Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is one of the most versatile business machines around, with a detachable hybrid design and top-notch stylus support — but it doesn't come cheap. The price for the entry-level model, with keyboard, is $830, and most workers will want to upgrade to a model with a faster processor and more internal storage, which hikes the price well above the $1,000 mark.
That's why Microsoft has announced a new, more affordable version of the machine, dubbed simply the Surface 3. It's smaller and less powerful than its bigger brother, but starting at $499, it's also a lot less expensive while retaining most of the Pro version's best features.
So which is better for work? We haven't yet had a chance to go hands-on with the Surface 3 — which is set to launch May 5 — but here is a head-to-head comparison based on what we know so far.
The Surface 3 is just like the Pro 3, but smaller — and that's a good thing. The Surface Pro 3 is sleek and well-constructed, and its aluminum back and edging give it lots of premium appeal. The Surface 3 emulates the pricier machine down to the last detail — with one big exception.
While the Pro 3 features a kickstand that can be adjusted to any angle you wish, the Surface 3's kickstand offers three different angles. That's more than the Surface 2, which had a kickstand with just two angles, but it's not quite as flexible as the one on the Pro 3. Regardless, that third viewing angle was just what the Surface 3 needed, letting you tilt the device back farther for easier use in your lap.
The Surface Pro 3 sports a 12.2-inch display that's a bit smaller than a typical laptop screen, but its supersharp 2160 x 1440-pixel resolution helps make up for its small size. For the most part, the device offers plenty of screen space for basic business tasks, and it's roomy enough that split-screen multitasking doesn't feel too claustrophobic.
The Surface 3's screen is a clear step down in size and resolution. The slate's 10.8-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel display will feel considerably more cramped for work, but based on my experience with similar screens, it's plenty big for everyday computing tasks like managing your email inbox and light document editing.
I think it's the screen size that will probably make the biggest difference in helping you decide which device is better for work. The Surface Pro 3 offers a display that's probably close enough to your primary work laptop's screen size. The Surface 3's small display, in comparison, makes it better suited to serve as a secondary device for light productivity on the go.
Note that both screens have a wide 3:2 aspect ratio, compared with the 16:9 dimensions of most modern laptop computers. This aspect ratio isn't ideal for watching movies (which are typically shot in the 16:9 format), but, in my opinion, it's better for productivity. That's especially true when you're using the device as a tablet, since 16:9 tablets feel too narrow when held in portrait mode.
The Surface Pro 3 is already one of the most portable Ultrabooks out there, weighing just 1.76 lbs. alone, and 2.4 lbs. with the keyboard cover attached. That's about the same as the 11-inch MacBook Air (2.38 lbs.), even though the Surface Pro 3 has a larger 12.2-inch display.
In comparison, the Surface 3 weighs just 1.4 lbs. with the keyboard attached, thanks to its thinner design and smaller overall size. That's lighter than most other 11-inch hybrids. Dell's Venue 11 Pro is 1.6 lbs., while the Transformer Book T200 weighs a whopping 3.2 lbs.
At just 0.34 inches thick, the Surface 3 is only slightly thicker than the iPad Air 2, and it's noticeably thinner than the Pro 3 (0.36 inches). The bottom line is that the Surface 3 is even more portable than the Pro model. It will slide more easily into your work bag in the morning, and it will fit better on an airplane tray table.
The Surface 3 runs the same software as the Pro model. That's a big deal, since the previous non-"Pro" versions ran on a gimped version of Windows — dubbed Windows RT — that couldn't run most Windows software. In fact, the original Surface and Surface 2 were mostly limited to running simple mobile apps.
The new Surface 3, meanwhile, runs on the full version of Windows 8.1 — just like the Surface Pro 3. That means it's compatible with all the software you already use at the office, so you won't have to make any compromises in your workflow — that is, unless your workflow involves processor-intensive tasks like heavy photo or video editing, which the Surface 3 can't handle.
Another perk is that all Surface 3 and Pro 3 owners will get a free upgrade to Windows 10 later this year. Windows 10 is a new version of Microsoft's computer operating system that boasts tons of upgrades like a voice-activated assistant and the ability to toggle between multiple desktops.
Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 is the "tablet that can replace your laptop." That's thanks to its lightweight Type Cover accessory — a snap-on keyboard that doubles as a screen protector when closed. Due to its short key travel and small touchpad, the Type Cover isn't quite as good as many standard laptop keyboards, but it's close enough for most users.
The Surface 3 is set to launch with a Type Cover accessory of its own. As with the Pro 3 version, the new Type Cover will be sold separately for $130. Regardless of what you think about the cost, I'm worried that the keyboard will feel too cramped for comfort. While the Pro 3's keyboard is full-size, the Surface 3's will have to be shrunk down a bit to accommodate the smaller size of the device.
In my experience, keyboards smaller than full size are fine for drafting an occasional email, but not cut out for extended typing sessions. I'll have to wait to get my hands on the Surface 3 before I can say for sure, though.
The best reason to buy the Surface Pro 3 rather than a more traditional business notebook has always been its excellent pen support. The device comes with a stylus and packs a pressure-sensitive display, so jotting down notes directly on the screen feels precise and natural. Most tablets lack pressure sensitivity, making them poor digital notebooks.
Fortunately, the Surface 3 is outfitted with the same pressure-sensing tech as its more premium big brother, so you can take notes and draw diagrams to your heart's content. Unfortunately, the stylus isn't included with the Surface 3; it's sold separately for $50, presumably to help Microsoft keep costs down. But since you won't find inking functionality that feels this good on many other tablets, it might be worth the expense.
The Surface 3's new third kickstand position, which lowers the device closer to the desk or tablet it's sitting on, should come in handy for note taking by providing a better angle for writing compared with the original Surface or Surface 2.
The Surface Pro 3 can be purchased with Intel's desktop-class Core i3, i5 or i7 processor, and either 4GB or 8GB of RAM, depending on how much you want to spend. The bottom line is that the Pro 3 is powerful enough to handle a heavy workload, including programs like Photoshop and AutoCAD.
In contrast, the Surface 3 runs Intel's Atom x7 CPU, a less powerful processor designed for high-end tablets. While it doesn't offer the raw computing power of the Pro model, the Surface 3 should be more than powerful enough to let you juggle several Office documents with a dozen Web browser tabs. Plus, it should provide longer battery life than the Pro 3's — a big perk for road warriors who need a work device that lasts.
So which device is better for business? We'll have to wait until we get our hands on the Surface 3 to know for sure, but right now it seems that these two tablets were designed for different types of business users.
The Surface Pro 3 is ideal for business users who are looking to replace their primary work laptop, and plan to make use of the machine's excellent inking capabilities. The Pro 3's screen is big enough for multitasking, and its top-notch stylus makes digital note taking a breeze.
The Surface 3, meanwhile, will probably be more practical as a secondary device, used for taking notes and light productivity.
If you don't care about digital note taking at all, then I wouldn't really recommend either Surface model. A more traditional work notebook would be better in that case, potentially offering comparable power and a more practical design at a lower price.