Hands-on with Microsoft's Surface Pro 3

So, it wasn't the Surface Mini we were expecting. But hey, we got fresh hardware, so that's all that matters. The new Surface Pro 3 isn't the smallest tablet Microsoft has made -- in fact, it's the biggest, with a 12-inch, 2,160 x 1,440 screen. But if you think it's just a blown-up version of the old model, you'd be wrong. In addition to being the biggest, highest-res Surface, it also brings new pen tech, a new kickstand and a new keyboard, to boot. Also, it's surprisingly thin and light, considering this thing is big and powerful enough to replace a full-fledged Ultrabook. As a heads-up, we're taking a device home from today's press event, so you can expect to see a full review on our site soon. In the meantime, though, here are some early impressions to tide you over.

The Surface Pro is indeed thin, and it is indeed lightweight: At 0.36 inch thick, it's about as skinny as an older-gen iPad, which is pretty impressive when you remember this is competing not with traditional tablets, but full-sized Ultrabooks. At 1.76 pounds, it's definitely lighter than any Ultrabook you've ever carried; just don't compare it to something like an iPad (not that you would: This is a bona fide computer replacement we're talking about here). Throughout, the metal chassis feels similar to what we saw on the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, though Microsoft has retooled the kickstand so that it can now extend back 150 degrees, in addition to the usual two upright positions.

As ever, the kickstand has a sturdy hinge mechanism; it's not difficult by any means to pull the kickstand out, but there's just enough friction that it feels well-built. For all you Surface nerds out there, you just have to try out that near-flat, 150-degree position. The first time I pushed the stand out that far, I actually felt a bit nervous, like I was about to break the thing. Such is the joy of using the newer model: You can indeed go farther with the kickstand, and you'll be rewarded with a hands-free, almost Yoga-like experience if you do.

Taking a tour of the device, you'll find the usual USB 3.0 port, along with a DisplayPort for adding an external monitor. There's also a headphone jack, as you'd expect, and an exposed, microSD card slot, in case the built-in storage (64GB to 512GB) isn't enough.

But enough about ports: You're here for the display, aren't you? Sure you are. So let's talk about the screen. First of all, it's big. Duh. Twelve inches, up from 10.6 on the Surface Pro. The resolution has grown too, from 1,920 x 1,080 to 2,160 x 1,440. As you can imagine, the screen is quite sharp -- it's basically impossible to see any pixels without putting your face up against the screen and actively looking for them. The viewing angles continue to be good, too, though the glossy finish means you will still encounter some screen glare.

More important than the higher pixel count, perhaps, is the new pen tech. With this generation, Microsoft ditched Wacom and instead used an N-trig active digitizer. We know, we know: This probably sounds like inside baseball to all but our most hardcore readers. In truth, though, it's a better experience. The pen, first of all, has been redesigned so that it feels more like a normal, ink-based pen. Indeed, it does feel more substantial in the hand, not that I had many complaints about the pen that came with the Surface Pro 2. Also, the screen has just enough friction that when I write on it, I feel like I'm writing on paper (or as close as you can get, anyway). On the software side, Microsoft's own OneNote app now sends your scribbles to the cloud as soon as you lay them down -- yep, kind of like how Google Drive or some such will save your work as soon as you start typing.

Last thing -- and yes, I saved the best for last -- you can wake up your sleeping tablet by pressing the purple OneNote button at the top of the pen. Click that and the screen will light up, and you'll be able to use OneNote from the lock screen -- even without entering your login credentials. For the record, Windows 8 already has a camera app you can use from the lock screen, and that's great, but this is better for people who actually need to get work done. In my quick test, it worked quickly and flawlessly. You can bet I'll be trying it many more times once I take my review unit home.

One final word before I leave you to peruse all those hands-on photos: We need to talk about the keyboard. You know, the thing that allows you to use this as a laptop replacement. The touchpad here is bigger, and more precise, and now has a built-in touch button so that you can actually bear down on it. All good things. Also, you can now fold up the top of the keyboard so that it attaches magnetically to the tablet's lower bezel, effectively creating the sort of wedge profile you'd expect to find on a proper laptop. Let me tell you: I will be using this feature generously, especially on my upcoming six-hour flight to California, when the last thing I want to be doing is typing on a completely flat surface (no pun intended). Again, more on that in the full review, but for now: I like.

Zach Honig contributed to this report.