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Microsoft Surface Pro vs. 2012 MacBook Air (11-inch)

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February 9, 2013

We compare the specs – and other features – of the Microsoft Surface Pro and MacBook Air

We compare the specs – and other features – of the Microsoft Surface Pro and MacBook Air

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In selling the Surface Pro, Microsoft’s marketing team has a big challenge. The new tablet is essentially an Ultrabook in a tablet’s body. But most customers are going to look at it and think “iPad competitor.” We already compared Surface Pro to the iPad, but perhaps a more appropriate comparison is to the MacBook Air. Let’s see how their specs – and other features – compare.

Update: This comparison deals with the now-outdated 2012 MacBook Air. See our updated 2013 MacBook Air vs. Surface Pro comparison for the latest model.

This comparison covers the 11-inch MacBook Air with entry-level specs. Apple offers upgrades with superior components, but we’re leaving those alone here.

Size

The MacBook Air is larger in every dimension

Compared to standard laptops, the MacBook Air looks small and svelte. Next to a tablet, though, it’s rather large. It’s bigger than Surface Pro in every dimension.

Note that the Air’s side is tapered. Our measurement covers its thickest point.

Weight

The Air is heavier than Surface (but only without Surface's keyboard)

The MacBook Air is also 173 g (6.1 oz) heavier than Surface Pro. If you add Surface’s (optional) Type Cover keyboard, though, Microsoft's tablet becomes 76 g (2.6 oz) heavier.

Display

The MacBook's display is larger, but Surface's is sharper

Surface Pro’s display is an inch smaller, but it’s much sharper. It’s possible Apple will upgrade its MacBooks Airs to Retina Displays within the next year or two, but for now only above-average resolution is offered.

Processor

Both devices have the same Ivy Bridge chip

Move along, nothing to see here. Both devices sport the same Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge chips.

RAM

Both devices ship with 4 GB of RAM

Random-access memory (RAM) is also even, at 4 GB a pop.

Storage

Storage options are also equal

Standard storage options are tied up as well. Apple will also sell you the Air in 256 GB and 512 GB models, but you’ll have to pay a pretty penny.

Both devices have Solid State Drives (SSD), for speedy reading, writing, and booting.

Battery

On paper, Surface wins the battery fight

Surface Pro has the higher-capacity battery, but actual uptimes may be similar. Both likely last about four to five hours with a medium to heavy workload.

Though Surface Pro’s battery life is perfectly respectable for an Ultrabook, customers see it as a tablet. Four hours for a tablet is abysmal. Again, Redmond’s marketers have their hands full.

Wireless

Only Wi-Fi here

Nothing special here. MacBooks have never sold with mobile data, and Surface is also a Wi-Fi only device.

Cameras

Crappy cameras everywhere!

Crappy cameras everywhere! The 720p front cameras on both devices are expected, but Surface’s rear camera isn’t anything special either. Microsoft obviously decided to prioritize other components.

Starting price

Surface starts at $100 cheaper, but that doesn't include a keyboard

The 64 GB Surface rings up at US$100 cheaper than the 64 GB MacBook Air. But remember that its physical keyboard will add (at least) an extra $120 to that.

Intangibles

Stylus pen, or superior trackpad?

Surface Pro ships with a stylus pen. This helps to navigate through the vast majority of Windows apps that weren’t designed for touch. You can also connect a mouse for a more traditional PC experience.

Apple nailed the trackpad in a way that other laptop makers haven’t been able to match. The trackpads on Surface’s optional keyboards are notably sub-par. Fortunately, it has a touchscreen to lessen the blow.

We’re also looking at two different operating systems here: Windows 8 Pro for Surface, and Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion for the Air. Both platforms have their loyal fans, but Windows’ dominant market share gives it the advantage in sheer volume of available software.

Wrap-up

Surface Pro comes out of this matchup looking a lot better than it did against the iPad. As a tablet, it’s beefy, expensive, and has crappy battery life. When compared to a laptop, it holds its own in all of those categories.

Surface Pro is for customers who want the power of a laptop with some of the perks of a tablet. It’s versatile, but it isn’t better than competitors at being a tablet (at least in the sense we’ve come to expect). It fares better as a laptop, but it also has big sacrifices ... like the fact that you can’t use it on your lap (at least not with its keyboard accessory).

If Microsoft communicates to customers that Surface is the coolest, most versatile laptop ever made, it has a chance to make a splash. If Redmond pitches it a tablet, they might have trouble. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the market.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
15 Comments

The touchscreen is probably the most important differentiating factor, but you barely mention it. You even imply that the touchscreen is a feature that only partly makes up for the subpar trackpad on the Surface's optional keyboard accessory with the statement, "Fortunately, it has a touchscreen to lessen the blow".

I use my Surface RT on my lap nearly every night with the type cover. My laptop is better for this, but it's not bad enough for me to reach for my laptop. It's on the level of saying the iPad has a visually better display than the Surface, since it's nearly imperceptible to the naked eye and definitely imperceptible with normal use, since you have to zoom in on text at max zoom to see even the slightest difference.

