Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review: The Ultimate Outdoor Computer?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review: The Ultimate Outdoor Computer?

Need to edit photos and videos in the field? How about the forest or up the side of a mountain in Iceland? All while filing stories as you go? We do, and we’ve been dragging the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 around to get that job done. Here’s how it performs.

Gizmodo loves technology. Our product reviews are presented thanks to Dick Smith.

You might be reading this review from Gizmodo’s adventure travel writer, but I’m no computer expert. Instead, I’m a photographer and videographer who needs real computing power on the go. We’ve already done a thorough review of the Surface Pro 3. If you’re interested in processor speeds or how it stacks up against previous versions of the Surface, start there. I’m going to talk to you about using the new Surface from the perspective of adventure travel.

My friend Daniel Bruce Lee and I quit our advertising agency jobs and gave up our comfy apartments in LA to travel the world in search of adventure — carrying only what we could fit on our backs; and we’re wild camping wherever we can. We’re taking tons of photos, writing for IndefinitelyWild, and filming a documentary along the way — so we needed to carry a full-blown computer. Weight, performance, and portability were of equal concern; the Surface Pro 3 seemed like the perfect candidate for our needs.

The Surface looks arguably better outdoors than it does at a desk.

What’s It Supposed To Do? Microsoft touts the newest Surface as the “tablet that can replace your laptop.” It has the power and performance of a laptop, the touch screen functionality of a tablet, and a stylus with over 250 levels of pressure sensitivity.

  • Processors: Intel Core i3, Intel Core i5, Intel Core i7
  • Capacities: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
  • Screen: 12-inch, 2160×1440 resolution, 216ppi
  • Software: Windows 8.1 Professional
  • Warranty: 2 years
  • Accessories: OneNote Stylus (bundled), Surface Type Cover (optional extra)

Surface operates on Windows 8.1 which allows it to run full desktop apps, such as the ones included in the Adobe Creative Cloud (Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, etc.) The Type Cover (not included, $130) adds a backlit, magnetically-attachable mechanical keyboard. A multi position kickstand, combined with the Type Cover allows the Surface to be used virtually anywhere.

As a visual artist, two of Surface’s most intriguing features are the inclusion of a stylus and the top-tier display. The included Surface Pen has over 250 levels of pressure sensitivity and Palm Block technology, which allows the device to be used like a Wacom Cintiq Companion. The top-tier, optically-bonded, 12-inch, 3:2 display has a resolution of 2160 x 1440 pixels, making it an excellent choice for working with photos, videos, and graphics.

As a traveller, Surface’s light weight and compact form factor are huge draws. Without the Type Cover, Surface clocks in at 0.36 inches and 798g. With the Type Cover attached it’s 0.55 inches thick and weighs 1.08 kg — a half-pound lighter than the MacBook Air.

The Surface Pro works great when paired with a Windows Phone (Nokia 928 pictured.) Photos sync seamlessly on OneDrive, making them easily accessible for sharing on social media networks.

How’s It Supposed To Do It? The Surface comes equipped with a 4th generation Intel® Core™ processor (i3, i5, i7) and up to 8GB of RAM, giving it plenty of power to run full-featured professional apps like Photoshop or Premiere. Solid state hard drives ensure snappy performance throughout.

The Surface Pen was designed with maximum accuracy and minimal latency in mind. In layman’s terms pen accuracy means that the ink flows out of the pen exactly where it touches the screen — within 0.5mm, 98-per cent of the time. Latency basically describes the distance between where your pen tip drags across the screen and where the rendered line appears. For reference, with an ink pen and paper, latency is 0. According to Microsoft,latency can vary from application to application, but they optimised the inking experience on the Surface Pro 3. Finally, the pen has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, allowing users to create a varying degree of strokes depending on the pressure applied.

The Surface’s screen was designed to provide the best possible experience for general consumers and creative professional alike — providing high contrast, low reflections, and accurate colour reproduction. Each screen was optically bonded, which increases contrast, increases touch accuracy, and increases the mechanical strength and rigidity. The 12-inch, 2160 x 1440 resolution screen has 216 ppi; at 16 inches viewing distance, pixels cannot be resolved by normal 20/20 vision. According to independent testing agency DisplayMate, the Surface Pro 3 has the most accurate on-screen colour reproduction of any tablet or mobile they have ever tested.

With the mechanical Type Cover attached, the Surface is a typing machine.

How Does It Perform? I’ve been carrying the Surface Pro 3 literally everywhere for the last two months since I began travelling. I’ve used it to edit photos and videos, write, and do memory card dumps at airports, hostels, and cafes. On buses, trains, and planes. In the middle of the woods in Norway, and on mountains in Iceland. Next month, I’ll be carrying it on a month-long trek and climb through the Himalayas.

The first thing worth noting about the Surface is its form factor. With the kickstand out and Type Cover attached, I’ve been able to use it in all sorts of transient locations with ease, just like I’d be able to use a traditional laptop. When finished, flip the keyboard shut; the Surface goes to sleep. Flip it open, it wakes in seconds. This is incredibly useful when jumping between airport terminals and planes, or running from a coffee shop to catch a bus.

