The last few months have been full of surprises, and not just in the political world.
Microsoft and Apple, the PC market’s two long-running rivals, are going head to head this Fall with a pair of impressive new laptops targeted at power-hungry pro users.
Microsoft’s Surface Book, which launched last year, got a big power boost this year. Meanwhile, the MacBook Pro got its first major redesign in about four years.
Each laptop packs new features sure to please its constituents. But after taking a close look at the two machines and putting them through their paces, the non-partisan Business Insider was forced to acknowledge that Microsoft, a newcomer to the hardware game, came out on top.
What is the MacBook Pro?
Apple’s new MacBook Pro has been completely redesigned. It’s now about as thin and light as the MacBook Air, but it has a lot more power under the hood. It also has Apple’s high-resolution Retina display.
But the key feature on the MacBook Pro is the new Touch Bar, which replaces the traditional physical function keys with a row of digital keys that change depending on the app you’re using.
The MacBook Pro comes in two sizes: 13-inch or 15-inch. There’s also a 13-inch model without the Touch Bar, but we’re only going to focus on the Touch Bar models for this comparison.
What is the Surface Book?
The Surface Book is the result of Microsoft’s quest to build what it calls the “ultimate laptop.”
To that end, the Surface Book sports a lot of processing power, a big, beautiful touchscreen display, and the Surface Pen stylus for notetaking and sketching.
For extra computing power, you can kick it up a notch: Certain models of the Surface Book include a dedicated graphics processing unit, or GPU, great for gaming or creative work. And just recently, Microsoft introduced the Surface Book with Performance Base, a premium edition with even more juice under the hood.
But the Surface Book’s most crowd-pleasing feature is the ability for the screen to actually detach and become a fully-functional tablet in its own right.
MacBook Pro: The 13-inch model starts at $1,799. The 15-inch model starts at $1,999. But you’ll likely spend more than that when you upgrade the RAM, processor, or storage.
Surface Book: The most basic Surface Book model starts at $1,499, and gets you the detachable screen and the Surface Pen stylus. The Surface Book with dedicated graphics in the base starts at $1,899, and the top-of-the-line Performance Base models start at $2,400. You’ll have to shell out extra for more storage or RAM.
Winner: Surface Book. Although the MacBook Pro is cheaper, you get more features and power, like a dedicated graphics processor, for your money with the Surface Book. (Keep reading for more details.)
MacBook Pro: The high-resolution Retina display is just a standard screen. It doesn’t have touch controls and won’t work with a stylus.
However, the MacBook Pro does have a touchscreen on the keyboard. The new Touch Bar replaces the standard physical function keys and changes depending on the app you’re using. It’s also fully customizable, so you can choose shortcuts to what you use the most.
But the Touch Bar isn’t as robust as a full touchscreen. For example, when editing photos using the Touch Bar, the images are so tiny it’s tough to see them. The Touch Bar is really just a new way to access function keys.
Surface Book: The Surface Book sports a bright, vibrant touchscreen. That means you can scroll web pages by swiping down on them, or switch apps by poking their icon on the taskbar, or whatever else you feel comfortable doing by touch.
Plus, the included Surface Pen stylus makes it easy to sketch and take notes right on your screen, either in the preloaded Microsoft OneNote or a handful of other apps.
The one weird caveat with the Surface Book’s screen is its 3:2 aspect ratio. That means that Word documents and photos appear on the screen in the same proportions they’d appear on the printed page. As a result, you’ll sometimes see black bars on the sides when, for example, watching movies filmed for more standard screen ratios.
Winner: Surface Book. Both computer have gorgeous, high-resolution screens, but the touchscreen and pen input on the Surface Book allow you to get more accomplished. The MacBook Pro’s Touch bar, while innovative, feels limited by comparison.
MacBook Pro: The MacBook Pro runs macOS Sierra, the latest version of Apple’s operating system for Macs. If you already use Apple services like iCloud, iMessage, or Siri, then macOS is a great way to seamlessly tie all your Apple devices together.
Surface Book: The Surface Book is the showcase device for Windows 10, and highlights a lot of its best features, including touch. While it can’t boast Apple’s tight integration with the iPhone, you can use Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant to send and receive texts from a paired-up Android phone. Plus, Windows PCs are still the best place to play video games.
Winner: Tie. This one comes down to personal preference. Both macOS Sierra and Windows 10 are great operating systems. The biggest advantage Windows has is gaming.
