Wot I Belatedly Think: Surface Pro 3

bigger on the outside

Older readers may recall not a lot, what with being old and all. Only slightly older readers may recall my talking about replacing my laptop with a Surface Pro 2 around 18 months ago. Microsoft’s tablet/laptop hybrid has served me reasonably well for work and play, but the one aspect of it I increasingly struggled with was the size.

It’s not so much that it’s just 10.6″ across, but more that its 16:9 aspect ratio, while well suited to films and what games it could play, was claustrophobic for writing and CMS work. In the last couple of months I felt as though I was typing while staring through a letterbox. As RPS’s backend (snort giggle bottoms) has grown ever-more complicated over the years, I found myself scrolling and swiping about to access all these fiddly little tickboxes and text fields and getting ever so grumpy about it.

I’d all but ignored the Surface Pro 3 when Microsoft cruelly released it just 8 months after the SP2, partly because its innards were essentially the same, and partly because if I didn’t find out too much about it I might be able to avoid the gut-punch of buyer’s remorse. Unfortunately, I finally saw one in the aluminium flesh a couple of weeks ago, when browsing the local Personal Computer World Of Underwhelming Specifications And Scandalous Pricing for a cheap-as-chips typing machine to act as a more logically-sized companion device for the SP2. I didn’t want a second device, and especially not an ugly plastic slab, but the SP2 was essentially no longer fit for work purposes. I passed by a Surface Pro 3 display unit while in there, and immediately I saw why the damned thing had been released so soon after the SP2 – it was about 30% bigger, with the aspect ration of a sheet of paper rather than a box of tissues. It was, with miserable inevitability, exactly what I needed. There was, of course, no way I could afford one, let alone justify one.

Cue a whole lot of eBay time. Scary, unhealthy amounts. Once I’ve decided to buy something, I am relentless about finding the cheapest price possible. I’m talking checking first thing in the morning, last thing at night, every half hour in between, for maybe a week. At one point I even tried to see if I get Adam, who lives hundreds of miles away in Manchester, to buy a well-priced collection-only listing up there and post it to me, but someone got there first.

I eventually struck lucky by spotting a buy it now listing with an extremely foolish price (or a dodgy history I don’t want to know about, given the thing still has 11 months of warranty on it) mere moments after it appeared, and I now write these words on 256GB Core i5 Surface Pro 3 with a cyan Type Cover 3. It is something that’s very rarely said about Microsoft products, which is ‘beautiful.’ It is genuinely a proper PC in a tablet’s body, albeit a 12″ tablet. Even my Apple-monomaniacal partner has admitted to admiring this improbably elegant slab from afar, though I have zero doubt that would change to abject hatred the moment she tried to take a ride in the clown car that is Windows 8.1. (My year-and-a-bit with the Surface Pro 2 gradually taught me how to live with its insane ways as a touchscreen interface, which are only marginally less insane than its desktop interface).

Despite being bigger, it’s thinnner and lighter than the SP2, which helps a bunch with the gosh factor, but frankly if it was just an upscaled version it would have been laughable and unusable. It’s the size that most makes it for me: as well as upping the screen size to 12″, the significantly less oblong 3:2 aspect ratio means far more natural typing and CMS-fiddlin’, and it’s much nicer for reading stuff on in portrait mode than the skinny tower the SP2 became. It feels that much more like a magazine, or a Star Trek prop. Comics on this thing feel like a huge improvement from an iPad or similar. Big, proper, page-sized.

However, in being something like 30% bigger than an iPad it does look frankly comical in tablet mode. My partner has described me as ‘looking like Moses’ when I carry it about. Clearly she already has a hundred thousand other reasons to mock me, so I’m not concerned about using it round the house, but I am going to feel a little self-conscious if I bust this out in tablet mode on the train or in the pub. I am not a tall man. I will look like I’m over-compensating for something.


Bridges to be crossed. I don’t get out the house much anyway.

