Now onto the third generation of its Surface device family, Microsoft is just starting to swagger a little and has created something elegant enough to take on the MacBook Air.
I’m sure this very thought would horrify the Apple faithful. I’m sure already there have been a few sharp intakes of breath. But when it comes to lightness and bling, on the computer front there’s a new kid in town.
I’ve always made the point that with the Surface family of devices that began with Windows 8, currently run on Windows 8.1 and no doubt very soon will run on Windows 9 have been vastly underestimated.
In tech circles, for example, refinement often means being seen with an expensive device with a glowing white apple on the back of the screen. Laptop PCs, which most of these self-appointed trendsetters mostly cut their teeth on, were used by the everyman, the plebs, the travelling salespeople and students.
When the iPad came along in 2010 computing supposedly got a whole lot lighter and easier. But while people enjoyed making fools of themselves trying to take photos with a 10-inch screen device or tweeted from their couch at late night TV shows – the promise of light devices, even with Android tablets, replacing fully-fledged computers as workhorses has not yet been fully realised.
It is clear that with its new Surface Pro 3 family Microsoft is not only continuing on its crusade to make computing more versatile without surrendering or compromising on power, but it has Apple’s MacBook Air firmly in its sights.
What Microsoft wants – no, craves, – is to be seen as not only functional but stylish too.
With the Surface Pro 3 I think it meets these objectives. Not only that, it has made a device that is affordable too.
Look and feel
The most obvious difference between the Pro 3 and on first glance is the size of the device – it sports a 12-inch screen compared with the 10.6-inch screen on the Surface Pro 2.
In overall dimensions and shape, the Surface Pro 3 boasts an overall 38pc increase in screen real estate for the user.
The keyboard, when slotted onto the screen, is certainly firmer and more rigid than its predecessors. It also has a nice velvety material and adding the backlit keys is a masterstroke.
In the race for relevance and setting Apple’s MacBook Air as its target, the Surface Pro 3 is about 1Ib lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air and 30pc thinner.
The device comes with the fourth generation Intel Core Haswell processor family starting with the i3 before moving up to the Core i5 and i7 processors.
The machine I reviewed boasts the Intel Core i5 processor with 1.90GHz of computing power and with 4GB of RAM.
The machine is capable of nine hours of web surfing battery life and coated in a nice silver magnesium alloy body it weights just under 2 Ib.
Unlike the Pro 1, which had only one setting for the kickstand, or the Pro 2, which had two settings so you could balance it on your knees more comfortably, the Pro 3’s kickstand can be configured to any position you wish and can be made almost horizontal to boost collaboration.
Compared with its predecessors it certainly has the bling factor. With the Surface Pro 1 and 2, which were both identical, had smaller screens and were coated in black, you can’t help but feel that the lightness, allied with a silver coating and larger screen, is making a statement.
The evolution of computing
Microsoft has stubbornly refused to let the laptop/notebook paradigm die and if anything the Surface Pro 3 is testament to the long-held vision of computers as a replacement for pen and paper.
The 12-inch screen in shape is the closest a notebook device has come in scale and weight to an A4 notepad for example. While tablet devices like the iPad Air may be lighter, remember this is a notebook with full desktop computing power inside.
Like I said, I think Microsoft’s Surface family has been underestimated by the broader computing world and this is a pity. What you have with the Surface is the choice between a tablet computer when you wish, a notebook computer with a complete desktop within and now a device you can neatly write and capture data on.
What I’m getting at here is the Surface Pen. Essentially the Surface Pen can be used to handwrite onto the screen of any Microsoft Office program. But ultimately I see the Surface Pen as a companion fundamentally to Microsoft’s OneNote software, which when combined with the cloud gives apps like Evernote and Dropbox a run for their money.
The idea behind the Surface Pro 3’s Pen is that it will provide a more natural writing experience and the device is designed to interpret 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. So, for example, the harder you lean the pen on the Surface screen the thicker and darker the ink.
The close compatibility between OneNote and the Surface Pen can be seen in one of my favourite features. If you are looking at a web page, Excel document, PDF or anything on the screen and you want to capture it and make a note just double tap the top of the pen, draw a square around the area you want to capture and it goes straight into OneNote.
If it’s an Excel file outlining accounts, for example, you can scribble notes onto the image and then email it on to whomever you wish.
In time this kind of working tool and abilities will be par for the course but in this instance Microsoft is in the vanguard.
The 12-inch screen gives the Surface Pro 3 a shape is in keeping with what most people who use notebook computers and who are precious about screen real estate would expect. The 3:2 aspect ratio also gives an added cinematic effect if you are watching movies or videos.
As I mentioned the device comes with a long battery that enables up to nine-hours of web browsing on a single charge.
The device has one full-size USB 3.0 port and while this ups the game in the tablet-computing world, if you use it primarily as a workhorse then I think future models should come with at least two USB ports.
The 5MP front and rear cameras can record 1080p HD video and photos and Microsoft has added a nifty wraparound panorama feature.
The speakers in the device are front and rear facing and Microsoft claims they are 45pc louder than previous models using Dolby Audio-enhanced sound.
The Surface Pro comes with a microSDXC card reader which can add up to 128GB of storage.
In terms of sheer computing power, design and functionality the Surface Pro 3 is firing on all cylinders. Whether it beats the MacBook Air on looks is really a matter of taste, but in terms of raw computing power, ease of use and versatility Microsoft holds a trump card.
I found the computer to be blisteringly fast and in terms of its so-called “pixel free” 2K resolution 2160 x 1440 screen, it is a real competitor to the MacBook Air with Retina.
Where I feel the Surface Pro 3 will fall down against the Apple device is its one single USB 3.0 port compared with the two USB 3.0 ports on the MacBook Air.
That said, the Surface Pro 3 comes with a Mini DisplayPort which functions in the same way as Apple and Intel’s Thunderbolt to project to a bigger screen.
Also next month, Microsoft will launch a new docking station for the Surface Pro 3 that comes with an Ethernet Port, Mini Display Port and five USB ports (three USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports).
Like I’ve said, the Surface line-up and Microsoft’s vision for a versatile computing future that marches in step with our work and personal lives need wider recognition and appreciation. But this is going to take time under the tutelage of new CEO Satya Nadella.
Microsoft will, however, need to deploy a slick marketing engine like Apple’s and win allies if it wants perceptions to change.
The sheer technology firepower in the new Surface Pro 3 is beyond anything we could have imagined a decade ago and if anything Microsoft is pushing out the boundaries.
The Surface Pro 3 will be released in Ireland this week and will be available at Harvey Normans, Currys as well as online from Microsoft.
The Surface Pro 3 comes in five models: starting with an Intel Core i3 with 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM for €819 (including VAT); a Core i5 with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM for €1,019; a Core i5 processor with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM for €1,329; a Core i7 with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM for €1,579; and an Intel Core i7 with 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM for €1,989.
I'm happy to give the Surface Pro 3 a 5/5 star rating.