Surface Pro 3 review: Everything you need to know

A great 12in display, flexible kickstand and decent keyboard make this a tempting 2-in-1

4
Price 
£1219 inc VAT (as reviewed)
Pros 
Superb screen; Excellent pen integration; Portable form factor, Good performance; Flexible kickstand
Cons 
Type Cover not included; Windows scaling problems; Battery life isn’t good enough; Difficult to repair
Verdict 
Microsoft combines the portability of a tablet with the raw power and input of a laptop. Despite its imperfections the Surface Pro 3 manages to live up to the claim of being a hybrid.

Latest news: Microsoft has chosen O2 as the first UK retailer to exclusively provide 4G Surface 3 packages to enterprise customers.

The mobile telecoms firm will be the first to offer the mobile internet-enabled devices, available on 24-month contracts for £27.67 per month following an initial £50 payment.

O2 will also be adding the Surface Pro 3 to its product portfolio. This will not be available with 4G, but will be sold for a one-off payment of £707.50.

Rumours are circulating that a successor to Microsoft's popular Surface Pro 3 is on the horizon.

While there was no mention of the Surface Pro 4 at Redmond's Build conference last month, the news that Microsoft has acquired N-Trig has fuelled fresh speculation over at DigiTimes.

N-Trig is an Israeli company behind the Surface Pro 3's stylus pen technology, and its purchase could be a signal that Microsoft is gearing up to follow up their flagship tablet, the publication reports.

As Microsoft seeks to increase its cross-platform footprint with Windows 10, it is reportedly seeking to include handwriting recognition as a standard feature in programs like Office and Outlook.

This could have been what spurred the company to increase its six per cent minority stake in N-Trig into outright ownership.

Meanwhile, the Pro 4 looks set to edge towards the larger and smaller tablet markets with both 10-inch and 14-inch models in the offing, according to IBT.

Surface 3

Like the look of the Surface Pro 3, but balk at the £1000-plus pricetag? Microsoft has now launched the Surface 3, a stripped-back version of it's flagship hybrid with a similarly stripped-back cost.

The Surface 3 starts at £419.99 for the basic configuration, which comes with a 10.8in Full HD screen, 2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage capacity. Rather than the desktop-grade Intel Core processors used in the Surface Pro, this model has also opted for a much less expensive quad-core Intel Atom CPU, clocked at about 2.4GHz.

Though considerably stripped back from its more full-featured cousin, Microsoft is hoping that the Surface 3 can tempt more people away from the iPad and into the Windows ecosystem. By slashing the eye-watering price of the Surface Pro, they may just have found a winner.

Microsoft boldly claims the Surface Pro 3 can save you money as you don't have to separately invest in a laptop and a tablet. There are definite advantages to the hybrid approach, but you should also be prepared to make some compromises.

For example, the Pro 3 offers laptop-like performance with a choice of Core i5/i7 processors and up to 8GB of RAM. On the flip-side, port selection is limited to a single USB connection, a microSD card reader and mini-DisplayPort because of space/weight constrictions. Then there’s battery life, which is short of the double-digits you’d expect from a power efficient tablet.

However, the Pro 3 could still be the right option for you depending on how you want to work.

Surface Pro 3: Display & design

The Surface Pro 3 has a stunning 12in screen. Its unique 3:2 aspect ratio coupled with the cover means it resembles a legal pad or large diary when closed. You get the impression it's sitting there waiting for you to fill the pages of OneNote with ideas and diagrams.

Microsoft has cranked up the resolution to 2160 x 1440. This produces clear, detailed images and also a rich-palette of colours. It's right up there with the Retina Display on the iPad Air.

Then there’s the size. The large screen means the device is edging more towards laptop territory. As such, web browsing and multimedia playback is a joy. It’s also got enough space to place two apps together side-by-side on the screen, which is incredibly useful for those of us who have to multi-task.

That said, the Pro 3 is not perfect. Cramming three million pixels into such a relatively small surface area poses problems, especially when software is not optimised to make use of them. The Surface Pro 3 exhibits the same scalling issues that have plague other high-res Windows 8.1 devices and icons and text can be minuscule in desktop mode.

