Analyzing the Surface Pro 3

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.

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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.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

29 thoughts on “Analyzing the Surface Pro 3”

  1. I still think the keyboard is a gimmick that is clearly inferior to a proper clamshell laptop, with firmly attached keyboard, and most of the weight in the base, not the screen.

    The Lenovo Yoga is IMO a superior form factor for a 2-in-1. Less tablet, but less compromised on the laptop side. While the Yoga is heavier more cumbersome and heavy as a tablet, neither is great and both will likely end up relegated to desk/table tablets in stand mode.

    1. The Yoga is a great product. We have quite a bit of data to back up that many did not buy that simply because it converted but rather because it was a very thin and light laptop at a great price.

    2. Depends on what you are looking for. To me the Yoga is 80% laptop, 20% tablet. The SP3 is as close to 50/50 you will get. The SP3’s keyboard is clearly inferior to a traditional laptop keyboard, but it is the best implementation I’ve seen that will allow you to get a true tablet experience, with the quality of that experience up for debate. The Yoga to me is a Hybrid and not a true 2-in-1. The Lenovo Helix would be the fairer comparison.

  2. Sure not going to get partisan over it, but I’m really liking mine. Especially the digital pen. Not for handwriting recognition as much as for a substitute for good old analog functions like drawing, signing, and notes.

    Regarding the resolution versus Retina, you should really be comparing dpi, since the SP3 has a smaller screen.

    1. This article got a little long, but there was still much I could have said. As I pointed out, I did like it quite a bit, I just personally feel that the specific built laptop and the specific built tablet solution is my preferred solution both personally and philosophically. That being said, if I was a Windows person I would make the Surface Pro 3 my primary computer.

      A DPI comparison would be useful for verticals like photographers, artists, etc., and I’m sure those came out in reviews. I used this exercise more to continue to establish my position on the 2-in-1 category as I speak to all the major players about it. I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but like I said we are dealing with a different philosophy between Apple and Windows on this subject. In consumer markets, this is not a big deal but in verticals this philosophy may matter more.

      The Surface is a great example of how the PC market is segmenting. We estimators of these things just need to have some meat around how big segments may be so vested parties can create an adequate strategy to address them.

    2. I like my SP3 too, only problem I have a problem with it is the trackpad and therefore I carry a bluetooth mouse wherever I go. The trackpad really is not that good. Otherwise I think the keyboard is fine for it’s size. I think it is the perfect hardware for (a flawed) Windows 8. I only use the Metro apps when using it as a tablet. Otherwise I treat it as a Windows 7 workstation.

      Ben, I’d like to hear more about the “key vertical segments” that would benefit from the Surface form factor. I think there is a market for these, I wonder if that market is big enough to justify continuing to produce them. I just ordered a couple of docking stations for mine which will just about make it perfect. Serious “work” at home or office with the comfort of a big monitor and regular keyboard. Extremely portable, powerful, and feature-filled enough for meetings and light development on the go. Light enough to lay back and use as a tablet for Netflix.

      Imagine if Apple released similar (would probably be even better) hardware that could easily switch between iOS and OSX. It would sell like crazy.

      1. Yes this market is certainly large enough to justify producing them. Think legal, doctors, construction workers, etc., folks who for the most part did not use a PC in their job prior but used notebooks, printed off forms, blueprints, etc., It is estimated that over 400m workers in this country are candidates for a pure slate form factor in their daily job, whom work but do not regularly use a PC for work. This is the tablet opportunity at large, that the SP3 may play into as well.

      2. I am a graduate student and find the surface pro a great tool to taking notes, jotting down ideas, etc. Particularly when using it for writing equations. And I can use it for normal pc applications too which is a must. I see even more potential down the road for the device if they can streamline the equation recognition process (convert to excel or latex anyone?!).

        But this is a very specialized market, and college students tend to be poor. I have little confidence my dream tablet will ever be built 🙁 not anytime soon at any rate. In fact I have been waiting for it since 2008 when I got my first pen tablet.

        I happy to see healthy evolution between Samsung and microsoft. I hope they keep it coming!

  3. This reads like someone with an agenda to defend apple and their ecosystem because that’s what the author decided to commit to. The sp3 is clearly seen as a threat by apple guys which is why we’re getting articles like this.

