Microsoft Surface Pro 3: A Review

Published 2015-01-12 at 12:55

I recently (November 2014) bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. I had been circling for some time before buying it but there was £100 off and a 3 year warranty from John Lewis in the Black Friday Sale and that pushed me over the edge. In the process of circling I obviously wanted to read reviews. Imagine my surprise when the internets turns out to be full of thinly-veiled paid articles and/or people who love Apple whilst hating Microsoft on principle for things that Apple are equally guilty of.

So, if you're looking to buy an iPad that's not an iPad, then move along. This isn't going to beat the iPad you want. It's much more expensive, weighs a bunch more and won't run any of your apps. If you're looking to buy an iPad, go and buy an iPad already. If not, then go look at Android tablets. The real decision here is if you're the sort of person looking to buy a MacBook Air (or a bottom end MacBook Pro) or a mid-range laptop. I say mid-range because if you're the sort of person who thinks it's ok to spend £250 on a laptop (or £100 on a tablet) whilst also expecting it to work well, then you deserve what you're going to get and you'd best head down PC World to get your new computer.

Consequently, I have decided to write this review. I am not being paid for it (by anyone, more's the pity), nor trying to drive ad (not even WordPress' now it's hosted on my own server) or any other revenue. I own Apple products and I run PCs. I believe in the best tool for the job. My hope is that this post might be useful to someone who was in my position.




A Surface Pro 3. Smudgy finger marks not included.

Specifically, that position was someone who had an ageing MacBook Pro that was slow and crying out for replacement. I also had an ageing iPad 2 that was creaking under iOS 8 and I wasn't using as a result. What I wanted was a new iPad but the problem with iPads is iOS. iOS doesn't let you do a lot of things – coding for example – that are important to me. However, I didn't want or need a new laptop. I would basically buy a low-end Macbook Air (the reasons are for elsewhere but it's patently the best value laptop in that price bracket; also I get education discount at Apple) but, if I needed a proper computer, I'd just use my desktop. Equally, for pure tablet-fodder (twitter and light sofa web-surfing, I have an iPhone).

That being said, there are occasions when I need a mobile computer and there are occasions when I want to sit in bed and watch Grey's Anatomy and sometimes, these two activities overlap. A tablet that actually runs software I need (e.g. a JVM) would suit both of those needs quite nicely. A single piece of equipment that does these things would fit well. I believe in using the best tool for the job but sometimes that's a multi-tool.

Price

Let's start with the price, because that's everyone's first question. I paid £749 (the i5/4Gb/128Gb model). Prices for Surface Pro 3s range (at time of writing) from £639 to £1649, specification depending. Let's start with the obvious, if you buy the £1649 model, you're crazy. Yes, it has an i7 processor, 8Gb of RAM and a 512Gb SSD but if you really need that grunt, I doubt you need a tablet to encapsulate it.

But here's the rub, this isn't a tablet. It might look and feel like a tablet but we need to be clear that it's a laptop, shoe-horned into a tablet shape. It runs full Windows. Similar spec MacBook Pros run to the same sort of price; similar spec Ultrabooks cost equal or more. So, if we're clear that we're buying laptop-hardware and not just a glorified tablet, then it's not such poor value. It's still a hole in my bank account though; I'm not delusional.

Hardware




The hinge has a range of motion from about 30deg to about 180–30deg.

The shell is not the sort of sealed affair you're used to from iPads. Partly this is because half the back section hinges out. The hinges are a smooth but stiff affair so they don't fall open or shut. Whether or not this resistance lasts in the long-run is too soon to say. But thus far, it seems relatively robust.




Ports: L to R: Power, USB3, mini DisplayPort

The shell also has a USB port, a mini-DisplayPort and a slot for the magnetic proprietary charger cable. Sidenote: the proprietary power block has a USB port on it for charging things; I genuinely love this feature. A microSD slot is hidden under the back hinge-out section. The perimeter of the shell also has a ventilation strip that runs around it. More on that later but for now, don't expect this to be waterproof.




That's a microSD slot near the bottom there...

Keyboard

"Ah but it doesn't have a keyboard and you need to buy that and then it's like another £100", I heard you think. You're right, it doesn't come with a keyboard (other than the on-screen one) and the official one goes for £110. I partially cede to your point. But I have four points of rationalisation: 1. It's half the weight of the equivalent laptop we are comparing it to (even if we buy the keyboard) and also, it's not a laptop, it has a touch screen. 2. We don't have to buy the keyboard. There's a USB port and bluetooth, and it runs standard Windows. Any keyboard works. Go buy a £5 one if it bothers you that much. 3. It comes with a pretty decent stylus. Yes you can use a generic stylus on an iPad but this is a unbadged Wacom bluetooth stylus that costs £50. Ok you could live without that. 4. The screen is high DPI ('retina' display), most equivalent laptops are not.




The blue is actually slightly fuzzy.

That being said, I had the official keyboard bought for me as a gift. It looks nice and integrates well. It's bouncier to type on than I would like and the way the keys butt up to one another means I tend to make a lot of typos (moreso than usual). This is fine for me; if I have hardcore typing to do then I will be using my desktop machine (like I am now), but it might bother some. If so get a better keyboard; £110 will buy you a really nice one.




Wacom stylus. Don't lose it, it'll cost you £50 to replace!

