Apple News & Analysis : Three Guys And A Podcast

Apple MacBook Air vs Surface Pro 3: No Contest

by: Mark Reschke | Jun 25, 2014

Macbook_air_vs_surface_pro_3There is little doubt that you have seen the ads: Microsoft continuing to desperately promote Surface Pro 3 as the everything tablet — and — the everything laptop computer. However, there are two important problems with Microsoft’s “Best of a laptop, best of a tablet” claim:

  • Surface Pro 3 is not a great tablet.
  • Surface Pro 3 is a poor choice when compared to an ultra-book laptop.

I could make this article short and sweet by stating the Surface Pro 3 is truly flawed product, grasping at MacBook Air and iPad Air straws, but there are serious reasons why the Surface is a solution in search of a problem and they deserve, at least, some attention.

This review, while seeming simple, was actually very difficult. The overarching problem – where to start? The 2-in-1 concept Microsoft continues to push is inherently flawed. Apple re-invented how a tablet should work with the iPad and the idea took off. Microsoft was (again) caught flat-footed and had no viable answer for years. Microsoft is now heavily targeting the MacBook Air with its Surface Pro 3 marketing, now offering a $650 MacBook trade-in for a Surface Pro 3. Microsoft’s latest problem is that the MacBook Air and iPad are largely infiltrating the corporate desktop and mobile space, as well as converting consumers in droves.

SURFACE PRO 3 vs MacBook air:

The Surface Pro 3 is masquerading as a tablet, but in reality it is Microsoft's ultrabook laptop, which is why Microsoft chooses to heavily compare Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook Air. Unfortunately for Microsoft the Surface Pro 3 falls short in every category that matters to users when compared to a MacBook Air.

Initially, when picking up the Surface, it seems straightforward. It feels very much like a typical 12" ultrabook, and slightly lighter than the 13" MacBook Air. But set it up on a desk, and the reasons why it is lighter than a 13" MacBook Air are quickly revealed. First, its screen is an inch smaller so it should be lighter (just as the 11" MacBook Air is lighter than the 12" Surface Pro 3). The second reason the Surface is lighter than the 13" MacBook Air is its thin and light keyboard cover, which Microsoft calls a Type Cover. Microsoft’s idea of a keyboard built into a screen cover quickly kills the illusion of any enjoyment you thought you may have had. 

KEYBOARDs:

Surface's Type Cover is interesting in concept, but it pales in comparison to the MacBook Air’s traditional laptop keyboard in real-world use. The feedback of the Surface keyboard cover isn’t even on the same planet as the MacBook Air’s backlit keyboard and sprightly keys. Worse yet, the Surface Pro 3's trackpad is a terrible design and experience. Microsoft went out of their way to prove there is no way to deliver a quality trackpad in such a small space and thin package. It is aggravating to use and amazingly inefficient. An external mouse is a must unless you want to poke at the screen for every single action. Why the trackpad is even included in the product is an absolute mystery. Its miniscule size and horrible lack of capabilities and responsiveness is simply unusable. 

Microsoft’s counter to its poor trackpad is that the Surface Pro 3 display is touch capable. True enough the screen is touchable, but open Excel, Word or PowerPoint and try to touch all the tiny desktop based designed point and click icons with a finger instead of a pointer. This is a task for a good trackpad or a mouse, not a finger.

Not so fast. Instead of constantly trying to use the worthless trackpad, or poke at tiny icons with your fingers, the Surface Pro 3 comes with a stylus, or Surface pen. Thus, when typing and needing to switch actions, simply find the pen, poke the screen, set the pen down and start working once more. It was an absolute nightmare of a workflow...

Comparing the Surface Type Cover to the MacBook Air's keyboard is simply is not fair. Apple’s trackpad is simply the best in the entire laptop industry. It is amazingly responsive and buttery smooth, containing options and multi-touch gestures. Apple has made touching the screen or using a stylus meaningless solutions for a laptop, and the MacBook Air’s backlit keyboard is a fantastically balanced keyboard that can be used as fast as any user can ever type or trackpad.

as a laptop:

The term laptop is quite simple, in that it is a computer that can actually be used on one’s lap. For example, I am writing this review while sitting down in my cozy reading chair, having my MacBook Pro on my lap. Since the Surface Pro 3 has a soft lightweight keyboard cover as a base, in order to suspend the display at an angle Microsoft’s workaround was to include a kickstand. The updated Surface Pro 3 kickstand is staged and works in multiple viewing angles, but I still can’t help but wondering when the stand might snag, catch, bend or when the clicking will begin to strip out. 

