No other tablet is as productive as the Surface Pro 3. That's the conclusion I've come to after some serious hands-on time with this holiday's lineup of slates. Sure, there are plenty of other Windows tablets on the market, some of which actually come with a keyboard add-on out of the box (the Surface Pro 3 keyboard is sold separately). But no other device can match the Pro 3's combination of great software, standout hardware and excellent accessories.
Of course, it's not perfect. The Surface Pro 3's biggest weakness is its steep price tag, which starts at $799. Consumers who want a premium tablet but don't need a powerful work machine, would be better off with a more affordable option like the iPad Air 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab S.
But consider that the Surface Pro 3 can single handedly replace your tablet, your laptop and your desktop computer, with only a few minor compromises, and it's easy to see what makes Microsoft's flagship slate such a reliable pick. Whether you're looking to buy yourself a new work device, or to get one for your favorite entrepreneur, here are five reasons why the Surface Pro 3 takes the crown as the best business tablet of 2014.
Plenty of hybrid devices on the market this year can function as laptop computers when keyboards are attached, and as tablets without the keyboards. But why settle for a 2-in-1 when you can get a 3-in-1 like the Surface Pro 3? Microsoft's flagship tablet makes for a pretty good desktop computer, in addition to a tablet or laptop. Its success as a desktop comes down to two factors: power and connectivity.
The Pro 3 has a lot more power under the hood than the average tablet. Even the most affordable configuration comes with a desktop-grade Intel Core i3 processor, while more powerful models offer Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs. And it's not limited to simple mobile apps; instead, the Surface Pro 3 can easily handle desktop software and processor-intensive tasks, such as video editing or heavy spreadsheet computation.
Microsoft's tablet also has a wealth of connectivity options that make it easy to use on the desktop. The tablet itself has a mini-DisplayPort, so you can connect the device to a larger monitor with the right adapter. The Pro 3 also has a full-size USB 3.0 port, for connecting desktop accessories such as a mouse. But the best way to use the Pro 3 at your desk is with Microsoft's desktop docking station, which adds five USB ports, an Ethernet port for wired Internet, an audio jack and a security lock slot. The advantage of the dock is that you can leave all your accessories plugged in and connect your Surface Pro 3 just by setting the slate down.
Portability and productivity
For my money, a 13-inch (33 centimeters) laptop strikes a near-perfect balance between productivity and portability. But the Surface Pro 3's 12-inch (30.5 cm) display is a bit smaller than that, which is just fine by me. That's because the Pro 3 has to function as both a tablet and laptop. Any bigger or heavier, and the tablet functionality would suffer.
On the flipside, the Pro 3's 12 inches are actually quite generous for a tablet. In fact, only a few other slates on the market give you this much room to work. That makes the Pro 3 better for screen-intensive productivity tasks. Even everyday chores like managing your email inbox are a lot more comfortable.
And the Surface Pro 3 is actually pretty light for a machine this powerful. It weighs 1.76 lbs. (0.8 kilograms) alone, or 2.4 lbs. (1.1 kg) with the keyboard attached. That's about a half pound less than the 13-inch MacBook Air, which weighs 2.96 lbs. (1.34 kg). That makes a difference when you're carrying your slate on your daily commute.
A better pen
I've tested at least a dozen tablet styluses, and the Surface Pro 3's is still my favorite. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the accessory comes with the tablet out of the box. The aluminum pen has a premium metal build that feels sturdy and balanced, and it's also thinner than the Surface Pro 2 stylus, so it feels more like a high-quality ink pen. I love using it to take scribble down notes in Evernote, and I imagine that others will find it useful for drawing charts and diagrams.
But the Surface Pro 3's pressure-sensitive display is what really makes writing on this device feel so good. Basically, the Pro 3 is one of the few tablets on the market that can actually detect how hard you're pressing down, so writing is accurate and feels natural. The iPad Air 2's screen, by contrast, can't detect varying levels of pressure at all.
Plus, the Pro 3 comes with handy software features that make the pen even more functional. For instance, one press of the button on the side of the pen instantly turns on your display and launches a note-taking app, so you can start writing in a hurry.
Unfortunately, when the pen's not in use, there's no place to stow it directly on the tablet, though the Type Keyboard does have a fabric loop that holds your pen, if you buy that accessory. The Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 is a stylus-equipped tablet with a convenient pen slot, but Samsung's stylus doesn't feel nearly as good as Microsoft's.
The Surface Pro 3 looks and feels like it deserves its premium price tag. Its magnesium-alloy frame is handsome and distinctive, and the tablet is thinner overall than its predecessor. But what really sets the Pro 3 apart from other tablets is its versatile kickstand, which folds out from the back and can be adjusted to any angle you want, just like your laptop screen.
In comparison, most other tablets force you to buy a kickstand case if you want to prop your tablet up for typing sessions, and these cases usually only accommodate one or two viewing angles. With the Pro 3, however, you can even push the kickstand down up to 150 degrees, so it's tilted up just slightly, providing a good angle for taking notes or drawing with the stylus.
The Windows advantage
It's not hard to find a great tablet that runs on Windows these days. But if you haven't given mobile operating systems much thought, it's worth a moment of consideration. The Surface Pro 3 runs on the full desktop version of Windows 8.1, which has some distinct advantages over iOS or Android if you want to use your tablet for serious productivity.
For starters, the Pro 3 can run any piece of Windows software you already use at the office, so you won't have to settle for more-limited mobile apps when you're on the go. And while a pretty good mobile port of Microsoft Office is now available on iOS, you can only run the full version on a Windows machine.
The other big advantage is file management. In Windows, it's easy and intuitive to move and manipulate files. And if you want to attach a file to an email? Just drag and drop it. Manipulating files on a mobile platform like Android or iOS is significantly more cumbersome, and even finding the right file can be a pain. Basic file management is just easier on Windows.