Microsoft (almost) gets it Right with Surface Pro 3

By Doug Mohney May 20, 2014

Microsoft's third iteration of the Surface tablet looks like a winner.  The Surface Pro 3, billed as the tablet that will "replace your laptop" has a combination of features that make it the replacement for the ultrabook.  Unfortunately,  among those features are a high price tag for the performance offered.

The Surface Pro 3 is the biggest tablet in the Surface family with a 12 inch screen delivering a whopping 2,160 x 1,440 resolution.  It is also the lightest and thinnest Surface at about 0.36 inches thick and weighing in at 1.8 pounds.   Running Windows 8.1, the Pro 3 has a full-size USB 3.0 port—hurrah!—microSD card reader, Mini DisplayPort, 5-megapixel/1080p front- and rear-facing cameras, stereo speakers, Dolby Audio "enhanced" speakers, and up to 9 hours of battery life.  

Wireless network support includes 802.11ac, along with 802.11 a/b/g/n.  I'm a little disappointed that the 60 GHz WiGig 802.11 technology didn't make it into the Pro 3, since in-room data rates of up to 7 Gbps would have been welcome for both syncing and wireless docking station use.  Instead, Microsoft offers a $200 docking station with a GigE Ethernet port, 5 USB ports and a Mini DisplayPort. There's also a $40 USB 3.0 to GigE Ethernet adapter cable in the latest round of accessories.

One of the biggest improvements to Pro 3 is a kickstand that can be adjusted to any angle, rather than fixed stops at one or two points. I'd never been a big fan of the "One angle fits all" approach in the first couple of generations of Surface, so this is a welcome adjustment.

Included with the Pro 3 is the new Surface Pen to provide an easier drawing and note-taking experience than fat-fingering the screen and leaving a bunch of prints all over it. One click of the pen launches a fresh page in OneNote, a nice feature; I  wouldn't go so far as to call it an "amazing new capability" as Microsoft does in its press release.

If you do want to use the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement, a backlight Surface Pro Type cover with touchpad adds $130 to the cost of a system. 

Surface Pro 3 costs start at $799 for 64 GB of flash storage, 4 GB of RAM and an Intel Core i3 Processor.  At $999, the configuration includes 128 GB of flash and Intel Core i5. Other versions includes the Intel Core i5 and i7 with 256GB to 512GB of flash and 8 GB of RAM.  The fully loaded Pro 3 lists at $1949 with the i7 processor, 512 GB flash, and 8 GB of RAM -- before Type cover.

If I was shopping for the cheapest Surface Pro 3 laptop replacement, I'd be looking at $930 for the i3/64GB version with a Type cover.  It's a lot of money but compare it to a $1050 list price Lenovo ThinkPad X240 Ultrabook  weighing in at 2.84 pounds, with a i3 processor, 4 GB RAM,  500 GB hard drive, and a 12.5 inch screen at 1366 x 768 resolution.  More hard drive storage, but the Pro 3 has better cameras.

It is hard to do an exact Surface Pro 3 vs. ultrabook/2-in-1 comparison because there aren't any performance reviews out yet. However, the tradeoffs between a Surface Pro 3 and similarly configured name brand 2-in-1 with a 13 inch screen get to be interesting. Lenovo and HP offer lower cost 2-in-1 models with a trade of more weight and potentially a better Intel Core processor along with more hard drive storage.

If Microsoft wanted to really capture market share, it would figure out how to lower or bundle the type cover in with the purchase of a Pro 3, because the $130 for the keyboard is the amount that makes it just a bit more expensive as a straight up no-brainer replacement for a  similarly configured 2-1 or ultrabook.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing Editor

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