I’ve spent the past week with a Surface Pro 3. I’ve used every previous version of Surface and given what the promise of a 2-in-1 PC was supposed to be, the Surface Pro 3 is the closest yet to fulfilling that promise. I was very harsh on the original Surface and, while my overall thesis (which we will get to) on the 2-in-1 PC form factor has not changed, my stance on the Surface itself has softened. Don’t consider this a review of the Surface Pro 3. There are many good reviews of the Surface Pro 3 and serious buyers should read those as well. I’d like to do a more analytical take on the form factor.
Comparing to a Tablet or a Laptop?
The first point we need to address is which computing form factor, laptop or tablet, must we use to create a comparison for the Surface Pro 3. Which type of buyer is the Surface attempting to appeal to? The potential laptop buyer or the potential tablet buyer? Microsoft’s own marketing gives us a clue. They are clearly targeting a customer looking to buy a laptop in the near future.
On that basis how does it compare to a laptop? Overall, it is a decent notebook. Many features are exceptional, like the extremely high screen resolution of 2160 x 1440. This should literally be the standard resolution on all medium to premium priced Windows PCs. While I appreciated the screen compared to other Windows PCs I tested, I am spoiled by the 15″ Retina MacBook Pro, my primary notebook, with a resolution of 2880 x 1800. As I used the Surface Pro 3, I had to leave my Mac experience behind and just think of the Surface as a competitor to other similarly priced premium Windows PCs. Two of my favorite premium Windows PCs are the Lenovo Carbon X1 and the Dell XPS 13. Despite what many may believe about the Surface Pro 3, I would consider it to be in a class of premium Windows PC products. Given that a traditional clamshell notebook is the Surface’s competition, we have to again evaluate it as a viable notebook competitor.
Overall, I was pleased and impressed with the Surface Pro 3 as a notebook. The size and weight certainly put it into the class of ultra-portables. The Touch Cover keyboard case has been dramatically improved. But there was one area that was a rub for me. What I call “time to on.” Time to on is the time it takes to open my laptop and start working. Every busy person who walks from meeting to meeting knows how valuable it is to sit down, open your notebook, and quickly be ready to start a meeting. Since Microsoft wants to compare the Surface Pro 3 to a MacBook Air, I compared the “time to on” of both machines. For this test, I only looked at the time it took for me to open my notebook and get to a point where my computer was on and usable. For both tests, the MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 were placed in the exact same position on the desk in front of me. I simply tested how long it took for each machine to be usable from a “sleep state”.
The average “time to on” in five tests with a MacBook Air was 1.63 seconds. That’s the time it took to flip the lid up, wake up, and let me move the mouse and start using the notebook. The average “time to on” of the Surface Pro 3 in five tests was 6.68 seconds. That was the time it took to tilt it up off the desk, set it back down, flip the keyboard down, flip out the kickstand, swipe the log-in screen (no passcode set), and actively be using the mouse and the notebook. Now, a 5.05 second difference may not seem like a lot, but when you compare the difference in “experience” to having a near instant on notebook to a somewhat clunky process to get the Surface up and running, the two seem like worlds apart.
The Surface as a Tablet
I’m not going to spend a ton of time on this part, since consensus seems to be that comparing the Surface to a tablet (iPad) is a losing battle. I actually think Windows 8 is becoming a better large screen tablet platform than Android, but that is because Microsoft is getting some decent larger screen dedicated tablet apps where Android is not. However, very few are buying an Android tablet as a PC replacement, and even fewer are buying Android tablets with screen sizes above 9″. One other positive improvement was Microsoft’s adding of a better portrait mode experience with Windows 8.1. Previously Windows 8, running on tablet form factors, was terrible in portrait mode. Some discount this mode but our observational research shows extremely high amounts of use in portrait mode for many tablet use cases. I’ve argued portrait mode is an important experience with any product attempting to be a tablet. Microsoft finally got portrait mode usable.
Another plus for the Surface was the stylus. Not a feature I see being attractive in pure consumer markets but in vertical enterprise environments like in medical, construction, legal, etc., where notes and pen/paper are still heavily used, I can see the appeal. The stylus was not perfect, but still worked better than any stylus solution I’ve used to date.
The Surface Pro 3 is a bit too large for me in pure slate mode. Most of the time I use my iPad I am laying down in bed, or reclining on the couch or a chair. Most often, I’m also holding the iPad up and not resting it on my body or chest. While the Surface Pro 3 is the thinnest and lightest Surface yet, it still caused discomfort while holding it for long periods of time. In all honesty, the Surface Pro 3 would be an outstanding tablet, if the iPad and iOS tablet ecosystem was not in existence.
Who is the Surface Pro 3 for?
This is the main question. I have no doubt there is a market for the Surface. As I point out, the Surface Pro 3, while competitive, will be bested experientially by the pure notebook clamshell form factor. However, as I pointed out earlier, in the Microsoft ecosystem, given the touch landscape for devices and Windows 8 in general, the Surface Pro 3 is a competitive product with other premium Windows notebooks.
While, I struggle to see the opportunity for the Surface in pure consumer markets, I do feel Microsoft has improved the hardware so that, for key vertical segments, the Surface Pro 3 is a viable solution that will suffice as a laptop but can add perks of tablet mode for those in specific fields where those features are useful.
In this week’s Tech.pinions Podcast we discussed the 2-in-1 PC at length. I still believe the demand or market pull for this product is limited. That being said, there are plenty of things Microsoft, Intel, and partners can do to extend this category. Given the trends in tablets we are seeing, where new quarterly data is showing up signaling usage declining in key areas by tablet users, I fear the tablet was not the potentially disruptive force Microsoft and Intel believed it to be. Which means it is reasonable the entire touch based desktop/notebook/2-1 solutions were built out of a reaction to a concern that didn’t really exist.
Each product has its role, its context, and its value. For some, a pure slate will be a form of entertainment. For some, a laptop/notebook replacement. Still, for others, it is a luxury. And in some enterprise markets it will be a necessity. Intel and Microsoft would love to believe the 2-in-1 form factor is the future of the notebook. This may be the case, and those two companies can certainly force their will on the ecosystem. Intel hopes that this form factor will make up over 70% of the notebook shipments in 2018. But my contention is if that happens, it won’t be because the market demands it.