Kaboom! The Surface Pro 3 that might actually replace your Ultrabook and tablet

Before the iPhone, there were good MP3 players, good phones and good PDAs that could browse the Internet. But efforts to combine all that functionality into one device failed, because software and hardware weren’t ready for that convergence.

To replace several devices with just one device, the replacement had to replicate the functionality of those focused devices well enough to justify its existence. The iPhone was the first to succeed, and today you no longer buy MP3 players or mobile Internet devices; you just buy smartphones.

For the last several years, Microsoft has been trying to do the same trick for laptops and tablets. It’s been trying to create that one replacement device, and that device is called the Surface.

Unfortunately, where Microsoft failed in its early efforts is that the Surface didn’t replicate laptop functionality and tablet functionality well enough. The first Surface Pro was a bad laptop because it was hard to use on the lap and had a small screen size. It also was a bad tablet because of its short battery life and thick form factor. Only audiences who really needed that convergence — despite the many compromises to achieve it — appreciated the Surface Pro, but it was a small niche (like comic book artists).

It’s too big, too fat, and too reliant on its power cable to be a competitive tablet, and it’s too immutable to do everything a laptop needs to do. In its quest to be both, the Surface is really neither. It’s supposed to be freeing, but it just feels limiting.  — The Verge on the first Surface Pro

The Surface Pro 2 was a big improvement in terms of usability and battery life, but it still fell short on form factor. For most people it was simply too thick and probably too heavy for its 10.6-inch screen size. You can only do so much work on a screen that small.

And now the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft might have finally created a hybrid device good enough to replace both the tablet and the Ultrabook for a broad audience.

The Surface Pro 3 is a competent tablet at 1.8 pounds in weight and 0.36 inches in girth. Some might even prefer its larger 12-inch screen to the traditional 10. With two-handed use, it’s light and thin enough. The modern side of Windows 8 is a pleasure to use on tablets and the Windows Store — while by no means great — is probably good enough. Battery life is all day, or 9 hours of continuous use.

The pen and OneNote integration looks interesting. Tap the pen’s “eraser” to wake up the Surface and launch OneNote automatically. Your notes are saved as you write or draw. This is a killer application for certain people, and with it the Surface Pro 3 can even be considered a great tablet.

As a laptop, the Surface Pro 3 has the requisite power (and battery life) to take advantage of the Windows ecosystem. In terms of weight and thinness, it is in a league of its own compared to other laptops. This is its clearest strength.

The Surface Pro’s problem as a laptop had always been screen size: its predecessor’s 10.6-inch screen is too small for those used to 13-inch Ultrabooks. The new 12-inch screen answers that. Microsoft claims that you can view more content on a 12-inch screen with a 3:2 ratio than on typical 13-inch laptops.

Here’s one take on the Chromebook Pixel’s 3:2 screen ratio:

But the Pixel’s 3:2 display, which is nearly as tall as it is wide, makes me wonder why no one else has thought to do this — the 12.85-inch display isn’t quite as wide as a standard 13-inch screen, and you do get some letterboxing above and below any movie you’re watching, but the tradeoff is simply more vertical space to read a web page. The unusual aspect ratio was probably an easier decision for Google to make, because web pages comprise the entire operating system, but I wish every laptop offered a 3:2 screen.

While the Surface always worked well as a laptop on the desk, it was never great on the lap. To address this, the kickstand is now fully adjustable (up to 150 degrees) and an extra magnet for the keyboard on the screen provides additional stability. The combination seems to be a material improvement. While I don’t see how the Surface can ever be as comfortable as a laptop on the lap, all Microsoft really needs to do is make it good enough.

For people who type a lot on their laps, the Surface is unlikely to be a satisfying replacement. For people who need to work on the move, the Surface Pro 3’s incredibly thin and light form factor is the difference maker.

They say Microsoft tends to get things right on the third try. I don’t know if that’s true for the Xbox, but at least for the Surface, it just might apply. The Surface Pro 3 is finally both a good tablet and a competent laptop.

The Surface Pro 3 starts at $800 and will be available on June 20 in the US and by end of August in other regions.

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