    1. The Surface Pro 3, as a concept is a great idea. Large-screen, “workhorse” tablets with keyboard attachments represents the future of the laptop / notebook. It may not replace your laptop right now, but in 3 to 5 years, I definitely see it happening.

      This is a product area where I think MS actually has something really good and would love to see them take all their engineering resources from their ailing WP product and focus it on Surface Pro products.

    2. I get the opposite impression. If anything, this article appears to be a well-reasoned assessment of the viability and potential market reach of the Surface Pro 3 with respect to its form factor and usability–as promised. Not sure how that could appear defensive, especially since the author clearly likes the Surface Pro 3 and believes it does have a potential market.

    3. And your comment reads like someone with an agenda to defend the weaknesses of Surface and Microsoft at large.

      How you believe that waiting nearly 7 seconds to start working is a biased “opinion” is beyond me.

      Clearly Microsoft and its enthusiasts are desperate to regain their place in the market. While I also believe the Surface is a good product it’s not a breakthrough product like the iPad was/is. Apple was wise to not position the iPad as a laptop replacement. It let the market decide that on its own. Some people still need the power of a laptop but the convenience of a tablet but the Surface Pro 3 isn’t the answer although Microsoft wants to position it that way.

      It’s also interesting that Microsoft shifted its message so quickly. First the iPad was the target of their marketing but then they switched gears to the MacBook Air/Pro. Let’s also keep in mind that this is the 3rd iteration in less than 2 years after taking a billion dollar beating from the Surface RT tablets that never really stood a fighting chance. Sure it included MS Office but beyond that you couldn’t install anything else onto the Desktop. That’s all but admitting that they weren’t ready with a touch-friendly version of MS Office so they stapled the Desktop onto the Surface RT so it could run Word and Excel.

      I will say that my experience with the Surface has been positive. I too feel that it’s a competent system but the constant back and forth, the schizophrenic nature of the OS just feels wrong. And since most of what I “really” do with Windows 8 is on the Desktop it makes the Metro-style side feel like a fancy yet convoluted and constantly shifting wallpaper.

      1. Nearly 7 seconds is complete bs. I have my sp3 right here and its nearly instant to come on and a second to slide the lockscreen up and start working. And the marketing came about because they were selling two different products at two different price levels. Why would they target $1000 full computer vs. a $500 ipad? Sorry you’re having a tough time dealing with the OS, but I know clearly the difference in the two environments and that difference works perfectly for me, mouse and keyboard when I’m using the desktop and metro when surfacing or playing a game.

        1. That is the key – only use the full screen metro apps with the keyboard detached. You’ll lose that sense of schizophrenia right away.

          1. Except in that case, the surface loses to the iPad due to being an immature software platform. This is why I’m pointing out that they can not be compared in each silo. It has to be compared for the person who does not want two devices and is willing to make tradeoffs on either end. My contention is there is a market for this but it is not as large as people,or MS and Intel want to believe.

        2. It’s great that you are in the demographic that find value in this product. As an analyst I see sales volumes globally of every device and form factor. My job is to estimate the size of segmentation opportunities. My SP3 that I was given is not instant on in your view given the contrast of a notebook which is its benchmark. When sitting on the desk you have to lean it up, flip the keyboard down, flip out the keyboard kickstand, swipe up to log-in (without a passcode set) and then you can use it. That process took me the 7 seconds from sitting. I am sorry you are completely missing the point of my analysis but as I said, I thought the product was quite good and someone who really likes Windows will like the Surface Pro 3. But no reasonable person can argue that the Surface Pro 3 is a better notebook or a better tablet than the current crop of products specifically built for those use cases.

          1. Your example is kind of contrived giving the fact that if you’re going to be using it at a desktop then you’re not going to be constantly making that motion of setting the kickstand etc. and setting the kickstand isn’t as difficult as you make it out to be plus you ignore the advantage the sp3 has over your Macbook in that you can position its screen at any angle. And as far being a better notebook or tablet, you start with the premise that everyone wants or needs to own both devices. There are some who don’t want to and don’t normally hold their tablet elevated above their bodies and prefer the convenience of having a built in kickstand that you can adjust at any angle and rest on the bed, couch or your body while having ample screen real estate so you don’t feel cramped when surfing the web on it. There are some who prefer all that in a device that could quickly convert into a full desktop with the right accessories or a very good notebook for doing some quick and dirty work on the go.

