With the new Surface 3, which went on sale in Canada today, Microsoft has refined this hybrid further, focusing on students, the business crowd and artists rather than the professionals it wooed with the higher-priced, higher-powered Surface Pro 3.
But for three very different groups, is this laptop-tablet enough?
The outside build quality is excellent. The 10.8-inch HD display is sharp, and it's the lightest Surface ever made, at 622 grams. It comes in two variants: A 64 GB (storage) model with 2 GB of RAM and a 128 GB model with 4 GB of RAM.
Like most tablets, it has a back- and front-facing camera and power and volume buttons on the side. But like a laptop, it has a full USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort and charges through a micro USB port — handy for users who have the same cable for charging their phones.
The Surface's kickstand is a feature that sets it apart. A built-in groove makes it easy to flip out to any of three settings, and there's a satisfying click to each one. It rests comfortably on your lap, and also feels sturdy and able to withstand the abuse of being shoved into a bag.
Two optional pieces of hardware are offered — and unfortunately, without them, you can't really experience Surface 3 at its fullest potential. One is the Surface Pen ($49), which we'll talk about later. The other is the Surface 3 Type Cover ($149).
Both a screen protector and flip-out keyboard, the Type Cover has the full set of keys you'd find on a laptop, as well as a touchpad. The spacing will take some getting used to, but once you start hammering away, you won't find it cramped. It's also magnetically attached to the Surface 3, and provides a flat and tilted axis of typing.
The touchpad is capable of two-finger scrolling, but it's tiny and can be bothersome, often confusing left-clicks for right-clicks — though you may ask, "What's the point of a keyboard and mouse on a touch screen?"
The answer is that Surface 3 runs Windows 8.1, which underneath it all, is a keyboard and mouse operating system. Only the new Start menu is designed for touch. This can confuse consumers who have never jumped into the new Windows.
The software is quick, thanks to a quad-core processor, Intel's Atom x7. Unlike the processor for the Surface Pro 3 or a laptop, the Atom x7 is designed for mobile devices, so running power-intensive programs (e.g. video editing) isn't recommended. The battery life is standard for a tablet and will last a day of on-and-off use.
The best selling point for the Surface 3's software is the free, one-year subscription to Office 365, Microsoft's productivity suite that normally costs $100 a year. From presentations to lectures, you won't be let down by the full capability of Word or Excel, and it's tied into Microsoft's cloud storage service, OneDrive.
Included in Office 365, and particularly useful for students, is OneNote. Using the back camera, the software can embed videos into notes for playback later. Here's where the optional Surface Pen comes in handy, blending handwritten edits with typed notes.
The software can tell a palm apart from the pen, so no unwanted touches will appear. The pen is also pressure sensitive to differentiate between light and heavy strokes.
The Surface 3 does satisfy the target consumers Microsoft is going after.
Students can move from taking notes in class to those lazy days of just watching videos in bed. For the business crowd that runs on Microsoft Office, this is a fully capable productivity machine with cloud backups.
For the artists, the Pen is a great tool and a variety of applications can help make use of it. And starting at $639, the Surface 3 is also cheaper than most laptops.
That price is a little misleading, however. To be as productive as a good laptop, you'll likely need to bump up to the higher storage and RAM configuration ($769), then add the Type Cover ($159). Now, close to a thousand dollars, it's in competition with the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is a full laptop.
The decision rests in whether you need to run Windows with Office, in a world where a cheap Chromebook and Google Docs will save you much more money and be just as productive.