Industry Insights from Our Experts

Surface Pro 3: So Close!

Filed under Hardware, Usability
Photo by Sinchen.Lin

Photo by Sinchen.Lin

I bought a Surface Pro 3 Core i7 512GB and returned it within a week. This is a device I wanted to love. Read on to hear about the the pros and cons of the device, why I returned it, and whether I think you should buy one.

My Gadget History

In 2008, I bought my first Apple computer on a whim. Having owned a couple of Windows laptops, Sony’s impressive but flawed Vaio Z505, then a compact Averatec laptop, the cost at the time of a 13” white Apple MacBook seemed preposterous. I gave it a chance after experiencing Mac OS X, and in the end I was blown away. The keys all felt like they were the right sizes and in the right places. The touchpad was large, responsive, and never moved the mouse while I was typing. The build quality was better than what I’d seen before, though not as good as their more modern aluminum unibody models. I was hooked from that point, and my next laptop was an aluminum 13″ unibody MacBook Pro, followed by the 11″ MacBook Air, a newer 11″ MacBook air, and now a 15″ Retina Display MacBook Pro. I used a Dell laptop for development in 2012 and was reminded of why I ditched Windows laptops in 2008.

Enter Surface Pro 3

That said, Surface Pro caught my eye. It was too expensive, the battery life was bad, it had the weird kickstand, the touchpad on the type cover was too small, and the display had a 16:9 aspect – the one thing I dislike about my 11″ MacBook Air. Surface Pro 2 came closer. It had decent performance for the size, a slightly better kickstand, and a thinner body. So close…

The Surface Pro 3′s announcement really got my attention. It was ridiculously thin yet it was a full Windows PC. The display resolution was very high (2160×1440). The aspect ratio was finally more useful than 16:9. It was like having a great big iPad that ran all the software you could run on a full laptop.


The Core i7 models were delayed, but the i5 models were available and on display at Microsoft Stores. Turning it on, I was immediately disappointed with the pixel density. A modern iPad has a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch, and the Surface Pro 3 is at 216 PPI. I didn’t think it would make a noticeable difference, but the Surface Pro 3 definitely lacks that “I can’t see the pixels” factor that makes other high DPI displays feel more comfortable and modern.

In an effort to try out the included pen stylus, I brought up OneNote. The Surface crashed, and the Microsoft rep invited me to try another one while she rebooted the first one.

I then asked the Microsoft representative if this other unit had any games I could try. It did not. Why would Microsoft not bundle the best looking 3D game to show off what they are advertising as “the tablet to replace your laptop”?

I fired up Fresh Paint to try out the pen’s pressure sensitivity. It’s at that point that I examined the pen’s nib and noticed that it was half worn off, flat on the end, and had bits of plastic hanging off the corners of the tip. It had been on demo for two weeks and already looked like it had seen 4 years of use. The pen sensitivity seemed to work well. I gradually pressed harder and found that the range of pressure sensitivity seems to include the range of pressures at which you are flexing the screen, causing the LCD to discolour around the pen tip. This seems awkward to me. I don’t want to feel like I’m hurting my screen just to draw a thick line.

Leap of Faith… Into a Pit of Despair

Despite this initial experience, I purchased Microsoft’s top-of-the-line Core i7 512GB Surface Pro 3 soon after it became available. It was expensive, but my experience with paying a premium price for Apple hardware taught me that it was possible to get value beyond the specs of a device. Here is what happened next:

Unboxing the Surface Pro 3 was the first disappointment. It almost looked like there had been an attempt to open the device up, as the interface between some of the metal and plastic parts looked pried open, but without any of the tool marks that would go with it. It was simply a manufacturing defect. Initial setup included putting two kinds of batteries into the pen, which is actually two devices screwed together: a bluetooth “eraser” button which brings up OneNote or adds a blank page once you’re there, and an active pen. Surface Pro 3 uses N-Trig technology in an effort to make the device thinner. A Wacom-style passive pen requires a thicker screen.

After 3 cycles of installing updates and rebooting, I installed all the software I wanted to try on its roomy storage. In my initial usage, the battery life seemed abysmal, but I didn’t want to judge that aspect until I was done testing the performance limits of the device. I compared my Surface Pro 3 Core i7 to a coworker’s Surface Pro 2 Core i5 running Team Fortress 2 at the same resolution. The Surface Pro 3 was 5 to 10 fps slower than the Surface Pro 2.

