Which Microsoft Surface Tablet Model Should a Medical Student Buy?

The Microsoft Surface tablet is extremely popular among medical students, and for good reason. These days, the only practical way of keeping up with hundreds of lecture slides a day is to take notes digitally. If you’re printing everything, your bookshelf will soon weigh as much as a small elephant.

Some people take notes on their laptops, but it’s extremely hard to draw diagrams and highlight key points on a laptop. A more practical option is a tablet – the most models are the iPad and the Microsoft Surface.

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air

Let’s settle the iPad vs Surface debate

iPads are a decent solution, especially when you get a pressure sensitive pen and an external keyboard. But I’d say that the Microsoft Surface tablet is even more ideal, for two reasons.

First, the Surface is actually designed for pen input, whereas the iPad is designed primarily for finger touch. What this means is that when you’re writing with a pen on the iPad (which you have to buy separately), you can’t rest your wrist on the screen, otherwise the screen will register any wrist/palm contact as a touch. Writing on an iPad is more like painting, and I notice my classmates awkwardly trying to write while keeping palms and fingers away from the screen. The Surface, by contrast, registers pen input and finger touch separately – if your pen is within a couple inches of the screen, it senses that and ignores any input from your palm, so your screen doesn’t scroll away on you.

Microsoft Surface Writing
Is that wrist touching the screen? Can’t do that on an iPad!

Second, the Surface is a full-fledged computer. It can do everything any other computer can, such as multitasking easily between several windows and running desktop software like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Ok, hopefully you’re now convinced that the Surface is the way to go. Which model of Surface should you get?

Personally I think Microsoft makes things way more confusing than they should be. There are currently two models of Surface – the Surface 3, and the Surface Pro 3.

I’ve summarized the differences in the two models below. The Surface Pro 3 has a bigger screen (with 26.5% more pixels), and has more memory and processing power.

Keep in mind that Microsoft offers students a 10% discount, whether online or in their stores.

 Surface 3Surface Pro 3
Screen Size10.8"
1920 x 1280 Pixels
12"
2160 x 1440 pixels
Weight1.37 lbs1.76 lbs
Kickstand Adjustability3 positionsInfinite number of positions
ProcessorIntel Atom CPU 1.6Ghz (reduced power laptop processor)Intel i3, i5 or i7 (full-powered laptop processor)
RAM2GB or 4GB4GB or 8GB
Hard Drive64GB or 128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB or 512GB
Pen$45 extraIncluded
Keyboard$144 extra$144 extra
Pricing (with student discount)$575 - 2GB/64GB
$692 - 4GB/128GB
$854 - i3/4GB/64GB
$1,079 - i5/4GB/128GB
$1,412 - i5/8GB/256GB
$1,664 - i7/8GB/256GB
$2,114 - i7/8GB/512GB
Price (including pen and keyboard)$764 - 2GB/64GB
$881 - 4GB/128GB
$998 - i3/4GB/64GB
$1,223 - i5/4GB/128GB
$1,556 - i5/8GB/256GB
$1,808 - i7/8GB/256GB
$2,258 - i7/8GB/512GB

Personally, I’d go with the Surface Pro 3. Once you factor in having to buy the pen separately with the Surface 3, you’re only paying a ~$200 premium to have a much bigger screen and a more powerful processor.

Which Surface Pro 3 model should you get?

If you’re buying a Surface Pro 3 mainly as a note-taking device, and don’t plan on using it as your primary computer, then get the cheapest model – i3, 4GB RAM and 64GB hard drive for $998 with the keyboard. That’s plenty enough power to run OneNote, surf the web and watch podcasts.

If you’re looking for a little more power, the i5, 4GB RAM and 128GB hard drive model isn’t a bad deal for $1,223, or a $225 premium over the i3 model.

If this is going to be your main machine, then splurge for the i5, 8GB, 256GB model. $1,808 is a lot to spend on a computer in this day and age, but it’s your combined computer and note-taking device.

Further upgrades – to the i7 processor and 512GB hard drive – are a terrible value in my opinion. Most users won’t notice a difference between an i5 and i7 processor. And it costs $450 to upgrade from the i7 256GB to the 512GB model. Yet a 512GB solid state drive costs only $200 on Amazon.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to upgrade the Surface Pro 3 yourself, as it’s not designed to be opened and the RAM and hard drive are soldiered onto the motherboard.

[EDIT 8/26/2015] As reader David S points out in the comments below, you can add a microSD card to a slot on the side of the Surface Pro 3 to expand the storage space. A 64GB card costs about $35 on Amazon.ca. Here’s a picture of what that looks like:

Surface Pro 3 MicroSD slot
Surface Pro 3 MicroSD slot

Luckily, there is a way to get your hands on a Surface Pro 3 for a lot less money…

How to get a Surface Pro 3 for cheap

Conventional wisdom says that used cars are a much better deal than new ones. The same applies to the Surface Pro 3.

I bought a used i5, 4GB, 128GB model on Kijiji for $650 – about the half the cost of a new one, once you factor in taxes and recycling fees.

If you’re going to buy a used one, get one that’s still under warranty. The warranty is transferable, and Microsoft’s service is amazing.

At first I had some issues with the touch sensitivity of my screen. I requested an “advanced exchange” online, after which Microsoft overnighted a brand new machine to me, and I simply mailed my old one back with a prepaid label they supplied.

When my pen got a little flaky, Microsoft overnighted a new one to me – and didn’t even ask for the old one back.

I can’t emphasize this enough – if you buy a used machine, make sure it’s still under warranty (less than 1 year old), because Microsoft will promptly fix any problems you have.

The Surface Pro 3 is an amazing machine. It’s slick, light and its touch-sensitive screen is badass. It makes sitting in a lecture hall for six hours a day a smidgeon more bearable. Just don’t break the bank while buying one. There are a few years yet before you’re making a bazillion dollars a year. 😉