For the month that I have had the Surface Pro 3 I have been thinking a lot about how I would review it. Amongst friends and people in my program there is considerable interest in it, but also a lot of concern about how well it would work overall. Before purchasing the Surface I read countless reviews and thoughts from early owners but most reviews stuck to the facts, which aren’t that illuminating when determining how well a device will work, or they reviewed the device from the perspective of a professional tech writer/reviewer often without making this bias clear. As someone who isn’t a tech writer, I often felt that the reviews weren’t very informative.
My review will be biased towards what I need, and how I use this but I will do my best to make it clear what those biases are so that anyone reading this can get an idea of whether the Surface might be a good choice for them.
Ultimately I bought the Surface Pro 3 because I was having trouble taking useful notes, studying, and generally effectively learning in my courses. For context I am a Computer Science undergraduate student taking mostly math and CS courses. Most of the CS courses are “mathy” rather than programming heavy. In many of these courses the instructors will give large pdf lecture slides, and then supplement them with lots of discussion or writing extra things on the board. Printing off hundreds of pages of notes a week in order to have them to annotate on was looking costly and not particularly environmentally friendly. Simply taking notes in a notebook was difficult because there was no time to copy slides and then annotate them. Using my old laptop was useless because too often I needed to draw, annotate, or write lots of mathematical symbols.
The main thing I wanted was a tablet that excelled at solving this issue, all while being a good computer when I needed it. There are definitely better pure laptops at the price of the Surface, but for my needs they are mostly rubbish at helping me study. There are also much cheaper tablets that excel at running basic apps and surfing the web but are not built around using a pen. I’m going to write two posts, this one about my thoughts on the Surface as a study machine, and a second one soon after about how it works as a laptop/tablet outside of class.
The Surface, combined with the excellent n-trig pen technology, and Microsoft’s note-taking software OneNote make for a powerful note-taking and studying package. Since receiving the Surface, all my notes have been written in OneNote, mostly by pasting slides in (which is quick and easy to do) and then annotating over them and writing extended notes to the side. To prepare for tests it is easy to make a study sheet by pasting in important bits from my notes, from electronic versions of textbooks, and any other internet resources and making connections and extensions to any of them using the pen. This is really powerful for studying and the combination of Surface and OneNote make it simple. The high resolution screen also makes it easy to put a textbook or some other resource on the side and still have enough room to write notes.
Taking notes “live” in a lecture also works well. The pen feels just as good as writing on paper, possibly even better in some ways. My writing is not very good on paper, and while the Surface doesn’t improve it, it doesn’t make it much worse. I probably write just a bit slower, but the increased versatility of being able to quickly erase things, select and move around parts of sentences and quickly select other colours makes the experience better. The almost completely adjustable stand also helps put the device in whatever angle is best for whatever you are doing, although I wish it was a bit firmer as sometimes as I write it sinks to a lower position. And with all this I get my entire notebook in one device that is smaller than and weighs less than a physical notebook. Unlike a real notebook where I need to worry about bringing it with me, and not losing it, my OneNote notes get synced to the cloud and can then be viewed on any other device including my phone.
The Surface is also an excellent e-reader for textbooks, although the default app isn’t very good. After downloading Drawboard PDF though, the Surface becomes a smooth textbook reader that is easy to write notes in, highlight or copy parts to OneNote. It works really well to copy questions from a textbook or a course website to OneNote and then you can easily add space to actually answer the questions. The 12-inch high resolution screen is about the perfect size to read a textbook, and the resolution makes reading it as good of an experience as an actual book. Trying to read a textbook on my old laptop, with a slightly larger but lower resolution screen just didn’t work well.
The other main use people have for a school laptop is writing assignments and papers. While I haven’t written a paper with it, and probably won’t any time soon because Computer Science is not a paper heavy degree, I will talk a bit about how well the keyboard works. Despite the fairly compressed size the keyboard is excellent. The keys have a satisfying give and produce a fairly nice, although somewhat loud click. Typing is accurate and fast. OneNote seems like it would work well for tracking sources, annotating researching, and generally organizing thoughts and creating a draft.
Purely as a study machine, the Surface is excellent. Considerably better than any laptop I have had, and better than any tablet I have used for taking notes or reading textbooks. If it was less than $500 it would easily be worth it for a student to save money on textbooks, notebooks, paper, and ink all while improving their studying. But the Surface Pro 3 in any reasonable combination of model and accessories is over $1000. Very few people can afford that just for school, so it also has to work well as a general purpose laptop and tablet. Part 2 of this review will talk about how well it does that.
Part Two can be found here.