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How Does the MacBook Air Compare to the Latest Ultrabooks, Surface?

This April’s round of upgrades to Apple’s venerable MacBook Air notebook line was hardly gasp-inducing. Processor power went up a tad, pricing came down a smidge, and the machines remained otherwise all but identical to their predecessors.

Those hoping for more dramatic improvements, such as the addition of a Retina display or a new form factor (perhaps of that rumored 12-inch vintage) were disappointed. Refresh completed, Apple appears unlikely to make another round of MacBook Air updates any time soon.

Meanwhile, the Windows world is seeing big changes in mobile computers, and while we don’t expect (or recommend) switching to Windows just for new hardware, it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s on the other side of the fence.

Microsoft is now offering a third-generation, radically redesigned Surface PC, the Surface Pro 3, positioning it as a direct MacBook Air competitor — albeit one with tablet features that also put it in contention with the iPad line.

Ultrabooks, the thin and light laptops conceived several years ago to compete with the MacBook Air, are getting better and better. Certain models are good enough to give even Apple aficionados pause.

So Mac users might wonder how Apple’s ultralight laptops are holding up on the hardware front lately, given the quick evolution in the Windows world. Is the MacBook Air still at the top of the heap, or at least solidly competitive? Or is it time to be… a teeny tiny bit embarrassed, perhaps?

I pondered this in recent weeks as I kicked the tires on a variety of loaner laptops, including 11.6- and 13.3-inch models of the MacBook Air and a Surface Pro 3 along with high-profile Windows notebooks such as Acer’s Aspire S7 and Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch. Each machine is fantastic, in its own way.

Comparisons between Macs and PCs are tricky in an Apple-and-oranges way because features on one side sometimes have no direct equivalent on the other. The Windows notebook world is vast and wildly varied compared to the smaller, more consistent Mac ecosystem, too.

PC manufacturers are wooing the Apple faithful with bells and whistles often not found on the Mac side. Microsoft, especially, is hellbent on bagging Apple converts with bounties for those who trade in Macs at the Redmond giant’s retail stores. It’s time to step from the old and tired to the new and vibrant, Microsoft insists.

Long-time Mac users might chortle at this, but is the MacBook Air in at least a little bit of trouble, maybe? Let’s consider crucial feature categories, and how Apple’s product line lines up with the competition.

Retina Displays — Perhaps the biggest gripe about the MacBook Air line is a glaring absence of a Retina display like that on MacBook Pro notebooks and all other screen-equipped Apple devices, excluding the iMac. That’s a big problem, right?

Here’s where testing Windows-based mobile hardware caused me just a bit of dismay in recent weeks. The displays on my loaner PCs are gorgeous. All the models I tried have 2,160-by-1,440-pixel resolutions with physical display sizes ranging from 12 inches on a Surface Pro 3 to 13.3 inches on the Aspire S7 and 14 inches on a ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch. That 3,110,400 pixels doesn’t quite count as “Retina” as defined by Apple, which offers higher pixel densities on its MacBook Pro notebooks, but it’s still pretty nice.

The 13.3-inch MacBook Air, for those keeping score, has 1,440 by 900 pixels (1,296,000 pixels), while the 11.6-incher is 1,366 by 768 pixels (1,049,088 pixels). That’s about 40 percent of the pixels on the Windows Ultrabooks, and does not sound very impressive. Such specs can be a serious problem in certain circumstances. When I’m making fine-grained changes to a zoomed-in digital picture in Apple’s not-long-for-this-world Aperture app (see “Say Goodbye to iPhoto and Aperture,” 27 June 2014), for instance, I become painfully aware of that cruder pixel density.

Such specialized scenarios are relatively rare for me and most average users, however. Pro photographers will buy pro hardware, the MacBook Pro, with 2,560-by-1,600 resolution (4,096,000 pixels) on the 13-inch model and 2,880-by-1,800 resolution (5,184,000 pixels) on the 15-inch model. Everyday Apple users aren’t nearly as pixel-conscious, and won’t have as much of a problem with the MacBook Air’s relative pixel coarseness. I usually don’t.

My bottom line: When I set a Windows machine aside, returned to a MacBook Air, and gave myself 15 minutes to readjust, I was a happy camper. Sure, I’ll love a Retina-grade MacBook Air when it finally arrives, but I wouldn’t talk most Mac users out of an MacBook Air purchase on display quality alone.

Whether the MacBook Air will ever get Retina is a topic of some debate, by the way. Some think it’s a pro feature that won’t migrate to more-mainstream Air models anytime soon. Besides, this may still be impractical because it might involve too much of a battery hit.

Lapability — Laptops get their name for the obvious reason: they are designed to be used on a lap in some circumstances. I recently had to cover a St. Paul City Council meeting (yeah, there was a tech angle), and it felt natural to pull my MacBook Air from my bag, open the lid, position the computer on my lap in the church-like pew, and start to type.

