Computing still maintains and even, occasionally, evangelises that Microsoft's Surface series of hybrid tablets are vastly underrated devices.
With two on-team as our go-to 'out of the office' PCs, we've found that once you get used to some of their eccentricities, they're fast, powerful, light and highly baggable.
Hard to pick up in shops and suffering a little with the general Microsoft and Windows 8 malaise (for Surface and Windows 8 are inextricably bound as concepts), most CIOs still ask a wary "Hmm, so what's it like?" every time we pull one out of our bag.
Microsoft's clearly noticed this too, and after improving the battery life over the original design, but little else for previous iteration Surface Pro 2, Surface Pro 3 is a relative return to the drawing board.
We already went over the specs in our hands-on preview a few weeks back, so what's up for discussion now is exactly what the Surface Pro 3 is like to use, and whether it truly lives up the gauntlet Surface Pro team lead Panos Panoy slapped across the face of Apple's MacBook at the device's reveal.
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Primarily, we should wax lyrical about the pen and handwriting setup: if Microsoft went back to the drawing board, they also brought it back with them.
The Surface 3's stylus, which is now slightly shorter and slightly thicker than before, looks more like a pen than ever before, and has the functionality to match.
It glides all over the device's 12-in, 3:2 screen effortlessly, with none of the resistance and occasional, worrying scraping feeling of its predecessor. While it's still a hard plastic tip, it seems to be mounted on a flexible foundation, meaning it pushes in or slightly sideways with the movement of your hand. Our utterly abysmal handwriting was recreated down to the tiniest detail.
The stylus's slightly weird choice of a AAAA battery also gives it an element of remote functionality. With the 'eraser' now mounted as a button on the side, the pen's top-mounted 'clicker' can now be used to instantly summon OneNote - even from quite far across the room.
We're still a little unsure as to why OneNote is the only option here (though third party software mods already exist to change this restriction) - our go-to note-taking programme is still Word on account of our dreadful scrawl. It's something we'd like to see addressed in a later patch.
The stylus is also, worryingly, entirely useless if you remove the battery, meaning carrying a small stock of the world's least popular-sized power cell will now be a necessity. You really can't buy AAAAs in all newsagents...
Overall though, the stylus now feels like an essential part of your mobile IT armoury, and not just that thing you find in the bottom of your bag or event sometimes forgot you had.
Thinner, lighter etc.
Microsoft really cracked the dimensions and feel of the tablet itself this time. At only 800g in weight, it's still almost twice as heavy as an iPad Air, but is lighter than 11- or 13-inch MacBook Airs, which both come in over a kilogramme. It's just a no-brainer to throw in a bag and get moving, and doesn't cause bags to lump like its thicker predecessors.
Under the hood, the i5-4300U, kitted out with 4GB RAM in the version we tested, performed as well as one would expect it to. The new cooling system, which we're still presumed is based on actual witchcraft as there are basically no real fans to speak of, is doing the job perfectly so far. We intend to really put the machine through its paces with some relatively high-performance gaming tests in the next few days, so do check back, but for daily tasks, the tech races along in the way you'd expect it to.
What's more interesting about the tablet body is the kickstand, which really is a wondrous piece of engineering. With the aid of fancy hinges, the kickstand that in Surface Pro had one solitary (impossible to see on your lap) position, to only two in Surface Pro 2, is now an entirely analogue affair. From almost vertical to damn-near horizontal, you truly can position the kickstand any way you like.
Again, we'll make some attempt to test the lifespan of the kickstand after extended use, but it feels more than robust for a good lifespan to us.
We still have a niggle about the kickstand's actual dimensions, though. It's thin, sharp and still painful if you're resting it on bare legs for more than a few minutes. Obviously, you can slightly alter the angle every so often now which helps, but some squashy rubber or other soft material may have been a good idea. As it goes, we'll have to still recommend you keep a conference agenda folder handy to lean on.
Type cover is king
As well as apparently dispensing entirely with the ARM-based Surface series in favour of focusing on the full-fat Windows experience of Pro for the Surface 3 series, we haven't seen sight nor sound of the awful "Touch" covers from previous generations, either.
A bit like bashing your fingers on a soggy beermat, the covers didn't work, and we're glad to see the back of them.
Instead, Surface Pro 3's new Type cover is the closest Microsoft has yet got to producing a slim, super-portable keyboard cover. It's certainly in advance of any third-party keyboard attachment would could name for other devices on the market, such as the iPad.
The keys have more feedback now, and missed keystrokes (we had particular trouble with "E" and "R" on the previous models) are far less likely. For an experienced Surface keyboard user, this one is instant joy, and for everybody else, they definitely won't feel the burn of previous acclimatisation periods.
Further more, Microsoft's been thinking about the tiny detail here, too, and the keyboard can be hiked up and stuck to the bezel of the screen, creating a slightly inclined typing angle that's far more friendly to the habits of human beings.
The Surface Pro 3 feels basically like what Microsoft should have brought us with the original Surface Pro. It's lighter, flatter, but has a more conveniently-sized screen for productivity, and its kickstand and keyboard are now advantages, rather than borderline inconveniences.
However, at £849 for the 4GB i5 we looked at, and as high as £1,649 for the i7 version that packs 8GB of RAM, you're still paying a fair amount for Microsoft's new bells and whistles. On the other hand, it does compare favourably to the MacBook series, and we know which OS ecosystem we'd rather put our money in an enterprise situation. It also represents a theoretical cost-saving for a CIO who only needs provide one device instead of two.
Idiotically (and we do not use this word lightly), Microsoft is still refusing to pack in the keyboard, though, which means an extra £109.99 just to get hold of the full functionality the Surface was designed for. Because let's face it - with the Surface Pro 3 more than ever, it's the interface between tablet and keyboard that sets the Microsoft device apart from its Apple aggressors. Not putting one in the box really does feel like Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot.
Only time will tell whether this new Surface design will take off, but it really is the most robust and thoughtful version yet. Well done, Redmond.
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