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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Both devices have 4 GB of RAM.
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.
The MacBook Air has Apple's standard 720p front-facing "FaceTime" camera. The Surface has two 720p cameras.
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.
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 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.
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-upIt'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.
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