Over the last five months, I have spent an immense amount of time using the new Apple M1 MacBooks. I published an out-of-the-gate review of the M1 MacBook last November using my productivity tools. I then followed it up with a AAA gaming review and finally an Intel Evo PC vs. MacBook M1 review. I have spent much time evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of M1 compared to its competitors like Intel and its ecosystem, but one comparison I received requests on was comparing the Microsoft Surface devices against Apple’s M1 MacBooks. Surface is the most closely positioned to Apple with its premium-only device lines for the Windows notebook ecosystem. Most end-users view Apple in the same vein as Surface in terms of quality, features, and performance, so I got the request, and there is no better way to find out than to evaluate the devices head-to-head. While I know this is a constantly moving target as Apple and Microsoft will be adding new devices, you must pause and compare at some point.
I made sure to update my M1-based MacBook Air and MacBook Pro to the latest software stacks, and I will point out that Microsoft did provide me with a Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 and a Microsoft Surface Book 3 to review. Both of these systems used Intel’s Core i7-1065G7 that boost up to 3.9GHz, have 8 threads and 4 performance cores, and Intel Iris Graphics with DL Boost ML acceleration. These two Surface systems are the latest’s and greatest from the Surface team and will provide an excellent comparison to Apple’s M1 Macs. I have spent extensive time with Surface Devices over the past three generations to be transparent and I’ve literally used every Surface that’s ever been built except for its desktop.
Apple MacBook Air M1 versus Microsoft Surface Laptop 3
First up is the new Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 compared to the Apple MacBook Air M1. Let’s dig in.
App and peripheral compatibility- Surface Laptop 3
I tested many apps, including Microsoft Teams, Outlook, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Microsoft Excel, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Gmail, Microsoft Edge, BofA, Instagram, and Facebook. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have any application or peripheral issues while using the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. That was the case because many of my go-to apps are developed by Microsoft or that they were written for the X86 instruction set.
All the applications that were written natively for the MacBook Air, like Outlook and Apple apps, ran smoothly, quickly with no crashes. I wasn’t surprised that the M1 optimized applications ran very well.
What I worry about is not fully knowing what applications will work and which won’t. A formalized list of functioning applications would help a lot, but Apple hasn’t provided anything like this. There isn’t a full-proof way to verify that your go-to apps will work on an M1 MacBook. With over 200+ popular applications not supported on M1, there is a good chance you may be missing some apps you currently use on another PC. If you are considering an M1 MacBook, it may be worth your time to look at the list of applications that are not currently supported here. You will need to evaluate if the apps that fit your use case are available on M1. Theoretically, one can run iOS apps on the M1 MacBook. At first glance, that seems awesome, but there’s a catch- the ISV must enable that capability. Several applications are not available in the Apple App store like BofA, Gmail, Instagram, and Facebook, to name a few, so in my opinion, it mutes the benefit of running iOS apps. Check to make sure your apps are available on the new Macs. I will say I do enjoy the instant connection to my iPhone and the easy transition to Apple Music and the podcast app on the MacBook Air.
In terms of peripherals, I tested one of my favorite mouses, the Logitech G305. Sadly, the Logitech G305 is a USB-A mouse that works on my Surface Book 3 but won’t work on the MacBook Pro without a USB-A to USB-C adapter. I use different webcams, gaming headphones, and portable SSDs, and I have no idea what software is supported and what isn’t with M1. For example, I tested the new Samsung SSD T7 Touch drive with a fingerprint sensor built for an added layer of security. The application was supported on Mac, but it didn’t work. This issue rendered the fingerprint security useless on the drive. When I first reviewed the M1 Macs, I had problems with Logitech’s webcam software; the issue is now fixed. If I would have bought that peripheral specifically for pairing with my MacBook, it would have been a waste of money due to compatibility issues. I believe Apple will continue to add support for peripheral apps, but you will have to do some digging to see if your specific peripheral apps are currently supported or planned to be in the future. Now, there is no official Apple list. The best applications list I have found is here. But unfortunately does not include peripherals.
