Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs 2014 Apple MacBook Air: Which is best?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 vs 2014 Apple MacBook Air

The features of the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 are impressive even when they are assessed individually. But they are even more impressive when grouped together in one single device, which might just be the first one of its kind that is actually the real deal -- it works as a tablet, it works as an ultrabook and it is good enough to replace both. At least that is what Microsoft is saying.

During the presentation event Microsoft made it clear the Surface Pro 3 is meant to compete with Apple's mighty 13.3-inch MacBook Air, more so than with the iPad. Make no mistake, this device is not a tablet in the traditional sense of the word. It is akin to a hybrid PC, much like the Surface Pro 2, due to its size, processor architecture and target market. So, because Microsoft made a big deal out of it being better than its ultrabook rival, how does it compare with the bigger MacBook Air?

Touch What?

Well, first of all the MacBook Air does not work as a tablet. This is a clear advantage the Surface Pro 3 has over it. Apple wants you to buy a MacBook Air for your ultrabook needs and an iPad Air for your tablet needs. Microsoft caters to both with the Surface Pro 3, as I already said. If we are to just tick boxes, the MacBook Air fails this one. No question about it.

But when it comes to working as a tablet, what does the Surface Pro 3 offer? Basically, the idea Microsoft is going for here is of a larger yet slimmer Surface Pro 2, with all its strengths and weaknesses. You get multitasking, a lovely interface, live tiles (if you fancy the idea), but you also get Windows Store.

The reason I am mentioning this is that while the Surface Pro 3 may work as a tablet, it may fail to work better than an actual tablet like an iPad Air or Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro, both of which offer more tablet-optimized applications that consumers want. If the lesser app selection of the Windows Store and the shortcomings of Windows 8.1 (the lack of a notifications center, for one) are passable, then the Surface Pro 3 will be a worthwhile choice to consider. Either way, the MacBook Air simply cannot win this round.

Workhorses

Both the Surface Pro 3 and the MacBook Air have powerful Intel Core "Haswell" processors, but only the former gives consumers the option to get the lesser i3. Apple just updated the ultrabook lineup with faster processors, which are likely to also be used by Microsoft in the Surface Pro 3 (it uses ultra low voltage ones), which would make them evenly matched in this department.

They can also be had with up to 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of internal storage. The MacBook Air may offer more flexibility in this regard as build-to-order configurations are possible, but the two devices are, again, evenly matched. That said, neither is actually good enough to compete with a business-grade workstation or full-blown desktop PC, when it comes to configuration flexibility or processing power.

The Surface Pro 3 has a smaller screen than the MacBook Air, but is touch enabled and comes with a much higher, effective, resolution (2160 by 1440 vs 1440 by 900) even when scaled to 150 percent (1440 by 960). The 3:2 aspect ratio makes it less than ideal for watching movies, but, other than that, it makes more sense, at least for me, as the slightly less narrow aspect ratio is more suited for common tasks like web browsing. The only thing the MacBook Air's screen has got going for it is the larger physical size.

The Surface Pro 3 also adds a Surface pen (stylus), which allows users to jot down notes, draw and so on. It is a nice-to-have feature, which makes the device more attractive when used as a tablet. The MacBook Air, because it does not even have a touchscreen, once again cannot match the Surface Pro 3.

The MacBook Air, though, bests the Surface Pro 3 when it comes to expandability out-of-the-box. It offers one more USB port and it also comes with a full-size SD card slot. Someone who is into photography will be disappointed to see Microsoft adopting a microSD card slot, again, when no proper camera uses this format. It is worth pointing out the 11.6-inch MacBook Air skimps on the SD card slot, but retains the two USB 3.0 ports. Personally, I consider the SD card slot to be a big deal, as it makes it easy to transfer photos quickly from my DSLR.

The Surface Pro 3 obliterates the MacBook Air when paired with the docking station (a $199.99 accessory, mind you). You get 4K out via a Mini DisplayPort (the MacBook Air also has one, but the maximum output resolution is lower at 2560 by 1600) and more expansion ports (three USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, Ethernet, audio out).

The MacBook Air comes out on top in the keyboard department, as the Surface Pro 3 ships with none in the box. A $129.99 accessory evens things out though, but I think if you are going to be typing a lot -- using the device more like an ultrabook rather than a tablet -- the MacBook Air is a better choice. It requires no additional purchase, the keyboard is superb (it might require some getting used to coming from a Windows PC) and the touchpad below it is unmatched in the industry. Microsoft has improved its accessory, but, from my perspective, the design is not as good for ultrabook duty.

There are other differences too. The Surface Pro 3 has two 5 MP cameras while the MacBook Air only has one. Whether that makes a difference or not depends on the user, but either way the former is better-equipped here. It also comes with a TPM chip, which, again, may or may not be useful (as would the various sensors). The Wi-Fi in the Surface Pro 3 appears to be limited to 802.11n for some versions while in the MacBook Air it goes up to 802.11ac, which is much faster. But this is only noticeable when transferring large files over a router which supports the technology (which are few), with the difference being eliminated when purchasing an 802.11ac-capable Surface Pro 3.

