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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.