Surface Book vs. MacBook Pro: Why Apple Wins (Just Barely)
Editors' Note (10/27/16): This article is an analysis of the previous generation of Microsoft's Surface Book and Apple's MacBook Pro. While it goes in-depth on the differences between those computers, you should visit this article for an overview of how the recently announced 2016 models compare.
The Surface Book (starting at $1,499) isn't just Microsoft's first true laptop; it also seems specifically designed to make you ignore or trade in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. But while the Surface Book's sleek, silver design and supersharp screen bring Apple's notebook (starting at $1,299) to mind, Microsoft's laptop has some unique tricks of its own. Those include a fully detachable touch display that supports handy pen functions for sketching or taking notes.
Still, with a slim, tried-and-true design; speedy performance; and an innovative Force Touch trackpad, the latest 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro is no slouch either. To figure out which of these premium, professional-minded notebooks most deserves your dollar, we put their features and performance to the test in an 8-round showdown.
Update on 11/09: After installing the latest Windows 10 build on the Surface Book, the system is less buggy than before, but some issues persist. See Performance section.
Design and Ports
The Surface Book is no ordinary Surface, sporting a sleek, all-silver, magnesium design with a unique, flexible hinge designed to keep the laptop's removable display from getting too wobbly. But while Microsoft mostly knocks it out of the park with its first laptop, the device is still a bit top-heavy, and opening the lid is more difficult than we'd like.
The latest MacBook Pro is virtually unchanged from previous models design-wise. But with slim edges and subtle curves around each corner, Apple's flagship notebook certainly isn't hurting for a makeover.
The Surface Book's weight (3.34 pounds starting, 3.48 pounds with discrete graphics) is about identical to the 3.48-pound MacBook Pro. The 12.3 x 9.14 x 0.5-0.9-inch Surface Book is just slightly wider than the 12.4 x 8.6 x 0.7-inch MacBook Pro, but both of these svelte laptops are ready for the road.
MORE: Surface Book—Full Review
Microsoft's laptop features two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort and a Surface Connect port, which charges the PC and allows you to connect to the optional Surface Dock.
The MacBook Pro has two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, an SD Card slot and two Thunderbolt 2 ports, which are ideal for connecting to large storage drives and high-definition displays.
Winner: MacBook Pro: The Surface Book's design is impressive for a debut, but the MacBook Pro's more refined construction makes it the winner.
Both of these notebook's displays are undeniably gorgeous, though the Surface Book (13.5 inches, 3000 x 2000 pixels) has the slight edge over the MacBook Pro (13.3 inches, 2560 x 1600 pixels) in sheer size and resolution.
A 4K trailer for Suicide Squad looked stunningly sharp on both notebooks, from the scales on Killer Croc to every terrifying detail on the face of Jared Leto's Joker. However, colors looked more true to life on the MacBook, particularly when looking at skin tones.
The two laptops proved virtually identical in brightness, with the MacBook Pro's 389-nit display just barely beating the Surface Book's 387-nit screen on our light meter. The Surface Book did, however, top the MacBook Pro in color representation and accuracy, reproducing 98.5 percent of the sRGB color gamut and notching a Delta E of 0.57 (closer to 0 is better). The MacBook registered 91.2 percent and 1.2 for those respective tests.
Winner: Surface Book: The Surface Book has a sharper and more colorful canvas.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Surface Book and MacBook Pro are both comfortable to type on, each offering an acceptable 1.5 mm of travel. But Apple's laptop delivers a much snappier experience.
I blazed through the Key Hero typing test on the MacBook at 99.6 words per minute with 99 percent accuracy, but using the Surface Book's comparatively mushy keys, I typed at a slower 86.8 wpm with a lower accuracy of 94 percent.
Thanks to the Surface Book's glass touchpad, navigating the desktop and pinching to zoom into websites felt pleasantly smooth. However, with the MacBook Pro's unique Force Touch pad, which uses haptic vibrations instead of actual clicks, it's more feature-rich and intuitive.
Aside from letting you press down just about anywhere on the touchpad (most pads have dead zones around the edges), Apple's touchpad offers a wealth of unique functions, such as the ability to instantly look up a word or preview a website link by hard-pressing on it.
The Surface Book's pad supports a number of gestures, such as a three-finger tap (for launching Cortana) and three-finger slide (for changing apps). However, we found that scrolling stuttered, especially in Chrome. An update might fix this issue.
Winner: MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro sports a snappier keyboard, and its unique Force Touch trackpad allows for a variety of shortcuts.
One of the Surface Book's killer features is its ability to double as a robust stand-alone tablet for sketching and note-taking.
The notebook's included pen offers 1,024 levels of sensitivity, and while I'm no illustrator, drawing doodles in Fresh Paint felt almost as good as using real paper. Plus, thanks to Windows 10's Continuity feature, the Surface Book automatically shifts to a touch-friendly interface the second you snap the display off (if you enable that feature).