Performance-wise, there’s essentially no difference between this and the SP2, as it’s essentially got the same processor. The same integrated graphics too, sadly, which limits what gaming I can do, but (with a big proviso below) it’s happy enough with stuff like Pillars of Eternity and Cities Skylines, so I’m well-catered to for now. Games do look marvellous on its big IPS screen, though trying to run them at its native 2160×1440 resolution tends to tax it too far, but upscaling from 1080p looks decent. It’s surprising how many games work with touchscreen controls alone too, which makes this a boon for sofa play too. As does Steam Home Streaming, which I’m using a lot to fire full-fat games from my full-fat desktop to this. I played Euro Truck Simulator 2 (to the delight on my lorry-loving two-year-old daughter) on the kitchen table the other day, and it was glorious. That Home Streaming tech is basically magic these days, and a slim, light companion device like this makes a hell of a lot of sense for it, if you can afford it, of course.

Here’s the big but to all this. One obstacle I have hit with games – even relatively low-end ones – is that the SP3 features particularly aggressive thermal throttling, a by-product of putting a relatively meaty CPU within such a slim case. This means that, once the CPU hits 80 degrees C, it’s forcibly choked down too 800MHz (its maximum being 2.9GHz) until it cools down. For minor stuff this is OK, and in some cases simple 2D fare doesn’t trigger it anyway, but it’s made stuff like Skylines and Pillars suddenly start chugging seriously. I’ve found a semi-effective solution, which is this USB fan (the Arctic Breeze Mobile, £6 on Amazon):

It takes some fiddling to angle it at the top-right corner of the Surface, where the most heat is generated, and clear it looks pretty bloody crazy (I won’t be doing this in a coffee shop), but most of the time it keeps the CPU heat below 80 and I don’t get throttled. And hey, it can keep my face non-sweaty on hot days. I’ve also experimented with undervolting with Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility, which makes the CPU generate a little less heat, and an app which blocks the throttling from happening at all, but both result in some system instability. This heat/throttling issue is definitely the SP3’s Achille’s heel in terms of a gaming device, though I’ve yet to find it to be any sort of issue for General Doing Stuff. Maybe the SP4 will fix this, but throttling tends to happen on almost any laptop these days – it’s just a matter of how aggressive it is, and how good the system’s cooling is.

I’m glad I got hold of the 256GB model, because it also includes 8GB rather than 4GB of RAM. My 128GB SP2 unfortunately had the latter, and while zero problem for general desktop stuff it did cause Windows to pop up panicky memory shortage messages when running larger games. Unfortunately, unless you strike second-hand gold as I did, MS charge a massive premium for this relatively minor upgrade. This is a lovely thing and all, but once you factor in the irksomely non-bundled Type Cover too, some £1000 to buy the whole shebang new is simply unconscionable (it’s more like £800 for the 128Gb/4GB model and cover, or there’s a cheaper still Core i3/64GB model I’d advise against – bear in mind Windows uses a big chunk of that hard drive space. There’s also the new Surface 3, which uses a weeny Atom processor so isn’t up to much more than browsing and video-watching, and isn’t all that much cheaper anyway.)

Let’s be realistic: you could get yourself a great gaming laptop for the same money, or an iPad and an ultrabook, or a family holiday, or really terrifying full-body tattoos. I only really game on my main PC, so my preference is very much for something extremely portable that can be both laptop and tablet, rather than have multiple devices which scream at me to update them every time I turn them on. I’ve made a lot of compromises in order to have that, but I must say that I really, really like using this thing.

The bad and good news is that, strong rumour has it, the Surface Pro 4 will be out some time this year. This is bad news because it’ll probably have all kinds of wonderful improvements over this and I’ll be kicking myself again a few months down the line. The good news is a) second-hand prices for SP3s will immediately fall off a cliff and b) there’s a good chance it will be less rather than more powerful than the SP3. The smart money is on the SP4 using the Core-M processor line powering the latest generation of ultrabooks, including Apple’s latest Macbook, but these trade off performance for significant power efficiency gains. You might have heard Apple gonks panicking that the 2011 Macbook Air reportedly benchmarks better than the 2015 Macbook: that’s why. Again, I don’t spend much time working outside the house so a mammoth battery life isn’t too much of a big deal and I’d much rather have the fairly meaty performance of a Core i5, but at the same time I’m tending to exhaust this one’s battery in around four hours of assorted pratting about. I can see the appeal of the trade-off, even if I don’t much need it.

