As promised in a previous blog post, I’ve done some road testing (planes, trains and automobiles) with Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 3. The only way for me to do this right was to use the device as my main computing device. So I finally got my Surface on the company network, installed Symantec Endpoint Protection, Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, Box.com and I was up and running in no time.

Actually, I probably spent more time downloading software, syncing docs and installing Windows and Office updates than actually doing any setup/customization work. But that was expected since it was a brand new machine.

Now, I have to be honest, I’m primarily a Mac user. I had been using Apple 10.10 Yosemite Beta for almost a full month (along with iOS 8 Beta) on iPad Air, before switching to Windows 8.1 on the Surface Pro 3, so my expectations are slightly jaded to say the least. Now that you know where I’m coming from, I’ll continue with my review.

The Build

When I did my unboxing (no, I didn’t do an unboxing video) and held it in my hands, it felt solid. I was definitely excited to see the craftsmanship of this device. It felt clean, reliable and was shockingly light for its size.  As soon as I turned it on, the high resolution screen beamed every pixel perfectly from its 12-inch display.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, I was one of the first guinea pigs with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition on Compaq’s tc1000, so I had this nightmare in the back of my head which kept convincing me this thing would be painfully slow – but I was wrong. The Surface Pro 3 is lightning fast, and even after loading a ton of apps, applications, A/V, the full Adobe Creative Cloud, nothing seems to bog it down.

In fact, now that I’ve been using it for a little over three weeks, I have yet to notice any kind of lag, which is a first for me on a Windows notebook. (Keep in mind, my last Windows notebook was a ThinkPad T61p, 4-5 years ago). Maybe it’s the SSD, the Intel i5 Haswell or maybe it’s just that Microsoft has done an amazing job tuning Windows 8.1 for the Surface. Not sure what it is, but it makes a huge difference.

The Keyboard

Okay, I’ll admit it, the keyboard takes a little getting used to, especially since I’m used to typing on a chiclet-style MacBook keyboard. But after a couple days, you get used to it, like anything else.  Now, it does seem a bit loud, but it isn’t that bad.

The good news is that the keyboard, with the magnetic latch angle, is easy to type on, as long as you lay it on a hard surface.  However, like most people, I do find myself in ‘couch potato’ mode a lot with my laptop on, well, my lap.  This still presents the biggest challenge to the Surface, because you have to pivot the kickstand as well as the keyboard on your legs, and the angle never gets right or comfortable. If anything, it is a bit awkward.

Now, one could argue this isn’t a traditional notebook (and it isn’t) and you could always just use a lap desk to provide a better surface to type on. And most people have a lap desk for their couch potato moments anyway. (I have a couple Belkin lap desks that I keep around the house).

photo 1 (1)

The Notelet

While the Surface Pro 3 was originally targeted as an alternative to the iPad, it has since moved up – as an alternative to the MacBook Air.  Why?  Because it has become considerably more powerful and light over the last 24 months.

While this seems like comparing apples and oranges (probably not the best choice of words), it seems to make sense from a form factor and weight perspective.  There is also a lot of marketing focus highlighting the Surface as a notebook replacement, and that’s why I’m calling it a notelet.  It’s not exactly a notebook, since all the weight of this device is in the screen (completely opposite from a traditional notebook).  But then again, it does run full blown Windows, so it’s not exactly a tablet either.

This is where most users will have their hang ups.  It makes a compelling argument for a new type of device.  One we’ve never really considered before (beside Surface 1 and 2).  But trust me, this is definitely a notebook with the tablet look and feel, which is why I call it a notelet.  Its soul is definitely a notebook, there is no doubt about it – there is no compromise in size, speed, weight, resolution, space, etc.  Yet it just so happens to have a touchscreen.

As a tablet, while the screen is dazzling and light for its size, I did find it hard to hold while in couch potato mode – at 1.7 pounds, it’s a bit heavy to hold for an extended period of time.  I’d also argue that for casual reading, it’s a large screen in your hands and can be distracting.

But if you have it propped up against something to watch Netflix or a TED Talk, it’s pretty awesome.  However let’s face it, those even considering a Surface Pro 3 probably want to use it for some serious work or content creation, not watching movies and TV shows.  So let me iterate again – this is more of a notebook than a tablet, but it can function as one if you need it. 

Touch

When you first start using the Surface, you may think of it as an upside down notebook.  The weight is all in the back/screen, and the bottom is really light and detachable.  It is something you eventually get used to.  But I finally realized that this design was created mostly to accentuate the touch interface.

