Surface Pro and Mac mini: more similar than you'd think

Surface Pro and Mac mini: more similar than you'd think

Summary: Most people think of the Surface Pro as a heavy tablet with benefits, but our own intrepid David Gewirtz takes a look at it as though it were just another PC, one that's smaller and lighter than most.


Well, the Surface Pro is finally out. This is Microsoft's tablet that actually runs Microsoft Windows 8 (as compared to the Surface RT, which acts like it runs Windows 8, but doesn't really).

I spent the last weekend installing Windows 8 on my Mac mini, and I had the chance to get to know the machine quite well as a Windows device. At the same time, I've been reading the excellent reviews and in-depth reports of the Surface Pro, and realized the two machines — while very different — are, in fact, more similar than you'd think. And yes, I'm talking about comparing the Surface Pro to the Mac mini, not the iPad.

My work with the Mac mini was setting it up as a media center computer, with the intent of hooking it up to my big screen TV. I spent about a thousand bucks on my Mac mini (server edition). After reading the Surface Pro articles, I realized that, if I wanted a compact, very flat device that could drive video on my TV rack, I could probably also use the Surface Pro and spend just about the same amount.

Now, I'll admit, using a Surface Pro as a Windows 8-based media center is probably just about as silly as using a Mac mini as a Windows 8-based media center. But if you want something low profile and quiet (and didn't want to just go out and buy a laptop — I've found they tend to overheat and die with the screen closed), the Surface Pro might, maybe, sorta, kinda, fit the bill.

To see what I mean, the following table compares the Surface Pro with the Mac mini. As you can see, both devices have the same processor, the graphics subsystem, and even some of the same limitations. 

 Table 1: Surprisingly similar features of the Surface Pro and the Mac mini

Feature Surface Pro Mac mini
Processor Core i5 Ivy Bridge Core i5 Ivy Bridge
Graphics processor Intel HD4000 Intel HD4000
Base system RAM 4GB 4GB
WiFi networking 801.11a/b/g/n 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth networking Bluetooth 4.0 Bluetooth 4.0
Mini DisplayPort Yes Yes
Built-in speaker Yes Yes
USB 3.0 Yes Yes
Able to run Windows 8 Yes Yes
Analog headphone and mic ports Yes Yes
Comfortable to hold as a tablet No No
Runs for more than 5 hours on battery No No

Now, of course there are differences. For example, the Surface Pro weighs 2 pounds, while the Mac mini weighs slightly more than half a pound more — but even that's not much of a difference.

If you set aside the fact that one machine comes with a display and another comes with bigger persistent storage, you realize that these are slabs that both could (if you close your eyes and think happy thoughts), work as quiet, low-power media center PCs running something like XBMC.

Table 2: Surprisingly minor differences between the Surface Pro and the Mac mini

Feature Surface Pro Mac mini
Processor Speed  1.7 Ghz 2.3 - 3.3 Ghz
Wired networking No Gigabit Ethernet
Max system RAM 4GB 16GB
Persistent storage Store it in the cloud (or, about 30-89GB usable) 256GB to 2TB
SD card slot microSDXC card slot SDXC card slot
Secondary display option 1080p built-in display Thunderbolt port
Sensor devices

Ambient light sensor

Fanboi attitude monitor
Reality distortion field
Kool-Aid drink dispenser*

Vanity accessories

Dual 720p cameras to admire oneself

Permission to call yourself an Apple purchaser for that sense of smug superiority*

Built-in, limited battery backup Yes No
Weight (without keyboard)  2 lbs  2.7 lbs
Volume 37.87 cubic inches 83.00 cubic inches

So, would I, in truth, buy a Surface Pro and use it as a media center PC? No, not really. The fact is, I use a lot of RAM (I run virtual machines, development systems, and a wide variety of tools on the couch PC).

I also have my house wired with Gigabit Ethernet to each wall, so I prefer a wired connection for my media. Finally, while I actually could survive with a minimal amount of persistent local storage since I have a media tank serving almost all my files, I'm still somewhat nervous about running a machine with 30-89GB of acessible storage.

But could the Surface Pro be used as a media center PC? My guess is yes, actually. It's running Windows 8, has a DisplayPort, has a pretty solid graphics processor, and might actually work. If you're brave enough to try it, let me know how it works out.

