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Review: Surface Pro 3 is sweet, but still a niche product

Microsoft’s hybrid laptop-tablet still delivers too many tradeoffs and a too-hefty price point to appeal to mainstream buyers.

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I’ve been playing with Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 hybrid tablet-laptop for the past few weeks and what can I say? It’s a good device.

The company has been listening to complaints from both users and us media types over the past two iterations of this gizmo, which is meant to replace both your laptop and tablet, and it shows. The Surface Pro 3 boasts some nice improvements over its successors, to the point where it’s almost a pretty sweet gadget – if it existed in a vacuum. But it doesn’t, and I’ll get to why this is a problem in a minute.

In the meantime, the Pro 3 is clearly the product of some engineering magic. It’s very nearly a full-on computer, but it’s super slim and lightweight. At 1.76 pounds, it’s almost half the weight of a 13-inch MacBook Air, and it’s just a tad bit thicker than the iPad Air.

Despite that thin and light profile, it also has a big 12-screen with a hefty 2,560 by 1,440-pixel resolution. The device itself looks fine, as does its screen, and it feels good to hold. Microsoft says it went with the larger 12-inch screen because it distributes weight better, making it easier to hold with one hand. I can’t say I disagree.

The Pro’s accoutrements have also been upgraded. The device’s “kickstand” now has several lock positions, bending as far back as 150 degrees, which gives you several laptop-like viewing angles. Moreover, the detachable keyboard Type Cover has an extra hinge on it, so you can type with it flat on a surface or at a slightly more ergonomic angle.

I’ve used the device and cover comfortably sitting at a desk and lying on a couch, so Microsoft really has done wonders in making the Surface Pro 3 very much laptop-like.

The stylus is also new and improved, with a better hover mode. The top button, when pressed, also acts as an eraser in certain uses. On the downside, there’s still no secret compartment in which to store the pen, which made me wonder how long it will take to lose.

The Pro 3’s battery life is also considerably better. I got about six or seven hours out of it with moderate use, or more than just the handful its predecessors could manage. That’s still not as good as many laptops out there, or especially other tablets, but it’s a big step up over the Surface Pro 2.

Windows is still a big laggard when it comes to apps, with Microsoft boasting around 400,000 compared to more than a million for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, but that’s of course obviated somewhat by the Pro 3 running Windows 8. Many programs that would run on a regular PC will work fine on this hybrid device.

But it’s that word – “hybrid” – that’s still the big problem. As a laptop, the Pro 3 still makes too many tradeoffs over its non-hybrid cousins. It requires a sort of assembly by folding out and attaching the Type Cover as well as the kickstand, its battery isn’t as good and it’s not still not as comfortable to type on, despite its improvements.

As a tablet, it’s nowhere near as portable and convenient as a seven-inch device like the Nexus 7 or iPad Mini. Microsoft’s relative dearth of mobile apps also hurts the Pro 3 in this regard, as there simply isn’t as much to do with the device in tablet mode. While you can always fire up full PC applications, mobile apps are generally slicker and better equipped to work with a touch screen.

The Pro 3’s price, as with its predecessors, is also a killer. Starting at $849 (in Canada) for the base version – including an Intel Core i3 processor, 64 gigabytes of storage and 4 GB of RAM – it’s already expensive. Tack on the necessary and not included $129 Type Cover and it’s almost a whopping $1,000. The top-of-the-line device, with a Core i7 processor, 512 GB storage and 8 GB RAM, is a spit-take-inducing $1,999, plus Type Cover.

It’s not hard to understand Microsoft’s pricing strategy. The company figures the Pro 3 can replace both a laptop and tablet for consumers, so as long as it’s cheaper than the two combined everything is hunky dory.

But that line of thinking is flawed for several reasons, with the fundamental problem of hybrid devices being the big one. Hybrids inevitably bring tradeoffs and often deliver inferior experiences compared to dedicated single-use devices, which has definitely been the case with every Surface device yet. They’re just not as good as the typical laptop, nor the typical tablet.

Moreover, many consumers already have either a laptop or a tablet, or both, and are probably not thinking about getting rId of both. In that vein, they’re probably not going to consider one or the other that does either job only partially well.

It’s therefore tough to figure out who Microsoft’s Surface devices appeal to. The company must be hoping that consumers eventually see the logic of going with a two-in-one device, but with everybody already married to their Apple and Android tablets, the only way that’s going to happen is with some price seduction.

Microsoft is coming from behind – way behind – when it comes to tablets and it’s going to need to lure people by offering them a deal they can’t refuse. The Surface Pro 3, while a nice product, is nowhere near being that kind of a deal.

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