New Surface Laptop vs. MacBook Air M3: closer call than ever


The new Surface Laptop 13 on a white table.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Microsoft announced a new Surface Laptop at an event on May 20 that’s got everyone talking. Part of the new Copilot+ PC platform, the Surface Laptop now runs exclusively on Qualcomm’s ARM-based Snapdragon X chipset, with a clear aim at Apple’s MacBook Air M3.

That new Surface Laptop should be a faster and more efficient laptop, inching closer to the MacBook Air M3. But the MacBook’s efficiency has been proven. Will the Surface Laptop live up to its promise as a legitimate competitor?

Specs and configurations

  Microsoft Surface Laptop Apple MacBook Air M3
Dimensions 13.8-inch: 11.85 inches x 8.67 inches x 0.69 inches
15-inch: 12.96 inches x 9.41 inches x 0.72 inches
13-inch: 11.97 inches x 8.46 inches x 0.44 inches
15-inch: 13.40 inches x 9.35 inches x 0.45 inches
Weight Surface Laptop 13.8: 2.96 pounds
Surface Laptop 15: 3.67 pounds
13-inch: 2.70 pounds
15-inch: 3.3 pounds
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon X Plus (10-core) (13.8-inch only)
Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite (12-core)
Apple M3 (10-core)
Graphics Qualcomm Adreno Apple M3 (8-core)
Apple M3 (10-core)
RAM 16GB
32GB
8GB
16GB
24GB
Display 13.8-inch 3:2 2304 x 1536 IPS, 120Hz
15.0-inch 3:2 2496 x 1664 IPS, 120Hz
13.6-inch 2560 x 1664 IPS, 60Hz
15.3-inch 2880 x 1864 IPS, 60Hz
Storage 256GB SSD
512GB SSD
1TB SSD
256GB
512GB
1TB
2TB
Touch Yes No
Ports 2 x USB4 with Thundrebolt 4
1 x USB-A 3.1
1 x 3.5mm audio jack
1 x Surface Connect
2 x USB-C with Thunderbolt 4
1 x 3.5mm audio jack
1 x MagSafe 3
Wireless Wi-Fi 7 and Bluetooth 5.4 Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3
Webcam 1080p with infrared camera for Windows 11 Hello 1080p
Operating system Windows 11 macOS Sonoma
Battery 13.8-inch: 54 watt-hour
15-inch: 55 watt-hour
13-inch: 52.6 watt-hour
15-inch: 66.5 watt-hour
Price $1,000+ $1,099+
Rating Not reviewed 4 out of 5 stars

Both laptops have 13-inch and 15-inch class versions. The Surface Laptop 13.8-inch model starts at $1,000 for a Qualcomm Snapdragon X Plus chipset, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. The M3 MacBook Air has a starting price of $1,099, though it comes with just 8GB of RAM. An equivalent MacBook Air configured with 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage comes in at $1,299. It should be mentioned, though, that adding the extra memory forces the two extra GPU cores to be added.

Both companies charge an extra $200 to double the storage to 512GB or $400 to get to 1TB. That means in general, the Surface Laptop is $200 cheaper than the MacBook Air. The one caveat is that Microsoft charges $200 to go from the Snapdragon X Plus to the Snapdragon X Elite — still coming in $100 cheaper than the MacBook Air.

Design

The Surface Laptop running local AI models.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

If you’re not married to one operating system or another, then read on. The Surface Laptop has always offered a viable alternative to the MacBook Air in terms of its design, and that hasn’t markedly changed with the newest model.

As with the Surface Pro, Microsoft has dropped the official model designator. Microsoft calls it the Surface Laptop 7th Edition, as part of the new Copilot+ series of laptops that highlight AI. But, we’ll refer it here as the Surface Laptop, and it incorporates several improvements from the previous generation. It’s still an all-aluminum laptop that sports thinner display bezels, and it comes in four color: Platinum, Black, Dune, and Sapphire. It’s a thoroughly modern thin and light laptop with slightly angled edges.

The MacBook Air follows Apple’s most recent aesthetic, with a slightly blockier appearance that’s meant to exude elegance and simplicity. Its bezels aren’t quite as thin, especially on the bottom chin, and it has a controversial notch housing the webcam and Face ID electronics.

