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6/23/2014
02:45 PM
Michael Endler
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Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Why To Buy

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is finally available. But just because you can replace your laptop with the Surface Pro 3 doesn't mean everyone will want to.

Surface Pro 3 Vs. World: Mobile Smackdown
Surface Pro 3 Vs. World: Mobile Smackdown
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

If you've read any reviews of Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 -- mine included -- you've likely been told it's a device that will appeal to some people, but not to everyone. This raises a question: How are you supposed to know which group you're in?

It's difficult to answer, because there are two distinct angles from which would-be buyers can approach Microsoft's new tablet, which hit stores Friday. Some think of the Pro 3 in terms of other devices. They might ask how it competes as a laptop with the MacBook Air, or whether it's as good a tablet as an iPad. Others look beyond comparisons, because the new Surface is unlike any other device currently available.

[Want to see more on the Surface Pro 3? See Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Visual Tour.]

I'll get to the latter group in a minute, but suffice it to say that, for certain jobs and work styles, the Pro 3's unique traits could be transformative. The former group, which I'll tackle first, is trickier.

Microsoft calls the Pro 3 the tablet that can replace a laptop, which is fair. Thin, light, fairly powerful, and more ergonomically polished than any of its predecessors (if not than any other 2-in-1), the Pro 3 is undeniably a nice laptop. When using earlier Surfaces, I never forgot that I was using a small, cramped, and compromised laptop. With the Pro 3, I don't feel these distractions. I can just work.

But just because you can replace your laptop with the Surface Pro 3 doesn't mean everyone will want to. The device's kickstand-based stability didn't bother me, but the approach is still fundamentally different from the clamshell designs most of us are used to. The difference is minute if you work at a desk, but whether you'll like balancing the Pro 3 on your lap is more subjective.

The Surface Pro 3's infinitely adjustable kickstand provides solid stability, but it's not the same as a clamshell design.
The Surface Pro 3's infinitely adjustable kickstand provides solid stability, but it's not the same as a clamshell design.

The Surface Pro 3's design makes it thinner and lighter than any comparably powerful alternatives, but it's not like many people have criticized the newest Ultrabooks -- let alone the MacBook Air -- as being too thick and heavy. Eventually, thinness hits a point of diminishing returns. Depending on your budget and needs, the Pro 3 might be past that point. Moreover, even if you prioritize sleek form factors, the market will be flush by early next year with even thinner, lighter devices, thanks to Intel's next-generation Broadwell processors.

Ultimately, if someone were to say the Surface Pro 3 is one the best laptops available, I wouldn't quibble -- which is saying something. If anyone tried to similarly lionize the Surface Pro or Surface Pro 2, I'd have called that person crazy. But if people were to say the Pro 3 simply didn't "click" with their needs, I wouldn't quibble with that, either -- especially given the Surface's price.

As a tablet, meanwhile, the Pro 3 is a different animal from an iPad. That hasn't stopped Microsoft execs from making the comparison; when the new Surface was introduced, Microsoft corporate vice president Panos Panay repeatedly juxtaposed it with a MacBook Air and an iPad, implying that the Pro 3 could replace both. This might be true for individual users, but on the whole, it's wishful thinking on Microsoft's part.

Sure, the Pro 3 overlaps in places with the iPad Air, but the devices handle differently and are good at different things. It's easy to draw equivalencies between them now that Office is available on iPads, but from apps to OS to ergonomics, the devices aren't interchangeable. I could see someone owning a Surface Pro 3 in addition to an iPad, but I'm skeptical that the former is truly a replacement for the latter.

But as I mentioned previously, there's more than one way to approach the Surface Pro 3. Compare it to devices you already know and like, and you'll probably find shortcomings. But think of its unique qualities, and you might find new ways of doing things.

The Surface Pro Pen, for example, creates a new category of tablet experience. Yes, iPads have more apps, and yes,

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio
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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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6/23/2014 | 3:12:38 PM
shopper report
Did you go play with the Surface pro 3 in a store this past weekend? Let's hear from you.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
6/23/2014 | 4:11:15 PM
Enterprise or bust
Some of the features cited here make a good case for on-the-go workers -- quick access to Office, namely OneNote, and the pen functionality. But I don't think consumers will ever buy into this and maybe that won't matter to Microsoft as long as enterprises start using it. It's priced at the same level as the MacBook Air (Surface Pro 3 is more expensive when you go head-to-head on specs) so it can't really win over consumers on price. It's a unique device but still a tough sell. The iPad comparisons never made sense to me.

But here's one short-term strategy that could work.

Microsoft offers $650 store credit for MacBook Air for Surface Pro 3 trade-in
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/23/2014 | 5:20:09 PM
Re: Enterprise or bust
Let's hear it, MacBook Air owners, any takers? $650 back (or maybe less... see the fine print) takes a lot of sting out of the Surface Pro 3's cost.



Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/23/2014 | 4:16:03 PM
Re: Reveal Any Compensation From Micro$oft...
That's fine. I won't try to debate you, especially since your post's paucity of specific complaints leaves little to debate. But I think it's a little funny you find this article so outlandishly pro-Surface, given that it includes several paragraphs that explain why someone might prefer other devices, including the MacBook Air.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/23/2014 | 4:57:44 PM
Re: shopper report - Microsoft Surface Pro 3
@LEdwardsAK,

Thanks for all the comments! Cool that you are enjoying your Surface. Here are a few thoughts.

"The issue regarding it an iPad replacement, why not?"

You bring up several good points, but I think there are several reasons. For some people, the Surface Pro 3 could replace an iPad; as you demonstrate, there are ways to mitigate the app issue. I think some people would hesitate to consider it an iPad replacement for the reason you cited—they're attuned at least somewhat to the Apple environment, and even if they're interested in a Surface Pro 3, the synergies between, say, the user's iPhone and iPad might get in the way. But I also think the ergonomic issue I alluded to in the article is valid. Each device encourages you to use it and hold it in different ways, and depending what you like to do, that might be a big difference, or no difference at all. The Surface is great as a note-taking tablet, but for web-browsing and apps, I find iPads easier and more comfortable to hold. For apps that involve interacting with your environment via the camera, I also find the iPad more agreeable. Likewise, UI can't be discounted. In the Surface's tablet mode, you're using Live Tiles and Modern Apps. Some of this looks and feels like iOS, and some of it doesn't. You can learn either UI, and they're both basically fine—but Apple has always had the edge when it comes to luring people in via the UI, and though iOS has its messy points, I think that's still the case, by and large. It's fine to be utilitarian and to not care personally about the aesthetics of the UI—but just as some people scoff at Apple's showy animations or claim illness after looking at iOS's parallax effect, there are millions of others who feel empowered by Apple products precisely because the UI works for them. For the preceding reasons, I was careful in the article not to say that one tablet was better than the other, per se—only that they're different. I can imagine some people preferring one to the other, some people being indifferent, and some people (with big device budgets) using both. Like I said, I can see individuals replacing an iPad with a Pro 3, but I can't see that in general.

"I have paired it with the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Bluetooth mouse because I generally favor using a mouse over trackpads of any size for my day-to-day work."

Has the new Surface Pro 3 trackpad swayed you at all? The ones on earlier Type Covers were worthless, but the new one is pretty nice. A mouse still helps, though.
 
"Also the clicker on the pen can be reprogrammed to do other actions such as opening another program instead when clicked."

Good point! Thanks for pointing that out.

" In the end its all about choices..."

Agreed. I don't think one can definitively say that the MacBook Air or the Surface Pro 3 is better than the other. They're both nice devices, and they'll both have a place. It's good to be able to choose more than one kind of great device at any given price. It lets us personalize our workflows and encourages the device-makers to stay on their toes. After all, even an Apple die hard has to hope the Surface Pro 3 does well enough to encourage Apple to hurry up with those Retina MacBook Airs, right?
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/23/2014 | 5:44:02 PM
Re: Surface Pro is another device for it's purpose
@howeIn

Thanks for sharing the experiences with the Surface Pro 2. I think you say it well-- the Surface Pro 2 is neither tablet nor laptop but something else, more like its own category. I think you can call the Pro 3 a laptop more easily than you could either of the first two-- but it's still something different as well.

I think if you liked the Pro 2 you'll definitely like the Pro 3. Unless I'm making major allowances for a small niche of users (e.g. people who value the Surface Pro 2's smaller footprint above all else), I can't think of a way that the Pro 3 isn't better.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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6/23/2014 | 5:49:14 PM
Re: Surface Pro 3 is TERRIFIC
@Ira,

"I am unsure if it is safe to have any computer functioning in close contact to my body."

I'd wondered that too. When I was younger, my mother, no doubt thinking of future grandchildren, always used to warn me about using laptops on my lap. I don't hear people talk about that concern much any more-- but I did a quick Google search and found tons of recent stuff on the topic. At least with a device like the Pro 3, you don't have a big battery sitting directly on your lap.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/23/2014 | 6:06:22 PM
Re: Too expensive
@WillNy3

Thanks for the thoughts. I think you're right—if you want to maximize qualities such as PC specs or tablet app access, the Surface Pro 3 isn't a very frugal option. That said, I don't think it's designed for people with those priorities. The MacBook Air is pretty successful, and the Surface Pro 3 generally meets or exceeds the MacBook's spec standards, so I think for its target audience of mobile professionals, the Surface Pro 3 brings enough power. I admit I'd like to see an option with a more powerful GPU, but the i5-based demo unit with 8 GB of RAM hasn't had any problem keeping up with whatever I've needed. I can't fault Microsoft for balancing  form factor and power the way it has. The Pro 3 is a unique device, and the extent to which you can justify its high cost is the extent to which that uniqueness matters to you.