Save for its Force Touch trackpad, the MacBook Pro's special features are mainly software-based. The latest version of Apple's OS X features Handoff, which allows your MacBook to operate seamlessly with any of your iOS devices. For example, you can start an email on your iPhone and finish it on your MacBook, or answer one of your iPhone's incoming calls right on your laptop.
Winner: Surface Book. The MacBook Pro has useful iOS integration, but the Surface Book's detachable screen, pen and touch features make it a true standout.
Armed with a 6th-Generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, the Surface Book has plenty of multitasking muscle. That sounds similar enough to our 13-inch MacBook Pro (5th-Gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB storage) on paper, though the MacBook proved slightly superior in our lab tests.
The MacBook Pro edged out the standard Surface Book on the Geekbench 3 performance test, with a score of 7,113 versus the Surface Book's mark of 6,814. Apple's laptop also inched past the Surface on our spreadsheet test, in which the MacBook matched 20,000 names to addresses in 3 minutes and 28 seconds, versus the Surface's time of 4:17.
Both notebooks sport speedy, PCIe-based flash storage, but the MacBook Pro was able to copy 4.97GB worth of multimedia just a bit faster than the Surface Book (13 seconds versus 16 seconds).
It's worth noting that we also tested a Core i7 version of the Surface Book with discrete graphics, which performed notably better than the standard version and trumped the MacBook Pro on our general-performance test. Plus, this version of the Surface Book is powerful enough to play the latest games, while the MacBook Pro 13-inch doesn't even have a discrete GPU option. On the other hand, you can add a Core i7 processor to the 13-inch MacBook Pro for an extra $300.
Test results aside, we simply had a smoother experience with the MacBook Pro. The Surface Book has been buggy, even after a recent update to the latest build of Windows 10. For example, the cursor sometimes disappears, and we've experienced a couple of system freezes that required long-pressing the power button to reset. The MacBook remains the more reliable notebook for now.
Winner: Draw. Both of these laptops are speedy, and the discrete graphics version of the Surface Book is faster than the MacBook Pro. However, the bugs in the Surface Book make this round a draw for now.
Both of these premium notebooks can handle a full day's work on a charge, but the Surface Book has the slight edge in battery life. In laptop mode, the Surface Book lasted a whopping 12 hours and 29 minutes on our battery test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), overtaking the MacBook Pro's 12:04 and trumping our 8-hour category average.
That said, the Surface Book won't last you nearly as long in tablet mode, enduring just 1 hour and 53 minutes on our test.
Winner: Surface Book. Both of these notebooks have impressive endurance, but Microsoft's laptop gets you almost a half hour of extra juice.
Audio and Cameras
The MacBook Pro exhibited the better audio output of the two laptops, cranking Fall Out Boy's "Irresistible" with much more volume and clarity than the Surface Book did. The MacBook's speakers retained the song's thumping bass and horns, while the Surface Book made the track sound a bit too canned to be enjoyable.
The Surface Book's 5-megapixel front camera takes pretty clear selfies, but we noticed less graininess and more-natural skin tones using the MacBook Pro's 720p FaceTime webcam. Microsoft's notebook does have the unique benefit of an 8-MP rear camera, which captured our co-workers with impressive accuracy in our testing. That said, you might not be planning on taking many photos with a hulking, 13-inch tablet.
Winner: MacBook Pro. The Surface Book has an extra camera, but the MacBook Pro delivers sharp selfies and superior audio.
The Surface Book starts at $1,499, packing a 6th-Gen Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. A $1,699 model adds discrete Nvidia graphics. If you want to go all out, you can outfit the Surface Book with a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, discrete graphics and 1TB of storage, all for a whopping $3,199.
The starting 13-inch MacBook Pro is more affordable, offering a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, all for $1,299. The $1,499 config ups the storage to 256GB, while the fully loaded $1,799 model packs a 2.9-GHz Core i5 processor and 512GB of storage. (Apple has not yet upgraded its laptop to the latest Intel Skylake chips.)
Overall, the MacBook Pro offers similar starting specs to the Surface Book for a lower price. Still, Microsoft's laptop is the only of the two that features a removable touch display and included stylus, which might justify the extra $200 for creative professionals. Plus, the Surface Book offers more configuration options, which is good for those looking for lots of power.
Winner: MacBook Pro. The Surface Book is more versatile and offers a wider range of configurations, but the MacBook Pro has a more affordable starting price.
Overall Winner: MacBook Pro
The 13-inch MacBook Pro just barely beats out the Surface Book in this brawl, thanks largely to a superior design that has years of refinement behind it. Still, the Surface Book is plenty impressive for Microsoft's first-ever laptop, offering slightly better battery life and a gorgeous display that doubles as a highly functional tablet for drawing and taking notes.
Apple's notebook may be more attainable, at a starting price of $1,299, but the Surface Book's excellent pen and touch features may be worth the extra $200 for some people. Microsoft's notebook seems more compelling for power users who want to do it all, but the MacBook Pro's overall reliability is hard to top.
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