First off, yes I realize that the Surface Pro 7 is not a laptop and some people might consider this an unfair comparison. The rationale here is that while the iPad Pro is a tablet like the Surface, the iPad is not using a “full” OS and that affects what it can do.
As a Surface user for the last year or so who recently got a MacBook Pro after being a lifelong Windows user, I thought I’d share my impressions.
Note that I am not interested in a Windows vs. Mac debate, so I won’t be comparing the operating systems apart from how they play into the perceived performance of each device. Rather, my comparison will be about work flow and performance, including battery life and connectivity.
The two devices are at very similar price points, which is also why I feel the comparison is hopefully helpful to others:
- The Surface Pro 7, 12.3″ screen, Core i7 Quad Core, 16GB RAM, Intel Iris Graphics – $1699 new
- M1 13″ MacBook Pro, M1 8-core CPU, 16GB RAM – $1599
Both are very portable, roughly the same price, and are aimed at working professionals.
Surface Pro 7 vs. M1 MacBook Pro Screen
This one is pretty close. Each device has similar screen resolution:
- M1 MacBook Pro – 2560×1600, 227 PPI
- Surface Pro 7 – 2736×1824, 267 PPI
So interestingly the Surface Pro 7 has slightly higher overall resolution and pixel density.
Personally, I don’t really notice an appreciable difference in clarity for text or graphics between the two. Both screens look excellent and have vibrant colors.
The laptop I’d had prior was a Lenovo ThinkPad that, while I liked several aspects of it, I always felt like they’d cut corners with the screen. The resolution was average and the color contrast was poor. Coming from that, both the Surface Pro 7 and the MacBook Pro were very impressive to look at.
The Surface Pro 7 did have an occasional screen flicker, both on battery and AC power for me. There never seemed a rhyme or reason to what caused it, except that it occasionally seemed worse when looking at documents or web pages with a lot of white space.
Comparatively, I have never had that problem with the MacBook.
Keyboard and Touch Pad
Assuming of course that one purchases the separate Microsoft TypePad snap-on keyboard..
(It could be a whole side tangent on how Microsoft calls their Surface a 2-in-1 yet that’s not true with what’s provided in the box.)
Both keyboards have smooth key action, and I find them easy to type quickly with minimal errors.
I do find that I prefer the regular function key row with shortcut keys (like volume, skip, etc.) on the TypePad more than the M1 MacBook’s Touch Bar. Sure, the Touch Bar can be configured to show some of those quick keys, but at the expense of the function keys being readily accessible without holding the “fn” button.
The one drawback of the TypePad versus the MacBook’s keyboard is a function of being snapped onto the bottom of a tablet and held at an angle rather than being the bottom of a laptop.
If the table you have the Surface Pro on isn’t completely flat — especially used on the lap — there will be wobble as you type. Even if the table is flat, there is sometimes a mild rattle sound as you type because there is nothing underneath the TypePad to support it, given that it’s on the angle.
The MacBook on the other hand, being an actual laptop, has a keyboard that feels far better supported and can be used on a lap.
For the touch pad, while there’s nothing wrong with the TypePad’s and it’s perfectly functional, the clear winner here is the MacBook. At what feels like twice the size, the MacBook’s touch pad feels great to use, has a bunch of useful gestures, and genuinely makes me feel like I need to reach for my mouse less often.
On the Surface, like most computers I’d used before it, I found touch pad aggravating and only did it in small doses.
Even though the Surface Pro’s touch pad does support things like two finger zoom, its small size makes it feel far less natural, in my opinion. On a separate accessory that costs over $100, I find that part disappointing.
Performance and Battery Life
This is where the competition stops being so close.
The undisputed winner here is the M1 MacBook. The 8-core CPU and M1’s subsystems it can efficiently offload tasks to IMO give it greater multitasking power as well as sheer power for singular apps on heavy tasks. The M1 is clocked at 3.2GHz, whereas the Surface Pro’s Core i7 is clocked at 1.3Ghz that can turbo boost to 3Ghz.
- It has far better battery life at ~21 hours, which I find accurate, versus what Microsoft claims is 8 hours but I find in reality is more like 6 at best.
