TIME Computers

(Not Very) Bold Prediction: $200 Laptops Aplenty for the Holidays

Inside a Best Buy Store Ahead of Earnings
Customers look at laptop computers at a Best Buy store. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images

For years — years! — we’ve been waiting for the $200 laptop.

Sure, laptops dip down to the $200 during super sales like Black Friday. And snagging a $179 Chromebook — Chromebooks are laptops too, you know — is now a relatively easy feat to achieve. Remember netbooks? Those things were known to flirt with the $200 price point toward the end of their collective lifespan, occasionally breaking through it entirely.

But the holidays this year will look different. Instead of searching, waiting, hoping — stampeding! — for a $200 computer, you’ll actually have a fair amount to choose from, and they’ll likely be in stock and regularly priced around $200 or less.

Over at GigaOM, Kevin Tofel passes along news of the so-called HP Stream 14, which was supposedly leaked to German blog Mobile Geeks. The Stream is apparently a 14-inch Windows laptop with very Chromebook-like innards that comes with 100 gigabytes of storage for two years, just like Chromebooks.

Microsoft doesn’t want to see Chromebooks continue to erode its share of low-end laptop sales. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth: As the Verge reports, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner recently said, “We’ve got a great value proposition against Chromebooks, we are not ceding the market to anyone.”

If that sounds aggressive, get this: Turner alluded to 7- and 8-inch models in this HP Stream line going for around $100 during the holidays. Aggressive indeed.

While ever-falling component costs lead to cheaper and cheaper computers, Bloomberg reported earlier this year that the licensing fee Microsoft charges hardware makers to use Windows on their machines has reportedly dropped exponentially for systems in the sub-$250 price range. It apparently dropped from $50 down to just $15, which of course paves the way for lower retail prices as well.

It’s the perfect storm: Chromebooks are popular low-end machines, and Microsoft wants to stem the tide. These aren’t going to be the most powerful computers in the history of computing, but if you’re looking for something that can handle simple tasks like email and web surfing on the cheap, you’ll have plenty of options later this year.

TIME Computers

Need a Cheap Chromebook? Here’s How to Pick One

Let's make sense of all these sub-$300, browser-based laptops.

If you’re shopping for a cheap laptop, there’s a good chance you’ve crossed paths with a few Chromebooks.

Instead of running Windows, these lightweight, inexpensive notebooks are based entirely on Google’s Chrome web browser. So while you can’t install traditional programs such as Office and Photoshop, you can use web-based substitutes like the free Office Online and Pixlr. In exchange, you’ll get a computer that boots up quickly, is safe from viruses, doesn’t have any obnoxious bloatware and is optimized for browsing the web.

Although inexpensive Chromebooks have been around for a couple years, we’ve seen a lot more of them lately, and from a wider range of vendors. With so much competition among these sub-$300 laptops, here’s some help picking the best one for your needs.

The Cheapest Chromebook: Acer C720 (2 GB RAM)

Acer

This Acer Chromebook originally had a sticker price of $199, but for some reason the price has recently gone up at most stores. Fortunately you can still snag one at Best Buy for $179, which is the cheapest price I’ve seen for any Chromebook.

Compared to other low-cost Chromebooks, the Acer C720 is a bit heavier, and its fan will produce some noise as you work. Its build quality is also on the chintzy side, and the 2 GB of RAM isn’t great for keeping lots of browser tabs open at once. Still, for basic browsing, it gets the job done at a (currently) unbeatable price.

The Prettiest Chromebook: HP Chromebook 11

HP

I called this one a “vanity laptop” when I reviewed it last fall. It has, by far, the most gorgeous display you’ll find on any Chromebook. We’re talking MacBook quality in terms of viewing angles and contrast, while most other Chromebooks wash out when you tilt them just slightly away from you. The keyboard is also solid, the speakers are loud and you’ve got to love the blue accents on the shiny white chassis.

But the HP Chromebook falters on performance, as it can lag when switching between heavy web pages, and it only gets around five hours on a charge. (You can top it up with a MicroUSB cable, which is kind of neat.) If you can deal with those shortcomings and prefer something thin, light and easy to look at, this is your Chromebook. Best Buy has it for $229.

