Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is the first - and only - laptop/tablet hybrid to get it (almost) completely right.
The Surface Pro 3 is a truly brilliant example of product design – an exceptional tool for designers, artists, photographers, art and creative directors who want to work on the go (and a revelation after some awful predecessors). It succeeds at fulfilling your needs in the way neither a tablet not laptop can do – it's a real sign of just how different is from either in what how it lets you use it that rumours of a competitor from Apple, perhaps called the iPad Pro, have been floating around the Internet since the Microsoft’s device was launched.
This Surface is a tablet with the heart of a laptop. It’s a tablet with a 12.1-inch screen that you can draw on using the included fineliner-like Surface Pen stylus – but let the magnetic Type Cover snap itself on and it’s a dinky little laptop. The Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8 and has an Intel Core i7 chip inside - so you can run all of the same apps as a full laptop including Adobe’s Creative Cloud tools including Photoshop, though we’d shy away from anything too power-hungry such as After Effects or a 3D suite such as Cinema 4D or Maya.
The Surface Pro 3 is exceptional at what it does, but it's not going to be for everyone. It's nowhere near as powerful as most laptops you'd consider buying for professional design, art, graphics, video or animation work - say Apple's MacBook Pro or Dell's Precision M3800 - and it's not as easy to use as a tablet, or have the same wealth of touch-driven games and apps, as an iPad. It’s also a lot smaller and lighter than Wacom’s Cintiq Companion.
But yesterday, I was happily editing video in Premiere Pro and photos and graphics in Photoshop while using the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop on a tiny tray table in a cramped Thameslink train seat - things just not possible using a traditional laptop. Earlier in a meeting about a redesign of one of our sites, where the Surface Pro 3 was connected to a Barco projector using a wireless USB dongle, I started with it in laptop mode to show off examples of good practice (and bad) - then pulled off the keyboard so we could sketch wireframes with the Surface Pro's pen.
I also think nothing of sticking the Surface in my satchel for every trip too and from home and external meetings - and despite only charging it every other day or so, I’ve only seen it run out of power once (due to the energy-sapping wireless USB dongle I just mentioned).
It's this flexibility while being good enough for the kind of creative work you do when you're not at your desk that's at the heart of the Surface Pro 3's appeal. I wouldn't give up the 27-inch iMac on my desk, but I’d rather have a Surface Pro 3 as a travelling companion than a MacBook Pro – whether that’s travelling home, overseas or just down the other end of our floor at IDG Towers for a meeting.
So let’s get into the details.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: The screen
The Surface Pro 3’s 12-inch screen is quite lovely to look at, and while it’s not exactly matte, it seemed less affected by reflections and glare than the iPad. But how good is it at showing how good your work is accurately?
It’s a capable screen with as much colour depth as a professional laptop, if not the accuracy – though this may be more due it having built-in Intel graphics rather than a separate AMD or Nvidia graphics chip, than the screen itself. Testing with our usual DataColor Spyder4Elite colorimeter and software, I found that the Surface Pro 3 could output 69% of Adobe RGB and 89% of sRGB – around the same range of colours (also known as colour gamut) as Dell’s Precision M3800 or HP’s ZBook 15.
The Surface Pro 3’s accuracy was measured by the Spyder4Elite by comparing a mid-gray displayed to its known value - measured as a figure called Delta-E, with smaller numbers being better and with 1.0 being the point at which you might notice the difference. The Dell’s Delta-E was 0.2 and the HP’s 0.5 – so imperceptible. The Surface Pro 3’s result was 1.5 – which is still very good, but not perfect.
The screen has a resolution of 2,160 x 1,400 – so everything is beautifully detailed. All of the apps I tried felt less cramped than I expected considering the 12-inch screen, except for After Effects - which was a struggle to navigate. Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Painter, Lightroom, Evernote and even Office apps were easy to use. Bridge was a pain, but that’s because Adobe hasn’t updated it for hiDPI screens like the Surface Pro’s on Windows – and using the pen helped here.
The screen is multi-touch, but only a few creative apps can take advantage of it: primarily Photoshop, 3DS Max (but not Maya) and Manga Studio.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: The pen
Pressure support for the Surface Pen stylus was also more limited. Again Photoshop worked effortlessly, but Painter and Illustrator required installing a driver from the stylus's developer N-Trig (which Microsoft is rumoured to have just bought).
