Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review Part 1: Enabling the Vision

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I was impressed the first time I put my hands on Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 3 a few weeks ago. I’ve now been using my own for going on two weeks now, and if anything my original, seemingly hyperbolic statements about the Surface Pro 3 might have been understated. It really is a groundbreaking machine, in many important ways.

Some Background
I’ve owned many examples of personal computer technology during my 30+ years as a technology hobbyist and professional. The first machine I used was a friend’s Commodore 64, and I was immediately hooked. The first machine I owned was a Timex Sinclair 1000 that I received for my 15th birthday, a great little machine except for the fact that the cassette tape storage system was wonky and never could save anything correctly. In my high school physics class, I used a Commodore PET to write a simple program to display an element’s emission spectrum (a real feat on a monochrome display), and although I never became a developer, this was when I first recognized that a personal computer could do things besides play games. The first computer that I bought for myself was an incredibly powerful ZEOS 386DX desktop with 4MB of RAM and a 120MB hard drive, for a cool $3,300, and I remember the first time I put in a “Windows accelerator” and ran benchmarks to see just how much it sped up things like scrolling in Word documents.

I’ve spent meaningful time on most computer platforms since, suffering through the Mac OS to OS X transition, Windows ME (perhaps the buggiest operating system in the history of personal computing), and Windows Vista, and enjoying tremendous productivity boosts with Palm OS, Pocket PC, Windows 3.1, Windows XP, and Windows 7. I currently own OS X, iOS, Windows 8.1, Windows Phone, Android, and even webOS devices, and recognize strengths and weaknesses in each platform. Even at its worst, personal computer technology has impacted my life in many important ways.

Tablet PC: Ahead of its Time
So, why do I consider the Surface Pro 3 to be such an important machine? To understand, consider Microsoft’s Tablet PC. Running on top of Windows XP, the Tablet PC platform was the first attempt to make devices that went beyond the keyboard- and mouse-centric model of the day to offer pen (and eventually touch) input that greatly extended what personal computers could do. I used Tablet PCs as a sales engineer for Ricoh, taking thousands of handwritten notes from sales meetings and business process analyses. I could use a Tablet PC in ways that I couldn’t use the traditional PC, such as while standing and walking around, unobtrusively during sales meetings, and even (relatively) comfortably while stretched out on the couch.

Microsoft did a very poor job of marketing the Tablet PC platform, in my opinion, and so it stagnated and ultimately failed. It was also very expensive, with the typical machine costing well in excess of $2,000, and the available technology lagged Microsoft’s vision in many ways. Tablet PCs were relatively heavy, thick, and had poor battery life that rarely exceeded four hours.

Then came Apple, a company that excels at taking existing concepts and making them much better. They did it with the smartphone, improving on Palm OS’s icon-, app-, and stylus-based user interface by slapping on a more attractive (but very similar) UI with a capacitive screen that enabled more natural touch-based interaction. They did it with MP3 players, by combining the original iPod’s good enough hardware with an unprecedented and groundbreaking music ecosystem with iTunes. And, they did it with tablets, making a thin and light device with excellent battery life and, again, a capacitive touch screen that did away with the Tablet PC’s pen. The iPad, like so many of Apple’s products, was transformative not so much because it offered functionality that was new, but rather because it made that functionality so much more accessible.

Nevertheless, the iPad, even today, isn’t nearly as powerful a productivity tool as was the Tablet PC. iPad apps are necessarily simple and limited in their feature sets compared to full “desktop” apps, iOS will never match the power and flexibility of “desktop” OSs like Windows and OS X, and the sheer precision of true pen input cannot be duplicated on a capacitive screen. That’s why iPads and their close cousins, Android tablets, can never be as fully productive as desktops, notebooks, and, now, hybrid devices like the Surface Pro 3.

