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5/30/2014
11:32 AM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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Surface Pro 3 Vs. World: Mobile Smackdown

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 hybrid tablet has ambitions that cross product categories. How does it compare to top mobile devices from Apple, Samsung, and others?



Surface Pro 3: The tablet that can replace a laptop?
Microsoft touts the Surface Pro 3 as the tablet that can replace a laptop. The company said the same thing about earlier Surface Pro models, none of which sold well enough to justify the claim. But thanks to a bigger screen and other improvements, the Pro 3 largely lives up to its billing.

Earlier Surfaces are interesting as small laptops, but with a 10.6-inch screen, cramped keyboard accessory, and limited kickstand, the Pro and Pro 2 were ultimately too small. As tablets, the devices handled awkwardly, hampered by their relative heaviness and landscape-centric 16:9 shape. The Surface Pro 3 corrects these problems. It has the screen real estate of a legitimate laptop, and though heavier than pure tablets at 1.76 pounds, it's lighter and thinner than earlier models. In fact, the Pro 3, though not as light and ergonomic as an iPad, is surprisingly easy to hold for long periods, thanks to its unique 3:2 aspect ratio.

The Pro 3's included Surface Pro Pen adds a superlative stylus experience to the mix. Out of the box, it offers a deeply integrated experience in apps such as OneNote and Fresh Paint, and will soon boast optimized third-party apps from major vendors such as Adobe. Using the pen isn't quite like applying ink to paper, but it comes close -- close enough for electronic notes and drawings to feel second nature after only a little practice.

The Surface Pro 3 is a terrific device, but it's still not an optimal choice for everyone. When he introduced the Pro 3, Microsoft corporate VP Panos Panay repeatedly compared it to both an iPad and a MacBook Air, arguing that it can replace both. He's right; the Surface Pro 3 can serve as a user's sole laptop and sole tablet -- but that doesn't necessarily mean it should.

If you're looking for a pure tablet experience, the Surface Pro 3 isn't as mobile, light, or easy to hold as an iPad, and it costs a hell of a lot more than the vast majority of Android and Windows slates. Then again, the newest Pro is one of the few tablets to effectively integrate a pen into the experience.

As a laptop, it's a topflight device, but arguably less befitting a "Pro" moniker than Apple's MacBook Pros, which are heavier but offer more raw power. The MacBook Air is a better comparison. It lacks the Pro 3's touchscreen hybridity, but as a conventional laptop, it's hard to beat and a big reason why Macs traditionally rule the market for $1000+ PCs. Its new kickstand allows the Pro 3 to sit on your lap better than its predecessors, but it still requires some fiddling to get going. More conventional designs such as the Air's require less fuss.

Even if you're a fan of 2-in-1 designs, the Pro 3 might be too pricey for what it offers. Few Windows hybrids are more complete and compelling, and fewer still can match the Surface Pro 3's luxurious build quality. But these perks will matter more to some users than to others, and if your basic goal is to squeeze a laptop and tablet into one device, there are cheaper ways to do so.

Ultimately, how much you get from the Surface Pro 3 depends how you use it. The device resists comparisons because it is fairly unique, but also invites comparisons because it includes elements found in other devices. Is it as good a laptop as the MacBook Air? As productive a tablet as the Galaxy Note Pro? A better hybrid than other Windows slates? Do you get more for $800 from an iPad Air or a Surface Pro 3?

If your requirements fall within the Pro 3's strengths, it's an outstanding option. But if you're not motivated by the device's unique combination of traits, you might prefer to keep your laptops and tablets separate. And even if you like hybrids, the Pro 3 is one of the pricier ways to go. Is it the right device for you? Explore this slideshow to see how the Surface Pro 3 compares to some of its main alternatives. And share your opinions in the comments field.

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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