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Wot I Belatedly Think: Surface Pro 3

Make me Moses

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 2160x1440 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.

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