Review: Surface Pro 3 isn't really what enterprises want in a laptop

Review: Surface Pro 3 isn't really what enterprises want in a laptop

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is touted as the tablet that can replace your laptop.

There are a lot of good things to say about Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 tablet.

It's lightweight. It's got a big, crisp display. It supports any app Windows 7 does plus all the ones designed just for Windows 8.1. It's got a pen that's nicely integrated with Office apps.

Microsoft says it's the tablet that can replace your laptop, and that's true, although it has some physical shortcomings that laptops don't. For example, it requires a kickstand to prop it up when it's in laptop mode, which introduces some problems of its own.

+ Also on Network World: Surface Pro 3: A great business desktop and a pretty good laptop, too |10 things you need to know about Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 +

With prices ranging from $800 to $1,950 depending on processor and disk space -- and that doesn't include the $130 keyboard -- a Surface Pro 3 is not cheap. The test tablet used for this review had an Intel Core i5 1.9G Hz processor, 8GB RAM with a 256GB SSD hard drive ($1,299 without the keyboard). The top of the line model comes with a Core i7 and 512GB storage, so it can be a powerful machine.

Surface Pro 3 is noticeably lighter than a traditional corporate laptop, so lugging it around is much less of a chore. It weighs 2.42 pounds with the keyboard/cover. And the fact that it's a tablet makes finding documents much simpler on the go because there's no need to set the device down and deal with the keyboard.

But there are tablets with the same size screen that weigh less than two pounds, so Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is a heavy device.

To set the device up as a laptop, users attach the keyboard/cover via a magnetic strip along one long edge and pop out the kickstand that's hinged to the back to prop up the tablet. The kickstand opens to an angle of 24 degrees and can support any angle between that and 150 degrees

The 12-inch screen with a 3-2 aspect ratio is spacious for viewing. A colleague who draws and who tests out as many tablets with styluses as she can says the Surface Pro 3 pen is the most responsive she's tried. The aspect ratio itself was chosen to approximate the dimensions of a sheet of paper when used as a tablet, Microsoft says.

The company says it spent a lot of time making the optical layers as thin as possible so it appears the pen tip actually touches the display surface despite being separated by a layer of glass. The pen itself is very responsive and there's little lag between making a drawing motion and the line appearing on the display. It's possible to outrun the pen by moving it very fast, but for normal writing and drawing, it's quite good.

The pen syncs with the tablet so when it comes in range fingertip touch turns off and the screen responds only to the pen. The pen can also turn on a sleeping Surface Pro 3, opening it up just to a OneNote page without allowing access to anything else in the device. So if users have to make a quick note, they just pull out the pen, and place it on the screen. The device will automatically set up a place to receive and store the notes.

It's easy -- and expensive ($50) -- to lose the pen. There's no dock for it on the tablet, although the docking station (sold separately for $200) does have a magnetic end where you can stick the pen if you're using the device as a desktop. Also the keyboard comes with a fabric loop that adheres to the edge that the pen can be slid into for use on the go. The loop has a kluge feeling to it and is less than ideal, so users will just have to be careful with the pen. It clips quite nicely to a shirt pocket and can tuck inside a case that can be bought separately.

The cover includes a full-size keyboard with spring-loaded keys that travel less distance up and down than keys on full desktop and most laptop keyboards. The delicate touch takes a little getting used to but has the potential to support similar typing speeds attainable on more traditional keyboards.

The keyboard/cover is .2 inches thick and when held at the ends and twisted, it flexes. This bendability can be magnified if the device is placed on the thighs for use as a laptop.

To address this problem, the keyboard can either lie flat on the table or raised at an angle. There's an extra hinge on it that allows it to stick to the tablet not only at the edge but also on the lower bezel. This stiffens up the connection and makes the device more stable when used on a lap. When configured in lap-friendly mode and set on a tabletop, the keyboard springs up and down a bit, making the single-attachment mode more desirable.

While the magnets holding the tablet and keyboard together are strong, the keyboard is detachable and so is susceptible to being lost or stolen. Keyboard colors are purple, red, cyan and black. The keyboard used in the test was cyan, a bright aqua blue that shows grime that collects on its nappy surface. The feel of the cover isn't as sturdy as that of a laptop or clamshell, particularly the edges.

They overhang the edges of the tablet by about a sixteenth of an inch, and that sixteenth is made of the soft, flexible material that overlays the keyboard mechanics. It feels that it would possibly wear quickly over time with heavy use.

The screen itself has 2160 x 1440 resolution, so it's definitely high-def. It's bright and sharp in a range of lighting conditions and can dim to conserve power when the tablet's not plugged in.

The touchscreen invites a hybrid use of keyboard and touch. Scrolling through emails in Outlook, for example, with the icons for delete, reply, up and down all thumbable on the right side became a touch habit even when using the tablet with the keyboard. The alternative of using the keyboard and its touchpad to perform the same functions seems clumsy by comparison.

The touchpad is pretty responsive to single-finger touch to move the cursor and two-finger touch to zoom in and out. Right and left clicks - done by pressing the right and left corners of the touchpad nearest the user - are very responsive.

A separate docking station is available for $200, and is worth it for business use where Surface Pro 3 is used as a corporate desktop. It allows connecting to Ethernet networks, and adds a number of extra USB ports not available on the device itself.

The downside of the docking station is that it fixes the screen at the same immovable angle as the initial version of Surface device. That fixed angle was deemed a problem that Microsoft acted on with Surface Pro 3. The dock undoes that improvement.

A good solution is to connect an external monitor, keyboard and mouse to the dock. It may require a monitor upgrade if users want the touch features of the tablet, although with Windows 8.1 in desktop mode, it's not much of a problem to forego touch.

There was one hiccup during the test. Microsoft had to send a replacement loaner keyboard when the first one stopped working with the tablet. The keyboard would work with a first-generation Surface, and the first-generation Surface keyboard would work with the Surface Pro 3 tablet, but the Surface Pro 3 keyboard and tablet wouldn't' work together. The replacement worked fine.

The bottom line for enterprises is that Surface Pro 3 works well as a desktop replacement when combined with a docking station and external monitor, mouse and keyboard. It's a good, if heavy, Windows tablet if used just as a tablet.

Surface Pro 3 might be the machine for select workers -- those who move around and need a mobile device on which they can type but who also need a tablet for specific chores. They may be carrying around both a laptop and a tablet at the moment, so Surface Pro 3 would lighten their load. But if they don't have a specific need for a tablet, a laptop would be a better fit.

Surface Pro 3 works OK as a laptop, but laptops are better laptops.

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