Earlier this fall, Microsoft announced a souped-up version of its Surface Book, offering a new configuration with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB drive and high-end NVIDIA graphics. And, right on que just a day later, Apple unveiled its latest Macbook Pro model, with a new "touch bar," and improved specs.
At first glance, the Surface Book i7 and 2016 Macbook Pro both look like high-end notebooks that offer first-class performance but when you get past the sleek designs and stunning displays, do they offer the same level of performance for the price? While it ultimately boils down to your specific needs, if you need high-end graphics that can handle gaming, video or image editing and 3D applications, you need to take look a little closer at what each device offers.
Macbook Pro and Surface Book designs
The 2016 Macbook Pro hasn't changed much in design. It's still slim, measuring just .59 inches thick, and it's lightweight at three pounds. Aesthetically, the newest Macbook Pro mirrors the sleek aluminum clamshell design of past iterations, which isn't a bad thing as Apple has always built attractive devices, and that hasn't changed with this notebook.
Comparatively, the Surface Book features a unique high-end design, relying on a hinge that holds the tablet-display in place. The magnesium body offers a similar contemporary design as the Macbook Pro, but the hinge and slightly taller display keep it from looking like a Macbook copycat. It's heavier, weighing 3.63 pounds for the highest configuration with performance base, and it measures .51 inches at its thinnest point, going up to .9 inches at the thickest point, which means it's slightly more cumbersome than the 13-inch Macbook Pro.
The Surface Book hinge is exactly what makes the device unique, but some users complain that it creates a gap between the display and the keyboard. The problem with the gap isn't just a slightly bulkier design, it can also leave the display and keyboard more vulnerable when shut. While this didn't happen in testing, it's not hard to imagine something getting wedged into the open space if you had to quickly toss your notebook into a purse or laptop bag. Of course, an easy fix is to always use a protective sleeve, but ultimately the Macbook Pro offers a more durable, compact design that, while familiar, is still one of the best around.
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Macbook Pro and Surface Book displays
You'd be hard-pressed to find a high-end notebook that doesn't at least have the option to upgrade to a touch-screen display, but Apple still hasn't jumped on board. The latest Macbook Pro includes a new touch bar, replacing the function keys to give you a new way to interact with the device, but you still can't interact directly with the display. At this point, so many notebooks and devices have touchscreens that it's almost second nature to reach up and tap on a display. However, CNET reports that it's a conscious decision by Apple designer Johnny Ive; despite arguably popularizing touch-screen tablet design, he believes users don't need to (or want to) interact with their notebooks the same way.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest design elements of the Surface Book i7 is the fact it's designed to work seamlessly with touch input, whether it's with your finger or the Surface Pen. It quickly feels natural to reach up to the display to select prompts or to swipe around to access different applications. Not to mention, at the very least, a touch display will allow you to sign or annotate documents without printing them first.
Apple's answer to its lack of a touch screen display on the Macbook Pro comes from the iPad Pro, a premium tablet that promises notebook-worthy performance. It works with a keyboard, but there are certainly limitations to the device, such as the mobile OS and lack of a mouse or touchpad. You'll have to choose between having a touch-screen tablet display or a premium, high-end notebook, but with the Surface Book, you aren't forced to make these concessions. You get all the functionality of a notebook with a touch-screen display that can act as a tablet.
If you go the Apple route, you'll also be forced to purchase two expensive devices if you want a high-end notebook and a touch-screen tablet that can also handle basic computing. The Surface Book doesn't force you to make any concessions to enjoy the benefits of a touch display. You can have all the functionality of a notebook with an interactive, tablet-display.
In terms of resolution, the Surface Book boasts a 267 ppi compared to the Macbook Pro's 227 ppi, but that's splitting hairs. Both displays are top-notch, offering a crisp viewing experience whether you're streaming, designing or just browsing the web. The reason the Surface Book takes this category boils down to the touch display. It doesn't take anything away from your notebook, but it does add valuable features to the device.
[ Related story: 5 reasons the Surface Pro 4 is fit for the enterprise ]
Macbook Pro and Surface Book graphics & performance
Both 13-inch devices can be configured with a 6th generation Intel Core i7 processor, 1TB of storage and 16GB of RAM, and at those specs, you certainly don't have to worry about everyday performance. But the Surface Book i7 has one clear advantage in its corner with an optional NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M graphics chip -- a big step up from the integrated Intel HD GPU included in the base model.
With the upgraded graphics card, you'll have no problem running high powered 3D editing software or playing intensive games on the Surface Book. The 13-inch Macbook Pro, on the other hand, comes with an Integrated Intel Iris Graphics 540 card; to even get close to the Surface Book's graphics performance, you would need to compromise on the 13-inch size and go a step up to the 15-inch model, which can be configured with an optional Radeon Pro chip.
After configuring the 15-inch model to the same specifications as the Surface Book pro, but with the Radeon Pro chip, you'll end up spending the same as you would on the Surface at around $3,300. For the same price, the Surface Book not only comes with a far superior graphics card, but you'll also get the perks of a touch-display and the Surface Pen without compromising on the size of the device. If you plan to run intensive games or work with 3D graphics, editing software and design applications, you will want to go with the Surface Book i7 model, hands down.
[ Related story: Microsoft expands its Surface Enterprise Initiative ]
Macbook Pro and Surface Book ports & connectivity
From a business user's perspective, the Surface Book i7 and 2016 Macbook Pro offer two very different workstation experiences. The Surface Book comes equipped with 2 full USB 3.0 ports, a full size SD card reader, a Mini DisplayPort port and Microsoft's proprietary charging port, the Surface Connect. There's even an extra USB port included directly on the power brick of the cord, giving you one more place to charge your phone or tablet while you work. Microsoft didn't jump on the USB-Type C bandwagon, but for most users, that won't be a huge issue unless you recently upgraded every peripheral and device you own to the newest standard; chances are, for the next few years, you'll still be relying on your classic USB devices.
The Surface Book is essentially a business user's dream. You get just enough ports to keep you connected to a desktop station without needing any dongles, adapters or converters. You can also purchase the Microsoft Dock, which gives you even more flexibility by expanding the device to include four more USB 3.0 ports, two extra mini DisplayPorts, so you can connect to more than one external display, an Ethernet port and an audio out port. It's lightweight enough to tote around, at 1.21 pounds, but it's meant to just sit on your desk, keeping cords tucked away and waiting for you to connect.
The Macbook Pro isn't as limited in ports as the Macbook, which made a statement at its release by only including one USB-Type C port on the entire device, but the Pro still doesn't offer the same flexibility as the Surface Book for business users. On the 2016 Macbook Pro, you'll find four Thunderbolt 3 ports that also act as a USB-Type C port -- they use different connection standards but the port is the same shape and size.
That's great if all your devices are USB-Type C, but that's not the case for most people, which means you'll likely be hunting for a dongle. And unlike the Surface Dock, if you need to connect to multiple displays, wireless peripherals or USB drives, you're going to need quite a few adapters, which typically average around $40 each.
If you travel a lot, or frequently go from one workstation to another, there are just more cords to purchase and keep track of. For simplicity's sake, the Surface Book offers better connectivity right off the bat, with the option to expand it even further with one, convenient and portable docking station for $200 if you need the extra ports.
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