Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison review

The Surface Pro 3 is first and foremost a tablet, but Microsoft claims it's the only tablet that can truly replace your laptop. During its unveiling, Microsoft made several comparisons with Apple's MacBook Air, suggesting that you'd be able to trade-in both your MacBook Air and iPad Air and replace them with Microsoft's new device. But can it really? Here, we put the Surface Pro 3 head-to-head with the MacBook Air to find out.

We've also compared the Surface Pro 3 with the iPad Air. You can find our Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air comparison review here.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air: UK price

We'll start by taking a look at the prices of both the Surface Pro 3 and MacBook Air, which are actually quite similar.

For a Core i3 Surface Pro 3 with 64GB storage, which is the base model of the device, you'll pay £639. But if you want to truly use it as a replacement for your laptop, you'll probably want to buy the Type Cover keyboard, which will cost you an additional £109. So let's say the Surface Pro 3 starts at £748.

When you take into consideration the cost of the keyboard, you'll find that the Surface Pro 3's starting price is just £1 less than the MacBook Air, which starts at £749 for the 11in model with a Core i5 chip, 4GB RAM and 128GB storage.

To give you a better idea of the price comparison between the two models, here's a little table.

Model

Processor

RAM

Storage

Cost

11in MacBook Air

Core i5 processor

4GB

128GB

£749

11in MacBook Air

Core i5 processor

4GB

256GB

£899

13in MacBook Air

Core i5 processor

4GB

128GB

£849

13in MacBook Air

Core i5 processor

4GB

256GB

£999

12in Surface Pro 3 plus keyboard

Core i3 processor

4GB

64GB

£748

12in Surface Pro 3 plus keyboard

Core i5 processor

4GB

128GB

£958

12in Surface Pro 3 plus keyboard

Core i5 processor

8GB

256GB

£1218

12in Surface Pro 3 plus keyboard

Core i7 processor

8GB

256GB

£1448

12in Surface Pro 3 plus keyboard

Core i7 processor

8GB

512GB

£1758

As you can see, the Surface Pro 3 gets pretty pricey when you start boosting the specs, and can soar above the cost of the MacBook Air when the processor, RAM and storage beat it. Even if you want to add a Core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM to the 13 MacBook Air, through, Apple's build-to-order options, the Surface Pro 3 will still be far more expensive, at £1,758 compared with the MBA's £1,049.

Of course, that extra money isn't wasted: you'll get a lighter device that comes complete with a higher-resolution, touchscreen display (both of which we'll talk about later in this article), so it's a case of whether those perks are worth the cash to you.

Read our 11in MacBook Air benchmarks

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: design

The MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 are both delightful to look at. They both sport design features that make them ergonomic, portable and convenient, but they're very different aesthetically.

The MacBook Air has a built-in keyboard and trackpad, for a start, while the Surface Pro 3 looks completely tablet-like until you attach the Type Cover to it using the magnetic strip. Apple's MacBook Air keyboard is sleek, with black, backlit keys surrounded by the same aluminium used across the rest of the laptop's chassis, while the Type Cover, complete with its own trackpad, comes is available in five different colours: red, purple, blue, black or cyan.

As it's not a traditional laptop and therefore is unable to use its base to support itself while sitting on a lap or desk, Microsoft has given the Surface Pro 3 a kickstand, which can be secured at any angle.

There's no denying that the MacBook Air is more comfortable to use on your lap, though. The keyboard is a joy to use and its more solid and sturdy than the Surface Pro 3, at least when you're using it with the keyboard attached.

Then there's the matter of size and weight. The MacBook Air is exceptionally light for a laptop, at just 1.35kg, but the Surface Pro 3 is lighter at 800g, as Microsoft pointed out during its unveiling. The MacBook Air is thicker, too, measuring 1.7cm (at its thickest point) compared with 0.9cm for the Surface Pro 3.

At its thinnest point, though, the MacBook Air is just 18mm thick, which we think is pretty impressive. It uses a wedged design that not only helps keep the weight and overall thickness down, but also helps ease the pressure on your wrists while typing.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: display

When it comes to the display, the Surface Pro 3 sits in the middle of the MacBook Air's two options. Microsoft's new Surface has a 12in screen, with a resolution of 2160 x 1440, which makes a pixel density of 216ppi.

