My travel kit until recently has been a 13″ MacBook Pro (work computer), a ThinkPad T460S UltraBook running Ubuntu (personal computer, mainly used for email and also running Quicken inside VirtualBox), and a 5th-generation iPad (an unwise impulse purchase used primarily for watching movies inflight). Naturally, all the chargers and various other cables and so forth came along for the ride there, so my actual carry weight is in the region of 20lb. I’ve been coveting the Microsoft Surface range since the first generation, though – so, as my 2019 Christmas gift to myself, I picked up a bottom-tier Surface Pro 3 with the Type Cover keyboard for $190 on eBay. The idea is to see if it can replace the iPad and ThinkPad and make my pack lighter. If I enjoy using the form factor, I might consider investing in a newer model in six months’ time or so. My travel starting in 2020 is likely to be significantly and permanently reduced, so this machine is going to be mostly my home desktop machine with occasional flights.
The Surface Pro 3 is the first model (2014) that featured a continuously variable hinge; the Pro 1 and 2 had fixed-angle hinges. That single feature is one of the two factors that set my floor on desirable models, with the other being battery age. The Pro 3 also debuted the new 3:2 aspect ratio high-resolution screen, among some other features.
The model I bought is the absolute bottom of the range; 1.5GHz i3-4020Y, 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD. The port complement is: one microSD slot, 3.5mm headphone jack, one USB 3.0, one Mini DisplayPort and a proprietary connector that accepts either the charger or a docking station. The docking station adds the ability to connect a second external monitor and additional USB devices that – I think – do not share bandwidth with the single onboard USB port. 64GB isn’t much for Windows 10, but it’s adequate – I have a 128GB microSDXC card which is fine for all my movies and other on-the-road media.
So, how is it? Well, form factor wise it’s somewhere between “good” and “great”. The SP3 Type Cover is a bit netbookish – the keys are close to full size, but they are very narrowly spaced, so it definitely takes some getting used to typing accurately on it. The travel is adequate, and the ergonomics of the keyboard in its “raised” (off the table) orientation are satisfactory; I’m actually writing this post on the tablet right now. Backlighting is bright and effective. I’ve read that the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover improves on this design by switching to island style keys, a bit smaller but better spaced. While the covers are interchangeable between Pro 3 and 4, I shan’t be buying an upgraded cover unless it’s to go with an upgraded tablet. About the worst thing I can say about this keyboard is that in order to use it comfortably, I have to remove my pinky ring so I can get all my fingers on the home keys comfortably.
I also bought a third-party Surface Pen and a spare charger from Amazon – and a box of the annoying AAAA/LR91 batteries you need for the pen. IF AND ONLY IF you are already in the Microsoft OneNote ecosystem, the pen might be a useful accessory. As I’m not in that ecosystem, and have no interest in starting to pay for Office 365 again, the pen is frankly of very little utility. It’s fun to use, but it’s only usable with the device in pure tablet mode (Type Cover detached). I doubt I’ll ever carry the device in that configuration, so the pen is just a waste of time. Note that most third-party pens also lack the BLE pushbutton on top that’s supposed to launch OneNote from the lock screen.
Despite being the lowest of the low end, performance, for the activities I need, is entirely adequate. I’m running LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Quicken Deluxe 2013 (hey, besides the introduction of decimal currencies, double-entry accounting hasn’t changed since the fifteenth century), and Chrome. The only item that I feel is really chugging there is Chrome – as you might expect, with only 4GB RAM. Edge does perform a little better in this scenario. However, again, with some careful workload management, it’s fine. The machine also runs some emulation pretty effectively, which is fun for a little diversion.
The item I was most concerned about is battery life, and it was hard to assess this from the online reviews because everyone who reviewed this machine seemed to have quite different test/usage conditions from how I normally use a laptop or tablet. I tend to run my displays dim (25% or lower; basically, as dim as possible given ambient lighting), I keep the keyboard backlight off unless I really need it, and I keep the battery vs performance settings towards the “battery life” end of things. I haven’t owned the machine long enough to get a robust idea of the battery endurance, but powercfg /batteryreport gives news best categorized as “meh”:
SERIAL NUMBER 1187127044
DESIGN CAPACITY 42,157 mWh
FULL CHARGE CAPACITY 37,248 mWh
CYCLE COUNT 146
That battery is at 88% of manufactured capacity, which actually seems okay for being five or six years old (note the low cycle count; this machine didn’t see much use!) but it leaves me with misgivings about how long it’s going to last in actual use, given the overall lukewarm reviews the machine originally received. I will try to recalibrate the gas gauge, since that measured capacity has almost certainly drifted. However, what I will say is that I’ve been using the machine almost continuously for eight hours today (WiFi on, screen at 25%, web browsing) and it’s still at 21% and stating it has another 1hr23 minutes of runtime. Eight or nine hours of life is no iPad, but it’s certainly all I need for a trans-Atlantic flight without in-seat AC power (I’m looking at you, Air France), so that’s fine.
I’ve also tested movie playback with VLC. With 1080p HEVC content, I find the fans kicking in, but by and large the machine runs quiet, cool and fanless.
- Pro: Performance adequate for very light productivity workloads
- Pro: Overall ergonomics about a 7/10 for desktop use
- Pro: Significantly more portable than a comparable laptop
- Pro: Battery appears to have lasted fairly well in this specimen
- Con: Keyboard feels cramped due to narrow key spacing
- Con: Proprietary charger means you need AC and can’t use a battery pack to charge the device
If I had the opportunity to change just one thing about this purchase, I’d have selected a version with more RAM, but on the other hand that was much more expensive and if I’m dropping more money, I might as well get a newer generation. I’ll continue to use this as my daily driver for a few months and see if I continue to enjoy it.