Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Is Redmond's latest tablet the laptop killer?

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With a product designed to be two things at once, it's tough to quantify its performance with synthetic tests designed to typically test just one type of device. Regardless, the Surface Pro 3 performed just slightly better than the average Core i5-4200U-packing Ultrabook, which isn't terribly shocking.

Benchmarks

  • 3DMark: Ice Storm: 30,264; Cloud Gate: 2,617; Fire Strike: 347
  • Cinebench CPU: 208 points; Graphics: 25.14 fps
  • PCMark 8 Home: 2,190 points
  • PCMark 8 Battery Life: 2 hours, 38 minutes

Save for PCMark's battery life test, these results are generally in line with what I would expect from a slightly beefed up Core i5 machine. This processor and RAM combo will handle video chat, streaming and perhaps the average spreadsheet VLOOKUP with ease. Plus, your lunchtime gaming breaks should go over smoothly within reason.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

For instance, I played a round of Hearthstone with just a bit a sluggishness before I turned down the graphics detail. However, the upper right portion of the tablet's magnesium frame reached scorching levels of heat during that single session.

The same happened every time I went to watch an HD video over YouTube. Neither bode well for couch cruisers, though that redesigned hinge will come in mighty handy for this. Nothing will save this tablet from the sound its fan produces, however, which is noticeable but not disruptive or distracting.

Beaten by the battery

Back to that battery result, it frankly isn't even close to the best I've seen from a tablet. In my own use of the Pro 3 – over 10 Google Chrome tabs, Spotify streaming high bitrate audio, TweetDeck running and HipChat active with the keyboard backlit – the slate lasted 3 hours and 55 minutes. Both tests were run at max brightness on the "Balanced" power setting.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 3 can hold out for up to 9 hours of web browsing before kicking the can. Considering that both PCMark 8 and my own test are plenty more strenuous than that simple task, perhaps the device could last longer under lighter loads.

Lowering the brightness will undoubtedly boost endurance, and I noticed that the tablet can last for days on standby. Regardless, this is a device meant to handle relatively heavy work loads. If it can't match the market-leading laptop in terms of longevity, then can it truly replace it?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

It's true: both the 13-inch MacBook Air and iPad Air outlast the Surface Pro 3 in our tests. Under more intense loads, it wouldn't be surprising to see either maintain their lead over Microsoft's tablet. Perhaps it's Windows 8.1, or more likely that QHD screen – regardless, there's room for improvement here.

The Surface Pen points ahead

When Surface team lead Panos Panay showed off the new Surface Pen's Bluetooth feature that "magically" summoned OneNote with a click of its top button, it looked like a neat gimmick. As it turns out, that's exactly the case, but this kind of use of Bluetooth shows vast potential for the future.

At any rate, what's important here is the actual writing experience. While I personally wouldn't use the Surface Pen for much in my day-to-day work, tracking proved to be super smooth. Not to mention that the digital lines of ink were as thin as the tip of the stylus as I jotted down notes in near-perfect cursive. (Well, near-perfect in replicating my chicken scratch.)

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Part of this is thanks in part to that complete redesign of the N-trig powered pen, this time to better emulate the feeling of a traditional writing instrument. And while its two face buttons could be positioned lower toward the tip, they click with ease.

The other half working toward an improved pen experience is what Microsoft claims is the thinnest optical stack in the industry. (The actual optics of the screen are closer to the glass face than ever.) This helps reduce the drag between your physical position with the stylus and its digital representation. Finally, some solid solid palm rejection only enhances that notepad-like feel.

Following the Surface Pro 3's release, in July N-Trig released a list of compatible applications that have been tested with its latest drivers. They are:

  • Anime Studio Debut 9.5 Version 9.5 build 9768
  • Crayola PhotoFx studio 1 Version 1.5.0.42, 1.5.0.46
  • Flash Professional CC Version 13.1.0.226
  • Adobe Flash Professional CS6 Version CS6
  • Corel Painter Version 12.2.0.703
  • Sculptris
  • MyPaint Version 1.0.0
  • Mischief Version 1.12
  • Zbrush Version 4R6
  • Adobe DreamWeaverCS6 Version CS6
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 12 Version 12.0.20130925
  • Krita Version 2.8.3
  • Substance Painter Version 0.5.0

According to reports, Microsoft is in talks to acquire N-Trig, signalling a bright future for those who enjoy doodling and note-taking on its Surface devices.

Surface Hub only scratches the – you know...

In early October, Microsoft released a new app exclusively for its latest tablet, dubbed the Surface Hub, on the Windows Store. Frankly, however, it's not much a hub just yet. As of this writing, the Surface Hub only serves to adjust the sensitivity of the Surface Pen and change the function of the Bluetooth-enabled purple button up top.

Your options: either launch the touch-centric version of OneNote like before or the standard desktop variety, which is available for free to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users. The sensitivity adjustment tool works well enough, and allows you to test your adjustments in a tiny window before committing to the change.