I have tested M1’s ability to play AAA games extensively. The issue that I have with M1 isn’t the raw benchmark performance but instead the game combability. M1 plays supported AAA games surprisingly well for an ultrathin machine. For Windows PCs, Steam on Windows houses the world’s most popular games and makes it exceptionally easy for users to download games and play them on its devices. It isn’t that simple Steam for Mac. There are many compatibility issues, and a lot of the most popular games aren’t available on Mac which is a shame considering how well M1 graphics perform. Games like PUBG, Cyberpunk 2077, Tom Clancy Rainbow Six Siege, Apex Legends, Call of Duty Warzone, and Doom Eternal are not available for macOS, a bummer. There are a good number of popular games available for macOS like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Dota 2, Sid Meier’s: Civ VI, Total War: WARHAMMER II, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Fortnite, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, World of Warcraft, and Minecraft to name a few. Even with those games considered, there isn’t nearly as much support for macOS games when compared to what is available for Windows. Consider that if you’re purchasing a Mac for gaming. The best list of supported and unsupported games that I have found is here. It’s be great if Apple would provide a list.
Display, Touchscreen, and Pen- Surface Laptop 3
We know that the MacBook Air M1 and the MacBook Pro M1 don’t come with touchscreens. I have hypothesized that this is likely because the company doesn’t want to eat into its iPad sales, and early on, there was a thickness penalty. While the MacBook Air lacks a touch screen, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 continues the Surface legacy of high-quality touch screens across its devices. The touchscreen on the Surface Laptop 3 performs in all the ways that I needed a touch screen to function. It is responsive to the touch, whether using my fingertip or using the optional Surface Pen. I like to use the touchscreen for scrolling through web pages and articles and occasionally using the Surface Pen to sign contracts in DocuSign. I believe some users really appreciate pen for navigating even on Laptop, especially customers with accessibility needs that may use both touch and pen for improved screen interaction/manipulation.
While the MacBook Air doesn’t offer a touch screen, this is something the Surface Laptop 3 offers, and it performs well. If you want Apple touch and a pen, then get an iPad.
Another display consideration is that the Surface Laptop 3 comes in a 3:2 aspect ratio compared to the 16:10 aspect ratio of the MacBook Air. The aspect ratio boils down to increased screen visibility on the Surface Laptop 3 when compared to the MacBook Air due to 13.5” size and 3:2 ratio. The high-resolution touchscreen for me is an excellent value add for my use case. The MacBook Air M1 lacking a touchscreen isn’t because Apple lacks the technology to implement it, but rather a business decision that I tend to disagree with and something that potential customers must overlook. Both displays are high quality.
Image Credit: Microsoft.com
Style options- Surface Laptop 3
Color doesn’t matter as much to me on a system but having options is always nice. The Surface Laptop 3 comes in many color options, including Sandstone, Matte Black, Cobalt Blue, and Platinum. Platinum is known as the iconic Surface color wave. The Platinum color exudes a highly premium look and feel, and I have always preferred it on my Surface devices.
There are also three color options available for the MacBook Air M1, including Space Gray, Gold, and Silver. My MacBook Air M1 came in the Space Gray option, which I enjoyed. It seems that Apple took more of a reserved approach with its color waves on the MacBook Air. Two of the color are similar (Silver and Gray), and when you consider the flashy and unique colors of Sandstone and Cobalt Blue that Surface offers, I like to have more differentiated color options. Users also can customize the keyboard and trackpad area on the Surface Laptop 3 with an Alcantara fabric or stick with the metal finish. Alcantara doesn’t get enough credit, but if you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s the soft yet durable material used in super-cars like Lamborghinis and Porsches. The MacBook Air and the Surface Laptop 3 both have premium finish options, but when both systems come with premium finishes, the more options available, I think, the better.
There’s also the choice of screen size. While I know that Apple currently has Intel versions of its 16” Air, it doesn’t have that yet in M1 flavor. Surface offers both 13.5” and 15” with the same processor brands and architectures.
