Microsoft Surface Pro 4 vs Apple MacBook 2016

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Can both be the best? We’ve remarked that the Microsoft Surface Pro has the perfect mix of power and portability housed in the best hardware on the market; while the 2016 Apple MacBook outperforms its spec sheet, and features world-class engineering and design.

Both are expensive. The new MacBook carries the “Apple premium,” costing $1299 as of this writing, while the Surface Pro 4 starts at $899, and the Surface Type Cover adds $130 or $150 to the total.

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Both are arguably the two best travel machines on the market for their respective operating systems, and both can easily function as daily drivers in a pinch. But potential buyers without the deepest of deep pockets will have to make a choice between these two bests. So which is it, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or 2016 Apple MacBook?

Build & Design

We’ve called Intel Core m machines everything from impossibly light to absurdly thin, so what more can we say about the 2016 Apple MacBook?

The 2016 Apple MacBook has an excellent build.

The 2016 Apple MacBook has an excellent build.

From the chassis to the lid, keyboard, touchpad, display, and hinges, it all comes together seamlessly to create an eye-catching notebook. It feels great too, consistent and solid, with no salient weak points. It’s cool to the touch, thanks to its aluminum that completely resists fingerprints, smudges, and minor scuffs; and it measures 11.04 x 7.74 x .14-.52 inches (W x D x H) while weighing 2.03 pounds.

It’s also one of the few laptops users can open easily with one hand. That’s a small but important detail, and the kind of thing that distinguishes Apple products.

The Surface Pro 4 we reviewed sported the same Core m processor and was fanless, but Microsoft offers it with various Core i configurations. This means that regardless of whether or not it needs it, the Pro 4 has room for a fan. For an idea of how thin a Core m surface could be otherwise, check out the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S.

Fan or no fan, it’s still the best-built tablet for our money:

The Surface Pro 4 measures 11.5 x 7.93 x .33 inches and weighs either 1.69 (Core m3) or 1.73 (Core i) pounds (the Type Cover adds 0.19 inches and 64 pounds).

The Surface Pro 4 kickstand is one of the best design innovations.

The Surface Pro 4 kickstand is one of the best design innovations.

Like all Surfaces before it, it’s a remarkably well-built machine. We’ve long claimed that Surface hardware is the best on the market, and that still stands. The Surface Pro 4 has the same magnesium build as its predecessors and it feels solid, with no flex. Judging how well the old Surface models we have in the office have held up with frequent abuse, we are confident the Pro 4 will handle the rigors of daily use very well.

In addition, the new Surface Pro has the same excellent kickstand as the Pro 3, which still stands as one of the best design innovations of the past five years. New to the Pro 4 is a magnetic strip on the left short edge that serves as a Surface Pen dock.

Bottom Line: This is an apples and oranges comparison. The MacBook is a strict laptop, while the Surface Pro is a tablet that doubles as a 2-in-1 with its separately-sold keyboard cover. Even with the Surface Type Cover, the 2016 Apple MacBook is a superior piece of hardware. This is especially evident with its hinge. It’s an odd comment, but opening and closing the MacBook lid reveals its quality through the hinge’s consistency and perfect amount of resistance.

Ports & Inputs

The Apple MacBook has just two inputs: a USB Type-C that serves double duty for charging and data, and a 3.5mm audio input. The USB Type-C does not support Thunderbolt.

The 2016 Apple MacBook has a single USB Type-C input.

The 2016 Apple MacBook has a single USB Type-C input.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has a full-sized USB 3.0 input, Mini DisplayPort, proprietary charger, and microSD card slot, in addition to a smart connector for the Surface Type Cover.

The Surface Pro 4 has a full complement of ports.

The Surface Pro 4 has a full complement of ports.

Bottom Line: This is a no-brainer. The Pro 4 has the more complete selection of inputs and is a better product for it. The single USB Type-C input is the Apple MacBook’s biggest liability.

Yes, USB Type-C is the near future and the Pro 4 should have it (during the transition, all premium products should have both USB types), but USB Type-C accessories, especially expansion hubs, are needlessly expensive. Users can outfit a Pro 4 with addition USB inputs and an Ethernet port for less than the cost of Amazon shipping, while Apple users are forced to shell out outrageous sums upwards of $80. Part of this is because third-party Apple accessories are always finicky, forcing users to pay the Apple premium straight from Cupertino, while Windows 10 USB accessories are abundant, generally reliable, and cheap.

