There is a big enough difference between last year’s Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 that the Windows might keep both on the market at the same time as competing products. So which should users choose?
The experts at TabletPCReview very much liked both devices. Of the Surface Pro 2, TPCR claimed:
The Microsoft Surface Pro 2 is a powerful tablet with an amazing design. Users that need a powerful and portable machine should definitely take a look, but everyone else should gander elsewhere owing to its high price.
And we had this to say about the Surface Pro 3:
Like its predecessor, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is the perfect device for the specific user that needs power in an impossibly thin and light design. It’s not cheap, however, and the added cost of a proper keyboard cover and Office stings.
Those reviews were only written five months apart, and both statements still stand. The newer Pro 3 is a better device all things being equal, but could different users with differing needs reasonably make a case for the Pro 2? Let’s find out.
Please note, this has been updated since the initial publishing to reflect the Surface Pro 2 price cuts.
Build and Design
Both devices set a standard for hardware excellence. They are not the thinnest or lightest tablets, but no device comes close to matching the Surface Pro combination of power and portability. That’s true of both the Pro 2 and Pro 3.
The Pro 3 is larger, thinner, and lighter than the Pro 2. The newest modet measures 11.5 x 7.93 x .36 inches and weighs a scant 1.76 pounds without the Pro Type Cover keyboard or pen. It feels solid… but the Pro 2 feels more solid, likely because it’s thicker and heavier. This version measures 10.81 x 6.81 x .53 inches, and weighs 2 pounds, again, without a Type or Touch Cover keyboard and pen. This means that the Pro 2 would probably win in a fight, but since both feature a magnesium allow build that handles abuse spectacularly well, both can easily survive the rigors of day-to-day use as well as a drop or two.
Display and Speakers
The Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6-inch display with 1080 x 1920 resolution and 208 pixels per inch. Its 16:9 aspect ratio is ideal for streaming media and the Windows 8.1 start screen and apps, but the desktop is cramped and that makes for a sometimes frustrating and claustrophobic experience.
The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch display with 2160 x 1440 resolution and 216 pixels per inch. It has a boxy 3:2 aspect ratio, which along with its larger size, prove to be its real strengths. As TPCR noted:
It’s on the desktop side where the display size really shines. Twelve inches sits right in the middle of what many users consider both full-size and portable, and it feels just right. The Surface Pro 3 feels especially suited for productivity tasks thanks to its more square-like aspect ratio that provides more vertical space, which translates to more workspace. Heavy Excel users will love it.
It’s also possible to run three apps side by side by side with the Pro 3, and only two with the Pro 2. Three apps overcrowd the display, and prove to be too much. But it’s nice to have the option, regardless.
In terms of image quality, it’s a near wash. There’s no discernible difference is sharpness, despite the Pro 3’s higher PPI count, but the Pro 3 does perform slightly better at severe angles. The Pro 2 has a slight magenta hint, while the Pro 3 tends to warm yellow. Both shrug off glare especially well thanks to Microsoft’s optical bonding.
The speakers are also a wash, and blindfolded, it’s tough to tell the difference in output between the two devices. Both are mediocre at best, which makes them more than adequate compared with other notebooks and tablets.
The Pro 3 is a bit more stable (also owing to the new Surface Pro Type Cover and its attachment features), but we’ve yet to encounter a situation where the Pro 3 needs to be open at an extreme angle and lying it flat doesn’t suffice. That’s not to suggest that we won’t need it in the future or other users don’t need it at all, so the Pro 3 wins here.
The Pro 2 relies on Wacom pen tech, while the Pro 3 rocks N-trig. For some digital artists and inkers, this is probably the deciding factor in making a buying decision.
This group often has strong opinions and preferences when it comes to inking technology, but Microsoft claims the Pro 3 N-trig pen tech is more accurate than the Pro 2 Wacom tech, has less latency, and makes for a thinner device. On the downside, it only has 256 pressure levels to the Pro 2’s 1024.
Though the team at TPCR lacks the artistry skill to fully discern the pressure sensitivity difference, serious artist likely will. They will also notice the difference in the distance required for hover actions. The Pro 3 pen tip has to be about a centimeter closer to the display than the Pro 2 pen.
In testing, the Pro 2 had issues with straight lines around the display side and bottom edges. It warped slow pen strokes on both, and completely dropped fast strokes on the sides. It also dropped strokes with the pen at sharp angles, while the Pro 3 pen did not.
About the physical stick that ships with both devices, TPCR had this to say:
The new N-trig stick feels much better than the sheer plastic Wacom Surface Pen in hand. It has much better weight and balance, aided by the AAAA battery that powers it no doubt, and the textured plastic body is much more pleasant to touch. Both have a button on the tip, but the new pen has two buttons coming up from the base that can function as the buttons on a mouse. The old pen had a magnetic protrusion that doubled as a docking element and also functioned as a button. It wasn’t the best solution, and the new N-trig is physically better all around. The Surface Pro 3 has no docking elements, but the pen does include a standard clip and can dock via a latch on the new Surface Pro Type Cover.
