Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Microsoft's third Surface Pro is out to replace your laptop

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Good screen

  • +

    Lots of power

  • +

    Keyboard accessory is great

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Not great battery life

  • -

    Expensive higher-spec versions

  • -

    Keyboard not included

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The Surface Pro 3 may not be a killer device, but in making the screen bigger, Microsoft has made it a more convincing laptop-alternative

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is the maker's third go at a Windows tablet that has all the power of a pretty decent Ultrabook laptop. This time around, Microsoft has tried to make the Surface more of a laptop-replacer than ever before, using a 12-inch screen instead of a 10.6-inch one.

Is it time to ditch the laptop, then? You need to spend around a grand to get a decent spec and the must-have keyboard accessory, so it's not a revelation. But it is pretty handy as a device to take around with you for a mix of work and play.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Design

As it has a big 12-inch screen, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is a lot bigger than most tablets, including last year's Surface Pro 2. If anything, the size is a lot more like an A4 notepad than a tablet. The thickness is about the same too - 9.1mm

With the keyboard attached, it's a few millimetres thicker, but still very thin for what is effectively a laptop.

It's the same deal with the Microsoft Surface Pro 3's weight too - good for a laptop, not so hot for a tablet.

It weighs 800g without the keyboard. You wouldn't want to hold one up single-handed for more than a few seconds - it's almost twice the weight of an iPad Air - but as long as there's somewhere to rest part of it, you'll be laughing. And it's not the sort of weight that'll give you shoulder ache, should you be looking for something to take around with you in a bag day after day.

As with the previous Surface tablets, the Surface Pro 3 feels extremely well-made, even if it's not drop-dead gorgeous. More-or-less the entire case is made of magnesium alloy, and while it doesn't have quite as cold and clearly metallic a feel as aluminium, it's pretty similar. It's clearly metal, where some magnesium gadgets almost feel like plastic.

There's an unfortunate strip of grey plastic on the right edge (when holding the Surface Pro 3 in portrait), and the heat outlet that runs around the entire tablet isn't too pretty either. But this tablet is a whole lot more powerful than most, and a full-metal body is generally not a great for providing decent signal for things like Wi-Fi.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Features

There are a few important elements that make the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 more than 'just' another tablet. First is the kind of processor it uses.

While there are configs of this gadget ranging from £649 all the way up to the slightly terrifying £1,650 top-end version, all use the kind of processors seen in 'proper' laptops, not tablets. You get Haswell-generation Intel Core processors, from i3 all the way up to i5.

We got our hands on an upper mid-range model that'd cost you around £1,100. For that price you're looking at an Intel Core i5 4300U with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. You'd pay a similar amount for, say, a MacBook Pro, or even more for a Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus.

Aside from the CPU, you also need to pick from 64GB (not enough in our book) to 512GB SSD storage, and whether you want 4GB or 8GB of RAM. In this range you see the Surface Pro 3 go from a casual light use hybrid to a real powerhouse that could comfortably act as someone's main PC.

However, most of the real important elements remain the same whichever version you buy. One of the most important is the stand.

This hinged metal flap is a Surface staple. But this time around it doesn't have just a few settings. Like a standard laptop hinge, it lets the Surface Pro 3's screen rest at almost any angle.

We found it not just useful for turning the thing into a reimagined laptop, but also for tablet use, resting the Surface Pro 3 on your knees. It's super handy when the tablet weighs 800g.

Thanks to the stand, we found the Surface to be one of the best casual web browsers you can get. It may be a bit more serious than a cheap Android tablet, but it's just about as good for lounging about with.

It is quite different in use, though. The Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1 Pro, just like a 'proper' computer. Microsoft used to make a cheaper tablet based on the cut back RT version of Windows - called the Surface (no 'Pro') - but that has been scrapped this year as pretty much no-one bought the last version. Oh well.

We find Windows 8.1 great for more serious stuff. As well as things like full Microsoft Office, it lets you use professional-grade applications that aren't available on iOS or Android in their full form. There may be Photoshop and video editing apps for tablets, but they're not a patch on the Photoshop or, for example, Adobe Premiere Pro you'd be free to buy for a Surface Pro 3. They don't come cheap, but they are fantastic.

Windows 8.1 is not quite as good for just having a bit of quick fun with, though. There's an app store but it's nothing close to Apple's App Store, and as an interface Windows is simply a bit more involved and complicated than Android or iOS. Things just take that bit longer - there's that extra degree of faff in anything you do.

However, that extra scope you get is what makes the Surface Pro 3 a bit special. The tablet also features a Mini DisplayPort to let you easily hook the tablet up to a monitor, and a USB 3.0 port to allow connections to all sorts of things.

A mouse is most likely, but it'd work just as well for a USB keyboard or external hard drive - anything you'd connect to a laptop. There's also a microSD slot hidden on the back behind the hinge.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Keyboard and stylus

The Surface Pro 3 does not come with a keyboard as standard, and the Type cover we're using costs an extra £110. Most decent iPad keyboards cost a bomb too, but the extra expense is a real bummer as we wouldn't recommend buying a Surface without the keyboard. Or at least the intention of using one. In short - what's the point?

