A couple of laptops were released in 2018 that represent a changing of the old guard and the new guard. First, there was the Surface Laptop 2, Microsoft’s second iteration of its traditional clamshell. And then a little later was Apple’s reimagining of its venerable MacBook Air.
Both are solid offerings in the mainstream 13-inch laptop class. Which is the better machine?
The MacBook Air resembles its original version, albeit with a slightly thinner chassis and smaller bezels. It fits Apple’s usual design aesthetic that’s elegant and not at all ostentatious, and the company offers the notebook in Gold, Silver, and Space Gray color schemes. The Surface Laptop 2 is essentially unchanged from its predecessor outside of a new black color, making it a rather typical thin and light clamshell outside of the Alcanta fabric in Platinum, Burgundy, Cobalt Blue, and Black.
Both of these are extremely well-built laptops, with rigid aluminum chassis and zero flexing or bending. The MacBook Air is a bit thicker than the Surface Laptop 2 at 0.61 inches versus 0.57 inches, but they weight almost the same at 2.75 versus 2.76 pounds.
The MacBook Air uses Apple’s 3rd-generation butterfly keyboard that’s responsive but has very shallow keys. The Surface Laptop 2’s keyboard has significantly more travel and is just as snappy, making it by far our preferred input option. At the same time, the MacBook Air’s huge Force Touch touchpad is excellent, and the Surface Laptop 2’s smaller Precision touchpad is good as well but can’t quite keep up. Microsoft’s laptop benefits from a touch display and Surface Pen support, though, making it more flexible.
Connectivity is another significant difference. The MacBook Air has just two USB-C ports, but both support Thunderbolt 3. The Surface Laptop 2 has a USB-A 3.0 port, a DisplayPort, and a Surface Connect port for charging and docking. The lack Of Thunderbolt 3 makes Microsoft’s laptop less flexible in terms of external display and GPU enclosure support, but you won’t need as many dongles.
Both of these are good looking and well-build laptops, but the Surface Laptop 2’s keyboard tips things in Microsoft’s favor.
Performance is a more important differentiator between these two laptops. The MacBook Air is built around on Intel’s low-power Y-series dual-core CPUs that focus on saving the battery and reducing heat rather than on sheer speed. The Surface Laptop 2 picked up Intel 8th-generation (but not the latest Whiskey Lake) quad-core U-Series processors. That makes Microsoft’s laptop much faster and more capable of meeting demanding productivity and content creation tasks.
Storage performance, though, is a win for the MacBook Air. Both machines rely on fast PCIe solid state drives (SSDs), but Apple tends to source the absolute fastest SSDs available. The MacBook Air is, therefore, faster in accessing and saving data, although the difference in real-life use will be minimal unless you’re dealing with very large files.
Display quality is an area where Apple and Microsoft both excel. At least, that’s usually the case with MacBooks, which typically enjoy superior displays with wide and accurate colors, excellent contrast, and high brightness. The MacBook Air is a bit of an exception, unfortunately, given its average scores across the board in spite of a “Retina” 2,560 x 1,600 resolution. The Surface Laptop 2’s display is the usual 3:2 aspect ratio (great for productivity) at a sharper 3,000 x 2,000 resolution. It has higher contrast and equal colors, which when combined with its productivity-friendly format makes it a better experience.
The Surface Laptop 2 is faster and has a better display.
Neither of these laptops is going to weigh you down or take up too much space in your backpack. You’ll be happy carrying either of these laptops around.
Battery life is also similar. The MacBook Air has very average battery life, at about eight hours of web browsing and 10 hours of video watching. We haven’t tested the Surface Laptop 2, but its predecessor with a less-efficient 7th-generation Core processor and equal battery capacity lasted about as long at web browsing and two hours longer when watching video.
There’s not enough of an advantage here in either portability or battery life to call a winner.
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 2 proves that performance counts
The MacBook Air starts at $ 1,000 though that’s not the 2018 version. The model used for this comparison starts at $ 1,200, which comes with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.
The Surface Laptop 2 starts at a very similar $ 1,000 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD, but it has a much higher top-end at $ 2,699 for a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD.
The Surface Laptop 2 is just as good looking and well built, and it lasts a bit longer on a charge — while being significantly faster. It’s expensive as you ramp up the configuration, but you get what you pay for in this case.