The MacBook Air spent a few years in Apple’s doghouse, serving as the low-cost and antiquated entry into the company’s notebook line. That changed just recently, though, with an updated version that moves forward to the latest CPU and migrates to a few significantly better components.
The notebook industry hasn’t stood still since the MacBook Air was last updated, though, and Microsoft’s detachable tablet Surface Pro 6 is one of the best examples of just how far along it it’s come. Does the revamped MacBook Air have what it takes to take on the best 2-in-1 on the market?
The MacBook Air’s chassis underwent some significant changes this year. It’s still the same sort of wedge shape that kicked off the thin-and-light notebook market, but it’s now thinner at between 0.16 and 0.61 inches and it’s lighter at 2.75 pounds. It’s also just as robust and well-built as the rest of Apple’s lineup, and comes in three color options — Gold, Silver, and Space Gray.
The Air inherits the same third-gen butterfly keyboard as the other MacBooks, with all of its strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t like the keyboard elsewhere, you won’t like it here. The touchpad is the same very large Force Touch version as well, and that’s much better and arguably the best around. Connectivity is another area where the Air “caught up” with its siblings. Gone are the USB-A, HDMI, and microSD connections, and you’re left with just two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3.
The Surface Pro 6, on the other hand, continues to showcase Microsoft’s now-iconic Surface design aesthetic and build, with a silver-gray color magnesium formed into a sliver of a tablet that’s thin (0.33 inches), light (1.73 pounds), and very robust. The Surface Pro 6 is a solid chunk of metal and glass, and in its 6th generation, it’s become the most elegant and modern Windows tablet with the smoothest and most flexible kickstand. Its connectivity is even more limited than the Air’s, with only one USB-A 3.0 port, a mini-DisplayPort, and a Surface Connect port. You won’t find USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 here.
In terms of input, the Surface Pro 6 is well-stocked. The Type Cover is a $130 extra, but the keyboard add-on offers a precise mechanism and consistent backlighting, a superior (albeit small) Microsoft Precision touchpad with support for all Windows 10 gestures, and it magnetically attaches to the slate and props at a comfortable typing angle. And the $100 Surface Pen offers 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, tilt support, and the fastest response times among all Windows 10 tablets. Of course, the display is also nicely touch-enabled.
You can also get the Surface Pro 6 in a sleek black color, and we find it to offer a superior and more modern design than the MacBook Air. They’re both well-made, but Microsoft’s tablet is a better fit in today’s notebook market.
The MacBook Air does have an Intel 8th-generation CPU packed inside, but that’s a bit deceiving. It’s a Y-series, which is still dual-core and runs at lower power. Apple sourced a special version of the processor and it’s a bit faster than the Y-series you’ll find in other similarly configured notebooks, but it’s not going to keep up with full-powered offerings. The PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), though, is ludicrously fast.
One such full-powered option is the Surface Pro 6, which also received Intel’s 8th generation of processors, only it received the U-series. These are quad-core CPUs with eight threads, and they’re both fast and efficient. Microsoft packed a lot of power into the Surface Pro 6’s tablet portion, and it’s a fast performer no matter its form factor. The SSD is also a speedy PCIe version that keeps the system loaded up with data.
The Air also received an upgrade to its 13.3-inch 16:10 display, specifically to Retina resolution (2,560 x 1,600 or 227 PPI), and that’s a welcome change. Unfortunately, the panel Apple selected doesn’t live up to the usual MacBook standards. It’s not as bright at just 291 nits (compared to greater than 500 nits on the MacBook Pro 13), and its contrast and color gamut aren’t as impressive.
The Surface Pro 6 has a 12.3-inch display that’s incredibly sharp at 2,736 x 1,824 (267 PPI) and with a productivity-friendly 3:2 aspect ratio. It also uses Microsoft’s latest Pixelsense technology that creates as thin a panel as possible, creating images that really pop and making pen and fingertip presses as natural as possible. The display offers over 400 nits of brightness and some of the best contrast you’ll find on a notebook display, although colors aren’t as impressive.
The Surface Pro 6 is faster and it has a better display. Enough said.
As we mentioned above, the MacBook Air is thinner and lighter than ever, and it’s a bona fide member of the thin and light category. The Surface Pro 6 is even more portable, even when you include the Type Cover that makes the entire package around as portable as the MacBook Air.
That’s only one aspect of portability, though, with battery life also impacting a notebook’s usefulness on the road. In this regard, the Air falls a bit flat of Apple’s standards, offering good but not great battery life — while the Surface Pro 6 took some serious strides forward in its longevity.
In all of our tests, Microsoft’s tablet was the longer-lasting device. When browsing the web, for example, the Surface Pro 6 lasted for nine and a half hours to the Air’s roughly eight hours. In spite of its more powerful processor, Surface Pro 6 also lasted slightly longer in our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test.
Neither of these machines are going to weigh you down or take up too much space in your backpack. But the Surface Pro 6 will last you longer away from an outlet, and make it less likely that you’ll have to carry around a bulky AC adapter.
The Surface Pro 6 got the better update
The MacBook Air starts out at $1,199 with a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. The price jumps to $1,399 if you want a 256GB SSD. It’s the cheapest MacBook you can buy, though the Y-Series processor is underpowered compared to Windows 10 laptops in this price range. The older MacBook Air is still sold by Apple for $999, but we don’t recommend it because of its severely outdated components.
Surface Pro 6 pricing starts out at $900 for a Platinum-colored Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Then, you need to spend another $130 for a Type Cover or $100 for a Surface Pen, and you’ll want both if you want to make full use of Microsoft’s 2-in-1. At the high end, you max things out for $2,300 to nab a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD, making this a very expensive notebook indeed.
If you’re committed to MacOS, then your choice is clear. But if you’re ope to Windows 10 as well, then the Surface Pro 6 will net you a faster, longer-lasting, and more flexible notebook.