Surface Laptop vs. MacBook: Which should you buy?

At first glance, Surface Pro looks like a MacBook Air with a Retina display and is priced like one too. Start adding options, though, and you quickly reach MacBook Pro pricing. But with only one port, like a MacBook, but USB-A rather than the newer USB-C. So, depending on how you look at it, Surface Laptop might be the best of all the MacBook worlds. Or the worst.

Which is it?

TL;DR: Do you need to run macOS?

If you know you want to run macOS, you have to get a Mac. If you want to run Windows, you can get a Surface Laptop or a Mac — the latter lets you run both. Keep reading the rest for more details, but if running Mac software, including developing for iOS, are key to you, your decision tree is already done.

Surface Laptop vs. 13-inch MacBook Air

Microsoft's Surface Laptop looks like a MacBook Air, is as light and portable as an Air, and is priced like an Air, so that's the easiest comparison to get started with. There are several important differences, though.

Surface Laptop comes in Burgundy, platinum, cobalt blue, and graphite gold, while MacBook Air only comes in aluminum. It also has a high-density, multi-touch capable display, something Apple has never gotten around to adding to the Air. Plus, Surface Laptop has current-generation Intel Kaby Lake processors while MacBook Air hasn't had a spec bump in years.

On the down side, Surface Laptop has only a single USB-A port + DisplayPort (and a proprietary Surface Connect port) while the MacBook Air has two USB-A ports and a Thunderbolt 2 port. It also has a faux-fabric finish around the keyboard and trackpad which… may not hold up to dirt and grime the way MacBook Air aluminum will.

  • If you need to run macOS on as inexpensive a laptop as possible, you need to get a MacBook Air.
  • Otherwise, unless and until Apple updates it's entry level, Surface Laptop is the better bang for your buck.

Surface Laptop vs. 12-inch MacBook

Best Hubs for the 12-inch MacBook

Best Hubs for the 12-inch MacBook (Image credit: iMore)

Because the Surface Laptop has only one USB port, it's easy to draw comparisons to similarly single-ported 12-inch MacBook. There are, however, differences.

MacBook has a USB-C port, the modern standard that the entire industry is moving towards. Surface Laptop has USB-A, the legacy standard the entire industry is moving away from. Both will require dongles or docks, though MacBook will require them less as time goes on and Surface Laptop will require them more.

Both have high-density displays, though MacBook lacks the multi-touch functionality of the Surface Laptop. It also lacks the faux-fabric finish around the keyboard and trackpad which…may not hold up to dirt and grime the way Apple's aluminum will.

Surface Laptop comes in Burgundy, platinum, cobalt blue, and graphite gold, while MacBook comes in silver, space gray, gold, and rose gold. Surface Laptop, however, has an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor which, while requiring a fan and increasingly noise, is more powerful than the virtually silent Intel coreM series in the MacBook.

  • If having the absolute smallest, lightest, and quietest — and potentially pinkest! — computer is imperative to you, get the MacBook.
  • If you want more power, a multi-touch display, and a cobalt blue color option, get the Surface Laptop.

Surface Laptop vs. 13-inch MacBook Pro

Surface Laptop might look like and be priced like a MacBook Air, but start upgrading it and you quickly reach MacBook Pro price points. With a few differences, of course.

No matter how much you pay for a Surface Laptop, you still only get the one, legacy USB-A port that sounds like a good idea today but will become more and more of a constraint over the next few years. MacBook Pro, on the other hands, comes with the option for two or four USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 ports that may need a dongle now but will become table stakes in a year or two.

Surface Laptop comes in Burgundy, platinum, cobalt blue, and graphite gold, while MacBook Pro only comes in silver and space gray. MacBook Pro lacks the faux-fabric finish around the keyboard and trackpad which… may not hold up to dirt and grime the way Apple's aluminum will.

Both have high-density displays, though MacBook lacks the multi-touch functionality of the Surface Laptop. MacBook Pro does have the option for Touch Bar, a multi-touch strip that replaces the function keys with something more dynamic, though arguably not much more useful. Better, though, Touch ID, which lets you use your fingerprint to log in and authenticate for apps and purchases, including Apple Pay.

