Hands on with Surface Pro 3: Lots to like, just not the price

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 has a larger screen than predecessors, and bridges the gap between laptops and tablets

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 would be a good tablet to replace my laptop, but at US$799 to start, it's just too expensive.

During a short hands-on with Surface Pro 3 at an event in New York, I found the tablet was faster, thinner and lighter than previous Surface Pro models, and the larger 12-inch screen made for comfortable reading and viewing. In a PC market desperate for innovation, the Surface Pro 3 stands big among the hybrid laptop-tablet models from other device makers.

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The 800-gram tablet felt lighter in the hand than the predecessor Surface Pro 2 despite the larger screen. But I preferred using the tablet placed on a table, giving it more of a PC feel.

Customers "wanted screens that were sized so they could work on it all day," explained Brian Eskridge, senior manager for Surface computing at Microsoft. "It's a tablet when you need it and a laptop when you want it," he told me.

The $799 model includes an Intel Core i3 processor and 64GB of storage, and $1,949 will buy you a Core i7 processor and a 512GB solid-state drive. The tablet will be available starting May 21 in Microsoft retail stores and Best Buy, and in more U.S. and Canadian stores starting June 20.

The model in my hand had a 2.5GHz Core i5-4300 CPU based on the Haswell microarchitecture, 256GB of storage and 8GB of DDR3 DRAM. The tablet booted in seconds and loaded applications faster than my current laptop with an Intel Ivy Bridge processor. The touchscreen was more responsive than the Surface Pro 2, which is less sensitive to pressure.

The screen was bright and lively, displaying images at a resolution of 2160 x 1440 pixels -- that seems an odd shift away from the regular 2560 x 1440 pixel screens adopted for laptops and monitors.

Some of the biggest improvements are not inside, but outside the tablet. The back kickstand can now be extended down to 150 degrees so the tablet can be placed in different positions. Another new feature is note-taking on screen through a rather large and clunky stylus, which required a AAAA battery.

The tablet's usability as a PC came alive with the detachable Type Cover, a hard keyboard attachment that magnetically secures itself under the screen. The earlier Surface Pro Type Covers, which attached at the bottom of the tablet, were prone to detaching easily when you're typing on your lap. Microsoft said the new Type Covers have a 70 percent larger trackpad and more "stability" features, but the scrolling experience seemed similar as on the older tablets.

Microsoft claims the tablet offers battery life of up to nine hours. Other features include 802.11ac Wi-Fi, two 5-megapixel back and front cameras, a USB 3.0 port, a mini-DisplayPort slot and a microSD card reader. An optional docking station expands the port options to include Gigabit Ethernet, display connectors and USB ports.

One big missing feature is LTE or any form of mobile broadband connectivity, and Eskridge didn't provide a specific date on when it would be added.

But the company's listening, and more features will be added depending on customer feedback, Eskridge said.

"[We] understand there's folks interested in LTE for this kind of device," Eskridge said. "We're listening and quickly iterating."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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