Apple's MacBook Pro boasts an innovative new Touch Bar that lets you tap and swipe your way through menus without ever moving your hands from the keyboard. But can the system stand up to Microsoft's Surface Book, which boasts a detachable display and a pen digitizer so you can sketch and write on the screen?
The truth is that these are fundamentally different devices. The new 13-inch MacBook Pro is more of a traditional laptop – albeit a very sleek and portable one – that sports a nifty touch strip above the keyboard but lacks a touch display. The Surface Book isn't as slim, but it's clearly the more versatile device, with the option to use the detached display as a stand-alone touchscreen tablet.
On the other hand, the two systems are flagship laptops that happen to be around the same price point. Both offer fast performance, gorgeous 13-inch displays and solid battery life. But which one is better for business? Here's our point-by-point breakdown.
The MacBook Pro is undeniably sleeker than the boxy Surface Book, with a super-slim profile. Measuring just 0.59 inches thick, this is one laptop that you'll have no trouble sliding into your work bag. Its build quality is predictably excellent, with a sturdy aluminum body and a silky-smooth hinge. It comes in space gray or silver.
The Surface Book can't match the MacBook Pro's aerodynamic profile, but it's a pretty eye-catching laptop in its own right. The standout design feature is a segmented hinge that looks a bit like the treads on a futuristic tank. The hinge also gives the system a unique tapered profile, which looks cool but also leaves space between the screen and keyboard for dirt and dust to accumulate. The system comes in just one color, a handsome matte gray.
Of course, the biggest design difference is the fact that the Surface Book is a 2-in-1 laptop, with a detachable tablet display that can be popped off with the press of a button and even attached in reverse orientation. That creates a nice sloped surface for writing on the screen with the included Surface Pen. In comparison, the MacBook lacks 2-in-1 functionality altogether – Touch Bar aside, it's a traditional laptop computer.
Specs and hardware
The Surface Book and MacBook Pro are hugely different in terms of design, but offer comparable performance for most tasks. Both systems run on sixth-generation Core i5 and Core i7 processors, and the base models both come with integrated Intel HD graphics. Those models are more than powerful enough to handle everyday work tasks, and they can tackle heavy multitasking without a hitch.
The Surface Book is also available in a pricier configuration with a special keyboard dock that includes a more powerful discrete Nvidia GTX965M GPU, which seriously speeds up graphically intensive tasks such as CAD modeling and video editing. The MacBook Pro is also available with discrete graphics if you opt for the 15.4-inch model. It's less portable than the Surface Book, but it provides some extra screen real estate.
The Surface Book's display has the edge no matter which MacBook Pro model you consider. Microsoft's laptop boasts a stunning 3000 x 2000-pixel panel, while Apple gives you either a 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600-pixel display or a 15.4-inch, 2800 x 1800-pixel display.
For most workers, Microsoft's laptop provides better connectivity options. The Surface Book includes two full-size USB 3.0 ports, as well as a Mini DisplayPort for linking the system to a desktop monitor and an SD card slot for expanding its external storage.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro offers just two Thunderbolt 3 ports (the 15-inch model has four), which provide speedy data transfer and the ability to connect newer USB-C accessories, but aren't compatible with most of your existing accessories. That means you'll need to invest in (and carry) dongles to plug in a USB thumb drive or Ethernet cord. The MacBook Pro also lacks an SD card slot, so there's no way to expand its storage.
Apple has long resisted adding a full touch display to any Mac computer, citing concerns that touchscreens just don't mesh well with a desktop operating system like MacOS. That's what makes the addition of the Touch Bar to the new MacBook Pro such an interesting development.
While the main display lacks touch support, you instead get a thin LCD touchscreen just above the laptop's keyboard, which dynamically changes its function depending on what app you're using at any given time. When you're drafting an email, it provides quick formatting tools. When you're working in Photoshop, it puts editing options right at your fingertips. And so on.
While the Touch Bar is handy once you get past the learning curve, it can actually be kind of confusing to use, since it's constantly changing every time you switch between apps. It asks you to memorize the functions of dozens of unlabeled icons, and options are often hidden beneath several layers of menus within the Touch Bar itself. Plus, the Touch Bar drains your battery – which is why you might actually want to opt for the entry-level MacBook Pro, which lacks the Touch Bar altogether.
The Surface Book is a very different beast. At a glance, it looks a lot like a typical 13-inch touchscreen laptop. But that touch display detaches with the press of a button, becoming a stand-alone tablet that's perfect for sketching and taking notes. You can even attach the display backward, which lets you take advantage of the beefy discrete graphics card in the Performance Base while you work with the touchscreen.
