Microsoft got off to a bit of a rocky start with its first two Surface Pros, but we still thought there was a lot to like in the laptop/tablet hybrids. With an aggressive update schedule, we're now seeing the third Surface Pro just a year and a half after the first one hit store shelves. Before we deliver our full Surface Pro 3 review, let's take a quick first look at Microsoft's new 2-in-1.
From where we stand now, it looks like the Surface Pro 3's upgrades are good ones. After two generations of a 10.6-in screen attached to a thick and heavy chassis, Microsoft stretched that screen all the way out to 12 inches, and gave the device a much lighter and thinner build. If you've ever used a Surface 2 (the Windows RT-running one), then the Surface Pro 3 feels like a super-sized version of it. Light, thin and, only this time, running full Windows.
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It's a little strange holding the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet. Its screen is much bigger than a 10-in tablet like the iPad Air – not to mention a 7- or 8-incher like the Nexus 7 or iPad mini. Like Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro, its screen size feels a bit like overkill. But, on the flip side, having such a large landscape can be nice for things like reading, working in Photoshop (more on that in a sec) and browsing the web. And its size-to-weight ratio is terrific.
The screen has a new aspect ratio this time around: jumping from 16:9 to a less elongated 3:2. I think this helps a lot when using it as a tablet, as the Surface is now somewhat usable in portrait mode. But I still think anything narrower than the iPad's 4:3 ratio looks a little strange in portrait. So this is an improvement, but not quite as much of one as I was expecting.
The Surface Pen, Microsoft's bundled stylus, gets a huge upgrade this time around. It's like shifting from a dollar store pen to a premium fountain pen sitting on a chief executive's desk. The pen's top button, which was purely cosmetic on the older Surfaces, now opens OneNote on your Surface with just a click. And the writing/drawing is outstanding. I find myself looking for excuses to sketch and jot notes, just to experience the real-time digital inking. It's so lifelike, it's hard to believe that you aren't scribbling on paper.
I also like the upgrades in the keyboard (this time Microsoft skipped the awkward Touch Cover and paired it with the much better Type Cover). It's largely a bigger version of the Type Cover 2, including backlit keys. One change is that the back end of the keyboard now folds against the bottom of the Surface. In pictures, I wasn't sure what the big deal was about this, but when you use it on your lap, that little bit of lift creates some tent-like resistance, making for more comfortable typing.
My biggest concern so far is battery life. Right now it appears to be draining at about the same rate that the Surface Pro 2 did. And though that was much improved over the original Surface Pro (that first pre-Haswell device had laughable uptimes), there's no Power Cover this time around to stretch those out even further. I've been using a Haswell Retina MacBook Pro for the last couple months, and, up to this point, I'd say the Surface is going to shave at least a couple hours off its uptimes.
There is one enormous improvement on the software end, and it has nothing to do with Microsoft (at least not directly). The new 2014 version of Photoshop finally brings support for high-res displays on Windows devices. Open Photoshop, navigate to the Experimental Settings tab of the app's preferences, and turn on 200 percent display scaling. Bam. For the first time, Photoshop looks normal on a Surface. Okay, so it actually almost looks too big now, and there's no fine control over the scaling (it's microscopic vs. pretty damn big), but it's a huge improvement nonetheless.
We'll have our full Surface Pro 3 review before too long, but I still have a lot more work and play to do on this sucker before giving a recommendation one way or the other. For now, just know that it's the biggest upgrade we've seen to the Surface Pro line. I'm not yet sure if it's a terrific machine, but it is clearly a better laptop and better tablet.
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