Last week, I was in Seattle. While there, I went to the Microsoft store and picked up a Surface Pro 3. I’ve been using it for two weeks now.
Previously, I’ve been using a Surface Pro 2, and I liked it. It made for a really good tablet, and a perfectly acceptable laptop. I like the Pro 3 a lot more. It’s not just a good tablet, it’s the best large-screen tablet I’ve used, by a huge margin. And it’s not just a perfectly acceptable laptop, it’s a really good laptop.1
The Good Parts
I love the larger screen. The Pro 2 had a 10.6 inch screen at 1920 x 1080 pixels; that’s a 16:9 ratio. The Pro 3 increases that to 12.0 inches at 2160x1440 pixels; a 3:2 ratio. The different ratio means that the Pro 3 is now usable in portrait mode,2 and the higher resolution means that the device makes for a suitable laptop replacement. Using the new type cover with the improved touchpad, the Pro 3 no longer feels like a tablet that also works as a laptop. It feels like a laptop.
I love the new pen, and the new digitizer. I was never a huge fan of Wacom’s digitizers. Years ago, I bought a Cintiq 12WX. After plugging it into my computer for the first time, I thought I had received a defective unit. Even after repeatedly calibrating the thing, calibration was completely off around the screen edges. It only properly recognized the pen’s position when the pen was about a centimeter away from any screen edges. Turns out that’s just how Wacom’s digitizers work, and since the Pro 2 used a Wacom digitizer, it had the same issue. The Pro 3 uses an N-Trig digitizer that does not have that problem.
The new pen is much improved from the previous version, which was flimsy and felt cheap. I replaced it with a Bamboo feel carbon, which felt more substantive, but had a waggly tip, and didn’t work as an eraser. Neither does the Pro 3’s pen, but overall, it’s better than either the normal Pro 2 pen, or the Bamboo.
On the minus side, there’s some lag while the pen doesn’t yet touch the screen, the new digitiser supports fewer levels of pressure sensitivity, there’s no tilt recognition, and the pen now requires a battery. To me, these are minor issues, compared to the vastly improved recognition around the screen edges.
The Pro 3’s keyboard3 comes with a little fabric leash that can be attached anywhere on the Pro 3, and allows you to attach the pen to the device. The Pro 2 allowed you to attach the pen to the charging port using a built-in magnet, which was clever, but meant that you’d have to remove the pen to charge the device. The new system is less clever and less pretty, but works better.
Rather than only supporting one position, the kickstand now allows you to tilt the Pro 3 at any degree between «almost completely upright» and «quite flat». For drawing, I wish it would go even a bit lower, but that’s really a small quibble. I love the kickstand. I wish my phone and my iPad had built-in kickstands. I don’t know how people use iPads without a case that can hold the device upright (and I think most don’t).
Size and Weight
The weight of the Pro 2 didn’t really bother me, but now that I have the Pro 3, the Pro 2 feels positively heavy. While the Pro 3 is only 100 grams4 lighter than the Pro 2, it feels a lot lighter, probably because it’s also larger.
The Pro 2 is also a bit thinner than the Pro 3.
The charger still attaches to the device using a magnetic connector, but now slides into the device much further than before. This means that it still falls out if you accidentally stumble over the power cord, but is much less likely to fall out by accident than either the Pro 2’s charger, or the MagSafe 2. The fact that Microsoft achieved this while making the connector even thinner than the MagSafe 2 — the actual connector is probably less than 1 mm thick — is pretty cool. Maybe Apple could take a look at how Microsoft has solved this problem.
The Mediocre Parts
The battery in my Pro 2 only lasted about five hours in typical usage. The Pro 3 seems to last a lot longer, although it depends on what you do with it. While flying back to Switzerland, I spent three or four hours in ArtRage, and the Pro 3 still showed around 70% battery. Then, I gave it to a bored friend for a few rounds of Mahjong, and she managed to completely empty the remaining battery in about two hours. You’d think that Mahjong would require far less battery power than ArtRage. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s Mahjong pointlessly fills the background with 3D-rendered fishes, which not only kills the battery, but also heats up the device to the point where it is almost painful to touch.
This is completely unrelated to the actual product itself, but while in the US, I saw this ad a lot. Admittedly, it’s really well made. However, while Apple’s ads show people making movies, Microsoft shows people sitting in meetings. Just something to think about.
The Bad Parts
The Capacitive Button
I just don’t get capacitive buttons. Every single time I hand my phone to somebody else to show a YouTube movie or a picture, I tell them to not touch the bottom of the screen. Almost every single time, they’ve accidentally backed out of the movie or picture two seconds later, because they touched the bottom of the screen. Because the bottom of the screen is where you hold your phone! Why would you put capacitive buttons there, and not even label them? If you’d tell a UX developer to come up with the worst design they can possible imagine, I think invisible buttons that perform destructive actions when you merely touch them would be pretty high on the list. And yet, huge multinational corporations that presumably should know better sell hundreds of millions of devices with exactly that «feature».
The Pro 3 has pretty much the same problem. It was bad enough with the Pro 2, which had a capacitive button at the bottom of the screen. Now, Microsoft has moved it to the right of the screen, so that the new keyboard won’t hide it when it is in forward-tilted mode.5
This means that you’re now much more likely to accidentally touch the button, because you’ll probably hold the device where the button is if you’re holding it in landscape mode, and when you’re drawing, you’re probably resting your hand on the button.
I still love Metro a lot, and I kind of got used to switching between Metro mode and desktop mode. I still think it’s bad to have two completely different, not properly integrated UI paradigms on the same system. I still wish I could just run my desktop Windows apps as Metro apps. I got used to the way it works in Windows 8, though. I can manage.
But I still dislike pretty much everything else about Windows, including the fact that it breaks. A lot. A week after I got the Pro 3, Windows Update stopped working. Fortunately, doing a complete refresh of the machine did work, so now, after reinstalling all of my stuff, everything is back in working order — for now.
Meanwhile, I wanted to give my Pro 2 to a friend of mine, and tried to do a complete refresh on that machine, too. Which did not work, merely spewing out one unhelpful error message after another. I was able to boot into a Windows installer from a USB stick, but then, Windows’ DRM prevented me from actually installing the version of Windows I had just bought in a store for 200 bucks. I probably could have fixed the problem after a few days of tinkering around with the device. Instead, I just sent it back to Microsoft.
The Surface Pro 3’s hardware feels like a luxury device. It feels solid, well built, and trustworthy. It’s the Mercedes-Benz of tablets. Meanwhile, Windows feels like a house of cards that can — and probably will — topple down at any moment. It’s the DeLorean DMC-12 of operating systems. It kind of looks cool, and people no doubt had the best of intentions when they made it, but when you’re actually using it, the electricity system breaks, and the gullwing doors trap you inside your own car.
And then it starts raining, and you quickly figure out that gullwing doors really need way better waterproofing than the manufacturer deigned to install.
People complain about the fact that Microsoft sells the keyboard separately, but it seems to me that if they want to offer a selection of colors for the keyboard (and the pen leash), it would simply not be feasible to sell it in the box, because that would quintuple the number of different Surfaces available.
Which, by the way, is a terrible, unhealthy, bad feature, because it’s tilting the keyboard in exactly the wrong direction, and thus potentially injuring your wrists. Please do not use the keyboard in that mode.
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