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The strength of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3: It’s a great tablet and a functional laptop

There is a certain value proposition to the idea of a 2-in-1, basically for the price and space of one product you get the value of two. The problem has been, I think, the tendency to create a compromise. The typical clamshell 2-in-1 is heavier and more expensive than an Ultrabook, and larger and much more expensive than a tablet. They perform decently as notebooks but few use them in tablet form. Surface Pro 3 (which has started shipping in the US, and will do so in August over here) focuses on being a great tablet first and then backs into being a notebook. I think this is a better approach if you want someone to use the device in tablet form. It first has to be a decent tablet.

Let’s take another look at Surface Pro 3.

The problem with tablets for business

It generally comes down to the fact that they don’t run Microsoft Office well. Yes you can now run Office on a 10in or smaller tablet but the application was designed to be on a 12in screen or larger, and it becomes increasingly painful to use the smaller the screen gets. Now even when Office is fixed you need the extra screen real estate to bring up reference material you are writing from or to keep track of the other things like social network and email that we tend to deal with in real-time. Windows tablets that were successful in healthcare, insurance, or other business vertical markets tended to always fall into this larger form factor range

So a tablet for business is likely optimal around 12in because that is the smallest size that has been successful for a notebook computer running Office. This is why Surface Pro 3 is larger than its predecessor, as it had to be to embrace what people need from a device for work.

Surface Pro 3 improvement

One of the things you get with a third-generation product is user input. The first-generation is typically a shot in the dark, the second-generation primarily deals with problems the vendor had because customer feedback is still not well defined enough to make it into product, but by the third-generation the vendor has captured the voice of the customer and now knows what worked and didn’t work with the initial offerings.

There are four clear improvements based on this feedback. The keyboard can be shortened to better fit on airplane tables, the magnetic plug for power comes out more easily so if you trip on the cord it comes out rather than tosses your tablet to the floor at speed, and the kickstand has more adjustments so you can better position the tablet based on your needs. Fourth is a larger, better, touchpad. The initial design was too small and almost painful to use.

As a result this version is far more useful than prior versions and less likely to be damaged by a loose cord and stray foot.

Technical improvements

Surface Pro 3 uses Intel’s fourth-generation Core processor. Intel has been steadily increasing the power efficiency of its premium line and the base Core i3 is likely fine for most people. If you need this product to fit into an enterprise you should jump to Core i5, but given that this is a tablet I don’t see any reason to go to the Core i7 even though it is offered in the product as another option. Ultrabooks started out with 2 to 3 hours of battery life but current generations get 6 to 9 hours depending on what you are doing, which is still below an ARM tablet but likely more than adequate for most. The charger for this product is relatively small and doesn’t add much carry weight.

Wrapping up: What we learned

I think what Surface Pro 3 showcases is that if you want a device that does two things it has to do at least one of them well. I still remember the Pinto Car Plane which sucked as a plane and, well, it was a $200,000 (£120,000) Pinto (Ford economy car from the horrid 70s in the US). Granted what killed it was the wing separating from the car with the entire executive team in it, but had they made a great plane that was also a car, or a great car that was also a plane it likely would have done better (and maybe not killed its founders). The Surface Pro 3 is a decent professional tablet, and it is a functional laptop replacement. Now we’ll see if the market can get over the impressions of the first two iterations and see it as a value.

For more on Redmond's hybrid, see: 5 good reasons why you should buy Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 rather than Apple's MacBook Air.