Surface Laptop vs MacBook Air: It's Not Even Close

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If you're looking for a good ultraportable laptop, Apple and Microsoft both have appealing options in the Surface Laptop and MacBook Air. Both laptops weigh well under 3 pounds and start at around $999.

air vs surface laptop mf

So, should you choose the tried-and-true MacBook Air, which recently got a minor spec bump, or Microsoft's brand-new sexy Surface Laptop? We've compared them to help you decide.

  Surface Laptop MacBook Air
Intel Processors 7th-Gen Kaby Lake Core i5, Core i7 5th-Gen Broadwell Core i5
Display Resolution (pixels) 13.5 inches 2256 x 1504 13 inches 1440 x 900
Ports USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, Surface Connect, Headphone Jack 2 USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2, Headphone Jack, MagSafe 2, SD memory reader
PortsThickness 1xUSB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, Surface Connect, Headphone Jack0.6 inches 2xUSB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2, Headphone Jack, MagSafe 2, SD memory reader0.7 inches
Dimensions  12.13 x 8.79 x 0.57 inches 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11 x 0.68 inches
Weight 2.8 pounds 3.0 pounds

Design

With its colorful designs and soft-touch Alcantara deck, the Surface Laptop is a strong contender for the best-designed ultraportable notebook. We all felt the same way about the MacBook Air when the company introduced it in 2008, but the model today looks practically the same as the ones that came before.

image 3128371497447620

That's not to say MacBook Air isn't still a sleek, well-designed machine, it's just that consumers have moved onto devices with thinner bezels and more eye-catching colors. While we wish that all Surface Laptop models (and not just the $1,299 configuration) came in something other than Platinum, its Cobalt blue and Burgundy red options are too cool to ignore.

image 3128371497447637

Measuring 0.6 inches thick and weighing 2.8 pounds, the Surface Laptop is also thinner and lighter than the Air (0.7 inches, 3 pounds).

Winner: The Surface Laptop wins by a mile, due to its fresh design and vibrant colors.

Display

When Microsoft announced the Surface Laptop, my first thought was that it was the high-res display MacBook Air that I've been clamoring for. Its 2,256 x 1,504-pixel screen makes the MacBook Air's 1,440 x 900 panel seem even more antiquated.

image 3128371497447790

If the refreshed MacBook Air's display is similar to the one in the 2015 model we tested (it likely is), the Surface Laptop is brighter and more colorful. The Surface Laptop emits up to 361 nits of brightness, beating the Air's 334 nits, and produces 135 percent of the sRGB spectrum, which is more than twice the Air's 65.8 percent reading.

Winner: The Surface Laptop is brighter, more colorful and sharper, making this an easy victory.

Keyboard

Both the MacBook Air and Surface Laptop feature backlit keyboards, but the comfy, stain-resistant Alcantara deck on Microsoft's machine makes it more comfortable on your wrists.

image 3128371497447656

The Air offers great keys for a MacBook, with 1 millimeter of travel that makes for more comfortable typing than the shallower ones in the 12-inch MacBook (0.5mm) and MacBook Pros (0.7 - 0.8mm). The Surface Laptop, though, offers one of the best typing experiences on any ultraportable notebook with 1.4mm-deep keys.

Winner: The Surface Laptop is easier on your fingers.

Ports

While Apple isn't adding any new ports for its refreshed 2017 MacBook Air, its port selection is still strong, offering dual USB 3.0 connections, an SD memory reader, a headphone jack, a Thunderbolt 2 port and MagSafe 2 for power.

image 3128371497447720

Microsoft went comparatively light on the Surface Laptop's connectors, with only one USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort a headphone jack and the proprietary Surface Connector for power and docking. 

Winner: The MacBook Air, by a USB 3.0 port and an SD memory reader.

Performance

We look forward to giving the 2017 version of the MacBook Air a full, comprehensive test, but we're not expecting much. This year's Air still sports an outdated 5th-Gen Intel Broadwell CPU, which is 1.8 GHz, a small tick up from the 1.6-GHz processor in the previous version.

The Surface Laptop, though, packs modern 7th-Gen Intel Kaby Lake processors, and the Core i5-7200U chip in our test model pushed it to a solid 7,157 on the Geekbench 4 general performance test. While Geekbench 4 wasn't available when we tested the 2015 Air, it earned a 5,783 on the Geekbench 3 test.

image 3128371497447759If Apple uses the same SSD storage in the new MacBook Air that it used in the previous model, it will best the Surface Laptop in that category. The Air duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files at a rate of 358.4 MBps, which is more than three times as fast as the Surface Laptop (110.6 MBps).

Verdict: Surface Laptop, thanks to its more up-to-date processor.

Battery Life

The Surface Laptop lasted a fairly long 9 hours and 2 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, but that's not enough here. We expect that the 2017 MacBook Air will offer similar battery life to the 14-hour time the previous model turned in, and Apple's advertising a more-modest "up to 12 hours." It's easy to get longer battery life when you have a low-res screen.

image 3128371497447779

Winner: The MacBook Air is almost certain to blow the Surface Laptop away.

Value

Both the Surface Laptop and MacBook Air start at $999 with Core i5 models that offer 128GB of storage, but the similarities end there. At that same price, the Surface Laptop offers a better screen, keyboard and a more modern processor.

