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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and its kickstand, Type Cover, and pen, seen from the side.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 Is An Impressive Hunk Of Hardware—But Windows Still Needs Work

I spent the last few weeks living—and working—with a computer that's a laptop, a tablet, and a desktop PC all in one. And?

What’s the best way to split the difference between a laptop and a tablet?

Ever since Windows 8 shipped a couple of years ago, everyone in the PC industry has been trying to answer that question—including Microsoft itself, with Surface, the first line of computers it's ever designed and sold itself. But coming up with a truly crowd-pleasing laptop-tablet hybrid has proved to be an elusive goal.

With this year’s Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has given the whole concept a good, hard shove back in the direction of the PC. As before, the "Pro" in its name indicates that it runs full-strength Windows—not just apps with the newfangled, touch-friendly Windows 8 "Metro" interface available in the Windows Store, but also the millions of programs which exist for Windows in its classic form.

Almost everything that’s new about the Surface Pro 3 involves making it feel less like a PC that’s been compromised to compete with the iPad. Its 12-inch display—up from 10.6 inches in previous models—errs on the side of spaciousness. New processor and storage choices let you configure a machine which would be considered high-end even if it were a conventional notebook. Even the built-in kickstand and click-on Type Cover have been tweaked to make the experience more laptop-like.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 in its docking station (left) and another docking station seen from the rear.

Using a unit on loan from Microsoft, I’ve spent the last few weeks doing real work (such as writing this article) on Surface Pro 3 in its most potent, PC-like form: A fully tricked-out system with Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and a wafer-thin, click-on Type Cover with a built-in keyboard. I also tried the docking station, which lets you use the Surface Pro 3 like a desktop PC, hooked up to one or more external displays and other accoutrements. The total cost for everything: $2,279.

Although that’s a steep price tag by almost any customer's definition, I'm glad Microsoft pulled out all the stops. From a hardware standpoint, it's tough to imagine a productivity-oriented device that converts between laptop and tablet modes being radically better than the Surface Pro 3.

But here's the thing: Windows itself hasn't caught up with the hardware. Even though the current version, the Windows 8.1 Update, is meaningfully better than the original version of Windows 8, it's still full of little oddities and inconsistencies that get in the way of the overall experience. More than any other single issue, that's what keeps the machine from being the imposing MacBook Air rival that Microsoft is pitching it as in commercials.

At 1.76 pounds—not counting the Type Cover—the Surface Pro 3 is around 75% heavier than the iPad Air, and far more of a handful. The basic rule of thumb: You don’t want to use it very long in situations where you need to support it entirely with your arms. But if you can sit it down on something—a desk, your knees, an airplane tray table—its heftiness isn’t unmanageable.

It's the fold-out kickstand and click-on keyboard cover that makes the Surface line unique, and the Surface Pro 3 versions are the best yet. The kickstand adjusts precisely to let you choose your own angle, and the keyboard snaps on magnetically at an angle that allows for comfier typing. (However, the touchpad, though better than Microsoft's previous attempts, is still dinky and balky compared to the ones on really good notebooks.)

What you get in exchange for the Surface's bulk is a device with enough screen real estate, computational muscle, and storage space to feel like a real PC. Everything I threw at it, it ran fast. With 512GB of storage—more than 450GB of which is available—you can throw a vast collection of software, documents, and media files at this computer. And the Windows interface never felt cramped, as it did on previous Surface Pro models.

The bigger screen is also a boon for one of the Surface Pro line’s defining features, its digital pen. It’s an all-new model, clad in classy aluminum and based on technology from a company called N-trig rather than Wacom, which provided the tech for earlier Surface Pro pens. It’s much, much, much nicer than even the best third-party styluses available for the iPad: The point is truly pointy and you can rest your palm on the screen without interfering with recognition of the pen.

Press a button on the opposite end of the barrel from the Surface pen’s point, and the tablet loads up a blank page in Microsoft’s OneNote app almost instantly, ready for your jottings. I can’t read notes in my own handwriting and have no desire to save them for latter reference, so I didn’t find this feature enticing. But boy, did I love using the pen to draw.

