MacBook Air 2020 vs. Surface Laptop 3 face-off: Which is best?

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The new MacBook Air (2020) and Surface Laptop 3 (13.5-inch) are so perfectly matched that it just seemed right to pit them against one another in a face-off. Both notebooks have proven to be among the best laptops, or if you're a student, the best college laptops

These laptops fall into the lower end of the premium price range with identical starting prices of $999. Both are among the best 13-inch laptops, and feature a standard laptop form factor and aluminum designs, so it can be easy to confuse the two (apart from those iconic logos).

But as you would expect, Apple and Microsoft made some different decisions when putting these laptops together, and we've compared them across a range of features to help you decide which is the right one for you.

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Price and availability

The new MacBook Air starts at $999, which is $100 off the previous model and now in line with Microsoft’s smaller Surface Laptop 3. A $100 education discount is available for both if you have a valid student email address.

While the base pricing is identical it is worth noting that the MacBook Air starts with twice as much storage (256GB vs 128GB) while the base Surface Laptop 3 has a much more powerful processor (Core i5 U-series vs Core i3 Y-series).

Most buyers will want to upgrade away from the base model of these laptops, but doing so costs an arm and a leg.

Going from the base Surface Laptop 3 with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD to one with the same specs but 256GBs of storage costs an extra $300. The MacBook Air's pricing is a bit more reasonable; jumping from a Core i3 to a Core i5 will run you an extra $100. 

Winner: MacBook Air

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Specs compared

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Row 0 - Cell 0 MacBook Air 2020Surface Laptop 3 (13.5-inch)
CPU 1.1-GHz 10th gen Intel Core i3 (Ice Lake Y-Series) 1.2 GHz 10th gen Intel Core i5 (Ice Lake U-Series)
Display 13.3 (2560 x 1600) True Tone 13.5 (2256 x 1504) PixelSense Touchscreen
Ports 2 Thunderbolt 3 USB-CUSB 3.1 Type-A, USB-C, Microsoft Surface Connect
Graphics Intel Iris Plus Intel Iris Plus
Storage256GB 128GB
Battery Life 9:31 (tested) 9:17 (tested)
Dimensions 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.6 inches
Weight 2.8 pounds 2.8 pounds

This one is really close, with the MacBook Air offering more base storage, a Thunderbolt 3 port, and slightly better battery life, while the Surface Laptop 3 has the more powerful CPU, a touchscreen, a magnetic charging port and gives you that convenient USB Type-A port.

Winner: Surface Laptop 3

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Design

The new MacBook doesn’t break the mold when it comes to Apple laptop design and we’re ok with that. It’s the same unibody aluminum construction that has been Apple’s signature for over a decade now and you can still opt for either gold, silver or space gray. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The Surface Laptop 3 has a very similar external design to the MacBook Air with its all-aluminum construction and simple shining centered logo on the lid. Inside, however, things are a little different. On the Surface, you get the option of an Alcantara fabric interior in various colors or the more traditional aluminum. 

While the soft feel of the fabric was missing on our review unit, concerns over staining and wear were not. The Surface Laptop 3 is available in sandstone, black, cobalt blue, or platinum, and unlike the MacBook Air, the keyboard is beautifully color-matched to the rest of the laptop.

On a less subjective note, the laptops are also virtually identical in size and weight: 0.6 inches thick and 2.8 pounds. 

Design is subjective and it's impossible to deny that the Surface Laptop 3 (and many premium laptops) drew inspiration from the MacBook Air. But for me, the current iteration of the Surface Laptop 3 and its color-matched keyboard is the more striking design.

Winner: Surface Laptop 3

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Ports

The MacBook Air 2020 maintains the status quo with two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack. We’d love to see more inputs, but at this point, we’re just happy to not see fewer.

The Surface Pro 3 offers a bit more with its USB-C input, USB Type-A port, Microsoft Surface Connect port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. 

This is a question of tradeoffs. If you have already embraced our bold new USB-C world then the MacBook Air is the clear winner with its pair of more powerful Thunderbolt 3 supporting USB-C ports. 

On the other hand, the option of one legacy USB Type-A port on the Surface Laptop 3 is nice in case you forget your bag of USB-C cables. Also, the magnetic Surface Connect port is really convenient for charging.

Winner: Draw

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Display

The MacBook Air made the jump to a Retina display back in 2018 and not much has changed for the new model, which has the same 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600 resolution screen. 

In our lab testing, we found the colors to be improved. The display covers 113% of the sRGB gamut, which is still below the category average but a step up from the previous year. The bigger leap was in brightness -- the MacBook Air hit an average of 386 nits, coming in well above the 357-nit average.

MacBook Air 2020

(Image credit: Future)

The Surface Laptop 3 doesn't bring any fundamental changes, either. It has the same 13.5-inch screen with a 2256 x 1504 resolution. But that's fine with us. 

The Surface Laptop 3 is more colorful than the MacBook Air, hitting 121% of the sRGB gamut, according to our colorimeter. Regarding brightness, the Surface just loses out with 348 nits. But it's also worth considering the two differentiators offered by the Surface Laptop 3 display: touch sensitivity and a taller 3:2 aspect ratio. 

