If you’re after a mainstream 13-inch laptop with solid performance, Apple and Microsoft both have offerings designed to tempt you to open your wallet. The eternal rivalry of these venerable tech giants sees the MacBook Air go head-to-head with the brand-new Surface Laptop 3. But which is the better device? That’s the score we aim to settle.
The MacBook Air resembles its original version, albeit with a slightly thinner chassis and smaller bezels. It fits Apple’s usual design aesthetic that’s elegant and not at all ostentatious, and the company offers the notebook in gold, silver, and space gray color schemes. The Surface Laptop 3 sports a few changes over its predecessor, including a slightly larger trackpad and the introduction of all-metal chassis in addition to the usual Alcantara fabric finish.
Both of these are extremely well-built laptops, with rigid aluminum chassis and zero flexing or bending. The MacBook Air is a bit thicker than the Surface Laptop 3 at 0.61-inches versus 0.57-inches, but they weigh almost the same at 2.75 versus 2.79 pounds to 2.84 pounds (depending on the finish).
The MacBook Air uses Apple’s 3rd-generation butterfly keyboard that’s responsive but has very shallow keys. The Surface Laptop 3’s keyboard has significantly more travel and is just as snappy, making it by far our preferred input option. At the same time, the MacBook Air’s huge Force Touch touchpad is excellent, while the Surface Laptop 3’s smaller Precision touchpad is good but can’t quite keep up; we feel Microsoft could have been a little more generous with its size. Microsoft’s laptop benefits from a touch display and Surface Pen support, though, making it more flexible.
Connectivity is another significant difference. The MacBook Air has just two USB-C ports, but both support Thunderbolt 3 for transfers speeds of up to 40Gbps. The Surface Laptop 3 has a USB-A 3.0 port, a USB-C port, and a Surface Connect port for charging and docking. The lack of Thunderbolt 3 makes Microsoft’s laptop less flexible in terms of external display and GPU enclosure support, but you won’t need as many dongles.
Performance is a more important differentiator between these two laptops. The MacBook Air is built around Intel’s low-power Y-series dual-core CPUs that focus on saving the battery and reducing heat rather than on sheer speed. The Surface Laptop 3 picked up Intel 10th-generation quad-core processors. That makes Microsoft’s laptop much faster and more capable of meeting demanding productivity and content creation tasks.
Storage performance, though, is a win for the MacBook Air. Both machines rely on fast PCIe solid state drives (SSDs), but Apple tends to source the absolute fastest SSDs available. The MacBook Air is, therefore, faster in accessing and saving data, although the difference in real-life use will be minimal unless you’re dealing with very large files.
Display quality is an area where Apple and Microsoft both excel. At least, that’s usually the case with MacBooks, which typically enjoy superior displays with wide and accurate colors, excellent contrast, and high brightness. The MacBook Air is a bit of an exception, unfortunately, given its average scores across the board in spite of a Retina 2,560 x 1,600 resolution. But here, too, Microsoft’s device is something of a letdown. Its 2,256 x 1,504 display is plenty sharp, but its disappointing color accuracy can’t compete with devices like the MacBook Pro or Dell XPS 15.
Neither of these laptops will weigh you down or take up too much space in your backpack given that they have almost identical weights. The Surface Laptop 3 is slightly heavier at 2.79 pounds to 2.84 pounds compared to the MacBook’s 2.75 pounds, but there’s hardly anything in it. The same goes for their dimensions: the MacBook Air comes in at 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.61 inches, while the Surface Laptop 3 is 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.57 inches. You’ll be happy carrying either of these laptops around.
Battery life is also similar. The MacBook Air hit very average battery life, at about eight hours of web browsing and 10 hours of video watching in our review. The Surface Laptop 3, meanwhile, managed seven to eight hours in light usage. Our review unit was the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 rather than the 13-inch variant, but Microsoft gives identical battery life estimates on its website.
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 proves that performance counts
Thestarts at $1,099 and comes with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. The starts at a slightly cheaper $999 for similar specs.
If you want to max out the MacBook Air, you can get one with a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 16GB of memory and a 1TB SSD for $1,899. The Surface Laptop 3, meanwhile, can go all the way up to an Intel Core i7 chip, 16GB of memory and a 1TB SSD. The beefier processor ups the asking price, though, to $2,399.
Overall, the Surface Laptop 3 is just as good looking and well built as the MacBook Air, but is significantly faster. It’s expensive as you ramp up the configuration, but you get what you pay for in this case.
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