Home / PC & Laptops / MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop: Sleek Ultraportables Do Battle – PCMag

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop: Sleek Ultraportables Do Battle – PCMag

This year’s WWDC keynote disappointed those who were hoping for a substantial MacBook Air refresh, but Apple did update the processor on its venerable ultraportable, signaling that it’s not dead yet. However, a simple processor upgrade might not be enough to outshine Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop.

Apple review, Apple commentary, Apple news... Everything AppleThe first thing you notice about both laptops is their similar sizes. Now that the 11-inch MacBook Air is gone, Apple has left us with a 13.3-inch model that weighs almost exactly 3 pounds and starts at $999. Compare that to the $999 Surface, which has a 13.5-inch display and is just a bit lighter, at 2.83 pounds. Neither one will add much of a burden to your handbag or backpack, but you don’t have the option of making that burden even lighter and smaller by sacrificing some screen real estate.

While both displays are about the same size, the Surface packs in many more pixels. Its 2,256-by-1,504 resolution is better than Full HD, and much easier on the eyes than the 1,440-by-900 screen the MacBook Air offers. If you’re looking to replace an older MacBook Air, you’ve never used a higher-resolution display, and you don’t care about touch screens, then you might be satisfied with the Air’s resolution. Otherwise, the touch-enabled Surface is the clear winner here.

It’s What’s Inside That Matters

Under the hood, both laptops offer Intel Core i5 processors. In the Air’s case, you get a 1.8GHz dual-core Core i5, with Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz. That’s better than the 1.6GHz Core i5 that used to power it, but not as good as the seventh-generation Kaby Lake Core i5 or Core i7 from which you can choose to power your Surface.

Still, the processor’s generation doesn’t matter as much if you’re not going to be taxing it with intensive video editing or native-resolution gaming—the Air and the Surface will handle the usual ultraportable tasks like video streaming and word processing.

Microsoft Surface Laptop

The Surface can be configured with 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB of RAM, while the Air’s only choice is 8GB. Both offer 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB of solid state storage, and even though macOS and Windows have slimmed down over the years, you’ll probably want to opt for one of the more expansive SSDs if you don’t rely exclusively on streaming video and audio and store all of your data in the cloud.

The lack of USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports on the MacBook Air isn’t surprising since it’s an older design, but they’re sorely missing on the Surface, which was just announced last month.

How Long Can They Go?

One of the most important aspects of an ultraportable is battery life, and that’s where things get a little tricky. Apple promises 12 hours of web browsing or video playback from a local (iTunes) file, while Microsoft boasts that the Core i5-powered Surface can last for up to 14.5 hours of video playback.

MacBook Air 13"

We haven’t had a chance to conduct our own battery tests on either laptop yet, so we can’t offer final judgment on those claims. Assuming they hold up, the difference between 12 hours and 14.5 hours isn’t going to matter much if you’re using your machine around the office all day. But the Surface would offer a clear edge on a flight from New York to Hong Kong, for example, especially if you’re crammed into economy class with no power and counting on your laptop to entertain you.

They’ve Got Style

As for style, the MacBook Air looks much the same as it has for many years. It’s an extremely svelte machine, and one that arguably ushered in the ultraportable market in which the Surface and others now compete. If you’re a fan of the bezel-less design that’s all the rage on ultrabooks like the Dell XPS 13, however, you’ll likely be put off by the thick aluminium border surrounding the Air’s screen.

Microsoft Surface Laptop

The aluminium-clad Surface looks svelte, too, albeit without the Air’s taper from back to front. Its bezel appears a bit thinner than the Air’s, and it offers four color options: Burgundy, Platinum, Cobalt Blue, or Graphite Gold. Other Surface models have been plagued by uncomfortable keyboards, but we didn’t have any problems with the touchpad (which supports multi-touch gestures) or chiclet-style keyboard during our brief hands-on time with the Surface last month.

Which One’s the Winner?

If you remove screen resolution from the equation and overlook the Air’s age (two big assumptions, admittedly), the Air and the Surface appear more or less equally worthy of lightening your wallet.

The ultimate tiebreaker, then, comes down to the operating system, and that’s where the Air has a clear edge, since, like all modern Macs, it can run both macOS and Windows. Sure, you’ll need to buy and install a copy of Windows 10 separately, but you will need to upgrade the Surface to Windows 10 Pro if you want to run third-party apps. It comes with Windows 10 S, which limits you to apps downloaded from the Microsoft Store.

So for most people, the Surface Laptop versus MacBook Air debate is superseded by the Windows versus Mac debate. Put that way, a simple processor upgrade may be enough to keep Apple fans from jumping ship.


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