Choose the Right Surface Pro 3 For You

Posted on January 11, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 0 Comments

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Surface Pro 3 is a powerful and versatile new kind of PC, but it’s still a PC. Underneath its thin and innovative exterior you’ll find some kind of Intel Core processor, 4 or more GB of RAM, 128 GB or more of fast SSD storage, and other common PC components.

Note: This article is excerpted from my e-book, Surface Pro 3 Field Guide, which I’m currently writing. During this pre-release period, you can download the book for free in PDF, ePub and Mobi formats from the Field Guide Books web site. Thanks for reading! –Paul

Compared to many PCs, however, Surface Pro 3 is sold a bit differently, and you cannot mix and match individual components at the time of your order. Instead, it comes only in preconfigured configurations that each provide a set CPU type, and RAM and storage amounts. And the keyboard is separate: You have to purchase a Type Cover (which includes an integrated touchpad, and costs $129.99) or reuse an existing keyboard (and, potentially, a mouse).

What this also means, of course, that certain Surface Pro components are non-negotiable, in the sense that they appear in all Surface Pro 3 configurations. So every Surface Pro 3 comes with the same gorgeous 12-inch screen running at a “pixel-free” resolution of 2160 x 1440, the same wireless networking capabilities, and the same ports, cameras, sensors and pen.

Here’s a breakdown of the Surface Pro 3 specs.

Size. 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inches (292.1 x 201.4 x 9.1mm)

Weight. 1.76 pounds (800 grams)

Display. 12-inch ClearType Full HD Plus (2160 x 1440) multi-touch screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio and 10 touch points

Battery Life. Microsoft claims up to 9 hours of battery life. In real world terms, Surface Pro 3 battery life is closer to 7 hours on average but varies a bit between the different models

Processor. 4th generation (“Haswell”) Intel Core i3, i5, or i7, depending on model, with Trusted Platform Module (TPM) for enterprise-class security functionality

RAM and storage. 4 GB of RAM with 64GB or 128GB storage, or 8 GB of RAM with 256GB or 512GB storage, depending on model

Ports/expansion. One full-size USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader, headset jack, mini DisplayPort (video-out), and cover port

Cameras. 5 megapixel rear-facing and front-facing cameras

Audio. Stereo microphones and stereo speakers with Dolby sound

Networking. 802.11ac/802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (LE)

Sensors and location. Ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and digital compass

Software. Windows 8.1 Pro with an Office 365 sign-up application.

Pen. All Surface Pro 3 devices come with a high-quality active capacitive pen with 256 pressure levels and three hardware buttons.

Looking over this list, you may notice that a few desirable items are missing. Surface Pro 3 lacks an integrated GPS, for example, making it a bit less useful for those who need to navigate on the go. And there are no cellular broadband options, meaning you will need to use a smart phone or other device to connect Surface Pro 3 to a wireless carrier’s data network.

Likewise, some options are a bit limited. Despite plenty of room on the outside bezel, Surface Pro 3 includes just a single USB 3.0 port, limiting expansion. If you purchase the optional Surface Pro 3 Docking Station, however, you will gain several more USB ports—and other expansion options—albeit only while you are sitting at a desk.

Still interested? Let’s see what the available configurations look like. Microsoft currently offers five. These are:

Intel Core i3, 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of solid state storage. This model includes a dual-core 1.5 GHz Intel Core i3 4020Y processor with Intel HD Graphics 4200. It is available for $799 in the US.

Intel Core i5, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of solid state storage. This model includes a 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-4300U processor with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 2.9 GHz and Intel HD Graphics 4400. It is available for $999 in the US.

Intel Core i5, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of solid state storage. This model includes a 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-4300U processor with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 2.9 GHz and Intel HD Graphics 4400. It is available for $1299 in the US.

Intel Core i7, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of solid state storage. This model includes a 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-4650U processor with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 3.3 GHz and Intel HD Graphics 5000. It is available for $1549 in the US.

Intel Core i7, 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of solid state storage. This model includes a 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7-4650U processor with Turbo Boost speeds of up to 3.3 GHz and Intel HD Graphics 5000. It is available for $1949 in the US.

Remember that the prices quoted above will vary from country to country and that, regardless, they do not include the purchase of a Type Cover keyboard cover, which I consider mandatory. That accessory costs an additional $129 in the US.

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So how do you choose between these various models?

To simplify things, it helps to understand that there are actually only three CPU choices across the five models. The entry level model features an entry-level Core i3 processor that does not support Turbo Boost technology. The two i5 models both feature the same processor, but differ in RAM/storage allotments. And the two i7 models likewise feature the same processor, and differ in RAM and storage. But the i7 models, in addition to offering better inherent performance than the i3 and i5 versions, also come with a much more powerful graphics chipset, the Intel HD Graphics 5000. So the i7 versions offer a big performance improvement, overall, when compared to the other models.

In an ideal world, you would simply buy the best version of Surface Pro 3, the version with an Intel Core i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of solid state storage. But that version carries a heady price of almost $2100 when you factor in the Type Cover, making it out of reach for most consumers. The good news? Most people would never need such a device anyway.

If you’re thrifty, you may be eyeing the i3 model. It’s still expensive at about $930 including the Type Cover, but is the cheapest version by far. If there is absolutely no other alternative, and you have modest computing needs, this model would be fine. But Surface Pro 3 isn’t really aimed at the audience with modest computing needs. It’s a premium product that delivers real PC power, and the expectation is that most users will utilize a combination of powerful desktop applications—like Photoshop, Chrome, iTunes and Visual Studio—and newer, Windows 8.1-based mobile apps. Such an audience would be better served by a more powerful configuration.

In other words, the i5 models are the sweet spot in the Surface Pro 3 lineup. And unless you have exceptionally high-end needs—where an i7-based version would make the most sense—or simply can’t afford to spend over $1000—in which case there’s an i3-based Surface Pro 3 waiting for you—I think you should focus on the two i5 models.

And in doing so, the decision becomes somewhat simple. You just need to decide whether you need the more RAM and storage space provided by the higher-end of the two models. The first i5 model includes 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, which should be fine for most mainstream users, and costs about $1130 in the US including Type Cover. For a sizable $300 more, you can get a version with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, a $1430 device (with Type Cover) that is aimed at power users.

You may be curious which one I’d buy. I would shoot for the model that I feel is the best overall value, the i5/4 GB/128 GB model that costs $1130 with Type Cover. This version is just $200 more than the somewhat underpowered i3 model and would meet my needs nicely. And while I would appreciate the RAM and storage improvements in the next version up—i5/8 GB/256 GB—I couldn’t justify the $300 in additional cost. It may be just a psychological barrier, but the first i5 model feels like it’s just a bit over $1000, whereas the next one up feels like it’s very close to $1500.

But that’s just me. Your own needs and requirements will of course vary.