Dead MacBook or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Surface Pro 3
Yes, I run the IT Department and have access to literally any machine I want. Unusually, we were low on new MacBook Air’s (lots of new employees) and I had other machines I could use… so the SP3 got its day to shine. It wasn’t all puppy dogs and rainbows, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how well the SP3 treated me, given that it was a Microsoft product. Let’s talk about specs first then off to the juicy stuff.
- 256GB/Intel i7 version
- 4th generation Intel Core i7-4650U 1.70 GHz with Intel HD Graphics 5000
- Blue Surface Pro Typecover
- Several extra Surface Pens
- Surface Dock
So you have an idea of what my preconceptions are of the Surface series, I’ll share a little history. I didn’t have or use any of the original Surface series, nor did I have a Surface Pro 1. Honestly I thought they were silly and pointless toys. If you want a tablet, get a real tablet. If you want a laptop, get a real laptop. However I did end up buying a couple Surface Pro 2s for the office. I unboxed and used one for a couple hours and then promptly abandoned it, since I couldn’t see it being very useful. Honestly, I hadn’t followed the SP3 development much, but someone in the office needed them… so several were bought. I picked one out of the receiving pile and set it up for my use.
Formfactor / Hardware Build
The kickstand is also greatly improved from the SP2, which had two stops. The first and only “stop” for the SP3 is 22degrees back — a fairly normal/upright viewing angle. However you can push it beyond that to 150 degrees, or nearly flat. The first few times I tried pushing it past the first “stop” I was concerned I was going to break the Surface — the kickstand does have a bit of resistance. A couple other people tried it out and had similar reactions. Once you get used to it though, it’s nice how firm the kickstand sticks.
Physical buttons are power and volume. Ports are headphones, MiniDisplay Port, Power/Docking, Keyboard Dock, MicroSD, & a single USB 3.0. I really wish they would have tossed in a second USB port, but otherwise it’s fairly simple — there isn’t much one can ask for these days.
There is one internal piece of hardware that is worth noting: the wireless. When the Surface Pro 3 series launched, the Wifi was total and complete trash on 802.11AC. A lot of people argued that 802.11AC isn’t that prevalent, however in my workplace, we’ve bought the latest units as we’ve needed more WAPs. We’ve got AC interspersed with last-gen N units and it played twelve kind of hells with the Surface. A laptop/tablet without solid Wifi is a big issue in everyone’s book. Microsoft realized they screwed up and released 4 firmware patches in the first month of the Surface’s life. By then it was mostly fixed but they’ve pushed out a few more fixes since then and it’s really quite solid now.
The Surface Pro 3 has a 12.0”, 2160×1440 px display rated at 216 ppi. The pixel density is very close to the MacBook Pro’s Retina display and is quite a pleasure to use. Hook that screen up to the Intel HD5000 on the i7 model, and you’ve got a little powerhouse that can game reasonably as well. The brightness behind it is quite adjustable and gives you a good range. It doesn’t get quite as bright or dark as my Samsung Galaxy S5, but this is a device designed for primarily indoor workloads — it’ll do fine there. I haven’t tried to use it outside during the day, so I can’t comment on how well it can fight off the sun.
The other option is the Surface Pen, a device I rather like. It’s an Active stylus with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and very much reminds me of my old Wacom tablets. It functions as a fairly good mouse for clicking and navigating with great precision, and it really shines when you’ve got a pen-aware application. For example, OneNote with the stylus is really a great experience. I love it enough to overlook that it’s not Evernote. However, most applications aren’t stylus aware (much like they aren’t touch aware) which provides you limited functionality in that respect.
Lastly is the “Type Cover” which is the keyboard and touchpad mouse. I heard a lot of complaints about the previous generation covers being “soft” and not providing a real keyboard like feel. The Type Cover certainly did away with most (if not all) of those issues. On a table (or similar level surface) the keyboard has very little flex and has some decent travel in the keys. They are less chicklet like than the Mac keyboard (which I like), but still not a real keyboard worth of travel. The top row is Function keys or shortcut keys (ex: play, volume, search, settings, etc), depending on your settings. For when you really just need that classic mouse experience, there is the touchpad. It works, it’s multi-touch, it gets the job done… but its nothing to write home about. One often overlooked feature of the Type Cover is the fact that it’s got a gyro and accelerometer built in. You can hold the Surface with the cover upside down… and it won’t take in random stray key inputs — it’s smart enough to know when you do and do not want to use the keyboard. Don’t forget the backlight and the “close cover to sleep Surface” functions too.
What I bought was an i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD. This is almost exactly the same specs as my MacBook Air (except the CPU is faster). The two devices even have equivalent Intel HD5000 graphics cards. So is this a powerful little laplet (lablet? laptop+tablet?)? You bet. Do I feel comfortable doing light development on it? Yes I do and yes I have. Would I want to do heavy duty, constant CPU heavy work? Probably not… because like the MBA, the thermal management isn’t designed for heavy/prolonged work. There are a few videos out there showing this in action, but again, only really shows up during heavy duty usage. In fact, for the longest time I didn’t even realize there was a fan in the SP3 since it’s so quiet and on so rarely.
Overall/Summary/Would I buy it?