Microsoft Surface Pro 3: 3 Updates That Matter and 3 That Don’t

May 22, 2014

According to Microsoft, The Surface Pro 3 is “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” Alright: let’s play along. Assuming the Surface 3’s closest competitor is a MacBook Air—and not an iPad—which of the updates matter, and which don’t?

3 Updates that Matter...

1. Display

The Surface 3’s display is both conventional and rebellious. Sensibly, Microsoft has abandoned its 16:9 aspect ratio for a more standard 3:2. While widescreen videos will no longer fill the whole space, this update will likely improve user experience for other applications, where users have come to expect portrait-friendly apps and more vertical space while in landscape mode.

Meanwhile, the increase in screen real estate (from 10.6 to 12 inches) is a defiant move. Given the success of 7- and 10-inch tablets, Microsoft is doubling-down on its “laptop-replacement” positioning, while keeping its distance from the iPad Mini (7.85 inches) and Kindle Fire HDX (8.9).

Finally, the Surface 3’s 216 PPI pixel density is far crisper than most entry-level laptops, including the MacBook Air. It’s nice to see that Microsoft has maintained its tablet-like screen sharpness even as it tries to conquer the laptop space. With all this in mind, the Surface 3’s screen is just flat-out better than the Air’s, and this will matter for undecided shoppers.

2. Weight and Thickness

During the announcement, Microsoft's Panos Panay placed the Surface 3 (800 grams) on a scale next to the MacBook Air (1.3k grams). It was gimmicky (and maybe even a little unfair), but it proved a larger point: the Surface 3 is officially a light device, particularly as a laptop replacement.

The new Surface is also much thinner, dropping from over half an inch to 0.3 inches: right in line with the latest iPads. The comparison gets a bit murkier if you throw in the attachable keyboard (adding roughly 200 grams), but if nothing else, the Surface has shed its “bulky” reputation. That’s a big step in the right direction that should matter for consumers.

3. Hardware Design (Stylus and Kick-Stand)

It’s easy to poke fun at the stylus (didn’t everyone stop using these in 2005?) and complain about the kick-stand (it still doesn’t work in my lap), but with the Surface 3, Microsoft has forced the skeptics to take another look. The improved stylus has a premium build-quality and handy new features (ex: click the top to bring up a note taking app), while the kickstand can now be set at various levels. Six-foot-five customers around the globe can now prop up their Surfaces to an ideal viewing angle without lowering their chairs or raising their desks.

Regardless of your sentiments toward styli and kickstands, these are tangible (and well-executed!) features that will give potential MacBook Air customers a couple of reasons to think twice.

…and 3 that Don’t

1. Battery Life

With the Surface 3, Microsoft claims customers can squeeze out 9 hours of battery life, a small but respectable improvement over past models. The problem? The 13-inch MacBook Air holds an insurmountable lead, at 12 hours. Microsoft probably hopes that 9 hours will be “good enough,” but regardless, the masses will likely ignore the Surface's improved battery life.

2. Technical Specifications

The Surface’s tech specs should matter, but won’t. For its Surface Pro line, Microsoft has championed performance, a tablet with the powerful internals of a laptop. Unfortunately, the two lower-end Surface 3s (price-wise, the most comparable to the MacBook Air) just aren’t that much more powerful than an entry-level laptop. Even if Microsoft can point to a few superior performance metrics in a spreadsheet, there’s not enough here to noticeably improve the user experience of the device.

3. Productivity (Apps and Ecosystem)

In positioning the Surface 3 as a laptop replacement, Microsoft has undercut its original argument: productivity. Back in early 2013, the Surface Pro was a productivity show horse next to the Office-less iPad, complete with keyboard attachments and powerful Office integration. Now? The Surface 3 is no more productive than its self-proclaimed rival, the MacBook Air, which can run all the same productivity apps (and more). Heck, even the iPad has Office now.

Yes, the Surface 3 has solid battery life, good tech specs, and top productivity features compared to other tablets. But Microsoft has picked a fight with laptops, and now, that’s all that matters.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

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