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Compared: Surface Pro 3 vs. Apple's MacBook Air and iPad

May 22, 2014

If you ask Microsoft, the Surface Pro 3 is better than Apple's MacBooks in every way that matters. Or at least that's the impression you'd get from reading Microsoft's own comparison chart or watching the Surface Pro 3 announcement, both of which try to tip the scales (literally and figuratively) in the Surface's favor. In the interest of fairness, let's do a more thorough comparison, one that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of each device.

Tech Specs

Tech specs should never be the only factor in a purchase decision, but there's something to be said for lining up all the hard data before moving on to the intangibles. In this case, it's interesting to see how the Surface Pro 3 falls in between the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air in terms of screen size, weight and price. Here's the full rundown, with Apple's iPad thrown in for good measure:

Surface Pro 3MacBook Air (11-in.)MacBook Air (13-in.)iPad Air
Operating SystemWindows 8.1OS X MavericksOS X MavericksiOS 7
Screen Size (in.)1211.613.39.7
Screen Area (sq. in.)66.4657.4975.5845.17
Aspect Ratio3:216:916:94:3
Screen Resolution2160-by-14401366-by-7681440-by-9002048-by-1536
Pixel Density216 ppi135 ppi128 ppi264 ppi
Touchscreen?YesNoNoYes
ProcessorIntel Core i3 - i7Intel Core i5 or i7Intel Core i5 or i7Apple A7
Memory4 or 8 GB4 or 8 GB4 or 8 GB1 GB
Base Storage64 GB128 GB128 GB128 GB
Maximum Storage512 GB512 GB512 GB128 GB
Battery LifeUp to 9 hoursUp to 9 hoursUp to 12 hoursUp to 10 hours
Front Camera5 megapixels0.92 megapixels0.92 megapixels1.2 megapixels
Rear Camera5 megapixelsNoneNone5 megapixels
USB Slots122None
SD Card Slot?MicroSDFull SDFull SDNone
Video OutMini DisplayPortThunderboltThunderboltNone
LTE Connectivity?NoNoNoOptional
Keyboard Included?NoYesYesNo
Stylus?YesNoNoNo
Runs Office?YesYesYesSubscription-only
Weight (Tablet Only)1.76 lbs.N/AN/A1 lb.
Weight (with Keyboard)2.41 lbs.2.38 lbs.2.96 lbs.N/A
Thickness (Tablet Only)0.36 in.N/AN/A0.29 in.
Thickness (with Keyboard)0.56 in.0.68 in.0.68 in.N/A
Base Price (Tablet Only)$799N/AN/A$499
Base Price (with Keyboard)$929$899$999N/A
Max Price (Tablet Only)$1949N/AN/A$929
Max Price (with Keyboard)$2079$1649$1749N/A

Hardware and Accessories

Specs are a good way to gauge power, portability and features, but things get murkier when you start considering the capabilities of each device. The Surface's main trick is the way it transforms from a laptop to a tablet, using a built-in kickstand and attachable keyboard cover. With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has tried to address complaints that previous models were too compromised as laptops, due to their flimsy keyboards, tiny trackpads and limited screen angles. The Pro 3's keyboard can attach magnetically at two points, making it more rigid, while the kickstand can adjust to any angle. As for the trackpad, it's larger and has less friction than the felt cover of previous Type Covers. The Surface also includes a pressure-sensitive stylus, and the new version lets you quickly open Microsoft's note-taking OneNote app by clicking a button atop the pen. These changes still won't match the simplicity of a proper laptop like the MacBook Air, which balances easily on the lap at any angle. But then again, you can't detach or fold back a MacBook's keyboard and just use touch to read an article or check Facebook. You'll have to decide for yourself whether that's something you want to do with your laptop.

Apps and Software

As I noted in last year's comparison of the Surface Pro 2 and iPad, Apple's tablet is way out in front in terms of touch-optimized apps. If you have a decent laptop already, and are mainly looking for a device for reading, playing games, checking social media and watching videos, chances are you don't need a Surface Pro 3. It's no surprise, then, that Microsoft's positioning the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement with tablet-like perks, rather than a device that floats effortless between the two categories. How does the Surface Pro 3's software compare to a MacBook? Again, Apple's simple, focused approach has its merits. Get a MacBook, and you won't have to deal with the dual-headed beast that is Windows 8.1. Windows 8.1 isn't bad, but it demands a degree of open-mindedness and willingness to learn. To get the most out of the software, you must embrace Windows Store apps, and use features such as Snap view and OneDrive cloud storage integration. Otherwise, you're better off with a more traditional laptop.

Pricing and Wrap-Up

Like my colleague Harry McCracken, I question Microsoft's decision not to bundle the Surface Pro 3 with the Type Cover. Whatever psychological advantage Microsoft thinks it has by advertising a lower price tag, it loses by making people feel nickel-and-dimed. Still, the total price isn't unreasonable for a high-end, thin and light notebook with solid state storage. At $1129 for a Surface Pro 3 with a Core i5 chip and 128 GB of storage, it's $130 more expensive than a comparable 13-inch MacBook. In exchange you're getting a high-resolution touch screen, a pressure-sensitive stylus and the ability to use the device like a tablet. What you don't get, however, is the tried-and-true design of a clamshell notebook. While Microsoft has worked to minimize the compromises in the Surface Pro 3, like every tech product it brings its own trade-offs. And they're rarely the kind that fall neatly into a chart.

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