Apple MacBook (2016) vs Microsoft Surface Pro 4: The sub-1kg showdown

Apple MacBook (2016) vs Microsoft Surface Pro 4: The sub-1kg showdown

Performance

This is where things begin to make your choice a little trickier. The Apple MacBook comes with a choice of Core m3, m5 or m7 processors, but the Surface Pro 4 goes one better. It opts for a Core m3 for the cheapest £749 version, but ups the ante with Core i5 and Core i7 processors in the models higher up the range.

“In everyday usage, you’re unlikely to notice a huge gulf between the two.”

Obviously, this decision translates to significantly improved performance in the Core i5 and Core i7 models. What’s more, whereas the MacBook comes with 8GB of RAM, the Surface Pro 4 lets you choose between 4GB, 8GB and 16GB. If you need a device that’s capable of OS virtualisation, or just need enough RAM to chew through multiple memory-hungry applications, then that gives the Surface Pro 4 a definite edge.

In everyday use, however, you’re unlikely to notice a huge gulf between the two. Thanks to the Apple MacBook’s dramatically faster PCI-e SSD and the Core m processors’ ability to rapidly deliver similar bursts of power to their Core i3, i5 and i7 counterparts, the difference only really becomes noticeable under sustained heavy multitasking. Or in my case, music production – if you’re going to hammer a device with sustained workloads, then the Surface Pro 4 quickly takes the lead. As an everyday device, though, where portability trumps power, you’ll likely be very happy with either.

WINNER: Surface Pro 4

Battery life

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Lao Tzu might not have had laptops in mind when he scribbled that down, but he was bang on: you’ll always pay the price for improved performance.

“If you want a device that lasts all day, then the MacBook is the best choice.”

When Alphr tested the Core i5-equipped Surface Pro 4, it lasted 7hrs 41mins in the standard video-rundown test. Alphr’s test loops a video constantly with the screen brightness calibrated to 170cd/m2 and Wi-Fi turned off, so you can expect slightly better battery life if you turn down the screen brightness and don’t do anything too taxing.

In the same test, this year’s MacBook fared much better. Apple sent Alphr both the Core m3 and Core m5 models for testing, and while the Core m3 lasted 10hrs 1min, the Core m5 version lasted 10hrs 12mins.

If you want a device that lasts all day, then the MacBook is a better bet. Factor in the ability to charge the MacBook from an external battery via its USB Type-C connection, and it’s a much better bet where all-day battery life is a must.

WINNER: Apple MacBook

Connectivity, webcam and accessories

Apple MacBook (2016) USB Type-C port

This is where the two devices prove to be very different.

The Apple MacBook makes do with one single USB Type-C port (which supports 5Gbits/sec USB 3.1 transfers but notably not Thunderbolt 3) and a headphone socket – that’s your lot. If you want to both charge the MacBook and take advantage of the USB 3.1 connection for USB devices, display outputs and so forth, then it’s necessary to buy a USB Type-C dock. The Apple’s webcam is equally basic: its 480p resolution is fine for video chats, but it’s nothing special.

The Surface Pro 4, on the other hand, is a little more generously equipped. Microsoft is still using a proprietary mains charger – I suspect you’ll have to wait for the Surface Pro 5 for USB Type-C to arrive – but you do get a full-sized USB 3 port, microSD slot, mini-DisplayPort and a headphone socket. In addition, there’s a 5-megapixel front-facing camera and a decent, if not particularly brilliant, 8-megapixel rear-facing camera. And of course you get the Surface Pen thrown in for free.

In terms of wireless connectivity, though, both the MacBook and the Surface Pro 4 are neck and neck: 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4 come as standard.

The Surface Pro 4 does have a much wider range of accessories. They’re not cheap, but the Surface Dock (£165) adds some much-needed connectivity for when you’re back at a desk; there are Ethernet (£35) and HDMI (£35) adapters; and third-party cases such as UAG’s Surface Pro 4 case (£50) turn it into a semi-ruggedised tablet that can handle drops without smashing to smithereens. And if security is top of your shopping list, the new Type Cover with Fingerprint ID (£135) adds a fingerprint reader to the standard Type Cover.  

WINNER: Surface Pro 4

Value for money

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review

The Surface Pro 4 initially looks like the cheaper of the two. However, while the Core m3 version starts at a very reasonable £749, it’s necessary to shell out another £110 on the Type Cover if you want to take full advantage of the Surface Pro 4’s hybrid design. With a total price of £859, that’s only £190 cheaper than the MacBook. 

“The top-end Surface Pro 4 reaches overdraft-destroying heights.”

The other thing to note is that the £749 Surface Pro 4 comes with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, whereas the cheapest MacBook comes with a Core m3, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. If you’re looking for a similar specification, then it’s necessary to up your budget to the £1,079 Surface Pro 4 (Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB). Add the Type Cover on top of that and the price soars to £1,189. 

At the money-no-object end of the scale, the Surface Pro 4 reaches overdraft-destroying heights. Whereas Microsoft’s hybrid currently tops out at £2,199 (Core i7, 16GB, 1TB), the high-end MacBook (Core m7, 8GB, 512GB) costs a mere snip at £1,419. 

WINNER: Draw

Verdict

So, which is best? In truth, without knowing exactly what you want from your machine, it’s impossible to say. For me personally, I find the MacBook fits my needs better – it’s quick enough to replace my MacBook Pro during the working day, and deals with the odd foray into Photoshop without grinding to a halt. But then I have fast desktop PCs and a powerful desktop-replacement laptop at home – if it was my only computer, I think I’d struggle with the low-power processor. 

If I needed a more all-round device, the Surface Pro 4 would win my cash. It’s as at home on the sofa as it is on a desk, and while it’s still far from ideal on a lap, it is usable while out and about. Crucially, though, the extra power from the Core i5 and Core i7 processors means that I can be far more creative with music (and occasionally video) production before it grinds to a halt. The MacBook, on the other hand, does struggle once I begin to push it too hard.

And if you specifically need a stylus and tablet, well, why are you even reading this?

For everyone else, it should be a pretty easy decision. Both are gorgeous devices, but for most people the decision won’t come down to looks or fashion preferences – I suspect that overall performance will be the deciding factor. 

Still not sure what to buy? Then fire away in the comments.

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