In fact, for artists, the Surface Pro 3 might be the best portable computer ever made. Using the tablet in tablet mode, I drew and painted in Photoshop, Corel Painter, SketchBook Pro, and other apps. The combination of industrial-strength graphics software, a roomy screen, and pressure-sensitive input blew away the iPad, and every other device I’ve tried.

A drawing I did in Corel Painter 2015 with the Surface Pro 3's pressure-sensitive pen.

Pen input still isn’t a life-changing feature for the masses: Microsoft has been trying to make the case that it is for almost a quarter century now without success. But for those who do care, the Surface Pro 3’s pen is an argument for choosing this machine over other convertible PCs from manufacturers such as Acer, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba.

Then there’s that docking station. It's roughly the size of a paper-towel holder. Tug on its sides and they pull apart slightly; stick in the tablet, push the sides back in, and you’ve got yourself a desktop computer.

The dock sports three USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ones, useful for connecting the Surface to printers, scanners, external hard drives, and other accessories. It has a Mini DisplayPort connector for an external monitor, and Gigabit Ethernet for high-speed Internet connectivity. And it charges the tablet.

The Surface Pro 3 pen and Type Cover

The tablet’s own built-in jacks all remain accessible even when it’s in the dock. You can leave anything connected to the tablet’s built-in USB and Mini DisplayPort ports hooked up, and don’t need to remove the Type Cover. In fact, you can slide the Surface Pro and keyboard into the dock and then continue to use then like a laptop if you want.

I used the Surface Pro 3, the dock, a desktop monitor, and a wireless keyboard and mouse to get work done in desktop-PC mode. I did most of it on the big desktop display, and kept an eye on my email on the Surface Pro’s own screen. (You can also connect two external monitors, either by daisy-chaining them off the dock’s Mini DisplayPort or connecting one monitor to the dock and one directly to the tablet.)

Like almost everything else about Surface hardware, the docking station is nicely done. It lets the device be at least as good at serving as a desktop computer as it is at being a laptop and a desktop.

Windows Needs Work

Three generations into the Surface Pro 3 hardware, it's difficult to find major things to carp about. If only that were true on the software side.

Now, it’s traditional in any review involving Windows 8.x to complain about the underwhelming collection of applications designed for the new Windows interface. I’m not talking about that. For one thing, the Windows Store, which now has 155,555 apps, is moving in the right direction in terms of both quantity and quality.

More important, the Surface Pro 3 hardware is so well-suited to running serious conventional Windows apps that I spent most of my time in the old-school desktop mode running traditional programs such as Microsoft Office, Photoshop, and QuickBooks. It’s in this mode that there are jarring gaps between the software and hardware, rather than the seamless integration that a device like this needs.

For example, the Type Cover's touchpad improves on the ones in previous Surface keyboard covers, but it’s still undersized and imprecise compared to the ones on MacBooks and the best Windows laptops. So I instinctively touched the screen to select stuff such as input fields. But when I did, the on-screen keyboard always popped up and obscured much of my work, even though it’s completely superfluous when the Type Cover is attached.

I sometimes had the opposite problem when using the Surface Pro 3 without the Type Cover. Most programs were smart enough to call up the on-screen keyboard when it was needed. But some, such as Corel Painter, didn’t understand that I was using a computer without a physical keyboard. I had to pull up the on-screen one myself every time I wanted to type anything.

It’s not Microsoft’s fault, but some important third-party apps are poorly optimized for the Surface’s high-resolution screen. In Google's Chrome browser, typography is fuzzy; in Adobe Photoshop, interface elements are so teensy you need an exceedingly steady hand to tap on them with a mouse pointer, let alone your fingertip. In both cases, there are stopgap solutions—using Google's bleeding-edge Chrome Canary browser and turning on an "experimental" Photoshop setting-but you're unlikely to find the fixes unless someone tells you about them.

[UPDATE: As Twitter user Brandon Paddock pointed out to me, a new version of Chrome which supports the Surface's high-res screen just came out—after I completed testing of Chrome for this story.]