The Best All-Around Chromebooks: Asus C200 and C300

Asus

Asus’ C200 ($229 at Walmart) and C300 ($229 at Amazon) are part of a new wave of Chromebooks hitting the market this summer, with a fanless design made possible by Intel’s latest Bay Trail processors. That means they won’t make any noise as you use them, and they’re both quite light, at 2.5 pounds for the 11-inch C200 and 3.1 pounds for the 13-inch C300. Best of all, both laptops get about 10 hours of battery life on a charge.

As a trade-off, these laptops can’t quite keep up with the processor in the cheaper Acer Chromebook, but it’s probably not something you’d notice in most cases. Asus’ two Chromebooks are solid all-around performers, and your best options if you’re willing to pay more than bottom dollar.

The Sub-$300 Workhorse: Acer C720 (4 GB RAM)

This Chromebook used to be a solid choice at $250, but now I can’t find it anywhere at that price. Still, even at $271 from Newegg, it’s the cheapest Chromebook available with 4 GB of RAM. You’ll want the extra memory if you’re planning to juggle dozens of browser tabs at once. It seems that Acer has discontinued this laptop in favor of a Core i3 model that’s probably overkill for most users, so get it while you can.

Whatever you decide, don’t fret over it too much. I’ve used a lot of Chromebooks over the past few years, and they all offer the same basic benefits in terms of speedy startup times, security and ease of use. As long as you’re not expecting a full-blown operating system like Windows or Mac OSX, chances are you’ll be satisfied with your choice.

These prices and configurations are good as of August 18, 2014.

TIME

Acer’s New Chromebook Goes Where Windows PCs Won’t

acer chromebook 13
Acer

The Tegra-powered Chromebook 13 is another stab at the ideal mid-range Chromebook

If you try to buy a laptop for around $400 these days, something weird happens.

You’ll find lots of lightweight notebooks with 11-inch or smaller screens, and plenty of 15-inch clunkers with terrible battery life. What you won’t get is anything in between, combining decent screen size, power and portability at a reasonable price.

That means Acer’s Chromebook 13 is more unique than it ought to be. At $380 for the most expensive model, it has a 13.3-inch 1080p display, weighs 3.3 pounds, measures 0.71 inches thick and lasts for 11.5 hours on a charge. It also has 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. (You can downgrade to 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB for $300, or get a 1366-by-768 variant with 13 hours of battery for $280.) It’s hard to find a Windows laptop or another Chromebook with the same mix of battery life, performance and screen quality.

The thing that makes Acer’s Chromebook 13 possible is its Nvidia Tegra K1 processor. It’s an ARM-based chip that’s mainly intended for high-end tablets, but in this case it allows for long battery life, high screen resolution and no cooling fans.

Typically, these ARM-based Chromebooks take a performance hit compared to their Intel-powered rivals, but SlashGear notes that Acer’s model outperformed Intel’s Bay Trail chips while juggling multiple browser tabs and playing video. Nvidia also claims that its chip offers three times the graphics performance of Bay Trail and other ARM-based Chromebooks.

The Chromebook 13’s closest competitor is Samsung’s 13-inch Chromebook 2, which also uses an ARM-based processor and has a 1080p display. Samsung’s model is a bit lighter at 3.1 pounds, but it only lasts about eight hours on a charge.

I mostly liked Samsung’s Chromebook, but its viewing angles were terrible and its performance was occasionally sluggish. While I haven’t seen Acer’s Chromebook up close, I’m hoping it can do a little better on those fronts.

In any case, I’m happy to see another shot at a mid-range Chromebook that focuses on portability, because that’s what Google’s browser-based operating system is made for. The $400 laptop market needs devices like the Chromebook 13 more than it needs another wave of 15-inch monstrosities.

The Chromebook 13 is available for pre-sale from Amazon and Best Buy, but there’s no word on an exact release date yet.

TIME Gadgets

Top Tech for Back to School

Back to School time is upon us. The yellow buses are all being tuned up and hosed down, the classrooms are getting that final coat of paint and the teachers are finalizing their lesson plans. It’s also the time for you to make sure your kids have all the supplies they need for a successful and happy school year.

These days, though, you need more than just a new pair of jeans, a handful of pencils and a new Trapper Keeper to get your kids ready. Here are our picks for the best – and most affordable – back-to-school tech.

Laptop: Acer Aspire E1

Acer

These days, a sturdy, reliable computer is a must when it comes to homework, research projects or just keeping in touch with friends from school. For these simple tasks, we recommend the budget-friendly Acer Aspire E1 Windows laptop.

