Surface Pro 3 joins the fleet

Image from Microsoft Store UKOK Microsoft I give in… after a year of watching the tablet market waiting for an OEM to come along and make a product that comes close to the Surface I finally bit the bullet and went for the SP3.

A few challengers have come and gone (particularly disappointed at the odd asymmetric design of the Lenovo ThinkPad 10) but in the end the Microsoft device won my custom. Having used the first-gen RT for a year or so I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by what the SP3 brought to the table but the first couple of weeks with it have done just that.

Originally I was just looking for a companion tablet, really in the Atom mould but after running the Windows 10 beta on my X100e soon realised that I was going to need a new laptop as well. Sadly the single core AMD Neo really struggles with Windows 8 \ 10 so suddenly Microsoft’s “the tablet that can replace your laptop” mantra started to make sense.

Also having the chance to try one out at Future Decoded helped realise the enlarged size of the SP3 vs SP2 isn’t as unwieldy as it first appeared. More importantly Microsoft have somehow got the thickness down to the same (or less) as the original RT and that was a real winner for me.

Buying choices

What really swung my decision to buy was Microsoft lopping £100 off the price of most models in the range, the offer started around Black Friday but seems to have reverted back to original price now. It made the sweet-spot i5 \ 128GB model come in at a slightly more palatable (but still expensive) £749. Obviously there was still the matter of the overpriced keyboard to add but the overall price didn’t feel quite as painful as before.

Although there were cashback offers around I chose to buy my SP3 from John Lewis, mainly due to the 3-year warranty included in the price. Having seen the teardown report I wanted warranty on this device for as long as I could get!

A black Type Cover 3 soon followed from the Microsoft Store to complete the set.

First impressions

Unboxing the device was a similar experience to the RT, sliding out the main section of the packaging followed by a nervy moment tipping the tablet out of the middle section. The charger is now more of a classic power “brick” rather than the large-plug variety on the RT. Truth be told I prefer the older style but it’s not a deal breaker.

I’m still amazed how Microsoft have managed to get a full i5 machine into such a thin and (relatively) light form factor. Before trying out the device I thought the 12″ 3:2 ratio screen was going to be too bulky but after using it for a while it does seem to have hit that sweet spot between portability and productivity.

Starting up goes through the usual Windows 8.x first run process then ran it through Windows Update to get the latest firmware and drivers. What really struck me was the display, so much contrast and vivid colours that truth be told I’m not used to on most PC monitors. Combined with the high resolution it took a few minutes to get used to, as did finding a desktop wallpaper that actually filled the the 2160×1440 screen.

Startup speed is really impressive; given that this is my personal device it doesn’t get used during the day so I’ve been shutting it down completely rather than using any of the sleep features. Even then from a cold start it gets to the login screen in under 10 seconds, so little time I barely even notice it.

On a related note I’d recommend setting up a picture password if using a Windows 8.x tablet, makes life a lot easier if your Microsoft Account password is of the long & complex variety as typing it in on each wake-up \ unlock gets very annoying very quickly.

Kickstand & keyboard

Probably my favourite feature of the SP3 thus far has been the improved kickstand. Now it can go in pretty much any position using the device on your lap is much easier. Likewise on a table it goes to an angle that suits the user, rather than the user having to conform to the device as was with the previous two iterations.

This is where the surprise bit comes in, so far I’ve preferred to use the SP3 without the keyboard rather than with, almost the complete opposite to my experience with the RT.

surface-pro-3-stand-on-box

In this situation I’ve tended to decouple the keyboard from the tablet rather than fold it underneath. Somehow I don’t think the keys sitting upside down and the hinge bent back will be doing either any favours in the long run, although Microsoft do show it as an option in the box. Maybe they’ve been engineered better than I’m giving credit for?

The keyboard is a nice step up from the original RT unit, backlighting is great and using the angled dock position feels much more sturdy to type on. The increased size also allows for a bit more palm rest space, which feels a bit more comfortable to type with than on the previous versions. The touchpad again is also a bit bigger and works well.

