T3 Smackdown: Microsoft Surface Book versus 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina

A hybrid versus a clamshell - which will come out on top?

Just when you thought you knew which laptop to buy, the Surface Book comes along to throw a Microsoft-shaped spanner in the works. On paper (no pun intended), the Surface Book is a force to be reckoned with. Its spec sheet includes Intel's sixth-generation processor, discrete graphics and a high-resolution display that you can detach and use as a tablet.

The Surface Book is a curious device. Is it competing against other 2-in-1 tablets with keyboards, or hybrid laptops like HP's Spectre x360 and Toshiba's Satellite Radius 15?

From its aluminium body to its chiclet-style keyboard, high-resolution display and even the “Book” part of its name, it's clear that the Surface Book is Microsoft's answer to Apple's 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

Microsoft has compared its new Surface Pro 4 to the MacBook Air, so it now has a device to take on both of Apple's computing lines.

Neither the Surface Book nor the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina come cheap, even at the low end. But if you're looking for a premium tablet or laptop to last for a few fair years then both are worthy of your consideration.

Surface Book versus 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Design

The Surface Book is a silver metal 2-in-1 with a display that doubles up as a tablet, whereas the 13-inch MacBook Pro takes the form of a traditional clamshell laptop constructed with an aluminium unibody chassis.

Despite one being a hybrid and the other a traditional clamshell laptop, the two aren't miles apart in terms of design. Both are shiny silver metal laptops that would attract magpies in droves. They sit comfortably at the premium end of the scale, along with Google's similarly wallet-intimidating Chromebook Pixel (and now the Pixel 2).

Apple's 13-inch MacBook is considered something of a bloater compared to newer laptops such as the Yoga 3 Pro and the Toshiba Kirabook, but at 18mm tall is still thinner than the Surface Book's comparitively bloated 23mm.

The Surface Book scores points for engineering thanks to its innovative "Fulcrum" hinge, which allows the tablet part of the device to fold forwards, like a laptop lid, or all the way back like a traditional 2-in-1. Pressing a button on the keyboard releases the display, allowing it to be used as a tablet.

Unlike the Surface Pro 3 and its "lappability" issues (it was difficult to balance on your lap), the Surface Book should sit just as nicely as the Retina MacBook Pro whether it's on your legs, table or anywhere else.

Surface Book versus 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Features

The two devices are just about neck-and-neck when it comes to features. The Surface Book sports a 13.5-inch PixelSense display with a 3,000 x 2,000 pixel resolution.

As with the Surface Pro 3, the Surface Book's display uses a 3:2 aspect ratio which Microsoft reckons is a better fit for snapping apps and multi-tasking on the desktop compared to traditional 16:9 displays.

Both machines are matched for storage capacity, topping out at 512GB of SSD storage. They're also tied in the battery life department, capable of achieving up to 12 hours of video playback. In terms of ports, both feature two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and a power connector.

The Surface Book offers a standard mini Displayport connection, which is upgraded to Thunderbolt 2 on the MacBook Pro.

Surface Book versus 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Performance

Whether you're looking to pick up a Surface Book or splash out on a Retina MacBook Pro, you can expect to shell out the big bucks to get the most powerful configurations on offer.

The Surface Book starts at $1,499 (around £949) for the entry-level configuration, which comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.

Once you've doubled the storage and thrown Nvidia GeForce graphics into the mix, the price rises to $1,899 (around £1,200). The top-spec model, which doubles storage to 512GB, doubles RAM to 16GB and swaps out the processor for a Core i7 chip, will set you back an eye-watering $2,699 (around £1,677).

In comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display starts at £999 for the entry-level model with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of flash storage.

At the top end, £1,399 fetches you a slightly more powerful Intel Core i5 processor and 512GB of flash storage. Both configurations come with Intel Iris Graphics 6100, which is unlikely to match the gaming prowess of the discrete GPU found in the Surface Book.

Surface Book versus 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Usability

It seems a little off to compare a 2-in-1 with a clamshell laptop in terms of usability. After all - if you're not interested in using a 2-in-1 in tablet mode, you have to ask yourself the question of whether or not a more traditional laptop would be the more suitable choice.

However, the Surface Book edges out the 13-inch MacBook Pro in the usablity stakes simply because it provides more options. And who doesn't like choice?

Whereas the MacBook Pro can only be used in clamshell mode, the Surface Book can be used as a traditional laptop using the keyboard dock, as a tablet (using fingers or a Surface Pen), or as a tablet with the keyboard folded round (which provides the advantage of using discrete graphics in selected configurations).

Microsoft has also gone guns blazing on the Surface Book's keyboard, which now features backlight keys featuring a "silent" scissor switch mechanism that make them a dream to type on, according to its maker.

Surface Book versus MacBook Pro with Retina Verdict

It's clear that the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a real contender on its hands in the form of the Surface Book. Microsoft's tablet is equally as lustworthy in the design department, and it's certainly the more versatile of the two thanks to its innovative hinge.

The lack of a discrete graphics option means that the MacBook Pro isn't likely to keep up with the Surface Book in the power department. Both house Intel's sixth-generation processors, but gamers will be drawn to the Surface on the back of its Nvidia chip - even if it will cost a fair bit more.

On the other hand, the Retina MacBook Pro is lighter and thinner than the Surface Book. Its lack of transforming abilities makes it the simpler device to get to grips with in some ways, which on the flip side makes it the more limited device.

It's a closer match in other areas, with both laptops featuring an impressive range of ports, clear high-resolution displays, comfortable chiclet-spaced keyboards and decent battery life.

Both are impressive laptops, so the question really boils down to this: which operating system do you prefer and how often would you use it as a tablet? If the answers are "OS X" and "never" then you've found your answer.