Why the Aspire? First of all, we like the 15” size, which has a big enough screen for comfortable viewing, but still lends itself to better battery life, better portability and a lower price tag. We also like the Core i5 processor (for plenty of power), the 4GB of RAM (expandable to 8GB if needed) and the 500GB hard drive. Plus, it gets high marks from reviewers for long battery life and good performance for the price, and a respectable four stars on Amazon.

You can find the Acer Aspire E1 for $466.77 at Amazon.

Travel Mouse: Microsoft Arc Touch

Microsoft

Most laptops come with a capable touchpad, but they can be too touchy when there’s a lot of typing to do. That’s why we recommend the highly portable Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse.

The curious design of the Arc Touch Mouse is actually its best feature. It’s flexible, allowing you to flatten it when not in use for easy storage. Flattening also turns off the mouse, so you won’t waste the battery. The traditional mouse wheel is replaced with a small “touch scroll strip,” while the magnetic Nano transceiver easily stores on the bottom of the mouse when not in use. BlueTrack technology, meanwhile, allows the Arc Touch to work reliably on just about any surface – even carpet or rough wood.

The Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse is available for purchase at Amazon.com for $39.99.

Tablet: Sony Xperia Z2

Sony

Not every student needs a laptop. A tablet can be a better bet if your child needs to take notes or do some word processing and web-basesd research. Plus, a tablet can do double duty as an entertainment device. For a sturdy, solid device that best mixes work with play (and isn’t an iPad), we like the 10.1” Sony Xperia Z2 Android (4.4 Kit Kat) tablet.

The waterproof and dustproof (IP55/58) Xperia Z2 is just 0.24 inches thick and 15.5 ounces, giving it a sleek and easily portable design that’s great for going to class or around the house. It packs a powerful 2.3 GHz quad-core processor and 3GB of RAM for demanding gamers.

Sony.com is currently offering the 16GB version of the Xperia Z2 tablet for $499.99, which includes a free charging dock for a limited time.

Smartphone: Motorola Moto G

Motorola

Here’s a pretty common problem: Your teen is finally the right age for his or her first cellphone, but the thought of a $650 device being stolen from a locker or left on the field after practice has your heart racing with panic. What’s a parent to do?

We like the off-contract Moto G 4G ($99 off-contract at Verizon; $219 unlocked at Amazon) – it’s the perfect nexus of power and value. It’s a full-featured 4G LTE phone that runs the most recent build of Android. The device has Gorilla Glass for scratch resistance, and is water resistant enough to handle a few spills in the cafeteria. Kids, meanwhile, will appreciate the selection of $14.99 OEM shells that allow you to easily and seamlessly change the color of the phone to suit any style.

Portable Charger: myCharge Hub 9000

myCharge

If you send your kids to school armed with a phone “in case of emergency,” then it’s important to make sure his or her phone has enough juice when it really counts. That’s why we like the myCharge Hub 9000, Techlicious’s pick for the best portable battery charger.

The myCharge Hub 9000 has micro USB and Lightning connector jacks built in, so there’s no need to clutter backpacks up with easily tangled cables. The 9000 mAh battery charges in just five hours when plugged in to a standard electrical outlet, storing enough power to recharge most smartphones four to six times.

You can find the myCharge Hub 9000 at Amazon starting at $116.99; 3000 mAh and 6000 mAh versions are also available at a lower cost.

Backpack: Tylt Energi+

Tylt

Obviously, no back-to-school list would be complete without a backpack to haul all those books (and gadgets) to and from class. For tech-focused older students, we like the Tylt Energi+ backpack. It’s an attractive carry-all that doubles as a mobile recharging station.

The key feature of the Tylt Energi+ is its powerful 10,400 mAh lithium-ion battery and two USB ports, which allow your kids to charge their power-hungry devices as they move around from place to place. The backpack has a hard-lined pocket for sunglasses, a specially lined laptop pocket that fits and protects computers up to 15 inches, a side hydration sleeve and plenty of secondary tech pockets for phones and tablets. And yes, the 1,450 cubic inch backpack has plenty of room for books and pencils, too.

The Tylt Energi+ is available at Amazon for $128.99, and direct from Tylt.com for $199.99.

Headphones: UrbanEars Humlan

Urbanears

Most kids are experts when it comes to getting dirty. That means their tech gadgets get dirty, too. And while it’s easy to wipe down a sticky smartphone screen or a set of laptop keys, cleaning a pair of headphones can be incredibly difficult.