          2. The problem is the Surface can not be compared to either a laptop or a tablet. That is my point. If it does it will fail. Metro is a severely immature software platform compared to iPad, and as I point out, it is better than Android but Android tablet users aren’t buying them to do compute.

            The trap most fall into is to believe that this solution is the one size fits all. It is not. I agree there is a % of the market who finds this useful and valuable but It’s not 100% of the market. I have trouble believing that this solution could equate to 20% of total laptop sales per year on the basis of market demand.

            I’ve tracked sell though of every generation of Surface, including to date sales of this one. And while each has gotten better, it is isn’t even close to a decent percentage of quarterly laptop, desktop, or tablet sales.

            As Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM once said, the market is the ultimate arbiter. Right now the data indicates the market is speaking with their dollars and they are choosing other solutions.

          3. I think the market is small too though I think Microsoft has an opportunity in the corporate space – that is to hope that people who use a Surface at work love it so much they’d want to get one for their household. It does have the “cool” factor where that might work to some degree. Do you know if Microsoft is aggressively pushing large corporations to pick these up? That would be the opposite approach compared to Apple’s organic approach to get IT organizations to support iPhones.

            I agree in the consumer space the demand isn’t going to be there. Microsoft is fighting a war where they are flanked on all sides – pricing, wide selection of cheap “good enough” alternatives, and good competition from their own OEMs (Yoga), much better tablet alternative with the iPad, bad operating system, with bad operating system probably being the biggest obstacle for which they only have themselves to blame. Heck if I had upgraded my wonderful iPad 2 (still going strong) to an Air I probably wouldn’t have bought an SP3.

            Apple has perfected the mobile operating system in iOS, and have by reputation at least, seemingly perfected the desktop operating system in OSX. To me, they more than any company would be poised to capitalize on a 2 in 1, but why would they at the risk of cannibalization?

        3. And I’m sorry you’re having a hard time comprehending the test.

          The test Mr. Bajarin ran was operating each device from a completely closed state. That means that the Surface is NOT already propped up and the keyboard attached in the proper stance. It’s the Surface with the kickstand collapsed and getting the TypeCover into position. THAT’S what’s taking nearly 7 seconds. You could argue if that’s a long time or not (I don’t think it’s that long but I understand how maddening that could be when you’re comparing competing systems side-by-side; if there’s no contest then maybe the 7 seconds doesn’t matter) but the fact remains that opening a clamshell laptop is a hellavu lot quicker than getting the Surface up and running.

          With the MacBook (or frankly any other proper laptop like a Chromebook or a Lenovo Yoga) the experience is dramatically different. There’s no kickstand to prop open to set at just the right height or flimsy magnetized keyboard to snap against the bottom. You just open the lid and boom, Bob’s your uncle.

          I also think about the Surface Pro’s usefulness on anything but a desk or flat surface. I couldn’t imagine a student using a Surface Pro 3 on their lap as they sit legs crossed in a park or on the living room floor. The kickstand would likely cut into their legs/ankles as the keyboard flops around or causes the entire assembly to shake and shift.

          Secondly, you’re asking why they would target a $1,000 “full computer” to a $500 laptop? It could be because they already tried that and it didn’t work. The Surface has always been pitted against the iPad until only recently because MS was well aware that comparing a device as high as $1,900 (not including the TypeCover) wouldn’t be a good argument against $500 or even an $800 iPad (price of the 128GB iPad Air).

          I’m glad Windows 8 is working perfectly for you. Apple products aren’t for everyone just like Windows products aren’t for everyone. There are different workflows as well as expectations to consider that just don’t scratch many people’s itch. For me there are varied and detailed.

          After having used Macs for several years I have expectations that Windows still can’t satisfy. I’m very much spoiled on OS X’s Spaces that allows me to devote entire “screens” to a single application. I spoiled by Quick Look that provides an super-fast way to view content with a press of the space bar including playing videos, music and viewing PDF and Word files without opening any native applications. I expect a dictionary at my fingertips providing me with useful information without the need to open another browser window. I expect notifications that I can interact with and that are available later should I need to review them again. I expect the best trackpad experience with super smooth scrolling and rubber banding effects from the browser.