Using the Surface on a lap or anything other than a flat, hard surface is virtually impossible. Attempting to use the Surface on a lap is quite difficult. Legs must be even, sitting up properly helps, and the kickstand must be positioned just right. As for the keyboard, it is horrible to use when the Surface is being used on a lap. It is flexible, so it really works best on a — wait for it — surface. Microsoft was not kidding around with the name. Surface Pro 3 truly requires a hard level surface to use as a laptop. Perhaps it should be re-categorized as a desktop instead, because it is virtually unusable as a laptop when used on a lap...

The MacBook Air being used on a lap? No problem. Balance it on one leg when required, or lay sideways on a couch and peck away at the keyboard, it really doesn't matter. The Air's solid foundation and stiffly tensioned display springs make it a snap to use in any lounging around scenario. The MacBook Air is an ultrabook laptop that — when used as a laptop — absolutely leaves Surface in the dust. Microsoft’s decision to try and make a tablet + laptop product reveals Surface’s compromises, in which it is a poor jack of all trades and master of none.

Hardware specifications don’t help the Surface Pro 3 either. 

The Surface Pro 3 base model ships with an Intel Core i3-4020Y which is a 11.5 watt processor. This processor is slower than the Core U series, which pulls 15 watts. The Y series also embeds Intel's aging HD 4200 IGP graphics. Microsoft does not specify what frequency the processor is running at, so no telling how fast or slow this system is capable of. Based on my observations the Surface was not nimble or nearly as speedy as a MacBook Air. Suffice to say, this is the low-end of the low-end processors Intel has to offer, with graphics that are less than stellar.

The MacBook Air processor is 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor, sporting their latest HD 5000 graphics. Pound for pound Apple's Intel offering is a more powerful option than the Surface Pro 3 base model brings to the table. Apple's MacBook Air storage utilizes the latest DDR3 SDRAM, while the Surface Pro 3 uses the older and slower DDR2 SDRAM. As a laptop, the Surface is a low-powered, low-end product, and while the Air is not a top of the line powerhouse, it beats the Surface Pro 3 hands down.

Operating Systems

The Surface Pro 3 uses Microsoft’s latest Windows 8.1 Pro OS. The interface leans the users to starting with touch before one can get behind the tile interface and interact with anything efficiently. Thus, while using it as a laptop, it starts you off in a tablet world (which is baffling and annoying), but at least the tile default, called Metro, can now be turned off. 

Microsoft also brought back their Start menu in Windows 8.1 so non-Millennials will be able to understand how to use the OS. Compared to OS X 10.9 Mavericks, this isn’t much of a debate. Either you love Windows of any kind and hate OS X, or you love OS X and will look at Windows as a second class citizen.

Pricing

The Surface Pro 3 starts at $799, but there is one critical issue with Microsoft's pricing; it does not include the cover keyboard. That’s right, before it can even be considered as an ultrabook to take on the MacBook Air, another $129 must be spent to gain the Type Cover. Thus, the proper comparison is a 12" Surface Pro 3 w/Keyboard Cover for $928 vs the 11.6"  MacBook Air for $899. The Surface Pro 3 comes with only 64GB of SSD storage, while the MacBook Air ships with (faster) 128GB DIMM-like SSD storage. Thus, to compare them as closely as possible, the Surface Pro 3 with MacBook Air equivalent Intel Core i5 processor, Type Cover, and 128GB of RAM totals $1,128, while the MacBook Air costs $899. And of course, the MacBook Air can be used amazingly efficiently as a full fledged industry leading ultrabook laptop, and the Surface Pro 3 really can't. 

Any questions? Oh yes, how does the Surface Pro 3 stack up against the iPad Air as a tablet? I'll have that review next week.

