bright, airy apartment, though, which isn't the best environment in which to judge things like contrast and black level. Reflections seemed to better or worse that numerous other tablets and laptops, but the screen appears bright enough to counter most conditions.
Surface Pro 3: KeyboardI've always been hugely impressed with the Type Cover and Touch Cover, especially the second generation versions. The Surface Pro 3 only has a Type Cover, though, and it remains a very good keyboard. I don't really understand why it's not included with the tablet (it's a £110 'optional extra), though. This made sense in the past when you had a choice of two options to go for, but the keyboard is so fundamental to the Surface Pro 3 it seems stupid to ship it without one.
In any case, the layout and feel remain much the same as before, which is good news. It's backlit, too, an easily forgotten but very useful feature you'll be glad for when you need it.
The only real difference is the larger touchpad. It's not 'huge' like the MacBook Air's, but it's roomier than previous versions and now has a pleasant glass finish. It's a big improvement.
Surface Pro 3: SpecsNothing demonstrates that this is really a PC, not a pure tablet, than the large number of spec options Microsoft will sell when it goes on sale in the UK in August. The cheapest version is just £639 (without keyboard), which gets you an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB RAM and 64GB of storage. Storage options run all the way up to 512GB with 8GB RAM and there are Intel Core i5 and Core i7 versions, too. The top-spec is £1,649 and you really should add £110 to all these for the keyboard.
Connections are quite limited, or rather they're limited compared to a full laptop. There's a single USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort, a headset jack and a microSD card slot. The lack of full-size SD card slot is arguably the trickiest compromise compared to a normal laptop — microSD is fine for storage expansion, but less useful when you want to edit photos from a camera. 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 are included, though, and there are 5.0MP cameras on the front and rear.
Surface Pro 3: Battery LifeMicrosoft hasn't shared the battery capacity of the Surface Pro 3, but claims 'up to 9 hours' of web browsing. If true this is a reasonable figure, but it's not one I have great deal of faith in given the track record of previous Surface Pros. The Surface Pro 2 lasted just under eight hours, though, and if the Surface Pro 3 matches this when we get to test it properly then that would rank as 'good enough' in my eyes.
'Good enough' is a very subjective measure, though, especially when the latest MacBook Airs can last 12 hours and most dedicated tablets last over 10 hours and often much more. The Surface Pro 3's success could hinge on whether it can really meet its claimed target.
First ImpressionsThe Surface Pro 3 makes a good first impression. It looks and feels great, the screen is bright and sharp and the hinge is a hugely impressive piece of engineering. Vitally, the move to a larger, squarer screen is inspired — it makes the Surface Pro 3 a better tablet and a better hybrid, too.
Can it replace a laptop? That's a trickier question I can't really answer yet. It has the potential to do so, but then the Surface Pros have never wanted for potential. Only extended use will tell and for that we'll have to wait for the UK release in August.
Next, read our tablet buying guide or read what's new in Windows 8.1
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