Time with a Surface Pro 3

Introduction

A couple years ago, I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 1. I got the big boy… the 128GB model with the Intel i5 processor. It’s been a good PC, and honestly, it’s probably going to be a decent backup device, unless I break down and sell it. Honestly, I’m still up in the air about that…and for good reason – I don’t know if I’m going to keep the Surface Pro 3 that I bought a couple of weeks ago.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is Redmond’s latest entry into the hybrid ultrabook market. It comes with Windows 8.x out of the box, and will also run Windows 10, if you’re on the Technical Preview, Windows Insider program. I haven’t put Windows 10 on it for a couple of reasons –

1. Build 9879 is really buggy
2. The Surface Pen doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to in Windows 10 right now (the pen’s top button doesn’t start OneNote, like it’s supposed to)
3. The Consumer Preview of Windows 10 should be out in about 4-5 weeks from this writing (I’d say, on our about 2015-01-21, the date of their scheduled announcement)
4. I wanted to see how the device really ran under Windows 8.x, especially compared to my Surface Pro 1.

I’m not going to turn this into a review of the Surface Pro 3; however, I did want to give some thoughts on it vs. the Surface Pro 1. I’m not too happy with the fact that there are enough issues with it and Windows 10 that I don’t have it on the new OS yet, despite its beta or Technical Preview designation. At least for this article then, the two devices would be on equal ground. However, as I mentioned above, there are issues with the device on Windows 10 (and enough with Windows 8.x) that I thought it would be prudent to leave it on the OS it came with…

Form Factor

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As you can see from the photos, the shape of the actual Surface Pro 3 is very different from either the Surface 1/2 or the Surface Pro 1/2. The aspect ratio of the device has changed from 16×9 to 3×2. The 12-inch screen has a resolution of 2160 x 1440. This new screen size and, aspect ratio and resolution should make the inking experience a bit better (see below), as a 16×9 aspect ratio is GREAT for watching movies, but made for a very thin, portrait oriented digital sheet of paper.

But let’s get down to brass tacks here… usability and such.

Let’s get one thing straight first – even though the Surface Pro line comes in a tablet form factor with a magnetized, clickable and easily removable keyboard, they are NOT tablets. They are full blown Windows computers, and are officially categorized as an ultrabook. They are NOT a tablet, and shouldn’t be confused with one.

Tablets are small, easy to use devices with batteries that last for days while watching one feature length film after another without needing to recharge or put it down because it gets too hot to hold in your hands or your lap (I kid about the battery life thing; but you get my point). The Surface Pro line of devices have extended battery life, but they’re not anywhere near as long lived as your iPad, Surface or Surface 2, or any number of popular Android variant tablets. They also have cooling fans in them, as they can get rather warm.

I did not try to make use of either the Surface Pro 1 or Surface Pro 3 as a content consumption device for the above noted battery and heat reasons, but also because until the recent updates where the Xbox Music and Xbox Video services started offering movies and music and such to a larger crowd, Microsoft didn’t really have an ecosystem in order to hock their wares.

I’ve noted a number of times that I’ve been using the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 3 as a digital notepad, taking it from meeting to meeting so that I can take meeting notes with the included pen. I’ve noted one big difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 3 in this regard:

  1. The Surface Pro 1 isn’t Wide Enough – The Surface Pro 1 isn’t wide enough to be a truly effective digital notepad. The way I have OneNote configured, I have notes organized by Year, Month and then individual note, on a number of different tabs, usually organized by subject. Individual notes get indented as a sub-note or sub-sub-note, depending on if they’re organized under a month or a year separator. This requires me to move the right sided, note organizer out a bit from the right edge of the app window so you can read the titles of all the indented notes so you can find what you’re looking for This makes the actual writing area a bit skinnier than it really needs to be on a 16×9 formatted screen.
  2. The Surface Pro 3 isn’t Long Enough – While the Surface Pro 3 is definitely wider than the Surface Pro 1 or Pro 2, it clearly isn’t long enough. While the visible screen is physically longer than that of the Surface Pro 1 or 2, given the 3×2 aspect ratio, its functionally shorter. There’s clearly not enough writing space; and depending on how big you write, and what magnification level you have the screen at, you’re constantly scrolling the used “paper” up the screen, out of the way.

I’m not entirely certain what the right solution is here. The 16×9 aspect ratio of the Surface Pro 1/ 2 is better for watching movies and other video, but I don’t use the device this way. It is better for longer pieces of OneNote “paper;” but it clearly isn’t wide enough. While the 3×2 aspect ratio of the Surface Pro 3 is better for writing, it clearly isn’t long enough.

It’s clear to me that no matter what I do here, I’m going to be scrolling horizontally or vertically a lot. While speaking about this topic to someone, they asked why I just didn’t zoom the screen out a bit. There’s a really good reason for that, and its twofold:

  1. My eye sight is worsening with age, and I can’t see the smaller stuff as well anymore.
  2. The hardware of the Surface 1/ 2 and the Surface 3 clearly show me they don’t handle writing and zooming very well. While you can zoom IN to make the print bigger or zoom OUT to show more white space or ruled lines, digital ink doesn’t do well on zoomed screens smaller than 80% and larger than 120%. (and I’m being generous with the range, here…)

Display and Digitizer

I eluded to much of what I am seeing with the Surface Pro 3’s display, above; but I wanted to talk about the screen itself a bit more.

The screen is gorgeous.

