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Surface 3 keyboard

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.

Surface 3 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?  ↩

Microsoft Surface Pro 3Last year I spent a week working with nothing but Microsoft technology. Since then Microsoft updated Surface Pro, the Lumia phone and delivered Windows 8.1. How does this change things?

The big difference is the move from 2013’s Surface Pro 2 to the 2014 Surface Pro 3. While the Surface Pro 2 could run Microsoft Office and the Windows apps most people use most of the time, the Surface Pro 3 does away with the need for a separate notebook.

This means one less item to buy and one less thing to carry. There’s less to fuss over.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is better than the Pro 2 in every respect. Better screen, better screen size, better processor, even a better kick-stand.

There’s enough processing power to handle every mainstream application, even editing media files. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, there are no embarrassing glitches. When you add the docking station you can use a big screen for graphics and video work.

 
The Surface keyboard still isn’t as robust as those on desktops or high quality laptops. That aside, you could switch to using the Surface Pro 3 as your only computer. If you do, it may pay to invest in a solid desktop keyboard.
 
Although others use the Surface Pro 3 with large screens — or more than one screens — the 12-inch display is often enough.

Despite higher specifications is almost every department, there is less difference between the Lumia 920 and the 2014 Lumia 930. Yes the camera is an improvement. Anything needing heavy-duty processing is faster, but in day-to-day use this is unnoticable. The Lumia 930 is a good phone, but in hardware terms it has fallen behind Apple’s iPhone 6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5.

The move from Windows Phone 8 to 8.1 doesn’t amount to much in practice. There’s an extra column of phone screen icons — as if that matters. Microsoft added a notification centre and Cortana.

Cortana digital assistant

Cortana is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri voice activated digital assistant. The 930 screen keyboard seems to work better than on the 920. You’ll get a little more done with the 930 than the 920, but it’s not going to make a huge difference to the way you work.

Microsoft fixed most of what’s wrong with Windows 8 in 8.1. The move from the start screen to the Windows desktop is less jarring. Internet Explorer 11 is a better browser. Windows 8.1 is faster and more apps and utilities come as standard.

There was nothing wrong with Microsoft’s technology when I tried it last year. Microsoft has fixed all the annoyances. Moving between the Surface Pro 3 and the Lumia 930 is natural. Saving Office documents to OneDrive from the Surface Pro 3 then editing or reading them on the phone works as it should. Microsoft has tightened its technology and sharpened its act all-round.

Microsoft Surface 3 tablet

When Steve Jobs took the wraps off Apple’s first iPad, he showed a new class of device. The iPad was neither a new type of PC nor was it a giant smartphone. The iPad opened new territory.
Apple sold the original iPad as a personal digital media device. It stuck with that approach for the first three tablet generations.
 
It wasn’t until the iPad Air that Apple’s marketing bowed to the inevitable. The company admitted tablets are also useful for creating content and as business tools. Even now that’s not the main sales pitch.
 
Google doesn’t sell its own tablets. When partners began selling Android tablets they followed Apple’s lead. Samsung took pains to emphasis the entertainment and media aspects of its Galaxy Tab S. Business takes a back seat.
 

Microsoft Surface Pro — productivity tablet first

That’s not how Microsoft views tablets.
 
Even before CEO Satya Nadella told the world Microsoft is a ‘productivity and platform’ company, it called the Surface a business tool.
 
This explains why Surface evolved fast. It had three generations in 18 months and went from tablet to tablet-cum-laptop. Microsoft’s marketing says the new Surface Pro 3 is a “PC when you need it and a tablet when you want one”. That speaks volumes.
 
The message is “you need a laptop to do real work, but tablets have a place too. Here’s something covering both bases”. It’s no accident that almost every Surface buyer picks up a keyboard along with their tablet.
 
How does this play out?
 
You could argue the Surface, particularly the Surface Pro 3, is the tablet corporate technology buyers always wanted. That’s the market Microsoft wants.
 
And yet, Apple does a great job selling iPads to large companies. Walk into any CBD glass tower you’ll see people using iPads.
 
The iPad took root in business from the bottom up. People who bought iPads for personal use took them to the office and found new ways to be productive. In some cases using third-party add-ons and apps from the iTunes store.
 
Companies had little choice but to adapt to this trend. It explains hence all the hand-wringing you hear about BYOD, bring your own device. I’ve no evidence, but suspect companies buy most Surfaces. They give them to staff as productivity tools. The other market people committed to Microsoft products and services. I also suspect many Surfaces replaced PCs.
 

One device or two?

Microsoft thinks you need only one device to do two jobs. The Surface Pro 3 could be the best Windows laptop. It’s a good tablet, but not fabulous and it is expensive.
 
