Surface Pro 3

Back in September I bought a Surface Pro 3 as they were being released in the UK. The first dilemma was choosing the device. I wanted one powerful enough not to feel sluggish, but the price escalation was quite significant so I had to choose well.

My choice: the mid-range i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB disk. For a general purpose work device, this appears to have been the perfect choice.

There are plenty of reviews online, describing the pros and cons of the device. Some daft sods have even pulled it apart to see what’s inside. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s cover the basics.

The Screen

The screen is lovely. It’s nice and sharp, with a high-density screen meaning fonts look good. It’s possible to adjust the resolution and fit more on the screen, but I found the touch screen (which is useful) quickly loses its appeal as your fat finger becomes more of a clumsy liability than a helpful pointer.

At the default settings, I get an effective screen size of 1440×960, which is a reasonable workspace.

I haven’t yet hooked up a monitor (you need to go buy extras to convert from their diddy DisplayPort to something compatible with most monitors). Supposedly this device could run with a huge 4K screen, so the options are there if you need more ‘real estate’.

The screen is bright. I’ve used it outside in September sun with few problems. Yes, it’s reflective but at its maximum setting the screen easily outshines most local light sources.

I’ve found mine has a small but irritating brightness wobble. I’m not sure if this is by design (adaptive lighting and whatnot) but it’s distracting and I find myself turning up the brightness to avoid its effects.

The Disk

My business usually revolves around Word, Excel and online databases, so my disk requirements aren’t huge. If you’ve a lot of photos or video you probably ought to consider an external disk or online options. The Surface Pro has a slot for MicroSD cards but I haven’t had a reason to use this yet. It might give a helpful capacity boost but I’m not aware SD cards are known for their speed.

Many cloud services like Dropbox will dump all your files on the device when you add a new computer, which annoyingly eats up space unless you selectively choose to ignore some folders. Microsoft’s OneDrive offers online-only sync, which seems eminently more sensible on portable devices. Roughly speaking, your files appear but don’t take up any space until you choose to open them or keep them offline. It’s a sensible option and makes a big difference on these devices.

If you’re sensible you ought to have no problems with a smaller disk, but individual requirements will clearly matter. I’m still evaluating cloud services but will likely settle on one which offers online-only modes to save space.

The Keyboard

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. I really resent paying extra for the keyboard. It’s £100-odd on top of an already premium device. The problem is that it’s pretty well necessary to make the most of the Surface Pro.

I spent about two weeks with the device before acknowledging I would need to spend out more. WIthout the Type Cover Keyboard designed for the Pro you’re left with two choices: use a third-party USB/bluetooth keyboard or use the on-screen one. The former comes with the obvious obligation to carry yet another device. The latter is straightforwardly annoying, with the on-screen keyboard taking nearly half of the screen. Windows becomes letterbox-sized and is basically unusable.

I started with the on-screen keyboard but couldn’t get anything done without constantly scrolling. I moved to a bluetooth keyboard but became frustrated with the device overhead. So, I took the plunge and bought the Type Cover.

Skeptical at first, I rather like the keyboard. I’m a decent touch typist and can rattle out a document nearly as quickly as I can at home. The keyboard is comfortable enough and the keys feel well laid out. Usual ergonomics apply: as a flat laptop-style keyboard this is not something you want to use for hours on end, but it’s certainly effective and productive.

The keyboard has a backlight which is handy if you enjoy typing in darkness. The function keys are a little frustrating. Home, End, etc. are shared with function keys, so a secondary Fn keypress needs to be used to switch from one to the other. Annoying, but it’s something I’m getting steadily accustomed to – and seems to be fairly common nowadays anyway.

The touchpad is okay. I’ve found mine a little flimsy – enough to wonder if it’s a defect – but reviews elsewhere have made similar comments and the thing works. Realistically as more programs, web sites and the OS are gearing up for touch screens I find myself increasingly tapping on the screen to get something done, rather than move the cursor about. It saves time and works well.