Incredibly difficult, that is, unless you own a pair of UrbanEars Humlan over-the-ear headphones. The colorful, stylish Humlans quickly disassemble, allowing you to throw the ear covers and headband in with the laundry. Humlans also come with a “Zoundplug,” which allows a friend to plug their headphones in and share the tunes.

You can find UrbanEars Humlan headphones in a wide variety of bold colors for $45 each at Amazon.com. For younger kids, you may want to check out the Etymotic Research EtyKids Safe Listening in-ear headphones ($39.99), which limit sound volumes to kid-safe levels.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Computers

Apple Updates MacBook Pro Line, Drops Prices for Certain Models

MacBook Pro
Apple

More RAM, friends. That’s the real story here.

Apple has bumped its Retina MacBook Pro line to include eight gigabytes of RAM as the baseline for the 13-inch models. The 15-inch models sport 16 gigabytes of RAM, standard.

Think of RAM like a tool belt: The bigger the tool belt, the more tools you can have readily available when you need to use them. Or think of RAM like a desk: The bigger the desk, the more papers, pencils, tablets and calculators you can have within arm’s reach. This concludes today’s lesson on random access memory.

For those of you who are well-heeled, you’ll be happy to learn that the top-of-the-line 15-incher has gotten a $100 price drop. Its starting price is now $2,499. If you’re poorly-heeled, you’ll be happy to know that the non-Retina 13-incher has dropped $100. Its starting price is now $1099.

Processor speeds have been bumped across the Retina line as well, though the non-Retina version “has not been updated with faster internals and remains the same model introduced in June 2012,” as MacRumors reports.

 

TIME laptops

This Is the Best Budget Laptop You Can Buy

Lenovo

Can you buy a great laptop for under $600? Yes, yes you can

header

This post is in partnership with The Wire Cutter. Read the article below originally published at TheWireCutter.com.

After considering all the major laptops in its price range, I decided that if I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I’d get the ~$580 version of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14.

It’s not perfect—because all budget laptops have trade offs—but it’s the best of its kind. And for its price it succeeds in a lot of the most important areas: it’ll easily handle day-to-day tasks, it’s light enough to carry around, and it has enough battery to last you an entire work day.

Our pick

For $580 you get a dual-core Haswell Intel Core i5-4210U processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500GB hybrid hard drive with 8GB of cache, which is to say that it is fast enough for most tasks that don’t involve gaming or heavy photo or video editing.

As we configured it, the Flex 2 14 also has a 14-inch multitouch panel with a decent 1366×768 resolution, 7.5 hours of battery life, a good enough keyboard and trackpad, and all the ports you’ll want: HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, a card reader, and an audio jack. The cache will make it feel a little speedier than a regular hard drive, but not as fast as an computer with a solid state drive (otherwise known as an SSD).

At 0.8 inches thick and 4.4 pounds, it’s lighter and slimmer than most 14-inch laptops in its price range. It’s possible (but not easy) to upgrade the hard drive and RAM (if you’re into that kind of thing) so you can squeeze more life out of the machine later.

It’s a great basic machine that we settled on after a lot of consideration and testing.

What you don’t get with a cheaper laptop

Before you buy this machine, realize that a cheaper laptop always comes with more compromises than a more expensive one. The $580 Flex 2 14 has an i5-4210U processor, 1366×768 screen, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive and weighs 4.4 pounds.

For example, for around $1,000, you could get something like a slim 3 pound Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro with the same processor and wireless card, but a better-looking 3800×1800 screen, twice the RAM at 8GB for better multitasking of many windows at once, and a 256GB solid-state drive. That means you can get a computer that’s faster and all-around better for only a few hundred dollars more, which is a good idea if you can afford it. On the other hand, that’s almost 2x the price.

What happens if you spend even less money than our pick costs? There are smaller laptops with better screens and a little bit of solid-state storage for under $500, like the very popular Asus Transformer T100. But they compromise in other areas, often having less storage space and RAM, slower processors, or cramped keyboards. If this is your only computer, I think you should go for something better.

Who should(n’t) buy this?

If I were to get a budget laptop, I’d get the Lenovo Flex 2. But before I’d buy one, I’d consider whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all. If you have a full Windows or Mac computer already and are looking for a secondary machine for web browsing, email, and basic document editing, we’d actually advise you to consider a $300 Chromebook, which runs Google’s Chrome operating system (but cannot run Windows or Mac software) instead.