What I am earnestly praying is that the SP4 doesn’t include significantly better graphics than this, and better cooling/throttling thereof, because then I’ll definitely feel like a mug twice over. Also I now have to manage to sell my SP2 for a decent price, or I’ve got a lot of explaining to do about why there’ll be no family holiday this year.

This article was first published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.

45 Comments

  1. DrollRemark says:

    Could you not tilt the old SP2 to portrait mode when working with the keyboard? I know of people that do that for development, because it’s similarly more important to see up and down a page than it is the sides, but I’ve never had a monitor that would easily let me.

    • DrollRemark says:

      Ah ok, I missed your comment about 3:2 being preferable to you than 16:9 in portrait layout. Pesky lack of edit button!

    • Oakreef says:

      The official keyboard cover only snaps on one way and if you’re using a different one it’ll take up your only USB port (not to mention be a really awkward setup).

      • Author X says:

        My friend and I have the original Surface Pro, and he opted for a cheaper bluetooth keyboard instead of a specially-made Type Cover or USB, and seems pretty happy with it.

    • HidingCat says:

      16:9 is just too narrow in portrait, too short in landscape.

  2. Oakreef says:

    I have one of these and I rather love it but I use it for something else that a lot of people won’t: Drawing. I’m not a professional illustrator or graphic designer but I really liked drawing in my spare time and going from a wacom tablet to this is great for the simple fact that the lines show up where I actually put the pen down is great! Considering that the cheaper Wacom Cintiqs are about the same price as a Surface Pro and it doubles as a tablet and trebles as a laptop it’s great.

    On the gaming front Steam sucks with a touchscreen (and big picture mode is even worse) but as Alec said many games work really well (did you know Octodad and the Witcher can be played with just a touch screen and that Sonic Racing Transformed supports PC gyroscope?). Big budget games might make the tablet melt a bit but lots of indie games run smooth as butter. As it’s a PC you can always just plug a controller into it too or use the cover keyboard+mouse (there is only one USB port though). There’s also Gestureworks Gameplay to make other games work with the touchscreen but my successes with it have been limited.

    • Rizlar says:

      Yeah, I keep hearing fellow illustrators gab about how amazing their Cintiq is, so it’s getting very tempting to buy a Surface which costs roughly the same and doubles (triples?) as a tablet and windows machine!

      • jrodman says:

        Can you do all the fancy tilt, smudge and erase stuff with a normal tablet?

        • Rizlar says:

          Not with most tablets afaik. I believe the Surface is an exception, with a pressure sensitive stylus and able to run any windows-compatible graphics program.

        • frightlever says:

          The Penny Arcade artist dude uses a Surface Pro 3 for drawing most of the strips these days – whether that answers your question or not I don’t know. I guess commercial illustration and web-comics are very different beasts to draw.

        • Simbosan says:

          The SP is a full resolution graphics tablet, I would love to get one. Sadly, holiday wins

        • HidingCat says:

          Only the Cintiq Companions have tilt recognition.

    • tungstenHead says:

      I’d gotten a Surface Pro 1 and never really took to it for illustration use. I found it was just a little tiny bit too imprecise for me with the tip of the stylus not quite matching up with the brush I was using no matter how many times I tried to calibrate it. The distance between the glass and the pixels was just too great unless I was positioned directly perpendicularly to the place I was drawing at. In the end, I’d had to pretend I was using it like my Intuos tablet, going by the cursor on the screen more than the position of the stylus, but with my hand covering half the screen at the same time. It may have been more my bad habits as an artist, tending to put my nose on the page and making tiny, fine lines, but still, between that tiny inaccuracy and just the size of the screen being a bit lousy, I never really used it.

      Of course, that was the Surface Pro 1, and that aside, I’d like to ask: do you find that’s a problem with the Surface Pro 3? I’d like to be able to draw directly on the screen, but only if I don’t have problems stemming from my viewing angle.

      • Author X says:

        I don’t have much experience with the SP3 or drawing on the SP, but they changed the pen technology to something more accurate, especially around the edges (at the cost of some precision in pressure-sensitivity). I also recall reading a review that said the gap between the glass and the pixels has been resolved, but I’d suggest finding it in a store and trying that for yourself to see if you’re satisfied.

      • Oakreef says:

        As I said I’m not a proffessional illustrator so I’m probably more tolerant of issues like that. The problem you’re talking about with the distance between the glass and the display is definitely there a bit in the SP3 but I don’t really know what it’s like compared to previous versions or how big a deal it would be for you.