In its default mode on the Surface Pro 3, Photoshop's menus and icons are microscopic. | Click to expand

Speaking of third-party apps designed for desktop mode, few of them show signs that they know that devices such as the Surface Pro exist. Microsoft's own Office apps can be run in a mode designed to be used with your fingertip rather than a mouse pointer. For the most part, however, I was keenly aware that I was using a very forward-looking computer to run programs whose interfaces predate touch-screen input. Many programs, for instance, still sport fussy, narrow scroll bars of the sort which simply don't exist in iOS or Android.

If you're already sold on the Surface Pro concept, you might be willing to adjust yourself to such idiosyncrasies: They bugged me less after a few weeks with the Surface Pro 3 than they did at first. But they're a constant reminder that designing a multi-mode operating system is an even tougher challenge than designing multi-mode hardware. And almost two years after version 8's release, Windows and most major Windows applications aren't truly ready for machines such as the Surface Pro 3.

Can the Surface's software catch up with its hardware? We might have a good idea soon. Rumor has it that Microsoft will announce Windows 9 on September 30. What little the company has revealed about the update so far involves giving desktop mode the TLC it didn't get in Windows 8 or Windows 8.1, so it's not irrational to be hopeful.

I'd like to see Windows sing on a device such as this, which is why I'm not joining the chorus of pundits who are already busily writing obituaries for the whole Surface concept. The Surface Pro isn't an iPad killer nor a MacBook Air killer, but something different. It might never be one of the industry's blockbusters. But it would be a shame if it failed because the world's biggest software company couldn't get the software right.

[Photos: courtesy of Microsoft]

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21 Comments

  • I'm not the best with technology and am needing to edit on when I travel so it won't be my main work unit. I am getting the surface 3. Does anyone know if you can work photoshop cs6 on it and will the i3 be fast enough for PS? TIA -Sarah

  • general.in

    I have switched to windows 8 when it was released and first few days of usage was little weird, but once i got used to it, there is no looking back.. I had to use my friend's laptop with windows 7 for few mins and i felt, it's ancient already...

    I've seen lot of people buying MacBook Air, but running Windows VMs inside it for their productive use... I personally don't waste money for just the sake of buying Apple products that i cannot use..

  • chefgon_ign

    "I instinctively touched the screen to select stuff such as input fields. But when I did, the on-screen keyboard always popped up and obscured much of my work, even though it’s completely superfluous when the Type Cover is attached."

    I take it you spent most of your time in Chrome? To my knowledge it's the single only program that shows the behavior you're describing and that's because it's broken. Every Metro app I've ever used plus all of Microsoft's desktop software are smart enough to know when the physical keyboard is attached.

  • Jay Worley

    Maybe my reading comprehension skills need work, but I'm pretty sure that I read zero Windows related issues despite what was describes as problematic inconsistencies. Blaming Windows for third party, track pad and Office issues are all red herrings. My SP3 is phenomenal. Sure it's a little odd to move between full screw UIs and more desktop windows for things like PC Settings versus Control Panel. Big deal! Of course, the type cover and docking station are over prices, but again don't blame Windows.

  • Jay Worley

    Maybe my reading comprehension skills need work, but I'm pretty sure that I read zero Windows related issues despite what was describes as problematic inconsistencies. Blaming Windows for third party, track pad and Office issues are all red herrings. My SP3 is phenomenal. Sure it's a little odd to move between full screw UIs and more desktop windows for things like PC Settings versus Control Panel. Big deal! Of course, the type cover and docking station are over prices, but again don't blame Windows.

  • dbholliday

    Seriously, once you start using a touch screen interface, a mouse, track pointer, and track pad all seem seriously deficient. Windows 8.1 still may be less than optimal but a Surface Pro 3 is a real computer. An iPad is an entertainment device. A MacBook Air is a laptop, yawn. Don't try touching that object on the screen you are trying to manipulate. Microsoft is targeting the future. Apple is lagging on this one. Don't you love competition!

  • What a joke.