Also, let’s not understate the importance of removable storage. While the cloud handles most photo needs, it’s not ubiquitous. Getting photos off a digital camera and onto a Surface Pro 4 for editing or storage with a microSD card or inexpensive SD-to-USB adapter is much easier (and cheaper) than getting them on the 2016 MacBook.

Display

The Surface Pro 4 display is excellent at resisting glare.

The Surface Pro 4 display is excellent at resisting glare.

The Surface Pro 4 PixelSense LED display measures 12.3 inches corner to corner, with a 2736 x 1824 resolution, which results in a 3:2 aspect ratio and 267 pixels per inch. It supports up to 10 touch points and the N-trig-based Surface Pen. It’s covered in Gorilla Glass 4 and does a stellar job shirking off glare. Its colors are accurate with high levels of contrast, making a pleasant viewing experience. It’s maybe the best on the market.

The Apple MacBook 2016 display is no slouch. It’s a 12-inch IPS panel with a 2304 x 1440 resolution, resulting in a 16:10 aspect ratio and 226 pixels per inch. Its colors tend to the warmer tones, and its sharp details impress, as does its contrast. This is another panel that resists glare very well.

Just like every MacBook that preceded it, the Apple MacBook does not have a touch-enabled display.

Bottom Line: The Surface Pro 4 is the superior display. A side-by-side comparison reveals that it’s sharper, with slightly better imaging and color reproduction. Otherwise, glare resistance and contrast are close to equal.

The lack of a touchscreen really sets the MacBook back. As we wrote in the MacBook 2016 review:

Even though Mac OSX El Capitan is not as touch-friendly as Windows 10, this is still a liability. Touch is fundamental to device navigation these days, and Apple’s reluctance to embrace it for MacBooks is confounding.

Microsoft also gets points for its Surface Pen support. This is a must-have for digital artists, and even novice inkers will find it useful for quick-launching Cortana and OneNote, and for scribbling down memos.

Keyboard & Touchpad           

The MacBook's keys are spacious, but lack adequate travel.

The MacBook’s keys are spacious, but lack adequate travel.

The Microsoft Type Cover is sold separately for $130, or $150 with a fingerprint ID sensor. It adheres securely via the Pro 4’s magnetic smart connector, and serves double duty as a display cover. It’s one of the best mobile keyboards on the market, with a sloped design that makes for comfortable typing. The 78 large, island style keys have ample spacing and approximately 1.3mm of travel. The adjustable backlighting is a nice touch, and the keyboard is surprisingly quiet.

The Type Cover’s smooth touchpad doesn’t match the keyboard’s quality. It’s a single piece, like the Type Cover touchpads before it, and not as responsive as it should be. The same can be said for the fingerprint ID. It rarely works on the first press, and sometimes not at all.  

The Apple MacBook 2016 also has a 78-key backlit keyboard, and the keys are nicely sized and spaced. Apple employs a unique butterfly mechanism underneath each to provide a crisp and consistent snap. Unfortunately, they only have about .5mm of travel, which is not nearly enough (in fact, the Pro 4’s 1.3mm is barely enough). Keys bottom out harshly, which makes for achy digits.

The one-piece touchpad is a different story. True to other MacBooks, it’s one of the best we’ve ever tested. The difference in responsiveness between the MacBook and most Windows 10 devices is vast. We also love the potential for Force Touch, even if it’s still limited with non-Apple software.

Bottom Line: The Microsoft Type Cover is a much better keyboard, and is perhaps the best mobile keyboard on the market, while the MacBook has a superior touchpad. It’s a shame Microsoft makes users pay at least $130 for this necessary accessory, but users can save $20 by avoiding the more expensive Type Cover with its ineffective fingerprint ID.

Speakers & Camera

The Surface Pro 4 has a front-facing 5-megapixel camera and 8-megapixel rear camera. Both shoot 1080p video, and the front camera supports Windows Hello for facial recognition sign in. For a mobile device, the speakers are superb:

The Surface Pro 4 features front-mounted speakers on the upper edges of the display, which is exactly where they should be in order to direct sound at the user. Compared to other tablets and laptops, they are absolutely superb, emitting clear and robust audio. The sound is slightly fuller than what the Pro 3 is capable of producing, and it’s loud enough for personal use, even with plenty of background noise.

