Sunday, 17 August 2014 13:21

Surface Pro 3 – week 1 hands on review Featured

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Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 will be released for sale in Australia on 28 August. The real question is will it sell? Professional reviewer Ray Shaw puts one through its paces.

I received an advance review unit to use for a few weeks. The primary aim is to see if it lived up to Microsoft’s hype as a laptop replacement, a machine capable of doing everything an Intel Core based Ultrabook could do.

By necessity I will be a little analytical to start with – reviewing various components and then commenting if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Let’s put this device in perspective

It is a 12”, touch screen tablet powered by an Intel Haswell, Core i3, i5, or i7. It runs Windows 8.1 and has either 64/128/256/512GB of solid-state storage (SSD). On paper, these are specifications equal to any top end Ultrabook but it is sandwiched into 800g (without keyboard) and is 9.1mm thin.

It is the third iteration of the Surface Pro – hence the name. I spent about three months with its predecessor and while it was good – it was not yet a compelling purchase. Is third time lucky for Microsoft?

Unpacking and set up – 9 out of 10

Microsoft has positioned it as a premium device - the well-designed, very corporate, grey, and white packaging supports that. It was hard to be dispassionate as I slid out the Surface 3 out of the box – it bought back fond memories of Christmas!

My first impression – Silver (the Surface Pro 2 was black). Bigger than I thought. Compared to the Asus 10.1” T100 tablet I have been using it is only 30mm larger all round at 292.1 x 201.4 x9.1 mm (the Asus is 263 x 171 x10.5mm).

Switch it on and it guides you through the Windows setup – you need, or can easily create, a Microsoft Account (just like iPad and Android). Select custom setup (where you have almost total control over set-up options) or choose Express – the most common settings. I chose the latter and in a few minutes, the Windows 8.1 ‘Metro’ tiled interface came up.

Read on for the keyboard and hinge


Unpacking and using the Pro Type keyboard cover – 8 out of 10

The Pro Type Keyboard cover comes in a similar grey and white package. Many will gripe that it costs an extra $149.99 – me included. If this is to be an Ultrabook replacement (it is squarely aimed at the MacBook Air) it should come with a keyboard – even if the tablet costs more initially. Microsoft’s justification is that you can use any Windows compatible Bluetooth, wireless, or USB keyboard/mouse/trackpad and they offer it in Cyan, Red, Purple, Black, and Blue.

The keyboard attaches to the long edge with a satisfying magnetic ‘snap’ – it is not going anywhere. It adds 5mm to the overall thickness (total 14mm with the tablet) and 295g making a total of 1.09kg – much thinner than the MacBook Air (3-17mm and 1.35kg) and 10mm thinner than the Asus T100 (1.07kg).

The keyboard is better than the Surface Pro 2 in several subtle yet important ways. It is still backlit and that is amazingly useful day or night – the letters simply shine. It is more rigid than the previous model – that means no bounce back when typing. The throw is better as is the tactile feedback. The keyboard can also be tilted (magnetically snaps onto the lower screen bezel) or flat – I like the 20mm tilt.

As readers may be aware I use and abuse keyboards and have high expectations. Most of my work is done on a SteelSeries G6V2 mechanical keyboard – I am spoilt.

So how does it compare? Favourably if you are prepared to accept a slower typing speed and less accuracy – it is not a touch typist’s keyboard. It is well laid out, feels natural to use, and is as good as it gets for a notebook style of keyboard.

It has a larger than normal 90 x 45mm trackpad which is very good and actually clicks like a mouse button. If you tap/press on the left front, it acts as a left mouse press and same for the right front.

The hinge – 9 out of 10

A much-praised feature of the original Surface was the integrated hinge/stand allowing the tablet to stand upright without an optional cover/support. That was upgraded to a 2-position hinge on the Surface 2.

Surface 3 has an almost infinitely adjustable hinge – from flat to 150 degrees (the later gives a 50mm tilt that would be good for use as an artist’s pad).

I found it particularly useful in reducing any reflection from the screen – it is easy to get it just right.

 

 

 

Read on for the Screen, battery and Pen


The screen – 9 out of 10

Microsoft took a bit of a gamble with the screen ratio – its 3:2 or 1.5 wider than it is high - which is similar to the metric A series paper. In essence, it displays 47% more than an iPad Air and is far more useable than a typical 13.3” 16:9 ratio notebook or MacBook Air.

