Computers

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

Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (left) and 11-in Apple MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (left) and 11-in Apple MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
View 30 Images
The Surface is bigger than the MacBook, but only 1 percent heavier (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
1/30
The Surface is bigger than the MacBook, but only 1 percent heavier (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The MacBook Air is arguably still the best destination for a traditional laptop experience (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
2/30
The MacBook Air is arguably still the best destination for a traditional laptop experience (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
For the first time in a Surface, the Pro 3 is uncompromised in lap (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
3/30
For the first time in a Surface, the Pro 3 is uncompromised in lap (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface Pen in the Pro 3 is outstanding, and a great fit for Photoshop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
4/30
The Surface Pen in the Pro 3 is outstanding, and a great fit for Photoshop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The 12-in Surface Pro 3 makes for a huge tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
5/30
The 12-in Surface Pro 3 makes for a huge tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Profiles of both devices (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
6/30
Profiles of both devices (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Surface Pro 3 with pen (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
7/30
Surface Pro 3 with pen (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface Pro 3's 3:2 display ratio gives it a somewhat boxier appearance than the 16:9 MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
8/30
The Surface Pro 3's 3:2 display ratio gives it a somewhat boxier appearance than the 16:9 MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (left) and 11-in Apple MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
9/30
Gizmag goes hands-on to compare the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (left) and 11-in Apple MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Surface and MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
10/30
Surface and MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Surface and MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
11/30
Surface and MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Both devices, closed up (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
12/30
Both devices, closed up (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The MacBook Air's design is iconic, but it's also been over four years since Apple updated it externally (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
13/30
The MacBook Air's design is iconic, but it's also been over four years since Apple updated it externally (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The tapered profile of the MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
14/30
The tapered profile of the MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Apple's keyboard is hard to beat (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
15/30
Apple's keyboard is hard to beat (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The large glass trackpad on the MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
16/30
The large glass trackpad on the MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Like most modern Apple products, the MacBook Air has an aluminum unibody design (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
17/30
Like most modern Apple products, the MacBook Air has an aluminum unibody design (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Some of its competitors are now "airier," but the MacBook Air is still relatively light and thin
18/30
Some of its competitors are now "airier," but the MacBook Air is still relatively light and thin
The Surface Pro 3's keyboard, which makes for a good typing experience (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
19/30
The Surface Pro 3's keyboard, which makes for a good typing experience (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface's trackpad doesn't hold a candle to the MacBook's, but it's still an improvement over older Surfaces (and many other Windows mobile devices) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
20/30
The Surface's trackpad doesn't hold a candle to the MacBook's, but it's still an improvement over older Surfaces (and many other Windows mobile devices) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
That little fold on the Surface Pro 3's keyboard cover improves lap typing (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
21/30
That little fold on the Surface Pro 3's keyboard cover improves lap typing (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface Pen magnetically snaps onto the lower right side of the device (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
22/30
The Surface Pen magnetically snaps onto the lower right side of the device (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Profile of the Surface Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
23/30
Profile of the Surface Pro 3 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface's dynamically-adjusting kickstand (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
24/30
The Surface's dynamically-adjusting kickstand (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Without the keyboard, the Surface is an oversized tablet with excellent pen input (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
25/30
Without the keyboard, the Surface is an oversized tablet with excellent pen input (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface's keyboard includes an attachable loop, for stashing away your Surface Pen when you aren't using it (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
26/30
The Surface's keyboard includes an attachable loop, for stashing away your Surface Pen when you aren't using it (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Using the Surface in portrait mode (for OneNote) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
27/30
Using the Surface in portrait mode (for OneNote) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The aluminum, battery-powered Surface Pen (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
28/30
The aluminum, battery-powered Surface Pen (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Both devices, at work, on lap (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
29/30
Both devices, at work, on lap (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Both devices are easy to pick up or throw in a bag (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
30/30
Both devices are easy to pick up or throw in a bag (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

The Surface Pen in the Pro 3 is outstanding, and a great fit for Photoshop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface Pen in the Pro 3 is outstanding, and a great fit for Photoshop (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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).