On a similar vein, the touchpad is mediocre at best. To be fair, I've been spoilt on MacBook trackpads and with the touch screen (and also with the styles) you don't really need it, but for any intense work, you'd probably want a mouse. Fortunately, there is a USB port, so it doesn't even have to be a bluetooth one.

Screen

The screen is lovely. The resolution is high and it shows. The flat Metro (although I think we are supposed to call it Modern now) interface looks clean and crisp. Colours are bright and delicious. Furthermore, all the stuff people complain about Windows 8 on PCs dissolves when you use this as a touch interface. UX is fluid and responsive. In part this is because the touch bit of Windows is actually really well done; on the other hand, you spend a lot less time in the desktop and you finally understand what all the charms menu crap, start screen and split control panel was all about. The stylus is accurate and precise and that's helpful given the high DPI of the display (see below).

The screen can often seem too dim (this turns up in reviews) but I've found the problem here is software. Specifically, Windows' "adaptive brightness". That doesn't work well on a bootcamped Mac either which I had always assumed was an Apple driver issue but it turns out this Windows feature just sucks generally. You can turn that off in Power Settings though. When you manually adjust the brightness, the range is eye-burning floodlight to medium-dim.

Battery

Battery life is a disappointment. I have seen it alleged that you can make 9 hours out of this battery. I'd be very surprised if that were replicable. If you're using it intensively (gaming being the usual culprit), you'll not make 3 hours. I've generally found times in the 4–5h bracket with my typical use but then that probably includes an amount of game playing. Random surfing is unlikely to be so severe but even then, battery report indicates an extrapolated time of 6–7h. Turning the brightness down would probably help me here but my personal preference is for brighter display levels. I've also not really explored aggressive use of power-saving. In any case, don't buy this expecting all day battery life; if you get it, it's a bonus. As with phones, you can tell what's really chewing battery based on what makes the unit hot... and hot it will get.

Earlier I mentioned the ventilation gap. This exists because the Surface has an internal fan. It needs the internal fan because it gets hot. Sometimes, quite hot. To be fair, this isn't unique here but it explains where a lot of the battery goes.

OS

So, as I've mentioned, Windows 8 Metro interface comes into its own on a touch screen to an extent that actually surprised me. In fact, I think I prefer it to iOS. There's just something about it that feels more logical. iOS is hardly difficult to use but it really is suffering these days from bloat that's come from the lack of development of the fundamental structure of the OS over the last few years. That being said, the split control panel between Metro and desktop is still irksome. I wish they'd go the whole hog and move it all into Metro so you can use Metro, desktop or a combination of the two, as desired.

What Metro apps there are (see below) have so far had pretty consistent UI which is presumably a function of the App Store approval process. The same however can't be said for 'desktop mode'. Obviously, given this is normal Windows, everything is as you'd expect. The main issue is the high DPI of the display. Some programs (Office 2013 being a notable example) make adjustments to this and become usable. Others do not; in my particular case, Eclipse becomes particularly intolerable as 16px icons are small to begin with but on this display, they are practically microscopic. Despite some decent effort by the OS to compensate, a lot of UI does not scale and even with the OS's work, some of the text is quite small. You'd need good eyes (or judicious use of font sizes and zooms) to use this as a laptop proper. As a tablet, this is less of an issue given you tend to be holding it closer to your eyes.

Apps

Windows starts from scratch to log-on screen in 4 seconds. Same if it starts from hibernate. Turn on is instant if you turned it on within the last 4 hours, otherwise it will have moved in to hibernate. You won't get notifications in hibernate but these are audio only and don't turn on the screen so I don't really think these are particularly useful anyway.

Delightfully, the SP3 doesn't come with any bloatware. You get a copy of OneNote but that doesn't even have all the taskbar rubbish the desktop version does and is easily uninstalled (as with any other app) if it really offends you.

However, the content of the Windows App Store is awful. Seriously, so bad. There's a couple of outstanding showpiece Microsoft games Mahjong looks particularly delightful) and a few of the obvious (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where's My Water?) but is short of most other things.

The Windows 8 Twitter app is terrible (I was forced to buy one; Tweetium -- it's quite good); there is no Spotify, no Instagram (try InstaPic), no YouTube (try MetroTube), no WordPress, no iPlayer. I could go on.

Of course, all these things work on the desktop. I say on the desktop rather than simply in browser as the Metro version of IE doesn't run add-ins and half those things require Silverlight or Flash or whatever. On the topic of browser, if you want another than IE, don't bother. Chrome in Metro is basically unusable and no other browser supports Metro. That aside, given that the SP3 is basically a Windows laptop, you can just use the normal programs and anything else that works on Windows in desktop mode if you like, though given the DPI issues discussed above, hitting some things with sausage fingers is trying at times (*glares at Eclipse*).

Should you buy?

If you were looking about tabletty tablets? No, buy an iPad. If you were looking at laptoppy laptops? Depends on how much you actually need an integrated keyboard. If you really do need one, buy a MacBook Air. The difficult middle ground is if you want both but in that case I think Surface Pro 3s really do both. Perhaps not as well as either individual option but it does it well and certainly better than I thought it would. Go buy it from somewhere with a return period on it and see how it suits you. Oh and also, do not be put off by the terrible set-ups that are in stores because they're not representative.