Computers

2013 MacBook Air (11-inch) vs. Microsoft Surface Pro

Gizmag compares the specs (and other features) of the new 11-inch MacBook Air, and the Microsoft Surface Pro
Gizmag compares the specs (and other features) of the new 11-inch MacBook Air, and the Microsoft Surface Pro
View 17 Images
Battery life is a major advantage for the new MacBook Air
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Battery life is a major advantage for the new MacBook Air
Both devices have high-end designs and build materials
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Both devices have high-end designs and build materials
It's 720p cameras all around
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It's 720p cameras all around
The MacBook's updated Intel processor is the secret to its insane battery life
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The MacBook's updated Intel processor is the secret to its insane battery life
The MacBook Air is bigger all around
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The MacBook Air is bigger all around
The MacBook gives you more screen real estate for your buck, but the Surface gives you a sharper display
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The MacBook gives you more screen real estate for your buck, but the Surface gives you a sharper display
The MacBook's integrated Intel graphics are a generation newer
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The MacBook's integrated Intel graphics are a generation newer
Gizmag compares the specs (and other features) of the new 11-inch MacBook Air, and the Microsoft Surface Pro
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Gizmag compares the specs (and other features) of the new 11-inch MacBook Air, and the Microsoft Surface Pro
The Surface Pro probably isn't worth buying without its $120-130 keyboard cover
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The Surface Pro probably isn't worth buying without its $120-130 keyboard cover
Both devices have 4 GB of RAM
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Both devices have 4 GB of RAM
Both devices run the latest versions of Mac OS X and Windows
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Both devices run the latest versions of Mac OS X and Windows
The updated MacBook Air gives you more storage for your buck
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The updated MacBook Air gives you more storage for your buck
The Surface Pro is lighter – until you add one of its keyboard covers
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The Surface Pro is lighter – until you add one of its keyboard covers
The MacBook Air has faster Wi-Fi, but you probably can't do much with it yet
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The MacBook Air has faster Wi-Fi, but you probably can't do much with it yet
Both devices can plug into bigger external displays
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Both devices can plug into bigger external displays
Only the Surface Pro supports stylus input (it includes one too)
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Only the Surface Pro supports stylus input (it includes one too)
Only the Surface Pro can be used as a tablet
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Only the Surface Pro can be used as a tablet

Mobile devices have turned the traditional PC market upside down. While Apple's "post PC" strategy is all about the iPad, the Mac still gives it a horse in the traditional PC race. Microsoft's strategy is more convergent: it wants hybrid devices like the Surface Pro to become our primary computers. How do the two measure up? Let's find out, as we compare the specs (and other features) of the 2013 MacBook Air to the Microsoft Surface Pro.

Update: Unless you're looking at the old models, you'll want to hit up our updated comparison of the latest models.

Before we get started, note that Apple offers configurable (and more expensive) Macs with faster processors and more storage. But, for simplicity's sake, we're only comparing the standard models. Microsoft doesn't offer any built-to-order options for the Surface.

The MacBook Air also comes in a 13-inch model, but we're just dealing with the smaller 11-incher here. Additionally, Microsoft sells the cheaper Surface RT, which doesn't run traditional (x86) Windows apps. We're focusing on the full Windows 8 Pro version.

Tablet mode

Only the Surface Pro can be used as a tablet
Only the Surface Pro can be used as a tablet

This probably goes without saying, but in case you're new to all of this, we're looking at two fundamentally different machines here.

The MacBook Air is a laptop through-and-through. The Surface Pro, meanwhile, is basically a laptop in a tablet's body, but then you can add one of Microsoft's keyboard covers to use it as something closer to a laptop. Got it?

Size

The MacBook Air is bigger all around
The MacBook Air is bigger all around

As you can see, the MacBook Air is quite a bit larger than the Surface Pro. Of course we're comparing a laptop to a tablet, so that shouldn't be too surprising.

One thing to note here, though, is that the MacBook Air's depth is only counting its thickest point. Unlike the Surface, its side is tapered, so you'll want to take those measurements with a few grains of salt.

