Surface Pro 3 deep-dive review: Has Microsoft finally got it right?

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The latest Windows 8 device is supposed to work as both a tablet and a laptop. After working with it for a week, does our reviewer agree?

There's a saying about Microsoft that I've heard for a long time: It takes three tries for the company to get something right. For example, it wasn't until Windows reached version 3.0 that the operating system really took off, and it was only when Word 3.0 hit that the word processor became a market standard.

But is this also true about the Surface Pro 3, the third iteration of Microsoft's tablet line? Microsoft touts the Surface Pro 3 as a device that, when equipped with an added Surface Pro Type Cover, does double-duty as a productivity tablet and a true laptop.

So how is the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop -- or a tablet? To test that out, I carried it around and used it, forgoing the MacBook Air that I typically use when I work away from my desk. It was an ideal test case, because Microsoft has clearly aimed the Surface Pro 3 at the MacBook Air. In fact, on Microsoft's Surface website, there's an entire section devoted to comparing the specs of the Surface Pro 3 to the Air.

I had previously tried to use its predecessor, the Surface Pro 2, as a primary laptop, and found it impossible to do. But the Surface Pro 3 was generally up to the task, although with some drawbacks.

A look at the specs

Before I go into details about my experience with the Surface Pro 3, let's take a look at its basic specs.

In this area, it certainly seems as if Microsoft got it right this time. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-in. display, 40% larger than the Surface Pro 2's 10.6-in. screen. And it's quite spectacular, with 2160 x 1440 resolution and a 3:2 aspect ratio -- more like a traditional computer's than the Surface Pro 2's aspect ratio of 16:9.

Despite the larger screen, the Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro 2 --- it's 0.36 in. deep and weighs 1.76 lb., compared to the Surface Pro 2's depth of 0.53 in. and weight of 2 lb. That may not sound like much of a difference, but in use, it really matters (as I explain later in this review). Depending on the model you choose, the device is powered by an Intel i3, i5 or i7 processor. Storage ranges from 64GB up to 512GB, and RAM from 4GB to 8GB.

There's the usual complement of ports, including a USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader and mini DisplayPort. There are front- and back-facing 5-megapixel cameras capable of 1080p video. And it comes with an interesting stylus; more about that later.

The device connects via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; I found that the Surface Pro 3's Wi-Fi connection is a very good one. Not only did it always connect well in public places such coffee shops, it even did well in what is often a dead zone in my house, an upstairs room fronting the street in which my home network connection is always iffy. In the worst area in my home, where my iPhone gets no Wi-Fi and my MacBook Air gets it intermittently, the Surface always maintained its connection, albeit a slow one.

One especially useful feature is the kickstand, which comes standard as part of the Surface Pro 3. It has been considerably improved -- you are no longer limited to a few pre-set angles; instead, you can set it to any angle between zero and 150 degrees, just as you can position the screen of a laptop.

And how much will all this cost? Even though it's a considerably better device than the Surface Pro 2, Microsoft has dropped the price of the Surface Pro 3 by $100, so it starts at $799. That gets you a device with an i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. If you want to go whole hog, $1,949 buys you a Surface Pro 3 with an i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.

Accessories include a $200 docking station with a keyboard port, a DisplayPort, an audio input/output jack, an Ethernet port, one USB 3.0 port and three USB 2.0 ports. There's also a $40 Ethernet adapter available. And, of course, there's the Surface Pro Type Cover, which does double-duty as a cover and keyboard, and which costs an additional $130. (More on that later.)

An excellent display

One of the biggest problems I had with the previous-gen Surface Pro 2 as a laptop was its screen. At 10.6 in., there simply wasn't enough screen real estate for me to get real work done on spreadsheets or Word documents. And while its 16:9 aspect ratio was fine for watching movies and videos, it required far too much side-to-side scrolling to be suitable for work.

The Surface Pro 3 improves on that dramatically. I found the 12-in. screen to be large enough to get whatever work I needed done, and the 3:2 aspect ratio was more comfortable than the 16:9 ratio of the Surface Pro 2. In fact, I discovered that 12 in. is quite roomy enough for real work. I had expected that it would feel cramped compared to my MacBook Air's 13.3-in. screen. But that wasn't the case at all -- because of its 2160 x 1440 resolution, I was able to fit quite a bit on it.

That high resolution comes at a price, though. Text and images were at times too small to be read comfortably. Zoom capabilities solved the problem, but not always. That's because, although Windows 8 Store apps (previously called Metro apps) can be zoomed in and out, not all desktop apps work with zoom. That was problematic at times.

I found that the SugarSync desktop client, for example, was barely usable because of how small the type was. True, I could always lower the desktop resolution to make it more readable, but when I did that, less space was available on screen for other apps. In addition, the SugarSync Windows 8 Store app lacked some of the most basic capabilities of the desktop app, so it wasn't a good alternative.

In other words, using desktop apps can be a crapshoot with the 12-in. screen.

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