Microsoft has performed quite a feat of engineering with the Type cover, though. It's seriously impressive, and is only a few millimetres thick.

It hooks into the Surface Pro 3's tablet part with magnets, and offers full-size clicky keys designed to look and feel just like those of a normal laptop. We tried typing a pretty long-form article of a few thousand words with the thing, and found that we were at full speed and accuracy in no time.

There's even a keyboard backlight to let you type easily at night, and a second row of magnets to let the keyboard stick to part of the screen surround, giving you a slight typing angle. It's really rather good, and is more compact than the modular keyboard of something like the Asus Transformer.

However, it still feels a bit different to a normal keyboard. The sort of vibration feedback and sound is a bit louder and hollower-sounding. On some level, it still feels like an impersonation of a keyboard rather than the real thing. We'd rather type on a MacBook Air as a result, but it's really not bad at all.

Definitely try to pick one up if you're going to get a Surface Pro 3. An accessory that does come in the box, though, is the stylus.

This is an N-trig digitiser stylus that uses a battery (previous generation Surface Pros used Wacom tech that doesn't need one), and let you fire up the One Note app just by pressing the button on the top. It's handy too, and writing with the pen feels fairly natural and smooth. It helps that the Surface Pro 3 has such an expansive display here too.

The digitiser isn't really top-tier stuff, though. There are just 256 pressure sensitivity levels where top-level Wacom graphics tablets support more than 2000. Only pros need to worry - just don't go thinking you're getting something that's the equivalent of the Wacom Cintiq 13HD.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Performance

Talking about performance in something like the Surface Pro 3 is odd. While it's way more powerful than an iPad Air, a full Windows tablet doesn't have quite the immediacy of an Android or iOS device.

Still, among laptops it's super-responsive thanks to its match of full SSD storage (rather than a hard drive) and a decent CPU. Our Intel Core i5 model has an i5-4300U, similar to the CPUs of Ultrabook rivals like the Samsung ATIV Book 8 Plus and Acer Aspire S7.

To check there's no serious CPU throttling owing to the Surface Pro 3's super-slim design, we tried out a (yawn) PCMark 8 benchmark. It came out with 2,286 points, bang on what we'd expect from a laptop with an Intel Core i5 CPU. This is the real deal.

However, it does get pretty noisy as soon as the tablet starts using its Intel HD 4400 GPU. The Surface Pro 3 uses a clever design that lets it throw heat out from all sides, but there is a fan and it does sound a bit like a quiet, far-away vacuum cleaner as soon as you start playing 3D games. Most of the time it's virtually silent, though, if not quite iPad-silent.

Using integrated graphics means the Surface Pro 3 is far from a gaming beast, but it can handle new games like Watch Dogs if you really ramp those settings right down.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Screen

Do so and, of course, they won't look as beautiful as they would on a PS4, but the Surface Pro 3's screen is actually pretty great for showing off lesser games and videos.

It's a 12-inch LCD of 2,160 x 1,440-pixel resolution. That's a resolution comparable with the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, and gives you a super, super-sharp display that's far sharper than most laptops.

Pretty much everything about the screen is great. Contrast and colour are good, and its Gorilla Glass 3 top layer feels just right. The combo of great top brightness and unusually good anti-reflective screen coating makes the Surface Pro 3 pretty handy for outdoors use too - at least when compared to other glossy-screen laptops/tablets.

As a roving laptop to use here, there and everywhere, it's pretty fantastic.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Battery Life

However, there is a slightly disappointing element to its portability: battery life isn't all that great for a Haswell-generation laptop. We used the Surface Pro 3 as a main computer for a few days to see how it fares when used less casually.

With typing and internet browsing - nothing too strenuous - we only got six hours out of the Surface Pro 3's battery. That wasn't at maximum brightness either, just the 50 per cent-ish brightness you'll probably use most of the time.

Microsoft claims you'll get 9.5 hours of use off a charge, but this seems a bit above the reality for most situations.

It doesn't quite have the juice to get a full day's work off a charge unless you really cut back screen brightness. Top laptops can get you eight hours off a charge, or even more in some cases, and the latest MacBook Air lasts up to a staggering 13 hours.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Cameras

Unlike a laptop, though, the Surface Pro 3 has two cameras - one on the front, one on the back. And both have 5-megapixel sensors.

Such a high-res front camera makes the Surface Pro 3 perfect for things like video chatting over skype. It seems to have been made with this more-or-less solely in mind, too, as when held at a normal tablet-style distance the not-dramatically-wide-angle lens fits your face in but not a great deal else.

What's good for a front camera isn't so great in the rear one, but we doubt whether many Surface Pro 3 owners will want to use their giant tablet as a camera. Fingers crossed there'll be none - it's not a good look.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Verdict

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tries to be several different things. It's a tablet, a laptop, and even a bit of a graphics tablet. It may not be king in any field, but thanks to its flexible stand, good keyboard and decent CPU, it's actually a fair laptop-replacer in this third incarnation. Those extra 1.4 screen inches matter.

It's still not a killer device, but some sensible design tweaks and updates make it more attractive and useful than last year's model.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 release date: August 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 price : From £649