I then tried Ableton Live 9. The audio latency was dreadful until I installed the ASIO4ALL driver. After that, everything was fine. Ableton is definitely not made for a touch screen interface, but the Surface would make a great device for using Ableton Live in a live setting.

About a week after getting the Surface, I was still getting Windows Updates daily. My processor was working overtime installing updates continually. I noticed that there didn’t appear to be a way to have the Surface running, downloading and installing updates in the background while the screen was off. A lack of background execution support is definitely a downside. It was running so hot (while browsing the web in Chrome) that there were parts on the back that I couldn’t touch.

Eventually, update frequency rolled off, and I used:

powercfg /batteryreport

to get a sense of what my battery life was like when the CPU wasn’t churning all the time. I was getting about 2.5 hours on a charge, or a quarter of the advertised 10 hour battery life.

I made myself use the Surface for note-taking (using the pen with OneNote) at work. During a company meeting, it crashed and rebooted 5 times just sitting on my lap, unused. I hadn’t used it for extensive note-taking, but after one week of ownership, the pen nib was already showing severe signs of wear: it was already flattened with bits of plastic flaking off the corners of the flattened tip.

On a positive note, even though Windows desktop applications are not meant for a touchscreen device with a software keyboard, I thought touch to mouse support in Windows 8.1 was well implemented. I never felt frustrated that I couldn’t perform an operation. The same can’t be said for the keyboard support. In a touch-aware application, the OS will know enough to bring up the keyboard when it is needed, and even what mode the keyboard should be in when it does come up. Desktop apps felt awkward without using an attached keyboard, such as the keyboard cover.

15223220479_673e4ab5c3_oSpeaking of which… The keyboard cover for Surface Pro 3 is pretty good, but not great. The touchpad is larger than on the previous Surface models, and is very usable. When opened up, a portion of the cover stays magnetized to the front of the Surface Pro 3 in order to give the keyboard a slight angle. It’s a nice touch, but the end result is that there is a hollow clunking noise to your typing, which isn’t unpleasant, and a bouncy feel, which is. A loop is included that is meant to be stuck onto the cover to provide a place to put the Surface Pro 3′s pen. Why you would want to ruin the excellent suede-like cover with sticky tape is beyond me. It also seems like a recipe for losing the pen. In practice, the pen clips onto the secondary hinge on the front of the closed cover just fine.

15409976275_7024a2a53e_b 15386937216_3151cb7e9c_o

It’s Not All Bad

15409646462_4e2fa9fed0_oI was very impressed with the Surface Pro 3’s new hinge. It opens up to 150 degrees with no “stops” along the way, simply holding in position by friction. I’m not sure what Microsoft have come up with that could make this work without wearing out, but for as long as I had the Surface, I loved the way the hinge worked. Open all the way, you can draw on it while it sits on a table quite comfortably. Just be careful if you’re right-handed; while the Surface Pro 3 rejects palm inputs when using the pen, it will still kick you into the Start Screen when your hand brushes the start button. A simple solution would have been to omit the button altogether, as it can be brought on screen by flicking your finger in from the side of the screen.

One feature I hadn’t used much on my Windows 8.1 desktop computer was snapping, where you can split the screen and devote part of the screen to two Modern apps (full-screen, “made for touch” applications) or to a Modern app and the Windows Desktop. It works well once it’s set up, but the one issue is that you’re always having to swipe your finger around the surface like a frantic orchestra conductor in order to arrange your apps every time you switch apps or reboot the Surface.

15406797471_9a39609bc0_oMicrosoft is clearly thinking about making the Surface Pro 3 a cohesive mobile product, which is no mean feat considering all the legacy functionality they need to support. Little Apple-like touches do come up. For instance, a click of the eraser button on the pen wakes up the Surface Pro 3 into OneNote, bypassing the password screen and showing you a new blank page. You’re then free to quickly jot down a note without having to enter your password. The designer who came up with that needs to be given free reign to optimize other aspects of Windows 8.1 on the Surface Pro line. One other nice touch is the compact power adapter which includes a USB charging port for any USB devices you may have on the go.

