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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air

Andy Vandervell


Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Which is best?

Surface Pro 3 or MacBook Air? Can Microsoft's tablet/laptop hybrid really compete with the Apple laptop?

Microsoft believes the Surface Pro 3 hybrid offers the best of a tablet and a laptop. More specifically, the company is sure that it can replace the MacBook Air, which has been the go-to thin and light laptop in recent years.

While Apple has upgraded its super slim laptop recently and we still await to see if the Surface Pro 4 will turn up later this year, we see how the Pro 3 and the 2014 MacBook Air compares.

Watch our Surface Pro 3 video review

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Design and Portability

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 - Tablet, 1.1kg (with keyboard)

MacBook Air - Laptop, 1.34kg

Despite being larger, this is the slimmest and lightest Surface tablet yet at just 9.1mm thin and 800 grams in weight. It’s still extremely heavy for a tablet, but it’s light compared to laptops.

But that figure doesn’t include the keyboard, and it really ought to. With the keyboard the Surface Pro 3 weighs 1.1kg, around 200 grams less than the 1.34kg 13-inch MacBook Air.

SEE ALSO: Apple MacBook (2015) vs Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3 3

While the MacBook is slightly larger and slightly heavier than the Surface Pro, it’s hard to argue the latter is more portable as a result. They both need a similar size bag to carry them in and the differences in weight are the matter of a couple of hundred grams. You’ll notice the difference between the two, but the Surface Pro isn’t more portable as a result.

The MacBook Air also has a slight edge here. Innovative as the kickstand design on the Surface Pro 3 is, it’s useless in cramped commuter settings like trains and planes. Indeed, the design of a typical economy class tray table is incompatible with the kickstand as there’s a large gap where the stand needs to sit. It’s also awkward, though not impossible, to use on your lap.

SEE ALSO: Best Laptops, Ultrabooks and Hybrids

Surface Pro 3

Overall, there is no real winner here. They’re different enough that it really comes down to what kind of device you really want and need.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Screen

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: 12.1-inch, 3:2 aspect, 2160 x 1440 (216ppi), touchscreen

MacBook Air: 13.3-inch, 16:10 aspect ratio, 1440 x 900 (128ppi)

This is not a contest: the Surface Pro 3 has a fundamentally better screen. It’s much sharper, has a higher resolution and its 3:2 aspect is very helpful when using traditional desktop applications. It also has superior contrast and punchier, richer colours.

In contrast, the MacBook Air’s screen is serviceable but beginning to show its age. It’s bright, but the resolution is disappointing and the panel quality is so-so. It’s overdue an upgrade.

Surface Pro 3 2

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Specs and Performance

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Intel Core i3/i5/i7, 4GB or 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 4400, 64GB/ 128GB/256GB/512GB storage

MacBook Air: Intel Core i5/i7, 4GB or 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 128GB/256GB/512GB storage

If we take similar prices and specs, which means the entry-level MacBook and the first Core i5, it’s hard to choose between the two. They achieve very similar scores in the Geekbench 3, 5,401 on the MacBook and 5,532 on the Surface Pro 3. This only tells a limited story, though.

The Surface Pro 3 has the faster processor, clocking in at 1.9GHz and the ability to Turbo Boost a single core to up to 2.9GHz. The MacBook, in contrast, has two 1.4GHz cores with up to 2.7GHz Turbo Boost. They’re both Haswell processors.

This gives the Surface Pro 3 an edge in processor intensive tasks, such as image editing, but the MacBook has other advantages. It has a faster solid state storage and uses the marginally faster HD 5000 graphics over the HD 4400 GPU in the Surface Pro 3.

They’re both very good performers, just in slightly different ways, though we'd give it to the Surface Pro 3 if pushed.

SEE ALSO: Surface Pro 3 vs Surface Pro 2

Surface Pro 3 1

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Connectivity

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: 1x USB 3.0, 1x MiniDisplayPort, microSD (up to 128GB)

MacBook Air: 2x USB, 1x Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2.0, SDXD (up to 128GB)

Here, the MacBook Air edges things a little. It has two USB ports and a full-size SD card slot against the single USB and microSD slot of the Surface Pro 3. The MacBook also has a Thunderbolt 2.0 port (it doubles as a Mini DisplayPort).

That full-size SD card slot is a serious point for us. A microSD card slot isn’t much use if you have a camera you want to use and makes the laptop replacement schtick ring hollow. There are adapters that allow you to use microSD cards in cameras with normal SD card slots, but you won't get the same performance. It's a forced compromise we'd rather avoid.

