Living with the Microsoft Surface Pro 3

By Peter Gothard
13 Aug 2014 View Comments
surfacepro3athome

It's been exactly a week since we took delivery of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and we can now give our final verdict on what the device is like to use in the office, on the road and anywhere in between.

The test was simple: we attempted to use the Surface Pro 3 as our go-to device for straightforward office-style productivity, as well as those fringe leisure pursuits that a hybrid tablet running Windows 8.1 should offer.

Further reading

Pounding away

First, the hardware. This is where Microsoft has a chance to really make up some ground against the iPads of this world, while satisfying diehard laptop users.

The big, clear 3:2 ratio screen is definitely an improvement over the smaller, block-bezeled screen of the smaller, 16:9 Surfaces that came before. Rather than the feeling of peering into a tiny box, the Surface Pro 3's screen feels more like it's coming out to you, filling your vision with the Word document, spreadsheet or whatever it is you're working with. We found ourselves vaguely missing 16:9 for movie playback, but it's hardly an issue when the increased height is so well-utilised for productivity tasks.

We can also confirm our earlier impressions about the keyboard - it really is a vast improvement. More resistive, slightly more robust-feeling, and that magnet-based incline option changes the typing angle massively. It's probably the best non-laptop typing experience we've ever experienced.

However, a weird side-effect exists with the Surface Pro 3's lack of bezel and keyboard magnet - it affixes so neatly to the very bottom edge of the screen that our fingertips found interaction with the taskbar and Start button a hit-and-miss affair. Perhaps it's a technique we'll learn in time, but prying half a little finger into the corner of the screen breaks the fourth wall in a weird way, as an actual physical obstacle restricting your movement in the virtual space. Irritating.

Also irritating is the lack of shops that stock AAAA batteries for the stylus. Out of 10 newsagents and other general convenience stores we randomly selected, only one had any AAAAs on the shelf.

Several said they never stock them. You'll really need to think about mail ordering in a good stock of AAAAs if you buy a fleet of Pro 3s, because finding batteries in the field will be a challenge, and remember - the stylus is literally useless without them. It feels a backward step from the earlier Surface's non-powered styluses.

It's a shame, because the stylus, as we've said before, really feels a necessary part of a Surface Pro 3 user's toolkit. The hand-detection tech is flawless, and we used the device for extremely successful note-taking during interviews all week.

The big purple OneNote button on the back is just that - one-note (forgive the pun), and we're still unsure why you can't toggle the app it launches. Still, it's fine if you want to access a scribble pad quickly, and we found ourselves using it a few times.

The mousepad, while wider and with clickier buttons, remains our final resort for anything productive. We've never been fans of laptop mousepads, and Surface Pro 3's attempts simply to make one that's more like incumbent laptop technology feels like a missed opportunity. It's also not very comfortable (or accurate) used on the lap with the keyboard elevated. Still, as with most aspects of the Surface 3, it's easy to toggle the device's position to suit your needs.

And on that point, the kickstand really is marvellous. We tried our best to wiggle it back and forth until it loosened, and it's not moved a jot (unlike our original Pro, the kickstand of which now wobbles quite badly).

There does seem to be an amount of sticky oil in the joints to keep it moving, which could be an issue down the line, but all-in-all this is military-grade engineering, and we'd go so far as to call it a landmark in mobile device convenience. Other manufacturers should take note - analogue kickstands are the future of the hybrid tablet.

Separated from the keyboard, the Surface Pro 3 is a vast improvement over previous efforts in terms of actually feeling like a tablet. Light and smooth, it's far more "holdable" than the weird, trapeziod form of the previous machines, which felt simply like balancing half a laptop oddly in your palm. Surface Pro 3 is the real deal. It might be slightly too big for smaller hands, in fact, but if you prefer a larger tablet, this is 12-inches of easily wieldable technology. Think enormous iPad, running software that's actually enterprise-relevant, and you're on the right track.

Fun and games

Clearly, with an i5 lurking inside its polished metal casing, the Surface Pro 3 can cope with almost anything you can throw at it. We didn't try VPN, but you can run as many office suites as you like, stream video through Skype and open a myriad web browsers simultaneously with no performance hits whatsoever.

What's more, the Surface Pro 3 also stays cool to the touch when doing all this. Even outside in the sun on a freakishly hot day, it managed to keep going, although  it did whine like a dying animal, and the case go so hot we could have happily fried an egg on it.

Surface Pro 3 still won't run Grand Theft Auto IV (that's an Intel on-board videocard issue), but we lobbed Civilisation V at it, and the touchscreen worked beautifully. It also took recent graphically intense, pyrotechnic shooter Aliens: Colonial Marines in its stride at nearly top visual settings. Pity the game's terrible, but the point is the hardware can cope.

We still wouldn't recommend using it for heavy-duty CAD or hard-core number crunching, but that's never going to be the device's niche.

Battery life across the board did actually match that promised nine hours - almost. We averaged more like seven and a half, but it was enough to get us through the day rather than zonking after a two-hour keynote like the original Surface Pro.

Video-wise, we also got a respectable four to five hours out of the beast, but if you're gaming, do bring along the power adapter. While it beats the original machine's half an hour before dying, we still only got a couple of hours of Civ out of the Surface Pro 3. It was a hot day, though, so the fan was probably working in overdrive.

Overall

The Surface Pro 3 was a good housemate this week. It pulled its weight, proving agreeable and helpful when asked to muck in. It made our lives generally easier, and although it wasn't great at unwinding, it would socialise with us for at least a couple of hours before getting tired and, er, dying.

There's never been a finer time to take a serious look at Microsoft's hybrid tablet. The price is still potentially an obstacle, but otherwise we highly recommend seeing what this fast, smart and highly capable machine can do for you and your organisation.

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