At Solid Edge University 2014 in Atlanta the Microsoft Surface 3 was used for an entire room of Hands-on sessions. It wasn’t a fluke, it was real users running real CAD on tablet-sized hardware. You might not think that the mobile computing revolution was ever going to touch the CAD market much, but increasingly, I think you’re going to see it. Microsoft’s marketing slogan for the Pro 3 is “the tablet that can replace your laptop”. It’s not just a slogan. There’s not much that it can’t do.
I bought one of the original Surface Pro machines when it first came out over two years ago. The original offering consisted of two separate machines – the Surface Pro, which used the “real” Microsoft Windows 8 interface (the same as your desktop machine or laptop can use), and the Surface RT, which used ARM chips (cell phone/tablet processors) and a version of the Windows Phone operating system. The RT wouldn’t allow you to install regular Windows programs, only apps that would also install on a phone. The vision was great – unification across your mobile and desktop operating systems. This is a unification that companies like Google and even Mozilla have been able to achieve via storage of your personal data on a cloud server. The technology buying public, however, seems slow to embrace the RT concept. Microsoft Phone market share is growing, but the Surface Pro market share is exploding.
All that just to say that what we’re talking about here is a portable device size-wise in the league of the iPad, Kindle, and various Android tablets, but that uses a real processor, in this case an i5, and a real operating system, in this case Windows 8.1, and can install and run real software. Even Solid Edge ST7.
Size and Display
Let’s start with the size. The Pro 3 is 11.5” x 7.8” x .37”. That’s a fair bit bigger and slimmer than the original Pro which was 10.8” x 6.8” x .54”. The diagonal display size for the Pro 3 is 12” vs 10.8” for the original. More display size makes it more usable, but a bigger device is less portable. This is (aside from the border around the display and the very minimal bezel) just a straight trade-off. From a CAD user point of view, it’s the right trade off. With us, usability wins over portability every day of the week.
One functional difference between the two sizes is that the new aspect ratio is 3:2 vs 16:9. I find that the less letter-boxed display is easier to work on, especially when you’re working with CAD. Even on my desktop systems, I don’t like the very wide aspect screens as much as I originally thought I would. Incidentally, 3:2 is the aspect ratio of 8.5 x 11 paper, which is intuitive and just makes sense.
Also, at 2160 x 1440 (216 ppi), the newer display is just a bit crisper to look at than the original 1920 x 1080 (207 ppi). The difference is small, but the original display was pretty good to start with, so much so that the Pro 2 used the same display as the original.
One complaint I had about the original was that it was difficult to hold in your hand because of a combination of its weight and the sharp edges around the bezel. The new version seems to have overcome this complaint, although it’s not obvious how. The cover material is still the same magnesium. The Pro 3 appears to have slightly enhanced radiused edges, which is probably part of the solution. The weight of the Pro 3 is only reduced by less than 5%. I think the reduced thickness is mainly responsible for the better feeling in-hand.
The Pro 3 is a nice silver color, while the original was all black. I personally don't have much preference when it comes to color, both colors are fine with me.
Years of writing cell phone reviews have given me an appreciation for the lowly kickstand. I criticized the first version of the Surface not because the kickstand was bad, but just because it only did one thing, and it seemed like a missed opportunity.
The Pro 3 kickstand moves to it’s expected position, and if you didn’t know it did anything else, you might feel satisfied. But the stop isn’t a positive stop, and if you risk pushing it a little harder (once you realize it’s not going to break) you notice that it allows a wide range of angles for the device, from nearly vertical to nearly flat. Very nice.
One of the original criticisms was that the Surface Pro couldn’t be supported in portrait mode, only in landscape. The Pro 3 improves on this slightly, as it can stand in portrait, but you still can’t attach the keyboard in that orientation. You could take a belt sander to the corner of the kickstand and give yourself a nicer portrait angle, but you’d still have to come up with something clever for the keyboard.
And, speaking of the keyboard, the Pro 3 that I used for this review did come with a Type cover. This is an extra ($130) expense, but in my eyes, an expense that really makes this tablet into a full-function laptop. This is as “real” a keyboard as you’re going to get with a device this portable. I should point out that there are two keyboards/covers you can get for this machine. The Touch cover has key shaped pads. I can’t really comment on the sensitivity of this one, because I’ve never used it. You can also get a Type cover, which is a little more expensive, but has a little bit of action, and to me (a bit of a keyboard snob), feels enough like a real keyboard that it gets my enthusiastic thumbs up. In fact, after using the Type cover, it feels clumsy going back to a keyboard with much more travel.
Plus, the keyboard for the Pro 3 has a little extra fold near the attachment that the original didn’t have. This enables you to use it at a bit of an angle (with only minimal bounce), like a real keyboard. But most of all, the new keyboard can be backlit. To me this has been a staple of my keyboard choices for the last 6 years or so. Like most people, I CAD in reduced light, so I have to type in reduced light as well. Illuminated keyboards are one of the most important marks of civilized computer use, as far as I’m concerned. The original Surface Pro didn’t have this, but now with the Pro 3, I no longer have to compromise.
