Microsoft Surface Pro 3: a brief hands-on review

We got our hands on the latest iteration of Microsoft's Surface Pro, and we liked it

A typical side view of the Surface Pro 3 sitting in notebook position.

A typical side view of the Surface Pro 3 sitting in notebook position.

With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft is gunning for the notebook market. The new device is thinner, lighter, and better balanced than the Surface Pro 2, and it has a focus on providing a better typing experience when an optional keyboard cover is attached.

Microsoft has made some changes to the physical design of the Surface Pro 3 in order to make it more of a laptop replacement that the previous versions of the product, with the key being a bigger screen size of 12 inches. Tweaks to the way the unit sits when in your lap or on a desk can also be seen: the optional tactile keyboard cover now has an extra fold in it so that it can sit at a sloping angle rather than completely flat, and more advanced hinges have been put in to allow the kickstand to be placed at various angles rather than only having two fixed positions.

These changes are very important to the overall feel and usability of the Surface, with the added versatility of the kickstand in particular playing a key role in the various ways that this product can be used. But while a lot of the focus has been on making the Surface Pro 3 a laptop replacement, the tablet functionality of the unit has not been compromised in any way. In fact, we think it’s a much better tablet than the Surface Pro 2.

For starters, the Surface Pro 3 is thinner than the Surface Pro 2 (less than 10mm for the Surface Pro 3 compared to 13.5mm for the Surface Pro 2), and while it’s also bigger thanks to its 12in screen (the Surface Pro 2 was 10.6in), the balance of the product is impeccable. The weight has been kept to a minimum (800g compared to 907g for the Surface Pro 2), and the design of the internal components has been thought out so that the unit doesn’t favour any particular side when you hold it.

Furthermore, cooling has been improved thanks to the inclusion of more vent holes around the top half of the unit, so that it won’t get too warm to hold. Microsoft said it had to design a brand new CPU fan (one of 100 custom components in the chassis) that was efficient enough, yet small enough to fit inside the sub-10mm thick chassis. Microsoft said that the fan is designed to distribute the warm air evenly across the entire device so that it can then escape from any of the vent holes around the unit. We didn’t get a chance to run any taxing loads on the unit, so we’re not sure how noisy the fan gets.

The keyboard cover has a new angle that allows it to sit at a slope.
The keyboard cover has a new angle that allows it to sit at a slope.

A typical side view of the Surface Pro 3 sitting in notebook position.
A typical side view of the Surface Pro 3 sitting in notebook position.

More than being easy to hold, though, one of the key elements of the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is its ability to be used for note taking, notation, drawing, and other pen-related tasks. Microsoft ships the unit with a 256-pressure-sensitive pen by default, and the pen input technology in use is from N-Trig rather than Wacom. Microsoft said it worked on making the pen experience feel natural by ensuring that the pen sits as close as possible to the “ink” that it outputs on the page — that is, making the barrier between the screen and the pen as thin as possible. It also reduced the latency of the strokes. By supporting 256 levels of pressure, the harder you press the pen on the tablet, the thicker the line becomes.

Regarding its build quality, the Surface Pro 3 just feels solid, despite being so large and light. It’s encased in a magnesium alloy, and the finish doesn’t have black paint on it like it did in the Surface Pro 2. One of the complaints we had with the Surface Pro 2 was that the finish got noticeably scratched around the edges when we transported it and when we used the kickstand (you can see how scratched a well-used Surface Pro 2 gets in the photo below comparing the thickness of the Pro 2 to the Pro 3). This is one of the problems that Microsoft appears to have addresses with the new finish, so that the unit doesn't end up looking so worn.

On the left is the Surface Pro 3, on the right is the Surface Pro 2.
On the left is the Surface Pro 3, on the right is the Surface Pro 2.

On the left is a Surface RT, on the right is the Surface Pro 3.
On the left is a Surface RT, on the right is the Surface Pro 3.