    • wyrm4701 says:

      I’m using the 128gb SP3 for drawing, and it’s pretty fantastic for that. It’s replaced every other drawing tablet in my collection, in fact.

      Someone else asked about pen accuracy, and the SP3 is comparable to a Cintiq. There’s always going to be an accuracy hit with a glass-fronted tablet, but it’s slight, can be compensated for, and it’s overshadowed by the many advantages of using a tablet to draw.

      The thing is, I can’t see why anyone would get one for anything but drawing. It’s not great for gaming (especially with limited HD space), it’s expensive, there’s only one USB port, and the power connector is supposedly ridiculously prone to breakage. I love mine because I do a lot of drawing, it’d probably be a very disappointing purchase otherwise. Oh, also, having to login to the Windows Store to download an app to adjust pen sensitivity is total bollocks.

    • nearly says:

      Having had a windows tablet since roughly 2006, I’ve always been disappointed by games that should be entirely playable with touch but aren’t (here’s looking at you, RUSE). I still have my old machine (originally running Vista) and now have it on the Windows 10 Technical Preview: the way the interface deals with touch has come a long way, and it’s surprising how poorly Steam handles it.

      I realize their priority is getting SteamOS going so that they can limit competition from the distribution angle (let’s be real, that’s their real beef with Windows), but Big Picture mode seems as though it should take absolutely minimal effort to function ideally with touch. It makes it flabbergasting how badly it interacts with the finger/pen, let alone the basic Steam interface. Haven’t messed with many other normal Windows applications but Steam still sticks out as really poor performance.

    • Coldyham says:

      The game I’ve been very much enjoying with my win8 tablety thing is Civ 5. Commanding armies and cities with just touch makes me feel like I’m in a Sci-fi

  3. wraithgr says:

    How is cities on the surface? I’ve been building a library of games on my pro 2 but mostly play hearthstone on it (although I’ve successfully tried xcom, fallout 2 and the banner saga on it as well)

    • Marblecake says:

      Heh, I play exactly those games, in that order. (Excluding Banner Saga, don’t own it.)
      The Surface is primarily my Hearthstone machine. I actually bought it because I wanted to play Hearthstone on a tablet, but couldn’t bring myself to spend money on a “real” tablet, seeing how all their funtionality is already covered by my phone (a Note 4).
      But then I discovered it had all these other wonderful uses! Watching movies and TV shows in bed, in the kitchen while cooking, reading comic books, writing on the go, taking notes without having to fiddle with paper, using it for PowerPoint presentations while walking around…it’s brilliant!
      When I bought it I originally thought that I’d regret it, but it’s actually one of the most sensible and enjoyable things I’ve bought in the last 2 years. Well worth the money.

  4. Jeeva says:

    Given that I’ve been seriously contemplating this versus the SP4 recently, I’m mighty tempted to just bite the bullet after this article.

    Argh.

    Have you seen any throttling, Alec? For amusement / getting around that, this looks hilarious: link to surfaceforums.net

    …I might have been researching this too much.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Yeah, the throttling’s a pain in the arse for games actually. Have been experimenting with undervolting and an app which makes throttling less aggressive with mixed results. Might just try a USB fan too.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      This is one place where the Surface Pro 2 comes out ahead. This is not only because the chip’s thermal throtlling is aggressive. The 2 also has a smaller resolution (1920x1080p) than the 3. I think the throttling and higher resolution mkight actually make the 3 perform worse than the 2 in many games.

      Alec, have you tried playing Pillars after the 1.03 update that allowed disabling antialiasing? I get very smooth performance on my surface pro 2 now. It would be interesting to see how the 3 compares.

  5. amateurviking says:

    I bought the SP2 after your piece about it and it’s been great. I use it mostly for writing and some gentle stats. Get quite a lot of use out of the stylus too, even if the tracking in the corners is all over the place. The only thing I really couldn’t get on with is the trackpad on the typepad. Fucking awful it is. I kinda liked the size, even if as you say, it was basically useless in portrait mode because of the aspect ratio.

    However, my boss was convinced it wasn’t enough computer to work on (I tried to persuade her it had the same innards as her macbook air but all she saw was me doing science on a tablet) and she just ponied up for a 15″ MBP.