Once up and running though, the Surface Pro’s Pen was just as good as using a Cintiq. Thinner and more like a biro than a traditional Wacom pen, the Surface Pen initially felt rather weird. After getting used to it, I discovered – oh heresy – that I actually preferred Microsoft’s stylus, as it’s thinner stem made it as easy to use accurately on the Surface Pro’s 12-inch screen as Wacom’s more cigar-like pen on a 24-inch Cintiq.
Some reviewers have complained that there’s nowhere to clip or put the stylus on the Surface Pro 3, but this never bothered me. I just stuck it in my pocket or bag. A pen holder would have just made the Surface Pro 3 bigger, so I’m happy for Microsoft to leave built-in pen holders to the likes of V-Tech’s Innotab, whose audience of 4-6-year-olds need help not losing their stylii (and yes, I mean you, my daughter Alice).
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Performance
The Surface Pro 3 review unit Microsoft supplied to me was a mid-range model, with a Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD – which with the ‘optional’ (it’s not optional, you need it) keyboard comes to £798 plus VAT. This was good enough for most of what I wanted to do - but I’d suspect for long-term use, you’d want at least the £1,014 model with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The extra RAM will be appreciated and you’d quickly fill the 40GB or so of space left after accounting for Windows 8.1 and a moderate amount of creative apps.
More demanding users who want to regularly work in Photoshop on photos or artworks with 25 layers or more, or with wildly complex vector art, or in Corel Painter, or do more than simple rough cuts in Premiere Pro, might be able to get this from one of the Surface Pro 3 models with a Core i7 processor – though the price can get high here (up to £1323 plus VAT, including the keyboard. However, we’ll reserve judgement until we get one of these for review.
Benchmarking the Surface Pro 3 makes it seem worse than it is. It’s by far the least powerful computer we've been able to meaningfully test since we moved to our current testing suite of Cinebench R15, After Effects and Premiere Pro CC 2014 and SPECwpc. Only Lenovo’s alleged Surface-rival Yoga 3 did worse, as we couldn’t get any of those to run on it, and Photoshop juddered before hanging. The Surface Pro 3 couldn’t handle SPECwpc and took so long to render scenes in After Effects and Premiere Pro – over five times longer than Dell and HP’s models – that it really wasn’t worth doing the tests. You’d never use a Surface Pro 3 for that. Cinebench results were poor too.
However, by extensive use, I found that Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator and even Premiere Pro were perfectly usable on the Surface Pro, as long as left the heavy-duty stuff until I got back to my iMac. It’s a sketchbook not a canvas on an easel, and as long as you treat it as such, the Surface Pro performs fine.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Design
The Surface Pro 3 hardware has the grace and attention-to-detail that you’d usually associate with Apple. It’s so very light and really feels no bigger than it needs to be. While it’s obviously bigger and heavier than an iPad Air – around 800g vs 437g – their shared magazine-like shape means I can’t imagine a situation where I’d take an iPad Air where I wouldn’t take the Surface Pro 3.
However, there are lots of places where I’d use the Surface Pro 3 where I wouldn’t - or at least wouldn’t want - to use a full-sized laptop like the 15-inch MacBook we've sat it next for comparison below, such as if I don’t get a table seat on the 6.08 from St Pancras tonight and have to sit in a standard seat. And even if I’m standing, I can draw, read or watch on the Surface Pro 3.
Using the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop means clipping on the keyboard – which I’ll get to in a sec – and pushing out the kickstand at the back. The kickstand’s necessary to keep the Surface Pro 3 upright as the components are behind the screen - not under the keyboard as with a traditional laptop. It works well unless you treat the Surface Pro 3 like a laptop and attempt to use it perched with your knees lower than your hips, and have to leap forward ungracefully to catch it when it tips off away from you. Thought that might just be an issue for me.
Pull the keyboard off, and the Surface Pro 3 is nicely sized for sketching and drawing, cradled in your arm, with the Surface Pen stylus.
Aesthetically, the design of the Surface Pro 3 is nicely understated. The only branding is a small Windows logo and the word Surface on the back of the device – and with its slim, unfussy design you get the kind of envious looks in meetings and while travelling you used to get when the iPhone, iPad or ultra-skinny MacBook Pro first came out.
