New product development is a tricky business. Very occasionally, those designing new gadgets get them right straight away. But more often than not, it takes several “iterations” (sorry jargon police) of a product before it really is right.
Microsoft’s Surface laptop/tablet hybrid is a case in point.
The Surface Pro was ok, the Surface Pro 2 was an improvement. But the Surface Pro 3, which hits the shelves on 28 August, represents a coming of age of this strangely likeable device.
The first thing that’s noticeable when you unpack the Surface Pro 3 is that it’s significantly bigger than its predecessor.
The screen is now 12 inches, up from 10.6 inches, which according to Microsoft creates 30% more real estate to work on. It’s also thinner and 100g lighter than before, and in its PR literature Microsoft explicitly compares its dimensions to that of an 11 inch Macbook Air, giving you a sense of what segment of the market this product is being pitched (more on that anon).
Another feature that’s changed for the better is the kickstand.
The first Surface Pro had an annoyingly rigid single position kickstand, which morphed into a two position variant on the Surface Pro 2. But the 3 has a multi-position stand, which when combined with the optional magnetically attached backlit keyboard (€134.99), gives it a rigidity and flexibility to rival a laptop.
Also on the outside there’s a revamped charging cable slot, a USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort (which will drive two 1080p screens or one 4k screen), a microSDXC card reader for up to 128GB and a headphone jack.
The magnesium casing still has venting most of the way around its perimeter to keep the innards cool – so no water resistance here. But then, who would take a laptop into the bath?!
Turn it on and the ClearType full HD touch screen immediately catches the eye. It has a higher resolution than the last version of the device (from 1920 x 1080 to 2160x1440), and Microsoft says it is now “pixel free” i.e. individual pixels can’t be picked out by the naked eye.
It’s also claimed that it has the highest contrast ratio available.
Altogether, it makes for a rich, clear and colourful experience from all angles. The aspect ratio has also been changed to 3:2. Microsoft says this is to make holding it feel similar to holding paper – a bit of a stretched analogy it has to be said.
Inside the device is powered by Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors with either 4GB or 8GB of RAM, and up to 512GB of flash storage.
That puts it on a par with most decent business laptop ranges, and certainly during the time I tested it, the device zipped along nicely.
Battery power has been improved, and officially the company claims it will hold up to nine hours of web browsing on a single charge.
However, already people who are using it for more heavy duty applications over prolonged periods have questioned the battery life, which might be an issue for a device that purports to be a laptop.
The cameras have been improved to 5MP front and rear, and both record 1080p HD video.
Their performance is fine for rudimentary snaps and video, though compared to other premium tablets they lack the software gizmos that are becoming the norm. Audio performance has also been upped, with 45% more volume coming from the speakers that are now on the front, not the side.
The considerably improved keyboard remains optional (inexplicable really for a product aimed at being a laptop killer), but the pen is included.
It’s designed to make the Surface Pro 3 a natural replacement for paper note taking and features a one click function which automatically opens OneNote, even when the device’s display is locked.
There’s also character recognition built in to allow written notes to be searchable, while written text can be converted into typed text.
A double-click on the pen will also allow users to capture a screenshot.
Some of these pen input elements were developed by a team at Microsoft’s Leopardstown offices. They are impressive and work really smoothly. However, it’s questionable how many users will actually fully utilise this set of features, much vaunted by Microsoft.
There’s also an optional docking station (€204.99) due for release in the coming months, with one Mini DisplayPort, 5 USB ports (three of which are USB 3.0), a 1GB Ethernet port and a speaker socket, which may prove attractive to IT managers looking at consolidating the number of devices used in the office.
The Surface Pro 3 runs on Windows 8.1 Pro. It comes with a range of pre-installed Microsoft apps, some of which you might want, and others you probably won’t.
As someone who still regularly uses a laptop as well as a tablet, I’ve always liked the concept of the Surface.
Many of the niggles in the earlier models have been removed and what remains is a pretty solid, fast and versatile piece of kit. In its PR literature, Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 is for “anyone who lives their life on the go”, and goes on to refer to business professionals, students and anyone who carries a notepad and pen.
In reality, though, with a keyboard free starting price of €819 (for the entry level model with an i3 processor, 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM), rising to €1,989 at the top end, this is in reality a business person’s device.
Is it likely to replace traditional laptops and premium tablets everywhere? Certainly not. But for those with the money, and an open mind, there’s plenty to offer under the Surface.