September 29, 2014

1776 words 9 mins read

Dead MacBook or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Surface Pro 3

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For about three weeks, I’ve carried around the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 as my “daily driver” laptop. I’ve written plenty of reviews about new machines, but what makes this “test” a little different is that I didn’t have a backup laptop. Under normal circumstances, anything I test is just a temporary thing. I may carry around a new device with me and use it as my primary computing platform for a week or so, but I always have the security blanket of my main machine. For the last couple of years, that primary machine has been a MacBook Air (well, really several MBAs). However, just after I got the Surface Pro 3 (SP3), I killed the LCD display driver (the physical component) during a meeting. I was in a rush so I grabbed the Surface Pro 3 which I had toyed with… and it became the aforementioned daily driver.

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.

Spec’s

  • 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
My Surface History

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

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The SP3 retains the angular styles of the SP2, however it softened up the corners quite a bit. Combine that with a solid, but light device and it makes a device that is really nice to use as a standalone tablet. While not done regularly, it is nice to be able to quickly review things in tablet mode. Granted, you’ll be holding it/resting on your forearm/palm, rather than holding it with your fingers like an iPad.

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.

Screen

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.

Inputs

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Since we’re talking about the screen, lets not forget that it is a touchscreen. It will handle at least 10 points of touch and as that is as many fingers as I’ve got, it’s all I need. The only caveat for touch based work is if the application is “friendly” to touch. This isn’t so much an “App made for touch” type concept, but simply if the controls are large enough/operable enough with fat fingers. Sometimes it’s also the type of controls needed. For example in VLC, you can get just about everything you want done with touch… except turning up and down VLC’s volume control (since that requires a scroll wheel).

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.

Battery Life

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Microsoft advertises a battery life of “Up to 9 hours of web browsing”. Reality tends to be less than advertised claims though exactly what you get depends on your workload. Unfortunately something as simple as using Chrome can kill your battery life because of the 1ms tick bug. Microsoft has released a number of firmware & similar updates to help battery life post-launch, but it’s still a dice throw. Personally, the battery life has been more than long enough for anything I need in a work environment. I used the Surface as I was used to using my MacBook Air. I’d come and go to meetings, wander around the office, and occasionally back at my desk charging. Never once did I feel the power pinch (and yes, I run Chrome 24/7/365). Part of reason I never had as issue was Microsoft’s new InstantGo which gives the Surface a much more iPad like feel in terms of power management. Generally the device turned back on via power within just a few moments, unless it had been “asleep” for a long period of time (hours) in which case it resumed from hibernate — which is also very quick.

Performance (CPU/RAM/Storage)

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?

Pillows, stuffed animal, and Gibbs… everything a good bed needs.
The real question I’m always trying to answer in my product reviews is “Would I buy it?". That’s all that really matters in the end, is this thing worth spending money on? At the office, we were buying Lenovo X1 Carbon’s, which I rather liked — but not everyone has (especially around the lack of real function keys). For the next batch, I’m trying out SP3s for the users that require Windows computers, because I think they are a very good overall package. If it was my own money and I really wanted a good Windows portable, yes, I’d certainly buy an SP3. However, the i7 SP3 I have costs ~$1700 on Amazon now (including the keyboard) where as a 1.7/8GB/256GB 13” MacBook Air (essentially equivalent) costs $1,449.00 on Apple.com. At the end of the day though, watching TV in bed? Soooo much better on the Surface.