The MacBook Air and the Surface Laptop 3 both sport a 720P resolution front-facing camera. I tested them both out on Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and I will say there were not many noticeable differences between them. The Surface Laptop 3 seemed to be a little sharper and was slightly better in low-light situations at night. If you’re looking for useable performance in ideal lighting, either camera will work for photos and video conferencing.
Ports- Surface Laptop 3 (honorable mention for MBA with Thunderbolt)
Ports and types of ports matter to me as an analyst and I think most users, especially pros. I use many peripherals and an external display to get maximum productivity out of a notebook. The MacBook Air comes with two ports, with one dedicated to power, meaning I really only have one open port. Both ports are Thunderbolt compatible, and the system additionally has a 3.5mm headphone jack. Thunderbolt does have some good performance advantages compared to USB-C, which is good news for the MacBook Air. The Surface Laptop 3 comes with USB-C, capable of transferring data at 20Gbps, while Thunderbolt can transfer data 2x faster at 40Gbps. When you consider that Thunderbolt uses the same port as USB-C, there are no disadvantages to equipping a Thunderbolt system but cost.
The MacBook will require an external adapter for my use case, and I suspect that will be an issue for many users. One problem I did run across while testing is that M1 only supports one external display natively. I rigged more external displays with a 3rd party DisplayLink driver on the M1, but it’s not supported by Apple and doesn’t support all the features a native display adapter down. When I use a notebook in what I call “desktop-mode”, I often use two 15″- 17” external displays to improve my productivity. It was disappointing to find out that M1 only supported a single native external display, but this could get better with Macs’ next generation. The Surface Laptop 3 isn’t exactly packed full of I/O, but it is undoubtedly a step up compared to the MacBook Air.
The Surface Laptop 3 comes with 1 USB-C, 1 USB-A, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. One of the main differences is a Surface power port used to charge the device, keeping two ports free while the system charges. The Surface also has the extra USB-A power port on the power adapter. I like what Microsoft is doing by including legacy USB-A and USB-C. Many of my older peripherals are USB-A, and it is nice to have for the time being. I don’t expect it to stay on the Surface devices for long, but I think it makes sense for now.
Weight isn’t typically a big issue for me when dealing with 13″ notebooks, but I would generally say the lighter, the better. The Surface Laptop 3 weighs 2.84 pounds, and the MacBook Air M1 weighs 2.80 pounds. When I was using these systems, I didn’t notice any difference in weight. The Surface Laptop 3 is also around 7% thinner than the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. You shouldn’t be worried about the weight or slimness of either of these systems.
Login- Surface Laptop 3
Having the ability to login instantly with facial Windows Hello is something that I use daily (hourly) but don’t appreciate enough until I don’t have it anymore. I set up Windows Hello on my Surface Laptop 3 immediately, and it is the quickest way for me to log in to any device. Sure, I don’t mind using passwords, pins, and fingerprints if need be, but I rely on instant face login a lot, and it performs flawlessly on my Surface Devices.
MacBook’s, on the other, don’t offer an instant face login feature which, in my opinion, is a big miss, especially when considering that I use FaceID on my iPhone every day. Apple’s technology is there; I don’t understand why it doesn’t implement it on its MacBook devices. When I use MacBooks, I usually opt for using the built-in fingerprint sensor and use Touch ID. It isn’t nearly as convenient as Windows Hello, but it works quickly with high accuracy. Regardless, I would love to see FaceID or something similar implemented into upcoming MacBook systems.
Performance & Battery Life- MacBook Air M1 with Arm ISA native apps
My productivity use case typically includes running many Office 365 apps simultaneously, doing web research on 10+ Edge browser instances, and video conferencing on Teams, Zoom, and Webex. Neither one of these systems struggled when I was working throughout the day. Teams was sometimes wonky on the Mac which I attribute to it being x86. The Office 365 apps still feel a little smoother on the Surface Laptop 3, which I cannot explain and shouldn’t be, but the MacBook Air performed well without any noise as it doesn’t have a fan. The beta version of the Office 365 M1-optimized apps had improved the user experience tremendously compared to when M1 first launched.
