MacBook versus Surface Pro 4: Battle of the ultra-lights

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It’s funny, and a little humbling, to realize you’ve been doing it wrong.

I mean, all this time, I was comparing the Surface Pro 4 to Apple’s giant iPad Pro. It made intuitive sense. Both have touch screens, both have detachable keyboards. Both are super thin and light. Both have multi-tasking. But I made a fundamental error. Only one of these systems runs a X86 CPU and offers a file system. One of them, the Surface Pro 4, is a personal computer and one is a powerful mobile system reaching to be the same.

When I got my hands on the latest MacBook, a follow-up to the ultra-light single-input-port MacBook launched a year ago, I realized I’d made a mistake. With its new Intel 6th Generation Core CPU, size (12-inches), weight (2 lbs.), keyboard and touchpad configuration, it’s the actually the best counter to Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4.

Honestly, if you’re shopping for an ultra-portable computer, with laptop chops, a desktop OS, applications and all-day battery life, these are probably the two systems you want to consider. And it won’t be an easy choice. Leaving aside the obvious differences in operating systems (which aren’t as big as you think), these two systems compare quite favorably.

To help you decide and for my own personal entertainment, I’ve decided to do a feature-by-feature comparison, focusing in on areas that I think impact ultraportable use the most. I will also try to choose a winner in each category.

This should be fun.

Size

The MacBook and Microsoft Surface are surprisingly close in size: The Surface Pro is almost a half-inch wider and the difference along the short edge is just under a quarter of an inch. The depth of the two systems is a little harder to compare. For the sake of parity, I looked at the Surface Pro 4 with the Type Cover attached (when on-the-go, I rarely – if ever – use it without it). Even so, Because the MacBook’s thickness varies so widely from edge to edge, it’s tough to compare.

While different, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and MacBook are both running X86 CPUs.

Image: lance ulanoff/Mashable

Without a doubt, the MacBook is, at its thinnest edge (.14 inches), way thinner than the Surface Pro 4. However, at the MacBook’s thickest edge, which measures a little over a half an inch, the two systems are virtually equal.

Since the differences in size are fairly minimal, I have to focus a bit on feel. With its aluminum chassis and smooth curves the MacBook is a pleasure to hold. The Surface Pro 4, by contrast, feels solid and pleasant, but its magnesium body is all corners and flat edges. I like the look of both, but if I close my eyes, the MacBook just feels better.

Score one for the MacBook.

Weight

As I said, in order to make this a fair fight, I have to compare the MacBook to the Surface Pro 4 with the Type Cover attached. Without that keyboard, the Surface Pro 4 running a Core i5 CPU weighs 1.73 lbs. (with the baseline Core m3, it weighs 1.69 lbs.). When you add the Type Cover, the total weight is 2.28 lbs.

The MacBook, regardless of CPU configuration (it only comes with Intel Core m-class), weighs a flat two pounds. You’d be surprised, but that quarter of a pound is noticeable. This is partly because, while most of the weight on the Surface Pro 4 sits, naturally, in the tablet, the MacBook gets to spread it (meaning all the components) out more evenly between the keyboard and display. As a result, it’s more comfortable to carry an open MacBook than it is a Surface Pro.

Score one for the MacBook.

Lapability

Microsoft coined the word, but it’s a key aspect of any ultraportable: How well does it work in your lap?

Alex Poucher

Since the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (left) is a tablet masquerading as a laptop, it has a  unusual and highly adjustable way to propping up on your lap. The MacBook does it old school, which also has the benefit of being able to open it partially.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

Apple’s MacBook has a traditional laptop look, but I am impressed with how balanced it feels when sitting open in my lap. What it lacks, though is the Surface Pro 4’s adjustability, which comes from the integrated kickstand. So while the MacBook can open to a roughly 135-degree angle, the Surface Pro 4 can tip back to virtually any angle.

Score one for the Surface Pro 4.

Screen

At 12.3 inches diagonally, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is slightly larger than the MacBook’s Retina display. Plus, even though Microsoft doesn’t call the display “Retina,” its screen actually has a higher resolution. The Surface Pro 4 comes in at 2736 x 1824, while the MacBook, which has the exact same screen as last year, is 2304 x 1440 pixels. That translates into a 41 pixels per inch difference, which may sound like a lot, but I defy anyone to eyeball the difference.

Alex Poucher

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 screen on left and the MacBook on the right.

Image: Lanceulanoff/mashable

However, the Surface Pro 4 has something the MacBook doesn’t: a touch screen. Apple will tell you that’s not necessary when you have a trackpad, but the Surface Pro 4 with the Type Cover has one, as well. Personally, I find myself using both and anytime I switch to the MacBook, I have to stop myself from trying to use the Retina Display as a touch screen.

Aside from gestures, the Surface Pro 4’s display lets me draw on it. Obviously, if I want to draw on an Apple product, I should buy an iPad, but that’s not the point. This is a full-blown, no compromises PC, that also happens to have a very adept touch screen. Apple knows touch-displays. They could introduce a MacBook Touch. It would be an amazing ultraportable.

Score one for the Surface Pro 4.

Keyboard

There are some striking similarities between the MacBook keyboard and the ones the one found in the Type Cover for the Surface Pro 4. They are virtually the same size. Neither one feels cramped and both Microsoft and Apple managed to leave ample space between the keys. And yet the Type Cover offers the better typing experience and this is mostly due to travel, which is another way of saying “how much the key moves when you type on it.”