Portability and Battery Life

The Surface Pro 3 is the thinner (9.1 mm vs 3 - 17 mm for the MacBook Air) and lighter (800 grams vs 1.35 kilograms) device of the two, even with the Type Cover 2 attached (13.9 mm and roughly 1100 grams, respectively). The difference is not that significant between the Surface Pro 3 combo and the MacBook Air, but it is there nonetheless. Lightness and thinness are desirable traits, more so when using the Windows 8.1 device as a tablet rather than an ultrabook.

Battery life is a different matter. Microsoft quotes up to nine hours for the Surface Pro 3, for web browsing, while Apple says the MacBook Air (the 13.3-inch 2014 model) battery lasts up to 12 hours, of browsing or iTunes video playback, and up to 30 days in standby. That is a 33.3 percent improvement over the Surface Pro 3 in daily use. The MacBook Air has been tested to last even longer though.

Windows 8.1 vs OS X 10.9 Mavericks (with Windows 8.1)

To keep it short, I will say the specs matter up to a point. Software plays a much more important role here, especially when the two devices run different operating systems. That means, aside from the clear differences in the app ecosystem (Windows 8.1 clearly wins the fight here), other factors, like personal preference, ease of use, habit and so on, come into play.

Those who rely on Windows-exclusive software will not switch just as those who rely on OS X-exclusive software will not do the same. That being said, the MacBook Air does have a neat trick up its sleeve. It can also run Windows 8.1, natively, so the strength of each software ecosystem plays in favor of the Apple-branded ultrabook.

Price

This is where things get tricky. To compare the Surface Pro 3 with the MacBook Air, the cost of the optional keyboard has to be factored in. It adds $129.99 to the price of the Windows 8.1 device, effectively starting at roughly $930.

Meanwhile, the least-powerful MacBook Air kicks off at $999, just $70 more. It comes with a faster Core i5 processor (compared to the Core i3 in the Surface Pro 3) and double the internal storage (128 GB compared to the 64 GB in the Surface Pro 3). I created a price comparison table to showcase the difference between the two, shown below.

Configuration Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with Type Cover 2014 13.3-inch Apple MacBook Air Price Difference 2013 13.3-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display*
64 GB Core i3 with 4 GB of RAM $928.99 - - -
128 GB Core i5 with 4GB of RAM $1,128.99 $999 $129.99 $1,299
256 GB Core i5 with 8 GB of RAM $1,428.99 $1,299 $129.99 $1,499
256 GB Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM $1,678.99 $1,449 $229.99 $1,599
512 GB Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM $2,078.99 $1,749 $329.99 $1,999

It also includes the rough equivalent of the 2013 13.3-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (rMBP), to see how the Surface Pro 3 compares to a premium Apple laptop. It must be pointed out the former offers a higher-resolution display (2560 by 1600) and is much faster than either the Surface Pro 3 or the MacBook Air, even with the base processor, as neither its Core i5 nor its Core i7 options are ultra low voltage models. (Hence the asterisk next to its name.)

It must also be pointed out the said rMBP is thicker and heavier than both, offers 4K output, has one more Thunderbolt port (native Mini DisplayPort) than the MacBook Air as well as an HDMI port, and similar battery life (Apple quotes nine hours of web browsing or iTunes video playback) to the Surface Pro 3.

As you can see from the table above, the Surface Pro 3, excluding the base model which does not have a MacBook Air equivalent, is more expensive than the comparable Apple-branded ultrabook. The two best-specified configurations (fourth and fifth in the table above) are even more expensive than the similar rMBP. But, it is arguably a much more advanced device than the MacBook Air, which is in dire need of an overhaul. Overall, it is the better option based on specs. One thing is certain. If I would have to choose between buying the Surface Pro 3 or the MacBook Air, I will definitely not give Apple my money.

Good-Enough to Switch?

It is up to you to decide whether the features Surface Pro 3 offers are enough to justify the difference. As a 2013 13.3-inch MacBook Air owner, I can see the appeal in the Windows 8.1 device. But herein lies the problem.

For those who are looking to upgrade from a laptop to a Windows 8.1 hybrid, the Surface Pro 3 is definitely a top choice. There is not even a shred of doubt there. But, on the other hand, I believe many will not switch from the devices -- laptop and tablet -- they already own to the Surface Pro 3 just because it is able to replace them.

The way I see it, the target market for the Surface Pro 3 is comprised of those who wish to upgrade from older laptops to a Windows 8.1 ultrabook and those who want more than what a tablet offers yet still want a tablet. For someone like me, the Surface Pro 3 is highly attractive but I would not purchase one right now unless my MacBook Air and Google Nexus 7 fall apart (and my better half decides she does not want to share a tablet with me anymore). In a few years, however, such a device would make sense for me and, I presume, a lot of other people.

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