If you're adding one of Microsoft's keyboard covers to the Surface (almost essential to get your money's worth), it will become a bit thicker, totaling 16.75 mm with the Touch Cover attached, and 19.5 mm with the Type Cover.

Weight

The Surface Pro is lighter – until you add one of its keyboard covers
The Surface Pro is lighter – until you add one of its keyboard covers

When using the Surface Pro as a tablet, it's about 16 percent lighter than the MacBook Air. When you add one of Surface's keyboard covers, though, it becomes four percent heavier (with Touch Cover), or 12 percent heavier (with Type Cover).

Build

Both devices have high-end designs and build materials
Both devices have high-end designs and build materials

The MacBook Air has an aluminum unibody build, while Microsoft is branding the Surface's custom metal alloy as VaporMg. The "winner" here will come down to your personal preferences, as both devices have high-end finishes and are a pleasure to hold.

When you're using Surface as more of a laptop, it has a built-in kickstand, which will prop your device up at a fixed 26-degree angle. Like all laptops, the MacBook Air's screen angle can be easily adjusted.

Display

The MacBook gives you more screen real estate for your buck, but the Surface gives you a sharper display
The MacBook gives you more screen real estate for your buck, but the Surface gives you a sharper display

The first thing to know about the displays is that the Surface's tablet screen is, naturally, a touchscreen (with 10-point multitouch). Apple has never made a MacBook with a touchscreen.

Both screens are in the same 11-inch ballpark, but the MacBook Air's is a bit larger. The Surface Pro's display gives you 84 percent as much real estate as the MacBook Air's does.

The Surface does, however, give you a much sharper screen. The MacBook Air only has 51 percent as many pixels as the Surface's 1080p display. If you want a MacBook with a razor-sharp screen, you'll want to look at the MacBook Pro with Retina Display (or wait for the inevitable MacBook Air with Retina Display).

The Surface Pro also employs Microsoft's "ClearType" tech, which is the company's version of subpixel rendering. It can make text look a bit sharper than its (already impressive) resolution would suggest. Surface's screen also gives you impressively deep blacks.

External displays

Both devices can plug into bigger external displays
Both devices can plug into bigger external displays

Both Apple and Microsoft know that an 11-inch screen probably won't cut it as your primary PC. So both devices will let you plug into an external monitor to better serve as a desktop replacement.

If you're balking at the high costs of both machines (see below), this is something to keep in mind. You can have a workstation waiting on your desk – complete with monitor, external hard drive, mouse and keyboard – to instantly transform your laptop or tablet into a fairly powerful desktop PC.

Stylus support

Only the Surface Pro supports stylus input (it includes one too)
Only the Surface Pro supports stylus input (it includes one too)

If you like working with a stylus, then you'll want to look at the Surface Pro. Its touchscreen ships with a Wacom-based stylus that gives you a finer, pressure-sensitive input method for apps like Photoshop.

If you want to use a stylus with the MacBook Air, you'll need to buy a separate graphics tablet.

Processor

The MacBook's updated Intel processor is the secret to its insane battery life
The MacBook's updated Intel processor is the secret to its insane battery life

Both the MacBook Air and Surface Pro pack Intel Core i5 processors, but the new MacBook has a leg-up here. Intel's new Haswell microarchitecture gives it a huge battery life advantage over older Ivy Bridge-based computers, like the Surface. More on battery life in a minute.

Graphics

The MacBook's integrated Intel graphics are a generation newer
The MacBook's integrated Intel graphics are a generation newer

The MBA also gets updated Intel (integrated) graphics. We've yet to put both through their paces side-by-side, but, for what it's worth, Intel advertises twice the power performance of the previous generation that is found in Surface.

RAM

Both devices have 4 GB of RAM
Both devices have 4 GB of RAM

Both devices have 4 GB of RAM.

Storage

The updated MacBook Air gives you more storage for your buck
The updated MacBook Air gives you more storage for your buck

This was a big upgrade for the new 11-inch MacBook Air. It doubles the storage options of both the 2012 MBA and the Surface Pro.

