Surface Pro 3 looks to replace tablets, laptops with one device

Microsoft has just spilled the beans on its Surface Pro 3 tablet, and the details are really quite interesting. The company has taken a fresh approach to the Surface Pro this time around, with a stated goal of "removing the conflict" between the tablet and laptop form factors.

To do so, they've grown the Surface Pro to contain a display that measures 12" from corner to corner. More notably, that display has a 3:2 aspect ratio, with a resolution of 2160x1440, that is much closer to square than the 16:9 or 16:10 ratios typical of most non-Apple tablets. Microsoft claims this display can show "6% more content" than a 13" laptop screen.

Although the Surface Pro's screen size has grown, Microsoft appears to have done a nice job of keeping the system's size and weight in check. The firm says the tablet weighs only 800 g, lighter than a MacBook Air, and the Surface Pro 3's thickness of 9.1 mm is reduced slightly from the Surface Pro 2's 10-mm profile.

Another key trait that should help the Surface Pro 3 make its case as a full-fledged laptop replacement is its "full-friction" multi-position hinge. The kickstand that props up the display can be adjusted infinitely between its widest and narrowest angles, allowing the display to rest at a broad range of angles, just as a clamshell-style laptop's display can.

We don't yet know whether the processor inside the Surface Pro 3 is one of Intel's 14-nm Broadwell chips or a 22-nm Haswell, but we do know that it's branded as a Core i7. Broadwell's schedule has slipped recently, but Microsoft claims to have worked very closely with Intel on this product. It's possible Microsoft is getting early access to Broadwell silicon. That said, some 22-nm Haswell parts are really quite efficient. (Update: Looks like it's Haswell. At least one version of the Pro 3 has a Core i5-4300U processor.)

Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 improves on its predecessor in terms of both battery life and performance. If true, this new tablet should be more than acceptable on both fronts. The Pro 3 is cooled actively by a small internal blower, but the firm claims that the fan's operation is inaudible and even the movement of air through the vent in the tablet's housing is imperceptible.

Also, to make a point about build quality, Surface lead Panos Panay dropped the demo tablet from just above waist height onto the carpeted stage. The device bounced a bit but sustained no apparent damage and kept on operating.

Another interesting twist in the Pro 3 is the availability of a desktop docking station created by Microsoft. The tablet snaps into a cradle that holds its screen up above the desk more than six inches or so, at a slight incline. The user can then place a keyboard, mouse, and other accessories around the dock, converting the Surface Pro 3 into a mini-desktop workstation.

As usual, Microsoft also has keyboard and stylus accessories coming for the Surface Pro 3. Those will presumably be different from the its current Type and Touch Cover offerings, since the Pro 3 has a different shape.

The Surface Pro is is slated to go on sale tomorrow, with prices starting at $799.

I expect some folks will be a little disappointed that Microsoft didn't announce something smaller or cheaper, such as a Surface "mini" type product. Others in the press already seem to be questioning whether consumers will want a 12" tablet. I can see the appeal of a smaller, cheaper Surface based on an Intel Bay Trail processor, and I hope we'll see something along those lines eventually. But I think those who are pooh-poohing this thing for being "a 12" tablet" are missing the whole laptop-replacement angle. I expect that businesses and consumers both could find some appeal in the Surface Pro 3, if the concept as presented is truly executed well.

Update: Microsoft has released additional specifications confirming that the CPU is a 4th-generation design based on Haswell silicon. We don't have specific model numbers for all the available CPU options, but the Core i5-4300U is one of them. That chip has a 1.6GHz base clock, a 2.9GHz Turbo speed, and a 15W thermal envelope. Intel promises nine hours of battery-powered web browsing time for that particular config. Other notable specs include 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, a full suite of sensors, and dual cameras. The rear shooter captures stills at 5MP, while the front-facing one is limited to 1080p resolution.

There are five Surface Pro 3 models in all, each with a different combination of CPU, memory, and storage. Here's how they stack up:

CPU RAM Storage Price
Core i3 4GB 64GB $799
Core i5 4GB 128GB $999
Core i5 8GB 256GB $1299
Core i7 8GB 256GB $1549
Core i7 8GB 512GB $1949

Although the Surface Pro 3 starts at $799, it gets very expensive very quickly. These prices appear to include a stylus, but the keyboard is sold separately. Here are the stickers for a few key accessories:

Surface Pro Type Cover $129.99
Additional Surface Pen $49.99
Docking station $199.99
Surface Ethernet adapter $39.99

To get a true notebook/tablet hybrid, you'll need to spend at least $929, and that only nets 64GB of internal storage. Good thing there's a microSD slot onboard.

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