In Excel, it will display (at default) up to Column V and 40 rows. This is same number of rows and only 8 columns less than a 24”, 16:9, HD, monitor. The 10” Asus displays only 26 lines - an iPad or MacBook Air far less.

In Word, in landscape mode, it will display about 50 lines of a 60-line A4 page – the 10” ASUS about 34 lines and the iPad and MacBook Air less.

Then there is the resolution – 2160 x 1440 (for reference HD is 1920 x 1080, iPad Air Retina is 2048 x 1536, and the 13” MacBook Air is a lowly 1440 x 900). I was able to compare three side by side and the Surface Pro 3 was by far visibly better.

In summary – more useable space, better colour saturation, less reflection, perfectly proportioned for Word and Excel, and is the best screen I have seen on a tablet. Way, way, better than a MacBook Air or iPad.

 


Battery – 8 out of 10

I could conducted two real world tests.

First, playing a HD video loop using ‘Balanced’ settings it lasted a tad over 7 hours. It is possible to use it playing movies on long haul air flights and it plays almost all formats from torrent downloads to DVD native format – the latter needs to be copied to its storage.

Second, in a work situation with all defaults set e.g. screen saver after periods of inactivity, power saving enabled for the processor etc., I easily got a full, 8-hour day with enough juice left to read a few chapters of an e-book at bedtime. It will also last several days on standby. I recommend shutting it down instead of standby as it will then retain its charge between use.

The battery is a 7.6 volt. lithium-ion, 5547mAh, 42.2Wh.

I have slightly marked down the battery because it is not user replaceable and in about 3-4 years will cost a few hundred dollars for a factory replacement. I expect a device like this to last a little longer.

It comes with a 36W power supply that uses a proprietary connector (different to the Surface 2). I marked it down slightly – why can’t we have a universal charger?

The pen is mightier than the original pen – 7 out of 10

This comes with an N-Trig digitiser pen that looks and feels like a real fine/medium/thick tipped pen – not a bulky, rubber ball tipped stylus typically used on capacitive screens. It links via Bluetooth 4.0 to the tablet. It has right click and erase buttons.

This pen has 256 pressure levels (no you do not need more). It is an active capacitive device (needs batteries) so it is more accurate, has excellent palm detection, three function buttons, and next to no latency. Don’t let the critics tell you a Wacom digitiser is better. It is simply a matter that 80% will be very happy and 20% of the professional market with very specific requirements won’t.

Interestingly I tended to use the tablet in portrait mode as if I was writing on an A4 sheet and immediately appreciated why the Windows soft key is now on the short edge (apart from the fact that the magnetic keyboard clamps on the long edge).

One click on the pen top starts a clean OneNote page – a program that has far more features than I have ever needed to learn. Some say it is similar to Evernote but I will need to spend more time learning about this free form, ‘thought organiser.’ OneNote by default saves to Microsoft’s OneDrive Cloud but it is a simple matter to save to the ‘Computer’ and My Documents.

The pen attaches to the keyboard via a stick on sleeve. Probably not a good idea to lose it as replacements cost $59.99.

I am giving it a 7 out of 10 simply because I think it has untapped potential and I need to learn more.

Read on for hardware and camera.


Hardware – under the bonnet – 8 out of 10

The review unit came with 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, an Intel power sipping Haswell dual Core, Hyper-threaded i5 at 1.9/2.6GHz and running Windows 8.1 Pro, 64 bit Operating System (OS).

You can purchase it with an i3 and i7 Core processor as well. I think the i5 is the sweet spot although students may like the cheaper entry-level version.

It has Wi-Fi AC, Bluetooth 4.0, digital compass, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. External ports include a mini-DisplayPort, Full-sized USB 3.0, microSD slot, and a headset jack.

It has a pair of front facing, Dolby digital, stereo speakers, and stereo microphones. The volume was sufficient to watch a movie.

There is no ‘under the bonnet’ as it is a sealed unit and you cannot change anything except add up to 128GB of microSD storage. While I would have liked to have a user replaceable battery the trade-off would have been that it would have been much thicker. If something does go wrong – take it back to Microsoft – and think about warranty extension as well.

It has Intel’s TPM security chip - Apple does not have this. While it has an NFC cable chip it appears not to have implemented this – ditto.

For details on the tear down visit iFIXIT. It is fair to say that this is not a user repairable device – but then nor is an iPad or almost any other tablet.

