Skip to main content

Surface Laptop 3 vs MacBook Air: Why Microsoft Could Win

Microsoft just unveiled the Surface Laptop 3 at its big Oct. 2 hardware event. Along with the 13.5-inch display (starting at $999) we've seen on previous models, there is now a 15-inch version (starting at $1,199) of the clamshell laptop. A new metal finish, 10th Gen CPUs and a USB-C port are other welcome improvements debuting on the Surface Laptop 3. 

But as an ultraportable laptop, the Surface Laptop 3 has to go up against Apple's MacBook Air (starting at $1,099). The latest Air might not be the laptop we were hoping for, but it still offers a gorgeous design, vivid display, and strong sound. 

Here's an early look at how the Surface Laptop 3 compares to the MacBook Air.

Surface Laptop 3 vs MacBook Air: Specs compared

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch)Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch)Apple MacBook Air
Starting Price$999$1,199$1,099
Display13.5-Inch, 2256 x 150415-inch, 2496 x 166413.3-inch, 2560 x 1660
CPUIntel Core i7-1065G7Intel Core i7-1065G7 or AMD Ryzen 7 3780UIntel Core i5 (Y-series)
RAM8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB8GB, 16GB
GraphicsIris Plus graphics 950Iris Plus graphics 950 or AMD Radeon RX Vega 11 GraphicsUHD 617
Storage128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB SSD128GB/256GB/512GB SSD256GB, 512GB, 1TB
PortsOne USB Type-C, one USB Type-A, headphone jack, Surface Connect port2 Thunderbolt 3, headphone
Size12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 inches13.4 x 9.6 x 0.57 inches12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches
Weight2.9 pounds3.4 pounds2.8 pounds

Design

Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3 feels more like a MacBook Air than ever before. That's because the latest version is also offered in aluminum in addition to the Alcantara fabric on the previous models. 

I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the Surface Laptop 3 and MacBook Air when I got my hands on Microsoft's new clamshell device. Both notebooks have stylish curves, clean surfaces and large touchpads. 

The aluminum Surface Laptop 3 even has a similar metallic finish as the MacBook Air, which feels smooth but looks almost rough. 

There are a few differences between the two notebooks, like the angle of the Laptop 3's back edge and the texture on its keyboard and touchpad, which do enough to make it feel unique. If you really want to stand out, you can get the Surface Laptop 3 with an Alcantara, or a soft fabric finish on the keyboard. We've always been supporters of the material but it can get dirty over time.

Both laptops come in a variety of colors. Apple went the traditional route with Space Gray, gold and silver while Microsoft offers the Laptop 3 in platinum (silverish) and Cobalt Blue in Alcantara and black and Sandstone for the metal versions. 

The 13-inch Surface Laptop 3 and MacBook Air have very similar footprints. The Surface Laptop 3 is 0.6 inches thick and weighs 2.9 pounds whereas the MacBook Air is also 0.6 inches thick but slightly lighter, at 2.8 pounds. The 15-inch Laptop 3 is just as thin as those smaller laptops but weighs 3.4 pounds. 

Ports

Get ready to buy a dongle. Ports are at a premium on both the MacBook Air and the Surface Laptop 3 (even the 15-inch model).  

Both Surface Laptop 3 versions have a USB-C port, USB-A input, a Surface Connect port and a headphone/mic jack. 

The MacBook Air only has two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack. 

Display

The MacBook Air has a 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600-pixel display with a 16:10 aspect ratio. We tested the Retina display and found it to be relatively bright and vivid. 

Our colorimeter rated the screen at 100% of the sRGB color gamut, which is actually lower than the 129% premium laptop average.  

At 343 nits of brightness, the MacBook Air's display also falls just short of the 346-nit average. 

We can't definitely say that the Surface Laptop 3's 13.5-inch, 2256 x 1504-pixel touch screen is better, but the identically-specced panel on the Surface Laptop 2 blew away the MacBook Air. 