Chris Reynolds
9th February, 2013 @ 08:56 am PST

Wow, finally a review that makes sense. Thank you sir, for seeing it as it is.

Why people even bother comparing this to an ipad I don't even...

Stephen Liu
9th February, 2013 @ 09:31 am PST

"It fares better as a laptop, but it also has big sacrifices ... like the fact that you can’t use it on your lap ..."

um ... does anyone notice the problem here? like maybe not being able to actually use a laptop literally on your lap might be a TOTAL FAIL!?

but by all means, let's make excuses! lots of them apparently. the more excuses it needs that you can think of, the better the Pro must be.

of course the other possibility is that the Pro is a fundamentally misbegotten MS concept that will be a DOA big flop. but we're not going there!

AlfieJr
9th February, 2013 @ 09:48 am PST

Will Shanklin, although your comparison is technically accurate for the most part, it omits one important item.

People will not be buying the Surface Pro if they only intend to run Metro apps. They will pay more than the Surface RT, and live with the extra weight & thickness, and much shorter battery life because they want to use Windows 7 desktop apps...

But to use those Windows 7 desktop apps, the $120-$130 keyboard/trackpad cover is a necessity, not an option (even though Microsoft is selling it that way to reduce the over all price).

The reason that the keyboard/trackpad cover is a necessity, is because all of those Windows 7 desktop apps have not been designed for use on a tablet, and they do not use multi-touch gestures to operate. Windows 7 desktop apps use a cursor (accurately operated by a mouse or trackpad), much smaller UI elements than you find in tablet operating systems, and a menu and windows interface which again are designed to be accurately operated by a mouse or trackpad.

For example, there is a special (less powerful) version of Photoshop that has been designed specifically for multi-touch iOS and Android tablets. But if you tried to use the desktop version of Photoshop on a 10" display using only your fingers you would find it possible, but a VERY frustrating experience to do!

For this reason, the necessary keyboard/trackpad cover (or similar keyboard combinations from other vendors) should be considered to be included in the over all specs for the Surface Pro.

The keyboard covers add up to 6 millimetres (0.24 in) to the thickness of the Surface Pro, and an extra half pound (218 grams) to the Surface Pro.

This makes the over all thickness and weight much MORE than the MacBook Air!

You also get much more storage on the 64GB and 128 GB MacBook Air than you do on the Surface Pro. For example, the 64GB SUrface Pro has only 23GB of available space for the user. But the 64GB MacBook Air has about 56GB of available space for the user... that is over 250% of the usable storage in the 64GB Surface Pro!!!

Other differences between the two include:

- The Surface Pro display can only be set at one angle (which may not be optimal for the user), while the MacBook Air display is adjustable to any useable angle.

- The MacBook Air has a real, full-sized, backlit keyboard and a large glass multi-touch trackpad. The Surface Pro keyboard cover does not have real keys, is not full-sized, is not backlit for use in the dark, and does not have a glass trackpad.

- The MacBook Air is a laptop that you can actually use on your lap when there is no table available. The Surface Pro's keyboard cover is flexible and can't be used on your lap or other non-flat surface.

- The Surface Pro with the necessary keyboard cover is much more expensive than the 11.6" MacBook Air.

- The 11.6" MacBook Air has a tested battery life of over 5 hours (over 7 hours for the 13" model). But the Surface Pro has a tested battery life of only 4 hours, 14 minutes (See review by PCMag).

This additional information should (and would) be taken into consideration when comparing these two computers.

Harvey Lubin
9th February, 2013 @ 11:11 am PST

This is only the first release, maybe they'll get better with subsequent releases? If this fails I think MS might just dump it though and go all the way back to the drawing board. They've had too many failures in the past 10 years, but I hope they don't give up on this.

exodous
9th February, 2013 @ 07:10 pm PST

AlfieJr

Bro, there is a kickstand that can still fit on your lap. The arguments can go both ways because both devices have significantly different design. In contrast, you can also argue MacBook Air not being able to be used as a Tablet, or even not able to be used with the screen lay flat on your lap. But, not being able to adjust angle is a bummer though, I will give you that.

Harvey

Type cover is .48 lb and touch cover is .46lb. So adding either one you get about 2.48 pound of weight, compared to 2.38 MacBook Air. So a Surface pro is optionally heavier only by 1 lb max compared to MacBook air. Thickness is definitely higher for a Type Cover (6mm) vs Touch Cover (3mm). With a Type Cover you have about 3 mm thicker but a Touch Cover will give you the same thickness as a MacBook Air.

