Microsoft Surface Pro 3 full review

We compare the all-new, budget, Surface 3 tablet with the exceptional Surface Pro 3 (review here). Can Microsoft's latest Windows laptop/tablet hybrid offer a good deal for students and home users, as its big brother does for professional Windows users? After all, Microsoft markets the Surface Pro 3 as 'the tablet that can replace your laptop'. What does that make the Surface 3? Read our Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison to find out. (See also: 32 best laptops for 2015: The best laptop you can buy in the UK.)

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison: what are they?

The simple answer is that both the Surface devices are Windows tablets - slates that run full Windows 8. But the truth is better, if more nuanced. The Surface Pro 3 is a game changer: the first truly portable power PC. It is both a Windows tablet, and a more-than-useful Windows laptop.

With all-day battery life and full PC power in a slate that you can slam into your backpack, the Surface Pro 3 is more MacBook Air than iPad, and in a much smaller device.

The question is: can the cheaper Surface 3 make a similar bargain at a lower price? Let's find out. (See also: Which laptop to buy: 2015 laptop buying advice, and the best laptops of 2015.)

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison: UK price

Announced on 31 March, coming out May 7, the Surface 3 is the latest Windows tablet from Microsoft.

The Surface 3 starts at £419 for the base model. There are four different configurations, but only two are currently available. These work out as follows:

64GB / 2GB RAM / Wi-Fi only -  £419
128GB / 4GB RAM / Wi-Fi only - £499

There are two LTE models we are told to expect at some point in the future. No pricing has been given for the two newer models, which mirror their Wi-Fi companions, but add 4G connectivity.

Here in the UK the Surface Pro 3 will cost you £639 for the base model. There are five configurations that differ in terms of what processor, storage and RAM you want; you can pay up to £1,649 for the Surface Pro 3. Here are full pricing details:

Core i3, 64GB, 4GB RAM - £639
Core i5, 128GB, 4GB RAM - £849
Core i5, 256GB, 8GB RAM - £1,109
Core i7, 256GB, 8GB RAM - £1,339
Core i7, 512GB, 8GB - £1,649

As a high-spec, powerful and portable laptop, then, the Surface Pro 3 is actually pretty cheap. Is the cheaper Surface 3 a good deal too? Let's take a look.

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison: build quality and design

The Surface 3 takes the Windows tablet line back to the future, in that it has a 10in display as did the original Surface tablets. (No longer a 10in tablet, the Surface Pro 3 is built around a 12in display.) We'll talk about the display in detail in the next section, but the first thing you will notice about the Surface Pro 3 is that this is a big tablet. It doesn't feel too big, however.

At 267 x 187 x 8.7 mm and 622 g the Surface 3 is thinner, smaller and lighter than the Pro 3. We measured our Core i5, 128GB Surface Pro 3 at 813g.

One of the benefits of the Surface Pro 3's bigger display is that there is more space in which to fit the Surface Pro 3's excellent components. The Surface Pro 3 measures 292 x 201.3 x 9.1mm, although that thickness figure increases to around 16mm with the Type cover included. Either way it's the thinnest Core PC ever made.

This is truly impressive engineering. Microsoft has squeezed into a lightweight slate a powerful PC. For a power laptop the Surface Pro 3 is truly ultraportable. It will slip into your bag or briefcase as easily as any laptop or netbook we have used.

How does the Surface 3 compare? It's specification isn't quite as impressive, but it is thinner, smaller and lighter.

With all the Surface devices build quality is universally excellent. Despite the light weight the Surface Pro 3 feels strong. It has a metallic feel, but the texture bears many of the characteristics of plastic. (See also: 38 best tablets of 2015: What is the best tablet in the UK?)

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3

The already impressive kickstand of the Surface Pro 3 can now be secured at any angle rather than the two of the previous model, and the optional Type Cover features a double-fold hinge that allows you to lock it to the display's lower bezel for easier working with the Surface Pro on your lap. The Surface 3's kickstand has only three settings - better than the original Surface, which is pretty good already. But if you ever work with your laptop on your laptop you will notice the different.

That is because the Surface Pro 3's kickstand/Type Cover combination makes for the ultimate in versatility. You can position the Surface in just about every position from flat to the desk to bolt upright. And the keyboard can sit flat or at a slight incline, like a desktop keyboard. Using the Surface Pro 3 on my lap is my most comfortable experience of working on my lap, but I still prefer to use it on a desk.

Regular commuter/workers should consider the Surface Pro 3, however. And if this matters, the additional kickstand versatility of the more expensive device may well be worth the cash.

Around the front, all the current Surface devices feature a single sheet of virtual end-to-end glass. The Windows symbol sits to the right in landscape mode or at the bottom in portrait. Switch on the screen and you'll see that the bezels are impressively small for such a thin and light PC.

We can't fail but be impressed with the build quality and design of the Surface tablets. They are the thinnest and lighest of thin-and-light PCs. Truly portable, powerful PCs.

We haven't yet had chance to spend sufficient time with the Surface 3, but the Surface Pro 3 is a perfectly servicable laptop, and a perfectly servicable tablet. It is sufficiently thin-and-light to work as an okay tablet, but the large screen size - critical for laptop use - means I'd always reach for a iPad mini or Nexus 7 for consumption purposes such as reading an e-book or watching a video. I just don't have the arm strength to want to use the Surface Pro 3. Perhaps the Surface 3 can bridge this gap.