There are several processor, RAM, and storage options for the MacBook Pro. For simplicity’s sake, we’re only going to list the starting specs and the max specs. In some cases, there will be in-between options. You can browse all MacBook Pro the specs here.
The 13-inch model starts with a 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor. You can upgrade that to a 3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7.
The 15-inch model starts with a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor. You can max that out to a 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7.
The 13-inch model starts with 8GB of RAM. You can upgrade that to 16GB.
The 15-inch model only has 16GB of RAM.
The 13-inch model starts with 256GB of storage. You can upgrade that up to 1TB.
The 15-inch model starts with 256GB of storage. You can upgrade that up to 2TB.
The 13-inch model has an Intel Iris Graphics 550 card.
The 15-inch model has a Radeon Pro 455 card with 2GB of memory. You can upgrade that to a Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB of memory.
Apple says the MacBook Pro can get up to 10 hours of battery life, but in our tests it didn’t get more than eight hours.
Like the MacBook Pro, the Surface Book comes in a variety of configurations that you can browse here, though they all sport the same 13.5-inch screen. These are the starting specs, and the max specs with the premium Performance Base model.
The basic model holds an Intel i5 processor. At the highest end, the Surface Book with Performance Base hosts an Intel Core i7.
All models of Surface Book let you choose between 8GB and 16GB of RAM.
The core model of Surface Book starts at 128GB of hard drive space; the Performance Base models start at 256GB. In all cases, you can max it out at 1TB.
The basic Surface Book unit has an integrated Intel HD graphics card, not vastly better than most other laptops. The versions with the dedicated graphics unit rock a custom Nvidia GeForce graphics card. Surface Book with Performance Base, the highest-end models, run a more powerful NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M with 2GB of GDDR5 memory.
The Surface Book actually sports two batteries: One in the tablet portion, and one in the keyboard base.
Microsoft claims that the base Surface Book gets 12 hours of battery life while playing video, while the heavier-duty battery in the Performance Base model gets 16 hours. In our own tests, it was closer to 7 to 8 hours on the core Surface Book and 8 to 10 with the Performance Base, depending on usage and settings.
Winner: Surface Book. This one is close, but we’ll give the edge to the Surface Book because its extra graphics power, especially on the Perfomance Base, is killer if you’re doing heavy-duty gaming or creative work.
MacBook Pro: There’s only one type of port on the MacBook Pro: Thunderbolt 3. This port is used for everything: charging the computer, connecting accessories, and video output. It’s also compatible with the new USB-C standard.
That’s a big problem if you want to connect older accessories to the MacBook Pro. You’ll have to buy adapters, dongles, or new cables for everything. After a lot of customer complaints, Apple decided to temporarily slash prices on USB-C accessories to ease the transition to the new port.
But the MacBook Pro still lacks a lot of ports professional users love. There no SD card reader. No HDMI. No Ethernet. No standard USB. However, it does have a standard headphone jack.
Surface Book: The Surface Book boasts a relative plethora of ports. It has an SD card reader, two USB ports, a mini-HDMI connector, and, of course, a headphone jack.
As a nice little bonus, the Surface Book’s charger itself has an additional USB port that can be used to charge a device – though since that port is for power only, you can’t use it to, say, sync a phone.
Microsoft’s generosity here may have a long-term drawback, though. As new standards like USB-C, championed by Apple and Google, start to pick up steam, the current models of Surface Book may be left behind.
Winner: Surface Book. Although few doubt USB-C is the future, the reality is that many professionals still need legacy ports like those found on the Surface Book.
Which one should you buy?
That really depends. A lot of pro users who need a lot of power and ports for video editing, coding, and more, have raised a lot of valid complaints about the MacBook Pro. As we wrote in our review, the MacBook Pro is more of a “prosumer” device. It’s a great computer for most people, but power users may find it lacking.
The Surface Book is designed as a powerful little productivity machine. It’s about as good as it gets for Windows PCs, but there are definitely cheaper options for Microsoft fans. Still, the Surface Book packs enough oomph into a little package to make it an attractive alternative for Apple fans, and a great computer for just about anybody.
Pro users and gamers will get more out of the Surface Book. It blows the MacBook away in just about every category. But there’s also something to be said for the legendary build quality and sleekness of Apple’s MacBooks, and for the refined MacOS Sierra. If you love Apple and don’t mind dealing with the new Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, you won’t be disappointed with the MacBook Pro.
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