Apple released its MacBook Air with its second generation M2 SoC over four months ago, and since its release, I have spent a good amount of time testing and using Apple's newly redesigned MacBook Air M2.
Over the four months, I have been using the MacBook Air M2 to write articles; sometimes, I take it with me when I travel. While I have many likes and dislikes about the MacBook Air M2, there is one truth that stays the same throughout my entire experience. Unless something dramatically changes in silicon and compatibility, MacBooks will be better at video editing and Windows laptops will always be better at gaming, productivity, and multitasking.
While I believe this truth is more profound for devices built for performance like the Surface Laptop Studio and MacBook Pro, it is also true for devices like the MacBook Air and Surface Laptop 4 that target small form factor laptop audiences. Although the Surface Laptop 4 is a generation behind under the hood, and the Surface Laptop 5 could be coming out soon, I believe the Surface Laptop 4 still offers a better experience for hybrid work and is a better value than the MacBook Air M2.
I have compared the Surface Laptop Studio and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, the Surface Laptop 3 and MacBook Air M1, and the MacBook Pro and Surface Book. I have also looked at the MacBook AAA gaming scene, much of which hasn't changed since Apple first released its M1 SoCs. Now I want to compare the Surface Laptop 4 to the MacBook Air M2. Let’s dive in.
Before I begin, I want to preface the benchmarks with my expectations and reasoning for including benchmarks. I also want to answer why I am comparing a system (Surface Laptop 4) that is about two generations behind specs wise.
My expectations are as follows: these are two completely different systems that run on two different architectures (x86 and Arm) that have their pros and cons. I expect the MacBook Air M2 to win in most of these benchmarks, especially the performance benchmarks, simply because the M2 is a newer SoC and runs on TSMC's "5nm" node, whereas the Surface Laptop 4 is running on Intel's "10nm." The M2 is also designed differently, with unified memory and more cores with one thread. While there are many more differences, these are enough to set the two systems apart.
However, both devices target a very similar audience. The Surface Laptop 4 and MacBook Air M2 target folks who want a smaller form factor laptop, don't need a significant amount of performance and are looking to be productive. Where the MacBook Air takes a victory lap over the Surface Laptop 4 in benchmarking, the Surface Laptop 4 makes up for it with its versatile features.
Benchmarking is not my full-time job, and while there are probably better benchmarks to use, I chose the benchmarks that are easily accessible if you choose to do them yourself. WebXRPT 4, and Cinebench R23, are free benchmarks, and Sid Meier's Civilization 6 (Civ 6) and Counter Strike: Global Offensive have free benchmarks within their respective purchase of the game.
When benchmarking the two systems, I have left the settings on default and exactly how both devices came out of the box. Both devices were also connected to the chargers that came with the devices and not running off the battery. Both devices were also in the same room running the same tests side-by-side, so there was no funny business. For each benchmark, the tests were run three times back to back, and then I took the average.
My goal was to get both devices to as similar of a price and as similar specs as possible. The MacBook Air M2 came at about $1,599 and the Surface Laptop 4 came at $1,399.99, making the price a $200 price difference. Below are the specs for both devices.
Apple MacBook Air M2 2022
- Apple M2 chip with 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine
- 16GB of unified memory
- 512GB of SSD storage
- 13.6-inch Liquid Retina display
- 2560 x 1664 resolution (224 PPI)
- 1080p Face Time HD Camera
- Two Thunderbolt 4 (TB4) ports, MagSafe charging port, 3.5mm headphone jack
- Touch ID
- macOS Monterey 12.6
Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
- 11 Gen Intel Core i7-11857G
- Intel Iris Xe Graphics
- 16GB of memory
- 512GB of SSD Storage
- 13.5-inch PixelSense touch display
- 2256 x 1504 (201 PPI)
- 720p HD camera
- 1 USB-C, 1USB-A, 3.5mm headphone jack, Surface Connect port
- Windows Hello
- Windows 11 Home 22H2
I could have gone with the very basic models of both devices with 8GB of memory and a 256GB storage option, but I did not want to give Apple a disadvantage knowing that its 256GB storage option has horrible performance. Apple decided to save an extra couple of bucks and not use dual-channel NAND storage for its 256GB models. This decision essentially makes the 256GB MacBook Air M2 perform worse than the M1 model for disk speeds.