Wireless connectivity is identical as both feature Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Windows or Mac OS X?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Windows 8.1

MacBook Air: Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

The likelihood is you’re either a Windows person or a Mac person, which renders this debate slightly moot. That said, at present Mac OS is a more coherent operating system than the awkward hybrid of Windows 8. Of course, the Surface Pro 3 tackles this hybrid approach better than most, but there are still problems.

The biggest one here is application scaling. Microsoft still hasn’t found a way to make more desktop apps work better with high resolution displays, and the Surface Pro 3 has a very high resolution display.

Another advantage in Mac OS is the tight integration of multi-touch gestures and virtual desktops, two features that make easier to be productive on a small screen.

We're not calling a winner here, though.

Surface Pro 3 4

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Battery Life

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: 7-9 hours

MacBook Air: 10-12 hours

This is the MacBook’s main strength. It’s good for 12 hours of light use and web browsing and 10 hours of mixed use and video viewing, which is incredible. The Surface Pro 3’s seven to nine hours is still very good by normal measures, but the MacBook is in a different class.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Other things to consider

There are one or two things the above don’t cover that we ought to recognise. One is the Surface Pro’s pen. It’s very accurate and easy to handle, making it great for hand-written notes and other creative inputs. Whether this matters comes down to what you need. Some people will love it, some people won’t use it. If you’re in the former camp, however, this is a serious pro in the Surface Pro’s favour.

Another factor is the keyboard. The Surface Pro’s keyboard cover is immensely impressive, but the MacBook’s firmer ‘real laptop’ feel gives it a slight edge. If most of your time is spent writing emails, reports and the like then the MacBook Air is the one for you.

Next, read our best Windows laptops and tablets round-up

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: Which is best?

Pitting the Surface Pro 3 against the MacBook Air is a neat marketing ploy from Microsoft and it scores some decent hits. It has a much better screen and is thinner and lighter.

The MacBook wins on battery life, connectivity and — in some cases — practicality. It's also a little cheaper when comparing like for like as the entry-level 13-inch MacBook costs £849 while a comparable spec Surface Pro costs £958 once you include the 'optional' keyboard.

But if this comparison proves anything it’s that this is the wrong question. You can’t really say which is better than the other because the experience is fundamentally different. The right question is whether you can really replace a laptop with a hybrid.

Not everyone will have the same answer, but we wager the majority will still find a laptop, MacBook or not, more practical. The Surface Pro 3 is an interesting and very accomplished alternative, but you must really need its alternative strengths to tolerate its other weaknesses.

Related: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review


May 23, 2014, 1:26 pm

Fair comparison.
But about productivity I think it's not as simple as you say. Both of two have legacy apps to work, and even if MBA is more usable with its larger trackpad, the SP3 is far more helpfull during presentations or to show anything thanks to its tactile screen and its weight. Furthermore its aspect ratio and stylus ability are also very convenient for taking note. It depend of yours needs for work.


May 23, 2014, 4:41 pm

An addition to the "Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Windows or Mac OSX?" section should include the fact that the MacBook Air can run both OS X and Windows apps (either full-boot into Windows, or running Windows apps simultaneously with OS X apps), while the Surface Pro CANNOT run OS X or its apps.


May 23, 2014, 4:53 pm

Microsoft has been trying to sell the public on the concept of hybrid tablet/PCs for the past 13 years, ever since it introduced the "Tablet PC" in 2001.

Tablet PCs came in slate, convertible, and hybrid (like the Surface Pro) formats. They also used pen input like the Surface Pro. They did not have multi-touch, just single-touch.

Tablet PCs sold, but not in great quantities compared to regular laptops. The Surface Pro is an extension of the same Tablet PC concept. In the past 13 years hybrids have not really caught on with the public, and the introduction of the Surface Pro 1 & 2 hasn't changed that at all. It is hard to conceive that the Surface Pro 3 will alter the low demand for hybrid computers.


May 23, 2014, 6:51 pm

if I got one of these I would look into building a mechanism to get the keyboard sliding like on a vaio duo or hinged like the acer r7 or whatever it was called, in my view they should release a keyboard that works like that, and potentially get rid of the trackpad in favour of a trackpoint in the keyboard. But inevitably everyone has their own preferences


May 23, 2014, 10:56 pm

Even though the public hasn't "caught on" does not necessarily mean it doesn't have its advantages. While I agree that it may not sell exceptionally well, I believe it mixes the pros of a tablet and laptop together adeptly.


May 24, 2014, 11:34 am

What you're really saying is, like Apple, we should just hope and wish away this [frankly awesome] hybrid iteration, so that when Apple finally gets round to it, maybe 5 years from now and 'popularizes', then it will be worthy of catching on?!


May 24, 2014, 1:56 pm

THen you need to add in the price of an iPad with the Air.