As an example, I’ve found myself using touch more every day, and noticed that it was remarkably stable.  This isn’t like most touchscreen convertible notebooks, because the weight is literally all in the display.  This is what makes the design so brilliant for touch.  This also enhances the ease of writing, drawing diagrams, etc. – it is very precise and doesn’t wobble all over the place.

Surface Pen

I really liked the pen when I first got a hold of the Surface Pro 3 demo I blogged about a few weeks ago.  But being able to use it on a daily basis really does make it the best digitizer pen I’ve ever used.

The surprise feature I didn’t know about was the ‘double-click to screen capture’ button.  This is truly awesome.  I take a ton of screen captures.  The ability to do this really fast, followed by the ability to crop it on the fly, save it to OneNote and then email makes it a much easier workflow for me.  Most people who do screen captures will love this feature.

The only little thing I’m not a huge fan of is the sticky holder for the pen, which technically you can place anywhere. I have it on the left side of the keyboard bottom and you have to finesse it a bit to get it in and out.  I would have rather had a dedicated holder insider the Surface Pro 3 itself, but I get the space premium issue.  I’ve also found myself accidentally clicking buttons trying to get it in and out of the holder.  Easy fix – just don’t use the holder.

As a side note, my first intuition was to turn the pen upside down and use the eraser to erase some inking (probably thinking of the Pencil by FiftyThree, the makers of Paper), just like you would with a No. 2 pencil. Then I realized it was the gateway to OneNote.  There are two buttons on the side – the bottom to erase and the top one to select.  This actually makes a lot more sense since you aren’t wasting time turning the pen upside down to erase – good design sense from the Microsoft team.   Also, as you probably already know, single-clicking the top button opens OneNote, even if your notebook is locked, which is awesome.  Keep in mind that it doesn’t give you access to all your notes, just lets you create and save a new note. 

Touchpad

In general, I’m guessing most people will still want to reach for their mouse.  While the touchpad is certainly larger than on the previous Surface tablets, I’m used to glass touchpads four-times the size.  So it’s not really a fair comparison.  Again, space is a premium, and I think Microsoft chose well – bigger keys and a smaller touchpad.

Frankly, I find myself interacting with the touchscreen way more than actually using the touchpad, so that’s a good compromise.  I’m waiting to get my Surface Pro 3 Docking Station.  And I’m sure my experience will be different after I have more devices docked in a desktop mode (with a mouse or a larger touchpad).

Kickstand

This is really one of the best kickstand implementations I have ever seen.  It is very sturdy, and works at almost every possible angle.  If you want a Surface and are worried about the kickstand, this is the least of your worries.  It works great and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Battery

No big surprise here.  I was able to get 5-7 hours multiple times during the week so far. Not necessarily the best battery life for a tablet, but for the form factor and ‘full’ windows, it was good enough for me.  I would expect to see some firmware updates and tweaking to get some more runtime out of this.

Wireless Display Connectivity

Having wireless display technology built-in was a surprise feature I didn’t know about.  I recently visited Intel’s Executive Briefing Center in Santa Clara, when I noticed I was able to connect seamlessly with a single click to a giant screen.  I’m definitely going to want to retrofit some existing conference rooms with WiDi receivers when I get back to the office.

Wireless Connectivity

Now, there have been some reported Wi-Fi issues that have been fixed with a couple driver and firmware updates.  Frankly, I never noticed the Wi-Fi issues but did implement all the updates.  So I’m guessing some of the early glitches have been fixed.  Just make sure you update the firmware and do all Windows updates when you unbox it for the first time.

Flexibility on the Plane

While i was able to use the kickstand and get the keyboard to fit on my tray, it was a bit tricky as you can see from the picture below.  Trays, in general, don’t have great depth, so an inch of the bottom of the keyboard hangs off the bottom.  Now, on these new United flights, the tray actually has a lip at the end, which prevents the kickstand from falling off and dropping the surface to your knees or feet, depending on how much legroom you have.  If you do plan on using the kickstand on a tray, just make sure the tray has a lip or your Surface could fall through the cracks.

photo 2

Final Thoughts

For folks that use Windows on a daily basis, and especially if you can use the touch features and inking, this is a great notebook disguised in the body of a tablet.  It really is an awesome notelet.  I think we’re going to see a lot more exciting hardware like this from Microsoft and their OEM partners and as they say, the best is yet to come. Read more about the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and see if it can really replace your notebook.

2 thoughts on “Microsoft Surface Pro 3: The “Notelet” that’s Bigger, Brighter and Bolder

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