Aside from a mouse and keyboard or XBOX 360 console game this is the first Microsoft product I have purchased in around 6 years. I switched to Apple products after spending over $2500 on a high-end Intel Xeon powered quad core HP workstation which was running Windows Vista and having it burn up on me after two weeks of use. Not only that but the windows Vista transition from XP was painful and the constant dialogs that would pop up destroyed my workflow. Based on the learning curve alone and the quality of even high-end hardware I sent back the HP machine and purchased a Mac Pro Desktop instead. I have been an Apple fan ever sense.
Apple products usually “just work” out of the box. Sure there was an initial learning curve and there weren’t a ton of games. For some reason OS X is seen as as a second tier by game vendors still, mainly for how it chose to support graphics. This article isn’t about Apple products though it’s about the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and it’s only fair to let you know where I’m coming from. The Surface Pro 3 I am using was purchased from Costco as a package with the click keyboard and stylus. It’s a mid tier model with the following Specs:
- Core i5 4300U CPU
- Intel HD4400 Graphics
- 4 GB RAM
- 128 GB Internal Flash
- Click Keyboard
- Windows 8.1 Pro
- MicroSD, USB 3.0 and MicroDisplay ports
- Docking/Charging port
Normally I really don’t care about packaging, but ever since I got my first Apple desktop and how the packaging design led to a super quick and easy setup, I have been making mental notes. The surface packaging wasn’t bad. Microsoft definitely took a note from apple on how the packaging looked and the presentation of the device inside. My only complaint is it took me a little over 2 minutes to get the plastic binding tabs holding the charging cable in place off the cable. This would never happen with an apple product. The adapter was nicely designed and was very similar to an Apple MagSafe connector. It locks in satisfyingly with a click and connects up and begins charging. This is where my first gripe came in nowhere on the screen was an easy to find battery status indicator. Eventually I found one on the lock screen and the surface desktop but there was no indicator anywhere on the normal usage screen indicating battery life or time for that matter. Apple devices, regardless of wether they are hand-held, laptops or desktops always display this information in the system ribbon at the top of the screen.
Powering this device on and letting it boot up tot he configuration screen did not take too long. I was fairly impressed with the boot time to the initial device configuration but then came the pain. I already have a Microsoft Account since I have an XBOX and entered that in and got through the initial configuration with a breeze. But then I had to wait…and wait…and wait while presumably the tablet downloaded updates and/or system files from the internet. I can only imagine this is what it was doing and as an “out-of-the box” experience you should never have to wait this long to run your fingers over your new pricey tablet. Any tech hardware should start right up out of the box and be usable with a minimal wait and fuss.
After the updates were done it was time to actually try out the device and configure the most commonly used items. Mail setup was a breeze I was able to easily setup my gmail account in the default e-mail application Mail. Notifications seem to display correctly and basic usage works fairly well. My once concern is during mail box management you have to point all over the screen to delete a message that you can read in a quick glance. The trash button is on the opposite side of the page in the upper right corner of the screen. Which in itself is fine but in application holding the device in your left hand (as a tablet) and clicking on the message with your right hand you have to then move your hand all the way to the top of the screen to delete it. On apple devices you just select and swipe and a context menu to delete the message pops up. No moving all around the screen. Microsoft’s implantation is fine if you have it setup as a laptop but as a tablet it’s a pain. There is a trash icon that appears in the message summary but only when using the trackpad or stylus.
Next up is the builtin calendar app. This is your organizational hub for your day-to-day tasks. I tried fruitlessly to get my google calendar to sync with this tablet and after a little research and reading in the built-in help I found out that it’s not supported. Yes there are other calendar apps that can be installed but this shouldn’t be necessary. Apple’s solution syncs with all the major calendar applications including Microsoft’s. This is the first major negative I was unable to work-around short of installing a 3rd party “free” application. Google mail access is free in it for 7 days at which time you need to sign up for a “lifetime” for a one time charge of $5.99. In addition to not supporting the calendar the “Notes” also do not sync with Google. This isn’t a deal breaker but it is nice to make lists on my desktop and have them synced anywhere without having to install 3rd party apps, something that takes away from the experience.
