Surface Pro 3 v. MacBook Air

Surface Pro 3 v. MacBook Air

It's a fair fight

When my new Apple MacBook Air arrived earlier this month, I could feel the waves of jealousy coming off the Surface Pro 3. But it shouldn't have worried. While your needs may vary, the Surface Pro 3 instantly catapults Microsoft's hardware into the same league as Apple's well-respected MacBook Air. And that's quite an accomplishment.

When I ordered the MacBook Air, I did so out of an overdue sense of obligation: I've always made a point of understanding what's happening with the platforms that compete with Windows and Microsoft's other products, and at one time I was buying Macs fairly regularly. But as we've moved into the "cloud first, mobile first" era, Macs have become increasingly less interesting, at least to me. And my non-Microsoft focus has shifted to platforms like iOS, and Android, and, most recently, even Chrome OS.

But the Mac is still important to me for a variety of reasons:

Mac Office. I'm expecting a new version of Mac Office any time now, for example, and would like to see how that works on modern hardware, and not the Core 2 Duo-based Mac mini that's been gathering dust in my office closet. (We're also waiting on OneDrive for Business for Mac.)

Software development. I spend more time than I'd like to admit working through developer environments like Android Studio and XCode and new SDK features, and the Apple stuff only works on the Mac. If you want to create iOS applications, you need a Mac.

Cross-platform integration. The next version of iOS offers a new level of integration with the Mac, which makes owning both more desirable, and I'm curious about testing that.

Windows + Mac. And of course it's been a long time since I've written about running Windows on a Mac, so this device provides a way to see what's changed, and see which of the many options make the most sense. I wrote an introductory article for a series, but I've quickly realized this is a bigger topic than I at first understood.

So there's my quickie justification for the MacBook Air here in Thurrottville. But the one thing I'm not expecting to do with this device is use it regularly. I'm not replacing a PC with this machine, or switching to the Mac, or whatever, and I'm not going to start traveling with it regularly (though I may bring it on a trip or two for real world battery life testing).

What I can do, though, is compare this device head-to-head with the Surface Pro 3. Since, after all, that's what Microsoft is doing in various ads and promotional campaigns. What I can say up front is that each device has its pros and cons. That many of the negatives I've attributed to the Mac over the years have been fixed through advances in both the hardware and the software. And that the MacBook Air is a fine machine and it's even reasonably affordable these days.

A few observations about these two competitors.

Price. While the Surface Pro 3's 12-inch screen seems to place it neatly between the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs, I'm going to just compare it to the 13-inch version, since I find 11-inches too small for serious work. And on that note, the pricing is comparable: Yes, the Surface Pro 3 starts at "just" $799 for the Core i3 version, but when you factor in the price of a keyboard, it's actually $929. The base price for the MacBook Air is $999, but that's for an i5. A comparable Surface Pro 3 with keyboard is $1129. Comparing the MacBook Air I purchased (Core i5, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB SSD) at $1299 before taxes and shipping, I see that the comparable Surface Pro 3 is $1299, exactly the same price. This isn't the same conversation we used to have around Mac pricing at all.

Weight. Neither of these machines puts a sizable or heavy dent in a carry-on bag, and based on how similar they are—and my experience traveling many times with the Surface Pro 3 this summer—I can state that either would be a wonderful travel companion. The Surface Pro 3 with Type Cover weighs 2.4 pounds, compared to 2.96 pounds for MacBook Air. But that's on paper. Comparing them side by side, the difference seems negligible to me, and my wife thought the Surface Pro 3 seemed a bit heavier.

Size. With its bigger screen, the MacBook Air is indeed bigger than Surface Pro 3, by about an inch in both height and width. But both are very thin: The MacBook Air has a tapered design that is just 0.12 inches at the front and .67 inches at the rear. The Surface Pro 3 with Type Cover is .55 inches thick.

Fit and finish. Both of these machines are gorgeous, well-made, and nicely designed. I'm not sure how you'd pick one over the other.

Expansion. While the Surface Pro 3's formal docking capabilities outstrip what's available (officially) with MacBook Air on the desk, Apple wins on the go. The MacBook Air features 2 USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized SDXC card slot, and Thunderbolt (for which you can buy various adapters, including gigabit Ethernet, video-out of all kinds, Firewire and probably more). Pro 3 comes with just a single USB 3.0 port, microSD for expansion, and mini DisplayPort for video-out adapters. Both use magnetic power connectors, and I don't find either to be particularly superior to the other. (If anything, the Mac's version pops off too easily.)

Screen. Here we see some weirdness from both machines. The Surface Pro 3 has a smaller 12-inch screen but it runs at much a higher 2160 x 1440 resolution, and at a 3:2 aspect ratio. The MacBook Air comes with a larger 13-inch screen but runs at a much lower 1440 x 900 resolution (at 16:10). Both are gorgeous, but here's the rub. While Mac OS X has been designed to run very well at "Retina" resolutions, the Air only comes with a low-res screen. And while Windows (desktop) is still terrible at "Retina" resolutions, the Pro 3 only comes with such a screen. I'd rather have a Retina display on the Mac and a low-res screen on the Pro 3. But the Surface Pro 3 screen also provides multi-touch and pen capabilities, noted below.