It’s really nice to look at and very easy to read computer generated text on it. What video I have watched on it, in the form of either Facebook or YouTube videos, has been clear, clean, with little to no pixilation or artifacting, even with the low-end Intel i3 processor running at just 1.5gHz and Intel’s Intel 4200 graphics chipset. However, I’m not really trying to push this bad boy too much, either. I know what the hardware can and cannot do, and I’m not trying to do more than just type or use OneNote with it. It’s never going to run Photoshop (I’ve got a high-end MacBook Pro for that) and I’m not going to play movies on it. I’ve got an iPad for that.

However, I did want to spend a bit of time talking about the digitizer layer of the device (and not necessarily the touch screen, per se, unless it plays into this). I’m having an issue on both devices, with both Windows 8.x (SP3) and Windows 10 (SP1). I use both for OneNote and both in portrait orientation while inking. I’ve noticed a big problem with pen accuracy as well as a bit of delay in showing digital ink on the screen after its been drawn.

I’ve tried on many occasions to resolve this with recalibration of the screen on the Surface Pro 1 with Windows 10, to no avail. The digitizer is just… off. This wasn’t like this on Windows 8.x on this device. My hope is that it can be resolved when the Windows 10 Consumer Preview comes out. However, I’m not overly confident that it will be. The issue also presents itself when the device is used in its default landscape orientation; and I’ve noticed that getting the screen to auto-switch orientations – especially after waking from sleep – isn’t always easy.

I’ve noticed the same issue on the Surface Pro 3 while it’s in portrait mode, but isn’t not as advanced there. On the Surface Pro 1, the location of the cursor on the computer image and the location of the digitizer pen on the glass screen can differ by as much as 1/32″ to 1/16″ of an inch. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re writing on the screen and you touch HERE only to have it display THERE, things can look really strange; and it makes writing very difficult. Add to that a very slight, but noticeable delay in digital ink display, and things can get difficult, quickly. This is further complicated by the fact that neither device’s RAM complements can be upgraded.

In the end, I’m not entirely certain what is causing the issue, whether it’s a driver issue, an OS issue or if there’s some kind of hardware issue or defect. However, I’m seeing it on both devices; and the Surface Pro 3 is two years newer, so I’m going to give myself and my expensive, executive travel backpack the benefit of the doubt and say it’s a software issue and not the way I’m handling the device.

Performance

The Surface Pro 3 comes in a few different flavors with a couple different options. In the end, there really are only three different tiers with a couple different variations per tier. You have three processor choices and four storage variations.

surface3

On the low end with 4GB of RAM, you have both 64GB and 128GB storage options. On the high end, you have 8GB of RAM and 256GB and 512GB storage options. Prices vary from $799 USD at the low end to $1950 on the high end; and it’s clear that the device was designed as a direct competitor with the MacBook Air and Microsoft is working hard to get switchers to switch back.

The Surface Pro 1 that I have has a 3rd generation, Intel i5 processor. While the i3 processor in the Surface Pro 3 is at least two years younger than the i5 in the Surface Pro 1, it’s clear that the SP1 has a bit more punch than the Surface Pro 3. It’s understandable, too. Despite the 2 years technology advantage on the SP3, the i5 in the SP1 is still an i5; and my daily usage experience with the SP3 clearly shows that the SP1 has a clear performance advantage at times.

At the end of the day, performance wise, this is a clear toss-up. On one hand, the current Intel i3 vs the two year old Intel i5 will and won’t make a difference unless and until you become processor bound or close to it. IN cases like that, the beefier processor is likely going to win out, despite its age, simply because it supports a turbo mode and the i3 does not. In most other non-processor intensive use, the SP3 is a clear winner as its newer, more efficient and faster components can clearly be seen. The problem is that it’s easy to become processor bound on a machine that only has – and only will have – 4GB of RAM. Neither the storage nor the RAM on the Surface Pro line of ultrabooks is upgradeable.

Conclusion
It’s clear – Microsoft has a winner in their Surface Pro line of ultrabooks. Both the Surface Pro 1 and the Surface Pro 3 are decent performers and will provide most Windows enthusiasts or users with a highly portable, highly usable ultrabook PC. If you’re in the market for a new Windows computer, then you owe it to yourself to give the Surface Pro 3 a long look.

The fact that it can shed its keyboard and also be used as a tablet is an interesting option, but not one that I see getting used very often. The problem is that its ecosystem is still disjointed, especially under Windows 8.x, and I don’t see that getting resolved until after Windows 10 is released, at the earliest. There is some consolidation of environments and operating systems that would give most anyone hope that Microsoft sees how its screwed up on the mobile side of its world, and they’re hoping that Windows 10 will right that part of the ship. How and if that happens is still up in the air and depends a great deal on how the company approaches mobility and content in late 2015 after Windows 10 is released. They have at least nine months to figure this out… if they don’t have a handle on it before June, you can likely count on it being screwed up for a good long time…at least that’s what I think.

The Surface Pro 3 is easier to write on, easier to read and in many ways easier to carry from place to place. This may be in some small part to the Maroo cover that I got with the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft is offering a free cover (up to $50 value) as part of the purchase of every Surface Pro 3 PC.

The Surface Pro 3 comes in many more variations and configurations than the Surface Pro or Surface Pro 2. Its enhanced screen make it easier to read and to work with. Its improved processor (when comparing like versions…) are clear improvements over their previous generations. The device has clearly grown up and come into its own.

If you’re in the market for an ultrabook and you aren’t a Mac, then you need to take a serious look at the Surface Pro 3. The device is light, easy to carry, performs well and runs the software you’re wanting for home or business. Once Microsoft gets the digitizer issues worked out so that the device is more accurate with inking and ink placement, it’s going to be the hit that I always knew it could be.

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