The display isn't a simple capacitive screen – it has a built-in pen digitizer, which means it responds to 1,024 different levels of pressure. That makes writing and drawing feel accurate and natural, with the ability to taper your strokes and vary your line width, just like you would with a real pen. The MacBook Pro, of course, does offer support for any active stylus.
If you're not keen on digital note taking, then it's questionable how much use you'll get out of the Surface Book's touchscreen. Personally, I love using laptop touchscreens for easy scrolling and navigating documents and webpages. And you can't beat the simplicity of tapping on-screen icons. But many of my colleagues say they never use the touchscreen on their laptops, so your mileage may vary.
The MacBook Pro may be the more portable system, but mobile workers might opt for the Surface Book anyway because it lasts way longer on a charge. Microsoft's laptop ran for an impressive 12.5 hours on our battery life test, which includes continuous web browsing over Wi-Fi. The Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro, in comparison, ran for an anemic eight hours and 46 minutes on a charge. If you can do without the Touch Bar, though, you'll get better battery life; the entry-level MacBook Pro ran for 10 hours. The 15-inch MacBook Pro, meanwhile, endured for 10.5 hours.
The MacBook Pro's new keyboard is the one feature that should really give workers pause. It has a super-flat design, with a meager 0.5 millimeters of key travel – the previous MacBook Pro model had 1.5 mm of travel. The difference means that the MacBook Pro just isn't very comfortable to type on, in my opinion. I found myself feeling that I was bottoming out when I stuck each key, which fatigued my fingers and produced a bunch of typos along the way.
I can't complain about the Surface Book's excellent keyboard. The layout boasts a solid 1.5 mm of key travel and provides plenty of tactile feedback on each stroke. I can type all day on the system and never once wish for my desktop keyboard.
I have colleagues who say the MacBook Pro's keyboard simply takes some getting used to. I'd suggest that workers hit up an Apple Store to try it out before buying, though.
Both the Surface Book and MacBook Pro offer biometric authentication – the ability to sign in using your body – but in very different ways. The MacBook Pro comes with a TouchID fingerprint reader built in to the far-right edge of the Touch Bar, letting you log in to the system without punching in a password. Plus, you can use TouchID to log in to websites securely.
The Surface Book lacks a fingerprint reader, but it does offer Windows Hello facial recognition thanks to a built-in IR camera just above the display. That's right – it can log you in by recognizing your face. The feature works really, really well, whisking me to my desktop in seconds every time I try it. And since it works using infrared light, you can even log in in the dark. Like TouchID, Windows Hello can be used to log in to websites online.
Otherwise, both systems have similar hardware security. That includes Trusted Platform Modules for full encryption of your system, and support for Intel VPro for secure manageability in an enterprise setting.
Pricing and configurations
The entry-level 13.3-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,499, and while it lacks the Touch Bar (instead you get standard function keys), it does have better battery life than the Touch Bar model. It boasts an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage and Intel Iris graphics. The Touch Bar-equipped version starts at $1,799 with the same specs. The Surface Book, meanwhile, starts a bit cheaper at $1,349 with a 13.5-inch detachable display, an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of SSD storage and Intel HD graphics.
Both systems also come in high-end variations. That includes the 15.4-inch MacBook Pro, which costs $2,399 and comes equipped with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a Radeon Pro 450 GPU. The Surface Book with Performance Base also starts at $2,399 with a 13.5-inch display, a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and Nvidia GTX 965M graphics.
In some ways, the Surface Book and MacBook Pro are for very different workers. The Surface Book is designed around its detachable display and excellent pen support, which make it a dream machine for note-takers and artists. The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, is a more traditional laptop that lacks 2-in-1 functionality but boasts a stunningly sleek design and a nifty Touch Bar above the keyboard.
Detachable touchscreen aside, the Surface Book has a few key advantages, including a more comfortable keyboard, longer battery life, and a better selection of ports so you won't have to carry around dongles just to attach a thumb drive. The MacBook Pro has advantages of its own, chief among them a super-slim design that mobile workers will really appreciate. Both systems provide gorgeous displays and powerful performance to handle your most demanding workloads.
If you want a laptop that can double as a pen-equipped tablet, then the Surface Book is a no-brainer. Even if you don't care for 2-in-1 functionality, the Surface Book is still a terrific laptop computer, with a great keyboard and premium hardware. But workers who want a system that's as portable as it is powerful should give the MacBook Pro a look.