  6. Zenicetus says:

    Will the Surface Pro 4 be running Windows 10?

    That’s one reason I’ve been holding off getting a SP to replace my wife’s creaky laptop. I don’t want to deal with Windows 8 if I can avoid it. I don’t know how tight the OS integration is on these things, so it might be better to just wait for a Win10 version instead of doing an upgrade over Win8 on a SP3.

  7. mattevansc3 says:

    While the 2015 MacBook (Air) uses a Core M CPU the 2015 MacBook Pro uses a gutsier version of a Broadwell U i5 CPU (normally its a 15w TDP chip but the one Apple use is a 28w TDP chip).

    Unless Microsoft want a thinner, fanless Surface Pro they’ll likely stick with the i3/i5/i7 series and time it to coincide with Skylake’s release.

  8. SuicideKing says:

    iPads cost upwards of $600 in my country – doesn’t make Surface pricing look that bad.

  9. DOHrps2015 says:

    So, Alec Meer (if that’s your real name). I do not care about the subject matter one iota and I don’t ever expect to, but I read this entire piece from top to bottom and then read it again. I guess I am saying you are a good and entertaining writer and I enjoyed this even though I didn’t have any interest in the topic, which is really a pretty sizable compliment coming from someone with as debilitation an attention span as I possess. Nice work.

  10. Koshelkin says:

    The new streaming function of Steam is a godsend with the Surface!

  11. SamGad says:

    I’ve got a bottom of the line i3 64gb model, decided I couldn’t justify the jump to any of the better models.
    I use it for handwriting all my notes at uni and to be honest it’s flipping brilliant.
    Won’t set the world on fire for games but it’s fine for touch screen Civ 5.
    Everyone who’s handled it has been impressed by how nice a piece of kit it is, glad I went for it over a standard laptop.
    Lack of space hasn’t been an issue since I chucked a top class 64gb micro SD in, have all my games and software installed on that and it works just fine.

  12. Jac says:

    I’ve somehow managed to stop myself from buying Cities Skylines as wasn’t convinced it would run on SP2. Does it perform well enough to take the plunge?

    • Snargelfargen says:

      I’d be astonished if Cities didn’t run on it. Intel’s integrated graphics are remarkably capable these days.

      • Grovester says:

        Cities runs ok, with some of the graphics options turned off, but I did struggle a little with the controls. Haven’t had a chance to fiddle round with it more yet.

        Civ V/Civ V Alpha Centauri work pretty well though.

        • Grovester says:

          Edit: Oh, and Kentucky Route Zero plays excellently, as you’d expect.

  13. HidingCat says:

    I don’t get the dislike for Windows 8. Under the hood it’s got a lot of improvements and with 8.1 a few tweaks and utilities means you don’t have to use the Metro/Modern/whatever Start Screen for 99% of the time.

    In touch mode I love the swipe gestures. It maximises screen real estate, unlike iOS where space is taken up by UI elements even if they don’t always have to be there.

    • eggy toast says:

      Win8 was not bad at all people just got upset and then didn’t bother to figure out how to avoid the things that upset them.

      8.1 made it much easier to avoid those things, and now it’s the best Windows they’ve ever made.

      • nearly says:

        I don’t know, I’d have preferred for them to just not bring back the bottom bar at all. I get a lot of glitches with autohide where it will disappear but the outline will stay. In the technical test for 10, I think it becomes much more obvious how incompatible the two systems are and the more traditional start menu feels like a huge step backward. I’ve been on 8 since the CP and never had an issue adapting to the new “modern” start menu. 8.1 was/is by and large great but I wish they wouldn’t have caved and just forced people to adapt to something that’s not even honestly a huge change.

    • wyrm4701 says:

      I think the dislike starts with the need to use a few tweaks and utilities to restore familiar functionality. It’s tough to overstate just how dumb that requirement is, and when Microsoft doubled down on that decision with the 8.1 update, it looked a lot like contempt. It’s baffling that they haven’t included an option to restore an approximation of the previous UI. When you imagine rolling out the UI change across entire businesses, it’s just an insane decision. Microsoft might have imagined selling the privilege to companies who didn’t want to deal with a retraining nightmare, but if so, it should have been a longer-term strategy.