Tim Sutton

May 24, 2014, 2:22 pm

There's something deeply hilarious about an Apple fan trying to argue against a premium product being charged at a premium price.

Tim Sutton

May 24, 2014, 2:31 pm

The Surface Pro line is utterly fabulous for anyone who wants a full PC in tablet form.

Sales of the Pro 2 (from MS latest financial figures) were doubling every quarter ($836 million in sales the last 3 months) and it's likely that the Pro 3 will exponentially increase even on those results as it's another huge jump forwards.

I cannot think of a more suited solution for the enterprise and academic sector than a slim, light touchscreen device that runs a full version of Windows at warp speed.

I couldn't honestly recommend any other product to anyone looking for a new laptop for work. These are going to take over the world, and having played with them extensively, deservedly so.

Tech savvy users, as you put it, are the people who will grab these. Apple users will continue to blindly deny how fantastic a full PC in tablet form is... until Apple release one themselves.

Tim Sutton

May 24, 2014, 4:00 pm

Uhuh. So the Apple way of doing what the Surface Pro 3 does is;

A: more expensive and

B: involves carrying around TWO products and

C: can't match the featureset anyway

.. but the Microsoft product is more expensive and less compelling.

Well, I'm convinced.

Tim Sutton

May 24, 2014, 4:11 pm

Apple fans are genuinely hilarious!

You're as rational and open to new ideas and as thoughtlessly militant as Al-Qaeda.


May 24, 2014, 5:59 pm

You sound disgustingly like a Microsoft employee. And yeah, I've used the Surface Pros, they do kind of suck as laptop replacements. Decent enough tablets if Windows 8 is your cup of tea, but as a laptop replacement? No thanks, I will gladly take a MacBook Air or a Lenovo X1 Carbon over any Surface Pro model.


May 24, 2014, 7:44 pm

Judging by what you are saying, I seriously doubt you ever owned a Surface Pro 2. I have the original Surface Pro and it is still amazing. The device really is fantastic and if you read all the comments of anyone who's ever truly owned one, they all say the same thing, that they are spectacular 'tweener devices that really bridge the gap. Now, I wouldn't exactly call you a terrorist, but you seem an awful lot like a Silicon Valley journalist who has a love affair with ABM/Apple products.

Tim Sutton

May 24, 2014, 9:49 pm

It's actually a little... weird how Apple zealots are unable to see that sometimes people will look at products NOT made by Apple and just think they are better.

"Oh, you must be being paid to say that."

"You sound like a Microsoft employee. Which is DISGUSTING."


In the real world, where people chose what products and services they require based on, you know, the products and services being the best for their needs rather than just looking for a shiny Apple logo, the "there is no way anything unApple can be preferred" attitude of what I like to call iZombies is cult like and genuinely disturbing.

Basically, shhh. The Surface Pros are the best thing to happen to enterprise PC procurement in my lifetime. Its so simple now.

EDIT: Just noticed your chosen handle. Yep, fits the iZombie psych profile perfectly.


May 25, 2014, 6:19 pm

I wasn't commenting on your like of the Surface Pro as my reason for saying you sound like a Microsoft employee. It was the way you worded your post, it sounds like something copy and pasted from a Microsoft press release more so than a comment made by your everyday average consumer.

And I am not an "iZombie" I actually have multiple computers, including a Windows 8.1 desktop (that I built myself) that I am currently typing this comment on, as well as a Linux Mint based desktop, a MacBook Pro, an Android tablet, an iPad, and an iPhone. So yeah, I do own Apple products but I actually spend most of my computing time on Windows, particularly since I work in .NET programming and Access database management/design, which can only be done on Windows. I am also a huge fan of PC gaming, which again, primarily Windows. So good assumption, but nope, not an iZombie.

And you may want to stop presenting your opinion as fact, as opinion != fact. And again, as someone who actually has to work in programming and spends a lot of time typing, using the keyboard cover flap on the Surface Pro is quite awful. Try spending several hours coding on one of those things, its not exactly fun. Again, given the price of a high capacity Surface Pro 3, I'd much rather a Lenovo X1 Carbon, at least then I get a good keyboard and a larger screen.


May 26, 2014, 7:05 pm

Windows 8.1 is nearly an exact clone of Windows 7 (except Windows 8 is more secure and faster) when working in desktop mode, and Windows 7 is bar none a far more productive OS than any osx variant, which means Windows 8.1 is even more so. When working in tablet mode however, Windows 8.1 becomes a gem, and is the most advanced and superior tablet OS currently available. By the way, because it is a touchscreen, when sitting on the couch, I can flip the keyboard over 180 degrees, and it becomes very stable on my lap while I just use the touchscreen and on screen keyboard for input. If I am doing lite browsing or watching media, the keyboard comes off completely and I can either hold it in my hand like a tablet, or prop it up on the table with the kickstand like a terminal. Can't do any of that with a MBA.