This does not seem like a scenario crying out for improvement or disruption, but don’t tell that to Microsoft. Its much-ballyhooed Surface PCs are taking a different approach to “lapability” (Microsoft’s term, not mine) in a way that, it insists, is super awesome.

The Surface PCs have flip-out stands in the back, and thin keyboards doubling as covers that attach magnetically in the front when they are required. Using a Surface PC on your lap means balancing the PC upon it with the stand extended, and then clipping on a keyboard cover for a full falda workstation.

If this sounds a bit awkward, it is. Most of the keyboard covers tend to flex (a thick one incorporating a secondary Surface battery is the exception), which does not make for a rock-solid typing surface. And the Surface-with-stand balancing act is not as stable as a laptop base resting horizontally and firmly on a lap.

Microsoft has acknowledged all of this, but argues that it has licked this issue with its latest model, the Surface Pro 3. That version’s kickstand is far more adjustable and with a full-friction design for tilting the computer solidly at up to 150 degrees. The keyboard cover attaches to the Surface far more firmly for greater stability. And a new trackpad is 68 percent bigger than the old one, with a 78-percent reduction in friction.

Microsoft even has a new video called (you guessed it) “Surface Pro – Lapability.”

Lapability problem all solved, right? Well, almost. It’s definitely better, but it does not feel like a set-it-and-forget-it arrangement. I detest using the Surface Pro 3 when I am wearing shorts, since the metal stand’s thin edge has a way of digging knife-like into my bare leg. What’s more, the keyboard still has that flexing problem. The trackpad is still small compared to an Air’s, and is not as elegant and effortless to use – not even close.

I will stick with the Air, though in this category the Acer and Lenovo machines also beat the Microsoft hybrid. Sometimes, you just can’t improve on tradition.

Styling — Some Apple pundits have said the MacBook Air’s industrial design looks a bit dated. They are welcome to that opinion, but I think they are nuts.

Competing Windows notebooks are often lovely, to be sure. The white-ish Aspire S7’s exterior is a novel mix of aluminum and Gorilla Glass 2 that looks great, but makes it a bit of a smudge magnet. The X1 Carbon Touch offers a classic Lenovo black soft-touch exterior with a wedge shape and rounded edges, much like the MacBook Air, but unlike the flat-slab Aspire S7.

Microsoft makes a style statement all its own with the Surface Pro 3, which is thinner and lighter than its precursor, and is, the creator claims, the thinnest Intel Core-class mobile computer in existence. Its light-gray metal gives it a dignified and understated appearance, and it feels great in the hand (though it is too big a tablet for reading with one hand in bed).

This is terrific, but better or more up-to-date than Apple’s classic brushed aluminum? Hardly.

Then again, Apple has a way of making its on-the-way-out products look dated once they unveil their replacements, so I am sure I’ll be eating these words eventually.

Touch — I have developed an irksome habit when using the MacBook Air: I keep reaching out to tap or swipe the screen. This is partly because, as a laptop reviewer, I test Windows notebooks that incorporate touch displays. But even Apple-only types have this issue because their touch interaction with an iPad or iPhone carries over to their Mac laptop use, often with comical results.

This leads to the question: Do MacBook Air laptops (and, by extension, the MacBook Pro models) somehow lag behind their Windows counterparts because they do not include touch screens? Is it high time Apple added touch?

I’ll confess to loving Windows laptops’ touch features. That’s partly because Windows 8.1, the current version of this still-dominant computer operating system, is to a large extent designed for that kind of interaction. A portion of the Windows OS consists of big, bright tiles that are meant to be tapped for various reasons, such as the launching of full-screen apps that are also touch-centric. In this regard, touch-friendly hardware and software go hand-in-hand (see Microsoft Surface: A Tale of Two Computers).

The Acer and Lenovo laptops can fold back 180 degrees to lie flat on a work surface for screen sharing and communal-touch use, a trick the MacBook Air can’t match.

The Surface Pro 3 includes a clever stylus with a button that activates Microsoft’s OneNote app with a click, and allows for precise sketching, drawing, and other stylus-specific work that Mac users can’t attempt without an external graphics tablet (or separately with the iPad).

Mac OS X, even the most recent variant with distinct echoes of Apple’s touch-centric iOS, is an entirely different animal. It isn’t fingertip-friendly, but intended to be used with a trackpad or a mouse. This isn’t a flaw. This is an approach that has worked well for Apple since the 1980s, and more recently refined with a trackpad that has no equal in the mobile-computing industry.

In fact, I’ll often use the touch screens on Windows laptops not because I am so in love with this approach, but because I am having trouble with their lackluster trackpads. The trackpads built into the Aspire S7 and ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch are nice, but are not Apple-awesome. And, as an Apple user, I rarely feel deprived on the MacBook Air with a screen that isn’t touch-driven. It is not a part of the equation, and that’s fine with me.