          Bottom line I expect total synergy from my iPad to my iPhone to my iMac to my Apple TV. This is something that’s always been a part of Apple’s ecosystem and will only get stronger with iOS 8 and Yosemite. Taking calls from my iPad or iMac even if my phone isn’t in the room, syncing notifications across all my devices, carrying on iMessage or SMS conversation from all my devices, using my phone as a hotspot without the need to dig into the settings, sharing files across all my iOS and OS X devices, and more.

          I also believe in the right device for the right time. Microsoft feels that you don’t need a washer and dryer. Just have one machine do them both. You don’t need a car and a truck just get a station wagon. You don’t need peanut butter and jelly in two separate jars, just one jar with both.

          Yes, that exists and no, it should not.

      2. I don’t see where he gets that 7 seconds thing. My Surface is there immediately if just in Sleep mode. Three seconds if in hibernation. And the Surface Pro 3 is every bit and more a “breakthrough” product as the iPad was. Nothing else does what the SP3 does. Certainly not the iPad. Certainly not the Mac Book Air. The keyboard is great and Windows 8.1 works wonderfully well on it. How can you not like Windows 8.1 on the Surface? They were made for each other. And it’s a great tablet too.

        1. From the article…

          “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.”

          If you can manage to do all that in less time than it takes to flip up a clamshell keyboard that would be interesting to see as it would all but defy the laws of physics.

          As for the Surface being a breakthrough product, I challenge you to find another product that was considered a breakthrough that cost a company nearly $1 billion because said company made so many that they were sitting on warehouse shelves, because no one wanted it.

          I’ll agree that the iPad and the MacBook don’t do everything the Surface Pro 3 does but I’d argue that if Apple wanted to create a 2-in-1 they would’ve done it already. As would Google but neither company is creating a 2-in-1 and yet they continue to compete and lead in their respective markets.

          Lastly, to suggest that the Surface is a “great tablet” is quite the misnomer. The MS Store is rather paltry in terms of great apps — ZDNet even did a spread about how the MS Store is a cesspool of scams, malware and fake apps — and a 12″ tablet is not only huge but also incredibly heavy to hold for long periods of time.

          I still think the Surface is a good product. We just disagree — along most of the internet — about its ability to be anything but a niche product for a small audience (evidenced by the fact that it’s still not selling very well after 3 attempts in 18 months).

  4. I come awfully close to damning all of humanity while waiting that 1.6 seconds for the Air to start-up. I’m a huge believer in the 2-in-1 form factor but can’t imagine considering a device in 2014 that makes me wait nearly 7 seconds before I can start using it.

  5. Two points, from someone using a SP1 since launch, both for work, and play.

    #1) I view a 2in1 as a value proposition. It IS a laptop and a tablet for me. And for that matter, after having it sub for my desktop PC (while it was in for repairs) I could easily see a SP4 or 5 becoming a 3in1 device for me.

    #2) I NEVER use my SP1 in portrait mode. My eyes are horizontal in orientation, and so are the apps I use. Being able to snap apps side by side is something I do all day long, and I just don’t see how that would be comfortable in portrait.

    1. Great comment…

      But do enterprise see the SP3 as a good value?

      It costs more than than a cheap laptop, and it costs more than an iPad. In enterprise costs, where sales reps can get by with a $300 PC with Office, and an iPad with custom software, the two devices may cost less the the SP3.

      Horizontal orientation ? I deal with doctors, lawyers, etc that all read .docx and .pdf in portrait on tablets.

      It seems that the people buying the expensive tablets, use them in portrait mode. For work.

      The target market of people using tablets in landscape are watching videos?


      1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another (outside) sales rep using a company issued $300 laptop, usually it’s a Toughbook, or a Lenovo business class device, all wrapped up in a heavy case. They look at my lightweight SP with envy. I have seen a few issued recently trying to get by with an iPad instead of a laptop, and none of them have anything complementary to say about the experience.

        The new 3:2 ratio on the SP3 would certainly better address the need to read .pdf/docx in portrait.

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