The cameras – 6 out of 10

5MP, 1080p, front and rear camera are not exactly high specification these days but then you have to ask what they are used for on a tablet (or tabtop or laplet – as some are calling it). The short answer is the front camera is used for video calling (and that does not need a high res photo) and the rear is a convenience camera when you do not have your 20MP Lumia 930 with you.

The quality and low light capability is reasonable for video chat. Forums have complaints about still photo quality - it has a fixed focus lens and needs to have a lot of work done on a better camera app, especially if you intend to use it for optical character recognition of whiteboard notes in a lecture.

Read on for Windows versus the other OS.


Windows 8.1 versus iOS, OSX, Android, and Chrome

This runs ‘full-fat’ Windows so it is compatible with millions of programs that run on a desktop. You will have no issue running Office 2013, Adobe, Autocad, MYOB and more – all with mouse and keyboard support – some are also touch enabled. Simply put this tablet is has a V6 or V8 engine and will tow a caravan! No other OS or competing product can do this.

I quickly loaded the free ‘Classic Shell’ that enables a Windows 7 like desktop experience as well. Metro tiles are for touch!

It will also run with any Windows peripheral – no issues with printers, scanners, storage devices etc.

Where it lags is in things called ‘apps’. Apps are generally very simple, single purpose, things that run well on low powered ARM based smartphones and tablets – that includes iPhone and iPad iOS and Android.

Microsoft has worked hard to get the most popular apps onto Windows – Skype, YouTube, Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, Viber, Dropbox, Kindle, banking, Foxtel, and thousands more. It has also established a ‘universal app’ that will run on a Windows smartphone, Windows RT or Windows 8.1. It has stated its intentions to merge all three Windows OS over the coming year to give the same experience on all devices – from a 3” screen to a 100” TV.

Windows will run Chrome via a browser. It can also run well-behaved Android apps via a program called Bluestacks.

People buying a Surface Pro should not treat it simply as a powerful tablet – it is a real work device with the added benefit of being a tablet form as well. Check out the Windows App Store for hundreds of thousands of apps including a range of games and smartphone apps that now run on Windows.

Forgive me for being blunt – there may be 1 million apps in the Android or iOS stores but this number is far less material if you realise that Windows is for work first, and play second. A Windows device will also have inherently higher levels of personal data security than say Android – a thinly disguised advertising delivery mechanism for Google.


Is it a laptop replacement?

Yes, when you add the Type Cover it will do 100% of what an Ultrabook will do and it will be 300-500g lighter. It has the added benefit of being a tablet as well.

No, it is not a desktop replacement but it could be – and has the added benefit of being a tablet as well. If you use it at your desk and want things like multiple monitors (with 4K support), multiple USB ports, Ethernet, in dock charging etc., you will need a docking station. The Microsoft version costs $229.99. There are plenty of USB 3.0 “port replicators” like Toshiba’s excellent Dynadock at around $150 (online) that would do just as well.

Week One – what I liked

Pretty much everything! It is stylish, it is a real content creation device – unlike the iPad Air – and it is useful for doing real work.

I am not a MacBook Air user but I spent an hour having a demo at an Apple Store and it did not do what the Surface (with Office 2013) can do. In fact, in comparison, the MacBook display looked dull, Pages and Numbers are limited, there is no touch, and it was slow.

The new infinitely adjustable kickstand is much better, it is now ‘lap-able’ and the Type Cover is vastly improved – I would use it when travelling.

Would I buy one?

Absolutely! If only for its wonderful 3:2 ratio QHD screen and all that power wrapped up in a small package. It beats lugging an Ultrabook and it is a real design icon. It gives me real pleasure to use it – something I have not felt for some time with the plethora of Windows notebooks, Ultrabooks, hybrids, and more.

Is it good value?

It is a premium product. In most respects, it is a reference design, that OEM will copy, improve, and cut the price of.

It is well priced against the MacBook Air. However, its lack of reparability is a slight concern and I would strongly consider an extended warranty for it.

Available specifications include:

  • Intel Core i3, 64GB and 4GB RAM A$979
  • Intel Core i5, 128GB and 4GB RAM A$1209
  • Intel Core i5, 256GB and 8GB RAM A$1549
  • Intel Core i7, 256GB and 8GB RAM A$1829
  • Intel Core i7, 512GB and 8GB RAM A$2,279

Because it can support an inexpensive 128GB microSD (about $125), I would suggest that the i3 with 64GB at $979, or the i5 with 128GB at $1209 may be the sweeter spots – I don’t think the extra 4GB of RAM does a lot.

Nearly perfect!


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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