Specs — An exhaustive spec shootout incorporating all Windows-based Air rivals on the market is hopeless given how large and varied this market has become. Some laptop models are better than a MacBook Air. Other ones are inferior. Some are more affordable. Some are much pricier. The fact that Ultrabooks are highly configurable in many cases makes this even more hopelessly complicated.

So, somewhat more anecdotally, I’ll limit myself to the Windows PCs in my possession since they are among the best-known and most-respected Apple-notebook alternatives in the Windows realm. This is a narrow, but fair, comparison.

Rather than unleash a torrent of specs and make your eyes glaze over, I’ll refer you to relevant pages for the Surface Pro 3, Aspire S7, X1 Carbon series and MacBook Air.

To put the rival computers on an even playing field, I posed the following question: What would $999 or so get me? I started with an entry-level 13.3-inch Air at that price and then compared.

After peering at those spec pages until I went a bit cross-eyed, I have a few observations:

  1. The computers are all but identical in key categories, including storage (128-gigabyte SSD), memory (4 gigabytes), processor (Intel Core i5, though running at a range of speeds) and graphics (all use roughly comparable versions of Intel’s integrated HD Graphics).

  2. A 13.3-inch screen hits a sweet spot. The X1 Carbon feels a bit big at 14 inches while the Surface Pro 3 is a bit cramped at 12 inches.

  3. The Air’s lack of Retina isn’t as big of an issue as I thought since both the Acer and Lenovo models have to take resolution hits (down to 1,920 by 1,080 pixels and 1,600 by 900 pixels) so I don’t blow my budget.

  4. Same goes for touch, at least in Lenovo’s case. My low-budget model lacks this feature, and it’s still over budget at $1,186.55. I stayed well under budget with the Aspire S7, on the other hand, with a $899 model (there was no $999 model for me to pick) that does incorporate touch.

  5. A Surface Pro 3 with a price and specs matching its rivals does not include the keyboard cover, which is an extra $130. You have to bite the bullet on that, make do with another USB or Bluetooth keyboard that doesn’t clip on to the computer, or take a spec hit with a Surface model that has only an Intel Core i3 processor and a 64-gigabyte SSD (and that configuration is not available until August).

  6. The MacBook Air is surprisingly the heaviest of the computers at 2.96 pounds, but not by much. The X1 Carbon and Aspire A7 are just over 2.8 pounds each. The Surface Pro 3 is 1.76 pounds, which is impressive for a full Intel Core computer.

What all this tells me: The MacBook Air is clearly competitive despite some obvious cons — slightly heavier, lower-res display, lack of touch capability — compared to its rivals. None of the shortcomings seem like deal breakers to me.

Software — This article is primarily about hardware, but it is impossible to ignore the software angle, and in this category a Mac is impressive. Windows buyers will be hard-pressed to find a laptop loaded up with software matching Apple’s sleek iWork apps along with iMovie, iPhoto, and GarageBand, all of which collectively will give a new Mac owner great power out of the box. (iPhoto is not long for this world, as you may have heard, but Apple has a replacement in the wings. See “Apple Unveils iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite at WWDC,” 2 June 2014.)

I’ll take this a step further: A continual frustration with the Windows PCs I routinely test is that platform’s lack of apps matching certain programs that are in my Mac kit. These include Instacast for Mac, a powerful podcast client; Pocket for Mac, the Mac-native and richly featured app for accessing the popular bookmarking service; Mailplane, a hybrid native/Web app for accessing Gmail and Google Calendar; Reeder, the recently revamped RSS reader; and others.

Yes, these prized Mac apps of mine have Windows kind-of-equivalents. No, I do not think they are remotely comparable. Yes, you might disagree with me in some cases, and I acknowledge that this is partially subjective. I think my fundamental point is a sound one, however: Mac users have kick-butt software. It is one reason I remain so loyal to the Mac; I feel software-deprived when on a PC.

Conclusions — If the upshot from all this analysis isn’t obvious to you, I’ll spell it out: MacBook Air users have nothing to be ashamed about.

My favorite Air alternative here is the Surface Pro 3 — largely because of its superior portability, higher-res display, and the option to detach the keyboard for pure-tablet use — and I love that infinitely adjustable kickstand.

But, if compelled to pick either the Surface Pro 3 or a MacBook Air, I’d comfortably opt for the latter, no question.

Some Mac users will want to hold out for a Retina display, but those having upgrade urgency can buy an Air with heads held high. Touch-screen capability on a PC makes sense, but it does not on a Mac, so who the heck cares? Airs are among the sleekest, sexiest, and most lappable (the last time I am using that word, I swear). And spec for spec, the Air matches up adequately, if not perfectly, with top-flight Windows laptops having roughly comparable pricing.

Go forth and shop with pride, Apple fans.

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