It’s summer, and even execs get to take a vacation from time to time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the work stops. But there is no need to lug that clunky work machine to the beach or on the plane. There are two very powerful machines on the market that are purpose-built for portable productivity: the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Apple MacBook Air. So, which is the best?
Let’s start with a caveat. Both the latest Apple MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 are quality devices. Both are impossibly thin and impeccably designed. Those invested in Apple products and a fan of OS X will flock to the MacBook Air, while Windows power users will find much to love in the Surface Pro 3. Now let’s remove all existing biases and preferences and start this comparison clean. Let’s also remove OS X and Windows 8.1 from the equation as much as possible, and refer to them only when necessary to comment on the hardware and performance. A comparison between operating systems could make for its own feature. Finally, let’s decide to judge each device on its merits as a portable machine for getting serious work done, and not as a pure notebook (MacBook Air wins that contest…), nor as a tablet (… but has nothing on the Surface Pro 3 here). Both the MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 come in various configurations, and the MacBook Air comes in two sizes, 11.6- and 13.3-inches. The experts at NotebookReview will be using the 11-inch MacBook Air for the basis of comparison, and will be pairing the Surface Pro 3 with its new Surface Pro Type Cover, which is sold separately from the tablet for an extra $130.
Build and Design
The MacBook Air hasn’t changed much in recent years, and looks near exactly the same as it did in 2013 and 2012, sporting a now-classic wedge design. It still looks good, and feels solid; there’s no doubt this is a well-built device. The aluminum construction is pleasant and feels cool to the touch, but is bit too easily dented or scuffed. As NBR stated in the MacBook Air review, “users might want to think twice before tossing it in with checked baggage at the airport, or anything other than a supported laptop bag.” Our friends at claimed that “Surface tablets are some of the best built mainstream devices on the market, and the Surface Pro 3 is no exception.” The magnesium alloy build “makes it one of the tougher tablets not specifically ruggedized,” and the Pro 3 manages to feel both extremely light and solid. When paired with a larger Type Cover with the Surface Pen docked, the Surface Pro 3 outweighs the 11-inch MacBook Air 2 pounds 7.5 ounces to 2 pounds 6 ounces. Detach the keyboard and pen, and the Surface Pro 3 weighs just 1 pound 12 ounces. The Air’s wedge design manages to be both thicker at the bulge than the Pro 3 with a Type Cover, and thinner at the point. Taking it all into account, the Surface Pro 3 is the better built device, and will likely survive the day-to-day rigors of the mobile professional with just a Type Cover protecting the display.
The MacBook Air is a clamshell laptop, while the Surface Pro 3 has a new-and-improved kickstand from the two-stop kickstand featured on the Microsoft Surface 2 tablet and Surface Pro 2. The Surface Pro 3 can “open” more fully, about 120 degrees to 135 degrees, but the MacBook Air is slightly more stable for typing and literal lap use. The Pro 3 is no slouch, and the new kickstand coupled with the magnets that connect a portion of the Type Cover to the bottom of the display bezel make it more secure than the Pro 2. Too bad then that the kickstand also digs into the user’s legs, adding a bit of discomfort. Users can get away with using both in awkward and/or cramped quarters, but only one is viable for those standing up. The fact that the Pro 3 is more versatile as a pen-supporting tablet gives it the edge here.
Keyboard, Trackpad, and Cameras
The Surface Pro Type Cover is an acceptable keyboard, especially considering its thinness. It’s backlit, and the keys have adequate travel and snap. It feels a bit cramped however, and is both bouncy and loud. The Surface Pro Type Cover trackpad is just short of acceptable, but will do in a pinch. Despite the larger footprint from its predecessor, it’s still too small, and can be jerky from time to time. It may be miles ahead of the previous-generation Type and Touch Cover trackpads, but those were atrocious. The Surface Pro 3 also has two five-megapixel cameras (rear and front facing), which are angled quite well for video chat, and work surprisingly well in low light. The MacBook Air has perhaps the best trackpad of any and all laptops. It’s plenty large, and extremely responsive, especially with multi-finger swipes and gestures. The Chiclet keyboard is also topnotch, and provides plenty of spacing between the keys. It has one, front-facing, 720p camera. Comparing the two and it’s not even close, even considering the cameras. The MacBook Air has a far better keyboard and a far far far better trackpad than the Surface Pro 3 with Surface Pro Type Cover.
The Surface Pro 3 has a USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort, microSD card slot, headphone jack and a proprietary magnetic charging input, which is different from the proprietary magnetic charging input found on other Surfaces. Microsoft has hinted that the input could lead to various adapters (maybe Thunderbolt?), but thus far, it’s just there for charging. The 11-inch MacBook Air has two USB 3.0 ports, MagSafe 2 port for charging, headphone jack, and a Thunderbolt port. The 13-inch MacBook Air includes a full-sized SD card slot. Compared to other tablets, the Surface Pro 3 has excellent port selection. Compared to the MacBook Air, it doesn’t. Apple wins this round.
