Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review Part 2: Executing the Vision

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In Part 1 of my impressions of the Surface Pro 3, I waxed philosophical about how well the machine fits within Microsoft’s vision of “one operating system, many devices,” but is it a perfect machine? Of course not. No matter how far technology has progressed in making a machine like the Surface Pro 3 possible, there remain some very real limitations. I’ll discuss these limitations, along with the Surface Pro 3’s strengths, here in Part 2.

Gamer Changer?
I do have some negatives to point out, and so to avoid misperception I’d like to start out by saying: I find the Surface Pro 3 to be a fundamentally superior machine. Its thinness/lightness, intelligent design, performance, and unique 3:2 screen ratio and 12″ screen size make it a far better tablet than you might expect, as well as a highly flexible notebook. Unless you’re the most casual of users who only wants to a tablet to consume content, or you simply can’t afford the Surface Pro 3’s relatively high price (even $799 for the lowest configuration is serious money for many folks), you simply won’t find a machine that can do so many things, so well.

Whether you want to watch movies, do research, take handwritten notes and drawings, use Office, or even edit video, the Surface Pro 3 is an excellent choice and, in my opinion, simply better than most, because it can indeed replace both a full-strength notebook and a consumption tablet. Given the bump in sales of Surface devices since the Surface Pro 3’s release, it seems like I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

Beta Product?
That said, the Surface Pro 3 suffers from the typical early-release bugs that afflict all gadgets. In fact, I returned the first unit I bought due to an annoying audio popping when using headphones. My replacement seemed close to perfect, with only the occasional wifi dropout that some other users have reported (and for which Microsoft issued an update that hasn’t fixed the issue for me), but then the fan went out and started making a high-pitched whining noise at lower RPMs. My third unit had the same audio popping as the first one, and so I’m now on my fourth; wish me luck.

However, every gadget I’ve bought on release day in at least the last five years has had a similar number of issues, and so I don’t blame Microsoft too much in this case. Competition in the consumer technology sector is intense, and I believe that companies simply cannot afford the extra time and money needed to produce the perfect device right out of the gate. If you buy a personal computer, tablet, or smartphone on launch day, you’re something of a beta tester and your experiences will help improve the manufacturing process. To avoid being a beta tester, simply wait a few months before buying a new gadget.

In case you’re wondering, I believe this phenomenon applies to Apple and likely every other company. Search any Apple product release during its first month and you’ll find plenty of issues, both hardware and software. I bought an iPad 3 soon after its release, and went through four units before getting one without a yellow-tinted screen. And so while Apple makes great hardware, even they don’t always get their products right on launch day.

Weaknesses
Even so, a perfectly built Surface Pro 3 still has its weak points. In general, as can be imagined with any device that’s designed to do so many things, compromises have been made that, while minor in my opinion, are worth mentioning.

Form Factor
To begin with, the Surface Pro 3 takes some getting used to when used as a notebook. While it’s entirely usable on a lap, and more so than many reviewers might have you believe, it’s still not quite as stable on a non-flat surface as the typical notebook. It’s easy to find a workable configuration once you’re accustomed to the tablet-Type Cover combination, but it’ll take some time before you completely trust that it won’t simply fall over.

Next, the Type Cover keyboard, while surprisingly comfortable, doesn’t have quite the same travel as a good notebook keyboard like the MacBook Air’s. It’s also quite a bit louder. In addition, while a marvel of engineering, the Type Cover is made of a material that’s comfortable to hold but that gets very dirty, very quickly. I have the red version, and I’ve had to apply some mild soap and water on a few occasions to clean up some of the worst stains. It’s easy to rub too hard and fray the material, so be warned.

The pen works extremely well, but the only holder provided by Microsoft is a rather fragile-seeming affair that attaches to the Type Cover via an adhesive and provides a loop for the pen. I understand that the Surface Pro 3 itself is far too thin to allow for a pen dock, and so the provided solution is likely as good as any other, but I do fear that a strong enough yank will send the pen flying. At $50 a pop, the pen isn’t something you want to lose on a whim.

Finally, and this is getting slightly picayune, but it would be nice if opening the Type Cover would wake up the Surface Pro 3. Closing it puts the machine to sleep, and so there’s some kind of mechanism there. This is likely not a feature because the machine would have to keep resources awake to enable it, but I’ve grown accustomed to my tablets (iPad 3 and Nexus 10) waking up when opening a case and it’s a nice convenience.

Overall, I’ve acclimated pretty quickly to the Surface Pro 3’s form factor, but there’s no arguing that it’s a very different experience.