Intel's 11th Gen Core processors are the generation before Intel transitions to its P-core and E-core configuration. The 11 Gen Intel Core i7-11857G has 4 cores and 8 threads (2 threads per core), while the M2 has 8 cores and 8 threads (1 thread per core).
Sid Meier's Civilization 6 AI and graphics benchmark
Very few AAA games can run on a MacBook, especially when you don't want to jump through hoops to get something like Boot Camp or Parallels to work. For example, Apple showcased its new feature using No Man's Sky at WWDC 2022. While I would like to use No Man's Sky for comparison, it is not even native to macOS. Huge bummer.
Sid Meier's Civilization 6 is a native macOS game on the Steam store, and it has its own built-in graphics and AI benchmarks. Although it may not be as graphically intensive of a game compared to other AAA games, it is very fitting for this type of laptop. I do not expect either laptop to run something like Cyberpunk 2022 very well for a long period.
I also understand that Civ 6 is the time of the game that could be played for hours on end, and knowing that the MacBook Air M2 has had thermal throttling issues in the past, these benchmark tests do not reflect performance over those long periods.
Sid Meier's Civilization 6 AI
The AI benchmark measures the amount of time the AI of the NPCs takes per turn. It is measured in milliseconds over a simulated game with multiple turns. Civ 6 uses AI to make decisions about the game based on AI traits per civilization. This AI benchmark is good for seeing how quickly AI can calculate and make decisions per system.
The Surface Laptop 4 was about 5 milliseconds faster on average than the MacBook Air M2. The results of this benchmark were slightly surprising to me. Keep in mind that the M2 has a 14-core NPU for specializing in AI processing. I am not certain whether Civ 6's AI uses the 14- core NPU, but if it does, it is quite underwhelming, and if it doesn't, then it shows the lack of support for M2. If the lack of AAA games for Apple silicon did not tell you how Apple doesn't care about gaming, this should.
Sid Meier's Civilization 6 Graphics
The interesting quality of Civ 6 is that the game is not reliable on frames per second (fps) in that the game is still very playable at lower frame rates. With that said, I believe it is still good to get an idea of the frame rate, considering it would reflect how well other games with similar graphics intensity would perform. In my testing, I did not change the performance or the memory impact in the graphics setting, but I did change the resolution on the MacBook Air.
The benchmark is measured in the average frame time rather than frames per second. I also provided the 99th percentile frame time, which gives an idea of frame time at its peak. The lower the time, the better.
The Surface Laptop 4 was able to run the game at its native 2256 x 1504 resolution, while the MacBook Air had a default resolution of 1470 x 956 I did bump the MacBook Air resolution up to 1710 x 1112 (149 PPI), which is still not near the resolution of the Surface Laptop 4. This difference is reflected in the graphics benchmarks.
The MacBook Air has about a 4ms better frame time than the Surface Laptop 4. This would be about equivalent to 60 fps for the MacBook Air M2 and 48.8 fps for the Surface Laptop 4. Yes, the MacBook Air M2 has much better performance, and we should see this more prominently with our CS: GO testing, but we also have to consider the disadvantages. The Surface Laptop 4 is running at a higher resolution with a GPU that is a generation behind. The Surface Laptop 4 is hanging with the competition. With the Surface Laptop 5 expected to come soon, I am interested to see how much better the Surface Laptop 5 performs with Intel's 12th Gen processors.
Counter Strike: Global Offensive graphics benchmark
CS: GO is another one of the few popular AAA games that can run on Apple's new silicon without jumping through hoops. It is also played competitively and falls into a different gaming genre than Civ 6. Fps is very important in CS: GO, and a jump in frames could cost you the game. CS: GO is not as graphically intense as other shooting games, and I believe it is perfect for these types of laptops.
