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Panos Panay, Corp. Vice President for Surface Computing at Microsoft Corp, unveils the latest models of the Surface tablet in New York on May 20, 2014. (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
Panos Panay, Corp. Vice President for Surface Computing at Microsoft Corp, unveils the latest models of the Surface tablet in New York on May 20, 2014. (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

Review: Surface Pro 3 is Microsoft’s best tablet yet, but is it enough? Add to ...

Microsoft is marketing its latest Surface tablet, the Surface Pro 3 running Windows 8.1, as the only computer you need. With a keyboard attached, it functions as an Ultrabook; sans keyboard, it’s a tablet. What more could one want?

It’s the company’s third swat at producing a mobile device, and this time they’ve almost nailed it. While I’m not sure I could give up my laptop for one, for reasons I’ll explain shortly, the Surface Pro 3 might just do the trick for many.

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Undeniably, it is a gorgeous device. Its 12-inch multi-touch screen, with 2,160 x 1,440 resolution (better than HD), delivers crisp, bright video; if that’s not enough screen real estate, the device can power two additional monitors. The 3:2 aspect ratio gives the landscape display a more laptop-like look, and works much better in portrait mode than the older Surfaces’ 16:9 ratio. The screen is glossy, though, so reflections can be a problem.

The overall design is attractive, with a magnesium body and angled edges that make it look thinner than its actual 0.36 inches. I would prefer a darker body, however, because the light colour shows marks easily. You’ll want to keep your Surface Pro 3 in a case of some sort to preserve its pristine look.

Around the edges, you’ll find a single USB 3.0 port, a mini DisplayPort, an audio input, power button, accessory connector, and the redesigned power connection.

The original external magnetic power connector on the Surface and Surface 2 was fiddly to connect and tended to disconnect with little provocation. The new one, also magnetic, features a wedge-shaped connector that slips easily into a slot on the side of the machine and is harder to detach accidentally. It has a good-sized light on the side (rather than a tiny dot on the end) to indicate that the power is indeed flowing. As on previous models, the A/C adapter has a USB charging port on it (inspired idea), so you can charge your phone while juicing up the tablet, all from one plug.

The Surface kickstand, unique among tablets, began as an easel allowing one viewing angle. The Surface 2 added a second position, and the Surface 3 trumps the pair with virtually unlimited viewing angles. The tablet can sit upright for typing, angle back a bit for videos, lie almost flat to facilitate working with the pen, or settle anywhere in between. The stand seems sturdy enough that it will survive repeated use (time will tell). Lurking under the kickstand you’ll find a microSD card slot for additional storage.

The cameras, front and rear, are both five megapixel, capable of 1080p, and more than adequate for video conferencing. Twin microphones give you stereo sound. The speakers, too, are respectable; movie audio was clear, with no distortion, even when the volume was turned up.

The basic stylus from the older Surfaces has morphed into a full-fledged digital pen with a few clever tricks incorporated. Click the button on the top, and Microsoft OneNote automatically launches, waking the tablet if it’s asleep, so you can jot down a quick scribble on the fly. Two buttons on the side manage right-clicking and erasing. There’s also a clip to secure it in your pocket. When you’re using the pen, the touchscreen is disabled so you can rest your hand on it just as you would when writing on paper.

The only awkwardness occurs if your hand accidentally touches the Windows button on the bezel (that pops you back to the Start screen). Rather than being on the bottom of the screen when it’s in landscape mode, as it is on older models, the Windows button is on the right edge (the bottom in portrait mode), a bad spot for right-handed artists.

One caveat – the pen needs three batteries: one AAAA (yes, yet another new size to find), and two coin cells. All are included, but replacing them when they die won’t be cheap.

Power-wise, there’s nothing to complain about. The Surface Pro 3 comes with i3, i5, or i7 processor (with TPM chip for enterprise security), with 4 or 8 GB RAM, and from 64 to 512 GB of SSD storage. There’s a model with enough muscle to do virtually anything.

When we add the back-lit Surface Type keyboard, which snaps on magnetically, we go from tablet to Ultrabook, or at least, Ultrabook-ish. It’s a respectable keyboard that’s easy to type on, and because it’s more rigid than older models, there were fewer typos caused by flexing. To provide a better typing angle, the top edge of the keyboard folds up and attaches to the bottom of the screen magnetically, creating a slight wedge (it also covers a smidge of the bottom of the display, so don’t count on seeing the Taskbar clearly, or using touch controls there). The touchpad is much bigger than that on the original Type keyboards, and is easier to use, especially for multi-touch gestures.

For connectivity, we get 801.11ac/a/b/g/n wireless and Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy. For an additional $39.99, you can buy a USB dongle to connect to hard-wired Ethernet. Alas, there’s still no cellular or NFC built in.

Battery life is adequate, but not great. In tests, I was able to exceed six hours, but did not hit the nine hours claimed in the specs.

The main thing that would prevent the Surface Pro 3 from replacing my laptop is what Microsoft calls “lapability”. To get the machine to sit on my lap, and to be able to see the screen while it’s there, I have to extend the kickstand a fair bit. The combination of that and the depth of the keyboard makes it teeter perilously on the edge of my knee. It may work fine for a tall person with long thighs, but we of the more vertically challenged ilk have problems.

The Surface Pro 3 on its own tips the scales at a manageable 1.76 lb (800 grams). The keyboard tacks on an extra 11.6 ounces, and the entire package of tablet, keyboard, pen and A/C adapter weighs a hair under 3 lb. That’s about right for an Ultrabook, though a tad heavy for a tablet.

Overall, while I don’t think I’d replace my laptop with a Surface Pro 3, because I need to use it on my lap a lot, anyone who doesn’t have that requirement will likely be very happy with the device. It has a great screen and lots of power, and since it runs Windows 8.1, it can handle the full gamut of Windows software.

Prices:

Base model i3 with 4 GB RAM and 64GB SSD is $849; as reviewed with i5, 4 GB RAM and 128 GB SSD, $1049.

The top of line i7 model with 8 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD lists for $1999.

The Type cover costs an additional $129.99.

An optional docking station with three additional USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet port, mini DisplayPort and 3.5 inch audio port costs $199.99.

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