Both are attractive laptops, and both are among the best-built laptops available today. While the Surface Laptop 13.8-inch model is reasonably thin and light at 0.69 inches and 2.96 pounds, the MacBook Air 13 is insanely thin at 0.44 inches and it’s slightly lighter at 2.7 pounds. Then the MacBook Air 15 is just 0.45 inches thick and weighs 3.3 pounds, compared to the Surface Laptop that’s 0.72 inches thick and weight 3.67 pounds.

Keyboards and touchpads

The keyboard and trackpad on Apple's 15-inch MacBook Air.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The MacBook Air 13 has Apple’s Magic Keyboard, with remains one of the best keyboards around. It has large keycaps with plenty of key spacing, and the switches are light and snappy. The Surface Book keyboard has been updated, and if it’s as good as the previous generation’s, it will also be among the best laptop keyboards. It’s had more travel with an equally spacious layout, and Surface keyboard switches have always been comfortable and precise. We’ll have to wait for our review to evaluate the latest keyboard.

Both laptops have haptic touchpads. The MacBook Air 13’s Force Touch touchpad is as good as always, with extreme precision and responsiveness and the Force Click feature that adds another dimension (no pun intended) to accessing additional functionality. The Surface Laptop has a new haptic touchpad in a wider format. The 13.8-inch model’s looks nice and large, though the 15-inch model uses the same size of trackpad, leaving lots of idle space around the palm rests. The 15-inch MacBook Air has a larger trackpad that better fills out the space.

The Surface Laptop’s display is touch- and pen-enabled, something that the MacBook Air 13’s display can’t boast.

Connectivity, webcams, and security

A graphic of the Surface Laptop with the many features listed.
Microsoft

The Surface Laptop has two USB-C/USB4 ports, a USB-A 3.1 port, a 3.5mm audio jack, and the Surface Connect port for charging. The MacBook Air M3 has two USB-C/USB4 ports with Thunderbolt 3 support, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a MagSafe 3 connection for charging. That makes the MacBook Air a slightly more modern device but without the legacy support. Note that the Surface Laptop can connect to three 4K external displays, while the MacBook Air M3 can connect to just one with the internal display active and two with the lid closed.

Wireless connectivity is more advanced on the Surface Laptop, with support for Wi-Fi 7 and Bluetooth 5.4. The MacBook Air M3 is limited to Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3.

Each laptop has a 1080p webcam, and the Surface Laptop has Neural Processing Unit (NPU) support for various AI features such as Microsoft’s Studio Effects for background blurring, automatic framing, creative filters, and more. The MacBook Air M3 has a Neural Engine, but we’ll likely learn more about its AI features at Apple’s upcoming WWDC event.

The Surface Laptop has an infrared camera for Windows 11 Hello facial recognition, while the MacBook Air M3 has only a Touch ID fingerprint reader.

Performance

Bladur's Gate 3 being played on the M3 MacBook Air.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The most important upgrade to the new Surface Laptop is the transition from Intel to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X chipsets. The new chipsets offer performance that rivals the MacBook Air’s Apple Silicon M3 chipsets, which like Qualcomm’s are based on the ARM architecture. The Snapdragon X has two variants: the 10-core Snapdragon X Plus and the 12-core Snapdragon X Elite. The M3 chipset has eight CPU cores. According to leaked benchmarks, the Snapdragon X Elite is faster in Geekbench 6 while the Snapdragon X Plus might be around the same speed.

The first testing certainly seems promising, but we’ll have to wait for formal benchmark testing of Qualcomm’s chipset to say which is faster. It’s likey that both laptops will be very fast for productivity users, with performance in creative applications an open question. The Snapdragon X chipset uses the Qualcomm Adreno GPU, which might be slightly slower than the M3’s eight-core or 10-core GPU, but again, that remains to be seen. We’ll note that the Surface Laptop has fans, while the MacBook Air is fanless. That makes the MacBook run quieter, but it might cap sustained performance more than we’ll see with the Surface Laptop.

Both laptops have Neural Processing Units (NPUs), which Apple calls the Neural Engine. Qualcomm claims 45 trillion operations per second (TOPS), while Apple says the M3 achieves 18 TOPS. If these numbers are comparable, the Surface Laptop will have faster on-device AI performance until Apple releases a MacBook Air with the M4 chipset, which Apple claims hits 38 TOPS. But, once again, we’ll have to wait for our official tests to say for sure.

