Surface Pro 3, Part 2

Part One can be found here. I recommend reading it first.

Part Two focuses on the aspects less specifically useful for students.

Size:

The 12-inch screen size is a well thought out compromise between the needs of a device in laptop mode and the needs of a device as a tablet. It is really close to the size of a notebook with standard letter size paper, and in terms of weight it probably isn’t much more. While using it as a laptop, the size is large enough that two windows can be comfortably placed side by side. Windows 8 also has a handy feature that allows up to 3 apps or the desktop to be placed side by side (in fact I wrote this part on about 1/3rd of the screen while using the rest to watch a video). In comparison to my much older 13 inch Macbook Air I would say the reduced screen size is negligible and the higher resolution actually makes the Surface have more useful space.

I would have thought that 12 inches is far too big for a tablet, but the Surface has completely changed my mind. I have never previously owned a tablet but I have used both the 10 inch iPad and 7 inch Nexus enough that I can say that the larger size works a lot better for most uses of a tablet. Web browsing gives you a full experience. Apps that do a good job scaling up like Facebook, OneNote, the Weather app and many others look great. But like I mentioned above, the ability to split screen apps, and generally have them intelligently adjust to different sizes adds a lot of value to a tablet.

Windows:

I can’t say I love Windows 8. Some elements of it are growing on me though. You can tell that the designers certainly had something like the Surface in mind when designing the metro part and it makes a lot more sense with a touchscreen and in tablet form then with simply a keyboard and mouse. Elements like being able to really quickly swipe from the left side of the screen to either replace what I am currently doing with a previously opened app or to split screen my current app with a previously opened one make working with the Surface really smooth. If I am working on a project for class and messaging back and forth with my group, I can put Facebook messenger on the side, only taking up about an 1/8th of the screen and easily message while still working on the project.

I’m still a *NIX guy and I don’t see the Surface changing that. For basic media consumption, note-taking and other things, I am happy with Windows 8 so far. For any kind of development though, I am hating the experience. For some things, it probably wouldn’t be so bad, but I am used to unix command line tools and the general tools and experience of a unix command line. I’m still waiting for Ubuntu to work properly with the Surface and I will definitely put Linux on a microSD card when it does.

Metro style apps are generally decent, but the selection is still mediocre. A lot of the big apps have excellent metro versions such as Facebook, Google Search, Reddit, Netflix and others. These apps are good, with clean and usually minimal interfaces. The metro design language leaves something to be desired at times though. It can be difficult to find the way to do what you want in many apps. For instance in a Reddit app it can be difficult to figure out search and other functions. Unlike iOS and Android you can’t always be certain that if you need an app to do something, it will exist. Major categories like fitness, maps, PDF readers and others will all have at least a few selections, but the quality will not usually be on par with the choices on other platforms.

Normal Windows apps all work but many have no idea how to properly handle the high pixel density. Many will have tiny fonts and buttons that make them really hard to use. Other applications will scale to reasonable sizes but end up looking really fuzzy. Even more bizarre is some apps that will alternate between fuzzy and sharp text (mostly Google Chrome). If you are far-sighted this may be an issue as text is small. Some applications, like the Office suite handle the high density fine and look really good. As high resolution laptops continue to become more common this issue will likely be fixed in more applications but at the moment it can be jarring to constantly switch from crisp well designed applications to fuzzy ugly applications all the time.

Hardware Design:

The Surface feels solid and sturdy. It is weighty enough at 1.75 pounds that it feels solid but light enough that you can handle it as a tablet. Both the body and the screen seem scratch resistant and while you definitely don’t want to drop it, It feels like it can handle basic bumps and scratches.

Microsoft invented a word, “lapability”, to describe how well the design of a laptop allows for its use on one’s lap. I think the fact that no one else thought of a name for this tells you that most laptops all handle this pretty well. The Surface works well on a lap. The adjustable kickstand makes it work. In some ways it is better than a regular laptop. Because only a small portion of the Surface actually touches your legs, heat is never an issue. However, the kickstand digs into bare legs and I wouldn’t want to use it for hours at a time. It does work quite well to balance on knees which allows the Surface to be useable in all sorts of positions that laptops don’t work well in like in leaned back seating positions.