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11 Comments

  1. Jay Hill ~ June 25, 2014 15:49

    In the Pricing section, you note the SP3 has 64GB of RAM while the MBA has 128GB of RAM. I think you mean "disk size" (HD/SSD) not RAM. #
  2. A ~ June 25, 2014 18:22

    Yeah , no butthurt here at all #
  3. WOW ~ June 27, 2014 03:10

    Wow, I thought I heard all kinds of fan boy's, but you are something else. You are so much more and you also get to express. #
  4. Robert Ennis ~ June 27, 2014 05:30

    I tried the Surface Pro 3 for one week. Day one was a novelty but from there on I was stuck with a terrible OS, a terrible main email app, a very difficult device to use on my lap. This schizophrenic jumping between Metro and the Desktop. I took it back and got a MacBook Air. What a difference! #
  5. tori ~ July 02, 2014 17:02

    Not quite fair to compare it against a MacBook Air when you aren't comparing the things you CAN do on a tablet, such as draw and write by hand. On the iPad, you can only do one thing at a time,there's no pressure sensitivity, and it can't use full programs, so while it's good for watching movies, it really does far less than MS's early tablet PCs. #
  6. Steven Pugliese ~ July 06, 2014 11:15

    You don't have one single, solitary good thing to say about the Surface Pro 3. You could have at least said it looks nice. You rave about the MacBook Pro. It makes your evaluation somewhat worthless. You've no balance at all. You're simply a fanboy. Fanboys can only be fans, they can't be balanced judges. No one wants to hear fanboys go on except other fanboys. Enjoy your MBA. They're great machines. I bought the Pro 3 and I love it. It works excellently in the lap and as a tablet. But I guess I'm just a fanboy too. #
  7. C ~ July 14, 2014 11:14

    The SP3 is a good choice if you want an extremely lightweight Windows laptop with a fast i5 processor and a useable keyboard. If you want to use a pen input, it is a great choice. As a tablet the SP3 is a little too heavy. If you are willing to deal with more weight you can find a laptop which is better in every way, especially the keyboard. I'd only recommend the SP3 to people who frequently carry their laptop with them: to work, school, conferences, etc, since the SP3's keyboard is useable, but not great. The SP3 and the MBA 11 inch are kind of similar in weight and spec wise. I actually prefer the keyboard of the SP3 to the MBA's, but neither is ideal to type on. I don't like the tack pad on the SP3 because my finger glides too smoothly across it, which stresses my wrist. When not in transit I use a mouse with my SP3. I like the MBA's track better. If the MBA 11" had touch and ran Windows out of the box it would be hard for me to choose between the two. #
  8. nikk wong ~ July 15, 2014 12:47

    Yeah, I used to have a macbook -- but purchased the surface pro 3 and love it. Would never go back to a macbook -- you guys are total fanboys. Sort of discredits this whole blog. Just saying. #
  9. Rene ~ August 19, 2014 06:29

    I was almost tempted to view other sections of this site to check if it is a apple fanboy parody site, but I didn't really bother. I'll just comment on this as I read it. This review is embarrassing. Your facts are wrong, your assumptions are wrong and you should feel terribly bad about yourself. You are excused of course if this is a parody. In that case; well done. #
  10. E. Werner Reschke ~ August 19, 2014 10:06

    Hi Rene. We appreciate your feedback. However, you make claims with no data or proof, so it is really counter to the discussion. If you think there are so many problems with the article, then just list one or two data points. That way we can correct the article or at the very least your claims then carry some weight. Right now your claims are just emotional, which is a childish way to make a point. Again, thanks for participating, but in the future, please use data to back up your assertions. -Werner #
  11. Dan Sx ~ October 26, 2014 04:51

