If you need to stay productive when you’re away from your desk, Microsoft’s latest “hybrid” tablet/notebook could be the gadget you’ve been looking for.
The boom in portable devices makes it easier to stay on top of things while you’re out and about, but remaining productive while you’re on the road is always a balance between portability and usability. Apple and Android tablets hit the sweet spot for some people, but life becomes more complicated if you’re not prepared to sacrifice a physical keyboard and traditional desktop applications.
This is where Microsoft’s Surface Pro range comes to the fore, especially if you’re already using Office 365 and are wedded to the Microsoft ecosystem. With a slick detectable keyboard, the Pro can easily switch from tablet to notebook and back again.
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The Surface Pro 3 runs a full version of Windows 8.1 Pro, giving you the choice of using the touch-friendly “Modern UI” tiles or pushing them aside to see the traditional Windows desktop and install your own software. This gives you the flexibility to stick with the software and services you use with the computer on your desk, rather than having to find mobile-friendly workarounds.
While Windows 8 can be frustrating on a desktop computer, it feels right at home on a tablet.
You can ignore Modern UI completely but if you give it a chance you’ll find yourself relying on the desktop less and less. Unfortunately even with the update to Windows 8.1 there’s still an awkward split between the Office environments in the desktop and Modern UI interfaces.
If you’ve got an Office 365 account you can run desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access on the Surface Pro 3, just as you would on a notebook or desktop PC. Unfortunately we’re still waiting for Microsoft to release the full touch-friendly Office suite to run in Modern UI, which is expected to arrive next year.
For now you’ll only find Modern UI versions of OneNote for taking notes (with support for the supplied stylus), Skype for voice/video calls and OneDrive for accessing your online storage.
The Modern UI Mail app can also link to Hotmail and Gmail accounts as well as your business Exchange or IMAP server, but not POP3.
These Modern UI and desktop Office applications work together smoothly because they’re linked in the background, but it will be great to see Microsoft finally deliver on the long-promised Modern UI apps next year.
As for hardware, the Surface Pro 3 has undergone a major overhaul since last year’s model –putting consumer-focused features on the backburner as it puts productivity first. Microsoft is clearly positioning the Surface Pro 3 as a notebook replacement which can also act as a tablet, rather than vice-versa.
While the Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter than its predecessor, it sports a larger 12-inch screen, which is great if you tend to work with several applications at once. Split-screen mode lets you run two or three apps side-by-side, using a mix of desktop applications and Modern UI tiles.
With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has added the choice of Core i3, i5 or i7 processors with 4 or 8GB of RAM, so you can choose the right level of grunt to suit your needs.
The new screen offers a 3:2 aspect ratio – shaped like a sheet of paper – rather than the 16:9 aspect ratio shaped like a widescreen television. While the 16:9 shape favoured by Android tablets is great for watching movies, the 3:2 shape feels much more natural when you turn a tablet on its side to read or edit documents.
Of course the detachable Type Cover keyboard has always been the Surface Pro’s killer feature. The keyboard attaches with magnets and is easy to rip off when you don’t need it, but the tablet is also smart enough to disable the keyboard when you fold it behind the screen.
The new Type Cover has undergone an overhaul, with a bigger trackpad and rejigged keys. The foldout stand on the back of the tablet has also been improved so the screen stands at any angle, which is handy whether you’re working on a flat surface or balancing it on your knees.
While the Surface Pro 3 starts at $979 for the entry level Core i3 model, the Type Cover is an $150 optional extra even if you’re shelling out $2279 for the top of the line model with a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. Considering that the detachable Type Cover is such a key part of the package, it’s a shame that Microsoft can’t throw it in for free at least with the more expensive models.
That said; the Surface Pro 3 looks more attractive if you weigh it up against the cost of buying both notebook and a tablet, and then the hassle of carrying both in your travel bag.
All up, the Surface Pro 3 makes for an impressive notebook replacement and can stand toe-to-toe with your typical Windows 8 Ultrabook: the ability to tear off the keyboard and just use the touchscreen, whether it’s for work or play, is the icing on the cake.
The Surface Pro 3’s high price tag makes it less viable as a replacement for an Android or Apple tablet, but Microsoft’s tablet could still win you over if you want the best of the desktop and mobile worlds in the one device.
David Hancock is the founder and managing director of Geeks2U, a national on-site computer repair and support company.