Monthly Archives: January 2015

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 first impressions

My office is replacing its aging fleet of HP 620 notebooks with Surface Pro 3  (256 GB, Intel Core i5) tablets.  Each tablet will be deployed with an optional keyboard cover and docking station.  This is the middle-of-the-road model, which is powerful enough to run most business applications but not suitable for more demanding video or graphic editing tasks.

The Surface Pro works well as a tablet replacement.  Although it’s somewhat clunky compared with Apple’s iPad, the build quality and overall feel are solid.  The built-in kickstand adjusts to a wide range of viewing angles and folds flat when not in use.  The power connector, which attaches magnetically similar to Apple’s MagSafe plug, is a bit awkward to plug in because of its width and the Surface’s beveled edge.  The sharp edges make the Surface Pro less comfortable to hold than an iPad.  The touchscreen is responsive and the display is bright with well saturated colors.

As a notebook replacement, the Surface Pro leaves a lot to be desired. The optional keyboard cover is both ingenious and frustrating.  The cover attaches magnetically.  Unlike the power connector, it attaches without any fuss and is easy to position even in dim light.  It can either lay flat or the back can be raised a bit by folding a section at its back. Both positions have flaws.  The tipped-up position achieves a more natural typing angle, but the not rigid enough keyboard cover flexes considerably.  The flexing disappears when the keyboard is in its flush position but I found it uncomfortable that way for long typing sessions. The trackpad is imprecise and I frequently found myself reaching for the touchscreen instead.

By no means should you call the Surface 3 Pro a laptop!  Trying to use the Surface on your lap is an exercise in discomfort and frustration.  The sharp edge of the kickstand digs into your legs and the keyboard cover flops around like a dead fish.  And you will look like a dork.

A stylus is included with the Surface Pro 3 but it isn’t particularly useful.  It took some considerable head scratching before I figured out that the stylus only works with Microsoft OneNote and a handful of apps.  I don’t see any good reason why it isn’t recognized by the general touchscreen interface.  The Surface doesn’t provide any place to stash the stylus.  If you buy the optional keyboard cover you get a flap of material with a loop to hold the stylus.  It has a self-stick backing that can be affixed to the cover but it looks goofy and would probably rip off after a week of use.

The docking station provides a full set of ports and comes with it’s own power brick.  It positions the tablet at a good viewing angle and has a conveniently located magnetized area along the left side to hold the stylus.  I struggled with inserting and removing the Surface from the docking station until I realized its sides slide in and out.  (Yeah, I know, RTFD, but there aren’t arrows or any other kind of visual cues.  This should be more intuitive.)

Overall, the hardware isn’t half bad.  However, the UI is a hot mess!   The Surface-specific annoyance is that the OS doesn’t automatically adjust when the keyboard cover is affixed or removed.  After disconnecting the cover and heading out without it, there was no way to unlock the tablet because the password field wouldn’t present a “soft keyboard.”  Conversely, I wasn’t able to connect and use the keyboard to finish a document that I started in tablet mode.

Other annoyances are just because the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1.  The GUI is wildly inconsistent and switches between “classic” Windows and the new Metro look depending on what you are doing.  This schizophrenic UI must be baffling to users migrating from Apple platforms!  I’m thinking about disabling Metro entirely so at least I can get a consistent user experience.

Bottom line: the Surface Pro 3 is a good choice if you’re looking for an ultra-mobile computer to leverage existing Microsoft licenses or mainly use Windows-only applications.  And you want the ability to use it as a touchscreen tablet.  Otherwise, the similarly sized 11-inch MacBook Air, which has a “real” keyboard and intuitive OS is worth a look.