Or, if you don’t need to do much writing on your machine, a tablet, like an iPad, is perfect for casual email and browsing. But for an everyday Windows computer, something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14 will be just fine.

How we decided on this laptop

After surveying the field, we made a list of the laptops in this price range with the best reviews from the most trusted editorial sources, and tested them side by side. The finalists we tested hands-on are the Lenovo Flex 2 14, the $580 Acer Aspire E1, and the $650 Dell Inspiron 14R.

What to get if you can spend a little bit more and want a faster, sleeker laptop

If you can afford to spend a bit more and want a sleeker laptop with smoother multitasking between many windows and a higher-resolution LCD for fitting more on the screen, you should get the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch from Best Buy, currently $700. It has the same Core i5-4210U and 500GB hard drive as the $580 Flex 2 14, but it’s lighter (by a touch), slimmer, and has twice as much RAM and a better, higher-resolution screen (1600×900 instead of 1366×768). It has a touchscreen and good battery life, like our top pick, but better build quality overall, too.

The runner up that also costs a bit less

If you don’t have more money to spend, or the Flex 2 14 is sold out or unavailable, the $465 Acer Aspire E1-572-6780 isn’t bad. It’s about the same speed as our pick, but it’s bulkier than the Flex 2 14, and you won’t get the Flex’s hybrid drive, touchscreen, or all-day battery, so we think spending more on the Flex is worth it.

In closing

A great budget laptop is actually a misnomer—there’s really no such thing when you’re forced to make compromises—but the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14 hits the right marks in many areas, and that’s as close to great as you can get in this price range. If you want one Windows laptop for basic windows computing needs, this is the one most people should get.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com

TIME deals

Microsoft Is Giving Apple Users Hundreds To Buy the Surface Pro 3

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
The Microsoft Corp. Surface Pro 3 tablet computer is displayed during an event in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Jin Lee/Bloomberg—Getty Images

Microsoft is once again throwing huge sums of money at customers to try to convince them to buy its products. The company is offering up to $650 toward the purchase of its new Surface Pro 3 to customers that trade in a MacBook Air that’s in decent condition. The deal, which runs through July 31, is only available in Microsoft’s physical retail stores.

The Surface Pro 3 has been billed by Microsoft as a true laptop-tablet hybrid. That Microsoft is targeting the MacBook Air rather than the iPad with the new promotion indicates the company believes its new product can go toe-to-toe with laptops in terms of functionality.

Even in the best-case scenario where a customer gets the full $650 deal (the actual discount depends on the model of MacBook and its working condition), the cheapest model of the Surface Pro 3, at $799, will still require $150 out of pocket. MacBook Airs start a bit pricier at $899, but the base model has 128GB of internal memory compared to the entry-level Surface Pro 3’s 64GB.

TIME Computers

Samsung Chromebook 2 Review: Almost Worth the Price

Jared Newman for TIME

I really thought this would be the one.

When Samsung announced the Chromebook 2 a couple months ago, it seemed to be the mid-range device that we’d been missing since Samsung discontinued its Series 5 550 last year. The 13-inch version is currently the only Chromebook with a 1080p display, and it comes in a slick package that mimics Samsung’s most expensive Windows-based laptops. I was hoping these features would justify the $400 price tag.

After using Samsung’s 13-inch Chromebook 2 for several weeks, I’m conflicted. The Chromebook 2 is a solidly-built machine with an impressive balance of weight and battery life, but it also has a couple of problems that keep me from giving it a wholehearted recommendation.

Let’s start with the display. On paper, the 1920-by-1080 panel should be the Chromebook 2’s strongest selling point. Not only does it make everything sharper, it allows the taskbar and icons to be smaller, leaving more room on the screen for actual webpages.

But like so many other laptops that cut corners on price, the viewing angles on the Chromebook 2 are atrocious. As you shift your position, you have to constantly adjust the screen to avoid having the colors wash out. The screen looks especially bad when watching videos or looking at dark webpages. It’s by far the biggest problem with this laptop, and a huge letdown for what should be a killer feature.

One other minor complaint about the display: By default, the high pixel density made text a little small for my liking, and I have pretty good vision. Increasing page zoom to 125 percent in Chrome settings made things more readable; it should probably be set this way by default.

Aside from the display, the build quality of the Chromebook 2 is superb. The island-style keys have just the right amount of travel and snappiness, and the keyboard hardly flexes at all under heavy pressure.

