Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Does the Surface Pro 3 do what Microsoft suggest?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with keyboard/coverThe advertising for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet PC includes the strapline “The tablet that can replace your laptop”. The most important word in this boast is the smallest – “can”. It doesn’t say “will” or “does”, it says “can”.

I’ve been intrigued by the Microsoft Surface 3 since I saw an earlier model last year. As an IT consultant who almost always sees clients and their problems in front of their own computers, it’s important for me to be as well equipped as possible when looking at clients’ problems. Netbooks were a bit of a revolution in this respect, but they are quite low-powered compared with a “proper” laptop, their screens are small, and they are as slow to boot up as any laptop.

So what does the Surface Pro 3 offer that’s different?

  • The drive is solid state. This means it’s very fast and. more importantly for me when I’m with a client, it boots up in a matter of a few seconds. The other big advantage of a SSD is that there are no moving parts, so it’s much less vulnerable when moving it around.
  • The screen of the Surface Pro 3 is 13″ (across the diagonal, of course). This doesn’t sound much bigger than a 10″ netbook screen, but it is. I don’t feel any discomfort or strain in using the 13 inch screen for extended periods. In most situations, the high resolution screen of the Surface Pro 3 gives a beautiful, crisp, bright image. Read on, however, for the huge downside as far as the screen is concerned.
  • The model that I bought is about in the middle of the range. It has a 256gb solid state drive (SSD), an i5 processor, and 8gb RAM. This makes it a perfectly respectable machine in terms of performance.

Yes, I went and bought one a month or so ago (I don’t event want to think of the runaround that PC World gave me in buying it, and I still don’t understand why John Lewis have decided not to stock a machine in the middle of the range).

Anyway, I was extremely impressed initially, and found that I really did start to carry it around with me instead of my iPad when seeing clients. It certainly does offer more “usefulness” in this type of situation. I do still like it so much that I’m trying my best to live with the downsides, but, frankly, I’d be embarrassed if any of my clients bought a Surface Pro 3 on the strength of my enthusiasm without making the downsides very clear.

The downsides

Magnifying glassThere’s only one USB port – albeit a fast USB 3 port. OK, this is a clear limitation that you may have to live with, and one port is more than you get on an iPad. I dare say you could attach a hub to extend this to four or more ports, but these are never very satisfactory if you’re connecting a CD/DVD drive (which the Surface Pro doesn’t include) or an external drive.

It freezes solid about once an hour. This is not peculiar to my own machine: a bit of googling shows that lots of other people experience it and nobody seems to have an idea of what is going on. A reboot by holding down the on/off switch for about 20 seconds (not the 5 seconds that most machines respond to) is the only solution.

Much, much more important in the real world (well, in my own real world at least) is that there are several programs that I use on a daily basis that have a huge problem when run on the Surface Pro 3. That problem is that text and/or images are reduced in size to the point of only just being legible/visible. I haven’t really got to the bottom of this yet, but I understand it’s something to do with the programs not being able to cope with the high resolution (2160 X 1440) screen. Some of the programs I’m having this difficulty with are:

  • Photoshop Elements 11. The menus and icons are all shrunk, but the images can be viewed OK.
  • Evernote (the Premium version, I’m sure the free version is the same). Things are mainly OK, but images and web pages embedded in a note are horribly shrunk.
  • Faststone Image Viewer. The images can be viewed at the proper size but the menus and other text items are shrunk to near-invisibility.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in profileI wasn’t quite ready to devote a blog post to the Surface Pro 3 as I haven’t used it enough, but these problems are so big that I really wouldn’t want anyone else to buy one without being aware of them. I should point out that most programs are absolutely fine (eg Microsoft programs, web browsers), but the whole point of my buying the Surface was to know that I could carry with me ALL of the functionality of my laptop. I haven’t given up on it yet: I’m trying to find workarounds. It could also be, of course, that new versions of the affected programs will include solutions.

So, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post, I think I could just about scrape by with only the Surface Pro, but a great machine is rather badly compromised (for now, at least) by the screen resolution problem.