Display and audio

The Surface Laptop displaying results from a Handbrake test.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The Surface Laptop has two display sizes — 13.8 inches and 15 inches — both in the 3:2 aspect ratio. The 13.8-inch display runs at 2304 by 1536 and the 15-inch at 2496 by 1664, which is just slightly less sharp than the MacBook Air’s 13.6-inch 2560 by 1664 and 15.3-inch 2880 by 1864. All displays are IPS, and the Surface Laptop displays have the advantage of running at 120Hz compared to the MacBook Air’s displays that are limited to 60Hz.

Microsoft Surface Laptop displays have been good IPS panels, but with narrower and less accurate colors than the IPS displays in the MacBook Air. Contrast and brightness have been similar. So, we’re looking forward to testing the Surface Laptop’s display.

The MacBook Air M3 13-inch has an excellent four-speaker audio system that’s better than most competitors, while the 15-inch version has the same six-speaker audio with force-cancelling woofers as in the more expensive MacBook Pros. That’s the best audio available on laptops today. The Surface Laptop has a Omnisonic speakers that project through the keyboard. In previous generations, the system has provided good audio but not as good as on the MacBook Air.

Portability

Apple's 15-inch MacBook Air placed on a desk with its lid closed.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Both laptops are highly portable, in both their 13-inch and 15-inch versions. However, the MacBook Air M3 is the most portable laptop of all, being thinner than any other laptop currently available and considerably lighter than the Surface Laptop.

Microsoft is claiming that the 13.8-inch Surface Laptop will achieve up to 20 hours of local video playback and up to 13 hours of active web usage, and the 15-inch version up to 22 hours and 15 hours, respectively. In our testing, the MacBook Air M3 13-inch achieved 19.5 hours of web browsing, which would make it significantly longer-lasting than the Surface Laptop.

Given the fact that the primary reason for Windows on ARM is longer battery life, we’ll be interested to see what our testing shows. It’s possible that the MacBook Air M3 will retain its leadership in efficiency and provide significantly longer battery life than the Surface Laptop.

Operating system

If you’re actually considering the purchasing decision between these laptops, you’ll need to decide between Windows 11 on ARM or macOS. Obviously, a strong preference for one over the other will sway your decision. Windows 11 and macOS have historically battled it out in terms of features and functionality, with one operating system offering advantages and disadvantages, relatively speaking. I regularly use both, and while I tend to prefer macOS for its reliability, smoothness, and easier configuration, some people prefer Windows 11 for its greater customizability, wider application library, and more diverse form factors.

One thing to keep in mind is that Windows 11 on ARM, while essentially the same as Windows 11 on Intel, is an unproven operating system at this point. Past iterations of Windows on ARM have suffered poor performance, and compatibility with applications and peripherals has been spotty. If Microsoft and Qualcomm, the exclusive chipset maker, have solved those problems, then Windows 11 on ARM can be an exciting development. Apple’s macOS already went through a similar transition when moving from Intel chips to Apple Silicon chipsets, and today the majority of important apps run natively.

An important consideration is how each operating system integrates generative AI features. Microsoft talked a great deal about AI at its Copilot+ event on May 20, where the new Surface Laptop was introduced. Simply put, Copilot+ will have a tremendous focus on making generative AI more accessible and theoretically more on-device. Apple hasn’t yet answered the generative AI craze, but its WWDC event that runs from June 10-14, 2024, should answer a lot of questions.

The MacBook Air M3 might retain its position at the top

The keyboard and trackpad on the new Surface Laptop.
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The new Surface Laptop should provide competitive performance and much better battery life than the previous generation — and most Windows laptops. If there’s ever been a Surface Laptop that could compete with the MacBook Air, this is it.

We can’t give a final verdict until the Surface Laptop launches on June 18. WWDC will have a big impact as well, as seeing Apple’s larger vision for AI functioning within Mac could change many of the capabilities of the MacBook Air. For now, you can’t go wrong with the M3 MacBook Air, but if you’re curious about the new Surface Laptop, you’ll want to wait a few weeks until reviews start rolling in.

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