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Surface Pro 3: Not Quite the Slam Dunk

June 21st, 2014

Microsoft is still trying. Now out with the Surface 3, it’s trying to sell its muddled toaster-fridge with an array of contradictory comparisons.

It’s major tag line is, “The tablet that can replace your laptop.” Except, not really. The problem with the Surface is that it tries to be a tablet and a serious computer, but does so by sacrificing key elements of each form. A laptop is literally that—a computer you can use on your lap. By “computer,” I mean a fully-functional device in the sense that you can author on it easily. I am doing so right now, with my retina Macbook Pro on my lap. The Surface, however, has a keyboard which only really works reasonably if it’s on a table. In your lap, you would have to be uncomfortable, or else use the virtual keyboard—a wholly different experience which many people, including myself, are not comfortable with.

So, while the Surface may look like a laptop, it is actually a desktop-bound machine which can transform into a large, boxy tablet.

They make a big deal about the pen. The thing is, writing with a pen on a largish slab where brushing your hand against the touchscreen surface might lead to problems is, well, not exactly a premium experience. Much more to the point, why use a pen when I would rather be using a keyboard? Have you tried working on a computer by writing with a pen? One of the reasons I like using a keyboard is because I want to avoid writing by hand. I know some people will prefer the experience, but after actually doing it, how many really like that better? When you need to draw instead of write, your finger usually works well enough, and if not, good styluses are available for the iPad as well, usually for about $15.

It gets ridiculous when they run a comparison of the Surface 3 to a Macbook Air. Their 6-panel comparison is laughably slanted to favor the Surface. They lament the lack of a pen, and lo, the Macbook Air has no rear camera! Really? How about the fact that the Air has a Core i5 instead of the Surface’s i3, or has double the capacity in its SSD? The Surface’s only real advantage is its higher-resolution touchscreen display (the Air will probably match the resolution within the next year), meaning it could be a better choice if you value the display more than power, longevity, storage capacity, and form factor.

Not to mention, they cheat on cost and dimensions, rather blatantly. They ballyhoo the slender 9.1mm, 800g body for just $799… but everything on the page is in the context of using the keyboard, which adds to each of those: the thickness expands to 13.9mm, overall feeling thicker than a Macbook Air; the weight increases to 1095g, a tad more than a Macbook Air; and the cost, putatively $100 less than a Macbook Air, rises to $928 with the keyboard, topping the Air’s $899 price tag.

When they do own up to the added dimensions of the keyboard, they cheat again—comparing the 12“ Surface to a 13.3” Air, instead of the much closer match, the 11.6“ version. The language used is even funnier: ”Substantially thinner and lighter than MacBook Air—weighs 2.4 pounds with cover attached; 13-inch MacBook Air tips the scales at 2.96 pounds.“ Yes, that extra half-pound is what will kill you.

If, however, you match the Surface against the 11.6” Air, you’ll find that the Surface weighs 800g to the Air’s 1080g—but once again, that’s totally ignoring the Surface’s keyboard, which is stupid. Add the keyboard, and the Surface is 1095g, actually more than the Air. And those extra 15g will kill you!

Here is a chart showing a more rounded comparison:

SP3 iPad Air 64 11.6“ MB Air
Price $799 $699 $899
Price w/KB $928 $799* $899
Width (mm) 292 240 300
Height (mm) 201.3 169.5 192
Thickness (mm) 9.1 7.5 3 ~ 17
Thickness (mm) w/kb 13.9 13.9* 3 ~ 17
Weight 800g 469g 1080g
Weight w/kb 1095g 791g 1080g
Screen 12" 9.7" 11.6"
Resolution 2160 x 1440 2048 x 1536 1136 x 768
Pixels 3,110,400 3,145,728 872,448
Touch Yes Yes No
Battery 9 hrs 10 hrs 9 hrs
CPU Haswell i3 A7 Haswell i5
CPU Model 4020Y A7 4260U
CPU Benchmark 2278 2932* 3688
SSD 64 GB 64 GB 128 GB

For the iPad Air, I used the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard, which is an excellent accessory. Better than the Surface keyboard, it also acts as a stand, allowing you to use the tablet as a laptop, something the Surface fails at.

