Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is the first - and only - laptop/tablet hybrid to get it (almost) completely right.

The Surface Pro 3 is a truly brilliant example of product design – an exceptional tool for designers, artists, photographers, art and creative directors who want to work on the go (and a revelation after some awful predecessors). It succeeds at fulfilling your needs in the way neither a tablet not laptop can do – it's a real sign of just how different is from either in what how it lets you use it that rumours of a competitor from Apple, perhaps called the iPad Pro, have been floating around the Internet since the Microsoft’s device was launched.

This Surface is a tablet with the heart of a laptop. It’s a tablet with a 12.1-inch screen that you can draw on using the included fineliner-like Surface Pen stylus – but let the magnetic Type Cover snap itself on and it’s a dinky little laptop. The Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8 and has an Intel Core i7 chip inside - so you can run all of the same apps as a full laptop including Adobe’s Creative Cloud tools including Photoshop, though we’d shy away from anything too power-hungry such as After Effects or a 3D suite such as Cinema 4D or Maya.

The Surface Pro 3 is exceptional at what it does, but it's not going to be for everyone. It's nowhere near as powerful as most laptops you'd consider buying for professional design, art, graphics, video or animation work - say Apple's MacBook Pro or Dell's Precision M3800 - and it's not as easy to use as a tablet, or have the same wealth of touch-driven games and apps, as an iPad. It’s also a lot smaller and lighter than Wacom’s Cintiq Companion.

But yesterday, I was happily editing video in Premiere Pro and photos and graphics in Photoshop while using the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop on a tiny tray table in a cramped Thameslink train seat - things just not possible using a traditional laptop. Earlier in a meeting about a redesign of one of our sites, where the Surface Pro 3 was connected to a Barco projector using a wireless USB dongle, I started with it in laptop mode to show off examples of good practice (and bad) - then pulled off the keyboard so we could sketch wireframes with the Surface Pro's pen.

I also think nothing of sticking the Surface in my satchel for every trip too and from home and external meetings - and despite only charging it every other day or so, I’ve only seen it run out of power once (due to the energy-sapping wireless USB dongle I just mentioned).

It's this flexibility while being good enough for the kind of creative work you do when you're not at your desk that's at the heart of the Surface Pro 3's appeal. I wouldn't give up the 27-inch iMac on my desk, but I’d rather have a Surface Pro 3 as a travelling companion than a MacBook Pro – whether that’s travelling home, overseas or just down the other end of our floor at IDG Towers for a meeting.

So let’s get into the details.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: The screen

The Surface Pro 3’s 12-inch screen is quite lovely to look at, and while it’s not exactly matte, it seemed less affected by reflections and glare than the iPad. But how good is it at showing how good your work is accurately?

It’s a capable screen with as much colour depth as a professional laptop, if not the accuracy – though this may be more due it having built-in Intel graphics rather than a separate AMD or Nvidia graphics chip, than the screen itself. Testing with our usual DataColor Spyder4Elite colorimeter and software, I found that the Surface Pro 3 could output 69% of Adobe RGB and 89% of sRGB – around the same range of colours (also known as colour gamut) as Dell’s Precision M3800 or HP’s ZBook 15.

The Surface Pro 3’s accuracy was measured by the Spyder4Elite by comparing a mid-gray displayed to its known value - measured as a figure called Delta-E, with smaller numbers being better and with 1.0 being the point at which you might notice the difference. The Dell’s Delta-E was 0.2 and the HP’s 0.5 – so imperceptible. The Surface Pro 3’s result was 1.5 – which is still very good, but not perfect.

The screen has a resolution of 2,160 x 1,400 – so everything is beautifully detailed. All of the apps I tried felt less cramped than I expected considering the 12-inch screen, except for After Effects - which was a struggle to navigate. Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Painter, Lightroom, Evernote and even Office apps were easy to use. Bridge was a pain, but that’s because Adobe hasn’t updated it for hiDPI screens like the Surface Pro’s on Windows – and using the pen helped here.

The screen is multi-touch, but only a few creative apps can take advantage of it: primarily Photoshop, 3DS Max (but not Maya) and Manga Studio.

Next section: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 review: The pen