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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Surface Pro hands-on review: can Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 really replace your laptop?

Microsoft claims its new Surface Pro tablet is powerful enough to replace your laptop for everyday computing tasks. Can that really be true? We put it to the test in our Surface Pro hands-on review. Also see: best tablets

We test a lot of laptops here at PC Advisor, and our recent best budget laptops group test revealed that you can get a pretty decent laptop for as little as £270, while £375 will buy you a Core i3 machine with 6GB of RAM and a 15.6in screen. So what's attractive about a Windows tablet that has prices starting at £639 for a Core i3 machine with a smaller 12in screen and 4GB of RAM? Not the price, that's for sure. Also see: best laptops
Of course, Microsoft isn't pitching its Surface Pro against the average budget laptop. It's setting its sights on the MacBook Air. Without its optional £109 Type Cover the Surface Pro is cheaper than even Apple's entry-level 11in MacBook Air, which costs £749 and has a smaller screen, yet the Apple laptop has more storage (128GB) and a faster 1.4GHz dual-core i5 chip. The Surface Pro, meanwhile, is lighter, smaller, and even easier to take with you as you work on the go. So could it replace your laptop? Well, yes, if your laptop is a MacBook Air.

One thing the Surface Pro does extremely well is portability, and it's the thinnest Core PC ever made. Although Microsoft has increased its screen size to 12in, it's reduced the weight to 800g (from just under 1kg), and width from 10.6- to 9.1mm. The aforementioned Packard Bell, by comparison, is 2.3kg and much larger, at 382x256x25mm versus the Surface's 292x 201.3x9.1mm. You wouldn't want to cart around that one for long.

Our colleague Agam Shah wrote: "I found the tablet faster, thinner and lighter than previous Surface Pro models, and the larger 12in screen makes for comfortable reading and viewing. In a PC market desperate for innovation, the Surface Pro 3 stands big among the hybrid laptop-tablet models from other device makers." 

Microsoft has also made some changes to the Surface Pro's design in terms of usability. The kickstand can now be secured at any angle, and the optional Type Cover (£109) features a double-fold hinge that allows you to lock it to the display's lower bezel for easier working with the Surface Pro on your lap. Nevertheless, Shah "preferred using the tablet placed on a table, giving it more of a PC feel".  

This Type Cover, available in five colours, is thinner than its predecessor at 5mm, with a larger trackpad and Palm Rest technology to allow you to rest your hands as you type without moving the cursor elsewhere onscreen. It features backlit shortcut-, function- and media keys, and doubles as protection for the Surface Pro's screen. More importantly, it turns the Surface Pro Windows 8 tablet into a £750 Windows 8 Pro laptop. How much was that entry-level MacBook Air again? 

"The tablet's usability as a PC comes alive with the detachable Type Cover, a hard keyboard attachment that magnetically secures itself under the screen. The earlier Surface Pro Type Covers, which attaches to the bottom of the tablet, are prone to detaching easily when you're typing on your lap. Microsoft said the new Type Covers have a 70 percent larger trackpad and more 'stability' features, but the scrolling experience seems similar to that of the older tablets," said Shah. 

There's a new clickable Surface Pen, too, although Shah suggests that it is "rather large and clunky", and requires a AAAA battery. One click lets you activate the pen and start jotting down a note in OneNote, even while the Surface Pro is asleep; a double-click snaps a screenshot and saves it to OneNote. 

Microsoft has bumped up the Surface Pro's screen from 10.6- to 12in, giving you more space to get work done. It's still a ClearType full-HD panel, but now sports a resolution of 2160x1440. That's a small boost in pixel density from 207- to 216ppi. 

"The screen is bright and lively, displaying images at a resolution of 2160x1440 pixels - that seems an odd shift away from the regular 2560x1440 pixel screens adopted for laptops and monitors," said Shah. However, he also noted that "The touchscreen is more responsive than the Surface Pro 2, which is less sensitive to pressure." 
The Surface Pro is available in models with Intel Haswell (fourth-gen) Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, with up to 8GB of RAM and 512GB of flash storage. This means, although the higher-spec models may be more expensive in comparison, they are just as powerful as any laptop. Microsoft also claims the Surface Pro 3 is 10 percent faster than the Surface Pro 2.  
During the demonstration the Surface Pro was shown running full-blown Adobe Photoshop, and its inclusion of the full version of Windows 8.1 Pro means there's full support for Office and you can install any legacy Windows app or Modern UI app you like. 

The model we tried had a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-4300 processor, a 256GB SSD and 8GB of DDR3 RAM. "The tablet booted in seconds and loaded applications faster than my current laptop with an Intel Ivy Bridge processor," noted Shah. 

All the usual suspects are covered in terms of the Surface Pro's connectivity, except one: 4G LTE. The Surface Pro has no form of mobile connectivity, and Microsoft hasn't confirmed when this will be added. 

Other features include 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, two 5Mp cameras (front and rear) that can capture full-HD video, a USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort slot, a microSD card reader and 45 percent louder Dolby-enhanced stereo speakers. An optional docking station expands the port options to include gigabit ethernet, display connectors and USB ports. 

Microsoft claims a battery life of nine hours when the Surface Pro is used for web browsing.

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