Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (Core i5) Laptop Review
Redmond's latest hybrid takes aim at the MacBook Air—and lands a solid right hook.
Despite heavy marketing and some initial buzz, Microsoft's Surface project didn't get off to the best start. Though the attention to design paid dividends with critics, the first two Surface Pro machines felt overpriced and under-specced. And though plenty of hybrid laptop/tablets have found commercial success, Microsoft's ambition to unseat the Apple iPad simply didn't materialize.
But Microsoft is nothing if not persistent, returning once again with the Surface Pro 3 (MSRP $799.99 up to $1999.99). And with an improved Type cover, a better screen, better battery life, and a greatly improved kickstand, this Surface has a new target: Apple's MacBook Air, the king of ultraportable laptops. It's a bold pivot in strategy for Microsoft.
The Surface Pro 3 is perhaps the category's first true convergence device, a hybrid that doubles as both a remarkably powerful tablet and a uniquely flexible laptop. With one device, Microsoft has managed to make a competitor that goes toe-to-toe with arguably Apple's most beloved device, with a drool-worthy body that is lighter and smaller while still offering comparable performance and price.
It's the kind of high watermark device that Microsoft has been desperate to produce. It lives up to the initial promise of Microsoft's surface vision while also showing the way forward for other hybrid PC manufacturers. While we've already covered how well the Surface compares to top tablets on the market, today we see if Microsoft's dream of a laptop replacement has come true.
Class of 2014's Best Dressed: Surface Pro 3
While Apple is typically the company that comes to mind when it comes to high-end design, we have to hand it to Microsoft—it has really knocked it out of the park with the Surface Pro 3. It's beautiful in all the ways that Windows PCs rarely are, and it's the first Surface that we feel could completely replace the laptop in your life. It has a carefully crafted design language, with an angular matte VaporMg casing and an understated, refined exterior. From kickstand to chamfers, it makes for an aesthetically stunning device. And despite the monochromatic design of the slate itself, you can pick the color of your $129.99 type cover keyboard to give it your own personal flair.
Though the Pro 3 boasts an impressive spec sheet, the device itself weighs in at just 800 grams. Adding a Type cover takes the Surface Pro 3 close to a kilogram, but the difference in weight is almost negligible—we're talking about a device that's lighter than the Macbook Air, after all. Incredibly, the device is also more slender than Apple's wafer-thin wonder—even with the Type cover, the Surface Pro 3 is 4mm thinner. If you've ever had complaints about your laptop fitting in a bag, this is easily one of the most portable solutions on the market.
If you're going to use the Surface Pro 3 as your go-to laptop replacement, then you'll need a keyboard. Though Microsoft still doesn't include the $129 Type cover by default, it's the simplest option when on the move. The new Type cover improves on the old version with a larger touchpad area, but it's still a functional-but-imperfect keyboard. We were still able to get over 40 words per minute right out of the gate, but the keys are rather cramped and tend to give off a clacking sound that doesn't inspire confidence. The new cover also now folds up slightly to better grip the bottom edge of the Surface Pro, providing a more secure connection so the screen won't tumble to the ground if you pick it up by the keyboard.
Laptops get used all over the place these days, whether you're at your desk, on the couch, or curled up in bed. The original Surface machines had a kickstand with an audible click that Microsoft agonized over. The click meant quality, but it also meant that the kickstand could only lock into one or two positions. The Surface Pro 3 now has a redesigned kickstand that works from 22 degrees all the way to 150 degrees. No matter what angle you use the Pro 3 at, the kickstand will accommodate it. The 150 degree position is especially useful if you want to use the new Surface Pen for drawing.
Like any other ultrabook, the Pro doesn't come loaded with a ton of extra ports, but the necessary ones are here. On the side is a full USB 3.0 port and you'll also find a mini DisplayPort so you can connect peripherals—including a second monitor. If you really want an office battlestation, you can also pick up the latest Surface Pro docking station. Grabbing that will give you three more USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an additional mini DisplayPort, and an ethernet port for wired connections.
Because the Pro 3 is also a tablet, you can even make use of a 12-inch capacitive touchscreen in a meeting or just to veg out on the couch when you aren't managing spreadsheets. As we've discussed before, this is a much improved screen in almost every regard, and it's close enough to the "Retina" standard at most viewing distances.
Other than hardcore gamers, there's a Surface Pro 3 for just about everyone.
Editor's Note: Like most laptops, the Surface Pro 3 comes in a range of configurations up to and including a core i7 model. The review unit furnished by Microsoft for this review was a core i5 model, but most of the flagship laptops that we test are the top-end i7 versions. We'll update this performance section with i7 results as soon as that model becomes available.
For office functions and general use, this laptop is great—it's got enough battery life to handle most short flights, an excellent screen, and enough horsepower to run even intensive applications. The Surface Pro 3 handles most functions with relative ease, and boots up in no time thanks to a solid-state drive.
Most programs can be run on the device with only minor hiccups, but you'll want to make sure that your drivers are up to date before doing so—there are a few quirks with legacy Windows software titles out of the box. The aforementioned solid state drive makes recalling files and media almost seamless, and 8 gigabytes of RAM can shoulder just about any load you're likely to put on the device.