In terms of battery life, while I was using the Surface Laptop 3, I was getting around 9-10 hours of battery life which was enough for a full days’ worth of work. A strength of the MacBook Air with M1 is the battery life on native, Arm apps. I could go a couple of days without charging the system, and on a typical workday, the MacBook Air would easily last over 10 hours. They key to getting the best battery life is to make sure the display is low and only using Arm-native apps. When I cranked the Mac and Surface to what looked like the same nits, the Mac trailed off considerably.
Apple MacBook Pro versus Microsoft Surface Book 3
Now let’s look at the new Microsoft Surface Book 3 compared to the Apple MacBook Pro M1. My Surface Book 3 came in the 13.5″ configuration and is also available in a 15″ design. The MacBook Pro M1 came in a traditional 13″ format.
App & Peripheral Compatibility – Surface Book 3
It’s no secret that the new M1 Macs generally support a smaller number of popular applications and peripherals compared to its Windows-based counterparts. My go-to applications for productivity typically include Microsoft Teams, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Instagram, Twitter, Messenger, and Facebook. My Surface Book 3 supported and ran all these browsers and applications except for Safari. On my MacBook Pro, I have good support for Microsoft applications, but there is skewed support for other apps. For instance, I can’t download Instagram or Facebook from the app store, but I can download Messenger and Twitter. I can hook up multi 4K external monitors to the Surface Book 3. The new MacBook’s with M1 will only support a singular, native external display which I assume is a silicon limitation. In contrast, the Intel-based Microsoft Surface devices can support multiple 4K external monitors on a single PC. For content creators, screen real-estate is crucial. This is a Pro device and should support professional use cases, right?
The list of peripherals for me stayed the same, including the Logitech G305 mouse, which will need a USB-A to USB-C adapter to be able to use. If you have USB-A peripherals, I would recommend picking up an adapter or even a USB hub beforehand and saving some time. I have several different gaming headphones, external SSD’s, and webcams that I could pair with my MacBook Pro, but I don’t know what is compatible and what isn’t on the M1. I tested the new Samsung SSD T7 Touch drive, and even though the application was available on Mac, it didn’t work. That left an extra layer of fingerprint security pretty much useless. Some apps may work flawlessly, and some may not, but there are very few ways of knowing beforehand. It is worth checking out what apps work for your use case before purchasing a MacBook based on M1. You can look at some of the supported and unsupported applications here. I’d love to see Apple create a site that showed what work and what doesn’t on the M1.
In terms of game support, Steam for Windows is the most popular game store that exists. It is effortless to download AAA and eSports games from Steam, and it’s what I have used for years. There is a Mac version of Steam, but the game titles supported are a much smaller subset than Steam on Windows. When I tested a large swath of AAA games on the MacBook Pro M1, many popular games were available for macOS via Steam. The games I tried included Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Dota 2, Sid Meier’s: Civ VI, Empire of Sin, Total War: WARHAMMER II, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Firewatch, and Subnautica. Although I could test many games, some of the most popular games on Steam were not available for macOS. These games included PUBG, Cyberpunk 2077, Tom Clancy Rainbow Six Siege, Apex Legends, Call of Duty Warzone, and Doom Eternal, to name a few. The best list of supported and unsupported games that I have found is here. I’d love to see Apple create a site that showed what games work and don’t work on the M1.
Form factor, display, Touch Screen and pen- Surface Book 3
I have talked about the MacBook’s lack of touch screen above. It is incredibly frustrating when most of its Windows-based counterparts come with a touch screen and many with an optional pen. I have always appreciated that Microsoft Surface Book has the detachable touch screen display that comes on the system. Even more useful than the tablet is that you can detach it, turn it around and have your own Wacom tablet. The single system is versatile and works as a detachable tablet or PC, depending on your individual use case. You aren’t bound to just a typical notebook workstation use case like you are on the MacBook Pro. When you add the optional Surface Pen into the mix, the system is very adaptable and can fit a wide variety of use cases. The Surface Book 3 also comes in a higher resolution configuration at 260 PPI than 226 PPI on the MacBook Pro. Both displays are very high quality.
