- Great build; it's thin, light, and sturdy
- Superb display quality
- 3:2 display ratio perfectly suited for Windows 8.1
- As a tablet, its productivity potential is unmatched
- Keyboard cover sold separately
- Some annoying design quirks
Quick TakeLike 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.
It’s tempting to claim that the third time is the charm in regards to the Microsoft Surface Pro line of Windows 8 tablet and notebook hybrids. After all, the Surface Pro 3 has a larger display than its two predecessors, with a higher resolution, and is both thinner and lighter. It also has significant design tweaks, including a new multi-angle kickstand that can be kicked open at any angle between zero and about 135 degrees, as well as a new Type Cover with improved trackpad and magnetic display connector for stability and more comfortable typing.
Those seem like improvements, right?
But recall what TabletPCReview wrote about the Surface Pro 2, calling it a “first-rate device,” with an “amazing design, and “users that need a powerful and portable machine should definitely take a look.”
So maybe the Surface Pro line didn’t need a design overhaul, and maybe the second time was good enough. Maybe Microsoft ruined a good thing, or maybe it opened up a new niche for similarly-sized devices.
Let’s find out. Is the new Surface Pro an improvement?
Build and Design
The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is bigger, thinner, and lighter than the previous editions. It measures 11.5 x 7.93 x .36 inches, with a 12-inch display, and weighs a scant 1.76 pounds, without the keyboard or pen, which combined bump up the total to about 2.4 pounds.
The Surface Pro 3 has the same magnesium alloy build that is familiar to the line, which makes it one of the tougher tablets not specifically ruggedized. It consistently feels great in hand, and shrugs off smudges well. With the proper screen protection, it could easily survive the day-to-day rigors of a traveling professional, and even the occasional drop. TPCR has remarked that the Surface tablets are some of the best built mainstream devices on the market, and the Surface Pro 3 is no exception.
What’s remarkable is how it feels both light and solid. The weight is evenly distributed, and no points flex or creek under moderate pressure.
Looking just at the hardware, the Surface Pro 3 is simply a pleasure to use as a tablet or notebook. When coupled with a larger Type Cover (sold separately), it’s remarkably stable in just about any usage scenario, be it on a lap or in a tight space like an airplane tray table.
As a tablet, the kickstand proves useful for drawing and inking, especially the extreme open angles, though the Surface Pro 3 does prove a bit unwieldy in hand, owing mostly to its large size and square-like 3:2 aspect ratio. Much of that is mitigated by the weight and balance however, making the tradeoff for more screen real estate worth it.
A quick Surface Pro 3 tour reveals a front dominated by the 12-inch display and comfortably thick .75-inch bezel. The 5-megapixel, front-facing shooter rests on the center top, next to a light sensor and microphone, and a Windows softkey sits centered on the right portrait side. Two small speaker slits also adorn the upper front, which is exactly where they should be to direct sound at the user.
The Windows key sat on the bottom edge of all previous Surface tablets, and Microsoft obviously moved it because the new Type Cover covers that space up when secured to the display. Unfortunately, this new placement presents some issues when inking, especially for righties. It’s very easy to accidentally trigger it via palm press, bringing the Surface Pro 3 back to the start screen.
The kickstand dominates the back, lying flush against the chassis, and popping out hinged at about 2/5 of the way up from the bottom edge. It hides a microSD card slot underneath. The top edge houses another 5-megapixel shooter, ambient light sensor, and microphone. The volume rocker sits on the left portrait side.
The Surface Pro 3 venting outlines the devices from the kickstand hinge to up and over the top. The power button sits on the top edge, while the Surface keyboard receptacle rests on the bottom. This is the same input as found on every other Surface tablet, and all other Surface keyboard covers will function with the larger Surface Pro 3, but of course, they won’t fully cover and protect the display.
The Surface kickstand is the device line’s defining characteristic, and it proves so useful, it’s a wonder others don’t steal the idea. Microsoft the Surface Pro 3 kickstand has “Magnetic stability” that allows for the Pro 3 to rest at any angle to about 135 degrees, whereas the Pro 2 kicked out at two predefined angles, and the Pro just one.
It works as advertised, and the kickstand feels appropriately secure. Out of the box it is definitely tight and requires a bit of force to move outward to the flatter angles, but it did slightly loosen after a day or two of use.
The question TPCR can’t answer is how well the new kickstand will hold up over time after significant use, or even abuse. The build quality suggests it will, but what happens if a user continuously grabs and carries the tablet by the kickstand?
Display and Speakers
The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch ClearType display, with a 2160 x 1440 resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio. It also supports 10 touch points and N-trig pressure-sensitive pens.
Compared with the Surface Pro and Pro 2, the Pro 3 has about 216 pixels per inch, whereas the previous models have about 208 ppi with a very cinema-like 16:9 aspect ratio. The Surface Pro 2 has a slight magenta hint, while the Pro 3 tends toward a warmer yellow.
