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Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Review

Stocks in this article: MSFTNVDAINTCAAPLADBE

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I can report that after living with Microsoft's (MSFT) new Surface Pro 3 computer for a few days, it's the best Surface I've ever had the pleasure of trying. That's the type of statements companies love to quote in advertisements. In reality though, it only tells a small part of a large story about this third-generation tablet computer.

To tell the story properly we need to look at the Surface Pro 3 from two different directions - hardware and software.

The original Surface RT (which ran on a Nvidia (NVDA) Tegra 3 processor) and the Surface Pro (with a dual-core Intel (INTC) i5 chip) were announced a few weeks shy of two years ago. The Surface RT went on sale in Oct. 2012, with the Pro hitting retail channels three and a half months later, in Feb. 2013.

Microsoft then updated both products, having released its second-generation Surface tablets in October of last year, when it also introduced the Windows 8.1 operating system. This week's announcement only mentioned the Surface Pro 3, with a new Windows RT device nowhere to be seen.

The Surface Pro 3 hardware is where all of Microsoft's hard efforts have been centered. The specs are relatively similar in many ways to what was inside the latest versions of second-generation Pro - from a fourth-generation Intel Haswell series of processors to a choice of either 4GB or 8GB of RAM and 64, 128 256 or 512GB of internal storage. The Surface Pro 3 also offers 5 megapixel cameras front and back.

But the Pro 3 also contains a few big differences that make the tablet/laptop (tabtop? laplet?) even more appealing. This includes the new, larger 12-inch touch screen (up from the Pro 2's 10.6 in. display). Microsoft has increased the screen size and changed the aspect ratio from the old 16:9 to 3:2. That new touchscreen is capable of providing 2160x1440 pixels, which looks great in person.


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The new screen is also a touchscreen, with Microsoft bragging it's worked hard to improve that part of the equation as well. The touchscreen now supports increased layers of sophisticated input awareness. As demonstrated at the launch, the harder you press down, the harder the lines get drawn (or the letters/numbers being written) get bolder as well. It allows for a new level of visual differentiation and options when you're using the Pro 3 as a tablet.

The new Surface Pro 3 has a new hinge on the back. I know that sound like a ridiculous item to point out, but it's probably the most important change in the new device. The first-generation Surface opened to allow only one viewing angle. The second-generation models open at two different angles. In this new model, the hinge allows for an nearly infinite number of angles, from nearly vertical all the way down to relatively horizontal. That's a very big deal because now, the Surface Pro can actually be balanced for use in your lap so that you can comfortably see the screen and type at the same time.

The Surface Pro 3 is quite lightweight. The redesigned cooling fan and housing have allowed Microsoft to reduce the overall bulk while increasing the size of the screen. The Pro 3 is thinner and weighs only 1.7 pounds (sans keyboard) which, as demonstrated on stage, is about half of the weight of the new computer's targeted competition, Apple's (AAPL) MacBook Air. Even with the optional keyboard cover attached, it is super lightweight.

Microsoft improved the battery life, giving the hybrid device as much as nine hours. The MacBook Air claims as much as 12 hours of Web browsing with it's battery pack. Microsoft also bragged about the fact that the Pro 3 is 60% louder than the last model. Although the sound quality coming from the new device is terrific, it still really doesn't go loud enough in some instances.

As for inputs and outputs, there's only one USB 3 port and one display port, which supports 4K video. That's not enough these days for a tablet or laptop. The $899 (and up) MacBook Air has two USB 3s, an optical audio out and a super-high-speed Thunderbolt port which can handle high-res video and audio. To add further expandability for the Pro 3, you need to purchase the optional desktop Docking Station ($199). That adds two additional USB 2s, an Ethernet and some analog audio in and audio out ports.

Microsoft must be commended for redesigning the Surface's AC connector. In the past, it was always a pain to carefully align the adapter to the tablet. The new connector is much easier to use.

The company let reviewers try that optional Touch Cover ($130), a combination of snap-on, lighted, keyboard/touchpad and screen protector. The Touch Cover offers a clever, new adjustment for the keyboard which raises the back of the cover and makes typing even easier. On the other hand, I was never able to find a software setting for the touchpad which allowed me to keep the cursor from jumping all over the screen.

Don't get me wrong. Overall, Microsoft has done a wonderful job with the new Surface Pro 3. It is mostly an absolute delight to use. It has a great screen, a fast processor (the test unit came with an Intel i5, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage) and handled everything I could throw at it. I like the size and format a lot. I love it as a laptop and in the tablet mode. I can't wait to try the upcoming, tablet-enhanced version of Adobe  (ADBE) Photoshop made especially for use on the Pro 3 using the (included) digital pen input system. In the live demo, it looked amazing.

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