Should you buy the Surface Pro 3?

Surface Pro 3
Space is one saving this hybrid can offer you

Microsoft's play into the world of tablets has been of mixed success. The original Surface and Surface Pro were bulky, underpowered and ran Windows 8, with very little external support from developers or the community at large. As a result, they flopped, selling very few units in comparison to the iPad and other laptop hybrids available on the market.

Microsoft wasn't phased, however, and brought out the Surface 2 and the Surface Pro 2, both big improvements on their predecessors and devices that normal people might actually want to own.

The Surface Pro 2, especially, made big leaps in terms of hardware whilst Windows 8 progressed on the software side, eventually leading to Windows 8.1, a vast improvement over the original version of Windows 8.

Third time's the charm

In early 2014, Microsoft held an event dedicated to the Surface Pro 3, "the tablet that will replace your laptop". The new tablet/laptop hybrid is thinner, quicker and runs a better version of Windows 8 that is more suited to the Surface Pro.

The accessories – the (additional) keyboard cover and pen – also received hefty upgrades, increasing the available uses of the tablet exponentially.

The Surface Pro 3 beats neither the MacBook Air – the device Microsoft used on stage to compare the laptop-like qualities – or the iPad at laptop or tablet specific uses, but it does a pretty good job at both and, crucially, means only one device is in your bag, as opposed to two.

Whether you should buy the Surface Pro 3 still isn't a given. Many of the early reviews praised the new pen for creative tasks, and Microsoft does seem to have done an excellent job.

OneNote, Microsoft's note-taking app, has been improved alongside the pen meaning that the two interact well together. For example, clicking the button atop the pen brings up OneNote on the Surface Pro 3, even if the device is idle.

Due to the larger 12.9-inch, 2160 x 1440 display, notes look fantastic and the pen is sensitive enough to capture lighter and heavier inputs. In fact, one of the major selling points of the Surface Pro 3 is the pen integration. Third-party styluses are available for the iPad, but none come with the deep integration with the operating system that Microsoft is offering here.

One or two devices?

I wrote originally that the Surface Pro 3 might turn out to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" and, fortunately, this does not appear to be wholly true. Of course, it is preferable to have two devices.

I carry around a MacBook Air and iPad mini when I travel simply because both are the best at their individual tasks – I mainly read on my iPad and write on the Air – and a Surface Pro 3 would not perform each task better. But there are other use cases where the Surface Pro 3 makes sense.

In business, for example, having one device that is good at a range of tasks, and is an improvement over the cumbersome nature of carrying two devices is a big plus. The note-taking aspect of the Surface Pro 3 is extremely useful for jotting down things and Windows 8.1 offers support for legacy desktop apps which many businesses rely on.

The Surface Pro 3 packs some serious internals, with Microsoft offering up to 512GB of SSD storage, an Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM. These components would rip through even an intense task such as gaming and are more than enough for loading up multiple Excel, Word and PowerPoint documents.

Surface Pro 3 Stylus

Click the button atop the stylus and OneNote fires up

Notable improvements

Microsoft has worked hard on improving OneNote, creating a viable alternative to other third-party note-taking apps such as Evernote, including making it available on all of the major platforms. If you have OneNote opened on multiple devices simultaneously, the screen can be shared via OneDrive creating a slick experience that could be useful when making a presentation or brainstorming an idea with co-workers.

This vision is basically what Microsoft has been working towards since the company's inception: a multitude of devices working together in harmony using Microsoft services with the cloud providing the connections between the devices.

Many of the Surface Pro 3's detractors will point to the multiple financial write-downs Microsoft has taken with the Surface line-up. At last count, Microsoft has taken nearly $1 billion (around £610 million, AU$1.13 billion) in write-downs in terms of unsold stock.

While this could be seen as failure on Microsoft's part – and it undoubtedly is – the company has a hard sell with the Surface Pro.

Consumers have been conditioned by Apple and Samsung to want one device for one specific purpose – an iPad to read, an iPod to listen to music, a Mac to work on – and now Microsoft is trying to undo all these years of expectations.

Dual purpose

Whether they have, or will, succeed remains to be seen. In terms of the actual device, Microsoft has done a sterling job – the Surface Pro 3 does, just about, manage to work as a laptop or a (very large) tablet, and it performs both roles acceptably.

Should you buy one though? That rather depends on if you need to take notes or have such limited bag space that you need one device, and having a MacBook Air and iPad in the same space is unrealistic.

If this is true in your case, then go ahead and buy a Surface Pro 3. If you are looking for a new laptop, the Surface Pro 3 should definitely be on the list of potential candidates, especially as a Surface Pro 3 is far cheaper than its MacBook Air counterpart, and it can act as a tablet.

Max Slater-Robins has been writing about technology for nearly a decade at various outlets, covering the rise of the technology giants, trends in enterprise and SaaS companies, and much more besides. Originally from Suffolk, he currently lives in London and likes a good night out and walks in the countryside.