Below the keyboard is a spacious trackpad that’s smooth to the touch. You can click on the trackpad almost all the way up to the top without having to apply too much pressure, and it supports two-finger scrolling and clicking. (You can also tap the trackpad instead of depressing it.) Overall, it’s fantastic.

The Chromebook 2 is fairly light for a 13-inch laptop, weighing in at 3.1 pounds. That’s 0.2 pounds lighter than Toshiba’s 13-inch Chromebook, though it’s the same weight as Asus’ 13-inch Chromebook that’s due out later this month. (Both of those laptops, however, have 1366-by-768 resolution displays.)

Jared Newman for TIME

Samsung’s Chromebook 2 is also one of the slimmest Chromebooks around, at 0.65 inches, and its bottom half has the same contoured edges found on Samsung’s Ativ Book laptops. Aesthetically, I’m not crazy about the “titan gray” finish–I’d prefer the white or black color options of the 11-inch model–and the faux-stitching makes less sense on a laptop cover than it does on Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

Unlike most other laptops, the Chromebook 2 uses an ARM-based octa-core Exynos processor, a lot like what you’d find in a high-end tablet. This allows it to run quietly with no fan, and despite the high-resolution display it still lasts for more than eight hours on a charge.

That processor does have a downside, in that it’s less powerful than your average laptop. Depending on your needs, this might not be a major issue. I generally didn’t have a problem scrolling through webpages, editing Google Docs or juggling a bunch of browser tabs. But I did notice occasional sluggishness when loading heavy pages and switching between tabs. Compared to Samsung’s original Exynos-based Chromebook, which had a slower processor and just 2 GB of RAM instead of 4 GB, the Chromebook 2 is still a big step up.

For connectivity, the Chromebook 2 has two USB ports–one on each side–along with HDMI output and a headphone jack. There’s also a microSD card slot, though I wish Samsung had included a full-sized SD slot instead. The speakers are loud and clear enough for video, but like most laptops, you won’t get much bass when listening to music.

If Samsung had only shipped a higher-quality display with the Chromebook 2, I could have fallen in love with this laptop. I’m a sucker for build quality, especially when it comes to the keyboard and trackpad, and I could have forgiven the middling performance, given that it’s still good enough for most basic web browsing. Chromebooks can’t do everything that a Windows laptop or MacBook can–you can’t install desktop software, which rules out programs like Office and iTunes–but the simplicity of a browser-based operating system has its own advantages. The Chromebook 2 could have been the perfect machine for users who want to spend a little more.

Instead, I’m wishing Samsung had tried just a little harder to make the ultimate mid-range Chromebook. This one is frustratingly close.

TIME laptops

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

SurfacePro3Primary_Web
Microsoft

Microsoft's latest hybrid is clearly gunning for Apple's MacBooks, so let's see how the specs, software and prices stack up.

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 3 MacBook Air (11-in.) MacBook Air (13-in.) iPad Air
Operating System Windows 8.1 OS X Mavericks OS X Mavericks iOS 7
Screen Size (in.) 12 11.6 13.3 9.7
Screen Area (sq. in.) 66.46 57.49 75.58 45.17
Aspect Ratio 3:2 16:9 16:9 4:3
Screen Resolution 2160-by-1440 1366-by-768 1440-by-900 2048-by-1536
Pixel Density 216 ppi 135 ppi 128 ppi 264 ppi
Touchscreen? Yes No No Yes
Processor Intel Core i3 – i7 Intel Core i5 or i7 Intel Core i5 or i7 Apple A7
Memory 4 or 8 GB 4 or 8 GB 4 or 8 GB 1 GB
Base Storage 64 GB 128 GB 128 GB 128 GB
Maximum Storage 512 GB 512 GB 512 GB 128 GB
Battery Life Up to 9 hours Up to 9 hours Up to 12 hours Up to 10 hours
Front Camera 5 megapixels 0.92 megapixels 0.92 megapixels 1.2 megapixels
Rear Camera 5 megapixels None None 5 megapixels
USB Slots 1 2 2 None
SD Card Slot? MicroSD Full SD Full SD None
Video Out Mini DisplayPort Thunderbolt Thunderbolt None
LTE Connectivity? No No No Optional
Keyboard Included? No Yes Yes No
Stylus? Yes No No No
Runs Office? Yes Yes Yes Subscription-only
Weight (Tablet Only) 1.76 lbs. N/A N/A 1 lb.
Weight (with Keyboard) 2.41 lbs. 2.38 lbs. 2.96 lbs. N/A
Thickness (Tablet Only) 0.36 in. N/A N/A 0.29 in.
Thickness (with Keyboard) 0.56 in. 0.68 in. 0.68 in. N/A
Base Price (Tablet Only) $799 N/A N/A $499
Base Price (with Keyboard) $929 $899 $999 N/A
Max Price (Tablet Only) $1949 N/A N/A $929
Max Price (with Keyboard) $2079 $1649 $1749 N/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.