Battery Life
Next, battery life is only a little better than mediocre. I’ve averaged about seven hours of battery life on a good day, and while I expect Microsoft to release updates to improve this performance, I don’t expect the machine to ever rival ARM-based tablets or the MacBook Air in terms of longevity. Of course, the Surface Pro 3 is essentially an incredibly thin and light Ultrabook with a detached keyboard, sporting an Intel Core i5 processor and a very large and high-res screen. Expecting it to provide the same battery life as an iPad, Android tablet, or relatively thicker MacBook Air is probably unreasonable. The update mentioned above was is in part aimed at improving battery life; so far, however, I haven’t noticed any improvements.

Lesser Weaknesses

  • As has been noted in virtually every review, the capacitive Windows button is on the right side of the screen and is very sensitive. It’s quite easy to press accidentally while holding the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet in landscape mode, while handwriting, and when looking at it the wrong way. Okay, the latter isn’t true, but it sometimes seems like it is. Microsoft is supposed to be working on a fix for the handwriting issue, but the general inconvenience of the button will remain a source of mild frustration likely forever.
  • The power connector has a rather bright light on it that is always lit while the Surface Pro 3 is plugged in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shut off when the machine is fully charged, meaning that not only is it always on and a source of unwanted illumination in a darkened room, but it provides zero feedback. It should shut off when the battery is at 100%, but doesn’t, meaning that the machine must be turned on to check charging status.
  • When the Type Cover is in its second position, that is magnetically secured at an angle to the bottom bezel, it’s flush against the edge of the screen. This means that the swipe-up gesture to open modern app commands is impossible, not a big deal because the same gesture can be accomplished with a swipe-down from the top of the screen. More problematic is that the taskbar items on the desktop are a touch hard (no pun intended) to activate. Personally, this hasn’t been that big of a deal for me, but then I don’t have large fingers. For someone who does, hitting taskbar items on the default 150% scaling might be a bit difficult.
  • Haptic feed back only works with the capacitive Windows button. I think this is common to all Windows 8.1 tablets, at least the ones I’ve used that have haptic feedback, but I don’t get it. Why not make it available for the keyboard and other touch elements? It’s a nice feature on many Android tablets, and I miss it on the Surface Pro 3. Perhaps this is something Microsoft could program into a future update.
  • The AC adapter has a USB charging port, which is a nice touch. However, for some reason, Microsoft limited the port to 1 amp, meaning that it will only charge smartphones and not the typical tablet. Had it supported 2.1 amps, then it could have replaced more of my chargers.
  • The screen suffers from some distortion when more pressure is applied with the pen. I’m going to assume that Microsoft is aware of this effect, and that this won’t cause any long-term repercussions, but it’s a bit disconcerting nevertheless.
  • The Surface Pro 3’s power button is too easy to depress, and/or responds too quickly to wake/power up the machine. This means that if you, for example, bump the button while putting the Surface Pro 3 in a case, it’s quite possible that it will wake up or power on and you’ll find it nice and toasty with the fan running when you pull it out. According to @surface on Twitter, this is an element of the hardware’s design and can’t be adjusted in firmware, which is too bad.

That’s it for weaknesses, really. Certainly, as stated, the Surface Pro 3 is a very different machine and may not suit all tastes. Anyone who dislikes change will probably have a hard time adjusting to it after using a standard clamshell notebook, and anyone who has grown accustomed to tablets lasting 10 hours or more of significant use won’t be satisfied with the Surface Pro 3’s “only” seven hours. Reviews have generally been mostly positive, and I attribute some of the negativity that I’ve seen to the very real fact that using the Surface Pro 3 for a few hours or even a few days simply does not provide enough time to get used to its unique form factor.

Strengths
Early foibles and few weaknesses aside, however, I can honestly say that overall, considering everything that it does extremely well and its superior design and (potential) build quality, the Surface Pro 3 is the most impressive piece of personal technology that I’ve ever used. This includes everything from the Commodore 64 that I first used in junior high school all the way through every smartphone, tablet, and notebook (of which there have been many) that I’ve used in the last few years.

To begin with, as mentioned in Part 1, the Surface Pro 3 is a remarkable machine in terms of specifications and size, being a very powerful PC crammed into a remarkably thin and light chassis. It exudes build quality in general, with zero gaps, creaks, or rough edges, and even with the Type Cover attached and closed seems like it defies gravity and demands an answer to the question: how did they fit everything in there?

Tablet Use
Using the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is surprisingly comfortable. The larger screen is unexpectedly useful (before the Surface Pro 3, I thought a 10″ screen was plenty large enough), and the machine is very well-balanced and thus a pleasure to use for longer sessions. It’s not the lightest or thinnest tablet around, but at 1.76 lbs and .36 inches thick it rivals the (non-Air) iPad 4’s dimensions while offering significantly more screen real estate and far more functionality.