The kickstand is completely adjustable from a slight inclination all the way down to almost flat. This feature, more than anything, really helps make the Surface a completely versatile machine. I am constantly using different levels depending on whether I am typing, writing with the stylus, reading a textbook, or using a touch focused app. Unlike most tablets without a stand, it can easily be placed on a desk or a table and propped towards you. Even for things like cooking, it is easy to put the Surface on the corner of a counter to show you a recipe.

Performance:

The Surface Pro 3 is snappy and responsive. My version, with the Intel Core i5 processor and 4gb of ram easily handles every general computing task I throw at it. Applications open almost instantly, swipe gestures that switch between apps happen as fast as I can swipe my finger. I haven’t done any photo or video editing, and I probably won’t, but it should handle that about as well as any slim laptop.

Gaming on the Surface works surprisingly well. I’ve only played Civilization 5 and SWTOR but they both run fine at the full resolution of the screen and at low graphics settings. This is impressive given that the resolution is so high. Some games, like CIV 5 are tablet optimized so they can be played with touch only, and for that game at least it works well. There have been reports of heavy throttling when the device heats up however that hasn’t been much of an issue for me. I generally have a fan pointed at my desk though so that may help. If gaming is hugely important to you, maybe look for a different device, but if you just want to be able to play some games occasionally, this will work for you.

Summary:

While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the Surface Pro 3 to most people, I can say that Microsoft is really close to making the best all-round device there is. If you need to get lots of work done in places where you can’t connect a mouse (and maybe a keyboard for lots of typing) then this probably isn’t for you. If you mostly want a Facebook/email/internet machine than an iPad or Android tablet might be a better choice. If you want something that is excellent for media consumption, great for note-taking and reading textbooks, and still decent for getting work done then the Surface will do a lot more for you than anything else out there.

3 thoughts on “Surface Pro 3, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Surface Pro 3 Review, Part 1 | Daniel's Blog

  2. I found your blog while looking for reviews of the Surface Pro 3. I’m entering a biophysics program, and like you I need something for intensive note taking and annotation. My program gives me a grant and I’m trying to decide whether to spend it on a SP3 or a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Before buying the SP3, did you consider any high end tablets, like the Galaxy Note? And if you did, what made you pick the SP3? Was it significantly better in annotating abilities?

    I am mainly agonizing between the SP3 and the Galaxy due to the difference in price. I wouldn’t want a SP2 as I want the full Windows 8 functionality. If I get the Galaxy, I have money left over for software, accessories, fancy stylus, whatever. If I get the SP3, I have whatever it offers over the Galaxy. I am trying to figure out what “that” is–I know it’s a more powerful machine, but if I view it as primarily something for annotation and note-taking, is it significantly better? Or are there other things it has that would tempt me aside from general laptop-ish capabilities? If you could offer insight I would really appreciate it!

    • I never seriously considered any pure tablets to the point of making any major comparisons with the SP3. I was more choosing between the SP3 and something like the Macbook Air personally.

      All I can really add is that desktop OneNote is an awesome note-taking software and that the Android (or any tablet version) is much more simplistic and less likely to work as well for you. Knowing what I do know about Android tablets I just don’t think they will not work easily for every note-taking situation. Need to annotate on pdfs, word doc, powerpoints? All these formats which profs will sometimes give notes in work quickly on desktop OneNote but may be a pain with whatever software on the Note 10.1. You may find different apps that do each to some extent, but then your notes are scattered around. Want to quickly clip a piece of some online reference material from the web into your notes, and automatically get a link back to where you found it? I doubt other things will do that well.

      The stylus is also amazing. Way better than anything I ever used before. Once again though, no specific experience with the Note 10.1 to compare.

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