Surface Pro 3: A great business desktop and a pretty good laptop, too

Microsoft's latest tablet computer is light, compact and powerful.

Surface Pro 3

Microsoft calls it the tablet that can replace your laptop. The Surface Pro 3, which was announced in May and started shipping in June, comes with a 12-inch touchscreen, a 3:2 aspect ratio and 2160x1440 resolution display, making it a healthy size for note-taking and showing presentations. It comes with a choice of Intel i3, i5 or i7 chips so there’s plenty of processing power, and it supports any apps that run on Windows 7 as well as apps designed just for Windows 8.1. Equipped with a super-thin and light keyboard/cover it seems more like a laptop. Docked with external monitor, keyboard and mouse, it makes a good desktop replacement. Here’s a closer look at the Surface Pro 3.

Surface Pro 3

The Surface Pro 3 is larger than the original Surface tablets – a 12-inch screen vs a 10.81-inch screen, which makes presentations easier to view. The 3:2 aspect ratio is meant to make the screen more the size of a sheet of paper so those taking notes will feel more comfortable. It’s also got better screen resolution, 2160x1440 vs 1920x1080. It weighs 1.75 pounds vs. 2 pounds, but adding the keyboard/cover and the pen boosts it to 2.44 pounds. The price ranges from $800 to $1,950 depending on processor and RAM.

Surface Pro 3

Because all the weight of the device is in the tablet, it requires a kickstand to prop it up when it’s used as a laptop. In the original model, the kickstand had just one position. In the Surface Pro 3, the kickstand starts in that same position, but can be fixed at any angle until it makes a 150-degree angle with the tabletop. Adjusted at 150 degrees, it’s got a relatively large footprint and requires a large lap to hold it.

Surface Pro 3

The keyboard snaps on with magnets, and when it’s folded under shuts off so just the touchscreen and pen work. It has full-size mechanical keys that click when depressed. The touchpad also scrolls the image on the screen when stroked with two fingers. It costs an extra $130.

Surface Pro 3

A hinge on the keyboard allows it to attach to the tablet and lie flat on the table or to create a second magnetic connection to the tablet that sets the keyboard on a slant. The latter position also adds some side-to-side stability to the keyboard when the device is used as a laptop on an actual lap.

Surface Pro 3

The touchpad, like the keys, is mechanical and clicks when depressed. This is a vast improvement over the earlier touchpad that was smaller, didn’t depress and was less responsive. It’s also easier to sense where it is with the fingertips because it has grooves around the edges. The older touchpad was just marked by smooth lines marked out in an otherwise fuzzy surface.

Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3 sports, left to right, a charging port, a USB 3 port and a mini display port. It’s also got a micro-SD card slot tucked under the kickstand and a headset jack on the other side.

Surface Pro 3

Microsoft has designed Surface Pro 3 to be oriented vertically, with the Start button placed on the bezel of a narrow side. Before it was on one of the long sides, and users tended to press it when they were holding the device lengthwise as a tablet. The on-off switch has also been moved so it’s on the upper right edge when it’s held as a tablet. It used to be on the lower right edge. Those three dots on the right edge? The top one is the 5 megapixel camera, the bottom one is the microphone and the middle one is a privacy light that turns on to let users know the camera is in use.

Surface Pro 3

The pen synchs with the Surface Pro 3 so they are aware of each other. Even if the device is locked, the proximity of the pen allows users to work in OneNote for note taking and drawing. It hefts like a ballpoint and Microsoft says it is sensitive to more than 250 levels of pressure to create lighter or heavier lines as if it were an ink pen. It’s got a right-click button to call up options for changing color and line width. An eraser button turns the tip into an eraser to rub out earlier drawing.

Surface Pro 3

For office use, the Surface Pro 3 can be dropped into a docking station, connecting to it through the charging port via the silver plug shown on the right side of the dock. The dock costs $200.

Surface Pro 3

The tablet slides into the dock, and the user plugs it in by pressing the two sides toward the center. The keyboard can be attached to the tablet while it’s in the dock.

Surface Pro 3

Once the tablet is locked in, the dock supports a charging port, a gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2 and two USB 3 ports, a mini display port and an audio jack. Without the dock, a $40 Ethernet adapter can connect the device to a network via the USB 3 port on the tablet itself.

Surface Pro 3

The downside of the dock is that it locks the screen at the same fixed angle that the original Surface kickstands set it at, so it recreates the problem the new kickstand seeks to fix.

Surface Pro 3

With all those ports in the back, the dock enables setting up external monitors, keyboards and mice as shown here. With the dock the Surface Pro 3 can support two screens and from the user point of view is indistinguishable from a traditional desktop. Add an external touchscreen and touch commands can be blended in as well. This is the way to set up Surface Pro 3 for heavy desktop use.