Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. 2014 MacBook Air (11-in)
May 21, 2014
Microsoft may be pitching its Surface Pro 3 as "a tablet that can replace your laptop," but is it really an upgrade from the setup you already have? Let's take a look, as Gizmag compares the features and specs of the Surface Pro 3 and 11-in MacBook Air.
The Surface Pro 3's bigger size should have it working better as a laptop than any previous Surface. It's 5 percent taller and 3 percent narrower than the MacBook Air.
You'll want to take the depth measurements with a few grains of salt. Yes, the Surface Pro 3 is much thinner than its two predecessors – and that's definitely a good thing. But just remember that the MacBook Air's tapered design has it sloping into a razor-like edge. This visual only accounts for its thickest point.
Also remember that when you have the Surface's keyboard cover attached, it becomes 53 percent thicker – for a grand total of 13.9 mm (0.55 in).
Keyboard and trackpad
In case you aren't already clear on what you're getting from these two devices, the Surface only transforms into a laptop when you attach its (sold separately) Type Cover. The MacBook Air is a classic laptop, with integrated keyboard and trackpad (both of which are quite excellent).
Without its keyboard cover, the Surface Pro 3 is 26 percent lighter than the MacBook Air. But that's hardly a fair fight: to truly serve as a laptop replacement, the Surface will need its keyboard cover attached. Once you snap on the Surface Pro's Type Cover, Microsoft's PC actually becomes a smidge heavier than the MacBook.
With the new Surface, Microsoft is sticking with the magnesium build that it used for all the previous Surfaces. Nothing is changed on the Apple side either, as MacBook Airs have always had aluminum unibody frames.
They might look a little different next to each other, but both machines have silver-colored backs. Neither is sold in different color options.
That big 12-in screen is going to have the Surface Pro 3 looking much more like a traditional laptop than the older (10.6-in) Surfaces did. And it actually gives you 16 percent more display real estate than this 11-in MacBook Air.
While there's no denying the Surface Pro 3 gives you a huge canvas, does that big of a screen even make sense in tablet mode? With more customers buying 8-in and smaller tablets like the iPad mini and Kindle Fire, I'm wondering who – besides maybe a graphic designer – would need a tablet with a gargantuan 12-in screen?
If there's one area where the MacBook Air could use an update, it's in its screen's resolution. I don't think the Air's screen looks bad at all, but if you prop it up next to a Retina MacBook Pro, it's going to look a little pixelated. The Surface Pro 3 should also look sharper, as it packs in 60 percent more pixels per inch than the MacBook Air.
Since it doubles as a tablet, the Surface would be in trouble if it didn't have touch capabilities. Apple has yet to make a touchscreen MacBook.
The Surface Pro 3's stylus ("Surface Pen") is improved over the one you'd find in older Surfaces. Its big draw is the synced clicker on its end: a click of the cap instantly opens Microsoft's OneNote app.
You'll want to take this visual with a few grains of salt. First, Microsoft is splitting up the SP3's pricing tiers among Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors. But then the company's press materials only list the clock speeds for the Core i5 model. So this visual shows the speeds for the entry-level (US$900) MacBook Air and the second-cheapest ($1,000) Surface Pro 3.
Depending on which configuration you choose, both PCs are sold in both 4 GB and 8 GB RAM options.
That entry-level Surface Pro 3 not only skimps on the processor, but it also only gives you 64 GB of storage. The base MBA doubles that.
Micro SD card slot
On the other hand, you can easily expand the Surface's internal storage with a microSD card. The 11-in Air doesn't have any SD slots (micro or otherwise).
The MacBook Air does have two USB 3.0 ports, while the Surface just has one. If you don't mind a clunky setup, though, you can attach a USB splitter adapter to connect multiple USB devices to the Surface.
You'll be hard-pressed to find many Windows laptops with built-in Thunderbolt ports. Thunderbolt is fast, and it can open the door to setups like MacBook Air-powered workstations, "daisy-chained" together via Thunderbolt. But Thunderbolt-ready accessories are also expensive enough that they probably won't be practical for most customers.
At this point we can only base the Surface's battery life off of Microsoft's estimates. It's tossing around the same "9 hours of web use" that Apple estimates for the MacBook Air (which, after reviewing the newest MBA, sounds about right to me). Both PCs have Intel's power-sipping Haswell processors inside, so you shouldn't have much to worry about in this department.
While you're on the go, you'll still need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot (or create your own through your smartphone), as neither machine is sold with built-in mobile data radios.
As a part-time tablet, the Surface Pro 3 has cameras on both sides – and they shoot in a higher resolution than the cameras you'd find in older Surfaces. As a full-time laptop, the MacBook Air only has a front-facing webcam.
I'm only throwing this one in because Microsoft's marketing team is pushing Windows' side-by-side multitasking pretty hard. I agree that it's a nice feature – and one that most dedicated tablets don't have. But running two side-by-side apps on OS X isn't a problem either: just plop their windows next to each other on your desktop.
What makes Windows' approach unique is that you can automatically "snap" two full-screen "Modern" (Start Screen) apps next to each other. OS X doesn't support side-by-side apps in full-screen mode.
Bundled office suite
I imagine many a Surface Pro 3 owner will use Microsoft Office, but they're going to have to pay for it. Apple now gives away free copies of its rival iWork suite with every new Mac purchase.
There are several free office alternatives on both platforms, including OpenOffice, LibreOffice and the web-based Google Docs.
The Surface Pro 3 is already up for pre-order, but it looks like you might have to wait a while for your delivery. Microsoft estimates that the Core i5 models ($1,000 and up) will ship by June 20. If you want a Core i3 or i7 model, then the company is saying "ships by August 31."
Apple just launched an extremely incremental MacBook Air update in April.
At first glance, the Surface Pro 3's pricing is looking pretty good. Starting at $800, it's technically the cheaper device. But don't forget that the Surface can't replace a laptop unless you also throw in a Surface Pro Type Cover. That tags an extra $130 to your purchase. And if you want it before late August, it looks like you'll have to throw down at least $1,130.
Really an upgrade?Circling around to our original question – whether the Surface Pro 3 is really an upgrade over a classic laptop – well, it's probably too early to say. I suppose there is something to be said for replacing two devices with just one. If you shift between work and play at the drop of a hat, then a 2-in-1 might be just what the doctor ordered.
But you also can't deny that a multiple-device setup has its own advantages. It's all about specializing. A laptop is better at work than a tablet or smartphone. A tablet can be better at reading or browsing than a laptop or phone. And a smartphone has the advantage of being highly portable and pocketable.
Along those same lines, 2-in-1s seem to always have compromises. The Surface Pro 3 plugs one of the Surface Pro 2's holes (it made for a very beefy tablet) but then it adds another potential hole: an enormous screen that's going to be too big for many tablet shoppers. I'm not sure if you can, at this point, create a 2-in-1 that doesn't have some significant level of compromise.
But we're just getting started with the Surface Pro 3, and these thoughts will likely evolve as we move towards its official launch. If you want to dig a little deeper on the MacBook side, you can hit up our review of the 2014 11-in MacBook Air.