Microsoft Surface Pro 3 full review

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: the same, but different

When Microsoft first launched the Surface tablets it pitched them squarely against Apple's market-leading iPad. And that was reasonable: after all Apple launched the iPad as a 'new category of device' that was going to change the way we did things. The iPad, we were told, would usher in the 'Post-PC world'. (See also: The 25 best tablets of 2014: What's the best tablet in the UK right now.)

Wrong on both counts. iPads are amazing gadgets, truly desirable pieces of tech. And they *can* do just about anything. But the truth is that most people use them as communications and entertainment devices. As a portable web browser, e-reader, TV and emailer the iPad excels. As a PC, not so much.

On the other hand the Surface Pro shares with the iPad only the fact that both are tablets. Surface Pro is a very portable PC. An ultrathin, ultraportable laptop without an integral keyboard. It *can* do all the things at which the iPad excels, but it is truly a challenger to the MacBook Air rather than the iPad. If you want an iPad alternative, you are better off looking in the Android tablet section. But if you would like to carry only one device on which you can do all of your work - the Surface Pro 3 is where you should be looking.

The iPad Air offers better battery life, and it is thinner and lighter. App support is better on the iPad. But the Surface Pro 3 offers true - onscreen - multitasking, as well as vastly great computational power. And who needs apps when you can install any Windows software?

The Surface Pro 3 is intended to replace your laptop and your tablet, in one device. It is priced as such, and was launched in that manner. The iPad Air is more likely to be your favourite gadget. Which one should you buy? Read our Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air comparison to find out. (See also: Surface Pro 3 review: can Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 really replace your laptop?)

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: UK price

The iPad Air retails with a starting price of £399 for the 16GB WiFi-only model. The 32GB Wi-Fi iPad Air costs £479, and the 16GB LTE iPad a little more. Apple offers a 32GB cellular model, at £579. Other options include 64GB and 128GB Wi-Fi only- and cellular iPad Airs. These range from £559 for the 64GB Wi-Fi iPad, up to £739 for a 128GB Wi-Fi and cellular iPad Air.

Surface Pro 3 starts at £639 inc VAT for a Core i3 device with 64GB storage. Upgrade to the 128GB Core i5 version and you will pay out £849 inc VAT. The other Core i5 version has 256GB storage and costs £1,109 inc VAT. And at the top fo the range there are two Core i7 devices, with 256GB and 512GB storage. These cost £1,339 inc VAT and £1,649 inc VAT respectively.

All the Surface Pro 3 tablets are Wi-Fi-only, by the way. On the face of it that might seem like an open and shut case: the iPad is the better deal. But as outlined above Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro replaces both a tablet *and* a laptop. (Indeed, with a separate screen and keyboard it could easily replace your desktop PC too.)

But there is another cost associated with Surface Pro 3 - the keyboard cover. If you want to use this device instead of a laptop you really do need to invest in either the Touch- or the Type covers. And they will cost you either £99 or £109, in addition to the tablet itself. (For more detail, see Surface Pro 3 release date, Surface Pro 3 UK price, Surface Pro 3 specs: how much is the Surface Pro 3?)

Surface Pro type Cover

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: build quality and design

Surface Pro 3 The Surface Pro excels in packing a lot into a little shell. It is a truly portable workstation PC, the thinnest Intel Core PC ever made. Microsoft has increased the Surface Pro screen size to a laptop-sized 12in, but reduced the weight to 800g. It's just 9.1mm wide. You can happily carry around the Surface Pro 3 in one hand.

Our colleague Agam Shah spent some time with the Surface Pro 3, and wrote: "I found the tablet faster, thinner and lighter than previous Surface Pro models, and the larger 12in screen makes 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."

Using the Surface Pro 3 on a desk or on your lap is a cinch. It has an integral kickstand that can be secured at any angle. And if you are preparted to upgrade to the Type Cover you can lock the keyboard to the display's lower bezel for easier working with the Surface Pro on your lap. You'll still want to use the Surface Pro 3 on a flat surface such as a desk, but it is nice to know you can work properly on your lap.  

"The tablet's usability as a PC comes alive with the detachable Type Cover, a hard keyboard attachment that magnetically secures itself under the screen. The earlier Surface Pro Type Covers, which attaches to the bottom of the tablet, are 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 seems similar to that of the older tablets," said Shah.

