The latest version of Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet represents the company's most compelling alternative to Apple. But how does it fit into corporate IT?
The big change Microsoft has made to the Surface is in screen dimensions and weight.
Its predecessor, the Surface Pro 2, measures 275 x 173 x 13.5mm and weighs 900g; the Surface Pro 3 is slightly larger but thinner at 292.1 x 201.4 x 9.1mm and is 100g lighter at 800g.
It has been on display at top people's store Harrods since the start of August, demonstrating Microsoft's ambition to appeal to the well-heeled consumer who will not be deterred by the £1,630 price tag for the top-of-the-range Intel Core i7-powered version.
Incidentally, Microsoft has designed the new device around the A4 paper size, which shows its intentions to at least give the user the impression that the Surface Pro 3 feels like a thin A4 folder. More on this later, but first let's look at the technical specifications.
The technical spec
In terms of screen resolution, the Surface Pro 3 uses a 12in ClearType full HD plus display with a resolution of 2,160 x 1,440 and an aspect ratio of 3:2. This compares with its older Surface 2 sibling, which has a 10.6in ClearType 1,920 x 1,080 full HD display with an aspect ratio of 16:9.
Microsoft regards the aspect ratio change as significant. Whereas the Surface Pro 2’s screen was primarily designed to view HD movies in 16:9 format, the Surface Pro 3 uses a more work-friendly 3:2 format.
Having worked closely with Adobe to optimise PhotoShop for the Surface Pro 3’s touch user interface, Microsoft is also trying to target the creative industries, where the Apple Mac has been the machine of choice.
Surface Pro 3:
Pluses and minuses
+ Surface Pen and OneNote are great for taking notes
+ A4 form factor and 800g weight make it easy to carry and hold
+ Integrated stand, cover and keyboard, like Surface Pro 2
- Nine hours of battery life may not be sufficient, especially when using hungry applications
- Keyboard is noisy
- Core i5 version is pricier than 15in enterprise laptops with similar specification
Graphics performance is bog standard Intel HD, so the Surface Pro 3 will not compete with Nvidia-equipped MacBook Pros, HP’s ZBook mobile workstation or Dell’s 17in M6700, all of which cost upward of £2,000 depending on the graphics card fitted.
That said, the Apple, Dell and HP devices are laptops, while the Surface Pro 3, like its predecessor, has a lovely, if somewhat noisy, detachable keyboard. Once removed, the Surface Pro 3 becomes an excellent tablet computer.
Among the neatest features Microsoft showed me when I first saw the Surface Pro 3 was how well the Surface Pen worked with OneNote for note-taking. And it seems to work remarkably well as a note-taking device, whether you use the on-screen keyboard or OneNote’s handwriting recognition. This is why a form factor similar to an A4 pad makes sense. And it is easy to see how someone could run a form-based business application on the Surface Pro 3.
A tablet for laptop users
When Microsoft first introduced the Surface Pro, it was at a time when former CEO Steve Ballmer wanted Microsoft to emulate Apple’s success with proprietary hardware locked to its software. Microsoft wanted to show the world Windows 8 and Microsoft Live services tightly integrated on the Surface Pro.
Personally, I am not a big fan of Windows 8. In fact, I recently swapped Windows 8 Pro for Windows 7 to release the full potential of my home laptop because I could not get used to the operating system’s annoying habit of switching willy-nilly between running applications when I used the touchpad.
But although I don’t like Windows 8, the Surface Pro 3 is a great device. As a laptop, the keyboard, integrated stand and screen are easy to use.
I had no issues using Word and the built-in PDF reader to create documents and read Acrobat files. In fact, as with all touchscreen devices, navigating a document by touching the screen is far quicker than using a mouse.
Using it as a tablet, I watched NetFlix and can report that HD movie playback was flawless. I can also see the benefits of using OneNote with the Surface Pen in the way Microsoft demonstrated.
Starting at £639 for the Core i3 version, the Surface Pro 3 is priced to compete with similarly specified MacBook Pro laptops. The version Microsoft believes will be its most popular version is the £849 Core i5, with 128Gbyte SSD and 4GB of RAM. This particular model will appeal to consumers who want a sleek, powerful laptop for basic office productivity, email, web and being able to watch movies, and who are not particularly concerned about the operating system.
Good for desktop support?
From an IT pro perspective, the Surface Pro answers a number of key issues – in particular, it is costly to support more than one device in the enterprise. While the Surface Pro 3 is heavier and the i5 version is nearly £400 more expensive than the 469g iPad Air, a user does not need a separate laptop to run corporate applications. There is also no need for additional MDM licences and a support contract for iOS.
All in all, I can recommend the Surface Pro 3 as a corporate laptop replacement. At 800g, it is significantly lighter than the 1.5kg Lenovo X1 Carbon that I currently use – but that device has a 14in screen and a full-size keyboard.
If I had an Android or Apple tablet, I would still need to carry the laptop to get work done, so, with one less device to carry, the weight saving is actually substantial. And although the claimed nine hours of battery life is not quite a full day, it is substantially more than the five or so hours of running time a laptop generally gives in low-power mode.
Microsoft originally released the Surface Pro as a device to replace both a tablet and a laptop. I don’t think the Surface Pro 2 achieved this, but the Surface Pro 3 certainly has the potential to replace my laptop and my tablet.