Camera- Surface Book 3
Similar to the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro comes with a singular 720P front-facing camera. The Surface Book 3 comes standard with dual cameras. The 5.0MP selfie camera can shoot video in 1080P HD video, while the 8.0MP rear-facing camera includes autofocusing capabilities and can shoot 1080P HD video. The two-camera solutions on the Surface Book 3 easily outperform the single 720P camera on the MacBook Pro. The video conferencing image quality will be much sharper on the Surface Book 3 than the 720P quality of the MacBook Pro. Not to mention that you can fully detach the Surface Book 3’s display and use it as a tablet, making it much easier to take photos. If you think people don’t take photos with tablets, just go to a high school soccer or basketball game.
Login- Surface Book 3
Like the Surface Laptop 3, the Surface Book 3 comes standard with Windows Hello providing a great instant face login experience. Like the MacBook Pro Air, the MacBook Pro M1’s only biometric login source is fingerprint via Touch ID. Like I said above, I don’t mind using this as the primary login technique, but when I know Apple can implement FaceID as it does on other products, it is a little disappointing. I use FaceID every day to login into my iPhone and occasionally the iPad.
Ports- Surface Book 3 (honorable mention for MBP for Thunderbolt)
Like the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack and two Thunderbolt ports with one dedicated to charging and one free. While there is a lack of ports on the MacBook Pro, with Thunderbolt, the ports can process up to 2x faster (40Gbps on Thunderbolt compared to 20Gbps USB-C). An external adapter is still required for me to use this system for my productivity use case. I am confident that Apple will offer more ports with its next-generation silicon, but we have one port for now.
The Surface Book 3 is a more extensive system, so I expect a little more in terms of ports, but it offers a lot in a 13.5″ notebook. The system comes with 2 USB-A ports, 1 USB-C, an SD reader, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Like the Surface Laptop 3, the system comes with a proprietary Surface charging port. The dedicated Surface charging port means that the charger takes up none of the other open ports. With the MacBook Pro, there is a lot to be desired in terms of ports. The Surface Book 3 does an excellent job of implementing legacy ports and next-gen USB-C to balance new and old, albeit thicker.
For external Thunderbolt storage arrays and external GPUs, the Surface Book 3 really should have Thunderbolt. The MacBook Pro supports an external Thunderbolt storage array but will not support an external GPU.
Weight – MacBook Pro M1
While the Surface Book 3 is just a half-inch bigger than the MacBook Pro, the system is more significant when you lay them alongside each other or stack them side by side. I can appreciate that Apple could keep the MacBook Pro in a slim 13″ form factor and offer the 16″ form factor for those that need more performance. The MacBook Pro weighs 3.02 pounds compared to 3.62 pounds of the Surface Book 3. I didn’t notice a significant difference in the weight, but I saw when it came to slimness. The large display hinge that the Surface team put on the Surface Book 3 makes the device noticeably thicker than the MacBook Pro’s slim profile.
Battery Life – MacBook Pro
For my productivity use case, both the MacBook Pro and the Surface Book 3 handled my workloads with ease. On my typical day, I was getting right at 9 hours out of my Surface Book 3. The system is unique because it comes with a battery in the display to power the tablet when disconnected from the base and a traditional battery. For the MacBook Pro, I was able to get 10+ hours of hard use with ease on a typical day with 50-75% brightness, running my productivity workloads and near-zero fan noise. If I had very low display brightness on the MacBook Pro, I could get two days of work.
