We don’t typically do consumer device reviews here, but I recently bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to replace my MacBook Pro. After over a month of continuous use, I thought it would be helpful to give a short review from the perspective of an engineer. Most reviews for tablets and mobile computers don’t tend to focus on the aspects that I care about (SolidWorks, development, etc.), so here’s my review.
I am a mechanical engineer who spends a majority of my time using a computer for work. I work mostly in product development and use a variety of software tools from simple word processing to computer aided design and software IDEs. Before I got the Surface Pro 3, I used a PC at work and a Mac and iPad at home. I’m always open to trying other platforms and constantly look for tech that can combine these devices. I bought a Mac just over 2 years ago because I was intrigued by the OS design and Apple reliability after my last PC frustratingly died.
I chose the mid-range configuration of the Surface Pro 3: Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and a 256 GB hard drive. I feel like it is the right mix of performance and price. The Corei7 is just too expensive for a laptop (and not available yet). I feel like 4GB is not enough ram for the software that I plan to run, such as SolidWorks, so I wanted 8GB.
The Surface Pro 3 works fine in my lap. I’ve been able to comfortable use it in the typical ways: in a chair, reclined on a couch, and a regular desk. When using it on my lap I can really notice the difference between my 15” MacBook. The MacBook has a large aluminum area to rest your hands as you type, but the Surface is incredibly light which more than makes up for it. The MacBook seems like a giant brick compared to this thing. The Surface Pro 3 is insanely light for a laptop or a tablet.
Design and Build
The Surface Pro 3 is impressively built and very solid. I’m perplexed how a full laptop fits into such a shallow and light device. Sometimes I’ll double check my bag to make sure it is in there after I pick it up. At the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 reveal event, the presenter purposely dropped it on the stage just to show everyone that it could withstand a drop unscathed. I’m not going to do the same demo to prove it’s durability but it “feels” like it could take a drop or two.
The back hinge is sturdy and well thought out. It snaps closed completely flush and rotates out with ease. To use it as a laptop, it’s a two hand operation with one on the surface and one on the stand. Compared to using a laptop, there is an extra step in there. You first open the keyboard and then adjust the back stand instead of just open the screen.
The trackpad is “ok”. It isn’t anywhere as good as the trackpad on the MacBook Pro. It is responsive but relatively small compared to what I’m used to. I’ve only briefly used the previous generation Surface trackpads so I can’t compare to them to this version. The sensitivity is generally pretty good. There is a hardware “click” for the track pad but it is at the bottom, so you can’t “click” it if your finger is on the top third. Tapping to click works well.
The two finger scroll is adequate. Sometimes it won’t register the first time that I try to scroll in a program, then it will kick in a work just fine. Once or twice the two finger scrolling wouldn’t work at all and I had to reboot my machine before this functionality came back.
In general, the trackpad is good enough. However, the trackpad is only one of many ways to interact with the device. I find that I use the pen and touchscreen a majority of the time. My Macbook Pro doesn’t have a touch screen or pen input to fall back on.
The pen is a unique device and is a real selling point in my opinion. You just have to use it to understand how much of a benefit it is for this device. The accuracy is phenomenal and it can sense different points of pressure. The response rate of the pen quick and I hardly notice any lag as I write.
I’ve tried using a “virtual notebook” workflow before with and iPad and countless different apps and accessories. The idea is that I could get by without using paper at all and my handwritten notes would be directly digitized. I could never get this workflow to actually work, I always felt like I was writing with a crayon instead of a pen. The Microsoft pen has a rubber pointed tip that, when travelling across the screen, emulates the friction of a pencil/paper quite well. It works so well that my handwriting on the Surface looks just like my handwriting in my moleskin. It’s actually better, since my Moleskin doesn’t have an “undo” button. I don’t hear many people talk about the pen input on the surface, but I’m unsure why because it is phenomenal. It’s almost like it is sold as a bonus on top of the other main features of the laptop.
The pen is very well integrated into Microsoft Office. You can quickly markup documents by simply writing on the screen. I used to markup Office documents by saving them as a PDF, transfer the file to the iPad, open it in an app, make edits, then transfer the file back to the PC. Now I can just directly modify the original document in Word. These markings are stored as independent pictures with the document and are pretty well anchored so that they will stay in place if you add lines above and below the drawing. If you circle a word and modify the sentence, the circle isn’t anchored to the word, just the line.
There are some quirky things that I have noticed when trying to use the pen. The pen input exist somewhere between the mouse and touchscreen. It doesn’t always interface the way that I would expect. For example, on the Home screen you can use your finger to swipe from side to side. Using the pen to swipe does nothing. In Microsoft Word, touching the pen to the screen is the same as clicking and dragging the mouse to select text and can’t be used for navigation.