Again, the MacBook Air had a default resolution lower than its native resolution, so I bumped it up to 2560 x 1664. This benchmark is not native to CS: GO but is a community benchmark within the game that has been tested over time.
The MacBook Air has twice the average fps of the Surface Laptop 4. I believe this accurately reflects what should happen with a generation difference between processors in both devices. Assuming the Surface Laptop 5 will have 12th Gen Intel Core processors and Intel's Xe LP( low power) integrated graphics, I believe it should easily double its performance to match the MacBook Air M2. With the optimization that Intel and Microsoft can achieve in gaming, I could also see it going beyond the MacBook Air's fps performance.
Web Browser- WebXRPT 4
I believe web browsing performance is the most important benchmark in this comparison. The browser is where most tasks are done, and having multiple tabs open and a fast web browsing experience is crucial to productivity.
WebXRPT 4 is a benchmark created by the folks at Principled Technology (PT). In there words of PT:
I checked all of the workloads available and did two different tests for each device. I tested each device with their respective default browsers, and then I tested both devices using the Chrome browser. The Apple MacBook Air M2 uses Safari 16.0, the Surface Laptop 4 uses Edge (Chromium) 106.0, and both use Chrome version 106.0.5249.103.
The MacBook Air M2 outperforms the MacBook Air M2 on its default browser and on Chrome. The MacBook Air M2 is about 27% better on web browser workloads than the Surface Laptop 4. While it is not a 27% difference across the board for all workloads, the MacBook Air did outperform the Surface Laptop 4 in all web browsing workloads. Remember that we are not looking to outperform the MacBook Air M2 in many of these benchmarks but to show that the Surface Laptop 4 can compete with the latest of what Apple has to offer. And, with the Surface Laptop 5 possibly coming soon and the Surface Laptop 4 on sale, it is all the more reason to look toward the Surface Laptop for web browsing.
Cinebench R23 is a great benchmark for testing video editing benchmarks. According to Maxon's website, "Cinebench is a real-world cross-platform test suite… providing a more accurate measurement of Cinema 4D's ability to take advantage of multiple CPU cores and modern processor features available to the average user."
While I don't expect much from the Surface Laptop 4, I believe this is a great benchmark to show the different rendering abilities of both devices. While I consider the web browser benchmark to be the most important, I consider this benchmark to be at the lower end of importance. I consider it at the lower end of importance because people who need a laptop for video editing and rendering will look for more powerful and performant devices.
The Surface Laptop 4 is able to keep pace with the MacBook Air M2 in single-threaded performance but has a difficult time keeping up with the MacBook Air in multi-threaded rendering. The MacBook Air M2 has twice as many cores and a single core per thread, taking on multi-threaded workloads much better than the Surface Laptop 4's multi-threaded processor.
I now want to consider features of a laptop that don't take into effect a device's generation difference in computing and address some of the digital trends we see today. For example, hybrid work and multitasking are two digital trends that make good connectivity and a versatile design important factors when considering a laptop.
Many Apple fans may scoff at my mention of multitasking. I believe a simple explanation of what I mean by multitasking would make this comparison more meaningful. When many people think of multitasking, it is often the person that is thought of as doing the multitasking. I can do two tasks at once when I walk and chew gum. However, there are many tasks that cannot be done simultaneously. For example, you cannot read and watch a movie. Either your attention and your eyes will be on a screen or in the book, but you cannot do both simultaneously.
Multitasking on a laptop is where the device is multitasking and providing a service for the user that makes the person's task more productive or efficient. For example, I can have Outlook open in one window, and OneNote snapped right next to it, taking notes on my emails in Outlook. It would not be productive for my workstation to have Outlook open and switch to my OneNote window every couple of seconds to jot down some notes. I would never get anything done.
