Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review - still our favourite hybrid
After a few months of use, how does the Surface Pro 3 compare to the competition?
The Surface Pro 3 is the most radical step forward for Microsoft’s Surface family yet, with a display that has swelled to near-A4 size; a magnesium alloy chassis that has emerged thinner and lighter than ever; and a smattering of tweaks to the design hinting at improved usability. But is it enough to back up Microsoft’s claims that this is "the tablet that can replace your laptop?" See also: what's the best laptop you can buy in 2014?
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: specifications
The Surface Pro 3 comes in a wide variety of specifications. You can choose from Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, as well as a spectrum of SSD capacities ranging from 64GB right up to 512GB. Pricing varies dramatically as a result, with the low-end model starting at a very tempting £639. We’d avoid this one, though: its Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM may do everything you need, but a 64GB SSD is too tiny these days.
A slightly better bet is the £849 version, which gets you a Core i5, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, but ideally we’d pick the 256GB model, which also doubles the RAM, at £1,109. If nothing but the best will do, you’ll have to dig deep: the Core i7 versions are both equipped with 8GB of RAM, and the 256GB or 512GB SSD options come in at £1,339 and £1,649 respectively. Bear in mind that none of these prices include the Type Cover, which adds another £110 on top.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: design
The Surface Pro 3 makes a great first impression – it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Microsoft hardware. The clean, unfussy design oozes luxury, and while we prefer the moody, all-black exterior of the Surface Pro 2, there is something rather alluring about the Surface Pro 3. Light grey metal reaches all around the back and along the tapered edges, and a slight sparkle shimmers under the matte finish.
And while the the Surface Pro 3 is substantially wider and taller than what’s come before, Microsoft has used the extra surface area to spread the components more thinly and slash the overall weight – the chassis now measures a dainty 9.1mm thick and weighs 800g.
The 12in, 2,160 x 1,440 screen (protected by a glossy panel of Gorilla Glass 3) is a big step up from the 10.6in, 1,920 x 1,080 panels of previous Pro generations. It’s also a different shape, forsaking the Surface Pro 2’s widescreen 16:9 format in favour of a 3:2 ratio. This may not sound like a revolutionary change, but the ergonomic impact is huge. In laptop mode, the display’s extra height brings back happy memories of 4:3, square-screened laptops from the 1990s; held vertically in tablet mode, with the Surface Pen in hand, the extra width gives the feel of a slightly shrunken A4 page. No matter how you use it, the Surface Pro 3 feels like a more natural fit than previous models.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: features
Microsoft has made a few other tweaks here and there, too. The Surface Pro 3’s power connector is another thing that has been redesigned, from the press-on design much like Apple’s Magsafe to a neater, spade-like connector that’s far less prone to being yanked or knocked out.
In previous versions, the Surface Pen could be stored by clipping it into the magnetic power socket. That wasn't ideal, since you couldn't clip the pen in and charge the tablet at the same time. Now, you can stow the pen while the tablet is charging, with concealed magnets allowing you to attach the pen to anywhere on the edge of the tablet.
It still isn't the ideal solution, though, because the attachment isn't strong enough to survive being jostled around in a bag without it being knocked off. Annoyingly, there remains no slot in the edge of the Surface Pro 3's chassis. However, Microsoft includes a small loop of fabric which attaches to the Type Cover, so you can stow the pen there.
Connectivity hasn’t changed a jot, either. The Surface Pro 3 has only a single USB 3 port, mini-DisplayPort video output, a 3.5mm headset jack and a microSD slot. For a device that aspires to replace your laptop, that’s a pretty limited selection. The presence of dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 sweeten the deal slightly, and the upgrade to TPM 2 security is welcome, too.
Similarly, the pair of 5-megapixel front and rear cameras are no more inspiring than those of the Surface Pro 2: smeary compression artefacts and mediocre detail are the order of the day, although we can't imagine many people snapping selfies with this enormous tablet.
The speakers at least are an improvement. These are now positioned at either side of the display and provide crisp, detailed audio. They’re also a good deal louder than the meek drivers in the Surface Pro 2, although still not as good as those of the best tablets out there – to our ears, the Apple iPad Air provides a richer and more full-bodied performance, which is a surprise given how much slimmer it is.
Recent firmware updates have added new features designed to make the Surface Pro 3 more secure. For example, you can now selectively disable the USB port, SD card slot, docking connector, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which is likely to make security-conscious system adminstrators a little bit happier.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: keyboard and kickstand
The Surface Pro keyboard, in the shape of the Type Cover, has always been one of its most unique features. With the Surface Pro 3’s expanded dimensions, the Type Cover has grown and it now weighs 300g. As before, it clips securely to the magnetic strip along the tablet’s bottom edge, drawing power via the metal docking connector, and folds up over the tablet’s display to keep it safe from harm when not in use. The keyboard itself is comfortably sized, with a wide, squat touchpad positioned underneath, and backlighting that’s adjustable through three different brightness settings. One minor addition is a stick-on loop of elasticated fabric, where you can store the Surface Pen.
