Surface 3 v MacBook: Battle Of The Laptops

Microsoft is telling us that it's Surface range is the tablet that can replace your laptop. I've already looked at the Surface against the iPad Air 2 here, now it's time to compare it with its closest rival from Apple's laptop range, the MacBook.

The question is which MacBook? Price-wise the MacBook Air is the more appropriate comparison, however in terms of concept and execution the MacBook is the closer match. I'll base this around the MacBook, however as you'll see in the conclusions, the comparison is somewhat flawed.

From the outside we find two devices made from premium materials that have great tactile qualities. The MacBook is bigger and heavier, even the Surface is sporting the Type Cover 3 keyboard attachment. Despite this, the MacBook offers less in the way of connectivity: one Type C USB 3.1 port. The Surface offers one full size USB 3 port, a MiniDisplay Port supporting three external monitors and a micro USB port supporting OTG. There's also a micro SD card slot hidden under the kickstand which is good for another 128GB of storage (and which should support larger cards as they become available).

Both pack mobile processors and as a result deliver excellent battery life for laptops. For extended stays away from the mains either can use a third party external battery pack to power or charge. As a result these ultraportable machines are both winners for road warriors. Small, light and with good endurance either makes a great mobile companion.

Put them on a desk and the differences start to emerge.

The Surface has the better keyboard, travel is good and rebound is consistent. Despite being the smaller keyboard the keys feel bigger and easier to hit. The new two-point attachment works very well and allows a degree of angle to be introduced to the keyboard - good for your wrists.

Apple's new keyboard design didn't do it for me, although I understand this will be a matter of personal preference. The design is that of an island keyboard that has sunk. Key travel is limited and the keys don't protrude above the surrounding metal. It's not a keyboard style that I'd like to see adopted widely. The MacBook Air keyboard is so much better and however many fractions of a millimetre Apple was able to shave off the MacBook they don't justify the keyboard change.

The MacBook has a bigger, cleverer touchpad, but the Surface counters with its touchscreen. There is no question that touch on a laptop conquers all. Good as Apple's implementation is, the Surface is infinitely better to use as a result of touch. Greatly helped by Windows 8.1's touch centric design.

On your lap the Surface wins again. The three position kick stand and two points of connection for the keyboard cover make for a very solid base on your lap. All traditional laptops feel a bit wobbly by comparison and the lightweight nature of the MacBook exacerbates this feeling. Fold the Surface's keyboard back or remove it and you can continue working in the tightest of environments, where even the tiny MacBook would be too big and cumbersome.

Both machines have great screens, the MacBook boasting a higher resolution and greater size, but being comparable when in use on a desk or in your lap. The retina class display offers a higher PPI rating, but at the distance you'll be using it from you won't be able to tell.

Surface 3 buyers benefit from a one year Office 365 subscription, while MacBook buyers make do with Apple's Work apps. For lightweight use that's probably okay, but Office 365 is a far more powerful package. The wide selection of Windows x86 software means that the MacBook is at an immediate disadvantage, unusually for an modern day Apple product. Key applications remain Windows only and as a result some potential MacBook buyers will be unable to get the packages they want.

MacBook buyers will be wincing when they get to the checkout too. The entry level machine is NZ$1999. That gets you a healthy 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The most expensive 4GB/128GB Surface 3 is NZ$1238 with the Type Cover 3 and Surface Pen. Add another NZ$170 for a 128GB micro SD card to match the storage of the MacBook and you're still the thick end of NZ$600 to the good.

That NZ$600 gets you faster mass storage (PCIe v eMMC) and an improved processor as well as the additional memory. In use those additions don't make for much difference in performance. In truth its a horrible mismatch here. The MacBook is way overpriced when compared to the Surface and delivers little benefit for the extra cost. Apple buyers would be much wiser to stick with the MacBook Air for their ultraportable needs, starting at a much more reasonable NZ$1399.

Its another triumph for the Surface 3. There's no question that it stands comparison with Apple's newest portable and comes out well. Choosing the Surface 3 over the MacBook (or indeed the MBA) requires no compromise and adds significant additional functionality thanks to the touchscreen and pen.

Microsoft's claims that its Surface range are tablets that can replace your laptop turn out to be well-based in fact. Perhaps more importantly for the first time since the original MBA was launched there is a device which is better designed, conceived and executed than any Apple product without borrowing any design cues from any of them. Colleagues who are firmly in the Apple camp have swooned over the Surface 3 and even those who are all-in with Apple and heavily anti-Microsoft have conceded that they'd buy one like a shot if it ran OS X.


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