Windows 8.1: The Vision
This brings us full circle. What Microsoft tried to achieve with the Tablet PC platform, and far more in terms of content consumption and overall versatility, is now possible given advances in processor, memory, storage, and touchscreen technologies. Windows 8.1, which I consider to be Microsoft’s most important operating system so far, isn’t perfect, but it’s very, very close to combining the power of a “real” OS with the ease-of-use of today’s mobile OSs. You really can use Windows 8.1 for both full productivity and content consumption, once you get used to it and on the right machine, and Microsoft has once again become the company that is innovating and dragging the industry forward. Their vision of “one operating system, many devices” is a powerful one that I’ve written about elsewhere, and I really do believe that it represents the future of personal computing.

They don’t get enough credit here—where Apple was lauded for being innovative with the iPad, which for all of its newness was in many ways a derivative product that dramatically traded productivity for ease-of-use, Microsoft is attempting an even greater shift in computing by offering a single platform that can serve both the casual user and the hardcore producer. Windows 8.1, like Windows Phone in the smartphone space, attempts a true break with the past that so far has been met with skepticism and a great deal of foot-dragging by the technology press. In short, Windows 8.1 hasn’t been given the same latitude as iOS was given, which was just as big of a shift and which offered up serious limitations that were embraced rather than attacked.

Perhaps Apple’s public relations machine is simply better than Microsoft’s, or people haven’t forgiven Microsoft for Windows Vista, which was in many ways a fiasco. For whatever reason, Windows 8.1 hasn’t been received the response it deserves, and it’s looking like Microsoft will need a very trouble-free Windows 9 (or whatever it’s eventually called) to gain the support it needs to make their vision a reality.

Where the Surface Pro 3 fits in all of this is that it’s the first machine to live up to the potential of Microsoft’s vision of personal computing’s future. Many other companies have made hybrid Windows 8.1 devices in all sorts of form factors, but none have managed to create a machine that works so well in so many different ways.

The Surface Pro 3 is deceptively light and easy to use as a tablet, with a luscious high-resolution screen and excellent pen input, while functioning surprisingly well as a productivity notebook. It has enough battery life to offer up (just about) a full day’s work, and its unique 3:2 screen ratio works extremely well for everything from productivity apps to video. Whether you consider it as a very thin and light notebook or a large but surprisingly comfortable tablet, the Surface Pro 3 manages to delight.

To fully appreciate what Microsoft has accomplished, you need to consider the Surface Pro 3 as a whole. I’ve never used a device that so easily and pleasantly transforms from a powerful productivity tool that I use at my desk (or on my lap) to a content consumption device that I use while relaxing in bed in the evening. Where in the past I would use my MacBook Air for work, and then grab my Nexus 10 tablet for fun, I can now simply remove the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover when I’m done working and comfortably enjoy a movie on Netflix.

Windows 8.1: The Same Experience, On One Device
For the first time, the transition from notebook to tablet is truly seamless and without compromise. Indeed, it’s fascinating how Microsoft gets so much bad press for Windows 8.1’s dramatically different desktop and mobile environments, when in reality the transition from the desktop OS to mobile OS in Windows 8.1 is no more jarring than, for example, moving from OS X on a MacBook to iOS on an iPad. The only real difference is that with Windows 8.1, the transition is happening on the same device.


The transition from OS X on a MacBook to iOS on an iPad is no less jarring than the
transition from the Windows 8.1 desktop to the Windows 8.1 Start Screen. The only
real difference is that with Windows 8.1, the transition is occurring on the same device.

If much of the technology media fails to comprehend what Microsoft is attempting, Apple and Google are both well aware of it. Apple is working feverishly to make the OS X experience more like iOS, a transformation that is starting to limit OS X’s functionality, and Google is attempting to create a productivity platform from scratch with Chrome OS and to merge its look and feel with Android. Both companies are attempting to catch up with what Microsoft is already achieving with Windows 8.1—providing a single OS (or at least a single development environment) that can work on any kind of device.

The Surface Pro 3 goes a long way toward making this vision a reality. It provides a compelling hardware platform that fully leverages Windows 8.1’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. If Microsoft had Apple’s ability to promote their products as “magical,” the Surface Pro 3 would be flying off the shelves. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s marketing hasn’t caught up with its new-found engineering prowess, and so the Surface Pro 3 isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves.

In Part 2 of my first impressions, I’ll discuss the Surface Pro 3 itself.

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