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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Doesn't Stand Up to MacBook Air

Even with an improved kickstand, the newest version of Microsoft's Surface Pro isn't good enough to replace its intended target.


Do you like your MacBook Air? How about your iPad? I ask because Microsoft is gunning for both of these devices with its new Surface Pro 3. Redmond’s idea is that you could replace both your MacBook Air (or other laptop) and your iPad (or other tablet) with this one thing.

But I’m having a hard time going along with the plan — even after using the Surface Pro 3 for the past two weeks.

If you’re scratching your head, wondering where this device fits in, let’s review some history. This Surface is the third generation in the line of Microsoft-made tablets. The original launched back in October of 2012 with a watered-down version of Windows 8 and a processor similar to that of other tablets. It was followed four months later by a heftier model, the Surface Pro, which ran full Windows 8 software using a mighty Intel processor, like comparable laptops.

This newest device, the Surface Pro 3, starts at $800. But like its predecessors, this Surface doesn’t ship with a keyboard, so you’ll have to shell out another $130 for its Type Cover keyboard. Grand total: $930.

The MacBook Air, which Microsoft insists on comparing to this Surface, starts at $900. It comes with a built-in keyboard that’s much sturdier than the magnetic clip-on accessory for the Surface Pro 3. While the cheapest MacBook Air’s display is 11.6 inches versus the 12-inch Surface display, it comes with 128 gigabytes of storage versus 64GB on the cheapest Surface Pro 3. It also has a faster processor (Intel Core i5 versus i3), and weighs slightly less (2.38 pounds versus 2.41 for the Surface with its keyboard).

“But wait!” you say. “The Surface works as a tablet, too.”

Yes. This Surface has a touchscreen; the MacBook Air does not. You can take full advantage of this handsome touchscreen by leaning it back on a newly added flexible kickstand, which cleverly adjusts the screen to various positions for comfort and visibility.

Propped up with its improved kickstand, the Surface Pro 3 is easier to use in laptop mode than its predecessors. Users can tap the Surface Desktop tile to shift over into the more traditional, tile-free look and feel of Windows, Recycle Bin and all. Here, you can run any of your Windows software programs, including Office. Battery life is estimated at nine hours, which seemed accurate in my usage.

But with its top-heavy build and comparably flimsy keyboard, it’s still not nearly as sturdy or comfortable to use for a long time as the MacBook Air.

The Surface Pro 3 comes with a pen that works as a fun, quick solution for taking notes. Even when the device is asleep, a click of the pen wakes it, and immediately opens its screen to a note-taking section for quick scribbles. Another click of the pen sends the note off to your Microsoft OneNote account. I did this often, and missed it when I switched back to using the iPad. I also used the pen to play Sudoku, writing directly in my onscreen puzzle, and watching as my handwriting was immediately converted to typed, onscreen digits.

But folding the keyboard over and using this thing as a tablet is not an enjoyable experience. Its honking 12-inch screen feels big and bulky, and with the keyboard, it weighs more than twice as much as the one-pound iPad Air. Take off its keyboard, and the Surface still weighs more, at 1.76 pounds.

Even worse: I kept tapping the Windows button on the screen’s frame by accident because, well, you’re supposed to hold a tablet by its frame.

While we’re discussing this thing as a tablet, let’s talk about its touch interface. I’ve historically cheered Microsoft for its unique approach to displaying apps in live tiles on both the phone and tablet. These are still great-looking, and the interface of the Surface Pro 3 continues to offer useful, intuitive features like opening more than one window on a screen in a side-by-side view, and repeatedly swiping from off the left side of the screen to shuffle through opened apps.

But some of these apps are still rough around the edges. OpenTable, which I use often for booking restaurant reservations, has maps that flicker just enough to annoy you. The Twitter app showed that I was logged in, but seemed to lose its connection to my account in several instances when I tried to refresh my feed.

A bigger problem was that my Surface Pro 3 continually lost its connection to the Internet. This didn’t happen in my home or in a hotel where I stayed for six days, but it happened numerous times in my office, where we use Wi-Fi to power seven computers and numerous mobile devices — none of which have trouble connecting and staying connected to Wi-Fi.

A spokesman for Microsoft said this issue seemed related to when my Surface entered Standby mode while connected to our office router, which uses extra security. The company is working to resolve this problem before the Surface ships.

So, when will it ship? Two midrange models that cost $1,000 and $1,300 without keyboards will be available on June 20. If you want the low-end $800 model or the high-end $1,550 and $1,950 models, you’ll have to wait until late August. (None of these prices includes the cost of a keyboard.)

At its launch event, Microsoft continuously asked people to compare the MacBook Air to this Surface Pro 3. I’m sorry to say that I can’t recommend that comparison, nor can I recommend it as a replacement for your iPad or Android tablet.

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