Also, Chrome and touch don't get along well—very true. Good point.

Also agree that the original Touch Covers were awful. The second-generation keyboards were serviceable. The one released alongside the Pro 3 is quite good. It's more rigid and spacious (though I'm pretty sure key travel and layout are actually the same), and includes a very nice (though not MacBook-level nice) trackpad.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/26/2014 | 3:20:41 PM
Re: Surface Pro 3 is a great productivity device for a lot of people, but probably not for the mass market
@indranil

Yes, definitely, the Surface Pro 3 will be a fine device for many students. Much more practical than the early models, in that regard.

As for marketing, I think they've corrected some problems while introducing others. The original Surface ads were sort of entertaining, but breakdancing employees and stomping school girls didn't really communicate how the devices were supposed to work. For the second-generation devices, Microsoft corrected this problem. The current Surface Pro 3 ad is probably the strongest one yet; in 30 seconds, it gives you a pretty fair and accurate look at all the ways you might use the device. It also doesn't hurt that the current commercial advertises a better product. But even though the commercials are better, many have questioned whether Microsoft should be emphasizing comparisons with the MacBook Air. While I can see why Microsoft is making the comparison, I can also see how it further muddies the waters regarding what Surface is, and for whom.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/26/2014 | 3:23:38 PM
Re: Enterprise or bust
Compared to any other single manufacturer, Apple retains customers very, very well. Considering how expensive its computers are, that says something, doesn't it?
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/26/2014 | 3:47:00 PM
Re: Too expensive
@anon,

While Apple vs. Microsoft conversations often incite kneejerk fanboyism, I think there's more value to Apple than mere rhetoric. Admittedly, it's not all easy to quantify.  But Apple's usually the top seller of $1000+ PCs (which sometimes surprises people—but it makes sense if you think about it, given that virtually all Macs are more than $1000). Granted, Apple's popularity among affluent people doesn't dismiss the possibility that some people with too much money buy Apple products just to be fashionable. Nevertheless, this popularity indicates that people with enough money to be discerning choose Apple at a much higher rate. One assumes that some of these people perceive real value, rather the trendies, given the large numbers we're talking about.

Additionally, even though Apple machines use the same components as cheaper Windows machines, for certain kinds of performance, Apple machines perform better, thanks to Apple's tight control of both hardware and software. Moreover, while the internal components might be comparable to those in cheaper Windows devices, the external components are a different issue. I know design don't matter to everyone, especially if you're particularly utilitarian, but it matters to others—and if you make people comfortable, they'll be more productive. I think you can also make some arguments in favor of OS X, maybe not on the IT side, but for users, it's clearly a different aesthetic than Windows, and features such as Spaces are pretty great. Does that mean everyone would buy a MacBook Pro if money were no object? No, of course not. As you point out, gamers have better options, and if you're running a business and need to be frugal, you can get the job done with Windows machines while spending half as much. And even though I like OS X, I wouldn't fault somehow who subjectively just doesn't like it. But the point is—Macs provide some empirical value, and even if some of Apple's benefits aren't as tangible as specs, I think it offers more than rhetoric.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/26/2014 | 3:50:54 PM
Re: shopper report
Yeah, it'll be a real bummer if Microsoft runs into the same inventory problems that it ran into with the 256 GB Pro 2. They've given themselves some breathing room before the i3 and i7 models are expected, so hopefully they can meet their deadlines. I expect demand will be higher than it was for previous models, but we're not talking about iPad-level demand. If Microsoft could produce too many first-gen Surfaces, then they have the capacity to produce enough Pro 3s-- as long as they've planned well.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/26/2014 | 3:54:16 PM
Re: What about the glued in components/built in obsolescence/ impossibility to repair?
@beyond,

That's really disappointing. Thanks for sharing your experience-- sorry it didn't turn out better. Panos Panay tossed the Surface Pro 3 on the floor when he launched the device, in order to demonstrate its durability. Given that Microsoft is now volunteering that the device can survive a fall, I wonder if people will experience the same kind of service that you did.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
6/28/2014 | 8:45:50 AM
At the desk vs. ...?
They make ergonomic floor stands for tablets that will allow you to place them at just the right comfortable height for you, wherever you are (i.e., whether at a desk, on a couch or recliner, or even in bed).  This is especially important for somebody like me who has back and neck issues.
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