Windows 8.1 feels a lot more natural when you can touch it to use it. Even with the keyboard connected, you find yourself touching the screen to quickly scroll (assuming the app your using supports this), select items (assuming they're big enough) or switch backwards and forwards between apps. The split old-school and Metro UIs still jars, but really it’s no weirder than moving from Adobe’s UI in Illustrator to Microsoft’s in Word to Evernote.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Keyboard
The clip-on keyboard is passable but I’d prefer the option of something more like a standard laptop keyboard – and if you spend much time writing as well as designing, you will too.
The keyboard is sold separately to the Surface Pro 3, but it’s a must have unless you’re going to use this Surface for drawing alone. Typing more than a few sentences on the on-screen keyboard with no tactile feedback is pretty horrible.
The backlit keyboard has its merits. The way it effortlessly clips on using magnets is a wonderful design detail. It's also a cover for the Surface when you’re travelling and it tucks neatly around the back when you want to draw or watch, turning itself off when it’s behind the Surface.
However, there’s no real bounce to the keys, so you have to type in a slower, more considered way if you want to write accurately. If Microsoft are going to make this an option, then the choice of a proper keyboard would be a definite bonus.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Ports
Alongside the volume control, power and 'Windows key’ buttons, there are five ports dotted around the Surface Pro 3: headphones, USB 3.0, MicroSD, power and Mini DisplayPort – plus the silver strip where you connect the keyboard.
I found the single USB port to be rather annoying – need two at the same time happened a lot more than I initially thought it would – though there is a second USB port on the power pack for charging your phone. The MicroSD port is useful for photography, as most SD cards I own are MicroSD cards in adapters – so it’s easy to pop out the MicroSD card from its sheath and stick it straight into the Surface.
As you’d expect, there’s no Ethernet port, but there’s 802.11ac/802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Sensors
The Surface Pro 3 includes a bunch of sensors that you’d find in tablets and phones, but here they’re mostly lacking in any real purpose. The Ambient Light sensor makes sense – raising or lowering the brightness to match your environment – but I’m a bit confused by the Accelerometer, Gyroscope and Magnetometer (a compass to you and me).
Are you going to play games by tilting the Surface, or go orienteering with it? If not, there’s nothing to see here.
This Surface has two 5MP cameras. The front-facing one is useful for Skype, the back for taking photos - assuming you’re happy to look as much of a douchebag as those tourists who use iPads as cameras. Or maybe it's for skyping when you want to show something other than your face (get your mind out of the gutter, I mean like something in the world around you).
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Battery life
The Surface Pro 3’s battery life is impressively long. Running our usual video-based battery life test, the Surface Pro 3 lasted for 8 hours and 25 minutes. This is even longer than the longest we’d seen previously – the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s 7 hours and 57 minutes – and a lot longer than the Dell Precision M3800’s paltry 2 hours 58 minutes.
In practice, when using the Surface Pro 3 primarily when travelling and in meetings, I could usually get away with charging it every other day (unless the battery life had been sucked out leech-like by something like that inexplicably battery-destroying wireless projector dongle). Getting a lot of work done on long flights was also possible - though that didn't always seem like a benefit.
Another practical consideration that helps the Surface Pro 3's battery life is that it's power adapter is smaller than a cigarette packet and about as light. Again, it's bigger than a tablet's - but carrying it with you in a small bag is really no trouble at all.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Price
The Surface Pro 3's flexibility comes at a price that’s more laptop than iPad - but it’s still a lot lower than a properly-specced 15-inch MacBook Pro or similar.
Where this Surface's price might seem high is in that it won't replace your desktop - so you need to be sure you'd use it enough to be worth the outlay (unless you're raking it in right now).
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: Verdict
The Surface Pro 3 is a rare product indeed - a piece of tech that doesn't try to improve on what you're currently using by just making it faster or lighter or higher-resolution - but by letting you use it differently. It's the answer to the question 'what does a creative need most when he or she aren't at their desk?'. It puts comfort, creativity, flexibility, and ease-of-use over performance or just being a few mm thinner than the competition. It's a product designed for experience, not specs.
It's also very rare that I really miss a review product when its gone, but the Surface Pro 3 fitted neatly into a hole unfilled by any of my iMac, MacBook Pro or iPad. So it's now time to create a convincing case as to why Digital Arts' parent company IDG should buy me one.