Microsoft’s Surface series is leading the line for Windows-based tablets, and with the latest iteration show its desire to keep things competitive in an ever-improving market. The Surface Pro 3 comes with a number of improvements to do just this, and thankfully they’re not just restricted to barely noticeable performance upgrades.
Perhaps the most important is the larger screen – there’s a 12.1 inch display here, which is a significant upgrade on the 10.6 inch Surface Pro 2. Importantly this creates a clear gap between the Surface and other non-windows tablets, underlining Microsoft’s ambitions to make it a true laptop replacement. The aspect ratio has also changed, being 3:2 rather than 16:9, which may or may not appeal depending on its intended use.
With a bigger display you need better resolution, and Microsoft pushes past the 1080p barrier with a 2,160 x 1,440 display at around 214ppi – just about enough to ensure that there’s no drop in sharpness due to the increased size. The Surface Pro 3 is also lighter than the Pro 2, and with a slightly thinner bezel around the screen makes for a more immersive user experience.
Elsewhere speakers have been improved and are allegedly 45% louder, Microsoft claims 20% better battery life which should push nine hours, and yes there should be a performance boost, albeit a small one, thanks to an Intel Core i5-4200U chip (the top-end model gets an upgrade to Core i7).
So an impressive list of upgrades then, but how does it fare when you slap it all together? We did the rounds to find out.
Anandtech provides a typically detailed technical analysis of some of new features, with a focus on the display and performance. Though it admits there’s a lot more work to do before it draws any firm conclusions, there are mixed results from the early tests. The display varies from “Max brightness drops a bit compared to Surface Pro 2, likely due to the Pro 3 having 50% more pixels to light” and “Grayscale accuracy is the biggest issue with the new display, green levels are just way too high” to “Full saturation color reproduction is excellent”, so a bit of a mixed bag. Performance improvements seem significant though, as it reported “seeing a 3 – 20% increase in performance over the Surface Pro 2.”
TechRadar’s hands-on is more focused on usability, and enjoys the new smarter cover, which “made for a much more comfortable typing experience” and “deeper travel and punchier rebound in each key, making for an experience quite close to that of a laptop”. The only problem here is that it’ll cost you an extra £76 ish. The Pro 3 also works very well with a stylus, or Surface Pen, which feels more natural in the hand and combined with the LCD screen being brought closer to the glass makes “writing feels more natural – plain and simple.” It concludes by admitting that this is still quite a pricey device, and questions the concept of a laptop-replacement tablet in general, stating “Price and barely optional accessories aside, I’m already bullish on what this hybrid device is capable of. And I’ve been skeptical bordering on critical of the category since it popped up a few years back.”
There’s a fairly detailed review over at CNet, who decides that while the Pro 3 is somewhat stuck in the middle of the tablet/laptop space, “it’s more successful as a tablet than a laptop replacement. “ This is largely because of design shortcomings, such as some ergonomic difficulties when balancing it on a lap and various niggles with the touchpad. It’s also a fair bit behind performance-wise, as a trial of Bioshock Infinite showed. “We gave BioShock Infinite a spin at high settings and our standard 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution, and got single-digit frame rates. Running at the native resolution on low settings, the game still chugged unacceptably.”
It does offer praise for the optional keyboard upgrade, which is beginning to sound less like an option, and the digital pen. The battery life impressed when pitting it against rivals such as the Yoga 2 Pro and HP X2 hybrid: “The Surface Pro 3 did, however, best most of the competition in battery life, even if only by a small margin”, and comments on the slim design and display were generally favourable.
We’ll sum up with MacWorld’s conclusion in a comparison between the Surface Pro 3 and iPad Air. Although there are similarities in design and size, the consensus here seems to be that the Pro 3 will score more points with professionals who don’t want to carry around a laptop and a tablet (Microsoft says that 96% of iPad owners also have a laptop) where the Air will be better for consumers who really just want a tablet. This seems to be the overriding point, and surely one that Microsoft is aware of with these new improvements. Moving away from the tablet space towards the laptop with a larger screen and strong focus on a usable stylus and keyboard could be a risky move, and only time will tell whether there’s enough interest here to make it a success.