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Update: This comparison deals with the now-outdated 2012 MacBook Air.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.
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.
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.
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.
Move along, nothing to see here. Both devices sport the same Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge chips.
Random-access memory (RAM) is also even, at 4 GB a pop.
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.
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.
Nothing special here. MacBooks have never sold with mobile data, and Surface is also a Wi-Fi only device.
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.
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.
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.
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.