Apple MacBook Air vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 6

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 its come. Does the revamped MacBook Air have what it takes to take on the best 2-in-1 on the market?

Design

Surface Pro 6 Review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

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 even thinner at between 0.16 and 0.63 inches, and it weighs in at 2.8 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-generation 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 silver-gray 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.

Performance

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The MacBook Air does have an Intel 10th-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 bringing it up 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.

Portability

Surface Pro 6 Review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

As we mentioned above, the MacBook Air is thinner and lighter than ever, and it’s a bonafide 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 is 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

For only $899, Apple’s MacBook Air with a Core i3 processor and 8GB of ram is available. The fact that you may be eligible to obtain free AirPods with purchase is only icing on the cake. Also, if you want more processing power, it’s possible to upgrade your device. However, this causes the base price to jump to $1,299 (if you want to get one with a quad-core 10th-generation Core i5 and a 512GB SSD). Alongside the MacBook Pro, which is entry-level, the MacBook Air is the cheapest. Windows 10 laptops in a similar price range overpower those with a Y-Series processor.

Surface Pro 6 pricing starts at $900 for a Platinum-colored Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. However, you have some additional expenditures if you want to take advantage of your Surface Pro 6. You will also need to spend another $130 for a Type Cover or $100 for a Surface Pen. These two items are must-haves if you want to get more out of your Surface Pro 6 and use the 2-in-1 functionality to its full extent. You can get a Surface Pro 6 with a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD for around $2,000, making it a high-end notebook.

If you’re a diehard Apple fan, there’s no point in trying to make the switch to a Windows system, no matter how many features they offer. As an Apple user, you’re probably not going to gain enough to make the transition worth it. If you don’t mind switching to a different OS, the Surface Pro 6 is an excellent alternative to Apple products with its sleek design, 2-in-1 functionality, and excellent performance.

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