And you keep using "much more" in the wrong sense. How is .10 pound much more? And how is 20-30 bucks much more for a device that is costing you 1k anyway? (Surface Pro 899 + Type Cover 130 => 1029) You are only taking the negative components out from Surface Pro and say whatever that fits your argument better (i.e. you mentioned 6 mm keyboard, which is clearly the type keyboard, but you mentioned later there is no real key, when in fact the type keyboard has actual keys that you can press). Apple fan boy much?

I do agree, this review is not objective enough in the sense that you forgot about the Type Cover/Touch Cover, which many users will include in their purchase to make this product more complete. BUT, technically, you don't need to pay for the touch/type cover because there are much cheaper bluetooth keyboard out there, like what Acer did with w700. However, some form of keyboard IS a must, and that money needs to count. Using older Windows software which are not touch optimized with your touch screen is going to be a horrific experience. Although, you do have a pen, which has "much more" accuracy and can actually function as a mouse to adequate extend (I own a Lenovo tablet with a pen, so I know the capability of a pen). But the reduced screen size due to on screen keyboard will have another problem.

IMHO, just based on hardware, Surface Pro has the advantages over MacBook Air with:

- better resolution and more pixels per inch

- a touch screen

- a digitizer pen (which makes the touch screen that much more valuable)

- convertible into tablet and it has a detachable keyboard for extra freedom.

- is still slightly cheaper if you get a bluetooth keyboard instead of the touch/type cover

However, It does have the disadvantage of

- non-adjustable screen angle due to weird kickstand design

- slightly shorter battery life (not too significant).

- is slightly more expensive if you get the type/touch cover that makes this Microsoft design complete as a product.

Every other aspect are more or less the same if not exactly the same. But clearly, you can see there are more pros than cons when comparing Surface Pro to MacBook Air, which should be expected because it took Microsoft several more months to prepare. IMHO, If MS wants Surface Pro to be a success, I think they should have just included the Touch/Type cover for that price. At least that way they can gain more popularity in the market for their new designs.

Jack Chan
10th February, 2013 @ 12:33 am PST

Thankyou!! At last someone who gets it!

It's odd because I'd been doing several comparisons of the Asus Vivo Tab vs the Mac Book Air and I kept finding that the MBA was too large, too heavy and had really crappy battery life. To add insult to injury many reports in the wild that the battery life is far less than the manufacturers stated one and it turns out that when it says 128GB you actually got less than 100 available. Plus on app availability the MBA suffered hugely compared to the entire library of x86 software available today. The Vivo Tab is obviously far superior...go figure...

Finally someone gets the comparison right.

(And before I get hit by the wave of trolls, understand the comparison above is not serious. It's pointing out the futility of comparing the surface pro to an iPad.)

Gareth Paterson
10th February, 2013 @ 10:16 am PST

@Harvey Lubin - Google "Mac Book Air battery life" seems like a common issue that many people get as low as 2.5 hours on not overly heavy usage.

Gareth Paterson
10th February, 2013 @ 10:19 am PST

I'm confused...

How is it hard to use on your lap? Did MS leave the on-screen keyboard out of W8 or something?

Is it too bulky to rest the bottom your lap and angle up with your non-preferred-for-pointing hand?

C. Walker Jr.
11th February, 2013 @ 04:40 am PST

The surface Pro for what it is is way too close you can buy a Mac Mini and an iPad Mini If you throw in the touch cover or type cup of the surface costs. It is a good attempt but the battery life was in my opinion key. One of the biggest points of tablets are that they have long battery life or above laptop usability In terms of battery life. I think Steve Jobs said it best if he can't do a few things better than what's out now there's no place for it. Getting viruses of malware tablet I dont look forward to that aspect. I want to run Windows are you the runaround laptop or desktop that I have the building. But until I need windows stick With Mac And my iPad.

Steven OConnor
11th February, 2013 @ 06:35 am PST

There is one other important detail that seems to be missed.

The Surface only runs Windows.

The MacBook Air can run Windows and MacOS.

John Davis
11th February, 2013 @ 06:38 am PST

Thanks, much better comparison. (Lots of strong opinions :-D)

Francois Retief
11th February, 2013 @ 07:27 am PST

@John Davis, the Surface can most definitely run OS/X. It can be virtualized, regardless what the zealots over at Apple think. :)

Stephen Adams
11th February, 2013 @ 07:58 am PST

Nicely done article!

Although, on the "Display" graphic I think it's time we stop making people do the multiplication and start calling out display size in the same way cameras are tagged - megapixels.

That is, the Surface Pro is a 2-megapixel display, whereas the Air is a 1-megapixel display. (or 2.074 and 1.049, respectively, for the hAir splitters)

Also useful would be display brightness numbers.

I've read that the Surface is rated at 400 nits. The MacBook Air 354 nits.

island955
16th February, 2013 @ 10:47 am PST

4 hour battery life is unacceptable, another MS flaw. I guess MS wasn't paying attention for the last few years OR for how long the iPad and MacBook Air have been around. Another Zune type flaw?

Richard C. Edmonds
10th May, 2013 @ 08:45 am PDT
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