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison: display

The Surface Pro 3 is built around a 12in ClearType full-HD Plus multitouch display. It is noticably sharper than the previous generations of Surface Pro, a genuinely impressive display at this size. A native resolution of 2160 x 1440 pixels makes for a decent pixel density of 216ppi.

The extra size makes the Surface Pro 3 a feasible laptop. It's a big difference from a 10in tablet with a keyboard attached. And that isn't the only upgrade. Whereas the aspect ratio was previously 16:9, the Surface Pro 3 is a 3:2 device. Open it in portrait mode and it feels like an A4 pad, but in landscape orientation movies look good.

As, indeed, does everything. Photos are bright and clear, full of colour and detail. And even at this resolution it is difficult to pick out pixels in dense text documents. It's a very good display. The multitouch screen is responsive, too.

By comparison the Surface 3 comes with a 10.8in ClearType Full HD Plus Display. Its resolution of 1,920 x 1,280 makes for a pixel density of 213ppi. Like its big brother the Surface 3 has an aspect ratio of 3:2.

They are, in essence, the same display. If you want the additional display real estate you need to cough up for the 12in device. And that may depend on whether you need a laptop more than you need a tablet. (See also: The 29 best Android tablets of 2015 UK.)

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison: processor, performance

The Surface Pro 3's specifications are truly impressive. Each model comes with a fourth-generation Intel Core processor, either i3, i5, or i7. This is paired with either 4GB or 8GB RAM, and storage options range from a 64GB SSD through 128GB, 256GB to 512GB. Our test model is a Core i5 model with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage. And, of course, it runs the full Intel version of Windows 8.1 Pro.

Sensors inlude ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. There's also a digital compass. Connectivity options abound. There is a full-size USB 3.0 port, as well as a microSD card reader that allows you to expand the Surface Pro 3's storage by 128GB. A Mini DisplayPort allows you to use a larger display with your Surface Pro 3. This is important: although there is a bespoke docking station you can buy to turn your Surface Pro 3 into a desktop PC, you could use it with any keyboard and display. So your Surface Pro 3 could be laptop, tablet and desktop PC. There's also a cover port and a headset jack.

If you wanted to use Bluetooth peripherals you could, as the Surface Pro 3 comes with Bluetooth 4.0. You get 802.11ac/802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi via a two-stream 11ac wireless adaptor. This is a Marvell Avastar 88W8897, to be exact, with a top theoretical wireless sync speed of 867 Mb/s.

It's the first non-Broadcom 11ac wireless chipset we've come across, although perhaps not without its teething problems. Some forum threads would suggest from when it first appeared in this tablet people had problems connecting to Wi-Fi. Happily this seems to have fixed, and we can confirm that we had absolutely no problems with Wi-Fi connectivity on the Surface Pro 3.

In use the Surface Pro 3 is zippy and fast. Even under load and attempting multiple processes it feels exactly as fast and capable as should a PC with this powerful specification. And the benchmarks bear this out.

In the PCMark7 benchmark the Surface Pro 3 managed a score of 4864. This is a very healthy score, a full 200 points ahead of the 13in MacBook Air with which the Surface Pro 3 will be most closely compared. It's definitely in the top echelon of portable PCs. (See also: 11 best ultraportable laptops of 2015 UK: Best Ultrabooks you can buy.)

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3

We haven't yet had time to test out the Surface 3, but we do know its specification. And for the price it is similarly impressive, if not as good as the Surface Pro 3. The big difference is that rather than an Intel Core processor you get a quad-core Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor (2MB Cache, 1.6GHz with Intel Burst technology up to 2.4GHz). As described above this is paired with either 2GB or 4GB RAM.

Expect performance on a par with a budget laptop: perfectly fine for productivity and communications, but - unlike the Surface Pro 3 - not enough power for high-end video- and image-rendering tasks.

Staying with the Surface 3 and storage options are either a 64GB- or 128GB SSD - there is a microSD card reader, too. Connectivity includes Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 4.0, a full-size USB 3.0 port, and Mini DisplayPort. You get stereo speakers with Dolby audio, and sensors include an ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer.

Basically, the Surface 3 is a less powerful version of the Surface Pro 3. (See also: Best budget laptops of 2015 UK: 37 best cheap laptops.)

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface 3 comparison: cameras, other features

The Surface Pro 3 comes with two 5Mp cameras - hardly high-end, but about what you'd expect from a laptop rather than a smartphone or tablet. A quick glance at the Microsoft forums shows that some people are unhappy with this. So let's be clear: the Surface Pro 3 is not a great camera. It is perfectly feasible to use as a conference calling, Skype machine. But it is not going to replace your DSLR or even your smartphone when it comes to capturing photos. We've included some test shots below.

As to video, both cameras can capture 1080p video. So for video calls the combination of great screen and 1080p camera is a good one.

And, guess what? The Surface 3 has what appears to be a better set of cameras. Not around the front, where a 3.5Mp front-facing camera looks after selfies. But the 8Mp rear-facing camera with autofocus sounds better. We'll have to wait to test it out. (See also: Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air comparison: Surface Pro is twice the device... but you'll still buy the iPad.)

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