When Microsoft first announced the Surface, the tablet was unsuccessfully pitched as an iPad alternative. Now it's being marketed to consumers as a replacement for both their iPads and MacBooks.
Microsoft finally understands that consumers are not interested in a gadget that's similar to and more expensive than an iPad yet only offers a few more features. That's why the Redmond, Wash., company has designed the Surface Pro 3 to be a tablet that can also replace your laptop.
Starting at $799 and available June 20, the entry-level Surface Pro 3 is more expensive than a $499 iPad Air but not as pricey as the $899 entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air. It's also much cheaper than buying both the Apple gadgets. The Surface Pro 3 offers many of the same leisure apps available on tablets while also being capable of running the heavy-duty software used to get work done on computers. Microsoft hopes consumers will conclude that they can pay less for its device and get what they want from a laptop and tablet.
Microsoft began exploring this concept with the Surface Pro 2, which was released only eight months ago. The problem with the Surface Pro 2 is that it was released alongside the Windows RT Surface 2, a cheaper version of the tablet that is not capable of running laptop software. This time around, Microsoft has chosen not to release a Windows RT version of the third Surface, forcing customers to get the Pro version. That could help the tablet finally carve out its niche as the productivity tablet.
I got to test out the Surface Pro 3 and I found that Microsoft wasn't kidding: The tablet was able to do everything I normally use my MacBook for.
Just like on any laptop, I was able to download programs from the Web and install them on the device. And like on any tablet, I could also download apps like Netflix from Microsoft's digital store. The Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1 Pro, which means consumers can switch back and forth between the operating system's touchscreen-optimized Start screen and the more traditional Desktop interface.
I mostly stuck to the desktop since I was testing the tablet's capabilities as a work computer. I downloaded Google Chrome and Spotify and used them to log into The Times' Web software to write my blogs and listen to music simultaneously, the way I use my laptop every day.
Writing on the Surface Pro 3 was easy, especially because of its 12-inch screen — previously, the Surface had a 10.6-inch display. The additional real estate on the Surface Pro 3 makes its screen much bigger than what you'd find on most tablets. The iPad Air by comparison has a 9.7-inch screen. In fact, at 12 inches and with a 2,160-by-1,440-pixel resolution, the Surface Pro 3 has a bigger and higher quality screen than the entry-level MacBook Air.
Besides its large screen, what makes the Surface Pro 3 a good device for doing work is its kickstand, which can be set at any angle going as far back as a nearly flat 150 degrees. Previously users could only stand the Surface Pro 2 at 22 or 55 degrees.
This makes the Surface Pro 3 comfortable to use in any situation, whether it be on a desk or a seat-back tray of an airplane. Ironically, the Surface Pro 3, with its Type Cover keyboard (sold separately for $129) attached, was more comfortable to use on my lap than any laptop I've tried, since I could prop its kickstand at whichever angle best suited my line of sight.
Another key improvement in the Surface Pro 3 is that customers, for the first time, can choose its processor. I don't need anything too powerful for my work, so I was fine with the basic Intel Core i3 processor. But users who work with software that requires a workhorse computer can opt for more capable i5 or i7 processors. If you can do it on a desktop PC, Microsoft wants you to be able to do it on the Surface Pro 3 as well.
The base model of the Surface Pro 3 costs $899, uses an i3 processor, comes with 4 gigabytes of RAM and includes 64 GB of storage. For $999 consumers can get an i5 model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, while $1,299 buys 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. A $1,549 model is available with an i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. The most expensive model costs $1,949, uses an i7 processor, comes with 8 GB of RAM and includes 512 GB of storage.
The only issue with the Surface Pro 3 is that perhaps Microsoft tried to make the machine a little too much like a laptop, by which I mean its battery did not perform well. Using it as my laptop, the Surface Pro 3 was only able to give me 4½ hours of juice. That's not horrible compared with other laptops, but every iPad is designed to give users 10 hours of battery life. The latest Apple MacBook Air laptops are designed to give users at least nine hours of power. Battery life isn't a major problem, but consumers who buy the Surface Pro 3 will have to carry around their charger just like they would with a laptop.
I recommend the Surface Pro 3 if you're a fan of using the Windows 8.1 operating system and are tired of carrying both a tablet and a laptop.