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

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.


  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.


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.


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.

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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, Tablets, Microsoft Surface

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  • Surface pro 3

    It is for me. Got one (256gb/8gb) 2 weeks ago and it's already my best portable job mate.
    • Touch and Pen

      I think it is all about touch and pen. I am surprised that Apple has not added these features. I guess if you never had it you will not miss it. Once you start to use it, it is so intuitive you even want it on your desk top.
      • What can you do with touch that isn't easier with a mouse and keyboard?

        I have had a touchscreen laptop running Windows 8.1 for several months now, but I have not found a use for the touchscreen that boosts efficiency, ease of use, or anything. I'm just waiting for someone to tell me what it's good for. As for a pen, I don't use my laptop for art or anything that requires handwriting, so I am not sure how it would be useful either.
        • Digitizing Touch

          I find touch on my laptop/hybrid very useful. But the real benefit comes from the pen. I am not an artist. I use it for notes in meetings and classes. I have gotten rid of my 4 pound portfolio of paper.

          Using a stylus on a regular touch is like using one of those large crayons you had in kindergarten. They are still useful in OneNote but not a good as a fine tip pen.
          • Can't you use the keyboard to take notes?

            Call me old-school, but I normally just use the keyboard for taking notes on my laptop. I find it easier to read and spell-check typed notes, and I can copy/paste them easily into an email or document.
          • Can you do that standing?

            Imagine a student standing around the teacher doing a presentation that needs to be seen close up, and taking notes while they talk and show. Or at a job site where you have no place to sit. You either will peck away with one hand typing while holding with the other, or write it in with a stylus and let onenote change it to text for you. If you have a place to sit, now you have the option to type. Of course there's also the option to take a picture of what you are seeing, then writing or drawing on top of it.
            Chad Voller
          • Faster at typing.

            For note taking, I can type far faster than I can write. This is likely true for most touch typists. The only thing I can think of which would make a pen more useful than a mouse for most people is for drawing quick diagrams when using it in tablet mode. In my own case, I'd use it for art, too. The pen is just a more portable mouse.

            Either way, I must admit that the Surface Pro 3 is the first version that I find even slightly interesting. But, I don't consider it a tablet replacement so much as a laptop replacement. I still prefer the iPad as a tablet device. To each, his own.
          • If you used it

            Your mind might well change. I traded in my Macbook Pro and iPad for a Surface Pro a year ago (now I have a Pro 3) and I'll never go back.
          • Better use a voice recorder

            When you are standing is better to use a voice recorder. Typing or writing is not a good option.
            Ovidiu Carstea
          • Handwritten notes really don't need this much explaining

            Some people don't like being secretly recorded.

            Honestly though, it's super weird how handwritten notes has to be so thoroughly explained to some people as if it's a new or alien concept.

            In literally any profession you will see people with paper notebooks and pens very often. Tapping away on an open notebook in meetings is often considered rude because the assumption is that you are disengaged and it often has to be explained ("I'm not doing email, I'm taking notes!")

            Of course there are plenty who obstinately insist on using laptops for type written notes in awkward situations, but for those who use pen and paper in those situations (read as 90% of sales people in the field or folks who walk job sites) a stylus and nice tablet is a great option

            Of course the goal in these discussions often seems to be "shoot down any suggested surface advantage no matter how ridiculous it sounds"
        • touch screen

          +browser or eBook reader or looking through images is a no contest - way faster
          Paul Smith-Keitley
        • touch screen

          +browser or eBook reader or looking through images is a no contest - way faster
          Paul Smith-Keitley
        • touch screen

          +browser or eBook reader or looking through images is a no contest - way faster
          Paul Smith-Keitley
        • touch screen

          +browser or eBook reader or looking through images is a no contest - way faster
          Paul Smith-Keitley
          • echo, echo

            Impatient much?
        • A list

          Some things you can do with a pen and/or touch that are easier and more functional than keyboard/mouse:

          1. Draw absolutely anything. Let's face it: drawing with a keyboard is impossible. With a mouse, damn near.

          2. Take handwritten notes rather than typed notes. This is invaluable, and I only came to understand why in the past year: for most people, taking notes by writing them down commits them to memory better than does typing. If you're in any profession (or a student) where information is critical, this is *important*. Multiple studies have demonstrated this to be true. I'll admit, I was skeptical, but in the past several months I've taken to handwriting notes on my Surface Pro using OneNote (now I'm on the Pro 3, incidentally), and my retention has gone through the roof.

          3. Any kind of tablet activity is automatically easier with touch than with KB/M. Touch based games, apps, you name it.

          4. Copying down any kind of chart or graph is WAY easier with a pen. It's not even a competition. KB/M loses, every time.
          • likey why

            When you type notes down you know where the letter is on the keyboard without even having to think much about it. When you hand write things you have to think about it and your brain has to work out writing each letter. Cause it takes longer to write it down then type it you have longer to think about the note which makes it easier to remember.
          • Amazingly untrue

            It's not worth arguing... Studies have already been done and prove your statement false for the majority

            Maybe a flawless touch typist or court stenographer, but are you really trying to make the argument that the thousands of years old paper and pen is LESS intuitive for normal humans than typing? Maybe for YOU, but the vast number of people who use a notepad and pen EVERY day at work says otherwise
        • For tablet use

          The touchscreen is considerably more convenient than keyboard/mouse when you are using the surface as a tablet (like on a plane, bus, etc...). If you have it hooked up to the keyboard and mouse on a desk, then sure, I agree. But remember, it's a tablet too.

          As for pen usefulness... I have 1 word: OneNote. It's GREAT in OneNote. Of course, that assumes you use OneNote. It has other uses I'm sure, but for note taking in OneNote, it's great.
      • Never

        I will never put myself in a position where I have to sit at the edge of my desk and touch my 27" monitor, either with pen or my finger, to use my computer. I refuse to get fingerprints all over my monitor, and even with the pen, it is ridiculous to even suggest using that with a desktop. What an MS fan boy. MS got it wrong, deal with it.