The Surface Pro 3 has a 2160 x 1440 display that's stunningly crisp and quite colorful. It has significantly wider color gamut than Surface Pro 1 and 2, and it finally matches the best laptop displays with 95% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB as measured by our Spyder 4 Pro colorimeter. The aspect ratio is 3:2 rather than the usual widescreen 16:9 or 16:10. That makes Surface Pro 3 easier to handle and better suited for portrait use, though I'd say that 4:3 is still ideal for portrait viewing. 3:2 is an excellent compromise where movies don't have large black bars as they do on iPads, yet you don't feel quite so much like you're staring at a tall, skinny bar of text when reading in portrait mode.
As ever, the Pro display has wide viewing angles that match any IPS panel, and it's reasonably bright at 276 nits after color calibration (it approaches 300 nits uncalibrated). This is a gloss display, so reflections and glare are an issue, but no more than on the myriad other glossy touch screen tablets and Ultrabooks on the market. Gorilla Glass offers scratch protection, as does the optional Type Cover when transporting the tablet.
This is a pen and touch display, and Microsoft switched from Wacom to N-Trig for the pen technology. Graphic artists who rely on art programs that only support WinTab won't be disappointed, since N-Trig now offers WinTab drivers on their website. That said, the pressure curves and 256 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. Wacom's 1024 are noticeably less rewarding than Wacom in some programs like Corel Painter X3. Photoshop CC and CS6 feel pretty good and Manga Studio 5 is also competitive when compared to Wacom. Programs that use the newer Windows Ink API like Fresh Paint and Sketchbook Pro support N-Trig nicely.
In any case, the pen will work in all programs; it's just a matter of getting pen pressure registered. That means the N-Trig pen works fine in OneNote and MS Word 2013, complete with pressure palm rejection (you can rest your hand on the glass while writing). This isn't a brand new technology; it's a slightly updated version of the pen and tech used in the Sony Vaio Flip series of convertible Ultrabooks among others. Microsoft went with a softer nib (pen tip) for a more natural feel and less of those clicking sounds when the pen tip contacts the glass. The N-Trig pen has less tip offset (parallax) and better corner accuracy than Wacom, but the hover distance (and thus palm rejection) is shorter so you have to make sure the Surface Pro 3 sees the pen tip before resting your hand on the glass. For note takers, the N-Trig digitizer and pen might seem better than Wacom thanks to the reduced parallax.
The pen feels similar to the Sony model, and in fact they're interchangeable. Microsoft added Bluetooth to their pen and it's used for the top click button (where the eraser would be on a pencil). The button launches MS OneNote (your choice of the Metro or desktop version). Microsoft wanted it to work like a retractable ballpoint pen where you click the button at the top of the pen before writing. Two side buttons provide features like erase (application dependent). The pen is similar in size to a traditional pen, and as with previous Surface Pro models, there's no silo in the tablet body. It's made of metal and has a pleasing feel in the hand. Unlike Wacom pens, there are active components in the pen itself, so it uses a single AAAA battery that should be good for a year or more. N-Trig claims 2 years, I've so far gotten 9 months to a year with their pens.
Horsepower and Performance
As noted, this is an Ultrabook that lives in a tablet's casing. You have the same 4th generation Intel Core CPU selection, Intel HD 4400 integrated graphics (there's no room for dedicated graphics in such a small chassis) and SSD drive. Note that the Core i3 versions have HD 4200 graphics and the Core i7 models impressively boast HD 5000 graphics. Our Core i5-4300U 1.9GHz mainstream model with 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a 128 gig mSATA SSD scored a bit above average on PCMark 7, a benchmark that takes into account all subsystems, including drive speed. Doubtless, Microsoft did a good job of optimizing the machine and the complete lack of bloatware helps. As noted, the 4 or 8 gigs of RAM isn't upgradable because it's soldered to the motherboard, and given how hard it is to open up the Surface 3, it's unlikely you'll be doing RAM or other do-it-yourself upgrades.
Anything you can do with an Ultrabook, you can do with Surface Pro 3, from software development to MS Office (not included, though OneNote is) and 4k video playback. It can handle Metro Live Tile games like a champ as well as less demanding desktop games like Civ V, Diablo III and Left4Dead 2 (watch our video review to see Civ V running at native resolution with touch controls).
The fan is generally silent when the machine is unplugged and handling tasks like web browsing, MS Office, email and even Photoshop CC. The back of the machine stays cool for these sorts of tasks. When playing games like Civ V or exporting 1080p video, the fan kicks in and the back gets very warm but not painfully hot. The fan isn't obnoxiously loud and it sounds similar to Ultrabooks doing the same tasks, but comes across as loud for a tablet. We have noted that the fan randomly kicks on loudly when doing light work, then settles down-- odd.
(1.9 GHz Intel Core i5-4300U, 4 gigs RAM and 128 gig SSD)
PCMark 7: 5111
wPrime: 19.98 sec.
Geekbench 3: single core 2908, multi-core 5695
PCMark 7 Benchmark Comparison Table
Microsoft claims 9 hours of actual use time on a charge. The battery is sealed inside, and as mentioned, it's not easy opening the tablet up for repairs. When battery runtimes diminish 3 years down the road, you'll have to send it to Microsoft for a battery replacement. I'm not a fan of such difficult to upgrade and repair designs, but such is the price we pay right now for cutting edge thin and light designs. In a mixed use test that included working in MS Office 2013, playing a 50 minute episode of Mad Men via Netflix full HD streaming, drawing and editing images in Photoshop and exporting a 7 minute 1080p video, the Surface Pro 3 lasted 6.5 hours with brightness at 50% and both WiFi and Bluetooth on. When using the tablet simply for checking email, browsing a few websites and writing this review in Word 2013 (with the Type Cover backlight on), we got a healthy 7.4 hours. That's competitive with similarly equipped Ultrabooks on the market, and it does beat Surface Pro 2.
Once again we applaud Microsoft: the Surface Pro 3 is a glimpse into the future of computing, and it's both exquisitely good looking and perfectly put together. While the MacBook Air continues on with a solid but stale design and computing paradigm, Microsoft has at least taken a chance at something new. And it mostly works well. One can fault Windows 8.1's schizophrenic two-UI design, and there's certainly work that needs to be done, but the Surface Pro 3 is nonetheless enjoyable to use with Metro apps as well as desktop programs. It's fast, has a gorgeous display, a very practical 3:2 aspect ratio and a pen for note takers and art types. The debate over N-Trig vs. Wacom for art is a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see where they stand in a year. I'm bullish given N-Trig's quick progress, but some artists might want to stick with Wacom for now for its more consistent pressure curves across the gamut of art applications.
Price: starting at $799 for the Core i3, $999 for Core i5 and $1,549 for Core i7. Surface Pro Type Cover $129.99 additional.
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