The Apple MacBook has similarly superb speakers:

We typically dismiss thin notebook and tablet speakers as ranging from bad to worse, but the 2016 Apple MacBook speakers are surprisingly powerful. They are great for personal use, and pump out enough sound to fill a large room when maxed. They sound shrill at the high end, and the Surface Pro 4 has more robust output. Still, we can’t help but be impressed with their oomph.

But Apple MacBook has a laughably bad camera:

Also confounding is the MacBook’s 720 x 480 front-facing FaceTime camera. That’s an insultingly low resolution for a premium device. Even the iRULU WalknBook, which costs about $160 as of this writing has a higher-resolution shooter.

Bottom Line: The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 comes out on top. As we’ve stated time and time again, no one should base a laptop or tablet buying decision on speakers or a camera. But it seems like Apple is trolling potential buyers with the MacBook’s paltry 720 x 480 camera:

Yes, megapixels are the only element that matters when it comes to digital imaging, and yes, the MacBook’s front-facing camera is near exclusively meant for video chat, but all the Apple magic in Cupertino won’t stop users from looking poor and pixelated on the other end of video calls. And that’s unacceptable on a device that starts a dollar short of $1,300.

Performance & Battery

The Apple MacBook 2016 ships with either a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz) with 4MB L3 cache and Intel HD 515 integrated graphics, or a Core m5 processor (1.2GHz dual-core, Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz). Both units ship with 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 RAM. The Core m3 unit has 256GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage, while the m5 has 512GB.

The Core m3 MacBooks costs $1,299, while the m5 unit costs $1,599

Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 4 comes in the following configurations:

  • Intel Core m3, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD
  • Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM 128GB SSD
  • Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM 256GB SSD
  • Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM 512GB SSD
  • Intel Core i5, 16GB of RAM 256GB SSD
  • Intel Core i5, 16GB of RAM 512GB SSD
  • Intel Core i7, 8GB of RAM 256GB SSD
  • Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM 256GB SSD
  • Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM 512GB SSD
  • Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM 1TB SSD

All run 64-bit Windows 10 Pro. The Base unit costs $899. Each step up adds $100 to $500 to the cost, with the next step up from the base Surface Pro 4 costing $999. A base unit with a Microsoft Type Cover costs either $1,029 or $1,059 with the Fingerprint ID.

We reviewed the Core m3 version of each, with the Apple MacBook edging out the Surface Pro 4 in the cross-platform Geekbench multi-core benchmark 5026 to 4314. This can likely be explained by the difference in RAM.

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Both machines proved smooth and stable during the review process. The standard sixth-generation Core m boilerplate applies:

Core m devices prove stable in day-to-day use, and there is an almost unperceivable difference between any of the sixth-gen Core processors up to a certain point. They all power up devices and run basic programs, including Chrome with a handful of tabs open, just fine out of the gate.

Anything beyond that reveals Core m limitations, especially AAA title gaming, and more relevant to Mac users, 4K video editing and image editing. The Core m can handle a relatively demanding workload, but not without sputtering.

The 2016 MacBook also bests the Surface Pro 4 in battery life. Streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi in Chrome, with display brightness set to 100 percent, the MacBook lasted 5 hours and 40 minutes, while the Surface Pro 4 lasted two minutes shy of 4 hours.

battery

Bottom Line: The numbers don’t lie. The Apple MacBook performs better at the base level, and has a better battery life. However, a Core i5 Surface Pro 4 will likely outperform either MacBook configuration on the benchmark tests. The MacBook will still likely win the battery test.

Software

Windows 10 or OS X El Capitan? Both are very similar, with Microsoft moving to Apple’s OS model of regular and free updates in lieu of major new releases every few years. With a few exceptions, whatever users can broadly do one, they can do on the other: email, web browsing, office productivity work, image editing, etc. But Windows 10 has a stark edge in gaming (and the Core i7 Surface Pro 4 with Iris Graphics can handle many AAA titles from around 2014 on low settings), and Windows 10 might be the only option supported by IT for some business users.

Objectively comparing the two is difficult. The choice comes down to taste and familiarity. But broadly, Windows 10 allows for more customization and diverse workflows as it supports a variety of hardware types. OS X still has no answer for Cortana, the Windows voice assistant, despite Siri’s presence on the iPad and iPhone. Windows 10 also handles multitasking very well through Task View, and allows easier access to quick settings.

Windows 10 Task View is great for multitaskers.

Windows 10 Task View is great for multitaskers.

