Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. 11-in MacBook Air: A closer look

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Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (left) and 11-in Apple MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Many a Microsoft commercial has compared the Surface (and other Windows 2-in-1s) to the iPad, but we think the Surface Pro 3 makes a lot more sense pitted against the MacBook Air. After working and playing on both the Surface Pro 3 and the newest (2014) 11-in MacBook Air, we have a few thoughts on how they compare.

If you want a traditional laptop, then the MacBook Air is still one of your best bets – maybe even the best. Apart from its dated screen resolution and the fact that several Windows devices are now much lighter and thinner, its software and hardware combination is still really hard to beat.

But the Surface Pro 3 makes a pretty good case. It's Microsoft's best justification yet for this 2-in-1 form factor. The latest Surface is, first and foremost, an outstanding touchscreen Ultrabook. That it's also a solid (if oversized) tablet is just a sweet bonus.

No matter what else we talk about, though, your preference between Windows 8.1 and OS X Yosemite is going to play a huge role in your decision. There are too many minute differences to make the operating systems a major focus of this comparison, but if you already know that you strongly prefer one OS over the other, then that might be all you need to know.

On a hardware level, we think the Surface Pro 3 is one of the best mobile productivity devices you can buy. During the last few years, I've done the vast majority of my work on either a MacBook Air or Retina MacBook Pro, but I have no problem whatsoever switching to the Surface Pro 3. It's bigger than its Surface predecessors, much better at being a laptop and still not to shabby as a tablet. Consider its much improved battery life to be the icing on the cake.

Screen quality is an enormous advantage for the Surface Pro 3, as the MacBook Air has very dated resolution. The Surface's display is 60 percent sharper than this 11-in MacBook Air's screen. It's also 69 percent sharper than the 13-in Air's display.

On an experience level, it's no contest: going from the Air to the Surface is like getting a new prescription for your eyes. Apple has fallen way behind in this category, with the Air overdue for a "Retina" update (which we may finally see this year).

As far as size and weight, the Surface is also in very good shape. Compared to the 11-in Air, the Surface Pro 3 (including its keyboard cover) is only 1 percent heavier. Considering it's the larger device – with a 16 percent bigger screen – that's a notch in the Surface's column.

Both PCs have high-end designs, with metal bodies. The MacBook's aluminum unibody build is, by now, well familiar (and almost universally copied by Windows laptop-makers). The Surface's magnesium body is no less appealing, though, and also no less solid-feeling in hand.

On a hardware level, the MacBook's keyboard and trackpad are by far its biggest advantages. The transforming Surface uses a detachable plastic keyboard cover: very good for what it is, but not on par with Apple's industry-leading keyboard and pad. The Air's glass trackpad is also about 59 percent bigger than the Surface's plastic touchpad.

Fortunately for the Surface, it doesn't rely on its trackpad the way the MacBook does, with the Surface's touchscreen and pen input adding a couple dimensions that the MacBook doesn't have. More on that in a minute.

The Surface's keyboard is also much better than it was in any of the first four Surfaces. Pick up an older Surface model, and you'll notice that the keyboard cover juts out flat from the base of the device. But Microsoft made a subtle change with the Pro 3, and it vastly improves lap typing: the base of its cover now folds up against the bottom of the Surface, propping up the keyboard like a ramp (see below). Now this might not sound like much, but it gives the keyboard some lift and firmness.

Older Surfaces' keyboards used to sit flush against your lap, and could flop around while typing. But that problem is null and void on the Surface Pro 3.

As a tablet, the Surface is huge. Compared to a full-sized iPad screen (like the iPad Air), The Surface's 12-in display is 47 percent bigger. This makes the Surface Pro 3 less of a casual, one-handed type of device, and more of a big honkin' slab of glass and magnesium. When you pick this sucker up, you're picking it up because you mean business.

Again, that isn't to say that it's heavy. It's just that its size stretches beyond what most people would consider "normal" for a tablet.

We do enjoy using the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet. Its 3:2 aspect ratio makes it work better in portrait mode than previous Surfaces did (though we still gravitate towards landscape). Its pen also fits Photoshop (and other graphic design apps) like hand in glove.

