Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Weight: 1.76 lbs Screen: 12" 2160 x 1440 Processor: 4th generation Intel Core i7
Storage: 256gb RAM: 8gb
I recently decided that good food and little luxuries in life are not that essential and that I could still survive quite well living by eating pea soup so I’ve acquired one of the rather new Microsoft Surface Pro 3, the core i7 version. After using it for about three months I decided to present a little review of how I consider the beast and if I’d rather eat something else than eggs and pea soup instead.
I’m not a professional techno reviewer and I won’t do precise and complex benchmark comparing the number of seconds it takes to boot this or that program or how much FPS can run FarCry 3 and I won’t even show any graphics comparing it with other things like AlienWare laptop, not even a graphic comparing it to the MacBook Pro. I know, it’s not a “classic” review.
I’m a photographer and as such I will rather describe what I think about the Surface in terms of not only an everyday tool but also as the main element of a photographer workflow.
First, as a photographer (and as any person in general in fact), you have to ask yourself what you need and what can fulfill those needs. My new photography and life project; Shoot to Help, means that I will always be on the road in remote areas and for a long time, meaning I will have to edit my images on the go. I need something as powerful as this will be my workhorse and because I will travel backpack style with already enough photo gear, I need a rather light horse.
At 2 pounds including the keyboard (and you have to buy the keyboard), you can’t get any lighter or smaller than that for that much power. At the moment, it is the most practical solution for traveling, nothing to add here. That much power in such a small format brings some downsides though as the small fan seems to be lacking the power to efficiently cool down the powerful i7 processor when many resources heavy programs are running at the same time. The upper right corner of the Surface Pro gets really warm, almost impossible to touch and the fan starts making a lot of noise. So far, it never had to shut down itself but I have heard of such cases. This can be a nuisance when running LR + PS and streaming some music on many Chrome tabs but it is to be expected for such a small format machine. Even if it’s a downside, it’s nothing unexpected and Microsoft did a rather good job managing the heat. On normal use it is completely noiseless and pretty cool though.
In itself, it does feel very sturdy in its aluminium case and it’s a joy handling it. The screen is also made of Gorilla Glass which is extremely resistant and easy to clean. I am looking forward using it in a harsher environment while traveling though. I am a little bit worried about the fan slot getting sand inside but I might put scotch tape on it, just in case. Overall, it seems like a perfect construction, for now.
Lightroom and Photoshop
Speaking of using Lightroom and Photoshop, I was previously using a laptop with a core i7 first generation and 8gb or RAM so switching to the Surface was not a life-changing experience. Not only is Lightroom 5 as fast as before, I can notice some improvement in speed as everything is installed on a SSD on the Surface and the processor really is faster. My biggest concern here while using LR and Photoshop is that those programs are made to be used on large monitors. When my Surface is connected to me 24inches Dell, everything is perfect and as easy as before but when used on the 12inches and 2160x1440 resolution of the Surface, everything is so small! All the tabs, settings and sliders are way too small to be used by touch and it takes forever using the trackpad. You really need a mouse (more on the Arch mouse later on). I think Adobe made an iPad version of their software through the Adobe Creative Cloud (which I am using and liking a lot) that works well at integrating the touch elements like bigger sliders and things like that. They only have an apple version, not even Android and I am not even thinking about a Windows one. That’s the problem and advantage of the Surface; it’s a computer in a tablet format but sometimes, you don’t have the tablet integrated software…too bad. It would have been a great experience to edit pictures casually with your finger or with the Surface Pen. There is a good point (haha) about the pen though; it is perfect for local Brush adjustments in both LR and PS.
I think it has a camera but, really, I won’t even talk about it as it is a photography review. Please, don’t be that person taking pictures with a tablet. As this is even larger than an iPad, it would be even worse. It does have a rear facing webcam which works well and is very practical for Skype but please, don’t take pictures with the Surface.
Storage and Workflow
Of course, the storage is limited but it is not really bothering me. 256 gb is more than enough for me to have the few programs I need and to have enough space to act as a buffer between transfer. I always store and eventually use my photos on external drives so usually my process goes like this;
- All the LR catalogs are on the Surface, as it is a SSD, it’s really fast
- I take the pictures from the card to a nice little Transcend USB 3.0 card reader
- They are temporarily stocked on the Surface.
- I sort them, edit them (still taking advantage of the speed of the SSD) and export the ones needed
- I plug an external hard drive and through LR I just move them in the corresponding folder on the drive. That way, I am not messing everything up in the Catalog
- I also always make a backup on a separate hard drive of the sorted RAW files, when traveling and when at home. I will also, when possible, make a backup on the cloud of the full resolution JPG files
- When I need to export a picture again, I just have to plug in the corresponding hard drive and export it.
So that’s pretty much the way I work. It’s quick and I never need much storage space on the Surface. It’s also easy to find and export a single picture when needed and I make the system as secure as possible through the back-ups. At the moment of writing the review, I have not yet tried a Western Digital My Passport Wireless which seems like a perfect solution for a photographer as it allows to transfer picture from a SD card directly to the drive AND it is possible to use it wirelessly. Looking forward to try it as it could greatly improve my workflow.
Little downside of the Surface by itself for photography; as the sliders are too small, you do need a mouse to be really quick and efficient, trackpad is quite good but never as fast and precise as a real mouse.