So, how do things round up? As usual, it depends on what is important to you. If you want something that runs full-blown Windows apps, can be used as a tablet, has a high-resolution touchscreen, and don’t mind all the disadvantages (of which there are many), then the Surface Pro could eke out ahead of your choices on the Apple side. However, that’s about the biggest overall advantage you can claim.

What are the disadvantages? The price depends on what you are comparing it against—you’ll pay more for the Surface than you would for the iPad or Macbook Air, especially if you have to spring for Office (iWork is free). You cannot use the Surface as a laptop, which for some is a huge down point. The CPU is relatively weak—even the iPad’s CPU is faster, and the Macbook Air and Pro perform far better. The storage on the Surface is half of what you would get on a Mac laptop. Upgrade the Surface to match CPU and storage with the Macbook Air, and the price jumps by $200, meaning that you just paid $230 extra for a higher-resolution touchscreen.

However, most importantly, there are the Surface’s trade-offs, which are completely ignored in the device’s positive reviews. By trying to be both a toaster and a fridge, it comes out being not-so-great at both. As a desktop, it is over-priced and under-powered. As a laptop, it sucks. And as a tablet, it is usable, but is a far inferior experience to something like the iPad Air. By getting the functionality of two extremes, you are sacrificing the performance and experience of both.

But let’s ignore all of that, and focus just on specs—which is what most non-Apple device makers do, and for a reason.

In the Surface vs. iPad matchup, the Surface can run full Windows apps, has 4GB of RAM to the iPad’s 1GB, and has a screen which is 2.3” larger. That’s it. That’s the total list of advantages.

In contrast, the iPad Air wins out in size (5cm smaller in width, 3cm in height, thinner by 0.2cm only without keyboard), weight (about 300g lighter), battery life (1 hour longer), and CPU power (the A7 SoC beats the mobile Haswell i3). All for $100 to $130 less. The touchscreen, screen resolution, and storage come to a wash.

So, if what you crave is something smaller and lighter, with a faster CPU and the ability to use it as a rudimentary laptop as well as a tablet, all for lower cost… well, the iPad easily beats the Surface.

But how about the Macbook Air? The comparison assumes that you do not need a tablet form—which a lot of people are happy with.

In this face-off, the price, weight, dimensions, battery life, and RAM memory are pretty much a wash. While the Surface could argue it has a thickness of 14mm vs. the Mac’s 17mm, that ignores the fact the the Macbook Air tapers down to 3mm, making it feel more slender overall. And if you always want a keyboard, the Air’s attached keyboard will be a huge advantage. Otherwise, the Air wins out in CPU power (60% faster) and storage (double the Surface’s). The Surface wins in only one area: a high-resolution touchscreen. However, if you don’t need a tablet form, the touchscreen is pretty much useless, making the high-resolution screen the only real advantage—one which will probably not last long, as the Air is certain to get a retina display before too long.

Even just looking at the specs only, the Surface does not perform all that impressively against the iPad or the Macbook Air.

It’s better as a laptop than the iPad Air, but it makes a crappy laptop—you really need a flat surface to put it on.

It’s better as a tablet than the Macbook Air, but it makes a crappy tablet; it’s big, heavy, thick, and boxy.

As a tablet, the iPad beats it hands-down. As a laptop, the Macbook Air beats it hands-down.

So really, it only is a better device if you absolutely need both form factors in one device, and are willing to suffer from the trade-offs. That’s what it comes down to. If you don’t mind those trade-offs, love Windows 8, and depend on games and business apps only on Windows, then the Surface definitely has an advantage, and you might well be very happy with it.

For the average user, however, Apple’s products will likely fit the bill much more often, and will give the user a much smoother ride.

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  1. Troy
    June 23rd, 2014 at 13:22 | #1

    man who try to sit on two stools end up on floor

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