Microsoft Surface 3 vs. 2015 MacBook Air

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Gizmag compares the features and specs of the new Surface 3 (left) and 11-in MacBook Air

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Microsoft's new Surface 3 takes many of the qualities that made the Surface Pro 3 great, and puts them in a smaller, cheaper and lower-octane package. Let's see how it compares to Apple's latest 11-in MacBook Air.

Form factor

In case you're playing catch-up here, the Surface 3 is a transforming 2-in-1. The device itself is a touchscreen tablet, but you can snap on its keyboard cover (and pop out its kickstand) to turn it into a laptop.

The MacBook Air is a traditional (non-touch) laptop.

Desktop apps

The older non-"Pro" Surfaces ran the (now more or less defunct) Windows RT, which couldn't run traditional Windows desktop apps (Modern UI Windows Store apps only). But this one does run x86 apps.

Size

The new Surface 3 is 3 percent shorter and 11 percent narrower than the 11-in MacBook Air.

The above spec lists the Surface 3's thickness without its keyboard attached. But when you attach the cover and fold it over (equivalent to how the MacBook is measured), it jumps up to 13.6 mmm (0.54-in).

… that's technically 20 percent thinner than the MacBook Air, but remember that the Air has a tapered design, and its thickness measurement only counts its thickest point. The Surface has a mostly uniform thickness.

Weight

With its keyboard attached, the smaller Surface 3 is 18 percent lighter than the MBA.

Build

If you've used any version of the Microsoft Surface, then the Surface 3's magnesium build will be very familiar. Ditto for the aluminum unibody on the MacBook Air, a design that hasn't changed since the late 2010 MBA.

Trackpad

This is a huge advantage for the MacBook, with its huge, ultra-responsive glass trackpad. The Surface uses a smaller, plastic one.

Colors

No choices here, as both devices ship in silver only. You can, however, add a little color with the Surface's keyboard or pen – both of which are now sold in different colors.

Display (size)

The Surface 3's screen is 94 percent as big as that of the 11-in Air.

Display (resolution)

This is a big advantage for the Surface, as the MacBook Air's display resolution is stuck in another era. For a much sharper MacBook display, you can check out either that new 12-in MacBook or the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Pen input

The Surface 3 plays nicely with the same Surface Pen that you get with the Surface Pro 3. You'll have to buy it separately (for US$50) with this new model though.

Processor

The Surface 3 uses an Intel Atom processor, a great fit for this kind of device. It runs full Windows, but has power management that's closer to ARM-based devices, like iPads and smartphones. Its horsepower, however, is going to lag behind that of the MacBook Air's Core i5.

You can also configure the MacBook Air with a faster Core i7 chip (not pictured), if you order from Apple's website.

RAM

The higher storage tier of the Surface 3 jumps to 4 GB of RAM, but the entry-level version only has 2 GB. The MacBook Air uses 4 GB in the base model, and is configurable to 8 GB.

Storage

Keep this in mind when we get to pricing: the base MacBook Air doubles the internal storage of the Surface 3.

MicroSD

The Surface does, however, let you augment that by popping in a microSD card. Though the 13-in MacBook Air has a full-sized SD slot, this 11-incher doesn't have any card slots.

LTE

You can add $100 to your purchase to get a version of the Surface 3 with 4G LTE radios. We've yet to see a MacBook with cellular capabilities (though if you're an iPhone owner, Apple lets you set up a mobile hotspot without even touching your phone).

Battery

Microsoft hasn't yet announced any details on the Surface 3's battery, other than to estimate "up to 10 hours of video playback." The MacBook Air's estimate is "up to 9 hours of wireless web use."

Cameras

As a part-time tablet, the Surface has two cameras – with very tablet-like resolutions. As a dedicated notebook, the MacBook only has a 720p webcam.

USB

The MacBook Air has two USB 3.0 ports, while the Surface has only one.

It's worth noting, though, that the Surface's microUSB charging port can transfer data as well. With the right combination of cables or adapters, you could say that it has two USB ports as well.

Thunderbolt

Before long, Thunderbolt will probably be about as relevant as Firewire is, as Apple is phasing it out in favor of USB-C in that new 12-in MacBook. But the MacBook Air does still give you one Thunderbolt port.

Video out

Even if you never buy a single Thunderbolt accessory, the MacBook's port still doubles as a Mini DisplayPort for video out. The Surface has a dedicated Mini DisplayPort, though it isn't Thunderbolt-compatible.

Software

The Surface runs Windows 8.1, and will get a free update to Windows 10 when it launches. The MacBook Air runs OS X Yosemite.

Release

The latest MacBook Air launched after Apple's latest event last month. The Surface 3 launches on May 5, with a wider rollout starting on May 7.

Starting price

Even with its keyboard cover and (optionally) Surface Pen, the Surface still comes out at $220 cheaper. Just remember that you only get 64 GB of storage vs. 128 GB for the MBA. If you get a 128 GB Surface, the price difference is only $120.

We haven't yet reviewed the new Broadwell MacBook Air, but for a very similar product, you can revisit our review of the 2014 (Haswell) model.

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