    I guess it shouldn't be surprising that an Apple centric site should be so biased towards an Apple product over an MS one, but I would've hoped for at least an objective review which this so very clearly isn't. Most of my thoughts on the style and content of this article have already been covered in other comments so I won't dwell on these points, but as ask you asked, and as I feel the article is so far from the truth, I feel the need to address some of your assumptions (I call these assumptions because the article is so far from reality I can only think you've assumed most of these things without an actual hands-on and trial period). Before I get into it, let me validate myself. I'm a former 8-year Apple employee currently working as an IT Manager for a large multi-site company based across the UK, looking after some 50 separate venues. Because of this, I travel. A lot. Being able to work anywhere and everywhere is essential to me, and the primary reason I bought the SP3 - and I haven't been happier. With that out of the way, let's get into it. Starting from the top: "SP3 is not a great tablet" - well this is somewhat subjective really. How do you define a tablet? If it's based on app infrastructure then it's probably not. If it's based on usability without a kb/mouse then SP3 is great, as it is a full blown device capable of running desktop applications as well as Store tablet-esque apps. Whilst a lot of desktop applications are not designed for touch interfaces, most work just fine (more on that later). Not going to dwell on this point much either, as I don't consider the SP3 to be a tablet. To me, the SP3 is an ultra-portable laptop that can function in a tablet mode when required. "SP3 is a poor choice when compared to an ultra-book laptop" - again, subjective. Of course, a dedicated ultra-book laptop design offers more leeway for it's designer. It's a traditional tried-and-tested model. An ultra-book has more space for it's components, which is why you will likely get a better CPU/RAM and in general have the kb/mouse perm attached. They will likely also have a better kb/mouse for this reason too. I'll agree with you on the keyboard and trackpad - Apples are better. But this is true for virtually all portable computers. Apple's chicklet-style keyboard is a joy to use on larger devices, a little less so on smaller ones but still better than the SP3. That said, the SP3 Type Cover really isn't as bad as you make out and is perfectly usable once you get used to its positioning and feedback response. It is backlit too like the MBA (you mention MBAs backlit keyboard (twice in fact) as though it's something that the MBA has over the SP3, but it doesn't). Apple have nailed the trackpad - there are no competitors in this space. The trackpad on SP3 isn't ideal I agree, but is perfectly usable on-the-go for when you don't have the space or need for a mouse. It's also something I don't always feel the need to use, as it's touchscreen and stylus are both spot on. You make a point about Office suites being difficult to use with "all the tiny desktop based designed point and click icons". This may be true with older versions, but modern versions (2013/365) have a touch friendly interface which is perfect when used on SP3. So much so in fact that i prefer to interact with Outlook by touch almost exclusively. With regards to the stylus, which I love using - if you're in a workflow where you're flitting between using the stylus and using the keyboard/trackpad you don't need to pick-up-put-down the pen, it's perfectly easy and comfortable to continue to hold the pen inbetween your fingers as you type. Certainly no nightmare of a workflow to be had. "I still can't help but wonder(ing) when the stand might snag, catch, bend..." - this is a valid point, and the thing i'm most fearful of. "Using the Surface on a lap or anything other than a flat, hard surface is virtually impossible" - this is total BS! I happily use the device wherever I would've previously used a laptop without any issues at all, including on my lap. It's not at all "horrible" to use in your lap, and in fact is far more comfortable than any other device, primarily because the base doesn't get hot and fry your thighs and white-tadpoles like most other laptops. In fact, I find the SP3 to be more versatile than almost all other devices because of the kickstand - it can be used almost anywhere. With regards to specs, I haven't felt like the device was slow at all. It is nimble and agile at every turn, and is every bit as speedy for general tasks as my MBP or beast editing rig. The pros and cons of Windows 8/8.1 are well discussed so I'm not going to dwell on them here but it's straightforward to have your OS operating just like Win 7 if you like, eschewing the tiled start screen or disabling it entirely. "Either you love Windows of any kind and hate OS X, or you love OS X and will look at Windows as a second class citizen" - or you are a happy user of both, recognise the pros and cons in each and use whatever OS/system is best for the job at hand. Generally speaking, I use OS X for personal stuff and Windows for business stuff. OS X is still nowhere near as good as Windows when it comes to enterprise and a lot of business related tasks and activities. The MacBook Air can be used amazingly efficiently as an industry leading ultrabook laptop, and so can the Surface Pro 3. Sure, the SP series is somewhat of an oddball device and is not to everyones tastes or needs - but the unceremonious slate-ing (iPad pun intended) of it in this article is totally skewed and, as mentioned in the comments here before, comes off as total Apple fanboyism and does undermine the professionalism and objectivism of this entire site. Apologies for the overly lengthy comment, but as a user of the SP3 I felt the need to rebut some of the comments and views expressed in this article. #

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