Surface Laptop is a generation ahead when it comes to Intel processors but it's arguable how much, if at all, that helps with graphics. Apple stayed on Skylake, in part, for Iris Pro options that didn't yet exist on Kaby Lake. If graphics are more important to you than central processing, you may be better off with MacBook Pro.

  • If a multi-touch display or brighter color options are a must, go with Surface Laptop.
  • If Touch ID and more numerous, advanced ports are what you need, go with MacBook Pro.

Still undecided or have more questions?

If you're still not sold on either the MacBook or the Surface Laptop, take a breath. The higher-end Surface Laptops won't be shipping for a while and Apple is rumored to be updating the MacBook lineup as soon as June. Take your time, check out all the options, and see which one suits you best.

If you still have questions, drop them in the comments below!

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

35 Comments
  • I really don't think many people compare laptops like this. I'd wager the decision tree starts with the OS, and goes from there. If you like macOS and have invested in software and workflow habits (and I'll assume that most readers of iMore fall into that camp) then you simply aren't going to buy a Surface, no matter how "nice" it is. It's the wrong machine with the wrong OS for you. Ditto for Windows users. If one is happy with Windows, then buying any Mac is a hassle with additional costs for software, learning, etc. Switching can be complex for many, and the hardware is only part of that equation.
  • You missed the part where you can install Windows on a Mac, so if one is happy with Windows, they can certainly buy a Mac without hesitation
  • Yes, you can install Windows on a Mac. But I'd wager that Windows users who buy Macs for hardware only (and run Windows on them) are not a large demographic, and it is a more expensive route to take. If that is one's primary use case, then perhaps the Surface is the better choice. I don't think Apple is very worried about that group of customers. One might argue that a Mac is a better deal because it lets you use both Windows *and* MacOS, but that is only true for people who truly "need" both in one machine. Most people don't, and live in a single OS all day long. In that case, you should have a computer that is best suited to and capable of running that OS.
  • Your decision tree is more rational than most. Many people choose Android phones because they allow for more options like upgraded memory and removable batteries yet very few actually purchase these items and use them. The same holds true for users buying a Mac because it runs both operating systems. But I really think this comparison article is aiming at people on the fence. If you're in one camp or another you're not going anywhere because neither offering is anything to brag about. But if you're nearing end of life for your laptop and you're not satisfied with your current OS, both offerings suddenly seem a little more compelling.
  • I ran windows on my macbook pro for 2 years and boy was it a pain to keep both up to date, constantly switching, trying to decide which side to keep my personal day-to day stuff (Do I keep everything Mac and only boot or virtual boot Windows for the software that only runs windows?) There was a performance/battery hit for running a virtual windows so that wasn't ideal. It turns out mac version of office isn't 100% compatible (VB macros only run on windows). So when I had the budget/need for upgrading I gladly went with a windows machine, even though I really like the look and feel of MacOS, it was a no-brainer.
  • People still use VB macros on Office?
  • There’s a whole lot people that use Windows only. I have loads of industrial control apps that run on anything “except” OSX, (so I run them in a VM).
    Oh and yes to the VB thing too.
  • I haven't heard of people using VB macros in years, I guess that's why they removed it from the Mac version of Office, I'm pretty sure everything else is compatible
  • As far as M$ Office is concerned yes. But for other stuff, (one of the many tools I use is a Hioki 3554 for battery testing), no Mac support in sight;
    https://www.hioki.com/en/support/
  • You can always try WINE. If you're ok with using the Terminal, install Homebrew https://brew.sh then install WINE by doing
    "brew install wine" After WINE's installed, navigate to the Windows exe in the terminal and do "wine yourfile.exe"
  • I’ve not tried the Wine thing. Is there any disadvantage to running real Windows as far as app performance and compatibility go?
  • Compatibility is usually pretty good. As for app performance, there shouldn't be much difference so long as you're not running anything heavy graphically
  • I noticed the Microsoft laptop has no Mac OS option. Why would anyone want to buy that?
  • Exactly ;-)
  • You can likely Hackintosh it
  • That highly depends on the hardware used. You need to be careful with the hardware parts you select before attempting a Hackintosh
