Monday, June 14, 2021

13" Laptops compared: Apple Macbook Air M1 vs Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

on the left: Apple Macbook Air M1, on the right: Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

I use a variety of machines every day. Right now I'm typing this on my windows machine, my primary workstation. Since 2013, Lorraine and I have used matching "mid 2013" Macbook Air laptops as our portable machines. I bought those back then because I didn't consider any of the Windows "Ultrabook" hardware comparable. But the screens relatively low resolution was showing it's age and I decided we could justify an upgrade after 8 years.

For my Lorraine, I wanted to get another Mac as it would keep everything the same and easy the transition. But for myself, I was very open, almost excited, to get a windows laptop again. Note the transition is easy for us as we do not use any Mac exclusive software, except the operating system. Google apps and LibreOffice work great on both Windows 10 and OS-X.

My criteria for a new laptop:

1) 13" displays, thin and light.

2) Quality construction. Solid metal preferred.

3) No vents on the bottom! We actually use our laptops on our laps. This is a remarkably hard feature to find on Windows laptops.

4) The Mac display is 16:10. Most Windows laptops use a 16:9 display. I REALLY wanted a taller display. IMO, it is just so much better to have a taller display for anything that isn't a movie.

So I looked around, and was really happy to find the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 has a 3:2 display and no vents on the bottom! It does have some on the lower back edge, but it wasn't too bad. The Surface Laptop 4 can be purchased with a variety of options, but for my use the base unit was perfect... except I was a but wary of the Alcantara palm deck.

I ordered a new Apple Macbook Air M1 for Lorraine and a Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 for myself.

Results & Review

Lorraine happily adopted the new Macbook Air. The jump up to a new display and a bigger SSD were just what she needed.

But I my side, I struggled a bit with the Surface Laptop 4

On the positive for the Surface Laptop 4:

+ I liked the exterior and it seemed to be well constructed.

+ The tall 3:2 display was GREAT! It is exactly the same width as the Macbook Air display, and look at the top picture above. It's only about 1cm taller, but between the extra space and how the PC manages the display, you get much more vertical content on the screen.

On the negative for the Surface Laptop 4:

- The display had a bit of a bluish tint. It's probably possible to tune that out but takes some work.

- The font rendering was substantially different than the Mac. I've encountered this before, and fonts are also rendered differently in different browsers. You can play with the ClearType settings and adjust that, but again, it takes some work. I remember having trouble when I last switched from Windows to a Mac, complaining about the situation on the Mac; so it may mostly be "liking what you were used to".

- The Alcantara keyboard deck / palm rest. I didn't like it. I missed the cool feel of the aluminum and I didnt like that I couldn't easily clean it with an alcohol wipe.

- Battery life seemed to less than I hoped. I run my screen bright, and if it is a well lit room like most of our house during the day, the screen will be at 100%. I don't have any objective numbers, but the battery depleted more quickly than I expected. It wasn't obviously better than my old 2013 Mac (that did get a battery replacement a couple years ago). Note the old Macs also had a relatively low resolution display 1440 x 900, and that saves power too.

- I had trouble with the magnetic battery charge cable. Sometimes it wouldn't seem to connect and I'd have to play with it. Once it seemed I had to unplug the cable from the wall and plug it back in to get it to work. (A note, you can charge this laptop over the USB port too.)

- The keyboard flexed a good amount. Many really like the Surface Laptop 4's "bounce", but to me the flex just felt cheap.

- Encryption. Apparently, Microsoft really wants you to let them keep your keys in their cloud. If you set up the machine with only a local account, Windows 10 home edition does not allow you to encrypt your hard drive. You can either upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, or perform some technical maneuvers to get around the problem. This is much easier to avoid on the Mac.

- This isn't really a negative, but personally; I have no use for the touchscreen on the Surface Laptop 4.


The biggest issue for me was not liking the Surface Laptop 4's Alcantara. But the other issues added to my annoyance significantly. The combined negatives outweighed my love of the Surface Laptop 4's 3:2 screen. I was able to play with both machines side by side, and I just preferred the Macbook Air M1. So I sent the Surface back and bought myself a Macbook Air M1.

I should note, I could have paid more for a version of the Surface Laptop for with an aluminum deck. However, to do that I'd have to accept a color I didn't like (Sandstone or Matte Black) and an "upgrade" to the Intel processor. If it were not for the other annoyances I probably would have tried that.

Another note: I like Windows, in many ways more than OS-X. This really wasn't driven by features of the operating system, it was about my preference for the Apple hardware. If I could have gotten the Surface Laptop 4 with a metal deck, the Ryzen 5 processor and maybe one of the other hardware items (better magnetic charging connection, less flexy keyboard, better battery life), that would have tilted me back to the Surface.


Here is a follow up now that I've used the mac some more. The M1 Macbook Air is so similar to my old mid-2013 air that is is hard to come up with new positives. It is a great display and I prefer the stock color rendering and text rendering over that of the Surface.

Just to balance things a bit here are my negatives of the Mac:

- No 3:2 display. Boo.

- I miss the old mac's magsafe power cord (I ordered an external connector gizmo).

- The glass at the top screen gets greasy from opening. (Maybe I can train myself to only open it by the very edge.)