Microsoft Surface Book vs. Apple MacBook Pro: Which one deserves your dollars?
Microsoft’s Surface Book has already drawn a great deal of press for its flexible design and crazy hinge. At its unveil, however, Microsoft took a number of potshots at one of the highest-regarded devices on the market today — Apple’s Macbook Pro. While we still don’t have all the specifications on Microsoft’s new laptop, we’ve got more than enough for a preliminary analysis of the two.
Since the Surface Book is only available in a 13.5-inch form factor, we’ll focus this comparison against the MacBook Pro 13-inch — though with some acknowledgements of the other Apple systems where appropriate. The Surface Book starts at $1,499, so we’ll compare primarily against the equivalent MacBook Pro.
The Apple MacBook Pro uses a Core i5-5257U 28W CPU. Microsoft, of course, has said nothing about its basic CPU, although it showed off a Core i7 option (above), but we can make some educated guesses. If Microsoft chose to use a 15W chip in its basic model, we’re looking at something like a Core i5-6200U, with a 2.3GHz base clock and a 2.8GHz maximum frequency. That would put the Skylake CPU a touch behind Apple’s Broadwell, though maximum RAM frequencies and bandwidth would both be higher. The HD Graphics 520 onboard the 15W Skylake is also more advanced than Broadwell’s GPU. Alternately, MS could be using the Core i5-6300U, with a 2.4GHz base clock and 3GHz maximum frequency. Either way, CPU performance between Apple and MS should be very close.
At first glance, Microsoft seems to win the screen resolution comparison — the 13.5-inch display on the Surface Book has a PPI of 267 and becomes Retina-class at roughly 13 inches. The MacBook Pro has a PPI of 227 and becomes Retina-class at 15 inches. This comparison is undercut, however, by the fact that Microsoft and Apple take two very different approaches to font scaling — and Apple’s is typically perceived as better. Blurry text and improper application scaling are still problems under Windows 10, whereas Apple has largely solved these issues.
Poor DPI scaling in Windows is typically the fault of the app developers, not Microsoft, but I’ll wait and see how the two products look before calling this one. The 3000×2000 screen on the Surface Book isn’t going to do battery life any favors.
As for battery life, Microsoft is claiming 12 hours on standard battery with just 3 hours of useful run time if you detach the lid and use it like a tablet. Apple claims 10-11 hours for the MacBook Pro. The Surface Book, of course, will have touchscreen support, while Apple tends to offer better touchpads (and, as a rule, better support for multi-touch control).
What about that GPU?
Stepping up to the GPU-equipped model costs $1,899, minimum. Microsoft is charging $200 for the discrete graphics solution, and $200 more if you want a Core i7 vs. a Core i5. We don’t know anything about the GPU, save that it ships with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5. That’s not much RAM — even Nvidia’s lower-end mobile solutions, like the GTX 950M, typically pack at least 2GB. There are two possibilities here: Either Microsoft loaded the system with a low-end GPU that both it and Nvidia have refused to disclose because they don’t want to lose the hype around the idea of an ultrabook system offering any discrete cards at all, or Nvidia removed VRAM from a SKU that typically carries more in order to hit Microsoft’s preferred power target. NV is claiming that this chip is a “custom” design, but that doesn’t really mean much — a standard GPU + smaller VRAM loadout still qualifies as custom, even if it’s based on Maxwell.
A comparison that comes down to physics
People have been falling over each other since the Surface Book was announced to declare which system will end up being the winner. Such maneuvering is premature. We know Microsoft will offer a high-end Core i7 option in the Surface Book, and made mention of “two extra cores,” but has not disclosed which systems will carry a quad-core Core i7 (there are mobile dual-core Core i7s, too). Similarly, we don’t know how fast the GPU is, how well the battery holds up in each configuration, and how the various options will impact the weight of the system. Trying to judge which system is “better” than the other is impossible, because too much of that question relies on the look and feel of each computer.
What the specs tell us is this: Microsoft has pushed the envelope on screen resolution, GPU performance, and CPU capability farther than Apple has. But will that result in a better device that justifies its price point? That’s impossible to know right now. We’ve already seen evidence of how different manufacturer priorities resulted in Core M systems with significantly different performance characteristics. The big questions for devices like this will be how smoothly the hardware switches from tablet to docked mode, how well battery life on Windows 10 compares to OS X, and exactly which GPU Nvidia and Microsoft included. 1GB of RAM may make for a nice sound-byte, but it’s one of the least useful metrics for measuring GPU performance.
If I had to guess right now, I’d wager that both machines will be well-designed and capable, with which one is better coming down to what you want to use it for. I’d feel a bit better about the Surface Book if Microsoft could resolve its DPI problems, but that’s unlikely.
08 Oct, 2015
Apple, Computers, Microsoft