Alex Poucher

A portrait of two very good keyboards. On the left is the Type Cover on the right is the MacBook.

Image: Lance Ulanoff/Mashable

Apple did its best to invent a new way for keyboard keys to move up and down — they had to because there’s so little space under the keyboard (the batteries for the system are spread throughput the base). Typing on the MacBook keyboard feels fine, even satisfying, but pales in comparison to the feeling you get when you type on a Type Cover. The travel is at least double what you get with MacBook keys.

There’s also the fact that the Type Cover can fold all the way to the back of the Surface Pro 4 and it can detach completely from the tablet.

Score one for the Surface Pro 4.

Touch Pad

Apple’s MacBook Trackpad is noticeably larger and more elegant looking that the Type Cover’s touchpad. That extra space, in particular, comes in handy for gestures and overall usability.

Alex Poucher

On the left is Microsoft’s glass-covered trackpad.  Opposite it, is the MacBook’s glass touchpad.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

I often wish the Type Cover’s trackpad was a little larger because I have a habit of placing my finger on the wrong spot, thinking I’m touching the right-click when I’m actually too far to the left. That doesn’t happen on the MacBook’s larger Trackpad.

On the other hand, the MacBook’s Trackpad suffers from the same issue as the keyboard: not enough travel. Compared to the touchpad on the Type Cover, the Trackpad feels stiff and almost unmoving. It takes some getting used to.

Both touchpads could use some improvement.

Tie.

Ports

Apple has gotten considerable flack for equipping the MacBook with just one port and, worse yet, one that almost nobody uses yet. The company did not change course with the new MacBook, but did at least come up with a whole collection of adapters that will help extend the MacBook’s USB-C port.

Alex Poucher

One the left are the Microsoft Surface Pro 4’s Mini Display Port and USB  3 port.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

The Surface Pro 4 isn’t exactly bursting with ports, either. Instead of USB-C, the Surface Pro 4 has a single USB 3 port. Most of the time, this one port is enough for me. I use it mostly to import photos via a USB-based SD card reader. Sometimes, when I travel, I use to connect to an Ethernet adapter. If I need to import photos, I have to swap out the Ethernet. The Surface Pro 4 also adds a separate charging port, a Mini Display Port, which I never use because I usually dock the Surface Pro 4 in the office, and a micro SD card slot for storage expansion.

I do think Apple should have included one standard USB port on the MacBook, but when I think about how rarely I use the port on my Surface Pro 4, I wonder if I’m being fair.

Microsoft wins by a nose, but Apple gets props for leaning way forward.

Cameras

Microsoft’s Surface Pro is, compared to the MacBook, loaded with cameras. There’s an 8MP camera on the back, a 5 MP camera on the front and even an infrared camera (for Windows Hello face recognition log-in). Both standard cameras also shoot 1080p video.

Other than in a review situation, I never shoot video with the Surface Pro 4. This is important when you consider the MacBook’s paltry camera specs: a 480p FaceTime camera.

Alex Poucher

At top, are the Microsoft Surface’s front-facing cameras and in front of it is the MacBook’s FaceTime camera.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

So, sure, that FaceTime camera is a disappointment, especially when you consider that the iPhone 6s’ FaceTime camera can shoot 720p, but I wouldn’t get too torn up about the overall lack of cameras on the MacBook.

The one area where it will impact your experience is on FaceTime (on the MacBook, only) and Skype.

I Skype a lot with my Surface Pro 4 and the video looks pretty good. Skyping and FaceTiming with a 480p camera is a little too 2006 for my tastes.

Score one for the Surface Pro 4.

CPUs, Performance and Battery Life

One of the reasons I finally decided to compare the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and MacBook is because they are finally both running 6th generation Intel CPUs. Base systems both start with Core m3, which is part of Intel’s low-power-consumption, fan-less CPU line. The MacBook I’ve been testing came equipped with the mid-tier Core m5. The Surface Pro 4’s mid-tier is actually a leap to the Core i5, a desktop-class CPU.

If you think that I’ve gone way into the unfair comparison territory, consider this. A Surface Pro 4 running a Core i5 CPU and with the Type Cover keyboard, 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage costs $1428.99. A MacBook like the one I have – Core m5, 8GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage — costs $1,599.

Even so, direct comparisons on the power front are impossible. I would note, though, that the Core i5 running Surface Pro 4 is louder, because the desktop CPU requires a fan. In addition, there is no comparison on battery life. The MacBook’s Core m5 is simply more efficient and I get many more hours of work time.

Score one for the MacBook (with a caveat. Core m CPUs have their limits).

If you’re keeping count, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 won this ultra-portable battle, but in a recent Facebook Live portability test (performed by yours truly and Senior Tech Analyst Christina Warren), the MacBook got online faster and fit inside a tight backpack just a little bit more easily. On the other hand, the Surface Pro 4 connected to an external monitor and keyboard at lot faster than the MacBook.

That competition was too silly to be conclusive, but between it and my own assessment above, perhaps you’ll finally be able to choose which one, the Apple MacBook or Microsoft Surface pro 4, is right for you.  



Click here to view the original article on Mashable.

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