Slick Ultraportables Face Off: 2020 Apple MacBook Air vs. Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Apple’s original MacBook Air ushered in the age of ultraportable laptops more than a decade ago, and its iconic wedge shape and sleek aluminum chassis continue to define coffee-shop laptop chic worldwide. Updated for 2020, the MacBook Air now features a redesigned keyboard and Intel’s latest 10th Generation processors, making it one of the most cutting-edge macOS-based laptops you can buy.

Microsoft’s answer to the MacBook Air is the Surface Laptop, another ultraportable laptop that focuses on comfort and portability but skips most of the tricked-out features found on some high-end Windows notebooks, such as webcam privacy shutters and watchband-style 360-degree hinges. The distinctive Surface Laptop 3 is certainly not a MacBook Air lookalike, but it’s an excellent machine for people with simple computing needs who seek the Windows 10 mobile experience as Microsoft intends it.

The most important factor in choosing between the two is the operating systems they run. For macOS fans, the MacBook Air is the clear choice. For Windows 10 users, the Surface Laptop 3 has an obvious advantage, but Macs can run Windows, too, if you’re intrepid. If you’re OS-agnostic, however, the choice becomes more difficult, since both of these laptops are filled with excellent, innovative features. Here’s how to make sense of them.

What Makes an Ultraportable?

To fit into the ultraportable category, a laptop generally needs to weigh 3 pounds or less. That requirement in turn limits its overall chassis size and its screen, which is typically around 13 inches measured diagonally. Both the Surface Laptop 3 and the MacBook Air closely adhere to these guidelines. Apple’s ultraportable is 0.63 by 11.97 by 8.46 inches (HWD) and 2.8 pounds, while Microsoft’s is 0.57 by 12.1 by 8.8 inches and weighs 2.83 pounds.

The screens are also very similar in size (13.3 inches for the MacBook Air, and 13.5 inches for the Surface Laptop 3), but they have markedly different aspect ratios. The so-called “PixelSense” display on the Surface Laptop 3 has a resolution of 2,256 by 1,504 pixels, which results in a rather unusual 3:2 aspect ratio. It offers more vertical space than does the MacBook Air’s wider 16:10 ratio, which means the Surface Laptop 3 is a better choice for editing text documents or performing other frequent tasks that entail lots of vertical scrolling.

Meanwhile, the MacBook Air’s increased horizontal screen spread makes it better for activities like watching videos and finding space for all the tool palettes in your Adobe Photoshop work area.

The MacBook Air’s Retina Display has a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. To the naked eye, this resolution is indistinguishable from the Surface Laptop 3’s resolution, even though the latter, technically, has fewer pixels. These resolutions are far better than full HD (typically 1,920 by 1,080 pixels) but not quite as good as 4K (typically 3,840 by 2,160). Overall, both displays offer razor-sharp text and vivid images. Neither offers HDR support or OLED technology, nor does either support extra-wide specialized color gamuts sought after by graphics pros. But most prospective buyers won’t need these cutting-edge features.

Typing, Tapping, and Touching

Thanks to a stable keyboard and a generous 1.3mm of key travel distance, the Surface Laptop 3 offers a slightly more comfortable typing experience than the MacBook Air does, though both are roughly equivalent. The current MacBook Air’s keys are also quite stable, but they travel only 1mm. The Surface Laptop once had a considerable advantage over the MacBook Air in this department, since older versions of the MacBook Air used Apple’s much-maligned “butterfly”-style key switches that hardly move at all when you type on them. After much public pushback on the butterfly boards, the Magic Keyboard on the current MacBook Air reverts to a more traditional keypress style.

Both machines also have excellent touchpads, though the MacBook Air’s larger Force Touch trackpad has a slight advantage here. It features an expansive glass surface with haptic feedback that simulates clicks (rather than the touchpad depressing when you click), so the feel is the same even if your finger is all the way at the edge of the pad.

