As luck would have it, I was given the opportunity to get my hands on a third-party keyboard that I was interested in, the subject of a later review which I’ll post in the coming weeks. The one caveat, though, was that it is a keyboard specifically designed for the Surface Pro 3 or Surface Pro 4—something I didn’t have…at the time.
It’s a relatively easy fix if money is no object. As an avid MacBook Pro user, the Surface line had not yet made it to my ownership, although I’ve been watching them for years. I actually used the first- and second-generation Surface Pro products (before the redesign), which were nice but certainly had their shortcomings—mostly centered around the design and form factor. That was right around the time the Surface Pro 3 was launched, which by most accounts addressed those form factor issues and was generally accepted as a decent all-around machine.
The Surface Pro 4, at least at the time of writing this review, enters in the $600 – $700 price range, which is perhaps a bit steep for someone who wants to try out a keyboard and already has a solid all-around machine in the 2016 MacBook Pro. So what’s a guy to do? Go refurb, of course. Amazon had the entry-level Surface Pro 3 in the $300 price range for a refurbished unit, add-on another $50 for a Surface Pen (I went with the 4th-gen since it’s compatible, more capable, and I found it in black), and there’s your entry-level PC.
But what about the keyboard, you may ask? Well, we know that’s coming, but at least in the meantime my goal is simply this: Is a nearly three-year old base model PC/tablet still usable in 2017? An old processor, limited internal storage (although also expandable), but still 4GB of RAM makes for an interesting test. Another note: I just purchased the new iPad for $329. If this refurb delivers, what does that say for a brand new product that is significantly less capable in many ways?
As I said, the inspiration here was to spend less money on a previously heralded “flagship” device, perhaps not with any significant specs, but with enough performance to make it interesting. Still, if we look at the market, aside from the obvious younger (and more capable, and more expensive) sibling—the Surface Pro 4—you might also consider looking at the Galaxy Tab Pro S with Windows. But, finding refurbished units of that model proved to be slightly trickier, and at a price point a little bit north of the perhaps surprisingly low $300 price tag on the refurbished Surface Pro 3.
The budget windows tablet (and laptop) market is one fraught with “great value” landmines that you should navigate like you would your local community college’s campus lawn after the geese return in the spring. Windows PCs, laptops (and to some degree tablets) are comparatively cheap when assessed against Apple’s lineup, which is difficult to get into under $500. And although this is not about Apple, we are taking a somewhat Apple-centric approach to choosing a product in the category: go with the product developed by the same company that created the software it runs.
Eliminating Samsung, Acer, Asus and a slew of other lesser-known manufacturers from our pool points directly to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, if you can find one. At the time of writing this review, they range from $300 to $700 for refurbished units, depending on the specs chosen. For the purpose of this review, we are looking at the base model Surface Pro 3 with 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and a 3-generation old Haswell processor from Intel. From an I/O perspective, this model comes with a mini-display port as well as a USB 3.0 port, a micro SD card slot and a headphone jack; there is a proprietary Microsoft power cable that also has a second USB port which can be used for charging another device.
The first two days with this machine were spent on key “new gadget” tasks: setting up customizations (background images, text size and color, menu adjustments, downloading standard applications) and doing basic media consumption (Facebook, Youtube, imgur, etc). Aside from an incredibly annoying bout with Outlook trying to add an iCloud account, the device handled these tasks without major performance struggles, as expected.
Day two saw the addition of the Surface Pen, a lovely addition to the base Surface Pro 3 that allows for pen-based input. Since the refurbished unit I purchased did not include the Surface Pen, I was aiming to determine if the addition was worth the $50 price tag, and if it was integral to the Surface Pro experience. And the short answer to both inquiries is: “it depends.” But, since this is a tech review, and “it depends” often times causes frustration because it requires one make a decision, let’s say that I’m certainly leaning away from thinking this addition integral—and split down the middle on whether or not it’s worth the money.
Regarding surviving the experience without the Surface Pen, my key observation is that the device will be paired well with a keyboard/mouse, or a pen, but rarely ever both at the same time. And considering the first two days’ use of this device was done without any mouse or keyboard input devices—there wasn’t much that the Pen brought to the table that I felt I couldn’t survive without.
That’s not to say there isn’t some cool stuff built into the pen input. I purchased the Surface Pro 4 pen in matte black because it was less expensive than the elusive Surface Pro 3 pen and a more recent version that was still compatible with the SP3.
I’m not a tremendously big OneNote fan, but from the early years using a USB Wacom tablet to take notes in college, the experience with handwriting now is much more user-friendly thanks to some updates to the software. Palm rejection was great, and with the different tips that came with the pen, the artist, student and professional alike should be able to find a friction that is comfortable based on their own preference. I also really like that clicking the back of the pen launches OneNote, even if the screen is off. Response time was great, with very little input lag when writing/drawing on the screen. My only real complaint about the pen was that it should allow for both active and passive input to the screen—for instance, selecting text on a webpage or scrolling, perhaps based on pressing the Pen’s side button, so that it can be used more exclusively for both input and general navigation. With that slight addition—this would have tipped the scales for me on the Pen…alas, on to other things.