One minor change I hadn’t spotted until I started using the device was that the material used to surround the keyboard has changed from a smooth rubberised material to fabric. It’s something I’m going to have to get used to as I liked the smoother surface of the RT keyboard. I guess it was swapped due to the larger surface area of the Pro, either for cost or durability reasons (as the original material did pick up fingermarks quite easily).

Windows 8 experience

As a result of using touch more than previously I’m also breaking a habit of 10+ years and using IE on a regular basis (!) The native touch version of it works rather well when used in tablet mode, in particular I like the swipe gestures to go back to a previous page which just feels natural after a while. Using Snap View I can easily run web browsing and other apps side by side, although there have been some oddities with video playback stopping when switching apps when desktop mode is on one of the panes.

I was hoping for something similar to Metro IE using Chrome’s “Windows 8 Mode” but that’s basically ChromeOS on Windows, very disappointing. That said I’m not really surprised given the battle going on these days between Microsoft and Google’s OS and cloud platforms.

In terms of apps I tend to work more in Desktop mode but I have grown to like (!) the Start Screen and live tiles. The Mail tile is useful for keeping up-to-date and the News app is comfortable to read (if a little slow to update when launching, could do with a tweak there). I’ve already written about how much I like the OneNote app in the past so no need to revisit that 😉

I haven’t needed to use the pen as yet but to save battery life disabled Bluetooth, meaning I lose the click-and-hold activation for OneNote. Not a problem though as it’s on my Start Screen anyway. As a random aside it seems Apple might want a piece of the stylus party after all judging by these patents!

It’s not perfect…

However as with everything there’s some annoying niggles that need improvement:

    1. penThen pen holder really does look like an afterthought from the bargain bucket school of design. A sticky pad , really? The next version of the keyboard cover should have pen storage integrated neatly into the design for sure.
    2. The pricing difference between the 128GB \ 4GB (£749) and 256GB \ 8GB (£999)  i5 models is way more than the cost of the supporting components. It’s certainly one way for Microsoft to ensure they make some profit on the SP3 line but along with the keyboard does seem a bit of a rip-off. I wonder how many more they’d sell with more realistic pricing.
    3. The Windows 8.1 UI has come a long way since the mess of the original 8.0 release but does still jar in places, especially when it touch-only mode. It will be very interesting to see what improvements arrive when the Windows 10 beta gets the new Continuum interface. I wonder if the next preview release will have it in?
    4. The Metro IE design team need to tweak the UI for Surface users, at the moment the (tiny) activation area for the URL bar is tucked away in the corner which is nigh on impossible to hit when the SP3 keyboard is docked in the slanted position. Back to the drawing board with that one!

address-bar
whoever came up with this idea probably didn’t do well in their performance review…

f.lux users beware!

One of the first programs I install on any Windows device I use these days is the excellent f.lux utility. It adjusts your screen colour over the course of the day and helps reduce eye strain and improve sleep when using screens at night. Soon after I got the SP3 up and running I installed the program as normal and thought nothing more of it. After using the device for a couple of days on and off I’d counted 2-3 screen lags and one full-on crash where the machine locked up. At the time I was wondering if I’d bought a lemon but a quick Google search (via a forum) soon found this:

https://justgetflux.com/faq.html

Uh oh, my Surface Pro 3 is freezing! (or my Intel-based laptop is slow with f.lux).
Early-2014 Intel HD Windows 8.1 drivers have some bugs that give problems with f.lux, and you may not have the latest one (Surface Pro 3 does not as of September 2014).

Given that there’s no Microsoft-approved driver update out yet I’ve removed f.lux for now and will try it again once a newer version of the Intel driver is released via Windows Update. Hurry up Microsoft and get that done please!

Conclusion

4.5-out-of-5

So far so good. I’m happy with the SP3 so far and the quality of the work that went into the design clearly shows. It’s brilliant that technology has come on to such a point where an i5 CPU  and supporting components can be crammed into a case not much bigger than the original iPad. Yes it’s not cheap but if you’re after a Windows hybrid device then I don’t think there’s anything else on the market that comes close.

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