*Features might not, strictly speaking, ship with actual product.

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Apple, Microsoft, Windows 8


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • at last

    at last you admitted you do silly things.... never too late... good job..
  • Funny Stuff!

    "Fanboi attitude monitor
    Reality distortion field
    Kool-Aid drink dispenser*"

    "Permission to call yourself an Apple purchaser for that sense of smug superiority*"

    Thanks for the levity and Good Luck with your project!
  • Pretty funny stuff :)

    David's approach is correct though - look objectively as a non-fanboi and see how you can best use or apply the hardware. I like my Mac Mini $600, year 2012 version. I can see advantages on both of these units, too. The Mini is one of the more underrated or unadvertised Apple products out there that is really competitively priced with a tiny futuristic size, relatively strong components, and quietness advantages.
    D.J. 43
  • Early Surface Pro reports on pushing video

    Say that is a great way to start the fans whining/screaming. I dont think the surface pro will be out quieting the mini
  • Windows vanity.

    You forgot to include the part where as a Windows owner, you get to call Apple computers "toys" and not suitable for "real work", and also call Apple owners smug lemmings.
    • He did say Comfortable to hold as a tablet = no

      so he poked fun at the MS side.
      • That's just reality

        Not a joke.
        • Another reality

          If mac mini had windows installed it would already be in every home. In case you didn't get it think of it as a flaw
  • Despite the humorous derision...

    ... he actually does make a pretty good case for the Mac Mini based on CPU, networking, RAM, and storage.
  • Not called Surface RT

    It pains me to see tech writers calling a product by it's incorrect name. It's Surface with Windows RT, as opposed to Surface with Windows Pro. It's not a Surface RT...
    • Surface with Windows Pro?

      Which version of Windows Pro would that be? Don't you mean "Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro"? Sorry for your pain, but I much prefer the shorter "Surface RT" and "Surface Pro"
    • Once again...

      Microsoft shows that it just can't quit letting engineers name products. Sure, with "Surface" they tried, but some wonk still managed to add "with Windows RT" or "With Windows 8 Pro" to the end of it. You know, to eliminate confusion. Yeah, good show. [sarcasm]

      I guess at least they shipped an "XBox" and a "Zune", but really, they have to break out of these tendencies going forward.

      Maybe "Surface Lite" and "Surface Pro" would have worked. But I guess we'll never know.
  • No hope, will a reality check help?

    We are now in the Win8 era with RT and PRO versions and different iterations; THE Surface, Lenovo Helix and yoga, Asus VivoTab and Acer Iconia, Dell XPS, etc.
  • I wouldn't buy either

    as a media center PC, but I would buy a Surface Pro to use as a tablet and light productivity on the go.
    • I went a different direction

      Mac Mini as a media center and an iPad for tablet and productivity on the go.
  • Truth:

    Why don't you compare a mac mini to a cow turd with usb ports? (about = w8 surf)
  • Really…that is it!

    Really…that is it! When doing comparisons you have to have a 3rd player. What about the Xi3? I have not physically seen it but on paper it looks pretty good for media. You even have the choice of Windows or Linux.
    • Since when?

      Since when is it a requirement to have three devices when doing a comparison?
  • Best Media Center PC

    I plan to use an Nvidia Shield as a media center PC. It runs Android. If my grandchildren visit, they can pick it up and use it as a game controller.
  • Surface Pro vs Mac Min

    For me a computer is a computer and I feel comfortable with either Widows/PC or Mac and I have one of each and use them both with one being a Mac Mini and the other a Surface Pro both using the same external display while at home or work.

    Yes, I have a preference but it's not by much so for this post I will grade them equally as far as the Operating System goes. If one takes the time to learn them both they are more alike then different to a skilled user and do the same things sometimes in different ways.

    Now here is the difference for me. The Mac Mini is a user at home/office device where the Surface Pro with its integrated touch screen display and battery can also be used as a tablet requiring no external screen or wired power. That's nice and I do take my Surface Pro with me on the road which I can't do with the Mac Mini when I'm walking, hiking, riding, travelling, etc.

    Other then that they are really the same except a few unique features.