For a tablet, the Surface Pro 3 has a lot of ports. Mini DisplayPort and USB are of particular interest to me. It’s too bad there is only one USB port, but all that hardware has to go somewhere in such a slim device. I tried to attach a Samsung TV via a generic Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter and got a horrible, glitchy, magenta screen. Perhaps I needed the Microsoft adapter.

Camels, Straws, and Backs

At times, Windows locks up. Sometimes, explorer.exe crashes and you can’t do anything. In those cases, there is no way to bring up an onscreen keyboard on the Surface. If you do not have a USB keyboard or the type cover handy, you’re out of luck. It’s also not possible to perform certain key combinations with the default onscreen keyboard, which I found to be a grave oversight until it was pointed out that one of the keyboard modes includes enough meta keys to, say, bring up the task manager… My bad.

The last day I owned the Surface, I was using it to take notes at an on-site client meeting. He asked what I thought of it, so I decided to show him OneNote. The Surface promptly locked up. I returned it on the way back to the office. In my haste, I never took any photos of it, which I now regret. My final experience with the West Edmonton Mall Microsoft Store in regards to the Surface Pro 3 was the positive experience of returning the device. I was told that they had been notified that there were some units with defects causing bad battery life, and I was offered but not pressured into a replacement. I explained that the deficiencies of Windows 8.1 as a tablet OS overshadowed the potentially resolvable issues of battery life and the cosmetic manufacturing defect. They seemed genuinely interested in my feedback, and were knowledgeable and friendly. They pointed out that a new version of Windows was around the corner, but not soon enough. Lastly, they said they would replace the pen nibs as they wore out, which seems like an awkward solution to the problem.

The above mass of text seems harsh, and there are a few positives I haven’t covered yet, so here’s a table of pros and cons:

Pros Cons
  • It looks really cool: it’s super thin, has a sleek design, and the feeling of having something almost as powerful as a laptop in that small a form-factor is hard to describe
  • Lots of screen real estate: 2160×1440 pixels gets you a lot of content
  • Colours are lively and seem accurate
  • Kickstand works well, although you’ll need washboard abs instead of belly flab if you want it to stay upright when used in “laptop position” in bed
  • It’s a tablet… that runs any desktop application you want (if you don’t want to play 3D games)
  • Pen feels good to write with, and responds quickly enough that handwriting feels good
  • Excellent “press pen eraser to bring up OneNote immediately” feature means you can truly use the Surface Pro 3 like a notebook
  • USB charging port on the power adapter
  • Very poor battery life*
  • Painfully hot back panel during high CPU activity*
  • Pen takes two kinds of batteries
  • Pen nib wears out very quickly
  • Max pen pressure sensitivity extends far beyond the point where you’re flexing the LCD panel
  • No “lid closed” equivalent mode where you can turn the screen off and have background processes running. Need to install tons of Windows Updates? Your screen will be on the whole time.
  • Bouncy keyboard cover
  • Weird cover-ruining pen-losing sticky loop
  • When drawing in landscape mode, your palm will brush against the start button and boot you into the Start Screen mid-drawing**
  • Crashes. All. The. Time.
  • Inconsistent / inconvenient use of the onscreen keyboard when a keyboard is not attached

* I probably had a dud. Mileage may vary, though I’m not sure if the temperature issue is fixable on the i7 model.
** Does not apply to lefties or if you are not using the kickstand and can therefore have the Start Button on the left.

M. Night Shyamalan, Eat Your Heart Out

15223449737_b39473f6b3_oIn conclusion, you should go out and buy one. Probably. Just maybe not the expensive Core i7, 512GB model. With the keyboard cover (which I assure you is entirely necessary), you’re looking at a whopping $2,129.98. To get the same specs in the sleek 11″ MacBook Air, you’re spending $1,749.00. You lose screen real estate, resolution, and pen / touch controls, but you save $380.98. The Core i5 256GB Surface Pro 3 with type cover is $1,478.99 while the equivalent 11” MacBook Air costs $1,299.00, a difference of only $179.99. The Core i5 version is not known to have heat issues, unlike the Core i7 Surface Pro 3.

With Windows 8.1, the Surface Pro 3 just isn’t quite good enough. It hurts to say that, but it had to be said. Now that Windows 10 is around the corner, I’m hoping it won’t sting so much. The Surface Pro 3 is a killer platform, and with the right OS, it seems like a device I could love. have hope.

Photos used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. All photos by Flickr user Sinchen.Lin.

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