Processor, Memory, and Graphics
The model I received for this evaluation has an i5 1.9 GHz processor with Intel HD Graphics 4400, which is fine for mid-level type use. But for heavier duty CAD and other related geometry/image processing, you want the more advanced i7 1.7 GHz. An i3 is also available. The i7 comes with HD Graphics 5000. The graphics on the i5 is adequate for CAD, even with displays of large assemblies with transparency and section views.
Storage space and RAM are scaled with the processor:
i3 = 64 GB / 4 GB RAM ($800) i5 = 128 or 256 GB / 4 GB or 8 GB RAM ($1000 or 1300) i7 = 256 or 512 GB / 8 GB RAM ($1550 or 1950)
The prices have stayed about the same for equivalent specs since the original Surface Pro was released 2.5 years ago. I paid about $1100 (with Type cover and taxes) for the original Surface Pro 128 (with an i5) when it was released. But with the better hardware and higher specs, the top line prices have climbed significantly.
Even the design of the stylus has changed since the original. The new one has two buttons, for right click and erase. It also uses a Bluetooth connection and three small batteries – two coin style batteries in the lid and a AAAA in the main body of the pen. The original had a single button which was difficult to use. Plus, it stored in the magnetic port used by the power connector or the keyboard. So if you had those attached, you couldn’t store the stylus. The new design is just a magnetic clip, but there is still nowhere to put it when the keyboard and power are attached.
I really like the idea of a stylus on a computer, especially for CAD. So much better than a mouse. I know not everyone necessarily agrees with me, but I have long seen touch as being key to the future interface of CAD.
Connections and Buttons
The power connector has improved significantly since the original. It was always magnetic, but the original was very difficult to fit into the slot because the tolerances were just too tight. The new one works much better.
You have two connections for external media: a USB 3.0 port (for say a thumb drive or external hard drive) and a microSD card slot, located somewhat awkwardly under the kickstand. I know you shouldn’t get stuck in the past with technology, but I would have liked a regular SD card slot. I have enough cameras and other items that still use full size SD cards. But you can get adapters (full SD to micro where the micro fits inside the adapter). So I have a collection of both size cards. You probably do too.
The power connector is nicely done – it doesn’t matter which way you put it in, it snaps right in magnetically and works. Nice design. Also, the power brick on the cord is small, it’s only a 36W brick. If you’ve ever carried a 17” laptop for CAD with a 90W brick around you’ll appreciate the light weight of the entire set up (less than Macbook Air).
There’s also the normal headphone jack.
With the Pro 3 we now have a mini DisplayPort connector, which is nice for newer projectors and monitors. I didn’t get to review one for this article, but there is also a $200 docking station available for the Pro 3. The docking station adds 5 USB ports, an Ethernet port, a 48W power supply, and multi-monitor capabilities.
The power button is on the opposite side of the top face from the original Surface. I don’t see an advantage or disadvantage to that, it’s just different.
If you buy a non-Intel Surface (with the RT or ARM-based processor), you get Microsoft Office installed. The more expensive machines do not have this necessity which effectively adds a couple of hundred dollars to the price. But there is the expected suite of utilities such as OneNote, Microsoft Store, Skype, email, and so on.
For installing software that you have on a CD, there are two approaches I have used: external USB CD drive, or share an internal drive from another computer so the Surface can see it over the network.
Of course the Microsoft Windows 8.1 OS is also installed. I think Microsoft is going to have a difficult time selling a lot of this OS into businesses. It is so geared toward social apps and other things most employers don’t want you doing at work, I think it will be a hard sell. I have speculated before that we may see the operating systems split, as they were in the 1990’s where we had home OS (Win 98) and professional OS (WinNT).
Accessories you might consider
I would call the Type cover a necessary accessory. Just get it. It’s just a high powered tablet without it. Second, if you don’t get the docking station, I would make sure I carry a multi-port USB hub. There is only one USB port on the machine, and sometimes you’re going to need more than that. You may want an external hard drive, and maybe an external CD R/W. I would also consider a mouse. There are times where you may need all the input devices – the stylus, the keyboard/track pad, the touch screen, and a mouse. I don’t think there is any one input method that does everything. This may be a little disconcerting at first, but you develop different workflows over time.
I didn’t get to go through the experience of setting up this machine, it was done before it got to me, but there are a couple of things I’d like to mention about the process. First, to log onto a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, you have to have a Microsoft account. Google gets away with it. Apple gets away with it. Why not Microsoft? Just get comfortable with the idea that you’re being tracked.
From personal experience, here are a couple of things to be careful of. First, not all devices have the same characters on the keyboard, and some accounts have different or even conflicting password rules. Such as you must use a non-alphanumeric character or you can’t use non-alphanumeric characters. With the Windows sign in, I’ve wound up on a phone where I could not enter my password because the keyboard didn’t have the characters I was required to use for a particular login.
Also, the Surface Pro 3 allows you to use tracing over an image for a password. Just make sure you clean your screen often if you use this, because you can see your finger smudges on the screen in a pronounced pattern if you use this method.
Yeah, but how does it run Solid Edge?
The Solid Edge use evaluation is going to come in a video format part 2. I’m already past my attention span limit for this article. This video will be put up later this week.