From a specs standpoint, the MacBook Air takes this one by a slim margin with its higher resolution and brightness. That said, the more vivid touchscreen with its 3:2 aspect ratio on the Surface Laptop 3 is the better choice for some users.

Winner: Draw

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Performance and graphics

The new MacBook Air's 10th Gen Intel Ice Lake processor is a big step up from the previous 8th Gen Intel Coffee Lake, but it's still a low-powered Y-Series Ice Lake CPU and the base model has a Core i3.

In our testing, the MacBook Air with the quad-core 1.1-GHz Intel Core i5-1030NG7 processor and 8GB of RAM completed our HandBrake 4K to 1080p video transcoding test in 27 minutes and 10 seconds, well behind the 19 minute and 46-second category average. 

The Air also put up a fairly weak 2,738 on the Geekbench 5.0 performance test, versus the 4,248 premium laptop average.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The SSD is the one area where the MacBook Air really shined. It netted BlackMagic benchmark read speeds of 1,301.9MBps, easily eclipsing the 1,162.7MBps average.

The Surface Laptop 3 also uses a 10th Gen Intel Ice Lake processor, but it's the higher-powered U-Series chip and starts with a Core i5.

We tested the higher-end quad-core 1.3-GHz Intel Core i7-1065G7 processor with 16GB of RAM and it completed our HandBrake 4K to 1080p video transcoding test in 24 minutes and 55 seconds, besting the MacBook Air by 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

On the Geekbench 5.0 performance test, the Surface Laptop 3 managed a score of 4801, which was above the average and far beyond the MacBook Air.

The Surface Laptop 3 has dramatically improved SSD performance (541.4 MBps), but the storage drive is still half the speed of the one in the MacBook Air.

On the graphics side, both the MacBook Air and the Surface Laptop 3 use Intel’s Iris Plus integrated graphics, so you’ll be able to do light gaming. Just don’t expect any high-end modern titles to be playable.

Unsurprisingly, the Surface Laptop 3 takes this one. The SSD disparity makes things a little more interesting, but the Y-Series processor in the MacBook Air just can’t keep up with the Surface Laptop 3.

Winner: Surface Laptop 3

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Keyboard and touchpad

The new MacBook Air thankfully adopted the same Magic Keyboard found in the 16-inch MacBook Pro and it's a joy to use. Yes, the days of incredibly loud and unreliable butterfly keyboards are over. The keys offer 1mm of travel, which we found to be springy. We had no problems typing for extended periods at a comfortable pace.

The trackpad on the MacBook Air is enormous at 4.8 x 3.2 inches, but Apple does an excellent job with rejecting accidental touches, and the large size makes it easy to use gestures.

MacBook Air 2020

(Image credit: Future)

The Surface Laptop 3 retains the same solid keyboard of the previous model with 1.3mm of key travel. We appreciated the soft-touch surface and comfortably typed at a swift speed. In fact, we like the Surface Laptop 3's keyboard so much, we even compared it to the gold standard ThinkPad keyboards. While it isn’t part of the keyboard itself, the optional Alcantara fabric interior available on the Surface Laptop 3 does make for a pleasant typing experience.

It's not quite as large as the MacBook Air’s, but the 4.5 x 3-inch touchpad on the Surface Laptop 3 is certainly sufficient for executing Windows 10 gestures.

While the Surface Laptop 3 buried the previous MacBook Air in this category, the MacBook Air 2020 and its Magic Keyboard make it a closer call. Still, the Surface Laptop 3's plush keyboard takes this one.

Winner: Surface Laptop 3

MacBook Air vs. Surface Laptop 3: Battery life

These two laptops performed similarly in our Laptop Mag battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits. 

Apple actually reduced its battery life claims for the MacBook Air down to 11 hours this year, but in our testing, it managed 9 hours and 31 minutes. This is still a solid result against the category average of 8 hours and 42 minutes.

The Surface Laptop 3 managed to make it 9 hours and 17 minutes against a claimed battery life of 11.5 hours. Again this is 35 minutes above the average for the category, so not a bad result by any means.

There isn’t a huge disparity here, but the MacBook Air edges out the win.

Winner: MacBook Air

Overall winner: Surface Laptop 3 (13.5-inch)

Much like the last time we pitted these two laptops against one another, it was a close-fought battle, but the Surface Laptop 3 came out on top again. 

The Surface Laptop 3 is simply better in most regards, particularly if you value the touchscreen and Surface Pen support. The Surface Laptop has a more interesting design, a more vivid display and an excellent keyboard. But it's the U-series CPU inside that crushes the MacBook Air in our performance tests. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The operating system is a big piece of the puzzle but that comes down to preference, so if you are all-in on Apple products or have been a macOS user for years, then the MacBook Air is probably the better option. 

With the revision of the MacBook Air keyboard, our qualms about that device are thankfully gone. So, in the end, while the Surface Laptop 3 is the superior hardware experience, you would be well served by either laptop.

Sean Riley

Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more.  Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you'll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.