The included Surface Pen excels for photo retouching.

If I need to do some serious retouching on a photo, I can easily pull off the keyboard, pivot the kickstand all the way back, and use the Surface like a Cintiq — no matter where I am. Close the kickstand; Surface becomes a superb device for sharing photos or videos. The flexibility of the Surface’s configuration modes is incredible; each one is purposeful. None feel contrived.

Surface is thin and light.

The device itself is so thin and compact, it’s easy to shove into my bag when it’s time to go. Because it’s a tablet, I never have to remove it from my carry-on when moving through airport security. This factor definitely comes in handy when you’re minutes from missing an international flight!

The Surface Pen is an incredibly useful tool and provides an entirely unique set of functions compared to a normal touch interface. For example when working in Photoshop – the pen can be used for making brush strokes, cloning, or selecting, while touch can be used to change the position of the canvas. When browsing the web, the pen allows for precise selections of text or clicking links, while touch works great for scrolling pages. The switch between input methods feels natural and intuitive. I find myself using the pen most of the time, and it’s use is supplemented by touch. I rarely use the Type Cover’s trackpad, though it does provide an additional input option.

Worth noting is Microsoft and Adobe’s reinvigorated partnership, which was highlighted earlier this month at Adobe MAX. The two companies have taken a huge initiative to work together in refining the creative experience as it relates to the Surface and future touch-based devices. Completely revamped touch-based experiences for both Photoshop and Illustrator are getting ready to drop; these new interfaces have the potential to revolutionise how we create.

Using Surface in the Field: I’ve been spending a lot of time unsupported in the outdoors while trekking, camping, and climbing — often on extended trips without access to modern amenities. On these extended trips, I need to do memory card dumps or check out shots in the field; the Surface Pro 3’s hardware lends itself well to working in those contexts. The screen is bright, contrasty, and does a great job of dealing with glare. The low weight and compact size are ideal, because currently, I’m carrying it on my back — in addition to camera gear, camping gear, climbing gear, and food. All of that adds up; it’s good to know that the Surface is saving me up to a pound compared to devices with similar capabilities.

The Surface features USB 3.0, which allows me to transfer 32GB of photos to the internal SSD in about five minutes with a $12 USB 3.0 card reader — not bad! However, the most frustrating aspect of the device occurs during the same process: there is only one USB port, so I can’t dump photos directly to my LaCie Rugged Mini portable external hard drives. My workaround has been to dump photos onto the Surface; then transfer them to the external drives. Because I am using duplicate redundant drives, I have to go through this process twice every time. (If you have a suggestion to streamline this process, please leave it in the comments! I’ve been considering a non-powered USB 3.0 hub, but I’m not sure how the port would handle multiple inputs.)

The Goal Zero Sherpa 100 powers the Surface when out in the field.

To power the Surface while in the field, I’ve been relying on the Goal Zero Sherpa 100 solar charger. The Sherpa 100 recharges with 10-20 hours of sunlight and can fully charge the Surface about twice. At 5 lbs, it’s heavy to carry around, but it’s the best option out there for portable, renewable energy. As an added bonus, the Sherpa 100 can also recharge my DSLR batteries on-the-go. Or recharge my cell phone — 14 times.

How Does It Compare To Rivals? With the Type Cover attached, the Surface Pro 3 is a 400g lighter than the MacBook Air, and it offers a really useful touch screen experience. The Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro is a Windows PC that weighs about the same as a MacBook Air and offers a touch screen experience, but it lacks the Surface Pen. The Cintiq Companion offers touch capabilities that most closely rival that of the Surface, but aside from drawing, it’s a clunky device to use. It also weighs nearly four pounds, and costs several hundred dollars more than the Surface Pro 3.

I use a large SealLine waterproof Map Case to protect the Surface from the elements when out in the field.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Price: $979-$2279
  • Brilliant screen.
  • Great new design.
  • Infinite kickstand.
Don’t Like
  • No bundled Office 365 Subscription.
  • Expensive when you get into the higher-end models.
  • Not great for portable gaming.

Adventure Ready? The Surface Pro 3 packs a full computing experience into an ultra-portable and versatile form factor. Its touch capabilities (including the Surface Pen) distinguish it from the competition. Both of these factors make it an ideal device for adventure travel and on-the-go creatives. My biggest hangup with the Surface was the single USB port, but when considering its other capabilities, that was more of an annoyance than a deal breaker. The Surface Pro 3 provides distinct advantages over traditional laptops for creative production, especially in the context of adventure travel.

About the Author: Chris Brinlee Jr. is an adventure photographer and filmmaker who is currently travelling around the world with his friend Daniel Bruce Lee. Follow their adventure on Instagram: @chrisbrinleejr, @danielbrucelee.

Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr., Daniel Bruce Lee.

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.