This loop is also a source of minor irritation. Over time, like most thin plastics, it stretches a little. This means your lovely (and expensive) pen starts to fall out of it, usually when you're carrying the Surface Pro 3 around. Since we started using the Surface Pro 3 a few months ago, we've already lost one pen this way – and lost count of the number of times we've ended up stooping to pick the pen up from the floor.
The Type Cover’s big new trick is a small hinged section, just above the keyboard’s function keys, that folds backwards and clips magnetically along the tablet’s lower bezel, raising the rear of the Type Cover up by a couple of centimetres. The effect is to angle the keys into a more comfortable typing position – neatly addressing one of the problems we had with previous Type Cover designs. When used on your lap, it also reduces the Type Cover’s tendency to rock from side to side – one of our biggest irrtations with the previous iteration.
It's still flawed, however. Since there’s no support beneath the angled Type Cover it feels very odd to type on - a little like typing on a shoebox. What’s more, in its raised position, the Type Cover entirely covers the lower bezel, making it difficult to accurately press items along the taskbar with your fingers.
One major shortcoming of the original Surface Pro was its fixed-position kickstand. The Surface Pro 2 partially remedied this with a dual-position stand; now at last the Surface Pro 3 brings a properly hinged stand that’s smoothly adjustable through 150 degrees. It’s such a simple and obvious fix that we wonder why Microsoft didn’t do it this way in the first place, and the engineering behind it is just perfect. In the few months we've been using it, the stand hasn't started to "sag" and it still feels exceptionally strong.
The upgraded stand allows the Surface Pro 3 to work in a wide variety of positions. With the Type Cover attached, the Surface Pro 3 can be propped up on your lap or desk, just like a regular laptop. Alternatively, when you unclip the keyboard and fold the stand right back, using the onscreen keyboard – previously an exercise in slip-slide futility – becomes a viable and even comfortable proposition.
The new design has also necessitated the removal of the capacitive Windows button to the right-hand side of the surround. This makes it easy to press accidentally when performing edge-swipes or even simply holding it when holding the tablet in landscape orientation.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: display
The Surface Pro 3’s display delivers excellent image quality. Colours are vivid and richly saturated, and while brightness and contrast are actually a little down on the outgoing Surface Pro models (the Surface Pro 3 achieved a maximum brightness of 325cd/m2 and a modest contrast ratio of 789:1) colour accuracy is competitive. Using our X-Rite i1Display Pro colorimeter, we measured an average Delta E of 1.77, which is as close to perfect as we’ve seen from any laptop or tablet in recent months.
The panel is also able to reproduce an exceptional range of colour: our X-Rite colorimeter measured it as covering 96.2% of the sRGB colour gamut. Microsoft’s screen calibration is some way off with darker tones, however, with the deepest greyscales blending into black.
When it comes to sharpness, the Surface Pro 3’s 216ppi pixel density isn’t perceptibly better than the 208ppi of the original Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 – the higher resolution comes, after all, with a larger screen. That isn’t a problem, though: text is still razor-sharp, and photographs are packed with fine detail. Microsoft ships the Surface Pro 3 with Windows 8.1’s scaling settings at 150% by default; you can drop this down to 100% if you want more room for your palettes and toolbars in applications such as Photoshop or Sony Vegas Pro, but be warned that this makes buttons and icons shrink to extremely fiddly proportions.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: battery life
The Surface Pro 3’s battery life strides past its predecessors. With the screen dimmed to 75cd/m2 and Wi-Fi switched off, our light-use test saw the Surface Pro 3 survive a 10hrs 33mins. Dialling the screen brightness up to maximum and pushing the Core i5 CPU flat-out with our looping Cinebench test saw that figure drop dramatically, but even here the Surface Pro 3 acquitted itself well; it lasted 2hrs 31mins before expiring. In normal usage, we had no problem getting through a full working day of word processing, accessing email and watching the occasional video on YouTube before we needed to reach for the mains charger.
|Warranty||2 yr return to base|
|Dimensions||292 x 201 x 9.1mm (WDH)|
Processor and memory
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4300U|
|SODIMM sockets free||0|
|SODIMM sockets total||0|
Screen and video
|Resolution screen horizontal||2,160|
|Resolution screen vertical||1,440|
|Resolution||2160 x 1440|
|Graphics chipset||Intel HD Graphics|
|Hard disk usable capacity||96GB|
|Replacement battery price inc VAT||£0|
|Wired adapter speed||N/A|
|802.11 draft-n support||yes|
|Integrated 3G adapter||no|
|3.5mm audio jacks||1|
|SD card reader||yes|
|Pointing device type||Touchscreen, Stylus|
|Camera megapixel rating||5.0mp|
Battery and performance tests
|Battery life, light use||10hr 33min|
|Battery life, heavy use||2hr 20min|
|Overall Real World Benchmark score||0.62|
Operating system and software
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit|
|OS family||Windows 8|