At home with the Microsoft Surface Pro 3

By Peter Gothard
04 Jul 2014 View Comments
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If Microsoft designed a flat, it would apparently have Lenovo Yogas instead of shelf ornaments, an Xbox One in every room, and the inhabitants would wear dresses made of Nokia Lumia phones.

Luckily, the slightly weird "Microsoft Apartment" that the company is currently running as a tech showcase in central London also has a couple of Surface Pro 3s on the dining room table, so carefully ignoring all the other distractions, I was finally able to get some hands-on time with the device many are dubbing Microsoft's ‘third time lucky' for its in-house hybrid tablet.

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Make no bones about it, this is an impressive solution to many of the gripes users found with earlier versions of the Surface. Light, thin but with a larger screen, and with a kickstand that – finally – feels like a better idea than anything else on the market for portable usability, it feels like there's definitely an awful lot to love. At the same time, one or two design and implementation choices still puzzle me.

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I had a look at the Intel Haswell i5-equipped Surface Pro 3, but i3 and i7 models are also available. Microsoft product manager Ian Moulster told us that Microsoft is promising a nine-hour battery life based on sustained internet browsing on "any of them", however.

"We just put that as a general battery length, but it always depends what you're doing", said Moulster.

While we're disinclined to believe an i7 will last as long as an i3 in the field, we can't imagine there will be drastic differences between them, so it's quite encouraging.

Meanwhile, I can confirm that – in the i5 at least – the Surface Pro 3 runs silently to my trained(ish) ear. The "60 per cent smaller" (than Surface Pro 2) motherboard, with fan integrated into the heatsink, really does feel like a minor design miracle.

Visually, Moulster said, the 2,160x1,440 screen delivers 50 per cent more pixels than the Surface Pro 2, and its 3:2 aspect ratio obviously delivers more space. What I found surprising was that – as well as making the Surface Pro 3 feel a lot more like a laptop (as the MacBook-baiting PR campaign has consistently shouted about) it also feels far more like a tablet than the previous 10in, 16:9 efforts.

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Held in portrait, it just feels like a slightly oversized iPad, without the weird centre of balance problem that always discouraged me from any serious vertically orientated handheld use.

There's further good news with the keyboard. While I can immediately confirm the kickstand is all I'd hoped for – butter smooth, entirely analogue control that provides absolutely any screen angle from almost vertical to practically flat on the table – other neat new tricks are just as interesting.

For one, the keyboard can be optionally scrunched up at the front and magnetically adhered to the bezel, hoisting it up at a gentle angle and giving you air, rather than table, underneath your typing efforts. I was a little worried that punching into thin air might cause the keyboard to move around too much, but it feels surprisingly robust, and I can imagine less of the sensation of bruised fingers that can sometimes come about after a few hours of sustained hammering in a busy press room.

The Surface Pro 3's trackpad, meanwhile, is about a third larger than previous Surface keyboards, and has a far more receptive clickability on the mouse pad. It feels basically like an actual mouse button, which is welcome.

Next, to the stylus, which I should probably start calling a pen now, because in this iteration it really has become one.

The pen does a variety of neat new tricks. Most importantly, Microsoft entered and emerged from Uncanny Valley with the feel of the thing. While, from what I could tell, the nib of the pen is still formed from hard plastic, there's a genuine feeling of pressing a soft end – like a felt-tip pen – on the screen as you write, making doodling and note taking feel genuinely like writing on paper. It was really quite creepy.

Sensibly, there's no more play-acting at pencil erasers now, with a button on the pen's shaft rubbing out writing without having to turn it over pointlessly and use the back.

Instead, the back of the pen now features a single-click button that opens OneNote immediately while the device is on standby, with another click saving the document and sending it straight to SkyDrive.

This is all great, but I'm not a massive fan of OneNote. I asked if the one-click application could be changed to something else (Word? Team Fortress 2?) and sadly the answer was no. OneNote is what you get, so get used to it.

Still, I really like the pen anyway. My only issue with it is that it runs on a single AAAA (that's four As) battery, and becomes as useful as, well, an actual pen in IT terms if that battery runs out. I even made Moulster remove the battery so I could check, so I can confirm this.

I feel like it's a bit of a step backwards for the pen, having enjoyed all the unpowered wizardry of Wacom before. It was great to know that I had only one battery – the Surface's – to keep my eye on. Adopting a Surface 3 will mean carrying a supply of batteries around on trips again just in case.

Still, the relative disappointment of the pen is the only bugbear I have with the Surface Pro 3 so far. It's impeccably designed, slim, light and seems to improve on almost every shortcoming of its predecessors.

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But like those before, it will not come cheap, with even the bargain-bucket 64GB i3 model weighing in at £639 in the UK. While that still undercuts the MacBook, you're looking at well over £1,000 for something that competes with Apple's lower-end models.

Will the Surface Pro 3 be worth the asking price? Check at a later date as we deliver the final verdict after a couple of weeks of putting a demo unit through its paces.

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