With Surface Pro 3, Microsoft finally shows how it sees the post-PC era

Microsoft may have promised that the Surface Pro 3, introduced last week, is the tablet that can replace your laptop.

But, having spend just under a week using the Surface as my main computer, I've found that the reverse is true:  it’s more like a laptop that can also function as a tablet.

It's a small but important distinction to make. If you compare the Surface Pro 3 against tablets such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 or Apple's iPad, it has some notable shortcomings. Its 12-inch screen makes it feel big and heavy by comparison. It is, to borrow a phrase from Microsoft, "lapable," but just a bit too big to curl up with in an armchair.  And it more or less requires the pricey $130 keyboard accessory to meet its full potential.

But the Surface Pro 3 isn't just a tablet. It's really a laptop that's trying to be portable enough to keep you from wanting a tablet, too. It accomplishes that goal pretty well.

As a laptop, the Surface scores well on the basics. The screen, a high-definition stunner, is responsive and delivers crisp, clear video. The keyboard cover, which is really a must-have accessory, is easy-to-use and lets you type at full speed. It could stand to have a bigger trackpad, however, though users can always fall back on the touchscreen if they feel too crowded on the keyboard. It's also nice to have the USB 3.0 and mini-display port on the Surface Pro 3 -- a lack of ports is certainly something that keeps tablet users from being as productive as they'd like. Including the ports puts a limit on how thin Microsoft can make the Surface, but it's a tradeoff that makes sense.


Typing away on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. (Photo by Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post.)

Performance-wise, the Surface Pro 3 handled everything I threw at it, thanks to its Intel chips -- the same ones you'll find in most high-end laptops. That included graphics-intensive photo-editing programs, as well as older Windows programs still widely used in some offices. Its battery life was good, too, lasting the promised nine hours on a full charge. Plus, it also stayed relatively cool throughout the day, in contrast to previous models, though there were some hot spots on the corners after prolonged use.

Speaking of previous models, Microsoft also clearly learned from its past mistakes. This is clearest in its redesigned kickstand, which adjusts to let you to work at virtually any angle you want without having to awkwardly squeeze your knees together feel secure enough to work. Microsoft has also added a small but significant addition to the Type Cover-- a magnetic strip at the top of the keyboard cover that stabilizes the device when you’re typing up a storm. (Older keyboard covers will still work with the new Surface, though the change in screen size means they won’t match up, size-wise.)

Microsoft has also made improvements to the touchscreen, which makes it more responsive to fingers and to the included digital stylus. It's not enough to let users skip the keyboard attachment without losing a lot of what makes the device work. But the improved screen does produce the best on-screen writing experience of any tablet I've tried. Writing felt very natural and I was able to use the Surface to keep up with my normal pace of notetaking -- something I haven't been able to do with other tablets. Sure, it's a niche use-case, but also a key selling point for those who want to use tablet to draw or write by hand. (It is, however, worth noting that some artists have raised concerns about how their hands hit the tablet's home button when drawing, which shoots them back to the Start screen. Microsoft has already said it's looking at ways to fix the issue.)

The main thing that may spook potential buyers is the fact that, yes, the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1. Anyone who's been following Microsoft for the past two years knows that the company has gotten a lot of pushback for the way it designed its latest operating system, with a tile-based look that was clearly designed for touchscreens.

At home, I use a non-touchscreen Windows 8 desktop as one of my primary computers, and so sympathize with the gripes I field from those who think Windows 8's layout is cumbersome for mouse and keyboard users.  But on a touchscreen all the swiping you have to do to quit programs, access settings, etc., in Windows 8 mode becomes second nature. Switching between applications between desktop and Windows 8's tiled mode can be a bit jarring -- I found I had to often resize apps when I moved between modes -- but my annoyance with that faded over time. You may even find, as I did, that you end up tapping the screen of traditional computers after using the Surface because you get so used to being able to do so.

It's clear that Microsoft has put a lot of thought into the Surface Pro 3. What's less clear, however, is who exactly they've made it for. At the unveiling, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Panos Panay, who runs the Surface team seemed to pitch this as a device for everyone. But it's really a device for people who want their tablets to be productive, or who just want really light laptops.

As a business product, therefore, the Surface Pro 3 makes a lot of sense. That goes, too, for students who may be looking for something they can just throw in a tote bag for some essay-writing on the quad. If you're looking for a super-portable laptop, give the Surface some considerable thought -- including, of course, the price for the keyboard cover in your budget calculations.

Its starting price tag is $799 for its 64 GB model, far above what you pay for a reading and video-watching tablet such as Google's $299 Nexus 7 or Amazon's $140 Kindle Fire. Its most powerful model, which has 512 GB and an i7 Intel processor, goes for $1,950 -- definitely a laptop price. In other words, if you're looking for a tablet that functions as a tablet -- something you can hand over to the kids to amuse them, or take to read on the train -- then this isn't the device for you.

Still, Microsoft deserves credit for designing the Surface Pro 3 to offer as much of the best of both worlds as it can. When making hybrids, companies run the risk of making something that's inferior on both ends. To the Surface's credit, there was only one time I thought, “I really wish I had a tablet to do this" --  while I was reading a book on the device. And all I had to do then was adjust my reading position. That's not such a bad tradeoff to be able to pull one device from my briefcase.

Could the Surface Pro 3 be a better tablet? Yes. Could it be a better laptop? Yes.

But, despite its shortcomings, Microsoft has delivered on its promise to make something that can lighten your tech load. And that's no small feat at all.

The Surface Pro 3 is available for pre-order now; certain models will ship on June 20. Microsoft has said that all models will be available in stores by the end of August.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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