Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 can probably replace your laptop. The big question is: Are you willing to pay the price and make some compromises in order to let it?

The latest productivity-minded tablet PC out of Redmond is an outstanding piece of hardware. If you want a leaner, lighter, full-featured, touchscreen-equipped alternative to a Windows laptop, it is well worth considering. It’s less than half an inch thick, weighs less than two pounds and boots up in under 10 seconds–sometimes as quickly as five. It feels absurdly light in your laptop bag; I actually had to check whether it was in there a few times. Just as importantly, its charger is super-light too.

The version of the Surface Pro 3 I tested was the mid-range model in the lineup, built around a 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. It costs $1,300. You’ll need to tack on another $130 for the essential Type Cover. It only does Wi-Fi (no LTE for you), and the battery life largely depends on whether you’re streaming Netflix for several hours straight. I got roughly 8 hours of usage from intermittently typing, downloading software, installing it, listening to music, and watching a few minutes of video here and there. When I fired up Netflix and just let it ride, it drained the battery in about five hours.

If you’re looking for the type of tablet experience you get from an iPad, do not buy it. The Surface Pro 3 is good, but it’s a completely different animal. It’s the type of device that makes sense in an office environment, a powerful grab-and-go machine fit for running to your next meeting or working on the train. But the world has generally made its mind up about what tablets like the iPad are for. They’re for reading and playing games and watching movies and firing up IMDB to quickly look up what else Scott Bakula has been in.

The Surface Pro 3 can do all those things. It also can crank out spreadsheets and run Photoshop or AutoCAD, just like a laptop. But these days, many people want physically distinct devices for work and for play, not a half measure solution that does both. Changing hardware triggers a different state of mind. I’m working, I’ll use my laptop. I’m playing, I’ll use a tablet. You need breaks from both.

There is one particular posture where the Type Cover is most awkward: Sitting on the ground, or in bed, with your back against a wall. I just couldn’t find a combination of the kickstand angle and the keyboard angle that felt right; it needed either a heavier keyboard or a longer kickstand. There’s also a trackpad below the keys, and it’s bigger this time around, which is a welcome addition.

It does its job, but you don’t have to use it. The Surface Pro 3 has a USB 3.0 port for a real mouse, a thumbdrive, or a beefier USB drive. It’s closer to the top edge of the Surface in landscape mode, so your USB mouse cord will dangle down from the port in dorktacular fashion. Still, being able to plug in a mouse and go to town is great option. There’s also a Mini DisplayPort interface above that USB port, as well as a MicroSD slot hidden under the kickstand. When the Surface Pro 3’s $200 docking station comes out later this year, the charging station will offer four USB connections, an Ethernet port, and support for external monitors.

During my hands-on tests, which consisted of typing out this review, downloading and running most of the software I usually install on a Windows machine (Spotify, GIMP, Netflix, a few games, Dropbox, etc.), and trying to drain the battery as quickly as possible via Netflix streams, I didn’t notice any performance compromises as compared to any laptop I’ve used for work. In terms of hardware compromises, there are a few: The speakers are comparatively weak and tinny-sounding, you don’t get the same array of ports or a user-serviceable battery as you do on a laptop, and as much as the Type Cover makes an admirable effort, it can’t quite live up to the comfort of typing on a decent laptop keyboard.

Ultimately, whether you’d like the Surface Pro 3 to replace your laptop boils down to a value proposition. Is it worth paying a premium for an ultra-slim device that provides full Windows PC functionality? That is what this machine is, and if you are the target market for it, you will use it as a laptop 70 to 80 percent of the time. Similarly configured Windows laptops with touchscreens, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 8GB RAM, and 256GB of storage cost at least a few hundred dollars less. It’s a machine that makes a ton of sense for business deployments, road warriors, casual photo editors, and artists. With the Surface Pro 3, you’re paying not just for the individual components, but for the sheer thin-and-lightness of it all.

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