In the case of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, the old adage just might turn out to be true: third time’s a charm. The new laptop-tablet hybrid has been billed as Microsoft’s realization of the vision it painted years ago: the ultimate, no-compromise device that lets users consume and create content in equal measure.
The result? After a few hours with the device, the Surface Pro 3 is pretty dang close. Microsoft has improved upon its pro-grade tablet in almost every way: a bigger, sharper screen, a thinner, lighter frame and the snappiest keyboard cover yet among other upgrades. Even so, I’m still somewhat suspect that such a device is even necessary.
I’m still grappling with that question daily, regardless of what hybrid is plopped on my lap. In the meantime, let’s take a look at exactly what is different just 9 months since the debut of the Microsoft Surface Pro 2.
Bigger, thinner, lighter
We have the technology. If you were to supercut Surface head Panos Panay’s presentation of the Surface Pro 3, it might sound like he was introducing the Bionic Tablet. Sure, it might sound like the typical tech event hyperbole, but the proof is in the hardware and the design that Panay and his team have realized.
Sitting a Surface Pro 3 and its predecessor side by side would immediately reveal some key differences. For one, this tablet sports a 12-inch, 2160 x 1440 with Microsoft’s ClearType font smoothing technology. That makes for a 38% bigger screen than the 10.6-inch Surface Pro 2 and 50% more pixels, by Microsoft’s measure.
What matters is that, likely thanks to ClearType, text looks super sharp – even in Google Chrome. (The browser is notorious for its blurriness on sharp Windows 8.1 displays.) Resting on my lap, I could point out nary a pixel on the QHD display. And touch controls, like summoning the Charms menu, were a breeze.
But anyone can pump out a sharper screen every year. What’s more marvelous about the Surface Pro 3 is that it managed to come in both thinner and lighter than the previous model while increasing in diagonal width. At just 1.76 pounds and 0.36 inches thin, that’s no small feat, considering last year’s model weighed 1.98 pounds and measured 0.53 inches.
Microsoft chalks this up to a new thermal design (and over 100 custom parts) that, while fan-cooled, dispenses heat through vents that span nearly half of the device’s edges. (Though, I found the back of the slate to run rather hot while installing updates.) Plus, nothing in this device is modular or upgradable, like most tablets and even Ultrabooks.
A smarter cover
Just like the hardware itself, Microsoft went back to the drawing board with its Type Cover accessory. Now, the cover sports a second point of articulation with a magnet inside that sticks it to the tablet’s lower bezel. Utilizing this sets the keys and clickpad at an angle, which made for a much more comfortable typing experience both on the desk in the TechRadar and my lap while at the Surface 3 Pro press event in New York.
Brightly backlit and snappier than ever, the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover is already the company’s best yet. With a more membrane key-like approach this time, there’s deeper travel and punchier rebound in each key, making for an experience quite close to that of a laptop. And that smooth plastic clickpad hasn’t just increased in width; it produced smoother tracking and better multi-touch support than I’ve had with the Pro 2.
Now, here’s the catch: the thing will set you back an additional $129 (about £76, AU$139). And to aspire to Microsoft’s catch phrase, "the tablet that can replace your laptop," this accessory is essential. It makes you wonder why the Type Cover is optional at all – including it with the entry-level Surface Pro 3 would still have it come in under the 64GB Surface Pro 2.
A pen packing the power of Bluetooth
Well, that and the "thinnest optical stack" in the screen industry, as Microsoft puts it. (Not to mention that improved kickstand with an even wider viewing angle.) With every Surface Pro 3 comes the Surface Pen, a total revision of the stylus found alongside the previous Surface Pro models. This time, the stylus is weighted to feel more like an actual writing instrument.
Plus, the LCD screen has been brought closer to the glass than ever, to reduce the disconnect between where the stylus touches and the actual input. Microsoft calls this the parallax effect, but what you need to know is that writing feels more natural – plain and simple.
The Surface Pen also uses the tablet’s Bluetooth connection to great effect. Click the button atop the stylus, and the Surface Pro 3 unlocks automatically and starts OneNote with your last page ready for more notes. Double-clicking the pen’s top button takes a screenshot of whatever is on the screen.
Finally, Microsoft improved greatly on its touchscreen palm rejection, what it calls Palm Block. The result is fewer mishaps in my brief time with the device, and thus an even more natural feel.
Is the price right?
Microsoft managed to price the Surface Pro 3 at $799 (around £474, AU$863) to start. That’s with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage. (The Surface Pro 2 still starts at $899, but likely not for long.) But really, considering how vital the Type Cover is to the overall experience and Microsoft’s initial promise, this latest tablet may as well cost $929.
However, what Panay didn’t mention on stage – and told me after the fact – is that just the Core i5 option will be available for pre-order starting tomorrow and general sale June 20. And that starts at $999 (about £593, AU$1,079) without the Type Cover. Orders for the entry-level and $1,549 (around £919, AU$1,673), Core i7-packing version won’t be fulfilled until late August.
The Surface Pro 3 brings Microsoft dangerously close to its vision of "replacing the laptop," with vastly improved hardware inside and out. Save for a bit of a dearth of hard connections – just one USB 3.0, microSD and a mini DisplayPort here – I doubt I’ll be left wanting for much as get more familiar with this device for a full review.
The driving idea behind the Surface Pro 3 is putting the full weight of Microsoft’s software and hardware chops behind a single device. And features like this Surface Pen and OneNote instill confidence that the company is doing good by that vision.
Price and barely optional accessories aside, I’m already bullish on what this hybrid device is capable of. And I’ve been skeptical bordering on critical of the category since it popped up a few years back. Check back soon for my full review to see whether the Surface Pro 3 lives up to its charms.