The biggest annoyance with the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is the Windows Store (Microsoft's marketplace for touch-based apps). More than two years after its launch, its selection is still pretty "meh." Desktop apps give you a wealth of content to choose from, but you can't go into the Surface assuming that all your favorite touch-first iPad apps will be waiting for you there. Some will be (Flipboard, for example, looks awesome on the Surface), but in other cases you'll need to find alternatives – often in the form of desktop apps, which may or may not have been designed for touch.

Microsoft's "Don't Call It a Stylus" Surface Pen is terrific. The battery-powered active capacitive pen has the smoothest digital inking we've experienced (it writes more naturally than the styluses you'd find on older Surfaces and Galaxy Notes). The Surface Pen is great for graphic design and jotting notes, but it's also a nice trackpad/mouse alternative when you're navigating the Windows desktop.

So while the MacBook gives you a bigger and better trackpad, and a better keyboard, the Surface is still pretty solid in those two areas – while also adding touch, tablet mode and pen input.

As far as performance, for the models we handled (the base Intel Core i5 MacBook Air, and second-tier Surface with Core i5), the Surface Pro 3 came out just slightly faster. In benchmark app GeekBench 3, the Surface scored 5 percent faster in the multi-core test, and 4.5 percent faster in the single core benchmark. In other words, not significant enough a difference to base your decision on.

Keep in mind, though, that we didn't handle the entry-level Core i3 Surface (the one that starts at $800 before adding a keyboard). You should see a noticeable dip in performance – at least for the most taxing apps – if you go for that cheapest model.

Both devices have good – and very similar – battery life. In our video-streaming benchmark (over Wi-Fi, with brightness set at about 75 percent), both machines dropped around 16 percent per hour. For full-blown PCs, those are great numbers that would have been unheard of just a couple years ago, in the pre-Haswell days.

Our experience matches up with those benchmark results. Both are going to be all-day machines – or very close to it – for most users.

Looking at ports, the MacBook Air does give you an extra USB 3.0 port (two vs. the Surface's one). The Surface adds a microSD card slot to help expand your storage on the cheap, while this 11-in MBA lacks a card reader (the 13-in Air has a full-sized SD slot). If you want to mirror your display to a bigger screen, the SP3 uses Mini DisplayPort for video out, while the MacBook has one Thunderbolt port (backwards-compatible with Mini DisplayPort).

This has been an unusual comparison, as your preferences between OS X and Windows, or traditional laptops vs. 2-in-1s will probably trump everything else. But if you've been holding off on trying hybrids like the Surface, know that this one is the real deal. The Surface Pro 3 is the lineup's coming-out party: it's a legit MacBook Air rival on the laptop end, and makes for a pretty good (pen-based or finger-based) tablet on the other end.

You could, however, argue that now isn't a very good time to buy either device:

Last month 9to5Mac had a scoop on an (alleged) upcoming MacBook Air that will get lighter and thinner, match the Surface with a 12-in screen and add a Retina Display. Take it for what you will, but we'd bet on this one being legit. We also wouldn't be surprised to see this updated MacBook sometime in 2015, if not in the first half. If for no other reason, the MacBook Air's competition is getting too good for Apple to stick with its four-year-old design for much longer.

As for the Surface, it started shipping last June – and that means we might see a Surface Pro 4 about four months from now. If you like the current model, then we see no reason to hesitate. But if you can hold off for a little while, then you might get a better model for the same price.

Speaking of price, these two aren't quite sitting on level ground. Including its (essential, but sold-separately) keyboard cover, the Surface Pro 3 starts at US$930 for that 64 GB storage/Intel Core i3 model. The 11-in MacBook Air starts at $900 for 128 GB storage and an Intel Core i5 CPU. For the Surface Pro 3 that we'd recommend looking at (the one we handled for this comparison), that price jumps up to $1,130 – a $230 hike over the equivalent MBA.

For the Cliff's Notes version of this comparison, the Surface gives you a bigger and sharper screen, touch, tablet mode, Windows (including a free update to Windows 10 when it launches) and pen input. If your tastes lean more towards OS X, a better trackpad, traditional laptop experience and a slightly lower price, then you're better off with the 11-in MacBook Air.

... or you can wait a few months, and see if you have better options on both sides of the fence.

Still stumped? Then you can check out Gizmag's individual reviews of the 11-in MacBook Air and Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

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