If you compare it to laptops based on price and hardware specs alone, Microsoft’s just-announced Surface Pro 3 — “The tablet that can replace your laptop” — comes up short. The base $799 model has a measly 64 GB of storage space, a small 12-inch screen, and an Intel core i3 processor, the kind usually reserved for budget laptops. It doesn’t even come with a keyboard; you have to buy a backlit Type Cover separately.
If you look at Microsoft’s marketing, however, you can see what the Surface Pro 3 is aimed at. Its Microsoft Store page has a direct comparison with the premium-priced 13-inch MacBook Air, while commercials for previous Surface models compared them to the iPad. So Microsoft doesn’t just want the Surface Pro 3 to replace your thin-and-light laptop; they also want you to get one instead of an iPad.
A Surface Pro 3, or a MacBook and iPad. Which is the better deal?
Our Surface specs
Let’s start with the $999 Surface Pro 3 model, since it comes with twice the storage space of the base model and a faster core i5 processor (and because it probably isn’t upgradable). That’s $200 more than the top-of-the-line iPad Air model, which is $799 and has 128 GB of storage. The iPad Air also weighs about half as much.
On the other hand, the iPad Air also has a much smaller screen, at 9.7 inches across compared to 12 inches across. The Surface Pro 3 also comes with a pressure-sensitive stylus for artwork or note-taking, and lets you connect it to the same external keyboard, monitor, mouse, and even game controller you’d use for a Mac or PC. If you happen to have those handy, you’ve got yourself a replacement for a home PC, which you can disconnect from its peripherals to turn it into a big-screen tablet.
Now throw in a laptop
Of course, for laptop computing you want an attached keyboard and touchpad, so that things aren’t sliding around everywhere. Throw in a Type Cover designed for the Surface Pro 3, and you’re looking at a price tag of around $1130. That’s close to the $1199 price of the 13-inch MacBook Air’s high-end configuration, and it comes with twice the storage space and about 33 percent more battery life (12 versus 9 hours).
On the other hand, while its screen is slightly larger it’s not nearly as sharp. It has a native 1440 by 900 widescreen resolution, while the Surface Pro 3’s 12-inch screen has a 2160 by 1440 resolution, in iPad style 3:2 aspect ratio. It’s also a multitouch screen, and did I mention it comes with a pressure-sensitive stylus?
Adding it up …
As you can see, while the Surface Pro 3 isn’t competitive price- or spec-wise with budget laptops and tablets (which have their own drawbacks), it’s extremely competitive with both the iPad Air and the MacBook Air — and it’s designed to replace both of them at the same time. Even if you get a budget iPad model in addition to a MacBook Air, you’re still looking at an added expense of $300 – $500 compared to just buying a Surface Pro 3.
Of course, all that is meaningless if you’re heavily invested in the Apple or Microsoft ecosystems already. If you want a tablet that can run the full version of Office and play PC games on Steam, for instance, the Surface Pro 3 has basically no competition. But it also can’t run a lot of the top-selling iPad games and apps.