TIME Gadgets

Microsoft Finds Laptop-Tablet Balance with Surface Pro 3, but Windows Is Another Story

As Surface Pro 3 arrives, Windows becomes a lesser hybrid operating system

When Microsoft’s Panos Panay said on Tuesday that the Surface Pro 3 was three years in the making, I believed it.

This seems like the hybrid computer Microsoft has always wanted to build–one that’s thin and light enough to pass as a tablet but powerful enough to work like a laptop, and with a flexible enough design to blur the lines between device types. I’m already trying to figure out how to dump my Surface Pro 2 and upgrade to the Pro 3 when it arrives on June 20.

I only wish I was feeling more confident about Windows 8.1, the operating system that ships with the Surface Pro 3. More than ever, Windows 8.1 doesn’t feel like it’s meant for hybrid devices. Instead, the trend is toward accommodating tablets on one hand, and traditional laptops and desktops on the other, while the middle ground of devices like the Surface becomes muddled.

Much of this conflict stems from the “Windows 8.1 Update” that Microsoft shipped in April. To make the new Windows more accommodating to laptop and desktop users, Microsoft added new mouse-centric controls, such as the ability to close Windows Store apps with an “X” button on the top-right corner, and to launch these apps from the desktop taskbar.

If you’re using a regular laptop, these changes make sense. The classic Windows behavior is to switch between programs through the taskbar and click “X” to shut them down. In theory, extending those capabilities to Windows Store apps will help users feel more at home, so they can move beyond their stodgy old desktop software.

Unfortunately, this behavior is at odds with Microsoft’s original vision for Windows 8, in which you mainly use the new Start screen and recent apps bar to move between programs, and only fall back to the desktop for legacy software. If you actually use Windows 8.1 that way–as I do–and Windows Store apps are enabled on the taskbar, you pay the price for neglecting the desktop:

Microsoft

Having Windows Store apps on the taskbar only works if you’re actively closing things down when you’re finished. Otherwise, the clutter of unclosed apps accumulates when you stay away from the desktop for too long. That’s not how tablet usage is supposed to work; you should be able to just move between apps without thinking about whether they’re “open” or “closed.”

Windows 8.1 offers a half-baked solution: You can just disable Windows Store apps on the taskbar. But this in itself is a point of confusion for hybrid devices like the Surface Pro 3. Users now have to decide which type of behavior–actively closing windows on the desktop or staying within the modern interface–is the right one. As I’ve said before, it’s a cognitive burden that I’d rather not deal with.

And it’s only going to get worse. In April, Microsoft revealed that it will bring back a pop-up Start menu in Windows, and will also allow modern apps to run in windows mode on the desktop. This is great news for laptop and desktop users who don’t want to deal with an unfamiliar interface, but it presents even more confusion for hybrids like the Surface Pro 3. If you have a device that can function like either a laptop or a tablet, should you use the Start screen or the old-school Start menu? Should apps open in windows, or a tablet-friendly full-screen view? Microsoft could just let users decide, as it has done with the taskbar in Windows 8.1, but what happens if they want to switch back and forth between modes? Again, it’s more confusion, more complications.

There aren’t any easy answers here, but part of me hopes Microsoft will draw a clearer line between touch and non-touch versions of Windows. The desktop should still exist in both versions, if only as way to run programs that aren’t part of the Windows Store (including, for now, Microsoft Office). But the touch version of the desktop should make a greater effort to slim down, removing options and settings that are already available on the modern side. I wouldn’t even mind if Windows Explorer went away, provided there was a way to drag and drop files between Windows Store apps.

As we saw today, Microsoft clearly has a vision for hybrid hardware, and even presented software to match, including a touch-optimized version of Photoshop and a New York Times crossword app that works with pen input. All we need now is a better hybrid operating system to hold it all together.

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