Keyboard,pen and mouse
The keyboard is optional but between you and me that’s just a marketing gimmick to make the price seems cheaper because you clearly need the keyboard. It’s even worse when buying a lower cost i3 Surface at 600$ when you have to get the 130$ keyboard…not nice at all. By itself, it connects pretty well to the Surface Pro 3, makes a perfect protection for carrying it around and isn’t much space or weight. The keys even light up, very pretty, wow. Seriously, the real question is, is it as good as a laptop or desktop keyboard? Well, the real answer is no it’s not. It’s good and I honestly like it but it’s not “as good”, it’s “almost” as good or “good enough” we could say. The only real thing that makes me cringe is that for some obscure reason, I have problems hitting the space bar, often skipping it and having to erase my last two words to write them again with a space…annoying but not a deal breaker. It seems sturdy enough in itself but the space between the keys worry me a lot for the trips to come. So far, no food nor beer made it through.
The Surface Pen is really nice, like, really. Seriously that’s some awesome stuff right there. I’ve already said it was really useful for the brushes in Photoshop and Lightroom as it makes the whole system works as a small (and expensive!) Wacom tablet. Beside photography applications, the Pen is so fun to use. Just click it and OneNote opens so you can…take notes! It’s pressure sensitive, has an eraser button and a select button for hours of fun. Very easy to highlight anything also in word or PDF reader. I’ve just finished university and I think I’ll go for higher studies now that I have the Surface, it really is nice to take notes! Crazy thing in Microsoft Word; just get the pen near the screen and it takes you to the pen tab and you can write! No more weird looking digital signatures, no sir! Oh and it comes free with the Surface Pro 3, at least. You cannot choose the color of the button though, it’s kind of an ugly purple.
The Arch Mouse is not really Surface Pro exclusive (even if it’s written on it) and it’s not as necessary as the keyboard but it still deserves a word. As the Surface only has one USB port, having a USB mouse plugged in really is a pain, even when using a USB hub. As a photographer I often have an external drive plugged in and thus can’t have a plugged in mouse as well. Even if any Bluetooth mouse could be used with the Surface, I chose the Arch because I really liked the design as it is the perfect option to go along with the idea of taking as less space as possible. The Arch in its Off position is flat and therefore very small and easy to carry. Coming from a Logitech G700 Gaming mouse, it feels like a very small and not that ergonomic mouse with limited functionalities (no back key) but it takes three times less space. The Arch does not feature a real physical scroll wheel but instead has a kind of digital one. There is a weird clicker noise with a little motor inside to produce a feel and sound of a real wheel. It feels and sounds very strange, especially for the people around you but I guess you get used to it, at least, it works well. Overall, still not as good as a full gaming mouse but a very good option and the smallest and most practical solution.
General Use of the Surface Pro 3
I can’t say for sure how long the battery lasts but I just know it’s good. I think the official rating is 6 hours of light use but I usually have the screen at a mid to high luminosity. Lightroom and such programs are power hungry so I can’t say for sure if it lasts 6 hours but I wouldn’t complain. It really is good enough. A nice little addition to note is the USB port on the power cord so that you can charge up a USB device such as cellphone with the same power outlet as the Surface, sweet!
Regarding external monitor, the mini display port works well to plug in a larger screen or a television, you “only” need to buy a corresponding adapter. Seamless integration but not cheap.
Another new important point of the Surface Pro 3 is the adaptable stand. It is possible to use the Surface at any desired angle from a very low to almost 90 degrees. It feels sturdy and works perfectly. Physically, there is nothing much to add, it’s as light as possible, thin yet solid, nothing to complain here.
Regarding the general use of the Surface, one major major downside for me is that it crashes unusually often, as much as twice or thrice a week. It just freezes, usually making weird noises because music is playing and I have to hold the power button for 10 seconds to shut it down, losing everything that was not saved. That being said, my dear Shoot to Help colleague, Vince, has the exact same model as mine and it did not crash once (maybe I should have got the blue keyboard as well). I know it must be software related but it’s still very strange. I have looked online everywhere and it seems that the problem is not common at all. It still is my main concern regarding the Surface Pro 3. It crashes, it crashed twice writing that review by the way.
The main question that everyone asks; “can it really replace a good old laptop or ultrabook as a day to day computer or even as a photography workhorse?”
After having used the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for about three months I can definitely answer positively; yes it can be used as a laptop! In fact, I don’t miss my laptop (that was about as fast) at all! It’s perfect for working pretty much anywhere and it’s very easy to carry.
It takes some time to get used to it and I needed to adapt my photographic workflow a bit but I’m really satisfied with the way I’m working now. Some unique elements of the Surface are also powerful tools as a photographer or as a reporter (such as One Note, amazing app!). It also makes you very cool to write on a tablet like that.
With that being said, the very high price point means that if you don’t really need it then you shouldn’t invest in it. I think it’s worth its price but I don’t think it’s worth the investment for anyone who doesn’t need it. Needing it means having to carry a powerful computer to work from anywhere and already having limited space and weight limit. If you don’t need to carry it with other heavy gear for a long time then take something as fast but cheaper.
If you do need it and have the budget, go for it, you won’t regret the investment but if you just want a nice toy to watch movies and play on some apps, get a cheaper tablet that will be as good for your needs but way cheaper.
- Extremely light and small, great solid construction
- Very powerful, enough for Lightroom, Photoshop and Premiere
- Good overall integration of touch
- Very useful Pen and OneNote programs
- Pretty good screen with nice resolution and accurate colors, scratch resistant as well
- Good keyboard for a tablet
- Good battery life
- Can get pretty warm
- Sometimes unexpectedly crashes
- No touch or tablet integration of Lightroom or Photoshop (not Microsoft’s fault)
- Expensive (Microsoft’s fault)
- Only one USB port
- Average keyboard for a laptop