When it comes to physical interactions, the MacBook Air’s only significant deficiency is its lack of a touch screen. Windows 10 has excellent touch support, and navigating some onscreen elements (especially scrolling) is far more convenient when you tap or swipe the screen. In addition to tapping with your fingers, you can use Microsoft’s Surface Pen to write or draw on the Surface Laptop 3’s display panel. None of this is possible with the MacBook Air; macOS just doesn’t have touch support, period. Apple has left that to its iPads and iPhones.

Making Connections

No matter which laptop you choose, you’ll likely run into difficulty if you need to connect many peripherals to it. The MacBook Air has just three physical ports: two USB Type-C ports, and a 3.5mm audio jack. The Surface Laptop 3 is not much better, with one USB Type-C port, one USB Type-A port, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a proprietary Surface Connect port for plugging in the power adapter or Microsoft’s optional Surface Dock.

The Surface Laptop 3 gets points for variety compared with the USB Type-C-exclusive MacBook Air, but it loses points for its lack of Thunderbolt 3 support on its one Type-C port. (Both USB Type-C ports on the MacBook Air support lightning-fast Thunderbolt 3 data speeds.) In general, you shouldn’t buy either of these laptops if you’re planning to plug in lots of peripherals and don’t want to spend extra money on an expansion dock. (See our favorite docks for Mac laptops.) Then again, many buyers will need to plug in only the power cord and perhaps their phone charger, so they may not care about the stingy port selection.

CPUs: Navigating Intel’s ‘Ice Lake’

The Surface Laptop 3 and the MacBook Air both use CPUs from Intel’s latest 10th Generation “Ice Lake” processor family. You can choose a Core i3, a Core i5, or a Core i7 chip for the MacBook Air, while the Surface Laptop 3 offers only Core i5 or Core i7 options. Not all Core i5s and Core i7s are created equal, however, and the higher-powered ones in the Surface Laptop 3 could perform slightly better on resource-intensive workflows than the ones in the MacBook Air. The configurations we tested are not directly comparable, however, since our MacBook Air review unit has a Core i5 and our Surface Laptop 3 has a Core i7.

Even with these differences, our testing found that both of these laptops perform basic computing tasks like web browsing and word processing with aplomb. If your computing needs are simple, either system will meet them. Both laptops also have extraordinary battery life, with the MacBook Air clocking in at just under 16 hours on our battery rundown test. The Surface Laptop 3 is not far behind, at just under 15 hours.

Storage, memory, and graphics processing are virtually identical between the two laptops. Both can be configured with up to 16GB of memory, and both use Intel’s Iris Plus on-CPU silicon to handle graphics processing. Iris Plus is not as capable as a discrete GPU, but it’s fine for playing casual games like Fortnite and it’s much more powerful than the Intel UHD Graphics processors that powered previous versions of the MacBook Air and Surface Laptop. The MacBook Air can be ordered with up to 2TB of solid-state storage, but we suspect most people will find the Surface Laptop 3’s 1TB maximum more than adequate. 

While you can order both laptops in understated silver color schemes, they are also available in multiple color options, including the distinctive Rose Gold for the MacBook Air and Cobalt Blue for the Surface Laptop 3. Finally, both laptops have the same $999 starting price, and both Microsoft and Apple discount them further for students and educators.

Tough Decisions

To be sure, there are plenty of other Windows laptops with flashier features than what you’ll find on the Surface Laptop 3, like 360-degree hinges and OLED displays. Likewise, the Apple MacBook Pro offers far better performance than the MacBook Air does and comes with some flashy features of its own, like a Touch Bar and an available Core i9 processor.

But the Surface Laptop 3 and MacBook Air are excellent ultraportables that get the basics right. They have high-quality displays, are light enough to be slipped in and out of backpacks and purses all day long, and their batteries will likely for an entire day without charging. If you don’t already have a preferred operating system to make your choice simpler, this comparison will have to serve as a jumping-off point for what will likely be a tough decision. If you reach an impasse, go back to the drawing board with our list of best ultraportable laptops overall.

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