There's a new clickable Surface Pen, too, although Shah suggests that it is "rather large and clunky", and requires a AAAA battery. One click lets you activate the pen and start jotting down a note in OneNote, even while the Surface Pro is asleep; a double-click snaps a screenshot and saves it to OneNote.

Overall the Surface Pro 3 is a triumph of engineering. It packs into a thin, light, slick and desirable case a full-spec power PC. The build is mostly metallic, and Surface Pro 3 is put together beautifully.

Of course, that sentence could easily have been written about the iPad Air. The iPad Air seems much smaller than previous full-sized iPads, despite having a similar-sized screen. The iPad Air styling follows exactly the original iPad mini, with the same thinned bezel side edges with broader borders top and bottom.

The iPad Air is primarily a portrait-mode tablet in 3:4 aspect ratio, yet one that works well on its side in landscape. Contrast this with successive Google Android tablets that take a 16:9 widescreen, a shape that's better for video but when used for reading webpages or ebooks in portrait you get an overly tall narrow window.
When we first tried the new iPad Air we though it quite widescreen in appearance, not unlike a 16:9 device. The proportions didn't look right any more – by slimming the edges but not the sides, the tablet looked too tall, not so aesthetically 'right'.

Foremost, the iPad Air is about lightness. We tried a 128GB iPad with 4G modem and on the scales this – the heaviest possible version of the iPad Air – does weigh just 478g, and is only 7.5mm thick. If you've used any previous full-size iPad, you'll notice immediately the transformation from that circa-650g weight. But pick up the Xperia Z2 Tablet and you'll notice further lightness.

In general handling, the iPad Air is very light none the less. Yet we found the shape and feel much less tactile than the shape of the iPad 2, 3 and 4, with their gently curved radiuses at the rear and smooth snag-free edges around the front. The iPad Air has harder, less well finished edges which may add more purchase to the fingers but make it less satisfying to handle.

As a direct comparison the iPad Air is lighter and thinner. But the Surface Pro 3 has that integral kickstand, and for those that purchase the Type Cover, it does a pretty good impression of a laptop as well as being a more than servicable tablet. (Also read: Surface Pro 3 vs Surface Pro 2 comparison: new Windows tablet is bigger and better - but who will buy?)

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: display

As it does in terms of its display. But then, no-one ever accused the iPad Air of having a 'baf' screen.

The iPad Air is primarily a portrait-mode tablet in 3:4 aspect ratio, yet one that works well on its side in landscape. When we first tried the new iPad Air we thought it quite widescreen in appearance, not unlike a 16:9 device. The proportions didn't look right any more – by slimming the edges but not the sides, the tablet looked too tall, not so aesthetically 'right'.

The iPad Air screen is in essence unchanged since the first iPad with Retina display – a 9.7in capacitive touchscreen using IPS technology which delivers rich, faithful colours and clear viewing from any angle.

Strictly speaking it is a 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit MultiTouch display. And that IPS display is blessed with fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating.

That 2048x1536 resolution makes for a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch (ppi). You may find the odd tablet that is sharper, and certainly a few smartphones, but when you look at the iPad Air's display you see only a vibrant and sharp display.

As indeed you will when you turn to the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft has bumped up the Surface Pro's screen from 10.6- to 12in, giving you more space to get work done. It's still a ClearType full-HD panel, but now sports a resolution of 2160x1440. That's a small boost in pixel density from 207- to 216ppi.

"The screen is bright and lively, displaying images at a resolution of 2160x1440 pixels - that seems an odd shift away from the regular 2560x1440 pixel screens adopted for laptops and monitors," said Shah. However, he also noted that "The touchscreen is more responsive than the Surface Pro 2, which is less sensitive to pressure."

Two brilliantly bright, sharp and responsive touchscreens. The iPad Air's is marginally sharper, but smaller. So as with this whole debate the question to ask is: for what will I use this device? If you need a tool for visual work the Surface Pro 3 will be better. For the consumption of media get an iPad.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: processor, performance

ipad Air The Surface Pro 3 is available in models with Intel Haswell (fourth-gen) Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, with up to 8GB of RAM and 512GB of flash storage. This means, although the higher-spec models may be more expensive in comparison, they are just as powerful as any laptop on the market, and most desktop PCs. Microsoft also claims the Surface Pro 3 is 10 percent faster than the Surface Pro 2 (if that matters to you).