You can, however, expand both devices' storage easier than you could with, say, an iPad. The MacBook Air has USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports that you can use for external drives. Surface Pro has both USB 3.0 and a discreet microSD card slot to help make up for its somewhat cramped storage.

Cameras

It's 720p cameras all around
It's 720p cameras all around

The MacBook Air has Apple's standard 720p front-facing "FaceTime" camera. The Surface has two 720p cameras.

Wireless

The MacBook Air has faster Wi-Fi, but you probably can't do much with it yet
The MacBook Air has faster Wi-Fi, but you probably can't do much with it yet

Here's another one of the new MacBook's big updates. It supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, while the Surface maxes out at 802.11n. This won't matter unless you have an 802.11ac compatible router and an internet connection that keeps pace, but it's still nice for future-proofing.

Many tablets ship with LTE mobile data options, but no such luck for Surface. You'll need to tether your smartphone or invest in a portable mobile hotspot in order to get internet on the go for the Surface Pro. Ditto for the MacBook Air.

Battery

Battery life is a major advantage for the new MacBook Air
Battery life is a major advantage for the new MacBook Air

The battery hardware favors the Surface, but you can basically forget about that. The MacBook Air's new Haswell chip gives it insane battery life. You're looking at the cutting edge of laptop uptimes, with an estimated nine hours of web surfing.

Battery life isn't the Surface Pro's strong suit. You'll be lucky to get five or six hours out of it with regular use. We'd be surprised if we didn't see a second-generation Surface Pro with a Haswell processor sometime in the next year, with much improved battery life.

Software

Both devices run the latest versions of Mac OS X and Windows
Both devices run the latest versions of Mac OS X and Windows

Software might be as important as all of these hardware features combined. Comparing Mac OS X and Windows is beyond the scope of this relatively brief comparison, but there's a good chance you already know which platform you prefer anyway. If not, the internet is full of facts and (often very angry) opinions on the subject.

The biggest thing to remember about Surface is that it runs full Windows 8 Pro, not the limited Windows RT found on the Surface RT. So any app you could run in, say, Windows 7 will run on the Surface Pro. That's not something that an iPad, or many other tablets, can give you.

In addition to legacy desktop apps, Surface also has the Windows Store, which favors apps that are geared more towards touchscreens. This isn't the Surface's strong suit, but the Windows Store will continue to improve. You can also use an emulator to load many Android apps onto Surface.

Both devices will get big updates later this year: Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks for the MBA (it will probably cost US$20), and Windows 8.1 for the Surface Pro (a free update).

Starting prices

The Surface Pro probably isn't worth buying without its $120-130 keyboard cover
The Surface Pro probably isn't worth buying without its $120-130 keyboard cover

The Surface Pro technically undercuts the MacBook Air by $100, but we'd may as well call this about even because there's little point buying the Surface without one of its keyboard covers. That will add an extra $120 (Touch Cover) or $130 (Type Cover) to your checkout price.

Remember also that the entry-level MacBook Air gives you 128 GB of storage, while the cheapest Surface Pro only gives you 64 GB.

Wrap-up

It's a lot to consider. Do you want a traditional laptop, or a more futuristic hybrid device? Do you want a device that's really good at being one thing, or one that can potentially serve as a tablet, laptop, and a desktop? Stellar battery life and a built-in keyboard, or a sharper screen and greater portability? Mac OS X or Windows? These are the questions you want to be asking yourself.Whichever you prefer, this is an interesting time to be shopping for a new PC. The entire definition of PC has been thrown into question, along with the future of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Hopefully this comparison will help you to narrow down your priorities, and find which kind of computer works best for you.