For its part, OS X has outstanding iPhone and iPad integration with Continuity and Handoff; its Mail app is far superior to the Windows 10 client; and Safari is still several steps ahead of Microsoft Edge. Because of its much smaller install base, OS X is less of a target for malware attacks.

(Update 6/14/2016: Apple has changed the OS X name to macOS, and its latest version, Sierra, brings Siri, tabbed Windows, and greater iPhone/iPad/Apple Watch integration. It is expected to launch publicly in fall 2016.)

OS X Handoff works great for iPad and iPhone users.

OS X Handoff works great for iPad and iPhone users.

Bottom Line: It’s a tie. OS X users won’t find much in Windows 10 to switch, and vice versa. Both are capable and competent operating systems that prove swift and stable on the new MacBook and Surface Pro 4.

Price & Value

For $1,299 the 2016 Apple MacBook offers an Intel Core m3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. $1,599 gets users a Core m5 upgrade and 512GB of storage.

For $1,029, Microsoft offers a Surface Pro 4 with the same chipset, but only 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. This price includes a basic Surface Pro Type Cover, which is sold separately.

Excluding the Surface Pen that comes bundled with the Surface Pro 4, users are ultimately paying $270 for 128GB of additional storage and 4GB of additional RAM with the MacBook. That’s not unreasonable, as Microsoft charges $300 for a similar upgrade with its Core i5 Surface Pro 4.

With that in mind, users can snag a Core i5 Surface Pro 4 with Type Cover, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD for $1,129. A Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD runs $1,429. A Core i5 Pro 4 with a basic Type Cover, 16GB RAM, and a 256GB SSD runs $1,629.

Bottom Line: The Surface Pro 4 has a better price-to-performance ratio. The devices are about equal at the base level, but the Core i5 Surface Pro 4 models are a much better overall value. The leap from Core m3 or m5 to Core i5 in terms of performance capability is greater than the leap from Core i5 to Core i7. It’s easy to recommend any of the Core i5 Surface Pro 4 units over any of the Apple MacBook 2016 configurations taking price into consideration, even the Pro 4 with 4GB of RAM.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or Apple MacBook 2016?

sp4vsapplemacbookfvGood news Windows fans, the 2016 Apple MacBook has nothing on the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft’s 2-in-1 has the better display, keyboard, and price-to-performance ratio. It’s more dynamic thanks to Windows 10 and its touch and Surface Pen support. While OS X gets a lot right, especially for iPhone and iPad users, Windows 10 is equally excellent. There’s no reason for Windows users to make the switch. As we stated in the MacBook review:

Windows users might want to give Force Touch a try and gawk at the MacBook’s build. But this MacBook doesn’t offer enough to justify the switch from Windows and/or any premium devices that run it.

While the MacBook’s build and design are second to none, the device’s compromises coupled with its high price leave a bad taste. The single USB Type-C port hinders productivity, and the shallow keyboard makes for uncomfortable typing. Even those coming in with no OS preference should look elsewhere. Yes, it’s the best travel OS X machine, but Apple fans have other options:

The 2016 Apple MacBook ultimately serves best as a secondary or travel device for Apple users that want a more robust operating system than iOS, and need the added storage and accessory support. It’s a spec bump from the 2015 MacBook that doesn’t offer enough to justify an upgrade. Apple loyalists willing to ignore the price tag or sporting an aging MacBook or MacBook Air will be pleased with its overall performance and hardware quality. But that’s a narrow band of users, and we suspect that most potential MacBook buyers could do just as well with a less expensive iPad Pro.


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5 Comments

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  1. sindexa

    very in-depth review ,yet ,it is really difficult for me to name the winner.Personally ,I ‘ll select one according to my preference.

  2. ChrisBennett

    It’s telling that Microsoft’s iPad ‘killer’ is now being reviewed against Apple’s entry level MacBook. I guess it’s not really a tablet after all?

  3. Rochambeau

    You cannot overstate the value of the SDCard slot in the Surface. Apple intentionally does not include any card options on ANY of their devices, as they would prefer to rape their customers with astronomical profit margins on any storage upgrade.

  4. HakanKantas

    This is not a fair and balanced compare, you can not compare keyboards of these units, everybody knows Mac has better keyboard and price; 10 years ago yes Mac was expensive but today they are almost same price so it is not fair to say tablet is cheaper, you get much better overall Mac quality for a few dollars more.

  5. TRANSMITTERGUY

    This was very interesting. Thank you. I was wondering this last week. Which is better, Mac or Mike.