Professional workstation graphics- Surface Book 3 15” with Quadro option
There are more enterprise-grade hardware options for Surface Book 3 users who need more enterprise application performance. The 15″ Surface Book, 3 for Business, comes with an NVIDIA Quadro RTX 3000 GPU. This specific GPU is designed for AI and ray tracing workloads. The Quadro RTX 3000 GPU has 30 RT cores, 240 Tensor Cores for GPU-accelerated AI, 1920 CUDA cores, and 6GB of GDDR6 memory. The enterprise version of this system will target designers, architects, engineers, software developers, and data scientists, to name a few. NVIDIA put some time into optimizing over 100 different ISV applications. Popular workstation apps like many from the Adobe Suite, AutoCAD, ImageVis3D, PTC Crea, and many others were certified by NVIDIA. The 15″ version of the Surface Book 3 will be a sleek, premium system that can take on many enterprise-grade applications. Something like this would be overkill for my use case, but this system looks excellent for enterprise users.
Gaming – Surface Book 3
Since my Surface Book 3 came with a discrete NVIDIA GTX 1650 with Max-Q Design, I wanted to test a game that I have previously tested on my MacBook Pro M1. I tried Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 1920 x 1200 resolution, and 1400 x 900 resolution; both ran on high settings. On 1920 x 1200 resolution, the Surface Book 3 scored 39 FPS, and the MacBook Pro scored 20 FPS on average. When I scaled the resolution down to 1440 x 900 resolution, the Surface Book 3 scored 53 FPS, and the MacBook Pro scored 30 FPS on average. I understand that comparing the integrated graphics on the M1 to a discrete card isn’t entirely fair, but it’s worth looking comparing. There are a lot of AAA games that perform well on M1’s integrated graphics. I tested a large swath of AAA games in that review, some of them running natively on M1 and several that ran through the Rosetta 2 emulator. You can check out that full review here. The best list of supported and unsupported games that I have found is here.
I also ran the Surface Book 3 through 3DMark Time Spy, a DirectX 12 graphics benchmark, and the systems scored 2900 in graphics score, 2858 CPU score, and a 2893 overall score. These scores may not mean a lot to most people, but it may provide some value for those that often use systems benchmark.
All in all, I think the MacBook Air M1, MacBook Pro M1, Surface Laptop 3, and Surface Book 3 are great premium devices that will perform well in many use cases. To me, the differences between the Macs and Surface devices are in the details and desired use cases.
The Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Book 3 outperform its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro counterparts in app and peripheral compatibility, touch screen display and pen, ports, camera quality, and biometric login features. There are several areas where the M1 Macs compete well, like battery life on native apps, raw benchmark performance, weight (Book 3), and low-no fan noise. I have no reason to believe that the M1 Macs won’t add more ports and features with the next generation, especially as Apple optimizing its new in-house silicon, but the products are what they are now. Microsoft won’t be sitting still, either.
When it comes to gaming, this is an easy choice. Even though the M1 graphics performance is strong, it’s not as strong as the ray tracing supporting discrete graphics with the NVIDIA GTX 1650 in the Book 3. Game compatibility is a huge issue with the M1 as I illustrated above and regardless how well the M1 performs on benchmarks, if your favorite game isn’t supported, does it really matter? Game compatibility will be no easy feat for Apple to fix and I don’t know if it’s even a big goal for the company. How many major computer game publishers have come out and pledged support for the M1 since launch? Maybe they’re saving themselves for WWDC but I haven’t seen any new titles.
When it comes to “Pro” as in “professional,” the MacBook Pro, even with the M1’s high-performance CPU, just has a hard time stacking up. I believe most professionals need more than one open port, native support for more than one external display, unquestioned compatibility with professional audio and video peripherals and applications and much higher GPU performance and pro-app certified with the NVIDIA Quadro (on the 15” Book 3). Many Pros need touch and pen support as well which are available on the Book 3. The icing on the Book 3 cake is its ability to transform into a tablet. It’s like getting a built-in Wacom tablet.
As of now, the Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Book 3 look and feel to me like a more versatile and mature set of devices when compared to the M1-based MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. The Surface experience felt a little more premium and compatible, and the Surface devices’ feature set is more profound than that of the M1 Macs. Things could change as Apple continues to optimize and roll out new machines, but as of now, I would choose the Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Book 3 over the M1-based MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.