The keyboard is magnetically attached, which is fun to snap on and off – and convenient if I’m working on something which doesn’t need it. Once attached it folds over the screen and offers some protection when the device is being carried about.

The Pen

As a fan of OneNote and an idle doodler, I use my pen quite a lot. It’s responsive, accurate and comfortable to use. My handwriting is usually recognisable but since I type faster than I write, it’s rarely put to the test. The Surface Pro has been an impressive companion at meetings and conferences, where I can quickly wake it up, jot some notes and shut it off again. OneNote’s workflow for new notes can be a little cumbersome but the hardware is in place.


I’ve managed day trips without my charger, firing it up at the airport at 6am, working through a conference and with still enough juice to see me through the return. This is with a reasonably conservative use and dimmer screen. If I’m working remotely at a desk I’ll take my charger for assurance but as-is the battery is quite capable of seeing me through most days.

Unlike my laptop, I get no indication of battery life remaining. This is supposedly to do with Microsoft’s smart standby technology, which I’ve mixed feelings about. The idea is that the device continues to run in a low-power mode, receiving emails and keeping itself ticking over – like a phone. In reality, my phone already fulfills the notification role and on a few disappointing occasions I’ve opened the Surface to discover the whole thing had failed to fall asleep and the battery nearly depleted.

As a result, I’ve now taken to shutting the device down completely when I’m likely to leave it for an hour or more. This is – I suspect – a problem with software, but it’s incredibly irritating to have to form counter-productive habits around this sort of stuff.

The charger is quite small, so easy to carry about, with a handy USB slot included. The power cable is magnetically attached and reversible, although I could do with the cable being a wee bit longer.

I’ve some concerns about having a battery sealed in the device. My laptops have never fared too well from constant usage, and batteries wear easily with constant recharges. My fear is that – after two years’ usage – the battery in this will be nigh-on useless. It’s a shame technology hasn’t improved around this as a fixed battery is likely a compromise for such a trim device, and I wonder what I’ll be thinking once its usefulness has deteriorated.

The Result

I bought this device because I needed a capable companion at meetings and on the move. I think it’s fulfilled that role rather wonderfully. As a ‘power’ user of Office and desktop apps, I’m still tied to the Windows ecosystem and the Surface Pro, being Microsoft’s flagship device, demonstrates its vision of how operating systems and devices can work together effectively.

My eventual goal is to shift to the Surface Pro entirely. I really feel productive on this device, and as my work patterns are changing (long story) I ought to be its ideal user – a mix of Windows apps, Office and the browser, all in a portable setting. This will undoubtedly form the basis for another post.

I’m not disappointed by the capabilities, but the quality needs some work. The Type Cover Keyboard came with a special fabric loop for the pen (which has nowhere else to live). This is left to the customer to attach, and whichever way you place it it looks tacked on. For a £100 keyboard and a £40-odd pen it feels like a cheap afterthought.

Windows 8.1 continues to be a clunky bastard amalgamation of desktop and tablet, but early reviews of Windows 10 are impressive. I can’t wait to use it – it seems made for Surface – but am not yet ready to risk installing a development version on this device.

The i5 4GB model has suited me, and reviews have suggested the i3 runs well enough – although I’d be reluctant to run more than the basic Office suite on that one. The i7 could offer a useful boost for the high-end requirements, although I question whether such a powerful processor is ready to be put into this form factor yet – my fan has rarely kicked in but I’ve read i7 reviews which complain of constant fan noise, heat issues and poor battery performance.

I would recommend the Surface Pro 3 (particularly this model) to those looking for a portable WIndows device with minimal fuss and good build quality. I’d strongly recommend the Type Cover keyboard as well – out of necessity. It’s worth checking with i3 owners to see how they’re finding things but performance has not once been an issue for me (that might change as I plan to install Adobe Creative Suite soon…)

If you’re not bound to Windows, a Nexus or Chromebook might fulfill your needs. Apple equivalents are, of course, available. I used a Nexus tablet for a long while and really liked it, but my productivity was limited by lack of split screen and mediocre Office apps. My requirements are specific; others’ mileage may vary.