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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air

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Who Needs a Laptop?

Have you heard? Microsoft is sure that its new Surface Pro 3 tablet can replace the laptop. More specifically, the company is sure that it can replace the MacBook Air, which has been the go-to ultraportable laptop ever since its 2008 debut.

The MacBook Air starts at £749, the Surface Pro 3 at £639. But how do these two devices really compare? Let’s take a closer look.

Surface Pro 3 video review

Head to our Surface Pro 3 review for the full, in-depth review

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Design and Portability
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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 - Tablet, 1.1kg (with keyboard)
MacBook Air - Laptop, 1.34kg

Microsoft has given its premium tablet quite the design overhaul with the Surface Pro 3. Amazingly, despite an increase in screen size (more on which in a bit), this is the slimmest and lightest Surface tablet yet - just 9.1mm thin and 800 grams in weight.

That’s still extremely heavy for a tablet, but also extremely light for a laptop. Of course, the stated figure doesn’t include the keyboard cover attachment. Add that and it brings the weight up to just under 1.1kg, which is still significantly lighter than the 1.34kg 13-inch MacBook Air.

The Air, for its part, has maintained the same basic all-aluminium unibody design throughout its’s various iterations, and it’s still one of the best-looking laptops out there.
Surface Pro 3 3

While the Surface Pro 3 wins out on size and weight, not to mention that neat fold-away keyboard-cover, we’d still rather rely on the MacBook Air when it comes to typing on our laps in cramped conditions. Microsoft has improved what it calls the Surface Pro 3’s "lapability," with a more flexible kick-stand and a smarter keyboard attachment, but it remains a work-around in the absence of a rigid clamshell design.

Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Screen
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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 - 12.1-inch, 3:2 aspect ratio, 2160 x 1440 (216ppi), touchscreen
MacBook Air - 13.3-inch, 16:10 aspect ratio, 1440 x 900 (128ppi)

Here’s the first area in which the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 really bloodies the nose of the current MacBook Air range. It has a significantly better screen.

It might be an inch smaller than the larger of the MacBook Airs, but the Surface Pro 3’s display is much sharper. With a 2,160 x 1,440 resolution, it packs in the pixels at a rate of 216ppi. Comparisons to the both the 13-inch 1,440 x 900 pixel MacBook Air and 11.6-inch 1,366 x 768 Air effort will be rather flattering. The Surface Pro 3 also offers much better contrast and black levels.

While you couldn’t call the Air’s display bad, it is out of date - calls for a Retina display model date back years. Apple will need to address this if it’s to keep its advantage over the ever-improving Surface range.

There’s also that the Microsoft Surface Pro 3’s display is a touchscreen to consider. You can interact with it directly - whether with a finger or a stylus. Apple will argue that it's not necessary on a laptop form factor, but it's difficult to argue with the company that gives you options.Surface Pro 3 2

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Specs and Power
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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

Performance looks to be similar between these two premium portables. Both offer a choice of Intel Core i5 and i7 Haswell processors, though the Surface Pro 3 also comes with an optional i3 for those on a budget.

For both devices, you could say that the Core i5 is the standard model, and the Surface Pro 3 appears to have the slightly faster variant. However, the MacBook Air for its part has the better integrated Intel GPU - it uses the Intel HD 5000 chip rather than the HD 4440 type seen in the Surface Pro 3.

Surface Pro 3 1

Both devices match up on RAM - a choice of 4GB or 8GB - and storage, though the Surface Pro 3 also offers an entry-level 64GB model in addition to 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB iterations.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 has a small advantage on the camera front, as it has 5-megapixel 1080p snappers front and back. Not that we’d ever condone using a large tablet for taking pictures, but it might play a part in your decision if you partake in frequent conference calls.

Conversely, the MacBook Air is better connected, with two USB ports compared to the Surface Pro 3’s one.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Windows or Mac OSX?
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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 - Windows 8.1
MacBook Air - Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Possibly even more than the form, your choice between these two devices will probably come down to your OS preference. It’s an age-old question - are you a Mac person or a PC person?

The two platforms have arguably never been more distinct. Mac OS X continues to be a rock solid traditional OS built on little icons, overlapping windows, and folders. It’s mouse/touchpad-driven, and closely related to the desktop operating system you were using in the '90s (albeit considerably sharper).
Surface Pro 3 4

Windows 8.1, on the other hand, is a divisively bold attempt to reinvent the OS for the modern age. As such, it’s built around touchscreen inputs, and is designed primarily with tablet-sized screens in mind.

Don’t expect Apple to join Microsoft in this convergent way of thinking. It believes that laptop operating systems should remain separate from mobile ones. So your choice here is almost a philosophical one.

We’d say that for sheer productivity and efficiency, Mac OS X remains the better option. If you often find yourself with a heavy workload whilst out and about, working with documents and spreadsheets and creative projects, Mac OS X is tough to beat.

For a slightly more casual approach, or if you’re heavily tied into the Microsoft ecosystem (Office is a difficult thing to shake), Windows 8.1 might be more suitable for you. It is a also better for games.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air - Battery Life

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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 - 9 hours web browsing
MacBook Air - 12 hours web browsing

The MacBook Air has legendary battery life, which works out to around 12 hours of web browsing.

Microsoft shouldn’t feel too bad for falling short with the Surface Pro 3's nine hours, as none of its direct Windows Ultrabook rivals have managed to match it. And besides, nine hours of web browsing is still pretty decent.

We’ll have to wait until we have a Surface Pro 3 in to test before we can test its stamina in real world scenarios, but it looks like the MacBook Air retains an advantage here.

First Impressions

An initial glance at Microsoft’s new tablet-laptop hybrid fails to tells us definitively whether Apple needs to be worried. The company line would probably be that Microsoft is making a mistake in continuing on its "jack of all trades" path.

But what’s clear is that Microsoft is gunning directly for the MacBook Air with the Surface Air 3, and has made improvements to its formula accordingly.

The device is now more usable as a pure laptop, with a larger, square display and a better kickstand. It’s also lighter and thinner than the MacBook Air, thus robbing the Apple device of one of its key selling points.

As a pure portable workhorse, though, we can’t see the Surface Pro 3 taking the MacBook Air’s crown. We remain open to being convinced otherwise, but there remains much to be said for having a pure, speedy OS X experience on a tiny, rigid clamshell device.

What the Surface Pro 3 does mean for Apple, if anything, is that it needs to improve. The next iteration of the MacBook Air simply must have a Retina display and an even sleeker chassis if it’s to avoid a bumpy ride from this bright new challenger.

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

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