Web-browsing is what you would expect on a tablet. There is a “tablet mode” internet explorer and a “widows mode” internet explorer. I browsed to several websites and while the browser is snappy I had issues consistently clicking links in the messages. I could consistiently click with the trackpad or the stylus but the digitizer and finger tip doesn’t have the same “fuzzy” selection logic as the iDevices. Using the trackpad or stylus is fine for a laptop, but for a tablet it’s a no-go. Further when in the default “tablet” browser the default location for the URL bar is at the bottom of the screen and getting close to touching it is a problem with the click keyboard attached. Aside from these shortcomings the browser is usable, supports Java, Flash and WebGL. Flash and Java support in the browser are features I don’t have on my iOS devices that sometimes I wish I did.
I also played a pre-installed game “Microsoft Mahjong”. I played for about 25 minutes – long enough to complete the easy puzzles. This took my battery from around 98 percent to 52%. During the game play utilizing only the tablet my wrist became fatigued and I found my self switching hands every couple of minutes while trying to maintain a grip on the slippery back of the tablet. The best I found was opening the “kick stand” and pinching my finger in it a little. I did not expect this tablet to cause me any issues with weight but due to the large size it acts as a big lever when pressing on the screen. The game was fun and the graphics were nice but it also warmed up the table quite a bit and did take down the battery more than I would have expected a tile-matching game to take it down.
Other applications run nicely, however the click-keyboard is a must as most require mouse and keyboard style inputs to make them usable. I do a lot of CAD/CAM stuff on my desktop and I wanted to take that to the tablet to have something more portable. The click keyboard is nice and the track pad isn’t bad but it’s no replacement for the real thing and with the screen so large I can’t grip it and thumb type on the on-screen keyboard. I’m thinking the smaller Surface 3 might be a better bet for size at the expense of computing power.
Because it’s a tablet-ized laptop it runs the full version of Windows 8.1. One place this is very apparent is in the way updates are rolled out. My tablet was busy for nearly two hours downloading and installing Windows and Firmware updates to the system. In this two hours the tablet got hot, the fan came on and it made noise. It also drained the battery from around 80 percent to nearly zero. I got about 6 hours of use out of it that day between the very light browsing and the update installation. I’ve never had updates like this roll out to my iOS as they tend to come in one blob which installs quickly with one reboot. My tablet needed to be rebooted a total of 3 rimes to complete all the installation including waiting an hour for the battery to charge enough to do a firmware update. Even with the device plugged in it wouldn’t take the firmware update until it was past 35% charged. This is another one of those out-of-the-box experiences that left me feeling less excited about bringing a Microsoft product back into my home.
I’m completely unimpressed with the battery life. Similar activities on an iPad 2 the battery will hold all day and then some. Maybe 10 hours with super-light web browsing but anything that puts any load on the Core i5 CPU causes fairly rapid depletion of the battery. Graphics performance is better than that of an iPad 2 but the size of the display and the factory defaults on this device there is no way this is an all-day walking around tablet. In addition to save life the device goes into a hibernation state just like a laptop and takes several seconds to wake up and be usable again. This is much different to the instant-on standby mode of iOS devices but is on-par with a laptop.
In addition to rapidly depleting the batteries and getting quite warm in the process the Surface Pro 3 takes quite a long time to recharge. So long that you better carry the power adapter with you wherever you go because you are going to need it. The wall adapter is not small or incredible light so if you are considering this for it’s low weight you should also factor in the weight of the charger. And don’t forget the click keyboard, which is almost required to use the non tablet-zed apps – or at a minimum the stylus to get enough accuracy in the Windows 8.1 native applications. This also takes a long time to recharge, which isn’t bad but because the battery life is so poor I found myself “tethered” to an outlet to use the tablet several times. While this is happening the fan is whirring making noise and the tablet is heating up to nearly uncomfortable levels in my hand.
I ended up returning this over priced laptop masquerading as a tablet. It was far too big and heavy and caused wrist fatigue when being used as a tablet. It worked poorly as a laptop, as the click keyboard and trackpad were a sub-par experience. The heat and poor battery life were also problematic. Save you money and buy a less expensive 2-in-1 notebook or if you want a tablet, something like the Samsung Galaxy 4 10.1 Tablet will likely make you much happier. On a side note may vendors have ultra competitive 2-in-1 notebooks now at a small fraction of the price. These likely work better as both a tablet and a laptop due to the hinge/keyboard design.