As far as where to put the pen when not in use, you have a few options. When using the Surface, you can magnetically attach the pen to the side of the screen. This is useful when using the Surface in your lap and there is no table to set it on. The fit is a bit loose and you shouldn’t put it there when transporting the laptop around. The Surface Pro 3 comes with a little pen loop that has an adhesive side to stick to your keyboard wherever you please. The loop is attached to the keyboard via an adhesive tape. The bond between the loop and keyboard is very flimsy and hase come off several times in my laptop bag. I just don’t trust it enough to keep my $50 pen attached so I’ve stopped using it. When I fold up my Surface, I clip the pen to the keyboard crease similar to a notebook. This works very well.
A neat trick that I discovered is that if you place the pen on the screen, the Surface will not go to sleep. This is useful when you don’t want to interrupt a process like downloading a big file, updating your SVN repo, or installing large software when you are not using the device.
I like the keyboard. The “clickiness” and key travel is great. It’s actually a joy to type on. The keys are backlit so you can use them in low light. It is very thin and very light and magnetically attaches to the Surface in two locations: at the bottom and on the lower front surface. These two attachment points hold the keyboard at a slight angle that both improves the typing comfort and sturdies the surface while in your lap.
Closing the cover puts the system to sleep just like an iPad. However, opening it does not. You will need to hit a button the keyboard, the start button, or the power button to wake it up.
Sometimes my fingers will brush over the trackpad while I type and move the cursor to some random area on the screen. This seems to happen less and less as I get used to it.
Oddly, even with the keyboard attached, the onscreen keyboard will pop up when I click on text fields on webpages in the Google Chrome browser. This isn’t an issue with the keyboard itself, but more of a Chrome software issue. Internet Explorer does not have the same issue.
The touchscreen is very responsive and I use it quite a bit. It is great when using software optimized for touch interface. It’s not so great when using software that isn’t. Office has a pretty good touch interaction component. Scrolling with your finger is very smooth, selecting text is easy, and buttons are big enough to hit with your finger. However, in Evernote, I can’t vertically scroll through a note with my finger. I must use the slider bar which is very small on such a high res screen.
The screen is gorgeous and crisp. The 12” 3:2 ratio is a great fit for windows. It makes my MacBook pro look terrible (it was a 2012 non-retina version). Even up close it is hard to see individual “pixels”.
Such high resolution on a 12” screen has its drawbacks though. The docked icons are pretty small. Menu items are small, and text is small on most desktop apps. Not too small to see and use a mouse to click, but hard to click with a finger.
When using Solidworks, some of the menu items don’t fit and trail off the text box. This is pretty rare but I bet the problem gets even worse at even higher resolutions.
I paired the surface with my favorite Bluetooth mouse, the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse. It works great but I only occasionally take it out of my bag with this PC. When I’m typing on my lap a mouse would only get in the way. When I use the surface on a desk, the option of touchscreen, trackpad, or pen is adequate to do just about anything. I really only use it for 3D CAD work, Visual Studio, or when I need a middle mouse button.
I don’t have any quantitative data here to illustrate how good/bad the battery life is. All that I can say is that I don’t really worry about the state of the battery, which should speak volumes about its longevity. It will easily last an entire workday for my normal day-to-day workflow. If I use SolidWorks or watched movies for 5 hours straight, I’d expect the batter to crash a lot sooner. If you charge it at night, you can expect to use it throughout the day without worry.
The surface pro 3 provides great sound quality. I didn’t originally plan to mention sound quality in this review but it is very impressive. The speakers are along the outer edge of the bezel and face you directly. They are very small and hardly noticeable, but the stereo sound that you get is noticeably better than my iPad that has the speakers at the bottom and project the sound to the side of the screen.
Productivity on Tablets and PCs
I like, not love, the mac interface. The fluidity of the animations, the built in unix command line, and the general “prettiness” is really great. Apple hardware is also top notch. But, there simply isn’t enough productivity software to make it my only machine. With my MacBook, I resorted to using Bootcamp with windows AND parallels to access the Bootcamp from MacOS. This works, just not very well. Having to reboot the machine to do something in Windows when you are running Mac OSX, and vice-versa, is a real pain. Using Parallels is an OK solution, but the performance is all over the place and trying to connect non-standard USB devices to the Windows virtual machine was hit-or-miss. Office for Mac is terrible so would always have to switch back to Windows to use it. Bottom line is that I just can’t use the Mac OS for much at all and I have spent too many hours and methods trying to make it as productive as a PC.
I like my iPad, a lot. I want it to be more than it is. I use it for reading, listening, watching, and some gaming – but noting productive. I have tried multiple methods to try and make my iPad my 80% machine. I have bought keyboards, used remote PC software, and tried various Office-like apps. The iPad just isn’t made for productivity. I’d like to take notes on it but the numerous stylus pens that I have tried in the past just end up feeling and looking like I wrote things with a big crayon. It was more trouble than it was worth and I would always eventually go back to old fashioned pen and paper.
