Microsoft is billing its just-announced Surface Pro 3 as “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” Shipping on June 20, its Microsoft Store product page lists most hardware configurations as sold out until August 31. And just in case you missed the promo site’s tagline, it also has a comparison checklist that pits it against Apple’s MacBook Air laptop.
So can Surface Pro 3, in fact, replace your laptop?
Maybe … if your laptop’s a MacBook Air or a PC ultrabook. Where “ultrabook” is a term of art meaning “a PC laptop that looks just like a MacBook Air,” usually right down to the aluminum finish.
With the cheapest Surface Pro 3 model costing $799 and not even including a Type Cover (folding external keyboard), it’s simply not competing in the same space as budget laptops. Those mostly compete on price and hardware specs, and the Surface Pro 3 fails hard on both. It can pack up to an Intel core i7 processor, and up to 512 GB of storage space … but you’ll pay over $2,000 for that configuration if you get a Type Cover with it, whereas a high-performance PC laptop with similar specs should run you under $1,000.
What does Surface Pro 3 have going for it, then?
First, its size and weight. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch screen, placing it in between the two MacBook Air models (and quite a bit larger than the iPad) for size. And it weighs about two and a half pounds with the Type Cover attached, roughly the same as the smaller 11-inch MacBook Air.
Second, the fact that it’s a tablet. You can pick it up and carry it with you while you use it, and it has a multi-touch screen which also supports a pressure-sensitive pen. But then when it’s time to use Surface Pro 3 as a laptop, you just fold out the Type Cover and adjustable kickstand, and you’ve got a backlit physical keyboard and touchpad and a great viewing angle. It also has a full-sized USB port, and can connect to an external monitor.
It sounds like it competes with both the MacBook Air and the iPad.
Maybe. Except that while the iPad has hundreds of thousands of polished, tablet-ready apps, Windows 8.1 tablets like Surface Pro 3 have far fewer. You can run normal Windows apps on Surface Pro 3, since it’s also an Intel-based laptop, but you’ll want to use a keyboard and mouse (or Type Cover touchpad) for them; most Windows “desktop” apps aren’t exactly touch-friendly.
Surface Pro 3 does have two things going for it in the apps department, however. First, it can run the full Windows version of Office, although you’ll have to buy or subscribe to it separately. And second, it lets you “snap” touch-based apps to either side of the screen, letting you use Skype (for instance) while looking stuff up to send to your friends or co-workers, even while using it as a tablet.
Since it’s Windows-based, it’s good for gaming, right?
You aren’t likely to find Infinity Blade or other iOS exclusive games on Surface Pro 3 anytime soon. But, it does happen to run Steam. Touchscreen Civilization V, anyone? Don’t forget to connect it to your TV and plug in a wired Xbox 360 controller to use Steam’s Big Picture mode, or play Halo: Spartan Assault with two physical analog sticks.