As expected, the Surface Pro 3 looks great. Viewing angles are wide, colors accurate, and it shrugs off glare quite well. Working in the start menu is superb, and the both the display size and aspect ratio are very well suited for Windows 8.1. Apps scale nicely, and most streaming media from services like Netflix fills the display with classy letterboxing.
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.
If there is a complaint, it’s that things can feel a bit tiny on the desktop side, owing to the high resolution. Though it supports touch, users will likely turn to a mouse, trackpad, or pen for navigation here, as the desktop requires a good amount of precision.
The speakers are very well placed on the front of the tablet, facing the user. The sound is flat, but it’s balanced well enough with little to no distortion, and the volume is acceptable enough for personal use. There is a low bar here compared with other tablets and Ultrabooks, and the Surface Pro 3 speaker is no better or worse than most of the competition.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The Surface Pro 3 ships with the N-trig pen, AC power supply with USB charging port, and not a keyboard case. The new and larger Surface Pro Type Cover runs $130 and is sold separately. Though any other Surface keyboard cover will work with the Pro 3 (as well as just about any other USB or Bluetooth keyboard), only the new Pro Cover is large enough to cover the display fully, latch on to the bottom edge of the display for angular typing, and feature a latch for holding the pen.
Compared with the Type Cover 2, which costs the same and debuted with the Surface 2 and Pro, the new Pro type cover is both louder and has more bounce, even when resting flat and not angled. The key travel, pressure, snap, and backlighting are all consistent with the previous Type Cover, and it offers a decent typing experience, especially when angled, and especially considering its thinness. Compared against other travel and Bluetooth keyboards, the Surface Pro Type Cover is top notch, but it doesn’t match the quality of a good Chiclet-style keyboard found on many Ultrabooks.
Microsoft definitely improved the woeful Touch and Type Cover trackpad, increasing its size by about 66%, adding clickability, and discerning it from the cover material with a smoother plastic. As a result, it’s much more responsive, particularly with multi-finger gestures, less frustrating to use, and can certainly be relied upon in a pinch? but that is all relative to the lousy original. Trackpad quality varies by device, and there are some miserable examples on the market. This one is usable, which makes it good enough.
One more gripe: the new Surface Pro Type cover magnetically affixes to the bottom display bezel, creating a slant for angular typing. While this creates a more comfortable typing experience, it blocks any bottom-up display swipes. Just about all the start menu apps support that bottom-up swipe gesture, including Internet Explorer, which uses it to bring up the address bar. A trackpad right click functions as a shortcut here, but this seems like a major design flaw. Microsoft could have left a little space to retain the gesture support.
(Update: As forum member JoeS points out, the same menu options are accessible via a top down swipe.)
Microsoft ditched Wacom for the Surface Pro 3, going with N-trig pen tech instead. One reason could be that N-trig allows for a thinner display layer, and ultimately a thinner device, though Microsoft reps touted N-trig’s accuracy and its minimal latency at the Surface Pro 3 unveiling. In the move, the Surface Pro pen goes from 1024 pressure levels to 256, though TPCR testers weren’t able to notice much of a difference. We’ll update this review with more once the TechTarget design team spends some time with both.
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.
The new Surface Pen supports hover actions, though requires the user be closer to the display than the previous Surface Pro pen. The difference isn’t stark, maybe a centimeter at most, but it is noticeable in direct comparisons. The new Pro pen also feels great on the screen. After calibration it seemed accurate to the specific user, with no discernible latency, and just the right amount of friction. It worked great with Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud, and supported pressure sensitivity with the proper Wintab drivers. Microsoft claims that a Surface specific edition of Photoshop is due out soon, which will support multi-finger gestures and ditch the Wintab driver requirement. A future Windows 8.1 update is also supposed to add pressure-sensitive calibration built in to the OS. Testers at TPCR also liked the OneNote shortcut, as it can be launched with just a pen button press. It proved very useful.
Here’s a screenshot of the linearity test using Windows Live Journal and a ruler, as suggested by forum user whazzup. Blue represents fast pen strokes, while black represent slow. Click to see a larger resolution.
Ports and Inputs
The Surface Pro 3 has a 3.5 audio jack on its left side, and a full-sized USB 3.0 on the right, just under a Mini DisplayPort output. A new and proprietary thin magnetic charging input also rests on the right.
For a tablet, one full-sized USB 3.0 is a big plus, for a notebook, one full-sized USB 3.0 input is not enough; and the Mini DisplayPort matches what’s found on the previous Surface Pro devices. So the port selection can either be a positive or a negative depending on the usage situation, and it’s something users should strongly consider when making a buying decision. The Surface Pro 3 does support Bluetooth 4.0 and wireless display standards, so users can get away with minimal USB switching provided they have the right accessories, but TPCR strongly recommends Surface Pro 3 users invest in a USB splitter.
The new magnetic charger is lot less clunky than the previous version, and it fits better too, very often snapping securely into place with little effort. It’s a shame though that Microsoft went with a new proprietary standard, rendering all older Surface chargers obsolete. Sure, it was likely necessary to keep the Surface Pro 3 as thin as possible, but the change still means a pricey replacement should the original ever be lost or damaged.