- Its sheer processing performance is just better. There are less occasional lags browsing the web, scrolling through media-rich apps, and heavy tasks like rendering/exporting videos are significantly faster.
- The heat difference between the two devices is massive. Even with its cooling fans, the Surface Pro 7 often gets hot during things like Zoom calls, web browsing, and video editing. Like hot to the touch on the back, even with the fans. On the other hand, I have rarely even heard the MacBook’s fans come on even under heavy use and the device has never been more the mildly warm in my uses.
Because of the power differences, the MacBook Pro is also easier to charge with a wider variety of power sources. It comes with a 61W charger, but I have successfully charged it with an Anker 20W USB-C charger and it seems to work fine. Slower, but no issues.
The same adapter won’t even touch the Surface Pro because of how power-hungry it is.
Why worry about how hot the Surface Pro 7 gets?
- Thermal throttling – All machines clock down their CPUs when temps reach dangerous levels to protect the hardware from damage. But this also means worse performance. When it’s occasional it’s not a big deal, but with how easily the Surface Pro gets hot this happens often and the fans don’t seem adequate to control the temps. This means you’re quite often probably not getting the most out of even the Core i7.
- Lifespan of parts – While thermal throttling can help prevent immediate damage from heat, existing under hot conditions lowers the lifespan of a whole lot of parts. This includes your CPU, RAM, hard drive or SSD, and especially your battery. Since everything is in such a tight space in proximity to each other, all of those things are potentially suffering for all the heat in the Surface Pro.
Both machines are pretty even here. They both feature 2 USB ports, though the types are different.
The Surface Pro 7 has one USB-A slot and one USB-C @ USB 3.0. You can charge via USB-C if you’d like, or use the proprietary snap-on plug. The MacBook Pro has 2x USB-C Thunderbolt (USB 4) ports.
I find that a toss up because I like having a dedicated USB-A port without having to use an adapter like I would have to on the MacBook since so many devices still use USB-A connectors. On the other hand, those Thunderbolt ports sure are fast on the MacBook.
Both devices have bluetooth, meaning they can use wireless keyboards and mice, and even bluetooth headphones.
I have to give a point to the Surface Pro 7 here because of the fact that it has a dedicated charging port apart from the USB ports, meaning you’re not losing a port when charging. With the MacBook, you’re always down to one usable port if you’re charging unless you use a USB hub.
You’d think the Surface Pro 7 would be the clear winner here as a tablet. And yes, it folds up very compactly and is super light and easy to carry around. The types of bags you can shove it in versus 15 and 17 inch laptops I’ve had before is far more flexible.
However, the MacBooks have gotten so thin now that I don’t feel much of a thickness difference with it closed, carrying under the arm. Technically it’s a difference of 0.61 inches vs. 0.52 (0.33+0.19 TypePad) inches, or 15.6mm vs. 13.2mm. When you’re talking a couple millimeters, IMO it’s not enough to matter much in daily usage.
The MacBook is nearly twice the weight at 3 pounds versus the Surface’s 1.7 pounds (with Core i7), but it doesn’t make as big of a difference in real use cases as that would suggest. The lighter weight is nice though, no doubt, but I’d call it a minor win in practicality versus a landslide one.
The Surface Pro 7 is by no means a bad device. I used it as my everyday machine for over a year and was largely happy with it.
But after switching to the M1 MacBook Pro (and getting used to the Apple ecosystem) I feel it’s a much greater bang for the buck. The keyboard is more comfortable for hours of typing, the touch pad is better, and the performance and battery life are simply in a difference league.
With the Surface Pro 7, I often felt like I was sacrificing power for portability. Even when the tradeoff seemed fair and it wasn’t always a big deal, switching to a device that feels far closer to my Dell PC in performance and has triple the battery life while doing it? Well, there was just no looking back.
If you’re looking for a portable workhorse, I think the M1 MacBook Pro is a powerful option at essentially the same price point as the Surface Pro 7 with high end specs.
If you’re a dedicated Windows user you might opt for the Surface, or a different brand in Windows laptop for better performance. But if you’re willing to use either OS, or willing to learn Mac like I did, I think the MacBook is a better value for the money.