Surface Pro 3 vs. MacBook Air: For most a clear choice

Summary:With the introduction of the newest tablet from Microsoft, conversation has turned to discussions of which is better, the Surface Pro 3 or the MacBook Air. The choice is clear for most.

The Surface Pro 3 is a laptop replacement with an optional keyboard, at least according to ads from Microsoft. It’s thin and powerful and can take full advantage of the dual personality of Windows 8.1. These attributes make it a natural stretch to compare it to the thin laptop from Apple for those wondering which to buy. The choice may be easy for most prospective shoppers.

Surface Pro 3 MacBook Air
Image: Microsoft, Apple

The MacBook Air is available in two sizes: 11.6 and 13.3 inches. Both are thin and light (2.38 and 2.96 pounds, respectively). They ship with Intel Core i5 processors and are available with Core i7 for extra cost. Both feature SSD storage, either 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB (extra cost).

Screen size aside, the two MacBook Air models are very similar. Observations used in this article apply to both models except where indicated.

Hardware

  MacBook Air 11-inch MacBook Air 13-inch Surface Pro 3
CPU Core i5, i7 Core i5, i7 Core i3, i5, i7
Display 11.6", 1,366 x 768 13.3", 1,440 x 900 12", 2,160 x 1,440
Memory 4GB , 8GB 4GB , 8GB 4GB , 8GB
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Ports 2-USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2-USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, SDXC USB 3.0, microSD, audio, miniDisplayPort, keyboard port
Touch screen No No Yes
Pen support No No Yes
Price $899 - $1,649 $999 - $1,749 $799 - $1,949 (+$130 keyboard)

The hardware specs of the MacBook Airs are very similar to those of the Surface Pro 3. The primary differences are the inclusion of a touch screen and pen support on the Surface Pro 3. Neither are an option from Apple.

As indicated, the hardware of both the Surface Pro 3 and the MacBook Air is very similar. The display is the primary differentiator between the two contenders. Another obvious difference is the ability of the Surface Pro 3 to leave the keyboard cover behind and be used as a touch tablet. The MacBook Air has no touch screen option available so a big nod goes to Microsoft’s offering.

The much anticipated MacBook Air with a Retina Display hasn't happened yet, and while the displays look fine they fall short compared to the Surface Pro 3.

The advantage extends with pen support on the Surface Pro 3. Those wanting to use a pen for drawing or writing on the screen should forget the laptop from Apple.

The much anticipated MacBook Air with a Retina Display hasn't happened yet, and while the displays look fine they fall short compared to the Surface Pro 3. The 11-inch Air displays at 1,366 x 768 and the 13-inch model at 1,440 x 900.

The Surface Pro 3 displays a native resolution of 2,160 x 1,440 on its 12-inch screen. This is very high-resolution and could be important to some folks. That display size is slightly bigger than that of the smaller MacBook Air.

There are other slight differences between the MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 but the display is the main one. The latter can also be used as a tablet while Apple's offering cannot.

Overall the nod goes to the Surface Pro 3 over the MacBook Air.

Software

Comparing the software on the two laptops is easy given the different platforms. This is probably more important than hardware when it comes to making a choice between the two laptops.

If you need or prefer to run OS X from Apple, get the MacBook Air. The opposite is mostly true for those wanting to run Windows. Those shoppers would be happier in the long run getting the Surface Pro 3.

The exception to the OS rule is that the MacBook Air can run Windows while the Surface Pro 3 cannot run OS X. Windows can be installed on Macs using either Boot Camp, a utility in OS X, or through a third-party solution like Parallels Desktop.

Parallels and other third-party apps run Windows (and other operating systems) in a virtual machine right on the Mac desktop. This works well with most applications (most games not included), and is particularly suitable for those preferring OS X but needing occasional use of Windows.

Those needing to use Microsoft Office can do that on the Surface Pro 3 and the MacBooks. Windows laptops no longer have a major advantage running Office as Macs can run it with Windows in a virtual machine as described. Office online can also be run on the Mac.

Since the choice of computing platform usually takes precedence over other factors, this is a tie between the Surface Pro 3 and the MacBook Air. A slight advantage could be with the Apple laptop since it can run both operating systems while the Surface Pro 3 cannot.

Price

For many, price is a big criteria when shopping for a laptop. To compare the two laptops, we'll look at the cheapest and the most expensive configurations.

Special Feature

Windows 8 in Business

Microsoft has painted bold design strokes with Windows 8, but the business impact remains hotly debated. ZDNet and TechRepublic have the enterprise and SMB perspectives on Windows 8 covered from virtually every angle.

11-inch MacBook Air — The price ranges from $899 (Core i5, 4GB, 128GB SSD) to $1,649 (Core i7, 8GB, 512GB SSD).

13-inch MacBook Air — The price ranges from $999 (Core i5, 4GB, 128GB SSD) to $1,749 (Core i7, 8GB, 512GB SSD).

Surface Pro 3 — The price range is $799 (Core i3, 4GB, 64GB SSD) to $1,949 (Core i7, 8GB, 512GB SSD).

Both laptops are similarly priced when you factor in the $130 keyboard for the Surface Pro 3 to turn it into a laptop replacement. Neither has a price advantage over the other.

Surface Pro 3 vs. MacBook Air

For most, the decision to purchase one laptop over another is straightforward. If you want to run Windows all the time, get the Surface Pro 3. The opposite is true if you prefer OS X. As noted, Macs can run Windows so a slight advantage goes to the laptop from Apple.

Those wanting or needing a touch screen laptop have only one choice when compared to the Macs — the Surface Pro 3. This isn't likely to change soon as Apple is in no hurry to get a MacBook Air to market with touch display nor one with a Retina Display. The same is true for laptop shoppers wanting pen support— the only choice is the Surface Pro 3.

Much has been said about Apple's premium pricing on MacBooks, but price is not much of a factor when comparing the MacBook Air with the Surface Pro 3. Similarly configured models are priced much the same between the two laptops.

In conclusion, for most laptop shoppers it comes down to platform. It’s long been OS X vs. Windows and that hasn’t changed. Otherwise, other than the particular areas covered where differences were noted, both laptops are very similar and comparably priced.

See also: 

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Laptops, Microsoft Surface, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.