      Other complaints include: apps don’t close, gestures are clumsy, basic OS functions are hobbled, the Microsoft account integration demand is wicked spooky, the Store is a joke…

      So, I’ve got two 8.1 touchscreens (one of which is the SP3), and I’ve tried to give Metro a chance, I really have. I’m sure it’s okay for some, but to me, it’s garbage. It’s an extended beta test. It’d be viable if I could fix it, if I had even a modicum of control over it’s behaviour, but it’s not designed to be flexible. It trips me up and slows me down, and it’s an excellent reminder that I really, really want a viable alternative OS.

      • nearly says:

        Doubled down? They gave back the traditional taskbar and older functionality without needing tweaks or utilities anymore, other than for the start menu. And even then, I get that the Start screen LOOKS different but it’s functionally the exact same thing and in reality offers a lot more functionality than just a list you can collapse or expand.

      • HidingCat says:

        Don’t get any of your complaints. In touch, it’s fantastic. In desktop, I just ignore Metro and use it as normal.

  14. Wedge says:

    Hmmm, sounds like something I should keep an eye on to pick up second hand cheap maybe. Has anyone ever done tests for what the response time on the monitors is like? I know most people look at them for less-actiony sorts of games, but I saw someone using one as a portable setup for fighting games and it looked fantastic. I’m curious how this would do as a super-portable setup for running things like that, as I’ve had a lot of success running even PS2 emulation on budget desktop I built with a PentiumG chip and an 8 year old GPU.

  15. Grovester says:

    Funnily enough, I was using my SPro2 this morning on a train when a guy came and sat opposite me with his SPro3. Don’t think they have reached critical mass of becoming a common sight yet, but there’s certainly more sales than the naysayers claim.

    What’s more, those who use them love them, despite their faults. I have high hopes for the 4, as long as the CPU is powerful and they do something about the crappy trackpad.

  16. Continuity says:

    wow, you really do look like moses.

  17. Stevostin says:

    Alternative review from another SP3 owner (same version):
    – windows 8 is by far (ie very far) the best touchscreen OS there is if you ask me. It looks so much more nicer than any other (indeed, unexpected from microsoft, but it’s for once really elegant while apple is loosing its edge). It makes such a better use of touch for navigation. Navigation is much faster etc. AND it’s backed up by a classic OS which if you think of it is just awesome because it means you do have the best of both world. Just the window OS is better than 7.0 btw thanks to start menu replaced with metro launcher, better search and much improved task manager. Using SP3 made me all of sudden realise what was M$ idea with W8’s design and after years of mixed up existence, it made perfect sense at least.

    – I am a professional artist and it’s really a tough call for the drawing between this and the cintiq. It’s got better screen, better power, half the weight and a decent pen. Cintiq Companion has larger screen (always better), better pen (with tilt support, more sensitivity which actually matters when it comes to detection the on/off pressure), better material resistance to the pen. If it’s your only device for art CC is probably better but if you have a cintiq home, you can go for SP3 for more mobility.

    – it’s actually all smaller tablets that look ridiculous. SP3 actually has the perfect A4 size that should be the minimal one to bring an experience significantly improved from a phone those days.

    – Can’t speak about games, it’s may working device (although not for drawing this days, but lot’s of tradeshows + basic desktop work) and it’s totally awesome at it. Actually turns out it works better than my 3yo i7 on the big desktop thanks for the all SSD support.

    I barely feel anything of the hardware I buy my SP3 is one of the very few I am actually getting attached too. Last one was an iPhone 2 (that IMO worked so much better at anything that whatever came to me since).

    • Stevostin says:

      … and I forgot the state the synthesis. From this to me any non tablet non Win/OSX OS is now a non thing, useless piece of gear essentially designed to waste time & money instead of getting a Tablet PC (and hopefully rather sooner than later a Tablet Macbook). Pure tablet do have significantly better battery and that’s a thing but for the experience it’s the same as comparing IOS gaming to PC gaming. There’s a few nice things here and there but all in all one is an horrendous third cook experience while the other can be a life enduring passion. At a point no matter what touch based interface will be the standard for professionnal tool as well but I don’t expect it to happen on iOS – it will be way faster to happen in Win8.