    I have a MacBook Pro and a Surface Pro 2 and OSX is much less enjoyable to use than Windows 8 (8.1). So if we need to compare Macs to PCs (a comparison that Microsoft itself started with its marketing campaign), then we need to be honest that OSX isn't anywhere near perfect either even for the ONE thing it has to do (mouse/keyboard input). It's a niche OS with a small fraction of the market, and after using it every day, I am surprised even THAT many people still buy MacBooks.

    But instead, MICROSOFT gets knocked for an all-around OS that tries to be ahead of its time by having the right balance between touch, pen & mouse/keyboard input? And putting it in the best-designed tablet/laptop combo in history? Give me a break.

  • ralphy_willy2002

    I 100% agree. OSX is convoluted, confusing and slow. I had a much harder time learning to get around OSX than I did Windows 8. Every time I sit behind a mac I feel like I'm using a computer from 20 years ago.

  • OSX isn't anywhere near perfect either even for the ONE thing it has to do (mouse/keyboard input)

    I use OS X every day and I must say it's more thand adequate for mouse and keyboard input. I type on the keyboard all the time.

    I also use it to produce professional level video, do development work and a variety of other tasks that involve much more than "mouse and keyboard input" so perhaps you just haven't given it a shot!

    Dummy.

  • quikboy

    Good for you. Many people "produce professional level video", "do development work" and a "variety of other tasks" on Windows PCs but don't need to advertise they're doing it on any particular Windows PC.

    Also, just because you feel like you've mastered OS X, doesn't mean its input systems are as intuitive for other people. Rather than be rudely condescending, how about querying exactly what the OP's issue is before assuming they are a "dummy"?

  • Philip Vasta

    I have to say that this is a great article - extremely fair and balanced. It's a shame that the Surface is so often compared to laptops and tablets individually (even by Microsoft itself), because it really is a different product category and valid in its own right. The whole point of the Surface is that, although there are some tradeoffs with respect to either a laptop or a tablet by itself, it is overall way more versatile than either.

    In any case, you're right, Windows 8.1 is still far from ideal for most people, and I say that as someone who has been on board with the whole concept from Day 1. The initial execution was just so flawed, and it's going to take a total reworking of the concept and branding to make people trust Microsoft again. Which is a shame, because Windows 8.1 is a really solid OS with a lot of conveniences (i.e., OneDrive built in) that make Windows 7 seem ancient in comparison - but that's once you've gotten past the weirdness of 8 in the first place.

  • BRian Wong

    A comment about Google Chrome's resolution.

    Because once you set Chrome as your default browser, you will get access the new Chrome desktop by clicking Chrome’s menu button and selecting "Relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 mode".

    It will switch Chrome into Chrome OS within Windows Metro! Instantly. Now, the resolution is correct. Text are clearer. :)

  • shottymarq

    Not sure if this is intentional or a typo but in your article you state that the surface pro is heavier that the MacBook air which it's not. If it's a typo then I think you should correct it, as this is misleading.

  • Apple laptops are heavy!

    My old Fedora laptop (Toshiba something-or-other) is lighter than my work-issued MacBook Air.

    It's all of that milled aluminum. It looks nice and ages well, but it's heavy.

  • Windows 8 is really not as bad as this article makes it seem. I agree. It took some time to get used to it. But literally a day or two of earnest usage will erase most problems that most users have with it. I also noticed that the author used touch for desktop applications. It's important to realize that desktop applications are largely not optimized for touch yet; it is also important to realize that this is not an issue with Windows 8 but third party developers writing this software. This is also not at all an issue if the author tried using the keyboard/trackpad when on the desktop, which is the way it was meant to be used. Great article, though I don't agree with everything written.

  • Agreed. At first, Windows 8.1 can be very frustrating, and it shouldn't be. But as they say, all good things come to those who wait. Have the tiniest bit of patience (not a knock against a reviewer who doesn't have the time, really) and it grows on you. Today, I can't imagine using Windows 7 again, and I'm using 8.1 not only on my Surface Pro 3 but on my homebuilt desktop as well.