Apple recently announced Stage Manager for macOS Ventura at the same event it announced the MacBook Air M2. At the time of writing this comparison, the MacBook Air M2 does not have macOS Ventura, but I want to include it in comparison with the assumption that it is coming to the MacBook Air M2.
Stage Manager comes from iPad OS as a multitasking tool. Similar to what you would see on an Android device where you are able to see all of the available apps open. With Stage Manager, apps and windows are automatically organized to the right of the display, and users are able to switch between apps. If this sounds familiar, you are right because this type of "multitasking" is exactly what I described in my example above. I believe it is an unproductive take on multitasking, especially when considering how the Surface Laptop 4 does multitasking on Windows 11 22H2 and snapped windows.
Windows 11 added a new feature where users can hover the maximize button at the top right of a window and snap the window into place next to other windows. With the 22H2 update, Microsoft added more layouts. It has more support for touch navigation so users can drag windows to the top of the display and snap a window to a layout. Snapped windows is a feature that I often use when I use multiple different apps to complete a task. For example, I could have OneNote, Microsoft Word, and the Edge browser open, taking notes, clipping research from the internet, and typing it into a blog. I do not see the MacBook Air being more productive with Stage Manager than what I am able to do with Snapped Layouts on Windows. While I am able to put two windows side-by-side on the MacBook Air, it is more effort than it is worth.
Microsoft also has great multitasking features for desk workstations. Whenever a user has snapped windows and disconnects from external displays, the snapped windows are remembered when the device is plugged back into the external monitors. I believe this is a very useful feature for hybrid workers.
The Surface Laptop 4 also has support for extra inputs like a multi-touch screen and pen support. Although the pen on a vertical display is not the most ideal, the display is sturdy enough to support writing with a pen. The touch display makes it easier to use Android apps from the Microsoft store and even draw on 3D rendering apps like Blender. Although the Surface Laptop 4 is not better than the MacBook Air M2 in terms of benchmark performance, it makes up for its touch capabilities.
Another benefit for hybrid workers is the Surface Laptop 4's support for the Surface Dock. The Surface Dock connects the Surface Laptop to external peripherals through the Surface Connector. The Surface Laptop 4 does not have Thunderbolt 4 like the MacBook Air M2, but the MacBook Air M2's Thunderbolt 4 does not work on all Thunderbolt 4 docks. For example, I plugged the Surface Laptop 4 into an Anker 777 Thunderbolt 4 dock and was able to connect to a Logitech keyboard and mouse, a Dell 4K webcam, Samsung 4K monitor, and 2K LG display with everything working. When I plugged the MacBook Air M2 into the same configuration, the display did not turn on, and I could only connect to the Logitech keyboard and mouse. Keep in mind the Surface Laptop 4 does not have Thunderbolt 4.
One of the perks of a Thunderbolt connection is its backward compatibility, and the limited Thunderbolt 4 dock options for the MacBook Air M2 is a red flag for me. Thunderbolt 4 docks like the CalDigit TS4 and Belkin Pro have support for Apple silicon-based MacBooks but what about older docks and connectors?
The MacBook Air M2 is an incredible device with a beautiful new redesign, and there are many reasons to like the device. At the end of the day, the MacBook Air was better at video editing, and the Surface Laptop 4 will be better at gaming, productivity, and multitasking. Although the MacBook Air outperformed the Surface Laptop 4 in gaming graphics benchmarks, it did it a generation behind and at a lower resolution. And don’t forget that very few AAA games run on Apple.
The MacBook Air M2 does much better than the Surface Laptop 4 in tackling web browser workloads and video rendering. If you are considering the MacBook Air M2 over the Surface Laptop 4 solely because of the better web browsing performance, keep in mind that it will be a $200 premium.
I believe the Surface Laptop 4 is a better device for hybrid work scenarios with its extra pen and touch support, multitasking features, and connectivity. These features are irreplaceable no matter how much more performance you can squeeze out of a device. As we look forward to the Surface Event this Fall, I expect the Surface Laptop 5 to flip these numbers and take home its feature win.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.