The Surface is bigger than the MacBook, but only 1 percent heavier (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Surface is bigger than the MacBook, but only 1 percent heavier (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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 devices are easy to pick up or throw in a bag (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Both devices are easy to pick up or throw in a bag (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

The MacBook Air's design is iconic, but it's also been over four years since Apple updated it externally (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The MacBook Air's design is iconic, but it's also been over four years since Apple updated it externally (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

That little fold on the Surface Pro 3's keyboard cover improves lap typing (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
That little fold on the Surface Pro 3's keyboard cover improves lap typing (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

The 12-in Surface Pro 3 makes for a huge tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The 12-in Surface Pro 3 makes for a huge tablet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

The aluminum, battery-powered Surface Pen (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The aluminum, battery-powered Surface Pen (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

Surface and MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Surface and MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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).

The tapered profile of the MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The tapered profile of the MacBook Air (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

Both devices, at work, on lap (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Both devices, at work, on lap (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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.

10 comments
EricP
A well written and balanced article. It should be noted the surface of the new track pad on the Surface Pro 3 is covered with "glass beads". Personal note: The surface pro 3 has the nicest trackpad of any windows machine I've used. The glass covering has yet to show any wear after 8 months and cleans easy. It feels great, and is very accurate, sensitive and stable. As a "precision touchpad" It also supports up to 4 finger touch gestures in Windows 10.
Kalides Evony
i think the article was well written, and thought out, but , have a issue with the opening paragraph. seems there is always that push for the apple device, on the get go. folks that only read the first paragraph can be miss lead. i like the news you guys present, but the apple bias, is a turn off...fix that, and i would love you truely
phissith
What about comparison between Air and Dell new XPS 13!!
Kyle McHattie
Still can't get around the crapware and virus issues of microsoft devices. That's why for serious work on a machine that consistently keeps working properly, I will go for a mac every time.
cyborg
I have had both computers. If you get microsoft 360 it includes updated virus protection. I appreciate the better network connectivity with the SP3. That means it is better for work where you connect to microsoft based networks. It's more seamless. That being said I still love my macbook air. ESPECIALLY iphoto. Mircosoft has nothing that really is as good. Also the macbook air handles the occaisonal drop a little better.
Rann Xeroxx
Kyle McHattie, If you are running your Windows 8.1 PC like your Mac, as Standard User and not Admin, you have the same security benefits with both. Both OS's typically need to bump to SA for large software installs like VM or CAD but most apps install under user just fine. Mac OS still enjoys "security through obscurity" as it still only holds 5% of the world computer market.
David Wieneke
Ran Xerox, Windows and OSX are still "toy" operating systems designed to run "toy" computers and have never evolved beyond. "Security through obscurity" is no less secure than the "patch of the month" club. When was the last time you heard of a mainframe system being breached? Real operating systems written by real men, not by PC pussys.
Josh Derak
@Kyle McHattie , "Still can't get around the crapware and virus issues of microsoft devices" There's a few problems with this. First off, the Surface Pro isn't going to have any crapware at all. You're thinking of Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc. Those companies take Windows and put that junk on it for revenue. Can't blame Microsoft for that. Secondly, it's not "Microsoft devices" that get viruses. It's all computers, including OSX. And finally, I've had Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8 work consistently for me without too blue screens of death since 2001. (Vista had issues with nVidia sound drivers. That's pretty much it for me.) It's as if you've only heard of the problems a PC has and haven't actually experienced them yourself. Your opinion is biased and uninformed. Computers shouldn't be a political statement. They're supposed to be a tool in our daily lives. No one goes around arguing which hammer is better at hitting nails. Use what gets the job done.
Dan Maloy
1. Macbook 11,6 inch has really sharp resolution, personally i don't use the highest scaled resolution 1366 x 768 since it is too sharp, but 1280 x 720 which is pretty much enough for reading or working. 2. Macbook 11,6 inch has super amazing trackpad compare to Surface Pro which is really small and not comfortable for work at all.. That was the major turn off for me from buying Surface.
DeLa
I am currently on the fence between the windows surface pro and the MacBook air 13". I am not a tech-head, I don't do anything fancy. I am enrolling in a masters program so I imagine that I will be using my device for research and writing reports, checking email and things like that. I just spent two years in Peace Corps using an ASUS Eee PC and it was very slow I also didn't like how small the keyboard and screen were. I am looking for a device that is quick, capable of multi-tasking, and portable. I am also a little concerned about the battery life on the surface. I would appreciate any feedback. I'm not super up to date in the tech world coming out of the bush for two years so it would be great to give me accessible answers. Thanks for any help/advice you might have. Cheers!
Thanks for reading our articles. Please consider subscribing to New Atlas Plus.
By doing so you will be supporting independent journalism, plus you will get the benefits of a faster, ad-free experience.