The upside of the Air is that its $999 model offers 8GB of RAM, while Microsoft only gave the entry-level Surface Laptop 4GB of memory. We wish that weren't the case, but it's not enough to tip the scales back.

Winner: The Surface Laptop, though it is a little shy on RAM.

Bottom Line

sc microsoft surface laptop vs apple macbook air 1497450112149As it stands today, the MacBook Air's only wins come from its extra ports and longer battery life, which probably aren't enough to sway anyone who isn't gung ho on the macOS platform. If Apple wants to do better, it ought to reconsider making the look, screen and processor more modern and competitive. As of now, the Air is only for die-hard Apple fans.

Images: Laptop Mag

Laptop Guide

Author Bio
Henry T. Casey
Henry T. Casey,
After graduating from Bard College a B.A. in Literature, Henry T. Casey worked in publishing and product development at Rizzoli and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. Henry joined Tom's Guide and LAPTOP having written for The Content Strategist, Tech Radar and Patek Philippe International Magazine. He divides his free time between going to live concerts, listening to too many podcasts, and mastering his cold brew coffee process. Content rules everything around him.
Henry T. Casey, on
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10 comments
  • Lawrence Says:

    The surface has a micro SD card slot on back. Took me a year to notice it.

  • Randall Says:

    How is it "not even close"? Looks pretty close to me, and I'm not sure I can agree with some of the verdicts above. Design and Keyboard, unless wildly different, should not be counted in any sort of comparison. Too subjective.

    A faster processor certainly sounds great, but without the RAM and speed of drive to support it, it leaves it on par with the MBAir(btw a 100% increase in RAM is not something that should just be dismissed). Especially when you consider the Surface needs to push that higher res display.

    Additionally, those numbers from Geekbench, what exactly do they represent? Like what was tested? Just calculations? Cutting/Rendering a movie? Gameplay? You provided absolutely no context. If I said my computer scored a solid 643,4234,666 on the LaptopMag5000 test, would that mean anything?(no, because it's just numbers unless qualified). And no, I'm not going to buy Geekbench just to figure out what "7,157 on the Geekbench 4 general performance test" actually means.

    Additionally, as others said, OSX is fairly superior to windows (with minor wins for the Windows category here and there).

    Add in the ports, the SSD, the boost in RAM, battery life, and the software, I think the winner, based on this comparison alone, is actually the MBAir. Unless one needs a windows machine or super high res display, then the winner is the Surface.

    So again, how is it "not even close"?

  • Jeffsfg Says:

    While the surface pro is a very nice piece of hardware OS X is so much better than windows nowadays. I used to be a total windows fanboy but after having a MacBook for the last three years windows feels like total garbage.

    It takes me from 3-5 seconds more to navigate windows OS as compared to OS X. The touchpad gestures make doing anything in OS X so much quicker and fluid.

  • JuanSoto Says:

    Used to despise Apple with a passion. Nowadays, I would take macOS over Windows 10 on any machine - if those were my only two choices.

  • Henson Tamaho Says:

    "If Apple wants to do better, it ought to reconsider making the look, screen and processor more modern and competitive. As of now, the Air is only for die-hard Apple fans."

    Oh dear, another special kind of idiot from laptopmag LOL XD

    The SL is meant to compete with the MBP13, NOT the air from the past, which btw, is still better in so many ways than this crap.

    Microsoft can try their ass off trying to top Apple, but it won't happen in a million years even in their dreams :P

  • Chris J Says:

    OS and applications: Windows 10 is still very much a work in progress MS withdrew a big update recently because it borked your hard drive..!

    On a ultra portable laptop: battery life and connectivity ARE the features that sway buyers and the MBA performance rendering shows the processor argument to be irrelevant. Good balance is the key.

    We run many (over a 1000) Macbook Airs and they are often like new including performance even after 4 years in the hands of students when we swap them out them. Then we get 45% ROI as we sell them on. MBA all the way I am afraid.

  • Harben Mahil Says:

    You need to compare it to the new Kaby Lake Airs

  • Marshall Cearfoss Says:

    So we're ignoring software now?

  • Joe Bean Says:

    It's useful to compare features, but there is no need to portray things in terms of fights.

    You need to look at the target user for these machines. A fast SSD is much more important than processor for those already fast enough for the usual scenario.

    Having a slow surface laptop because of low RAM, slow HD and having to put up with Windows 10 is a lot for some users who wants something simple that just works. Power users will choose something else anyway.

    The screen is maybe the most important differentiation to some who notices. But for a Netflix machine, a good quality exact full HD would maybe be better than any other too much or too little resolution that needs scaling.

    I don't know who decides between a Mac and a PC based on which ones has the best CPU, but it doesn't seem to make much sense to me. Mac is a very different ecosystem and comparing CPU performances seems like a useless exercise for that kind of laptop. Mentioning it is fine, but it is not a major aspect in my opinion, just like pure performance of the Ipad doesn't mean much when IOS apps are so different than what you find on a Windows system.

    The speed of the real life user experience is more important than abstract tech specs. Despite its slow processors, the old Ipad still gets out of sleep instantly while for some badly designed Windows laptops with hard disks, you need many seconds to see your desktop. Which one will you grab for a quick look at the web?

    No winner or looser, the right tool for the job. The rest is clickbait.

  • Nicolas Says:

    I think a much faster drive has more real-life importance for most people than the performance differences between the CPUs.

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