New 12-in MacBook vs. Surface Pro 3

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Gizmag compares the features and specs of Apple's new 12-in MacBook (left) vs. the Microsoft Surface Pro 3

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Most of us thought a MacBook Air with Retina Display would have arrived long before 2015, but that's how long Apple took getting this bad boy ready. How does Apple's new MacBook ("Air" and "Retina" in everything but name) stack up next to the Surface Pro 3? Let's compare their features and specs.

Size

Heights are very close, and the Surface Pro 3 is 4 percent longer.

At first glance, the Surface looks to be thinner than the MacBook, but this spec only includes the Surface in tablet mode (while the MacBook's measurement is for a folded shut notebook). When you add the Surface's keyboard, it measures about 6 percent thicker than the MacBook.

This plays along with a trick that often pops up in Microsoft's Surface advertising: counting only the tablet in the areas where that makes it look good (like pricing, thickness and weight), but adding the keyboard cover everywhere else (like when advertising its 2-in-1 productivity nature). The bottom line is the Surface's keyboard is an essential part of the equation, and will be attached to the device any time you aren't actively using it in tablet mode.

Weight

Here too the Surface's spec sheet makes it look like the lighter device, but once you add its keyboard cover (the way you'll almost certainly carry it around in a bag), you'll see that it's actually 19 percent heavier than the new MacBook.

Build

Both machines have high-end designs, with the MacBook's aluminum unibody vs. the Surface's magnesium chassis.

Colors

For the first time, a modern MacBook is being sold in different colors. We're looking at the same silver, gold and space gray options that you can choose from with the latest iPhones and iPads.

Display (size)

Not all 12-in displays are created equal, as the Surface's 3:2 aspect ratio (vs. the MacBook's 16:10) makes it almost 3 percent bigger.

Display (resolution)

Pixel densities are close, with the MacBook measuring about 5 percent sharper. At the distance that laptops typically sit from your eyes, both screens will look very crisp.

In tablet mode, where it will sit closer to your eyes, the Surface will show its pixels a bit more. That's something the MacBook doesn't have to worry about.

Display (type)

Both machines have IPS panels.

Touch screen (and tablet mode)

Apple still believes a great trackpad and keyboard are the best ways to control a notebook (and it's hard to argue with that logic). With that said, it can be handy to have a touchscreen on a device like the Surface, even in laptop mode.

Pen input

Part of that is due to the Surface's bundled pen. More than a stylus, the N-Trig-powered Surface Pen provides some of the most natural digital inking around. If you're a OneNote user, it also has a nifty shortcut built into its cap: one click of the top end opens Microsoft's Evernote rival.

Trackpad (material)

In addition to being bigger, the MacBook's trackpad is also made of a much more solid-feeling glass. The Surface keyboard cover has a smaller plastic touchpad.

Trackpad (pressure-sensitivity)

If you've ever used a recent MacBook, then you're well familiar with clicking the trackpad, as it physically presses down in a "diving board" motion. With the new MacBook, though, Apple is replacing that physical movement with a pressure-sensitive touch mechanism, using the same "force touch" and haptic feedback tech we'll soon see on the Apple Watch.

Storage

You'll want to keep this in mind when you look at pricing, as the entry-level MacBook gives you four times the internal storage of the entry-level Surface.

MicroSD

The MacBook, though, doesn't give you any options for augmenting its storage with an SD card. The Surface has a discreet microSD slot that can go a long way in expanding that internal storage (128 GB microSDs reportedly work just fine in the SP3).

USB ports

This is by far the biggest reason to hesitate about the new MacBook. Yes, Apple is boldly attempting to push us all into the future by reducing the new MacBook's ports to a lone USB Type C port (much like it pushed us into a world without optical drives with the original MacBook Air).

BUT … right now this is going to be a big compromise. All of your USB 2/3 accessories – be it external hard drives, SD readers or DVD burners? You won't be able to use any of them without an adapter. That isn't a huge hassle or expense, mind you, but it is one more thing to think about (and bring with you on trips).

And since that lone port also doubles as a charging port, you can forget about doing a physical Time Machine backup while charging (unless perhaps you use a USB splitter, along with an adapter). Ditto for making large photo transfers from a camera's SD card while charging. Apple will, of course, recommend that you opt for wireless solutions, including its (rather expensive) routers to charge while making wireless Time Machine backups.

No matter how you slice it, this is one of the biggest categories you'll want to think about before throwing down for the MacBook. How do you use your notebook? How many accessories do you use with it? And are you willing to buy adapters for all of them, and add that to your upfront cost?

Video out

That USB-C port is natively compatible with DisplayPort for video out. USB Type C is a terrific new technology that can reduce port and cable clutter down to a single standard. But until these devices and cables become ubiquitous, it's going to make for a rocky transition.

Battery

Apple is estimating the same 9 hours of web use that Microsoft tosses up for the Surface. That's a few hours off the estimates for the most recent 13-in MacBook Air.

Cameras

Apple is actually using a lower-resolution webcam than it has on any of its recent MacBooks (they've been 720p for quite some time). Perhaps this was a necessary sacrifice in the name of appeasing the gods of light and thin.

Processor

The MacBook's Core M Broadwell chip is a big reason for its combination of light, thin and "Retina."

In addition to the standard configurations listed here, Apple also gives you a couple more made-to-order processor options that aren't shown in this visual.

Graphics

Both machines use integrated Intel graphics.

RAM

8 GB of RAM is standard on the MacBook, while only the more expensive tiers of the Surface jump up to 8 GB.

LTE

Unless you're talking about ARM-based ones, laptops still aren't LTE affairs. If you're an iPhone owner, though, Apple makes it very easy to set up a personal hotspot for your MacBook, without even touching your phone.

Software

The new MacBook ships with OS X Yosemite, including some new software tweaks to accommodate for Force Touch gestures on its trackpad. The Surface runs Windows 8.1 Pro, and will get a free upgrade to Windows 10 when it launches.

Release

Remember that we're comparing Apple's 2015 flagship notebook to Microsoft's 2014 2-in-1. We could very well see a new Surface around three months from now.

Starting price

Even with its keyboard included (which is the only sensible way to look at its pricing), the entry-level Surface is US$370 cheaper than the entry-level MacBook. Of course that cheaper price only gets you 64 GB of internal storage and an underpowered Core i3 processor. For a more capable 128 GB/i5 Surface, you're looking at $1,130 – inching a bit closer to the 256 GB MacBook's price tag.

For more, you can check out Gizmag's new MacBook review and our Surface Pro 3 review from last year.

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