The other aspect of the build quality that is impressive is the new set of hinges for the kickstand. These are engineered in such a way that they provide a quick release to the first stand position of the tablet, and then you can apply pressure to the top of the screen to push it down further and allow it to sit closer to the table according to your needs. The range of movement is large, and the stability of the hinges ensures that the tablet won’t move involuntarily as you use it. While the hinges look substantial, you can’t tell they are there when the kickstand is closed.

The new hinges (and the microSD slot can be seen in this shot, too.
The new hinges (and the microSD slot can be seen in this shot, too.

The extra movement of the kickstand contributes to different user scenarios: in meetings and presentations, the Surface Pro 3 can be used in a lower than usual tilt to ensure that you aren’t blocked off from those you are facing; if you’re an artist or technical drawer, you can put the slate almost all the way down, leaving a slight incline while you sketch on your lap or on a table.

The hinge allows the Surface Pro 3 to sit at multiple angles, including this final angle.
The hinge allows the Surface Pro 3 to sit at multiple angles, including this final angle.

The screen itself is vibrant and equipped with wide viewing angles. It can be seen well from any angle, and while reflections might be a problem in the brightest of environments, its high brightness goes some way to countering them. A native resolution of 2160x1440 has been used (better than the Full HD screen of the Surface Pro 2), which looks magnificent in the Modern UI. For the Desktop environment, it might require a magnification of the text and icons so that they can be viewed more comfortably.

Gorilla Glass protects the front of the screen, and there is a front-facing camera at the top (it’s 5 megapixels, which is the same as the rear camera). Another component that is front-facing is the speakers. Microsoft said it had to make a custom cut in the Gorilla Glass in order to house the speakers at the front, and it did this so that the tablet can provide a much better overall audio output. You have to look closely to see these cuts on the left and right sides of the screen -- they are inconspicuous and don’t detract from the overall good looks of the unit (well, we think it’s good looking, anyway).

As for processing, the Surface Pro 3 uses fourth-generation Intel Core processors, and can be purchased in i3, i5, or i7 versions depending on how much processing power you need. Up to 8GB of RAM is available, and up to 512GB of internal solid state storage (mSATA-based) can be present. There is a microSD card on the side of the tablet that can be used to add more internal storage, and you also get a full-sized USB 3.0 port, a headset port, and a Mini DisplayPort. Of course, you get Bluetooth 4.0, and Wi-Fi is of the 802.11ac variety.

The high screen resolution and ample processing power can put a drain on battery life, but Microsoft claims that it can achieve nine hours of Web browsing time. Microsoft said it put the absolute best available battery technology into the Surface Pro 3, “literally paying more” to get the highest quality cells. The end result is a battery that is claimed to last for a minimum of 1200 drain cycles.

From this brief hands-on, we came away impressed with the advancements that Microsoft has made to the Surface. The Pro 3 appears to be a winner in many respects, but particularly as a tablet. While trumpeting this as a laptop replacement has some merit, the tactile keyboard cover is optional, which we think is a little odd, though Microsoft said it did this due to users wanting more choice in colours. The pen can be easily attached to a cover just like a real notepad, but there is no space for it to be attached to the Surface that we could see (though a ‘pen loop’ is listed as an accessory).

You can clip the pen to a keyboard cover and make it look like a real notepad.
You can clip the pen to a keyboard cover and make it look like a real notepad.

The official Australian release date for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is in August, and we think it’s worth the wait if you’re currently considering a new tablet/laptop device. We’re still not convinced that it can completely replace a laptop, unless you always use a laptop on a flat surface. The tactile keyboard cover does feel good to type on, though, and it has an improved touchpad with buttons.

Surface Pro 3 Australian pricing

• Intel Core i3 version with 4GB of RAM and 64GB SSD: $979
• Intel Core i5 version with 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD: $1209
• Intel Core i5 version with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD: $1549
• Intel Core i7 version with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD: $1829
• Intel Core i7 version with 8GB of RAM and 512GB SSD: $2279

Surface Pro 3 accessories

• Surface Pro Type Cover
• Additional Surface Pen
• Additional 36W Power Supply
• Additional Pen Loop
• Docking Station for Surface Pro 3
• Surface Ethernet Adapter

Note that Australian pricing has not yet been given for these accessories.

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