The first thing you should do is go to PC Setting  > Display and then toggle the Size of application to ‘Larger’. This makes all the Live Tiles, Settings and Charms menus easier to see. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything to improve the desktop experience and is something Microsoft really needs to fix as the majority of power users will be spending their time in this mode.

Pen input

One of the highlights - and there are many - of the Surface Pro 3 is the pen input. A lot of thought has gone into the design here and the way in which the pen interacts with the device.

The tablet promises a natural writing experience, acting as a pen and paper replacement. It's made from a single piece of aluminum and looks and feels like a fountain pen instead of a plastic twig you’d have found shipped with the device's predecessors.

The standout feature is the ability to activate OneNote at anytime (even from sleep mode) with a click of the purple button on the end. You can start taking notes immediately, be it in a meeting or lecture, without having to unlock the device, which is a real bonus. Another click will save the note to the cloud and open up a fresh sheet. It’s a simple and well executed idea and optimal for the times when you want to jot down a quick memo.

However, the best bit is the ability to capture any page on the device and annotate it. Simply double click the pen lid and you'll be presented with an option to print screen or select a portion.

Our only concern is the inability to stash the pen anyway on the cover - so there’s a high-risk of misplacing it.

Keyboard

Bigger is always better when it comes to keyboards because it means the letters are not cramped and important keys like ‘Shift’ and ‘Return’ are easy to locate and use.

Microsoft has made the smart decision to scrap the Touch Cover and focus on the mechanical Type Cover, which aims to provide a laptop-like typing experience.

A key feature is the addition of a second magnetic strip on the keyboard. This means you can snap the cover to angle of six degrees, which makes it much more comfortable to type on.  

Typing is improved over its predecessors, but it’s doesn't replicate the full experience of a desktop and laptop keyboard. Feedback is shallow and each key generates an annoyingly loud thud no matter how gently you press it.

The increased size of the Touch Cover means the Pro 3 has got a step closer to building a usable trackpad. The smooth, glassy-finish allows your fingers to glide over the surface and there are properly integrated left-and-right click buttons. Scrolling can get a sticky but it is definitely an improvement. We preferred navigating web pages with the touch screen and only found ourselves using the trackpad when in desktop mode.

For prolonged usage you’ll likely want to connect an external mouse to get the most accuracy and prevent fatigue.

 

It’s worth noting that keyboard accessories from the previous generation Surface (right) device will work with the third generation. But you’re going to want the latest keyboard (left) because it's the best.

Kickstand

Based on user feedback, Microsoft created a flexible hinge which can be moved into multiple positions. This is a definite boon for users as previous editions rigidly clicked into one (original Pro) or two places (Pro 2).

The kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 relies on friction, so it has multiple angles (up to 150 degrees). This means it can cater for a multitude of situations from typing out a report on a table to watching a movie in bed.

Does the flexibility of the kickstand finally mean you'll be able to use a Surface device on your lap without fear of it backflipping off your knees? Kind-of. Weight is evenly distributed within the chassis and, coupled with the two-anchor points for the keyboard, it feels more stable.

Use the lap for prolonged periods of time and the kickstand will dig into your thighs and start to cause discomfort -  this is a problem you don’t get with regular laptops.

Performance

Our review unit packed close to the top specification available with a Core i5-4300U processor clocked at 1.9GHz with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.

The Pro 3 posted an overall score of 64/100 in our benchmarks, which surpasses any other Windows tablet we’ve tested to-date.

However, the Pro 3 is not quite able to offer the same performance as dedicated laptops such as the MacBook Pro 13in (late-2013) or the Dell E7440. While the multimedia and responsiveness results were good, the overall score was dragged down by a poor showing in the multi-tasking portion.


What do these numbers mean? The Pro 3 provides the performance of of a mid-range laptop in a tablet form factor. The Core i5 configuration with 8GB of RAM is also capable of functioning as a desktop replacement.