An all-in-one device is definitely appealing. I can use the “tablet” style apps for consumption and switch over to the desktop to do anything else.
Here is an example:
I was wondering if renting movies on Redbox was actually cheaper than renting digitally. Sure the movies are only $1.29 a day to rent, but my wife and I rarely remember to return them the next day. Renting movies through the Xbox or iTunes is usually around $4-6.
With the Surface, I pull up mint in chrome, filter all transactions with the word “Redbox” in them, export to csv, open in excel and average all of the data. Boom, we spend an average of $5.75 per Redbox rental.
With the iPad, I pull up the mint app, filter all transactions with the word “Redbox” in them. There is not option to export them, but if there was, what would I export it to? I can’t use the Safari browser to view the Mint Website because it requires Adobe Flash support. No luck.
App-Style Software on the Surface
Most of the entertainment apps that I use on the iPad are available on the Surface in one form or another. There are 1st party apps for Kindle, Audible, Flipboard and Evernote that have both Modern UI and regular Desktop versions. The Evernote Touch app isn’t worth using. The IE browser is just fine. I connected my Gmail account to the Mail app and it is ok (no archive button). There are no first Party apps for Feedly or Pocket but I found that 3rd party apps “Reediy” and “Pouch” work just fine. As for Games, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a selection on the Windows Store when compared to the Apple App Store. But, this is a full Windows PC and you can run pretty much any game available for the Windows platform, they just won’t be optimized for the touchscreen.
Reediy, a Feedly client, on the Suface Pro 3
One of the biggest issues facing windows 8.1 “Modern-UI” is the lack of apps. These apps are not essential, and that is part of the problem. If there is not an app for the service that you use, or the app isn’t nice to use – you can always use the full featured browser or the desktop version of the software instead. A great example of this is Evernote. I use Evernote continuously and rely on it for keeping ideas, references, useful data, TO-DO lists, etc. The “touch” version of the Evernote app is terrible. However, I can always use the desktop version or access Evernote through a web browser. I think that this flexibility removes the necessity of the touchscreen version of the apps which is a shame. I like using Evernote on my iPad – it’s quick, full featured, and a great design. If they made an equivalent app in the Windows store, I’d use it.
The Browser Situation
There are two pre-installed versions of Internet Explorer on the Surface – the Modern-UI touch version and the traditional Desktop version. The touch version is very nicely designed and optimized for direct screen interaction. You can even have IE windows side by side open simultaneously.
Links that are clicked in Modern-UI apps will open the Modern-UI version of IE and links clicked while running desktop apps will open the desktop version of IE. If another browser, such as Chrome, is selected as the default browser, all links are opened in that browser AND the modern-IU IE link is nowhere to be found (the icon is removed). This is confusing and, unfortunately, there aren’t any alternatives to IE that work both in the Tablet and Desktop space.
I hardly notice any slowness even when many of my applications are running at once. There is a fan on the CPU and it will kick in when you have a bunch of software running, are churning away with CAD work or playing games. Most of the time I don’t notice any slowdown during my regular daily use. That really says a lot because I switch between tasks very regularly and run many things at once.
I can successfully run the CAD software, SolidWorks, on the Surface. Don’t expect to turn on every feature to maximize image quality but it runs very smoothly. I use a fully loaded engineering machine at work that can render anything you throw at it so I use it for CAD work. I tried using Remote Desktop to use my main PC from the Surface and it worked very well.
Just for the heck of it, I installed Steam and downloaded Civilization 5 and XCOM:Enemy Unknown.
Civ 5 has a touch interface that you can choose when starting the game. The graphics look great and everything ran smoothly in the quick few turns that I took. I’m guessing that a long game on a large map may bring this computer to its knees but I don’t think I’ll ever try it. XCOM ran well on low-medium settings and the touch interface was ok.
There are quite a bit of quirky issues with the Surface and Windows 8.1, most of which can likely be solved via software updates.
When I want to scroll through my Feedly or Twitter feed and save articles to Pocket – I can completely be absorbed into the tablet-like world, seeing nothing but the app that I am currently running. Alternatively, I can basically do anything that I want by switching back to the other universe, the desktop, where I can actually get things done.
If I pair a Bluetooth mouse with the surface I have 4 different methods on how to interact with the PC – track-pad, mouse, pen, and touchscreen. This might seems excessive, but I absolutely love the flexibility. With the MacBook I have 2 (with a mouse), with the iPad just 1.
This is a laptop first and a tablet second. It’s a great laptop and a pretty good tablet. The trade-off on the tablet side is worth not needing an additional device. I haven’t gotten rid of my iPad, but I definitely use it a lot less.
The Surface does a great job at combining the tablet world and the desktop world. It’s definitely not perfect but I believe it’s absolutely worth it. I’ll never go back to a non-touchscreen laptop.