Which is better as a laptop, the Macbook Air or the Surface Pro 3?

Microsoft is pitching its Surface Pro 3 not just as a tablet, but as a laptop replacement, and has the Macbook Air in its cross-hairs. Which of the two is better as a laptop?

Microsoft targets the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement, especially the Macbook Air, so much so that on the Surface Pro 3 site, there's a section comparing the specs of the two.

Even though my main computer is a Windows machine, I normally use a 13.3-inch Macbook Air when I'm traveling or working outside my office. But for a week I instead used the Surface Pro 3 with the Surface Pro Type Cover, which doubles as a keyboard. Here's what I found.

Screen

The Surface Pro 3 comes with a 12-inch screen, and before using it, I worried that it would be too small to get much real work done. I was wrong. It was plenty large enough for working with Word, sending and receiving email, browsing the Web, and more. However, that one inch does make a difference compared to the 13.3-inch Macbook Air, so I'll give the nod to the Macbook Air here. However, I'd choose the Surface Pro 3 over the 11-inch Macbook Air, because the 11 inches feels cramped to me.

I had a problem with some desktop apps on the Surface Pro 3 on the 12-inch screen. The screen has a 2160 x 1440 resolution, which means that some desktop apps show up extremely small, making text and images difficult to read. Not all desktop apps can be zoomed in on, and so to make those apps useful, I had to change the resolution of the display, which meant that overall, fewer applications could fit onscreen.

As for the quality of the screen, the Surface Pro 3 is nothing short of spectacular. For watching videos, it's better than the Macbook Air. The Surface Pro 3's stereo speakers are stellar as well. But given that I'm comparing the two for work, that's not important to me.

Of course, the Surface Pro 3 has a touch screen and the Macbook Air doesn't. So if a touch screen is important to you, you'll want to go with the Surface Pro 3. I don't care much about a touch screen on a laptop, though.

Keyboard

The Surface Pro 3's Type Cover keyboard is a vast improvement over its previous iteration. It has a hinge so you can angle it, and its touchpad is quite good. So typing is much better and faster than on the previous Surface Pro. However, it's still not as good as the Macbook Pro, whose keyboard is much more solid and with more feedback. I can type much more quickly on the Macbook Pro, and make fewer mistakes. So once again, the Macbook Air comes out on top.

Operating system, usability and applications

To make the Surface Pro 3 more laptop-like, Microsoft improved the kickstand over the previous version. It can be set to any angle between zero and 150 degrees, in much the same way as you can position the screen of a laptop. I found though, that it's still not quite as stable as a true laptop like the Macbook Air, especially when using it on my lap.

As for the operating system, Mac OS X has it over Windows 8.1. Despite some nice additions in Windows 8.1, overall Windows 8 still feels like a kludge. That's particularly noticeable when you're using a Windows 8.1 device as a laptop, not a tablet, because of the near uselessness of the Start screen and the Start screen apps.

When it comes to the availability of desktop applications, though, the Surface Pro 3 is a clear winner. There are far more desktop applications for Windows than there are for Mac OS X, at the high-, low-, and medium end. If you care about application availability, the Windows machine is for you. I primarily use a laptop for Office, email and Web browsing, so this isn't an issue for me. The Mac version of Office is an older one than the Windows one, and I prefer the Windows one. But it's not a deal-breaker.

The bottom line

For me, the Macbook Air clearly beats the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop. It's got a larger screen (at least, the 13.3-inch version does), a better keyboard, is more stable when used on my lap, and has a superior operating system. However, if widespread application availability is important to you, or if you care a great deal about watching movies and videos, you should consider the Surface Pro 3 instead.

By the way, if you're interested, here's my full review of the Surface Pro as a tablet as well as a laptop.

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