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Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 vs. Apple MacBook Air: 13-inch lightweights do battle

The 13-inch Surface Laptop clearly wants to be a Windows version of Apple's smallest and lightest laptop, but the 15-inch model is baffling.

Microsoft's recent Surface Laptop 3 updates to its Surface Laptop line fall into two camps. The 13-inch model, an upgrade to the Surface Laptop 2, offers the bare minimum of enhancements (or less) it needs to compete in the crowded field of lightweights with prices in the $1,000-or-so range. It gets a bump to the 10th-gen Intel processor with the better-performing integrated graphics, which it'll use to rival models like the MacBook Air, Dell XPS 13, HP Envy 13 and Lenovo IdeaPad 730s.

The newcomer, a 3.4-pound (1.5 kilogram) 15-inch model of the Surface Laptop 3, is bewildering, though. With AMD inside, it's lighter by about 0.6 lb (272 grams) but less powerful than similarly priced models such as the Dell XPS 15. It's also heavier than more expensive but similarly specced models, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, that come in under 3 lbs. 

So Microsoft's entry 15-inch model is an $1,100 (£1,100, AU$1,700) middle-of-the road laptop that costs about twice as much as other AMD-based systems. At its $2,099 maxed-out configuration, its specs don't come close to similarly priced competitors. There is no Apple equivalent: It sits well below the base model of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which has a more powerful Intel Core i7-9750H CPU, discrete Radeon Pro 555X graphics, more memory and a better display -- albeit for about twice the price.

Read more: Best MacBook Air alternatives 

Now playing: Watch this: First look at Surface Pro X, Pro 7, Laptop 3

Both Surface Laptops lack Thunderbolt 3. In the case of the 15-inch Surface, that's because AMD's supporting chipset doesn't incorporate it. But the Intel 10th-gen Ice Lake processors in the 13-inch model have it baked in. Though the single USB-C port supports DisplayPort Alt mode for connecting to a monitor, it lacks the extra bandwidth for data transfers. Microsoft might well go with USB 4 instead in future, but for now it means these laptops aren't futureproofed. That goes double for the 15-inch model, which doesn't support Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) a wireless standard that at least provides greater connection stability.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new model makes minimal changes to the Surface Laptop 2, which we like but which hadn't been notably updated since the original design in 2017. That includes a disappointing number of ports -- a single USB-A and a single USB-C, which replaces the DisplayPort connector -- and the impractical proprietary power connector. The big display bezels make it look old fashioned, even compared to the MacBook Air. The display resolution of 2,256x1,504 is odd: It's the 3:2 aspect ratio of all Microsoft PixelSense displays (which lets you fit more on screen) and is pen- and touch-enabled. Using a pen with a clamshell is kind of awkward, though. On the other hand, for those of us who hate the butterfly keyboard on Apple laptops, the Surface's may feel like a big win.

Read more about the Surface Laptop 3.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Because it's a year older, the Air's components lag those of the Surface Laptop 3's -- it uses an ultralow-power Intel eighth-gen (in other words, slower) Y series Intel chip with the older integrated graphics. It also has last-generation Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) instead of Wi-Fi 6. But it has two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connections, which offer better expansion options, allowing you to connect to an external GPU, more powerful dock or fast storage.

Read our Apple MacBook Air 2019 preview.


Microsoft Surface Laptop 13-inch vs. Apple MacBook Air

Surface Laptop 3 (13-inch) MacBook Air
Price (USD) $999 (£999, AU$1,699) to $1,999 (£1,949, AU$3,949 ) $1,099 (£1,099, AU$1,699 ) to $1,899 (£1,879, AU$2,919 )
CPU Core i5-1035G7, i7-1065G7 Intel Core i5-8210Y
RAM 8GB or 16GB 2,133MHz LPDDR3 8GB or 16GB 2,133MHz LPDDR4x
Display 13.5-inch 2,256x1,504 pixels (201 ppi, 3:2 aspect ratio) pen and touch 13.3-inch 2,560x1,600 pixels (227 ppi, 1.97:1 aspect )
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB SSD 128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB SSD
Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
Bluetooth 5 4.2
Connectors 1 x USB-C, 1 x USB-A, headphone jack, proprietary power 2 x USB-C/Thunderbolt, headphone jack
Battery life claim (hours:min) Up to 11.5 hours Up to roughly 12 hours
Weight 2.8 lbs (1.3 kg) 2.8 lbs (1.3 kg)
Dimensions 12.1x8.8x0.6 inches (308x223x15 mm) 12.0x8.4x0.6 inches (300x210x16 mm)

We've got the Ryzen 5 3580U Microsoft Surface Edition version of the 15-inch on the bench right now, and preliminary CPU results place it, unsurprisingly, at about the same place as an Intel Core i5-8265U. We're still waiting on the GPU and battery-life tests, which should be more interesting. Stay tuned for our upcoming review.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch) max configuration vs. Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch) base configuration

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 (15-inch)  Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch) 
Price (USD) $2,099 (£1,469, AU$4,399) $2,399 (£2,399, AU$3,499)
CPU AMD Ryzen 7 3780U Intel Core i7-9750H
GPU AMD Radeon Vega 11 AMD Radeon Pro 555X
RAM 16GB 2,400MHz DDR4 16GB 2,400MHz DDR4
Display 15-inch 2,496x1,664 pixels (201 ppi, 3:2 aspect ratio) pen and touch display 15.4-inch 500 nits 2,880x1,800 pixels (220 ppi, 16:10 aspect), P3 gamut
Storage 1TB SSD 256GB SSD
Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
Bluetooth 5 5
Connectors 1 x USB-C, 1 x USB-A, headphone jack, proprietary power 4 x USB-C/Thunderbolt, headphone jack
Battery life claim (hours:min) Up to 11.5 hours Up to 10 hours
Weight 3.4 lbs (1.5 kg) 4 lbs (1.8 kg)
Dimensions 13.4x9.6x0.57 inches (340x244x15 mm) 13.8x9.5x0.6 inches (350x241x16 mm)

Update Oct 18, 2019: corrected typo in weight for Surface Laptop 3 15-inch.