The 11-inch Apple MacBook Air has a 1366 x 768 resolution, which gives it a paltry 135 pixels per inch, while the 13-inch has a slightly higher resolution, but lower PPI. Both have a 16:10 aspect ratio. As NBR stated in the Air review:
Those ppi counts are lower than those found on any other product Apple currently offers, including the original iPad mini (163 ppi). More importantly, those numbers are lower than similarly-priced laptops. In fact, those numbers are more in line with budget models.
That said, the display is perfectly serviceable, with “pleasant” colors and “acceptable” contrast and viewing angles, though “glare might present a minor issue.” It’s not touch enabled, but OS X isn’t really touch-friendly anyway, so that’s a knock against both the display and operating system. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12 display, with a 2160 x 1440 resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio, and 216 pixels per inch. It supports up to 10 touch points as well as N-trig pen technology. As TPCR put it in the Surface Pro 3 review:
As expected, the Surface Pro 3 looks great. Viewing angles are wide, colors accurate, and it shrugs off glare quite well. Working in the start menu is superb, and the both the display size and aspect ratio are very well suited for Windows 8.1. Apps scale nicely, and most streaming media from services like Netflix fills the display with classy letterboxing.
This isn’t close. The Surface Pro 3 has the better display, hands down, thanks to its superior resolution, aspect ratio, touch and pen support, and glare resistance.
Both devices are outfitted with fourth-generation Intel Core i processors and either 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The difference between two similarly-powered devices should be negligible enough not to warrant consideration. In fact, the limits placed by the operating systems in terms of compatibility, OS X and Windows 8.1, matter far more than the horsepower. Comparing battery life, the Surface Pro 3 comes out on top. Streaming media over Wi-Fi with the display set to max brightness, a Core i5-powered Surface Pro 3 lasted a full 5 hours before going to sleep, while a Core i5 11-inch MacBook Air lasted 4 hours and 30 minutes. It’s worth noting that the 13-inch MacBook Air has a bigger battery, and would likely best the Surface Pro 3 on the same test. Both devices are relatively quiet and cool during day-to-day usage, though the Surface Pro 3 does get hotter than the MacBook Air when taxed, and louder too. The Surface Pro 3 fan also sounds odd, almost like steam being released by a valve. The MacBook Air fan is almost inaudible.
Apple sells both MacBook Airs in the following configurations, all with Intel HD Graphics 5000:
The options boil down to a Core i5 or Core i7; 4GB or 8GB of RAM; and 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB of storage, and all possible combinations thereof. There are only five different Surface Pro 3 configurations, each processor pairing with a different integrated chipset
The Surface Pro 3 starts at $799 for the Core i3 model, which includes the pen but not the keyboard cover. The Apple MacBook Air starts at $899 for the Core i5 unit. The Core i7 models are similar enough to compare pricing apples to apples. A Core i7 Surface Pro 3 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB capacity and a Surface Pro Keyboard covers costs $1,679. With 512GB capacity, it costs $2,079. The same MacBook Airs cost $1,349 and $1,649.
The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is the better piece of hardware. It’s more versatile, has a better display, superior build-quality, and certain users will flock to it because of the active pen support. Even those not versed in digital inking will likely find it useful for jotting down notes, charts, and sketches. The Apple MacBook Air is less expensive and offers more bang for the buck. Looking at both purely as laptops, the MacBook Air is the better option thanks to its keyboard, trackpad, and port selection. But in keeping with the spirit of the endeavor as stated in the intro, “to judge each device on its merits as portable machines for getting serious work done,” its versatility is why the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 wins the day. It’s the better device, though traveling Apple fans shouldn’t fret. Second place ain’t so bad here.
Wondering why the need to bring in the 13″ MacBook Air when comparing ports, but no mention of the docking station for the Surface Pro 3?
Good point… though I only mention the 13-inch MacBook Air because it’s so similar to the 11-inch, with the extra port, size, and screen resolution being the key differences. It’s really just a side note, in case a reader was considering the larger MacBook Air vs the Surface Pro 3.
I was surprised the superior (?) cameras on the surface were so casually dismissed. I know they are considered to be necessary only for Skype, but the video processing software has gotten so good that you can make a pretty solid video to display a product or idea while sitting in an airport and wow potential investors or clients with a “wow – gee whiz” short film with relative ease.
Thanks for the reply, Jamison. I’d actually have liked to have seen a comparison between all three, as the Surface fits between the two Airs in size.
For example, when you bring up that the 13″ MacBook Air would last longer on the battery test, you might also want to point out how much heavier it would be as well.