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Bill Bennett


MacBook Air or Microsoft Surface Pro?

MacBook Air

One is a laptop that’s barely larger than a tablet. The other is a tablet with laptop characteristics. Both are powerful devices. Both cost roughly the same. Which is the better buy for a busy independent knowledge worker or a corporate suit with a BYOD cheque to spend?

For many users this isn’t a choice they’ll ever have to make. Some have a religious conviction that Apple is the only path to salvation. Others are addicted to Microsoft Office. People who work for large companies may have the decisions made for them by the technology department.

Put these aside, which is the smarter buy?

Both devices are nice. Microsoft has shown extraordinary attention to details – that’s a given with Apple.

Microsoft Surface Pro
Microsoft Surface Pro


The two companies are selling their kit on capabilities and style instead of the usual tech industry focus on specifications and price. That said, a quick look at specifications and price is revealing.

Surface Pro prices start at NZ$1350 for the 64GB version. A decent keyboard adds NZ$200 to the price. Roughly the same money buys a 13-inch MacBook Air with 128GB of Flash Storage. Both have an intel Core i5 processor.

Macbook storage goes further than Surface storage, so Apple is at a clear advantage at this point.

Another specification point in Apple’s favour is battery life. The company says its 13 inch Macbook Air runs for 12 hours on a charge – some reviewers report better figures. On the other hand Microsoft claims five hours for the Surface Pro. In other words, for a full day’s work you’ll need to pack a charger.


Microsoft’s display wins hands down – 1920 by 1080 pixels on a ten inch screen means 208 pixels per inch. That’s almost the same image quality as an Apple Retina display. The 13 inch Macbook AIr has 1440 by 900 pixels on a bigger screen for a lower density. I make it around 155 pixels per inch, but I may be using the wrong formula to calculate this.

The point where the two devices depart is the touch screen. If you think this is important, then the Surface Pro is the winner. There’s much to be said for touch. On the other hand, for someone like me who mainly uses a computer to write and otherwise create content, the MacBook Air looks a better bet.



7 thoughts on “MacBook Air or Microsoft Surface Pro?

  1. To me, it comes down to screen size; there is a huge difference between 900 and 1080 high. The first consideration of a screen is if it has enough workable pixels (for hidpi that means divide by 2). Working with documents, spreadsheets, email etc you need to be able to have enough info on the screen at one time which comes down to resolution.

    Only after then can you look at ppi. e.g. if both screens are 13″ and one is 1920×1080 the other is 2880×1800 the 1920 one wins because the hidpi is basically a crappy laptop screen with better looking text, but you’re still gonna struggle to show more than one email at a time.

    1. I wrote a joke piece about that years ago: The best netbook for porn?

      In effect the best screen for looking at photos (or porn images) would be the best screen for my work purposes. And no, I don’t spend my time looking at porn.

      1. I just assume everyone watches porn. Not that it matters too much, not a public activity.

  2. My Pythagorus sqrt(1440^2+900^2) says 1698.12 pixels on the diagonal, which dividing by 13″ makes it 130.6 PPI.

    I like 1920×1200 (or more) for real work but that’s best on a 23″ display (or my 17″ MacBookPro with good glasses). 13″ would be a disaster. Susan Kare’s 30 year old hand designed ‘Monaco 9’ is still (with minor modifications such as a slash through the zero) the best way to cram a lot of readable information into a given number of pixels. But my eyes can’t see it at retina resolutions.

    1440×900 on a 13″ or 11″ screen is perfectly fine for road warrior use checking emails and web pages, twitter and facebook and video conferencing. And the Air is now getting fast enough for real work on a huge external screen. I’m sticking with my 2.5 GHz Core2Duo 17″ for now (and 3.6 GHz quad core tower at home), but I could see one of the new Airs in my future.

    1. I don’t think 13″ would be a disaster, especially seeing as how close to your head it would be compared to a 23″ screen.
      I have an Acer 5750G running dual with an external 24″ screen. When I have to use it as a laptop (The taskbar on the laptop screen) it becomes unbearably cramped. It would depend on your software though.

  3. “Microsoft’s display wins hands down – 1920 by 1080 pixels on a ten inch screen means 208 pixels per inch.”

    I haven’t seen a Surface Pro screen yet, but from everything I’ve read and all I know about Windows desktop scaling, the 1080p resolution on the Surface Pro is actually a big disadvantage. There are lots of Windows apps that don’t work well at anything other than 100% scaling. I believe that Metro apps work fine on the high resolution, but if you’re planning on using the Desktop for work (which is the whole point of the Surface Pro), then the high resolution will be more a hindrance than anything.

    1. You wouldn’t scale down a 1080 screen anyway, that would give you 960×540. My phone does better than that. These things are meant to be used mere centimetres away from your face, not on a desk. It’s a tablet.

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