Battery life

Microsoft touts nine hours of Wi-Fi usage for the Surface Pro 3. Alas, we didn’t get anywhere near this figure with the wireless connection turned off. In our Iron Man battery test, with brightness set to 75 per cent, the Pro 3 was shy of the six-hour mark. (NB: We checked for the latest firmware update, which aims to boost battery life and our device was up-to-date)

It's possible to get edge up towards eight hours with moderate use and by lowering the brightness to the 50 per cent mark and below. But, if you're consistently looking for longevity then the Pro 3, it would be hard to recommend this device.

Software

Microsoft preloads a copy of Windows 8.1 Pro so the device is ready for enterprise deployment.  

One of the best things about being a Microsoft own-branded product is the lack of OEM bloatware. There are no annoying tools popping up demanding your attention. Instead, Microsoft has pre-loaded a few core apps in the form of Skype, OneNote and Flipboard.

However, the Office suite is not included so customers wanting to use this - which we would imagine most business users would do - will have to purchase a license. While most businesses will have subscriptions to Office 365, inclusion of the core suite would have sweetened the deal, especially for students, who Microsoft is also targetting the device at. 

Connectivity

Port selection remains bare. The Surface Pro 3 does have a microSD card reader and Mini Displayport, but the inclusion of 1 x USB 3 connection isn't enough for a device touted as a potential laptop/desktop replacement.

Wireless connection comes in the form of Wi-Fi 802.11ac/a/b/g/n together with Bluetooth 4. There’s no option to have 4G connectivity, but this can be mitigated by tethering a device when you are on the move.

Pricing and warranty

The performance provided by the high-end models of the Pro 3 are reflected in the price. The  Core i3 model with 64GB of storage, 4GB RAM and Core i3 chip starts at £639.00. The Core i5 model with 256GB of storage, 8GB RAM and Core i5 chip starts at £1,109. If you want the Core i7 chip, be prepared to pay at least £1,339.

For a limited time Microsoft is offering a deal for those wanting to buy the the 2-in-1.


Whichever configuration you choose you have to factor in another £110 for the Type Cover, which is a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. This easily brings the cost of most configurations up towards the £1,500 mark.

Microsoft offers 90 days of technical support - and extended warranties of up to three years can be purchased for businesses. The vendor also provides detailed guides to help with deployment and there are even video tutorials available.

With the lack of long-term support, IT admins thinking about making a bulk purchase of the Pro 3 are going to want to know about the repairability. The tablet received a paltry 1/10 from teardown site iFixit, with the opening procedure described as “delicate and arduous” due the fused glass and copious amounts of glue keeping everything in place. It is possible to replace components such as the SSD, but be warned that it’s easy to render the device unusable so it's not something we'd recommend. 

iFixit said the reason why the tablet received such a low score was down to the strong adhesive, non-standard connectors and difficulties opening the hardware. Furthermore, when it tried to remove the battery (which is firmly placed), it described the battery pack as being "stuck like a mastodon in a tar pit."

Overall

The Surface Pro 3 is a significant improvement over its predecessors, which were three-star products. We love the design, the pen input is superb and we can't fault the quality of the display. Unfortunately, software doesn’t allow you to get the best out of the screen and battery life is sub-par when contrasted with standalone tablets.

The Pro 3 is best suited for design and editing professionals who can get the most out of the stylus. It's also suitable for those looking for a desktop replacement, which they can also use on their commute home. We wouldn't be surprised to see C-level execs showcasing the notetaking capabilities during board meetings.

This article was originally published on 03/07/14 3 July as a hands-on/first look review and was updated to a full review on 13/02/15. It has since been updated multiple times (most recently on 15/07/15).

Specifications 

Display: 12in (2160 x 1440)  OS: Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit Processor:  1.9GHz dual-core i5-4300U processor (i3 and i7 variants available)
Memory: 4 or 8GB DDR3L
Storage: 256GB SSD (as reviewed)
Connectivity:  Bluetooth 4, Wi-Fi 802.11ac/802.11 a/b/g/n Ports: 1 x USB 3, 1 x mini DisplayPort, 1 x micro-SD card reader
Camera: 5-megapixel front and rear
Other: Pen included, built-in kickstand
Dimensions: 292mm x 201mm x 9.1mm
Weight: 800g (tablet only)