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Microsoft Surface Laptop vs. Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: How do they compare?

By Koh Wanzi - 5 May 2017

Microsoft Surface Laptop vs. Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: How do they compare?

Facing down the competition

Image Source: Microsoft

Microsoft announced its first proper laptop earlier this week, aimed at wooing students with a fashionable alternative to Apple's hardware. As it turns out, the Surface Laptop is a blissfully elegant proposition. Devoid of novelty or some category-defying feature, it is, put very simply, just a laptop.

Unlike the Surface Pro 4 or even the Surface Book, the Surface Laptop doesn’t have any nifty tricks up its sleeve and adheres strictly to the traditional clamshell design that we’re familiar with.

It is the first notebook to ship with Windows 10 S, but other than that, there is no unique selling point that sets it apart from the competition. And given its powerful specifications and the fact that you can upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, it will find itself competing on a very crowded field.

Still, this is without doubt a very good-looking notebook and a premium one at that. It features a sleek aluminum body, thin bezels, and a fabric-covered – an Italian material called alcantara – keyboard that allow it to sit beside far pricier notebooks without having to bow its head. If that material sounds familiar, it's because it was first introduced on the Surface Pro 4's Signature Type Cover and is probably the first computing item that featured it.

Image Source: Microsoft

If you’re in the market for a new laptop, there’s a good chance that the Surface laptop has already caught your eye. Unfortunately, there’s no news of whether or not it will be coming to Singapore, but we decided to take a brief look at how the Surface laptop stacks up against its competitors anyway.

We’ve singled out the Apple MacBook Air and Dell XPS 13 for comparison, mainly because these are the two brands that are known for producing exceedingly sleek and good-looking notebooks. The MacBook Air also starts at exactly US$999 in the US, the same as the Surface Laptop, so it also makes for a good price comparison.

Here’s an overview of the specifications of each of the laptops. We used the US$999 starting price of the Surface Laptop as a reference point, and configured the other two laptops accordingly.

  Surface Laptop Dell XPS 13 Apple MacBook Air
Display 13.5-inch 2,256 x 1,504-pixel PixelSense Display 13.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 IGZO IPS display 13.3-inch 1,440 x 900-pixel TN display
Touchscreen Yes; will work with Surface Dial and Surface Pen No No
Processor Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz, 3MB L3 cache) Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz, 3MB L3 cache) Intel Core i5-5250U (1.6GHz, 3MB L3 cache)
Memory 4GB LPDDR3 1,866MHz 8GB LPDDR3 1,866MHz 8GB LPDDR3 1,600MHz
Storage 128GB PCIe SSD 128GB PCIe SSD 128GB PCIe SSD
Ports 1x USB 3.0 Type-A; 1x Mini DisplayPort; 3.5mm audio jack 2x USB 3.0 Type-A; 1x USB-C Thunderbolt 3; SD card reader; 3.5mm audio jack 2x USB 3.0 Type-A; 1x Thunderbolt 2; SDXC card slot; 3.5mm audio jack

Marvell AVASTAR Wireless-AC 802.11ac 2x2 Wi-Fi / Bluetooth 4.0

Killer Wireless-AC 1535 802.11ac 2x2 Wi-Fi / Bluetooth 4.1

Broadcom BCM4360 2x2 802.11ac Wi-Fi / Bluetooth 4.0

Battery 45Wh 60Wh 54Wh
Dimensions 308.02 x 223.2 x 9.93-14.47mm 304 x 200 x 9-15mm 325 x 227 x 3-17mm
Weight 1.25kg 1.2kg 1.35kg
Price (US$) $999 $949 $999
Price (S$) Approx. $1,400 Approx. $1,331 $1,328

The MacBook Air hasn’t been properly updated since 2015 (not counting the bump up to 8GB of RAM it received last year), and the specifications appear woefully outdated compared to the Surface Laptop. However, it is still the most relevant laptop that Apple has for comparisons, as both the MacBook and MacBook Pro retail for considerably more.

On the other hand, the Dell XPS 13 matches up much better with the Surface laptop, with similar processor and storage configurations. It even has double the RAM of the Surface Laptop, while still costing less. Furthermore, if you miss the free upgrade window (until 31 December 2017) to step up to Windows 10 Pro, you'll have to pay an additional US$49 just to use apps that aren't from the Windows Store.

But discounting the hardware specifications and just looking at design alone, it’s clear that the XPS 13 is the more balanced laptop, with more ports (including one Thunderbolt 3 connector), a card reader, and even a larger battery. To cap things off, it’s also lighter and more compact. The only thing it's missing is probably a touchscreen, but that's probably a usage preference  and not mandatory if it's not a 2-in-1 device.

Image Source: Microsoft

In comparison, the Surface Laptop has just a single USB 3.0 Type-A port and one Mini DisplayPort, an effective mirroring of what’s found on the Surface Pro 4, but that is technically a tablet hybrid and not a full-fledged notebook like the Surface Laptop. There’s a disappointing lack of USB-C ports also, which appears a glaring omission for a laptop released in 2017.

Ultimately, it seems like Microsoft may have worked itself into a slight conundrum. The Surface Laptop is geared toward students (hardly big spenders) with Windows 10 S, but Microsoft appears to have been unwilling to forego power users either, leaving a path open to a Windows 10 Pro upgrade and throwing in options for top-notch specifications.

Unfortunately, the latter crowd won’t be satisfied with that measly selection of ports, and the starting configuration of 4GB of RAM is decidedly unimpressive. Furthermore, the Surface Laptop doesn't have the niche appeal of the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. Those two were versatile machines with comparatively fewer rivals, so their flaws were more easily overlooked. But going by how it compares against the XPS 13, it remains to be seen whether the Surface Laptop's good looks will be able to help it distinguish itself, especially with consumers who are not yet fans of the Surface brand.

For now at least, it seems like the machine will do more for Microsoft in terms of introducing Windows 10 S to the education sector than it will to make the company the proprietor of the next must-have laptop.


How much might it cost here?

Image Source: Microsoft

The XPS 13 is probably a good gauge for how much the Surface Laptop will cost if it hits the local market. The base specification for Singapore comes with a 256GB SSD, which costs US$1,139, or S$1,899 here.  In the following paragraphs, we’ve listed the US and local prices of the XPS 13 and Surface Pro 4, and teased out the price mark-ups to hazard a guess at what the Surface Laptop might retail for.

Dell XPS 13 (Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD)

  • Retails for US$1,139, or approximately S$1,598
  • Actually costs S$1,899
  • Additional cost of S$301


Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB, Type Cover keyboard)

  • Retails for US$979, or approximately S$1,373
  • Actually costs S$1,527
  • Additional cost of S$154

The base configuration of the Surface Laptop costs around S$1,400, using the current exchange rates, so we might expect it to cost around S$1,600 in actuality.

Of course, this is pure speculation, and we could be totally off the mark (or the Surface Laptop might not even arrive here). But for all its flaws, we're going to keep hoping it reaches us. It may have too few ports and be a little pricey, but it looks stunning and can dish out performance – when specced with a Core i7 chip, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD for US$2,199 – in spades for those who are willing to pay.

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