19 comments
Spencer Pablo
The Surface Pro also supports 2560x1600. I run my 30" monitor with my Pro at that resolution.
exodous
Wow, $1000 for the 128GB version of the Air and $900 for the MS version? So you get more for less with the Apple version basically because the 128GB version of MS tablet WITH a keyboard is probably much more than $1000. Also, what do you get after windows 8 is installed? Isn't it bloated and you don't get near the storage space? Microsoft, do you really think you can compete with Apple? They should aim for 75% of what Apple products cost if they want to compete since 99% of people seeing an Apple product next to a MS based product in the same category will buy Apple. Unless the MS product is way cheaper that is.
BigGoofyGuy
Since one can get a keyboard for an iPAD, why not compare a tablet with a tablet instead of comparing laptop with a tablet? You noted that they are different types of computers. If they article was to compare the different types of computers, why not include a desktop and compare it to the others and vice versa?
Jon Smith
"Software might be as important as all of these hardware features combined" It should be pointed out that Windows will run on the Mac should the owner choose but OSX will not run on the Surface (well not at least with out some very very serious hackintoshing).
Neil
Let's compare one more thing: Design. Frankly, the 'surface' is absolutely hideous. Orange, blue, purple, green, yellow, shapes over a red background, can you imagine being subjected to that every day?
Chris White
BigWarpGuy The main reason for comparing with an Air rather than iPad is that this version of Surface runs with a full version of Windows (Pro), rather than the tablet version (RT). Hence it is a Laptop replacement, not an iPad competitor. If they were reviewing the SurfaceRT, yes, they would have compared it with iPad.
Igor Panjan
No offense, but this comparison sucks big time. One vendor has laser focus, while the other is an old phillips light bulb. One vendor understands to the point who their client is, the other one is still searching, for the last couple of years. Common guys, compare things that are comparable! It is like you've compared Renault Megane with Aston Martin. Yup, both have 4 tires,.... common!
yrag
You forgot to mention that the MacBook Air is able to run both OSX and a full version of Windows and any of its applications—no problem.
Walt French
“We'd be surprised if we didn't see a second-generation Surface Pro with a Haswell processor sometime in the next year, with much improved battery life.” If Surface is a “North Star” device to show others the way to a great Windows tablet, its job is done and it doesn't need to be upgraded. Keep it around for developers to test on, and remind Dell, HP, Lenovo and others how they can do better yet. But if it really is Microsoft's flagship device for the mobile era, you'd think they would need to get the product out yesterday. Why allow comparisons such as this one, that suggests the Surface is sort-of-on-par with Apple's 3-year-old line? Trouble is, rumors have it that Microsoft has built up a fair amount of inventory. If the estimates of about a million Surfaces sold to date are correct, and if the production guesses of 3–5 million per quarter were correct, there's a serious inventory problem. The educational discount may indeed signal that Microsoft is trying to clear 'em out, but it's not clear that “only” 64GB of memory and only pretty good battery life has been what held back sales. My own best guess is that Microsoft has finally been forced to realize that just because it was their latest and greatest, that a Windows tablet would take the world by storm. Tablets have been bought by different customers than those who've favored Windows in the past, and they've been bought to do different jobs than Windows has addressed in the past (mostly, to facilitate quick on-and-off, short-stretch work, or for mobile reading, etc.). Microsoft has created a very good tablet for somebody whose starting assumption is that they WILL run Windows; they just haven't done much of anything for those who have been afraid to run Windows, or who've seen Windows as a mismatch to their life- or work-styles.
mados123
Good article, horrible uninformed comments. Don't want to spend that much on a keyboard and mouse? Buy an alternative portable one for < $40. Microsoft price is too close to the MacBook Air? FullHD screens with capacitive touch and works with a digitizer (not a $5 stylus you can use on your iPad) are not cheap and I'm sure Haswell will be on the next iteration of the Surface Pro. Don't like the "hideous" colors it uses? Customize it to your liking. Have a need to spend an extra $100 so you can install an OS that runs all the apps you need; lucky you, there's Windows that can be installed on a Mac - is that supposed to be a good thing that Mac doesn't have the apps you need? (I guess one can say Windows is the iTunes app store of desktop OS's.) Read the reviews of the Asus Eee Slate EP121 to get a sense of the capabilities (Photoshop, OneNote) with this kind of form factor (tablet with a x86 mobile chip and a Wacom Digitizer). http://www.gizmag.com/asus-four-new-tablets-sliding-keyboard-ces-2011/17457/ http://www.amazon.com/ASUS-Slate-EP121-1A011M-12-1-Inch-Tablet/product-reviews/B004HKIIF8
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