During the launch demonstration the Surface Pro 3 was shown running full-blown desktop Adobe Photoshop, and its inclusion of the full version of Windows 8.1 Pro means there's full support for Office and you can install any legacy Windows app or Modern UI app you like.

The model we spent time with had a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-4300 processor, a 256GB SSD and 8GB of DDR3 RAM. "The tablet booted in seconds and loaded applications faster than my current laptop with an Intel Ivy Bridge processor," noted Shah. We haven't yet had time to properly benchmark the Surface Pro 3.

We have rigorously tested the iPad Air, however. It runs an A7 processor clocked at 1.39GHz, paired with 1GB RAM. The iPad Air's solid-state storage options range from 16GB, through 32-, 64- and 128GB. We ran some benchmark tests, with the caveat that synthetic benchmarks should always be taken with a pinch of salt. They are a general guide only.

Nevertheless Geekbench 3 showed the iPad Air's processor clocked at 1.39 GHz – a tad higher than the Apple A7 in the iPhone 5s which reads 1.30 GHz – and it returned a score of 2703 points in multi-core mode; and 1487 points for a single core.

In the Egypt HD graphics test the iPad Air could play at an average framerate of 48 fps, and we really can't imagine anyone being disappointed by its gaming capabilities.

We're a little troubled by the sometimes unsmooth interface. This is a general criticism of iOS 7 but one we didn't expect to see on the latest iPad with bestest-yet graphics processor. Most apparent with app zooming, when you open or close an app and return to the home screen, we saw jittery animations. It's not always apparent, and we suspect many people will probably not notice, let alone be troubled by it. Elsewhere in text scrolling and pinch-to-zoom actions there were no such issues, as free and fluid as ever.

This is definitely a case of horses for courses. In terms of raw computational power the Surface Pro 3 is where it is at. But the iPad Air is a very responsive device and, where Windows 8.1 is a full-blown desktop OS, the iPad runs on iOS7 - a platform designed and coded for portable devices.

If you need a portable workstation for creative work with images or video, or you are a hardcore PC gamer, the Surface Pro 3 will be the better device. But for watching movies, communications, web browsing, apps etc, the iPad Air is super fast.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: battery life

The iPad Air's battery life is exemplary, with Apple assuring around 10 hours continuous use, while we found that occasional but steady use meant it could last the best part of a week between charges. By contrast Microsoft claims a battery life of nine hours when the Surface Pro 3 is used for web browsing. We haven't had a chance to test that out yet, but we would expect from the specification that the iPad Air will comfortably beat out the Surface Pro 3 in this respect.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: cameras, other features

iPad Air The iPad Air has a rear-facing 5Mp iSight camera, with f2.4 aperture. On the front is a 1.2Mp HD webcam. The former takes full-HD video. The front-facing camera is a 720p video camera for FaceTime and Skype. We found night-time Skype calls were more clearly lit than before.

A new 2x2 wireless setup means two antennae inside to improve Wi-Fi performance. In our tests we found no perceptible speed difference, since most iPad use is loading webpages where the internet connection is likely slower than Wi-Fi anyway. Range may have increased though, maintaining a usable connection further from a base station, and that is a useful bonus.

All the usual suspects are covered in terms of the Surface Pro 3's connectivity, except one: 4G LTE. The Surface Pro has no form of cellular connectivity, and Microsoft hasn't confirmed when or if this will be added.

Other features include 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, two 5Mp cameras (front and rear) that can capture full-HD video, a USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort slot, a microSD card reader and 45 percent louder Dolby-enhanced stereo speakers. An optional docking station expands the port options to include gigabit ethernet, display connectors and USB ports.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air: verdict

First things first: these are two outstanding devices. The iPad Air is the best 10in tablet around for media consumption, communication, games, web browsing and social media. If you want to make your commute more bearable and to surf the web while you watch TV, head for the iPad.

But if you can afford it and it makes sense to you to carry only one device that is PC, tablet and laptop, the Surface Pro 3 is a truly stunning achievement. (See also: The 25 best tablets of 2014: What's the best tablet in the UK right now.)


Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Specs

  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • Intel Haswell Core i3/i5/i7 processor
  • up to 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • up to 512GB SSD
  • 12in ClearType full-HD (2160x1440, 216ppi, 4:3) multitouch display
  • USB 3.0
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 2x 5Mp cameras (front and rear)
  • stereo speakers with Dolby sound
  • Surface Pen
  • battery life up to nine hours (web browsing)
  • 292x201.3x9.1mm
  • 800g

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