Notebook Use
At the same time, compared to the MacBook Air, the Surface Pro 3 is significantly more svelte and, while quite different, is nearly as comfortable to use–again, once you get used to it. Indeed, I haven’t missed my 13” MacBook Air for a moment since first turning on the Surface Pro 3. As a side note, and oddly enough, although the MacBook Air’s keyboard still “feels” better than the Type Cover, I can actually type faster and with greater accuracy on the latter. It’s hard to explain, but nevertheless true.

Screen
The Surface Pro 3’s 3:2 screen ratio and high resolution is also superior, offering more vertical real estate for writing and spreadsheet work. The Windows 8.1 desktop does require some fiddling with scaling to make the desktop usable, and some Windows apps are problematic with HiDPI screens (Adobe, I’m looking at you), but overall the Surface Pro 3 is a great notebook and note-taking device.

Lesser Strengths

  • A number of reviews have mentioned fan noise and heat as negatives, and my Surface Pro 3 does get a bit warm at times on the back in the upper right quarter. This makes sense, because that’s where the actual computer components are located (miniaturization is remarkable these days).  Fan noise has been a mixed bag in my experience; I can tell the machine’s not fanless, but at worst the fan is just noticeable unless a room is entirely silent. So, why do I list this as a strength? It’s simple–I find it remarkable that so much computing power can be stuffed into such a thin chassis and yet the machine remains usable. The fan only kicks in when the Surface Pro 3 is working hard, and as I mentioned even then it’s not nearly as loud as my other notebooks. In terms of heat, my Nexus 10 sometimes gets as hot as the Surface Pro 3, and it’s running an ARM SoC. I’ll take a little heat and fan noise in return for so much power in so mobile a form factor.
  • The Type Cover’s touchpad is decent enough to be functional the few times that I use it. It’s nothing like the MacBook Air’s, which isn’t saying much because if there’s one thing Apple does well, it’s notebook touchpads. At the same time, it’s better than the majority of Windows notebooks I’ve used, in spite of being a bit smaller. Gestures work fine, and it has a satisfying clickiness. Once again, Microsoft’s engineering is impressive.
  • The Surface Pro 3 cold boots in around ten seconds, and wake from sleep is nearly instantaneous. This is excellent performance and on par with the best notebooks I’ve used. It even approaches Android tablet and iPad performance (and actually boots faster than most).
  • Audio via the front-firing stereo speakers is surprisingly good, although I tend to use headphones when I really care about audio quality. As usual on mobile devices, bass is virtually non-existent, but midrange and treble performance is decent. Audio through the headphones is less impressive, relatively speaking, but again good enough. As an aside, my Dell Venue 8 Pro has better headphone audio in my opinion, and so I do tend to use that device for listening to music when it’s handy.
  • The Surface Pro 3’s integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics won’t suffice for higher-end PC games, as expected. However, modern UI games work just fine, and again the machine’s balance makes even racing games a lot of fun. I hadn’t spent much time playing Halo: Spartan Assault on the other Windows 8.1 machines I’ve tested (including my Dell), simply because the game didn’t feel terribly comfortable on smaller screens or with a keyboard and mouse (natch), but I’m actually enjoying it quite a bit on the Surface Pro 3. Overall, gaming on the Surface Pro 3 is good enough that I’m going to start searching for more games to play, something I hadn’t felt compelled to do on Windows 8.1 to date.
  • The magnetic power connector is just strong enough to hold firmly and weak enough that it will pull out when it should–either when you disconnect it yourself or when you trip over the cord. Contrast this with my MacBook Air’s MagSafe connector, which seems to fall out if you think about it too hard. It’s also reversible, and that’s actually quite helpful; depending on how you’re using the Surface Pro 3, you’ll want the cord pointing down or up.

That’s it for strengths, at least for now. As always, I’ll update as I go along and will note any additional strengths.

Conclusion
This isn’t a formal review, and so I won’t go into details on the Surface Pro 3’s speeds and feeds. Suffice it to say that my first impressions of the machine are extremely positive, and if Microsoft can improve quality control and find the right message to promote the Surface Pro 3, I think it at least lends credence to Microsoft’s vision. It may not achieve iPad-like sales numbers, but I don’t think it has to. Its real value is in demonstrating what the Windows 8.1 platform is capable of, and to that end the Surface Pro 3 succeeds admirably.

I’ll be commenting on my experience with the Surface Pro 3 as I go along, and so check back often. More important, though, I’ll be reporting on my overall experience in moving to an all-Microsoft platform, including Windows Phone 8.1, and on how Microsoft is doing in executing their vision. These are heady times for Microsoft, and I strongly believe that how well they execute in the next 12 to 24 months will determine their future as a viable entity. No company with tens of billions of dollars in cash and equivalents on hand will ever disappear overnight, but unless Microsoft’s strategy succeeds, they’ll lose their status as a dominant force in the industry and slowy fade away.

After everything that Microsoft has done for personal computing, I’d hate to see that happen.

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