The smaller MacBook Air's display is 11.6in, with a 1366 x 768 (135ppi) resolution, while the 13.2in model has a resolution of 1440 x 900 (127ppi). Both are LED-backlit, 16:9 widescreen displays.

So the Surface Pro 3 beats the MacBook Air when it comes to display, additionally because it has touchscreen functionality while Apple's offering doesn't. That said, the MacBook Air is still sharp and bright, so we don't think you'll be disappointed if you choose to buy it.

An additional accessory that you'll get with the Surface Pro 3 is the Surface Pen, a battery-powered stylus that you can use with the touchscreen for more accurate input and for quick, easy note-taking with OneNote. Without a touchscreen, there's not much use for a stylus for the MacBook Air.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: processor & performance

We've talked a bit about what's inside the Surface Pro 3 and MacBook Air above, but here we'll go into a bit more detail.

The MacBook Air has a 1.4 dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz, while the Surface Pro 3 comes in various configurations that include an Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor. We've yet to test the Surface Pro 3, but we imagine that it'll be a super-fast machine that could closely match, or even beat the performance of the MacBook Air when you start looking at the high-end models. We'll update this article with test results as soon as we have them.

The MacBook Air comes with 4GB low-power LPDD3SD RAM at 1600 MHz as standard, but this can be upgraded to 8GB at checkout. Depending on which model you choose, you can get 4GB or 8GB of DDR3 RAM in the Surface Pro 3.

Each of the five models of Surface Pro 3 has a different storage capacity, starting at 64GB and ranging up to 512GB of flash storage. The MacBook Air starts with 128GB flash storage, but there's a 256GB version available for both the 11in and 13in models, and they're both configurable up to 512GB.

Overall, taking a closer look at the specs of both of these devices shows that they are closely matched, and will both be able to handle power-hungry applications and heavy-duty tasks. As mentioned above, we'll be testing the performance of the Surface Pro 3 soon, so we'll share the speedmark scores with you as soon as we get them to give you a better of idea of which device performs best at particular tasks.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: software

Unlike Apple's tablets, Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 runs a full version of Windows 8.1 Pro, so you can expect to get desktop applications such as Photoshop and Office, or any other legacy Windows app or Modern UI app you like.

The MacBook Air, of course, runs a full version of Apple's Mac OS, OS X 10.9 Mavericks. That means you'll be able to run any software available for the Mac.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: battery life

The battery life of the MacBook Air is a fair bit better than the battery life of Microsoft's Surface Pro 3. We've not had a chance to test the new Surface, but Microsoft claims a battery life of nine hours when it's being used for web browsing, while the MacBook Air (which Apple says will last 12 hours) actually lasted almost 14 hours in our tests.

Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison: camera & connectivity

Surprisingly, the Surface Pro 3 doesn't have 4G LTE, which is a quality you'd expect most tablets to boast these days. Of course, neither does the MacBook Air, but that's because it's a laptop.

Both the MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 have 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, USB 3.0 and microSD card readers. The MacBook Air has two Thunderbolt 2 ports, though, as well as a HDMI port, while the Surface Pro 3 requires an optional docking station for expanded port options including gigabit Ethernet, display connectors and more USB ports. For Gigabit Ethernet on the MacBook Air, you'll need to buy an Apple Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter.

Understandably, the Surface Pro 3 has a front-facing and rear-facing camera while the MacBook Air just has a front-facing camera for FaceTime. Both of the Surface Pro 3's cameras are 5MP, while the MacBook Air's is a 720p webcam.

Read: How to transfer photos from Mac to Android & Windows tablets

OUR VERDICT

Overall, we take our hats off to Microsoft for its Surface Pro 3. It really does have specs that rival the MacBook Air and portability that brings it closer to competing tablets. But when it actually comes to using the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop, it's not the most comfortable of activities. We find the MacBook Air wonderful to work on for long periods of time, and with that lengthy battery life it's more suitable for full-day use.

Of course, you'll miss out on the tablet qualities that the Surface Pro 3 offers, such as the touchscreen and its lighter, thinner design, so if you decide that they're important to you, be prepared to cough up the extra cash.