Finally, the app provides details about your Surface that will be needed for troubleshooting, as well as providing a quick feedback form. And ... that's basically it. Not really a "hub", if you ask me, but nevertheless a useful, nicely designed tool. Here's to hoping for more comprehensive updates to the app in the future.

Type Cover rises up; kickstand leans back

Microsoft has upped its game in almost every way with the Surface Pro 3, but most crucial is the new and improved Type Cover. The upgrades to this accessory were essential to what Microsoft's mission to eliminate the laptop. (The improvements were so vital that keeping it an accessory was a clear misstep.)

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

For one, the typing on this cover has been massively improved, with deeper travel and speedier, more powerful pushback than ever from the keys. The larger clickpad – yes, "clickpad" – now clicks with the force you'd expect from a laptop. Though, I did have to be rather deliberate in scrolling through web pages.

That the new Type Cover now snaps to the Pro 3's lower bezel might sound like a silly addition. But it makes for a far more sturdy and comfortable typing experience on your lap.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Lastly, the Redmond, Wash. company finally went and bent that kickstand nearly all the way back, allowing users to fully adjust its angle. This proved to be a boon while balancing the device on my lap for typing, as well as for just browsing my favorite websites while watching TV at the widest angle.

The hinges are incredibly stiff, requiring considerable force before they begin to give way. You should want that kind of rigidity from a device you're to use essentially for any and every computing task.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Microsoft also has a docking station for the Surface Pro 3 in the works that replaces the current Surface Pro dock. It measures 12.9 x 3.8 x 4.4 inches and provides access to a multitude of peripherals - from your speakers and printer to a keyboard and mouse. It can also drive an external monitor too (4K, if you like your visuals crisp) from MiniDisplayPort, providing a dual display setup for apps such as Photoshop or Illustrator.

With a larger shape to accommodate the device's dimensions, it manages to house three USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports, bringing the total to six if you include the ones on the Surface Pro 3. That's in addition to a a Gigabit Ethernet port and a 3.5mm audio connection jack, and there's also a Kensington security lock for warding off thieves.

Weighing 650g, it's plenty portable too. So, when can you get your hands on it? It's already available to you if you live in the US, where it retails for $199, and it's out now in the UK too, where it retails for £164.99. Writing in a post on its Surface blog, Microsoft announced plans to ship the docking station to 26 more markets around the world starting on Friday September 12, around one month after it first went on sale in the US and Canada.

Bundled software

In addition to the standard Microsoft apps and free trials, the firm includes OneNote with every Surface Pro 3 in addition to Flipboard and Fresh Paint among a few light casual games. In short, Microsoft keeps it incredibly light on the bloatware, as it should being a first-party vendor.

OneNote's inclusion makes for a particularly attractive package since Microsoft opted to make the note-taking app's previously paid-for features free for all. It means that you can now password protect sections of notebooks, track changes to notes using page history and better manage files by searching for words in video or audio recordings.

The Windows Store has come a long way since its launch, but still trails behind Apple and Google's app marketplaces in terms of volume and quality. Windows 8 devices are still generally the last to receive major apps and app updates. This would be a more serious issue if the Pro 3 weren't packing Windows 8.1 Pro, but it's nevertheless a problem.

Surface Pro 3 game controller

OK, we'll come clean, we haven't tested Microsoft's game controller in our Surface Pro 3 review - because it doesn't exist. But it's interesting to note a Microsoft patent that shows that the company may have been thinking about releasing a funky handheld gaming accessory in the style of Nvidia's Edge for the Surface Pro 3 at one point, which would've taken the device in a very different direction.

Appearing to be cut down the middle, the controller would allow you to place each half to the left and right to use the tablet like an Xbox-style controller. Could something similar make an appearance in the future? Stranger things have happened - and we've seen a few of them.

Surface Pro 3 updates

Microsoft has released a steady flow of updates to the Surface Pro 3 since its release to improve stability and performance. The most recent was released in late January, bringing a slew of bug fixes and stability tweaks, in addition to a new graphics driver that promised to boost 4K video playback and playing videos using Google Chrome.

Numbered Version 15.36.14.4080, it was the first driver to support Intel's fifth-generation Broadwell processors - including the Intel HD Graphics 5500, HD Graphics 6000 and Iris Graphics 6100 cores. According to Intel, it also brought hardware acceleration of the VP9 video format that's used in Chrome video playback and Google Hangouts.

Inconsistent Wi-Fi, the most niggling issue reported by Surface Pro 3 owners for some time, was fixed in an patch in November called the Wireless Network Controller and Bluetooth driver update. It focused on improving performance when waking from sleep and connecting to a 802.11ac Wi-Fi network. That update also brought improvements around behaviour of the device when waking up from sleep mode using the Home Button or the Surface Pen.