Surface 3: Keyboard frustrates laptop replacement ambition

Microsoft pitches the NZ$800 Surface 3 as a laptop alternative. While it will fit the bill for some folk, Surface still has a way to go before it’s a realistic laptop replacement for most users.

Let’s start with the price. $800 only buys the tablet. You need to spend another $200 for the keyboard. The Surface Pen adds $80.

There are dozens of Windows laptops costing less than $1000. Although few match the flexibility of the Surface 3, most will give you a better keyboard.

In practice that matters more than you might expect.

Windows apps

The Surface 3’s selling point is that it runs all your favourite Windows applications. It comes with a one year personal Microsoft Office 365 licence as part of the deal.

Despite the popularity of touch screens, Office 365 and most popular Windows apps still mainly depend on keyboards.

Sure you can get by just typing on screen, but that’s not productive or satisfactory in the long term.

Keyboard is vital

At first sight the Surface 3 keyboard is clever, thin and weighs next to nothing. As with previous Surface keyboards it doubles as a screen cover and attaches to the tablet with magnets. This makes for a fast set up.

You can lay the keyboard flat on a desk or table or you can put it at a slight angle. Neither is fully comfortable.

For me the keyboard is just too flimsy. There’s an unnerving flex when it is laid flat. The keyboard flexes a lot more when used at an angle. You can’t realistically use the keyboard on your lap[1].

Kickstand

Microsoft’s Surface Kickstand doesn’t help much. It works fine on a table or desk, but not on the lap. Nor is it any help on an airplane. The keyboard depth means the Kickstand sits roughly where there’s a gap between a plane’s tray-table and the seat in front.

The keys are firm enough and there’s a reassuring travel. I struggled to touch type. In practice I needed to keep looking at the keys to see, not feel where my fingers were.

Overall the keyboard isn’t up to the standard of laptop keyboards. It’s not far behind, but if you were looking for a reason to not buy the Surface 3, this is the place to start.

Trackpad

If the keyboard is below average, the trackpad rates near the bottom of the class. I’ve seen rubbish trackpads on cheap laptops, but the Surface trackpad is also disadvantaged by being small.

To be fair, there’s less need for a keyboard trackpad when you have a touch screen device. On the other hand, I find lifting hands from the keyboard to the screen is the fastest was to getting a sore wrist and pains in my arm.

While there’s a lot to like about the Surface 3 — more on that in a day or two — overall I don’t see the Surface 3 as a wise choice for anyone who needs to type anything longer than quick status updates and email replies. You can work with it at a pinch, but if you need to type the money is better spent elsewhere.

Students, journalists, academics, report writers should look elsewhere. I’d recommend spending $1000 on a laptop with a good keyboard. If you can afford it, move up a class.


  1. I hate using laptops this way. That’s a matter of personal taste. Using the keyboard on your lap is downright disastrous with the Surface 3. On the other hand, it’s a tablet so why not use it that way if there’s not a desk handy?  ↩

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  1. Pingback: Microsoft Surface 3: Worth buying, not cheap | Bill Bennett

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