  • There are zero support options and sketchy stability for hackintoshes. It remains a hobby for most. There are several legit VR Windows OS choices that have been around for a decade if that's your thing on a Mac.
  • Surface Laptop
  • Without any reason why?
  • IMO, A desktop O/S is Chrome and a file system to take advantage of the Sh-load of storage that you've filled with your personal media and documents (unless you are a gamer.) I would wager that that is true for most users. Hardware and brand cache are the draws here, and the premium lead is Apple's to lose. The real question for iMore users is, why would you ever consider an expensive MacBook clone when you have the resources to have what it is that you actually want?
  • PAY real money to run WINDOWS? Uh, no,. NEVER. Should I live in a house or a tent? Do you really need to ask that question? It's a NON STARTER. Would you like a cookie or a kick in the nads? Would like you like a hug from Heidi Klum or be stuck under a naked unconscious Steve Ballmer? What else will you ask -
    dialup or fiber? There's no point in comparing any WINDOWS OS product to an Apple OS product if I HAVE TO PAY FOR IT. If you buy me use a Surface, sure, I'll be a corporate drone but recommend one? No. ask for one? No. Why would pay money to lie naked under a unconscious Steve Ballmer?
  • One of the most idiotic posts I’ve seen anywhere. Ever. Not just on this forum. If you want to limit yourself go right ahead.
  • I thought it was pretty fun :D
    Definitely gives some perspective on how some people think
  • Surface without a doubt. Portability and full versatility is a must. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • why pay all that cash for a Mac and then install windows ,makes no sense
  • How about somebody likes the hardware but not the software?
  • Job requirements explain half of all Windows licenses sold. Who really loves Windows out there? Chirp. Chirp.
  • I don't but I know loads, and I do mean loads that do.
  • The Surface Book is better than the MacBook Air in every way. Has Apple upgraded the display resolution on the MBA, yet? Surface Laptop isn't really meant to compete against the MBP. That's what the Surface Book exists for. If you're willing to pay that much for a laptop, you're going to upgrade to the Book, anyways... For the people talking about running Windows on a Mac, it's not as good as running Windows on hardware designed for Windows - disregarding the fact that once you get out of these "Luxury Brands," you can get MUCH better Windows hardware for the same cost or less compared to macOS hardware. Additionally, if you plan to run Windows on a Mac, then the costs go up since you need more than a 128-256GB SSD for anything beyond basic usage. Apple doesn't sell storage for cheap, last I checked. Surface Laptop > MacBook Air [EASILY]
    Surface Laptop < MacBook Pro (not developed to compete in that category)
    Surface Book > MacBook Pro If you need windows, than a Mac is likely a bad choice, anyways, especially if your budget is only ~$1,000. You're not going to get good hardware from Apple for that price, and I'm speaking about more than just "is it cute."
  • "For the people talking about running Windows on a Mac, it's not as good as running Windows on hardware designed for Windows" "Additionally, if you plan to run Windows on a Mac, then the costs go up" Where are you getting this information from? Windows fully supports the hardware that's inside a Mac, so with equally powered hardware in a Windows computer you're going to get the exact same experience. A 128-256GB SSD is just as good on Windows as it is on macOS…
  • Also, with the newer Windows Laptops that have recently come out (and many that are sure to follow), Apple's "hardware" is no longer a selling point. Except to their super fans. There is literally nothing to pick and choose between them. The Surface Laptop looks every bit as fabulous as a MBA, and a Surface Book looks every bit as fabulous as a MBP. Apple's trackpads aren't even a selling point, anymore. The Precision touchpad on Windows Laptops are just as good (and yes, I've tried many of them... they're just as good as Apple's).
  • No tried too many new Windows laptops but the Apple trackpads are REEEEEEALLY good. Not sure I agree here. HP Spectre is a great looking machine too.
  • I've not yet found anything that compares to the Apple trackpads, that includes the Precision touchpads. They're certainly better than previous trackpads I've used on Windows laptops but they're still not as good as Apple's
  • Know what’s funny, it SEEMS that Apple are keeping the trackpad goodness for OSX.
    It never works as smoothly in Windows as it does in OSX, (except in Parallels - so it would appear that it’s certainly possible to make it work well).
  • Yeah I'm not sure I can agree about the track-pad. I'm a surface pro-4 owner and I still have envy of my girlfriends 6 year old macbook pro for the better trackpad.... However the high res touch screen / tablet versatility with laptop capability is serving me so much better than carrying a ipad/heavy laptop or choosing between the two and sacrificing the other's abilities when traveling.