Battery life. I haven't done formal tests, but based on some casual usage, it's pretty clear that the MacBook Air gets stellar battery life, and something very close to Apple's claimed 12 hours. But here's the thing: If you run Windows on this thing—either in a virtual environment as I'm doing with Parallels, or in a dual-boot environment like Boot Camp, battery life plunges. I suspect it gets less than 4.5 hours of battery life with Boot Camp, for example. By comparison, Microsoft claims up to 7 hours for Surface Pro 3, and I saw a bit over 7 hours in my own usage. Long story, short: The Air kills the Pro 3 in this category. Unless you need Windows.

Heat/noise. Both of these machines are normally quiet, but both have fans that can kick in. Only the Surface Pro 3's does so at unusual times, and it does so more often than with the MacBook Air. Neither is obtrusive, per se. But if you value silence, the Air comes closer to that ideal.

Networking. This is all comparable: The same 802.11a/b/g/n/ac is available on both, plus Bluetooth 4.0.

Keyboard. The MacBook Air keyboard is a joy to use, full-sized and accurate, while the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover keyboard is a bit more cramped and smaller. Both are backlit. I appreciate the versatility of the Type Cover, but the Pro 3 would benefit from a "real" keyboard. And while I'll write more about this later, Windows users will find the keyboard layout on the Mac a bit troublesome at first.

Trackpad. I have never once claimed to "like" a trackpad on any portable computer before, but the MacBook Air's trackpad is superb and is accurate and buttery-smooth. But only in Mac OS X: If you use Windows in Boot Camp, the trackpad sucks. The Surface Pro 3's Type Cover trackpad is a huge improvement over the previous Type Cover. But it's small and not nearly as usable as the one on the Air. I always pack a mouse and will continue to do so.

Pen. Only the Surface Pro 3 includes a wonderful and accurate pen with all the benefits such an accessory provides.

Multi-touch. Only Surface Pro 3 provides a multi-touch screen and can be used like a tablet. This places the Surface Pro 3 is a unique "dual use" capability that differentiates it from MacBook Air. There are pros and cons to this, of course. You would need to purchase an iPad Air (at $499 and up) to gain these capabilities on the Apple side. But that iPad is about 100x as useful as the tablet-oriented Modern environment in Windows with a superior app and content ecosystem. Put simply, the Surface Pro 3 is an Ultrabook first and a tablet sort-of; if you really need a tablet, this machine may not cut it. (Plus it's a bit big.)

Windows vs. Mac OS X. I've long claimed that I find Windows a more comfortable environment than Mac OS X, but whether it's because of the transgressions in Windows 8, Apple's regular improvements to Mac OS X, or just my decade-plus-long experience with Macs, it's getting to be a bit of a wash. Frankly, with Mac/PC usage switching from general purpose personal computing to productivity for the most part, either system would work well for most, and when Microsoft does finally improve Office on the Mac—look to the excellent OneNote for Mac as how this will happen—we're going to have some serious soul searching to do. That said, the maturation of the Modern environment as we move forward will recast this discussion into new territory too. So there will always be something to discuss and debate here.

PIN sign-in. This may seem like a minor thing, but I love this kind of sign-in on Windows. On the Mac, you have to type a password, and then hit Enter. Like it was the 1990s again.

OneDrive integration. Microsoft offers OneDrive integration in both Windows and Mac OS X, but the version in Windows 8.1+ is superior, and lets you access everything in OneDrive when you're online, and gives you the ability to arbitrarily mark folders and files for offline/online-only use. In Mac OS X, this works like it does in Windows 7: you can choose to sync everything, or pick what to sync. But if you choose the latter, you can't even see the stuff that isn't syncing. That's old fashioned, and I hope it changes.

Web apps. I wrote recently about the maturation of web apps, and how the web as an apps platform is really coming into its own. But only the Windows version of Chrome, and Internet Explorer (which is Windows only) currently offer seamless access to web apps, letting you pin those apps to your desktop or taskbar and access them outside of traditional browser windows. This is a capability I use regularly in Windows, and I miss it in Mac OS X.

Ultimately, I appreciate the versatility of Surface Pro 3, and that it runs Windows. But the MacBook Air is wonderful in its own right, the battery life is astonishing, and the slowly lowering prices are going to win converts.

That we're able to compare these two machines non-ironically is a testament to how quickly Microsoft has turned Surface into something truly viable and competitive. But it's also worth noting that Apple is, perhaps, overdue in offering a Retina screen and other upgrades for the MacBook Air. (One is expected in 2015.) That said, I actually prefer the non-Retina screen on the Air as it is now. I wish they made a 15-inch version.

These are both solid machines.

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