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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. MacBook Air Comparison


Reviewed August 7, 2014 by , Editor in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)

The MacBook Air vs. MS Surface Pro 3: Microsoft invited this odd competition when they unveiled Surface Pro 3. Sure there are similarities: both are PCs that can run "real" programs like MS Office and Adobe Photoshop CC, both run on Intel ULV Core CPUs with SSD drives and 4 or 8 gigs of RAM. They're highly portable machines too, that won't break your back or require an outsized backpack. But there the similarities end. The MacBook Air is a traditional laptop with a clamshell design and a permanently attached keyboard. The Surface Pro 3 is a tablet with an optional magnetically attached keyboard cover.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and MacBook Air

As you'd expect from a tablet, the Surface Pro 3 has a touch screen, and even better, it works with the included pen for precise note taking and drawing with palm rejection. Macs lack touch screens; surprisingly iPhone and iPad DNA still hasn't mutated Apple's computer line. If you need a pen, you'll need to buy a Wacom pad attached via USB, or one of its competitors (these sit on your desk, they don't mount on the display). The Surface Pro 3 is clearly better for those who want and need a device that's both a tablet (albeit a heavy one) and a laptop of sorts. The MacBook Air is for those who need a traditional computing experience with the tried and true laptop form factor.

Clearly the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is the more cutting edge product. It's a Windows hybrid with a pen, an entire PC in a 1.76 lb. tablet package (2.4 lbs. with Type Cover), and the Surface Pro Type Cover is as brilliant as ever at being both a display cover and a backlit keyboard. While Microsoft has improved and enlarged the Type Cover with the latest edition made for the Surface Pro 3, it's still not as ergonomic as a good laptop keyboard, and the 2.96 lb. 13" MacBook Air has one of the better keyboards on the market. Likewise the Type Cover's trackpad is functional but cramped, while the Air's is very large and (when running Mac OS X) arguably the best on the market. That's not to say the $130 Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard and trackpad are bad, they're simply on the small side and less ergonomically delightful. The second set of magnets provides an angled typing experience that is more ergonomic than its predecessor and more lap friendly. I suspect many folks are attracted to Surface Pro 3 for its futuristic design and features: the question is will you make use of them, or do you simply need a good laptop for the road? If you will use Surface Pro as a tablet, make use of the pen and enjoy Windows 8.1's features, then it's an excellent purchase. If you just want a great keyboard, a stable OS and a well-made and attractive laptop, the MacBook Air is a great choice.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and MacBook Air

Then there's display quality. The 13" MacBook Air has a TN panel that's remained the same for years. At 1440 x 900 resolution, it's the underperformer compared to today's $1,000 Windows Ultrabooks and convertibles that typically boast full HD 1920 x 1080 panels. In fact, Surface Pro 3 goes even higher, with 2160 x 1440 resolution in a 12 inch IPS panel. It's easier on the eyes, sharp and pretty. It has significantly wider color gamut than the MacBook Air. The Surface Pro 3's panel is comparable to the 13" Retina MacBook Pro in fact, not the Air. The only thing we don't love about the Surface Pro 3's display is the glare: it's simply more reflective than the Air's screen. To be fair, touch screens are usually high gloss and are thus highly reflective.

An important question is what OS do you intend to run most of the time? If you're happy with either OS, then continue to consider both machines. If you love Mac OS X but feel left out when it comes to cutting edge hardware, the Surface Pro 3 can be mighty temping as long as you're OK with Windows 8.1. Conversely, if you're a Windows person who intends to use Windows most of the time, the Surface Pro 3 makes more sense. Yes, Macs can run Windows via virtual machines like Parallels (great for those who sometimes need Windows programs) or Boot Camp where you actually boot the Mac into Windows. Keep in mind that Apple's Windows drivers for Boot Camp aren't as stellar as their Mac OS X counterparts, and battery life and the trackpad are noticeably less impressive under Windows.

Speaking of battery life, the 13" MacBook Air by far at the top of the heap among Ultrabook size laptops. Apple claims 12 hours of runtime and some folks get more. The Surface Pro 3 gets 6.5-7 hours on a charge.

Lastly there's price. The two machines may seem comparably priced, but Microsoft doesn't include the Surface Pro Type Cover, which adds $130 to the price. So both the MacBook Air 13 inch model and the Surface Pro 3 sell for $999 with a Core i5, 4 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD, but the Pro 3 really costs $1,130 with keyboard. Higher end configurations are more expensive for Surface Pro 3 with the top of the line Core i7, 8 gigs RAM and 512 gig SSD model selling for $1,949 vs. $1,749 for a similarly configured MacBook Air.

Here's our Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. MacBook Air comparison smackdown video:


Deals and Shopping:


Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs. MacBook Air Comparison Video



Prices: MacBook Air 13" starting at $999 for Core i5, 4 gigs RAM and a 128 gig SSD. Surface PRo 3: $999 for Core i5, 4 gigs RAM and 128 gig SSD. Core i3 with 4 gigs RAM and 64 gig SSD for $799. Various Core i5 and i7 configurations available for both machines. Keyboard sold separatly for Surface Pro 3 ($130).


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13 inch Apple MacBook Air Specs:

Display: 13.3", 1440 x 900 LED backlit display. Intel HD Graphics 5000 integrated graphics. Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt.

Battery: 54 watt-hour Lithium Ion rechargeable, not user replaceable. Comes with 45W MagSafe 2 power adapter.

Performance: Fourth generation Intel Haswell dual core ULV CPU with Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics. 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U CPU is standard (2 cores, 4 threads, Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz). 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-4650U with Turbo Boost to 3.3GHz is an optional upgrade. 4 or 8 gigs DDR3 LPDDR3 1600MHz RAM (not upgradable, soldered onto motherboard).

Drives: 128 gig, 256 gig or 512 PCIe SSD drive.

Size: 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11-0.68 inches. Weight:2.96 pounds.

Camera: 720p FaceTime video chat camera.

Audio: Built in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm stereo headphone jack.

Networking: Integrated dual band WiFi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0.

Software: Mac OS X Mountain Lion 10.8. Mac Mail, Safari web browser, iLife suite including iMovie, iDVD, Garage Band and iPhoto, FaceTime video chat app and more.

Expansion and Ports: 1 SD card slot. Two USB 3.0 ports, 3.5mm headphone jack and combined Thunderbolt/mini DisplayPort.


Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Specs:

Display: 12", 2160 x 1440 display with 10 point multi-touch and N-Trig digitizer with included pen. Intel HD 4400 integrated graphics (HD 4200 on Core i3 models, HD 5000 on Core i7 models). Has wireless display and mini DisplayPort.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable, sealed inside.

Performance: Available with 4th generation Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs. 4 or 8 gigs of RAM (soldered on, not upgradable) and 64, 128, 256 or 512 gig mSATA SSD drives.

Size: 11.5 x 7.93 x .36 inches. Weight: 1.76 pounds.

Camera: 5MP 1080p cameras, front and rear.

Audio: Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack.

Networking: Integrated Marvell Avastar dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0 LE.

Software: Windows 8.1 Pro.

Expansion and Ports: 1 USB 3.0 port, 3.5mm combo audio, docking connector for keyboard and dock, magnetic charging connector and microSD card slot. TPM module for security (no fingerprint scanner).



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