Laptops are tough customers when it comes to gaming. Though nothing quite replaces a desktop gaming rig, there have been some desktop-replacement notebooks that cram in a lot of computer for the express purpose of gaming. Unfortunately, a gaming laptop this is not. Though screen performance is essentially unmatched among laptops—and that's a tough thing to do—the integrated Intel GPU can't handle many modern games like Metro: 2033, Portal 2, or the oft-joked about Crysis on full settings. Unless you're okay with 6-21 frames per second, this is not something you're going to want to use at a LAN party or anything.
However, for low-intensity games and image-editing software the Surface Pro 3 is more than capable. Its benchmarks were slightly higher than we expected for a Core i5 processor, and the screen is absolutely beautiful. A 10x6.25-inch screen packing in 2160x1440 pixels makes for a density that's above magazine print quality, even if it's not quite "Retina" standard. A 3:2 aspect ratio is a bit of a compromise for the Surface's alter-ego as a tablet, but it's still a great shape, especially for photographers who frequently shoot in 3:2.
One thing that should not go unnoticed is the ability to export 4K video to another display. Because the resolution is so huge, it's tough for an integrated graphics chip to keep up. Despite the chip's poor performance in intensive games, we were able to export a 4K video to a capable television set with minimal issues—there was some extremely minor stuttering, but nothing out of the ordinary. For video editors and intrepid 4K pioneers, this is huge: You can pick up a 4K display today and future proof your workstation for years to come.
It's Windows 8.1 in a device smaller than a Macbook Air. Enough said.
One of the benefits of buying the Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft is you'll find no true bloatware. Sure, you may not use any of the Bing apps, but they're harmless at worst. That's really the best you can ask for when it comes to additional software outside of the operating system—sometimes features really nail it, but more often than not it's a vehicle for retailers to squeeze every last dime out of a device possible. Ever want to flip a desk because Norton won't stop crashing your programs? You know exactly what I'm talking about.
Through a mix of stock Windows and some tweaks to make operation of the Surface Pro 3 easier, you can expect a more effortless operation of your hybrid. For example, you can open One Note without unlocking the device by tapping the purple button on the pen. It's a little thing to be sure, but it's one of many little things geared to meet several different users' needs. Definitely take some time to read up on Windows 8.1's touch gestures, as they make operation of your new toy much easier.
If you're coming from an older version of Windows, there's little to worry about—the old desktop is still there underneath all that fancy metro Start Screen. Over time you'll probably gravitate more towards the newer style, but the training wheels are still there while you make the transition. I would encourage you to check out what's available in the Windows Store, as it's come a long way with its apps.
Because the start screen is so basic, you may need to tinker with what tiles you display before you really get going with your device. You can set the tiles in any layout you'd like, in several different sizes—which helps group the less-important stuff in a place that is present, but unobtrusive. You can still mess around with your legacy desktop in whatever way you'd like, but you'll find that the Metro experience is much more immersive whenever you want to utilize the big, beautiful touchscreen.
Microsoft is challenging Apple's dominance of the portable space.
It's hard to overstate just how important the Surface Pro 3 is to Microsoft's future as a hardware company. Though other manufacturers have taken up Microsoft's mission of producing true hybrid PCs, the Surface line still felt underwhelming compared to options like Apple's Macbook Air. The Surface Pro 3 not only matches the Air for design quality and functionality, it exceeds it in a number of key ways—while still matching it where it counts. Though Apple still dominates when it comes to battery life, the Surface Pro 3 is lighter, more powerful, has a far better screen, and still matches the Air for price across most configurations.
If it sounds like I'm a bit over-exuberant about a device that doesn't quite top our laptop rankings, consider that this score reflects a device that has "only" an Intel i5 processor going up against top-of-the-line laptops that usually have Intel i7 processors. Even despite this disadvantage, it's still among the top 10% of all laptops tested. If the goal was to take aim at Apple's MacBook Air, Microsoft landed an uncomfortably rough body blow.
Judged solely by its merits as a laptop and nothing else, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is an exceptional machine. There are more powerful laptops on the market (especially for gamers), but it's a pint-sized powerhouse that plays as hard as it works. It's easily one of the most powerful tablets on the market, but it's also a very credible laptop replacement when paired with the improved Type cover. The only reservation we have is Microsoft's insistence on charging an extra $129.99 for the Type cover. We view it as essential to the mission of the Surface Pro 3, even if you plan to use it primarily as a tablet.
Content creators will find a special place with the Surface Pro 3, as it's great for editing visual content either on its own screen or an external 4K display. With exceptional picture accuracy and near Retina-quality resolution, it's perfect for photo and video editors. Appealing to "creatives" is all abuzz in the electronics world these days, and the Surface Pro 3 does exactly that. You can easily work with this thing at your desk, on the couch, or down at the local coffee shop.
An ultra-portable device with a 12-inch screen is nothing to sniff at, and the fact that it comes with all the bells and whistles en vogue for laptops is important. The Surface Pro 3 sacrifices very little, and offers a lot. It's the ideal hybrid device for anyone who frequently needs to sketch ideas or notes on the go, especially a photographer, student, or artist. It is the first hybrid device that confidently crosses over from laptop to tablet without compromising its appeal to any crowd.
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