To use a Microsoft Surface computer is to feel a bit like a zoo animal. Set it up on an airplane tray table, and people will stare. Some of them will giggle at how funny you look, and others will ask you questions as if you were an exotic curiosity and even poke at you. If you’re lucky, a couple of kind souls will try to feed you or buy you a drink.
I’ve been using the Surface product line since the beginning, which means I’ve suffered a lot. The first Surface, shipped in October 2012, stood as Microsoft’s initial stab at making its own computer. The device looked pretty, with a fancy kickstand and a nifty keyboard. The bells and whistles, however, mostly stopped there. My computer suffered from periodic seizures, and the medicinal software updates needed to cure them sometimes took a while to arrive. Based on an ARM chip, the device lacked horsepower and couldn’t run typical Windows applications. It just wasn’t a terribly pleasant computer to use, and so, like any good son would do, I gave it to my mom. She actually seems to like the thing and chalks up the device’s quirks to user error—a worldview that Microsoft has championed for some time.
These days, Microsoft (MSFT) is offering the Surface Pro 3, which started shipping in June. Here’s the thing about this machine: It’s an absolute delight.
Everything bad about the old Surface computers is good with the Surface 3. The computer is light, it’s fast, it has a beautiful screen, it’s solid, and it has a pen (if you’re into that sort of thing). It also has ports, it works well with Microsoft’s online services, and it has apps. The touchscreen is ultra-responsive, and its battery life is solid. The new Surface has a kickstand like its predecessor, except the updated version works much better. Instead of being able to put it in only one position, you can put it in any position you want. So when you’re on that plane feeling like a zoo animal, you can have the computer sit upright for typing or lean it back a bit more to watch a movie or lean it waaaaay back when the person in front of you reclines. The keyboard is also a heck of a lot better. I type quite fast, and the keyboard keeps up just fine, and my fingers don’t get tired even after long periods of use. Microsoft has made it so that the keyboard will form a sort of hinge with the screen, too, which allows the keyboard to go to a more pleasing downward angle instead of laying flat.
The result of all the changes Microsoft has made is that I can actually use the new Surface as my main work computer while traveling, and I have been doing just that. It’s good enough for me to take notes during interviews and to write stories and to surf the Web at a remote desk all day. I would say, however, that the computer shines more as an entertainment device. You can peel the keyboard away and use the kickstand to position the Surface just right for watching a video on a plane, at the breakfast table, or in bed. The same goes for reading long papers or magazine features. My iPad used to be my go-to device for this type of thing. No more.
Which brings me to the overarching problem with how Microsoft is selling the Surface 3. Its ads bill the machine as the first true laptop (or at least MacBook Air) and tablet replacement. Instead of buying two devices, you can have one that does all the requisite functions well. There’s some truth to that, although I would not, and do not, use the Surface 3 day in and day out for work at my desk the way I do a laptop. What the Surface is, is the ultimate traveling companion and, to me, the best tablet on the market.
The device starts at $799, which might be the right price for a traveling companion supertablet. But things get tricky real fast from there. I got the version with 256 GB of storage instead of the 64 GB base, a speedier chip, and the sold-separately keyboard, and ended up around $1,400. For that price, the machine should walk into my house, punch my laptop in the face, and make me an omelet. It did none of that.
I know the price is messed up because every single person who has shown curiosity about the device and reached out to poke it has—after I told them the grim figure—recoiled and made the “What?” face. You don’t see that face in Microsoft’s ads, and it’s a problem the company will need to resolve to make the Surface a success.