Two more things to note: a click of the Pro 3 pen nub end launches OneNote, even when the Pro 3 is sleeping. It proves to be a useful feature not available on the Pro 2. Also,righties will likely curse the Pro 3 Windows softkey, which migrated from the bottom bezel on the Pro 2 to the right portrait bezel on the Pro 3, while inking because it’s so easy to accidentally trigger with a palm. Thankfully, it can be deactivated.
Every Surface Pro 2 ships with a fourth-generation Core i5 4300U processor (1.9GHz, Turbo Boost up to 2.5GHz) with integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics and either 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The Surface Pro 3 comes in a variety of configurations (covered below), ranging from a Core i3 tablet with 4GB of RAM to a Core i7 unit with 8GB of RAM. TPCR had a Core i5 Pro 2 with 4GB of RAM and a Core i5 Pro 3 with 8GB of RAM to compare.
Obviously, the Pro 3 slightly edged out the Pro 2 in each of the Test Lab’s standard benchmark tests (and the difference in RAM certainly played a role), though the difference wasn’t so great as to suggest the Pro 3 is capable of more than the Pro 2. In fact, both devices outpace many other Ultrabooks and other Windows 8.1 tablets with similar specs, likely due to the near flawless driver support that comes when one manufacturer is responsible for hardware and software.
The Pro 3 definitely has the edge when it comes to battery however. It lasted 212 minutes in the strenuous Powermark “Balanced” test, while the Pro 2 just went 187 minutes. In real-world usage, the Pro 3 will likely last a full 8-hour work day, or close to it, while the Pro 2 will struggle to hit anything more than 6 hours.
Configurations and Price
There are five different Surface Pro 3 configurations, each processor pairing with a different integrated chipset:
- 1.5GHz Intel Core i3 (Intel HD Graphics 4200), 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB storage
- 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 (Intel HD Graphics 4400, Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz), 4GB of RAM, 128GB storage
- 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 (Intel HD Graphics 4400, Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz), 8GB of RAM and 256GB storage
- 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 (Intel HD Graphics 5000, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz), 8GB of RAM and 256GB storage
- 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 (Intel HD Graphics 5000, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz), 8GB of RAM and 512GB storage
The Surface Pro 2 has less to offer here, with only four configurations
- 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 (Intel HD Graphics 4400, Turbo Boost up to 2.5GHz) 4GB of RAM and 64GB storage
- 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 (Intel HD Graphics 4400, Turbo Boost up to 2.5GHz) 4GB of RAM and 128GB storage
- 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 (Intel HD Graphics 4400, Turbo Boost up to 2.5GHz) 8GB of RAM and 256GB storage
- 1.9GHz Intel Core i5 (Intel HD Graphics 4400, Turbo Boost up to 2.5GHz) 8GB of RAM and 512GB storage
As of this writing, the Surface Pro 2 ranges in price from $799 to $1,599 following a recent price drop. The Surface Pro 3 starts at $799, and ranges up to $1,949. Neither ships with a keyboard cover; both the Surface Pro Type Cover (for the Pro 3) and the Type Cover 2 (for the Pro 2) cost $130. The less expensive Touch Covers and pricey Power Cover work with both devices, but are designed to fit the Pro 2.
Comparing apples to apples, the Core i5 Pro 2 models cost $899 (4GB RAM, 128GB capacity) and $1,099 (8GB RAM, 256GB capacity), while the Pro 3 models cost $999 (4GB RAM, 128GB capacity) and $1,299 (8GB RAM, 256GB capacity). The $200 difference between the two higher-end configurations make the Pro 2 a compelling choice. That’s enough to cover the cost of a Surface Pro 2 docking station or Power Cover, or any of the other Touch and Type Covers.
Once again, the Surface Pro 3 is the better device all around for most users. The Pro 2 is no slouch compared against the rest of the market, which makes this a difficult decision considering the price difference.
At the entry level and at $799, a Core i5-powered Surface Pro 2 with 4GB of RAM and 64GB capacity is a better buy than a Core i3 Surface Pro 3, which isn’t even scheduled to ship until August. Those that need a Surface Pro now and want the least expensive model shouldn’t wait, the Pro 2 is the way to go on account of its higher-end performance. Those that can wait, might want to just in case Microsoft slashes Pro 2 prices again in time for back-to-school season.
It’s really a coin flip between the Core i5 Surface Pros, especially the 256GB units. Potential buyers should really test each out before deciding to see if the improved display and design makes that much of a difference in personal usage. Given a strict $1,299 spending limit, many on the TabletPCReview team would likely pick up a 256GB Pro 2 with a Type Cover 2, and pocket the $70 difference before buying.
This is all less relevant to the subset that absolutely needs a Wacom digitizer and detests N-trig. Those users should give the Pro 3 a shot first before settling, though we won’t argue with those that choose the Pro 2 and Wacom. It’s still a good device, just not the best.