Our colorimeter clocked the display on the Surface Laptop 3's predecessor at 176% of the sRGB color gamut, making it much more vivid than the screen on the Air. That more than makes up for the fact that the Surface Laptop 2 (321 nits) didn't get quite as bright as the Air.

In short, if the Surface Laptop 3 has the same 13.5-inch display as the Surface Laptop 2, then Apple is in trouble.  

But let's not forget about the Surface Laptop 3's new 15-inch option, which has a 2496 x 1664-resolution. That gives it the same 3:2 aspect ratio and pixels-per-inch of 201 as the 13.5-inch panel. 

The display looked bright and vivid in our brief hands-on time with the laptop, so there's hope that Microsoft once again equipped its laptops with some of the most gorgeous displays around.  

Performance

For the best performance, buy the Surface Laptop 3. 

Apple stubbornly equipped with the MacBook Air with Intel Y-series CPUs. While these low-power chips offer long battery life and thin form factors, they are seriously underpowered when compared to the U-series CPUs in the new Surface Laptop 3. 

Another reason the Surface Laptop 3 should trump the MacBook Air in this category is that Microsoft's laptop has the latest 10th Gen Intel Core (Ice Lake) processors: the Core i5-1035G7 or i7-1065G7. 

These should not only crush any Y-series CPU but we expect them to provide a nice speed boost over the 8th Gen CPUs in the Surface Laptop 2. 

It doesn't stop there. The 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 can also be configured with a custom AMD Ryzen 5 3580U or Ryzen 7 3780U processor with Vega graphics. We haven't tested these processors before, so we'll have to put the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 through our benchmark gauntlet before we can make any conclusions. 

Keyboard and touchpad

Microsoft took a not-so-subtle jab at Apple when it announced that the Surface Laptop 3's keyboard can be completely removed for easier repairs (though it warned against doing so yourself). 

That slight wasn't really necessary; Everyone is aware of the MacBook Air's troubled keyboard, which is so unreliable that Apple acknowledged its problems and is offering free servicing for affected keys. 

Beyond those quality control issues, the MacBook Air's keyboard just isn't very comfortable. The keys themselves, while snappy and large, are very shallow and feel stiff. 

With a similar keyboard to its predecessor, the Surface Laptop 3's keys have more travel (1.3mm), which gives them a softer, less punishing click. I also didn't bottom out once when I typed for a few minutes on the Surface Laptop 3's keyboard.  

Both the Laptop 3 and MacBook Air have comfortable glass touchpads that respond quickly to swipes and gestures. The surface on the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 is especially massive. 

Battery Life

Microsoft claims the 13.5-inch and 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 can endure for up to 11.5 hours on a charge. 

That would top the MacBook Air's 8 hours and 51-minute runtime and the Surface Laptop 2's 9 hour and 22-minute endurance. But you should take Microsoft's claims with a grain of salt as marketing materials don't always line up with reality, especially when it comes to battery life. 

Outlook

Microsoft has a MacBook Air killer on its hands. The Surface Laptop 3 is expected to provide significantly faster performance than the MacBook Air, have a more comfortable (and reliable) keyboard and a better selection of ports. 

And with the new Surface Laptop 3, you can opt for a 15-inch display and aluminum chassis if you prefer metal over fabric. We're also intrigued by the custom-built AMD processor Microsoft will offer on the larger model. 

While we can't comment on battery life and display quality until we get the Surface Laptop 3 in for review, Microsoft's new laptop looks poised to come out on top in this fierce rivalry. 

Phillip Tracy is a senior writer at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag, where he reviews laptops and covers the latest industry news. After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Phillip became a tech reporter at the Daily Dot. There, he wrote reviews for a range of gadgets and covered everything from social media trends to cybersecurity. Prior to that, he wrote for RCR Wireless News and NewBay Media. When he's not tinkering with devices, you can find Phillip playing video games, reading, listening to indie music or watching soccer.