In Apple’s world, there are two jobs needing two tools. The tablet is a consumption device.
 
If you are serious about creating content, buy a MacBook. You are, of course, welcome to buy both. Apple is doing something right. While iPad sales have hiccupped, sales of Apple laptops continue to rise. Windows laptop sales are falling, attacked from above by Apple and from below by the Chromebook.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 goes on sale in New Zealand on August 28. Two days with the device has convinced me it’s one of the best computers I’ve used, but it’s not perfect. 

Microsoft flagship tablet, the Surface Pro, is already on version three just 18 months after the first version appeared. That’s good, it shows Microsoft is moving quickly, learning fast and responding to market signals.

To a degree Surface Pro 3 fixes almost all the things that were wrong with earlier versions. But there’s more than that.

The first Surface models were tablets with laptop-like qualities. Surface Pro 3 turns that around. It has evolved to become a laptop-alternative with tablet-like qualities. Microsoft does little to hide this, the Surface Pro 3 advertisement shown here makes direct comparisons with Apple’s MacBook Air:

That’s interesting because I was given a brief demonstration of the device and tweeted my first impression long before seeing the advertisement:

While the Surface Pro 3 is a good Windows tablet, it is also arguably one of the best Windows 8 laptops. However, despite what Microsoft says, I’m not convinced it is a direct competitor with the MacBook Air — as we shall see.

Third time’s the charm

It took Microsoft until Windows 3.1 to get its famous operating system right. Since then there’s been a long-standing joke that you have to wait until version 3.1 of anything before Microsoft irons out all the kinks.

That could well be the case with the Surface Pro 3. I liked the earlier Surface Pro 2 a lot, but found a few niggles. The screen was big enough for a tablet, but not for serious laptop-style work. And the screen was the wrong shape for serious writing or spreadsheet work.

The Pro 3 has a better screen. It’s bigger, at 12 inches instead of the 10 inches in earlier Surface Pro models.

Portrait and landscape

Perhaps more important than being bigger, the Pro 3 screen is a better shape for getting things done. Older Surface Pros had a widescreen format that’s optimised for watching HD video, but feels just plain wrong when you hold the tablet in the portrait orientation.

The Pro 3 screen has a height to width ratio of 2:3. That means it works nicely as a tablet in both orientations and makes sense when you’re typing a document down the page while word processing in landscape mode. It also makes working with spreadsheets, photographs and websites easier.

Microsoft tells me the screen is 40 percent bigger with 50 percent more pixels. It certainly looks better.

A bigger screen makes for a slightly larger device, but at the same time the Surface Pro 3 is thinner than its predecessors and lighter at just 800g. Despite this, there’s nothing flimsy about the device, it still has superb built quality. Physically it’s just the ticket.

Keyboard good, not perfect

Because Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet, it doesn’t come with a keyboard as standard. The Surface Pro Type Cover costs another $200. For your money you get a good tablet keyboard. It’s thin, with proper physical keys and backlighting. In theory the $200 turns your tablet into a laptop.

However, the Type Cover is still a tablet keyboard. While you can work, even touch type on the keys, it isn’t as good for sustained writing sessions as a the keyboard on a full-price laptop. This, for me, is where Microsoft’s comparison with the MacBook Air falls short. All the functionality is there, but the experience isn’t the same.

Understanding the Surface Pro 3

And that’s the key to understanding the Surface Pro 3. It’s the perfect device for certain people in certain niches, it can be both the functional equivalent of a good quality tablet and a laptop.

Generally attempts at hybrid devices end up with something that’s not the best of both worlds. There are compromises. In this case, you end up with a less than perfect laptop keyboard — if you don’t spend all day typing, that’s not going to matter.

I’m not one for sticking a laptop on my lap. I work at desks and tables. When I don’t I use a tablet without a keyboard. When Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 can be used on your lap, it is telling the truth, but I found it uncomfortable and the weight is distributed in an unnerving way.

Price

New Zealand prices for the Surface Pro start at NZ$1200. That’s for a tablet with 64GB of storage and an Intel i3 processor. The model I’m looking at had 128GB of storage and an i5 processor — I suspect this is the sweet spot at NZ$1450. There are other options, the top of the line model with an i7 and 512GB will set you back a hefty NZ$2829. You’ll need to budget another $200 for a keyboard and NZ$310 for the docking station — I’ll write more about these in a later post.

In effect, Microsoft prices are roughly in line with premium laptops including the MacBook Air. I don’t think it directly challenges Apple, nor do I think it threatens high-end Windows laptops for people who need solid keyboards.

If you want a lovely Windows laptop that doubles as a tablet, this is the best way to go. If you like the idea of a pen, then it is an even better bet.