One quick note on other input methods—during testing I used the device in various form factors—as a tablet with only finger input, as a “laptop” with an attached keyboard and mouse, and everything in between. That said, aside from the short focus on the Surface Pen, there won’t be many other comments about the input devices for the remainder of the review, and I will focus again on the SP3 itself and what it brings to the table.
Regarding the kickstand—which Microsoft improved from earlier versions of the Surface by allowing virtually any viewing angle.; this is a great feature, and good to use on a very slight angle when writing/drawing or using the onscreen keyboard, to near vertical angles when using (perhaps) in the kitchen to display a recipe. I also found the kickstand was good on multiple surfaces, even non-table surfaces like my lap or the arm of a couch.
I’m certainly no artist (as we’ve seen), so really putting to the test those features of the SP3 is not something you’ll find in this review. Keep in mind the goal, though—is a nearly 3-year-old computer still up to the task of today’s most common tasks?
I’m a long time imgur lurker, and have found with other devices the site can sometimes put some strain on your browsing session. With that in mind, I cruised imgur several times seeking out large image and gif dumps, in an effort to identify any major performance issues along those lines. And, while the delays were limited—after a longer browsing session I found the graphics chip struggling to keep up, either with images that didn’t render very quickly or gifs that were extremely choppy during their first play. But, for $300, I wasn’t expecting much. All in all, it’s not a terrible experience, even for those of us who get very irritated at performance delays during relatively basic tasks (like media consumption). Youtube videos were fine as long as the resolutions weren’t pushed too far beyond 1080P.
Speaking of videos, the smaller 12” screen is extremely sharp and responsive to touch input—and among the best of this device’s features. The max resolution is 2160×1440, which without being scaled down is a strain on the eyes (although, if you have perfect eye sight, it’s probably tolerable at close distances). The max brightness was acceptable, although due to the screen’s glossy finish I wouldn’t expect much use for this device outdoors.
Arguably the best use case for this device is for the cost-sensitive buyer who is looking for a decent entry-level machine without terribly high expectations around performance. This device handles most tasks just fine, only hiccuping when there are multiple opened browser tabs, programs, or especially video or RAM intensive operations. If you’re checking email, maybe doing some word processing or even building macros in Microsoft Excel, and occasionally playing Candy Crush, this is about as good as it gets for the money. Students in particular might find this to be a great deal on a tight budget, while still getting a nice looking machine that can support note taking (with an additional purchase) and other basic tasks with ease.
On the contrary, a very performance sensitive buyer will be disappointed and may have regretted not spending a little extra cash for more RAM. For what its worth, refurbished SP3’s that are higher than the base model are also available for a significant cost reduction, and presumably would perform admirably for at least a couple of years.
And, while I recognize this device is a tablet first, it is worth noting that the buyer who wants a $300 laptop is going to be disappointed in the refurb, as it doesn’t include any keyboard covers. That would be an add-on and, again, if you must have a laptop, it will cost a little bit extra.
At a time when the Surface Pro 4 is out and has been for some time, we can rest assured that the Surface line isn’t going anywhere. Still, due to the limited upgrade in spec from SP3 to SP4, current owners of the SP3 probably won’t be very inclined to upgrade just yet. If you’re an original Surface or SP2 user, and you can find a good refurb model of the SP3, there’s no reason to not make the switch, even if the hardware is a few years old.
Also needing mention is the newly announced Surface Laptop, the student-focused laptop with a locked down version of Windows that only allows you to install apps from the Microsoft App Store. The hardware looks decent, but the software may be a big limitation—for those who remember Windows RT and how poorly those devices performed, any “locked down” Windows OS is a concern. I will admit, the laptop form factor may be nice, but by that token, I don’t believe it really competes with the refurb SP3 unit, even for students. Also, the new Surface Laptop starts at $1,000, which is significantly more than this refurb even with the add-ons and upgrades.
In a limited number of cases—and for users who aren’t as picky with their performance, I definitely would recommend you add this to your collection…just know that it won’t have the longevity that a newer device might.
As far as add-ons are concerned, they aren’t absolutely necessary here but definitely add to the experience. The Surface Pen is nice and while not integral to the experience, would be great for a student or artist. A keyboard cover also makes for a good quasi-laptop experience, but a keyboard with a more solid base (not the covers provided by Microsoft) would make that laptop experience even better.
But, if all you need is a basic machine that looks great, performs ok in everyday tasks, and you can get that done on the cheap—it’s hard to go wrong here.