May 26, 2014, 7:12 pm

The type cover is $100 bucks. How can the Surface be $100 cheaper than the air, and then when you add a $100 keyboard it becomes more expensive? Not to mention the screen is a touchscreen. Whole different ballgame. The retinal mac book pro screen cannot be superior because it is not a touchscreen. The few extra pixels really mean nothing.


May 26, 2014, 7:16 pm

No he doesn't. He sounds like a intelligent consumer. I doubt you have ever used a Surface Pro for more than 3 minutes at bestbuy. You cannot understand the intricacies that come with a new form factor without using it for a significant period of time. There is a whole different way of using a Surface that cannot be achieved with a laptop, yet it is a laptop when you need it to be.


May 26, 2014, 7:19 pm

Using a product at bestbuy for 5 minutes is not actually using a product. Fail.


May 26, 2014, 7:21 pm

There is no touchscreen, so the experience is limited. Therefore, in reality there isn't any mac that can really run Windows.


May 26, 2014, 10:25 pm

And I doubt you work in .NET programming and database design and have to spend hours at a time typing hundreds of lines of code. Try doing that with the keyboard cover on the Surface Pro and get back to me about how great it is. You know, us real professionals, we actually like real, comfortable keyboards to type on since we do more than just update our facebook statuses and send quick emails.


May 26, 2014, 10:31 pm

Because you cannot compare the base model Surface Pro 3 to the Macbook Air. For a totally fair comparison, in regards to hardware specifications, you have to compare the i5/256gb SP3 to the i5/256gb Macbook Air (with the 8gb RAM upgrade). Both of those machines go for $1299 USD, now to get the so called "laptop" part of the SP3 you need to then purchase the Type Cover which is an additional $130. This brings the SP3 to $130 more than an equally specced Macbook Air.


May 27, 2014, 3:23 am

Access database/management is not real programming. Poser.:)))) Not unless you are in high school.
You should stop knocking a pre-release product. You make it sound like you work for Apple.
Yet another news flash, you can program .NET and even Access -if you must- on a MacBook Air without any problems. Just buy Parallels and run a VM. Many actual software professionals do that, simply because the hardware build quality is just better @ Apple than Chionvo, Dell and the rest...

I have many Apple products and a few PCs too. This new version of the Surface is the first one actually worth looking at in my opinion, and we should wait with judgement until AFTER it's released and you actually had a chance to try it.

Just like folks said before the enterprise is 9-1 owned by Microsoft. No one makes a usable alternative to MS Office, that's a fact supported by the number of licenses they sell.
They can easily outrun Apple in the workplace.

Tell me how do you think Mac sales would move if MS would break the VM capabilities so if you own a Mac you would HAVE to live with whatever Apple sells you?
Also no Office for Mac.

They would fall off a very, very, VERY large cliff....


May 27, 2014, 9:19 am

There are performance issues when running Windows in a VM, is it a legitimate option? Yes, it certainly is, but is it ideal? No, not at all. Its fine for testing web sites on Internet Explorer to test compliance, but its not ideal. And you are correct, Access isn't proper programming, though I do often times use SQL in Access, but .NET is actual coding, which is also a large part of what I do, and both of these activities are not ideal to do on a keyboard flap cover. The advantages of a proper keyboard are often underestimated for professional use.

Also, Apple's Office equivalent software isn't bad actually, it offers a lot of the same feature set as MS Office, and Google Docs is not terrible either, there are definitely good alternatives to MS Office, the problem is that so many companies have existing licensing deals with Microsoft, and so many people in the industry already know MS Office that switching would be more of a hassle than anything else. And there really aren't great alternatives to Access for small database management, obviously for large databases you would be using ORACLE or MySQL, not Access, but Access definitely still has its uses.

Try less personal attacks next time, it makes your points seem less valid when you call someone a poser for working a well paying job just because it doesn't meet your requirements of what "coding" is, which as I've already stated, Access design/management is just a small part of what I do, .NET programming (actual coding) makes up more of my work load and I also do a bit of web development too (HTML, CSS, Javascript mostly with some PHP too), and the occasional bit of C++.

Michael Gates

May 29, 2014, 9:25 am

@BazarroHitler don't let infamous Tim Sutton wind you up - just have a look at his previous posts down the years to see he is total incapable of entering into any balanced discussion on technology without attempting the usual 'I hate Apple and I am so angry' posts. Most of us who work with technology everyday just ignore him now.

Edit - just read further down to see more of Tim gaining credibility for his balanced views!!

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